Warning: there will be spoilers here while I gush. Also, if you know anything about me at all, you know to settle in for a long one. This is Star Wars; I’ll have a lot to say. If you care to read on, this post will continue after this graphic of the film’s logo. So very red, not unlike most of the film’s marketing. Very… Dark Side, which is appropriate for the second act of a three-act drama.
Still with me? Ok then. Let’s proceed, shall we?
As I did with Rogue One last year, this is really less of a formal review and more of a preliminary fan assessment, if one can truly claim a distinction. In this case, I walk into this the same way I did with The Force Awakens, aware of the fact that regardless of whatever I think of this film right now, the execution of Episode IX will make or break the other films in this trilogy. I already don’t trust Abrams to deliver anything other than a half-assed ending, so we’re on shaky ground here. But hey, I could be wrong and/or he could surprise me. Nothing would please me more. I still have two years to worry about it, so let’s move back to this film. I walk into this with a clean slate because I’m not familiar with Rian Johnson’s work in the slightest. I’ve still not even seen Looper, which most people tell me is pretty incredible. It’s on the list, I just haven’t gotten there. My expectations for this one come from praise of that film, early reviews proclaiming this one to be the best since Empire, and the fact that before The Last Jedi was even completed, they handed Rian Johnson carte blanche to create a new trilogy in a completely unexplored region of the galaxy. New characters, new themes, new ideas, a whole new ballgame. That kind of power says a great deal for Kathy Kennedy’s confidence in what she’s seen with this film. It also says a great deal for how well Johnson has played with the Lucasfilm machine, unlike some other directors so far.
Like many fans across the globe, I’ve been harboring my own predictions surrounding Rey’s identity. I made my claims and the rationale behind them public back when I was on Booklikes, and remembering I hadn’t done so here on this site, I did so just a couple of months ago, buried in one of my random blog posts. I had other expectations that I’ve mentioned to friends here and there, but apart from the fear that we’d lose Luke Skywalker (since they were setting up Ep. IX to be Carrie’s film before her untimely passing), along with the knowledge of how lightsaber crystals work, hence my thoughts on Rey’s identity… I was more than willing to just let the story unfold. Maybe I should have recorded them for comparison purposes, but I didn’t. C’est la vie.
Ok, I walk into this almost with a clean slate. I saw the movie Friday night. Before that, I got my paws on the John Williams score album and played it because… it’s new John Williams Star Wars music. Do I really need any other reason than that? For me, getting the score and hearing it pure before I see the film is a standing tradition for me since The Phantom Menace. Of course, the first thing I look for is track titles. I tell myself I want to be certain they haven’t spoiled me on that because tracklists have potential spoilers. Just ask anyone who remembers The Phantom Menace, the score of which dropped three weeks early with a list that included “Qui-Gon’s Noble End” and “The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon’s Funeral”. Not that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion we’d lose him anyway, being the mentor character, but still… you get the point. Anyway, it turns out the score wanders headlong into spoiler territory for those who know the character themes but haven’t yet seen the movie. Say what you will about films and misdirection. On a John Williams score, the music doesn’t lie. We got the theme I hoped would be there, the theme for “Luke and Leia” that originated in Return of the Jedi. I heard some reworkings of Rey’s theme, a cut and paste of Kylo Ren’s 5-note motif, the Force theme, the Rebellion theme (!), and a lot of frantic action music. I was pleased as could be. Wait a second… is that… Yoda’s Theme! YODA. Is our Force ghosted Jedi Master making a return? *geek chills*
I’ve rambled enough. It’s time to actually talk about the movie.
There’s a saying that I hear all too often, and it pisses me off (mostly because it’s true): “no one hates Star Wars quite like a Star Wars fan.” No matter what anyone says or does, this is the most scrutinized film saga of all time, kickstarted by two of the most beloved films of all time. And there are some that even complain about those. There’s just no pleasing people. For myself, I even loved the prequels. I defend them to the very end. With The Force Awakens, I enjoyed the new characters for who they are, but I saw only retread and setup for what comes later in regards to the later story. There were a lot of missed opportunities, several little things that just fell flat (especially over time), and some little quirks that I don’t even try to explain other than to say “it’s Abrams.” I don’t hate it. I’m just not in love with it as much as I want to be. That film’s function was to bring the original generation of fans back into the fold while pushing the story into the next generation. On that front, it succeeded. The Last Jedi was the ball proverbially teed up for the next shot. Kasdan and Abrams did absolutely no work on what would come next, but they let us think they did. They just left everything open-ended. Rian Johnson’s task was to take everything that was given to him, crank it to 11, and leave things hanging in a very bad place. That’s standard second-act-of-three-act drama at work.
The thing is, based on everything I’d heard thus far going into this, Johnson looked at the tee, looked at the ball, looked at the playing field… and decided to move everything to a completely new field to play a completely different game. Where we expected he’d turn right, he turned left or even went vertical in some cases. Expectations? Some would say they’re out the window. Obviously, a great many people were surprised by what they saw. I can’t say I was. There were little things that blew my mind. The big strokes… not so much. As with the prequel era, I listened to what was being said — and what wasn’t — from those making the film. When you pay attention, it really does click into place exactly as they’ve described it. This is still Star Wars, and I was able to call a great many of his shots accordingly. Like I say, I really wish I’d had them recorded for posterity, but I did tell some people in advance. I don’t say this to claim any kind of bragging rights. Quite the reverse, it means merely that my skills with story and character have continued to grow, and as a side effect of my own experiences, my tastes are divergent from those of the mass consumer audience. Lucas and Tolkien have taught me well; to them I tip my hat to everything I understand of story and character. As to the rest… sadly, there have been some rumblings for a while now of how Disney was trying to separate modern Star Wars from what George Lucas put down, to release it from the “stranglehold” of canon and continuity so the Mouse could put his own fingerprints on it. Well… they’ve done that now. This chapter of the saga feels like less of a middle chapter and more of a finale to The Force Awakens. Episode IX may indeed wrap the trilogy, but it feels at this point more like a new jumping on point. The Last Jedi feels like an ending. Maybe that’s because of the approach.
The game Johnson decided to play was “blow it up and start over.” If this were planting, you rotate the crops, and you burn the fields to make things fertile again. Keeps things strong. In storytelling, we call that a REBOOT. In storytelling, that’s lazy when it’s done simply as a money grab. But I can’t say it’s that easy in this case. After a lifetime of learning at the feet of George Lucas and living in this galaxy, it’s really easy to swallow what I’ve seen and why, but I’m going to wrestle with how for some time to come. In The Force Awakens, we lost Han Solo. They were setting this up to be Luke’s movie, with Leia’s film being Ep. IX. Then we lost Carrie Fisher, and the word came in they wouldn’t be changing this finished film to account for that. By that logic, and by the logic of Star Wars storytelling, in each movie you kill the mentor character. It happened to Qui-Gon. It happened to Obi-Wan. Last time, it was Han. This time, I just knew Luke’s number was up. Turns out, I was right. And he wasn’t the only one that went out. By the end of this film, the Resistance has been wiped out, and the First Order is the new Empire. The Rebellion is a handful of people aboard the Millennium Falcon. That’s it. I’ve only seen three other films where I looked at a catalog of action figures that were being swept aside in favor of whatever came next. The first was Transformers: The Movie (1986), the film that put my generation into therapy for killing the hero at the top of his game. They killed Optimus Prime and replaced him with the newer model, Rodimus Prime. Luke and Rey are no different, except that Luke stopped being the hero extraordinaire, and Rey is far better than Rodimus ever could have been. The next was Revenge of the Sith, though Order 66 would have a greater impact later as we came to really know those characters. After that was Rogue One, which we only got to know those characters all too briefly, but we also knew up front that was their fates. This was… well, it’s the same carnage as what they pulled in Transformers back in the day. Wipe away the old toy line of the George Lucas era and prepare the new one. It feels a lot like that to me. Just as it was in Transformers, the original line of heroes is whittled down to next to nothing, with a handful of survivors of the new generation making it to the next phase. The next phase, while keeping in line with the old, is now free and clear to do whatever it will, no hindrances… and for me, no real attachments either. I feel like if Star Wars was to end right now (after Rebels season 4 finishes, of course), I would be ok with that. The lesson of this movie, which Luke embodies, is that all that back there was for nothing, and none of it matters. The system was flawed. No matter what is done to save it, there will always be a tyrannical man-child to rise up from the ashes with a grudge and the will to stomp the galaxy into the dust. Luke’s answer — and Rian Johnson’s — blow it up and start over.
This is going to sound off-topic, so bear with me. In 1994, DC Comics did a crossover called Zero Hour. In the wake of The Death and Return of Superman storyline, Green Lantern had his hometown destroyed, and when he used his ring to recreate an image of all that he’d lost simply to say goodbye, his Oan taskmasters told him to report for disciplinary action for abusing the ring. He snapped. He killed or maimed every other Green Lantern sent to stop him in his quest for revenge, taking their rings. When he got to Oa, he tapped the central power battery for the rings, remaking it into a suit of armor powered by the cosmos itself. Then he used that power… to restart all of time and creation. He said the same thing: the flaw of evil is in the fabric of the universe. The only way to fix it is to start over and keep the flaw from forming in the first place.
Deja vu all over again. It’s like I’ve been here before, a few different times.
Hopefully you see my point here.
For Rian Johnson, it means stripping away the dogma, the symbols of all we hold dear, and the expectations that come with these things. It means the Force is the only thing that matters. Everything else is just details… dust in the wind, if you will. The past 40 years were… wrong. Is that really the message I’m supposed to walk away with, that the story that gave me virtually every foundation I’ve ever had across every subject I can name is meaningless? From the cosmic perspective, I can almost buy that, and it’d stick here if Rey hadn’t somehow rescued the Jedi texts from pyre. They were on the Falcon at the end, untouched, undermining Yoda’s entire scene, and with it, the message they were trying to build in this film. More on Yoda later. From the personal perspective, I… am going to have a tough time with this. I’m sure this move is good for Disney in terms of refreshing the brand. I’m sure it may even be good for Star Wars on the long haul in terms of storytelling. And the film got a thumbs up from George, probably because it liberated him from the “baggage” he put into place. But… well, it’s like I said before. I need to see how Episode IX deals with this. And I need to let it marinate a while, to come to grips with it.
We do have some new Force powers. Characters can do astral projection type things that are so real, they can have physical contact with other people and things. Remember how Force ghost Kenobi could sit down on a log in Return of the Jedi? It’s like that, only with far more potential.
Now that I’ve hit the highlights, let’s talk characters. I’ll try to keep this brief, but there are a lot of them to go through.
Rey: I love Daisy Ridley. She’s the bright spark for this trilogy, and this movie hangs its entire future on her. We’re told here she’s the daughter of Jakku junk dealers who sold her for beer money. They’re dead now. So that means she’s had no formal training, and yet she can do all that. Ladies and gents, my belief that she’s Anakin Skywalker returned, the Chosen One remolded to new purpose, is still very much in play. They didn’t deny it. Thing is… I don’t think they’ll ever tell us either. For their purposes, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that she’s the most adorable Mary Sue character ever written, and she’ll continue to inspire generations to come for the right reasons.
Poe: The heir apparent to Leia, he’s stepping up to learn command and strategy from top-down thinking now, rather than just gung-ho pilot combat. His flying is incredible, but it came at cost. He did a lot of growing in this film. I applaud that.
Finn: The complete opposite of Poe. As much as I think the world of John Boyega, they made Finn do the exact same thing in this film as he did in The Force Awakens. The exact same thing. First he runs, then he sneaks inside to sabotage stuff for Rey, I mean, for the greater good.
Rose: A scrappy little so and so. I wanted to like her, but I felt like being attached to Finn and his B-story left things a bit cold for me. The character had a lot of potential though.
Leia: We barely saw her. She was unconscious for most of the film. But then, they didn’t know this was Carrie’s final performance. The scenes she was in were incredible. It’s like Leia is the only one of the big three that didn’t disappoint me. I’m grateful for that.
Luke: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Was it fun to play? I bet it was. There was a lot of meat on the bone here for Hamill to work with, and he did a great job with it. But… well, I’ve known Luke since I was 3. Right for the story or not, I can’t make that call. I only know it felt like a gut punch. Intellectually, I get it. Emotionally… *shrug*
Yoda: This was the bright spot of the entire film for me. Yoda returned as a Force ghost as a fully realized puppet. The problem with that is that the lighting was wrong, so the puppet’s natural flaws come forward. It’s forgivable when the performance is fun. This was Empire era Yoda. Playful, profound. Giggly. The part that didn’t make sense for me, as I alluded to earlier, is that he tells Luke that there’s nothing in those old texts that isn’t already in Rey. Then he proceeds to do what Luke stopped himself from doing: he destroys the tree and the texts. Presumably. Apparently the books are still on the Falcon, and how Rey got them is anyone’s guess.
Chewie: We barely got anything of our Wookiee co-pilot, but he played an integral part in the final battle, so there is that. I miss Peter behind the mask, but Jonas is making the part his own, and I think he’s got a bright future ahead if the writers will just let him do something. I guess that’s what the Solo standalone film is for.
Phasma: I think this is a complete waste of a character. I love the actress. Gwendoline Christie deserved better. Phasma has been a giant nothing burger in two films, and much like the great overblown scion of the original trilogy, Boba Fett, she went out like a punk.
Snoke: Put aside the fan theories, people. Snoke is Snoke, just as they said from the start. Andy Serkis did an amazing performance. But the character has zero backstory, is demonstrated to be far and away more powerful than Darth Sidious ever was, and like Sidious, he’s killed through overconfidence. So much for that. At least he put on a show. His Praetorian guards were impressive enough in theory, but the entire combat sequence was terribly orchestrated and filmed.
Kylo Ren: Apparently he’s far more powerful than we were led to believe for the purposes of faking out Snoke. Given how powerful Snoke is, that’s actually rather intelligent. Unlike Snoke, his motivations are now open to us, and he’s a far better character for it. I suppose I can put aside my theory now that he’d be wearing a Darth Vader helmet by the end of it.
R2-D2 and C-3PO: Once the narrators and viewpoint characters of the story, 3PO has been relegated to the background, offering a lot of nothing, and R2 does even less. This, above anything else, makes a dramatic tonal shift in how Star Wars is told. This is part of why it feels off to me.
BB-8: This little droid gets more to do, and he’s good at it, but he doesn’t fill the void left by the original droids. He just doesn’t. It’s not what he was designed to do.
Holdo: I got to know her first in the novel Leia, Princess of Alderaan. I’m glad I did. We didn’t really see too much of her here, but what little we got counted. I’m pleased with that, and I’m pleased we got to see some of the friendship between her and Leia. It added considerably to Poe’s character development. And she went out with style. Mad props to this one.
Hux: A far better character this time around, but no less grandstanding. He lays it on a bit thick. But he’s also very aware of his new role by the end of the film. The competition with Kylo is most definitely over. Let’s face it. He’s no Tarkin. Who could be?
DJ: Let me get this straight. We cast an A-list Oscar winner like Benicio Del Toro, and we get a stuttering shell of a character? Ok… That’s really all I have to say about that because aside from the animals and the John Williams jazz number, I’m really unimpressed with all of Canto Bight. As with the overall film, I get the message. I just didn’t care. In the quest for shades of gray and telling us that good and evil are only perspectives, they still undermine that with the finale of the movie.
Porgs: I love ’em. They are a bit over the top on the comedy relief, and much of the comedy in this film is overstepping things considerably, but the porgs are still a welcome addition to the Galaxy Far, Far Away so far as I’m concerned.
I think that’s everyone. What else to say…?
Practical aliens. There were more of them here than in any previous Star Wars movie. They were all mostly wallpaper, save for a few pilots and a lot of porgs. And Chewie and Yoda, of course. The crystal wolf things do exactly for our heroes here what the Loth-Wolf does on Rebels, leading the heroes to safety through the cracks and hidden crawlspaces. It’s like someone was comparing notes.
The starship combat was impressive beyond words. Beautiful to look at it, excellently choreographed. They did an amazing job here. Wish I could say the same for the lightsaber combat.
The final scene in the film where they show the kids… this felt more like the sense of nostalgia to me than the spark of hope. This is how kids of my generation were, using broomsticks as stand-in lightsabers and such.
The score by John Williams is yet again the best part of the film, and totally worth it in my opinion. It’s also not without problems, which pains me to say. There are character themes that return from the original trilogy, which is great if you’ve seen the film or are watching it when you first hear them. There are character themes for Kylo and the First Order that are basically cut and pasted without any real development from the previous film. The big problem comes in the final and end credits. We get a lot of themes. Too many. It’s like Williams took all of the character themes for this and threw in a ton of other themes from A New Hope just to see what would stick. The result is that we get a montage of rapid fire music, but we don’t get to linger on any of it. Would have loved to have heard the Luke and Leia theme here again. We do hear Yoda’s theme again, briefly. Do we need the TIE fighter attack? I dunno. On every preceding soundtrack, the end credits suite is the greatest music in the entire film. Empire‘s is some of the best you’ll ever hear just because of the themes in play. Some of what’s here is really good. I just want to spend more time with it.
I have a great many more things I could say, but I’m still processing. More than that, I’m just starting to burn out now, so I’m going to wrap this up and call it good right here. I’ll be happy to discuss things with anyone over anything either in comments or emails. Might take a day or two to respond just because my brains are melted now.
Ultimately, it’s about on par with The Force Awakens for different reasons, and nowhere near as solid for me as the Lucas era. That’s where I stand now. We’ll see after Ep. IX.
May the Force be with you.