Star Wars Ep. VIII: The Last Jedi: A Review [SPOILERS]

SPOILER ALERT! MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!

First let me say that I am a huge fan of Star Wars. I love Star Wars. I have seen the original movies more times than I could even count. I have seen every movie that has come out in my lifetime on opening weekend. I’ve read the books. I’ve played the games. I’ve spent untold hours talking Star Wars with other fans. I have been looking forward to Last Jedi from the second the credits rolled at the end of Force Awakens.

However… The Last Jedi was a fundamentally unsatisfying Star Wars movie. I actually really enjoyed most of the film while I was watching it, but the end was bad and I left the theater feeling disappointed. I have now spent all day reflecting on it, and I think there were a lot of narrative choices that were either pointless or just outright bad. I feel like this movie was made by someone who has never seen a Star Wars movie before. If TFA devoted a little too much time to fan service, TLJ is a big middle finger to people who have loved Star Wars for decades. They threw most of the interesting new lore introduced in TFA out the window and killed off some main characters in pretty lame ways. This movie is a disservice to Star Wars fans. I wanted to like it. And it was not all bad. It had some really great moments, and a lot of good acting and VFX, but ultimately it fails as a Star Wars movie because Rian Johnson does not understand Star Wars..

Let’s break it down in some detail.

There are three main flaws that really ruin the movie. First is the Admiral Holdo (purple hair) subplot and the way they casually killed off Ackbar off screen and he barely gets a mention. This is the exact sort of terrible decision making that dooms this movie. They callously kill a fan favorite character in the background, and then introduce a new character we know nothing about and give her the most glorious heroic death in the movie. I’m 95% sure Rian Johnson didn’t even know who Ackbar was and when someone asked he inserted a quick line about him being dead after the fact. Holdo should not have been in the movie, and Ackbar should have survived the bridge explosion and sacrificed himself in that epic lightspeed ram into the Star Destroyer like a fan favorite character deserved.

Instead Ackbar gets dusted like a redshirt and we are given Admiral Purple Hair, an obvious red herring because she clearly has no reason to be such an incompetent leader except that she is evil. The cruiser is on the run from the First Order fleet, and they clearly have very few good options. So what does Purple Hair do? She continues flying straight ahead while the crew all know they are doomed and give no indication there is a plan until Poe stages a mutiny out of desperation. Yes maybe there are some lesson for Poe here about chain of command, but this is poor leadership from Purple Hair. When Bill Adama was in this situation, he lied to the crew to give them hope even when he had no plan, but Purple Hair hides the plan from them and let’s them despair for 18 hours while it is clear they have no escape. and then, oh wait, she wasn’t evil, she actually had a secret plan to save them all along. And then after this whole debacle, she gets to go out as the big hero in a blaze of glory. Totally undeserved and unfitting for the character.

Stemming from this lack of leadership. Finn and Poe and newcomer Rose devise a convoluted plan to shut off the beacon. First of all, it’s awfully convenient that the one master codebreaker in the whole galaxy is close enough to their foundering cruiser that they can hope over and get him and get back within their narrow time frame. But putting that aside, this entire escapade was pointless and silly. It really reminded me of the pod-racing episode in Phantom Menance, and that is not good. It was just an excuse to include some new animals and wacky high speed chase. Also there is some melodramatic handwringing over the mistreatment of the racing Luck Dragons by the same people who in the previous movie DESTROYED SIX ENTIRE PLANETS. So last time they callously wiped out about 50 billion people, but when we find out they whip their racing animals, that is what solidifies they are the bad guys. This is a laughable step backwards in scale. Aside from that, this movie was too long and they easily could have shortened it by leaving out this little jaunt. Finn and Rose could have taken a droid to do the hacking and gone directly to the Star Destroyer. The end result is the same and are spared 20 minutes of cheesy Luck Dragon races.

Really though, these two flaws pale in comparison to the slap in the face of Luke’s pointless death. I said previously one of the things that TLJ absolutely had to deliver was an awesome scene for Luke, and they came so close to that. They really set it up beautifully with Luke being hesitant and uncertain for the whole movie. Then when the chips are down and there is clearly no more hope.. BOOM! Here is Luke Skywalker, greatest of all Jedi. He steps out of the cave and faces down an entire First Order army, and it looks like it’s going to be epic. I had goosebumps. It’s go time, baby!

And then it turns out he was just a hologram. While I was watching it, my train of thought was this:

“Aha! Wise old master Luke has tricked you Kylo! He was never in any danger from you, and now he will return in the next movie and kick your… oh wait Luke is just going to die. Luke died. We went through all that and he still just dies.”

No lightsaber battle. He doesn’t take out Kylo. No blaze of glory. I am okay with Luke Skywalker dying in a way that really befits his character and serves the narrative, but this is definitely not it. Now, not only is the most beloved character dead, but fans have been robbed of what should have been a great moment of seeing Luke at the height of his powers. Instead he just gets tired and dies. I can only describe this scene as a huge middle finger to fans by a director who has no respect for the mythology of Star Wars.

I felt the same way about Han’s death in TFA. He deserved better than just getting stabbed on a catwalk. Ackbar deserved better than dying in the background while the focus was on Leia. The Disney writers and directors do not seem to understand the gravity of these characters and what they mean to fans. They are eager to just toss them out and get in some new, younger, hotter people. I knew that the old guys would probably not be around forever, but the deaths Disney has given them have all felt wrong and disrespectful.

Those are the biggest and most damning flaws in the film, but I also have a few more minor complaints that are mostly just very lazy writing. I really expect better from a movie with a budget of hundreds of millions.

So, the Knights of Ren are just gone now. Absolutely no mention of them. It seems like Johnson seriously did not even watch TFA before he made this movie. TFA set up so many interesting questions that were completely ignored here.

I like Rose, but once again we see a character introduced to us as a mechanic and then at the end she is inexplicably also a speeder pilot. What is with these movies and just making random people able to pilot a spaceship? Furthermore, we CLEARLY see a man wearing an X-wing pilot jumpsuit just standing around in the cave during this scene, so it is not because they did not have enough pilots. They just wanted to make Rose more prominent because now she knows Finn, so she’s able to do everything. In fact this would be fine if she had just been introduced as a pilot–just like her sister–but instead she starts off as a tech and then gets a plot-promotion after talking to Finn. This was just lazy writing.

On the positive side Rey is less annoying. She was not portrayed as an ace pilot and master mechanic in this film, but she is still too powerful in the Force for having still basically no training. Even Snoke alludes to this when he dresses down Kylo for losing to a girl who had never touched a lightsaber. Again, I feel this is disrespectful to the lore of how difficult it is to become a Jedi and wield the Force. Rey is able to just do whatever she needs to in the moment, and it is still annoying.

Also, the plan of hiding in this salt mine behind a big blast door was pretty stupid when the First Order had SIX Star Destroyers and a ton of ATATs outside. Giant battering ram cannon notwithstanding, they could have stayed outside blasting on that door all day and they would eventually get in. I realize at that point maybe the Rebels didn’t have many options, but holing up in a cave with no other exits was an utterly stupid plan.

If Luke’s entire plan was to distract the FIrst Order while the Rebels escape, why the heck didn’t he just tell Leia that? If Poe had not realized it, they would all still be standing there when Kylo walks in and kills them all.

I think the balance of power between capital ships and a single small fighter in this movie was weirdly skewed. There’s no way one X-wing could disable all the turrets on a Star Destroyer or a single TIE fighter could reach and take out the bridge (and all senior leadership) of a Resistance cruiser. The Dreadnought was supposed to be a fleet killer but it got taken down by one single bomber. The Star Destroyers are supposed to be massive weapons platforms bristling with guns but they are portrayed as having a few turrets and being extremely vulnerable to a single fighter.

I really liked the decision to have Kylo kill Snoke. That is appropriate for a Sith apprentice to kill the master so that makes sense. But I felt the way it went down, with Snoke unwittingly narrated his own death was kind of corny. Would have preferred a straight up lightsaber battle, which again, this movie sorely lacked. I also would have preferred to learn a little more of Snoke’s backstory before he got iced.

I’ve been pretty negative so far, but this movie was not all bad. It had some really good elements. I said before it need to show us some new ships and something besides X-wings, and they did deliver on that point. I saw a few A-wings and we go the new bombers and the weird salt ski speeders. So that was satisfying. The lightspeed ram attack–even though it definitely should have been Ackbar–was totally sweet. The visuals on that scene were stunning. The score was magnificent, as always. John Williams is a national treasure.

I also enjoyed most of the humor, but I think it was a little too much. The original movies succeeded because the droids provided comic relief in between moments of drama. In this film, they tried to wedge in some one liners in the wrong places and it falls flat. But there were still some great moments. The best by far was Luke trolling Rey with the Force touch leaf. That was hysterical. And Poe trolling Gen. Hux by pretending he couldn’t hear him was totally dumb but I laughed. I enjoyed that part.

More importantly, I think the tension between Rey and Kylo was good, and I did believe for a moment Rey might actually turn to the dark. Actually, in my perfect screen play she would have. I think Rey should have turned, and then Luke would die while killing Kylo (his own monstrous creation) in a huge epic lightsaber battle. This leaves us with Luke dead and Rey turned dark, so things are looking pretty bad for the Resistance. In Ep. IX Finn or Poe would work to turn Rey back. I think this is a more satisfying and dynamic plot than what happened, which feels like a lot of treading water.

Yoda’s scene was fantastic. He was quirky, wise, and funny, just like in Empire. It was great to see him burn down the tree temple before Luke.  The age of the Old Jedi Order is done, and Yoda and Luke both see that.

As a final thought, this movie clearly borrowed a lot from Empire Strikes Back. Jedi master in seclusion, young trainee jumps down a dark hole and has a vision, ATAT battle on Hoth. I think I actually would have preferred if they had just had the battle be back on Hoth. I mean, if you are going to blatantly recreate the Battle of Hoth, then just do it on Hoth. Don’t do it on some other planet that looks exactly like Hoth and try to pretend you are not blatantly ripping off Empire. It could have even been a nice rhyme with the first trilogy, as if to say “here we are again, back on Hoth and the rebels are losing.” Which is basically what they did except they tried really hard to persuade us that isn’t exactly what they were doing. It was a weird choice. To their credit though the red salt flaring up behind the speeders made a pretty awesome visual.

As a stand alone movie, I think this would have been quite good. It was well-made and the production values were great, as they should be. It is so awesome to finally see Star Wars looking as spectacular and gorgeous as we all wanted after the first movie. However, as a Star Wars film I still find it lacking. It does not fit into or advance the narrative. It does not appear to respect the lore or the old characters, and it does not even answer the questions that the previous movie brought up, like Snoke’s origin or the Knights of Ren. It seems like a loose cannon, and even though I enjoyed watching it in the moment, all I see now is wasted potential. It could have been so much better. It could have been great. All the pieces were in place for this to be the best Star Wars movie since Empire, and they just did not pull it off. It is truly disappointing. If I was scoring it, I give it a 7/10. Ep. IX is going to need to be amazing to redeem this mostly mediocre trilogy.

 

Some thoughts prior to Star Wars Ep. VIII

The big day is almost upon us, so I wanted to take a moment to gather my thoughts going into Ep. VIII (TLJ). I reread my review from Ep. VII (here), and while I enjoyed that movie I think it suffered from three  main flaws:

  1. Lack of worldbuilding (e.g. new ships, alien races, Jedi lore etc.)
  2. Rey is inexplicably overpowered and good at everything
  3. Kylo Ren is not a sufficiently frightening villain

Yes I purposefully ignored what many consider to be the most fatal flaw of Ep. VII (TFA) which is that it was essentially just Ep. IV all over again, which is completely true. Point 1 touches on it a little. But as I’ve said before I believe that was (for good or ill) an intentional choice by a notoriously conservative Disney studio that wanted a safe bet on their 4 billion dollar investment in the franchise. It was not what a lot of fans hoped TFA would be, but it is what it is. I found TFA to be an enjoyable film that left me excited for the next one. All that being said, if subsequent installments do not take some more narrative risks and move the story along, I will consider this trilogy irredeemable.

I think with the number of new films Disney has planned, we are going to see the story expand in a lot of ways. We did get Rogue One, which I really enjoyed despite the criminally underutilized role of Forest Whitaker. (Seriously, if you cast an actor with an Oscar and a BAFTA, then he should have more screen time and be at least somewhat integral to the plot) I think most of Rogue One’s issue stemmed from the rewrites and reshoots that plagued its production, so I am just happy it turned out as well as it did.

But to address my points about Ep. VII. These are things that I think Ep. VIII must address to be successful.

  1. There must be some more worldbuilding, and that really should include some new ships and weapons. The X-wing and TIE fighter are among the most iconic images in all of film. Even the atrocious prequels tried to forge their own identity with the Naboo starfighter and Darth Maul’s lightstaff. (Shouldn’t he have used a maul, though? Just saying.) However TFA was content to rest on their laurels and did not even bother to mine the whole cannon of ships available to the Rebels. We didn’t even see any Y-wings. And no, I don’t buy into any garbage about the Incom T70 X-wing replacing the T65 X-wing and Y-wing because it has both air-air and air-ground capabilities. Fans do not want to see incrementally upgraded starfighters on screen. We want a fantastic battle filled with beloved X-wings, Y-wings, TIEs, and cool new ships thrown in the mix.
  2.  Much has been said about Rey being a strong female lead in a scifi film (Sometimes I wonder if it escapes people’s notice that Leia was also a female lead in the original.) But she was truthfully an uncompelling character. She lives as an orphan foraging for scraps on a backwater planet, but we are expected to believe she is somehow an ace pilot, crack mechanic, lightsaber-wielding, mindtrick-using almost-Jedi, despite the fact that she didn’t even believe in the Force at the beginning of the movie. I expect that this will be addressed in TLJ, but I am also afraid it will be done in a very retcon sort of way. JJ Abrams wanted the big mystery of the film to be about Rey’s parentage, but honestly I’m not that interested in that question. She is undoubtedly tied into the Skywalker clan somehow. She is probably Luke’s daughter or niece or something. This is not that exciting of a question.How does she have all of these skills and force knowledge that she should not have? That is the real question that must be addressed. They give us some hints, and it seems likely she trained at the Jedi Academy at a very young age before Kylo turned bad and Luke went AWOL. Maybe that explains some of it, but it doesn’t explain why she remains languishing on Jakku living on scraps, or why she does not remember her time with Luke. Some have suggested that her memories were wiped with the Force, but is this really possible? In 6 prior films have we ever heard about someone having false memories implanted with the Force? Also the genesis of her amazing skillset is not presented as a mystery in TFA. We are expected to accept that, and then in TLJ it will be retconned by saying she trained with Luke when she was younger. Even if this was the plan all along, this is just bad writing. We spent the whole first film being annoyed by Rey instead of growing to like an important new character.

    So I say all that to say this: Rey must be more flawed in TLJ. We need to see her struggling with the Force. We need to see her struggle with the paths of Light and Dark, and being afraid to confront the evil before her. This is also related to my complaints about Kylo Ren in Point 3.

  3.  Kylo is a weak villain. TFA revealed early on that he is Han’s son (gasp), and we know he is not really a full Sith. Rey is able to resist his mind probe, and he also loses to her in a lightsaber duel. In fact Finn, who is not even Force sensitive (that we know of), is able to hold his own for a few minutes against Kylo. I am not scared of Kylo Ren in the way that I was scared of Vader. Part of the appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy was the underdog element: a no-name farm boy from Tatooine rises up to defeat a seemingly invulnerable villain. Classic David v. Goliath. The fight between Kylo and Rey is more like a football game where Kylo is a one-touchdown favorite, but you wouldn’t be surprised to see a Rey upset.

    I do not really see a way to salvage Kylo as a villain going forward. I think this is the most grievous (pun?) sin of TFA. It did not set up the rest of the trilogy on a strong foundation of a terrifying and strangely compelling bad guy. I see only two viable options: rely more heavily on Snoke, about whom we know little, or bring in a third player. This is the same mistake that was made by killing Darth Maul in Phantom Menace and then replacing him with a ho-hum Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. It would have been much, much better for Maul to survive and haunt Obi Wan for the remainder of the trilogy. Dooku was entirely dispensable in Clones because we knew he would not be a contender when the Big Bad (Palpatine) came out in Ep. III. TLJ faces the same dilemma: they either have to introduce a new bad guy or bring out the Big Bad too early. If they do introduce a new Sith, they need to survive and remain a relevant part of the story through the next film. Possibly they can use Capt. Phasma (who did not get much screen time in TFA) to fill this role because the audience has at least already been introduced to her. This might be the best option available, but Phasma is not known as a Force user, so it will be difficult to sell her as a worthy foil to Rey and Luke.

This brings me to a final point that I hope to see in TLJ: for the love of all that is Star Wars we had better FINALLY see Jedi Master Luke at the height of his powers! Luke is supposed to be the greatest Jedi Master of all time, and he was sitting on the sidelines for all of TFA. I know that ultimately this trilogy is about Rey, Finn, and Poe, so probably the final showdown will be between Rey and Snoke. That is why this film is the perfect opportunity to see Luke go full Rambo and decimate an entire regiment of stormtroopers or something. They should save Rey’s big moment for the last film and make the climax of this one about Luke. We have been waiting forty years to see Luke kick butt and take names, and now is the time.

Final thoughts: I am completely stoked to see the new film. I do think the last one had some serious but not fatal flaws, and I think they can potentially be resolved in this episode to set up Ep. IX to conclude an excellent trilogy. On the flip side, if they don’t address these issues now, the whole thing may still go south. I am optimistic that this one will be good.