Another year, another Star Wars. This time, we have The Last Jedi, Episode VIII of the Star Wars series, at least the sequential series. While there isn’t a lot that is very original going on here, and it retreads The Empire Strikes Back in much of the same way The Force Awakens did with the original film and parts of Return of the Jedi, it does so far more competently and coherently than Episode VII did, and it’s a fun and engaging movie, visually stunning at times. While John Williams’ score that might not rank at the top of the series’ offerings, it is at the very least par for the course. And, to be fair, how much more can you really do with the Star Wars score at this point, and how much is even needed?
Ultimately, this film is going to please fans of the series. If you enjoyed The Force Awakens, then you will probably enjoy this movie. Mark Hammill is excellent in his return to a speaking role as Luke Skywalker. In fact, he’s probably the strongest part of this movie, nailing Luke’s transformation into the role of the reluctant teacher once inhabited by Yoda almost three decades ago. The action scenes are big and bold and loud, and it hits all the notes Star Wars fans expect with plenty of light-saber fighting, exotic chase scenes, and grandiose battle set pieces. And it won’t make you wait for it, diving into the first major space battle around the three-minute mark. Realistically, if that’s all you’re wondering about, then there’s little need to continue on with this review. The Last Jedi is a success at all the prerequisites for the sequential Star Wars series, and is, in my opinion, a significantly better film than The Force Awakens, and certainly vastly better than whatever that was with Jar Jar Binks and the robot with four lightsabers and itchy sand that gets all over the place that we were told was Star Wars about fifteen years ago. 4/5 Stars, 5/5 if you really love lightsabers and Marvel-movie humor.
But… SPOILER ALERT: The remainder of this review contains mild spoilers. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin the ending or reveal any of the surprises, tell you who dies and who doesn’t, or if it reveals who Rey’s parents are, etc. But if we’re going to dig any deeper into this, I have to talk about the plot structure at least a little bit.
The Last Jedi seems to want to embrace change. Kylo Ren even tells Rey, and thus the audience indirectly, that it’s time to move on from the past, and look towards the future. Parts of the film even seem to slyly poke fun at its predecessor. Though in execution, the film still feels like the entire franchise is still looking firmly in the rear view mirror as it cruises down the highway. While Rian Johnson gets principle credit for the screenplay, you can’t help but imagine that there are a lot of rules set in place for what the Disney Star Wars universe is supposed to look and sound like, and a lot of fastidious editors working behind the scenes. Rules which, one has to assume, Johnson was readily willing to follow since we’re five films deep into the Disney era if you include the upcoming Han Solo spinoff and Episode IX, and three out of the five movies have had their directors either fully replaced (Han Solo and Episode IX) or supplemented for reshoots (Rogue One) which means clearly Disney has these films on a tight leash.
And it shows. As excited as people were to see Johnson’s (who wrote and directed the films Brick, and Looper) take on Star Wars, there’s not a lot about this film that feels tremendously different than 2015’s The Force Awakens. The script is a lot tighter, and the plot is more coherent and less reliant on convenience and contrivance, and there’s about 100% less lens-flare. But, in the end, it has a lot of the same campy dialog (even for Star Wars), at times awkward humor, and somewhat simplistic and occasionally muddled characterization. But it's nothing significantly new or fresh-feeling. The Millennium Falcon flies through things that are advantageous to flat but wide space ships and TIE Fighters crash chasing it because lol TIE Fighter pilots are stupid. You saw this movie already. If you liked it all those previous times, you'll like this one. Plot-wise, if you felt The Force Awakens was too much of a remix of A New Hope, this movie was basically a remix of The Empire Strikes Back. It literally replicates a handful of camera shots from its 1980 counterpart. That's not to say it's just a cheap copy, but it's also not very original at all. It's like 25% original. This isn't like George Lucas remixing Hidden Fortress with WW2 Air War serials to make the original film. This is Disney remixing other Star Wars movies again.
Not Hoth. See? There’s red.
Right down to guys in trenches and air speeders against giant walkers trying to break into their formerly-hidden base on a planet covered in white powder (salt, as a character points out, just in case the audience were to think they were copying Hoth and having it be ice). It also seems to try just a little too hard to be funny, inserting comic relief at almost every opportunity, even when it isn’t tonally appropriate, as if to try to replicate the audience-pleasing beats the studio has seen with its Marvel comic book properties. The problem is, these jokes often break up building dramatic tension, which doesn't resonate for me because rising dramatic tension is supposed to be tense.
The Last Jedi is supposed to be the dramatic middle chapter of this trilogy. You're undercutting that drama if Luke makes a comment about his little helpers not liking Rey all that much (which by itself makes sense and is an appropriate moment of levity for that scene), then ten minutes later in a serious scene that's supposed to be helping to establish Rey and her affinity with the Force and her control with a lightsaber, she's cutting through a rock and then it falls down a hill to smash one of the helpers' carts as they push it along who then look up at her with irritated body language and she looks over the cliff in an "Oops, Sorry" expression. Imagine Yoda lifting Luke's X-Wing out of the swamp, and then setting it down, and splashing mud all over Luke and R2D2, then it cuts back to Yoda and he just shrugs with a smirk. Oh, and there’s a “mother” joke, and no, I’m not kidding.
The story follows the same basic arc as The Empire Strikes Back. Escape from Empire, protagonist learns to Jedi from a contentious master on weird terrain with a Creepy Dark Side place, cause gets betrayed by somebody it thought was an ally, etc. But the plot structure they chose is a fairly strange “race-against-the-clock” setup, which I don't think was the best fit for this movie. Setting up fairly specific timeframes can raise the stakes in a story, but they aren't always necessary, and I think it's the weakest part of this film. Imagine the “Big Empire chases Small Rebels” storyline of The Empire Strikes Back, but then make it faster and more immediate, and the whole movie. More specific? So The Empire Strikes Back's plot for Han, Chewie, Leia and Threepio is as follows: Escape from Hoth, flee from Star Destroyers, hide in asteroid field. Break. Leave asteroid field, flee from Star Destroyers, hide. Break. Go to Cloud City, hide, turns out Empire has caught up with you (technically beat them there). The Last Jedi’s plot starts with a battle, without even the establishing scenes of The Empire Strikes Back. The Resistance are fleeing from their base, and the First Order shows up. Right after the scroll. Literally before you see any of the principle characters aside from Carrie Fisher's daughter, whatever her un-named character's name was specified as in the credits for the first film. Then the First Order literally chases them for the entire rest of the movie without a break in that sequence, as the other characters do things to figure out how to stop the chase and escape from the First Order fleet. The movie starts with them getting chased, and ends with the resolution to that chase sequence. Two and a half hours later. Obviously Rey spends most of the movie with Luke Skywalker as established in the previous installment, but she eventually shows back up to the scene of the chase.
In the end, The Last Jedi just feels… small, and almost unimportant, despite all the raised stakes. Kinda hard to frame that sentence in a way that makes sense to somebody who hasn’t seen it, but I just expect more from a Star Wars movie, especially after Rogue One showed us that the mythology works even when transported outside the Space Opera format. Because the movie is basically just one long slow chase sequence, it doesn't move the story very far or feel like anything other than a bloated episode of a TV show. I mean, if you had a dramatic voice-over at the beginning of the film "When we last left our heroes..." it wouldn't feel out of place. The stakes are framed incredibly high in a "The Resistance is doomed if they don't escape!" sort of way, but the characters dying are unnamed, unshown and meaningless most of the time. And while the movie tells us this rag tag band is all that’s left of the Resistance, it remains hard to really care about anything going on. The handful of characters who get some face-time before dying have about as much importance as the "She's gonna blow!" guy from Return of the Jedi. Grizz Frix, as I have just learned by Googling that clip. I wonder what that one rebel cruiser's commander's name is. A lot of characters just get 1-2 seconds of face time to establish "Yes, that's a person." Also Nien Nunb (or Ten Numb, or Eleven Nulb) and Admiral Akbar, who uncharacteristically does not realize it is a trap.
After all that, I want to reinforce that this is a fun film at its core. “It’s Star Wars, try not to overthink it” I’m sure somebody is wanting to scream at me, and you’re right, to a certain extent. Or from a certain point of view. But it’s just that this series could be so much better. Could have lived up to the lofty expectations placed upon it by the original trilogy, but it doesn’t, and it seems like almost through sheer negligence and unwillingness to take risks or tread new ground.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens December 15th, 2017