This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Garrett Foster’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Initial impressions, which will almost certainly evolve over time:
• This feels absolutely nothing like a Star Wars movie. Not sure if that’s good or bad yet. In fact, it oddly feels more like if Akira Kurosawa directed a Marvel movie that featured Star Wars characters. Certain touches of humor feel wildly out of place in this series which typically has carried an air of mythology, and which now seems completely elsewhere in tone; Poe’s mocking of Hux in their initial encounter and Luke’s winks and shoulder brushes during the finale are both would-be moments of epic proportion, defanged by this movie’s inexplicable tendency toward Marvel humor.
• Virtually every main character here is upended and acts differently than they have in past film(s), and that seems to be as a result of the abrupt rewriting of characters, not character development.
• Luke Skywalker doesn’t seem like Luke Skywalker; he seems like Mark Hamill playing Luke Skywalker, in a way that’s far too on-the-nose. I’m sold on his hermit lifestyle, his temporary abandonment of the Force, and the flashback detailing his still ambiguous close encounter with the dark side after sensing evil within Kylo Ren. I’ve always been on board with the concept that Luke would’ve gone “gray” (as opposed to singularly light or dark), but this idea is largely glossed over, save one moment in which Yoda’s Force Ghost returns. The Luke of the original trilogy could be childish and playful, but his legacy was one of a stoic warrior (Who can forget his valiant cry, “I am a Jedi…like my father before me.” in the Emperor’s throne room?). And yet every time I tried to connect with Luke’s arc, Johnson’s script fails to hit home in the ways it needs to in order to pack an emotional punch; instead, he cross-cuts to the superfluous Resistance action sequences or has Luke crack a joke.
• Johnson also seems to have no idea what to do with Leia, in one moment having her Force-pull her way back to the command ship so as to answer every fan’s question of whether she’s honed those skills over the past thirty years, and in the next moment having her slap Poe around (literally) to provide slapstick humor. I’d also be interested to know the ratio to which Leia speaks the word “hope” per all of her total words, so that we can keep shamelessly pounding that motif back into these movies. I’d bet it’s quite high.
• And then there are Rey and Kylo Ren, whose Force connection in the film’s first hour was one of the only new Force concepts that intrigued me. Their dynamic interplay of the balance between light and dark should’ve been the rock of this story; instead, more screentime is devoted to Finn’s and Rose’s bizarre hacking/infiltration/escape plotline, during which I felt no sense of stakes because they were revived from seemingly inescapable situations three times. But then after the Rey/Kylo/Snoke encounter, all steps taken toward exploring the nuanced nature of the Force are abandoned, as Kylo Ren turns back to evil (and borderline petulance) and Rey hops in the Millennium Falcon to essentially step into Finn’s role in the previous movie.
• I’ve said all of this and hardly even talked about the filmmaking yet, which generally unlike Johnson’s work, seems quite misguided at times. 60% of this movie seems to have been shot in low-angle close-ups, yet it lacks the intimacy that such techniques usually lend a story. I suppose after seeing everything continually framed in such jarring ways, one eventually becomes numb.
• The battle and dueling sequences feel off-beat, too. Every sequence is shot either so closely that you can’t make sense of the action or so distantly that the images lack the visceral punches they need. Even the lightsaber designs have been radically changed since the last installment: what once were bursting beams of energy now look like polished, $300 store-bought lightsabers touched up by a multimillion dollar budget in post-production. In fact, that post-production could’ve probably been better spent on enhancing Snoke’s chamber, as it looks at the moment quite like an unfinished green screen (even though it’s a real set!).
• Then, the score—although I’ll need to hear it from start to finish again to be sure—feels startlingly like a Greatest Hits of the Star Wars franchise’s scores, from reusing “Attack on Jakku” for the movie’s opening sequence to re-inserting the music from Episode IV’s exhilarating, post-Death Star escape dogfight into this movie’s final chase sequence. The final shot, too, recycles the Force Theme—which, honestly, I can’t be mad about because it’s by this point become more essential than the Star Wars theme song. At this moment in time, I can’t recall one individual piece of wholly original score that stood out to me.
• Finally, I’m surprised by how small in scope this 150-minute movie actually feels. The whole production feels remarkably low-scale; the majority of the movie takes place on either one planet or in the same location in space (the same ship, even), while the rest of the story is put on screen through telekinetic Force conversations. I’m fine with lengthy run times, though I’d rather a movie like Revenge of the Sith be the one to have this much room to flesh out a tragic fall from grace. This is a movie with virtually three major plot points, all of which are highly convoluted and almost none of which receive any emotional payoff. This isn’t a story that needs two and a half hours to tell; it’s a two hour story, protracted and expanded to epic length by processes of endless down moments and clunky editing.
These are my initial reactions as they come to me, though certainly I’ve not covered everything and will likely add to this as I remember aspects I want to discuss. At this point, you’re probably wondering if I actually liked any of it—a fair question considering I’ve only spoken in vaguely negative terms thus far. Just about every performance here is strong (Driver and Hamill are clear standouts) regardless of what I thought of certain characters’ directions. The cinematography, though not my favorite of the series, is still often quite beautiful. And though I obviously have reservations about some storytelling decisions, I admire Johnson’s sheer audacity in taking this universe in a new direction. Even during the moments I wasn’t totally on board, I was astounded by his confidence (his idiosyncrasies are often hilarious, too; I loved that shot of a droid ironing First Order uniforms in the Imperial laundry room).
Oddly enough, the stuff I liked the most were the moments I thought I would’ve never wanted at all, such as R2-D2 replaying Princess Leia’s classic “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” message, which operates less as fan service than it does a moment of unexpected grace reinforcing the bond between Luke and R2. Most notably, I enjoyed the reappearance of Yoda, who was smartly recreated to bear more resemblance to the Yoda of ESB, rather than the wise sage of Episodes I-III. Perhaps it’s because I was looking for some semblance of the Star Wars I know to cling to, but the Force Ghost visiting Luke in his post-RotJ exile actually makes a remarkable amount of sense now that I consider it, and though I can’t off the top of my head recall another character in the movie I can say this about, I thought Johnson was quite faithful to the character and his mannerisms, especially in the original trilogy.
I think the reason this felt so jarring on a first watch was because up until this point, Star Wars has been wholly synonymous with Lucas. It’s the reason the originals worked, it’s the reason the prequels, for all their flaws, still felt like Star Wars, and it’s the reason that The Force Awakens and Rogue One delighted established fans of the series—because they were imitating Lucas or paying deliberate homage to his world. I appreciate what Rian Johnson is trying to do by taking this universe in an original direction, but The Last Jedi standing next the Lucas or Lucas-esque installments just feels incongruous, at least initially. I think I probably would’ve been more receptive to this had it been a movie from Johnson’s newly-announced standalone Star Wars trilogy, rather than an established Episode of the Skywalker saga.
At the moment, I’m not yet ready to say whether I’m disappointed. I’m certainly confused, but perhaps a second viewing will be kinder to my opinion of the movie. It’s entirely possible that I’ll come around to Johnson’s vision for the Star Wars universe on the second go-round, and that my first impression was simply burdened under the weight of expectations.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that this feels startlingly out of place next to the tone, feel, and even look of The Force Awakens. It seems to me that this movie was more concerned with subverting and upending my expectations more than it was telling a cohesive story, both on its own terms and in light of this trilogy as a whole. I’m even more skeptical as to how this movie could serve as a cohesive bridge between two Abrams-directed installments. As obnoxious as this may sound, I may not even fully know what I think of it until I see Episode IX. But never mind that now. My expectations were certainly upended in ways I never thought possible, for better or worse. For now, I suppose that’s enough.