Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★

I'll admit my bias - I have a fundamental problem with the very existence of these new Star Wars films. I simply don't trust anyone to do right by this franchise...not in this day and age, not during a time defined by generic reboots and sequels, not during a time when nostalgia is nothing but a commodity repackaged into profit-guzzling machines. Maybe that's cynical or unfair of me, but make no mistake: the three new films I've seen are decidedly not the Star Wars films I grew up with and loved (and I'll even defend the prequels to the day I die). There's a spark missing, a certain burst of originality and passion that's sorely needed. Maybe this is just the kid in me speaking, but why haven't we even seen a memorable lightsaber-on-lightsaber battle in three whole films? I'm not talking about Rey and Kylo Ren in a forest; I'm talking about Darth Maul's double-sided lightsaber, or General Grievous' four lightsabers, or Luke vs. Vader Round 1, or Luke vs. Vader Round 2, or Obi-wan vs. Anakin on a goddamn lava field. I'm talking about the visual thrill of cinema's most iconic weapon. Where's that magic?

With that being said, I always try to be open to change and a new vision (though I'm not so sure Abrams and Johnson have that same new vision). The tricky thing here is that even if these films attempt something different or don't feel like Star Wars, they're still by necessity Star Wars films. That whole clashing of old and new is  where The Last Jedi positions itself, with Luke's very first action in the film serving as a microcosm of Rian Johnson's insertion into the already established universe. The philosophical clash between an old and a new vision is also what's driving much of the controversy around Luke Skywalker's characterization: do you want Luke the Legend or Luke the Man? I'd argue that Johnson deserves more credit than he's been given for at least discussing and even eventually embracing Luke the Legend through Luke the Man, but he also definitely doesn't deserve a pass just because he's going for "realism" or "evolution". His intention to challenge us as viewers and fans, if that is his intent, does not automatically justify everything. When you're playing with an established character and a franchise that has already placed itself in the realm of fantasy rather than realism--thus making Luke the Legend the prominent characterization--you're going to be rightfully scrutinized at every turn. And yes, there are tonal and pacing issues that go beyond philosophical criticisms and into filmmaking criticisms, as well as certain character revelations that make no sense in the context of the series. That's not fanboys overreacting, that's just dismissive writing. Ultimately, I do think Hamill does an overall good job of selling it all in the moment, and the final act of the film taps into some of the emotional well of his character. However, it's also completely understandable why people would feel disheartened about the tinkering with Luke's character, and that speaks to my larger misgivings with the current direction of this franchise.

Taking the film as a whole, it's a mixed bag. I find very few redeeming factors in the entirety of the Finn-Rose storyline, a prime example of how good intentions can still fail miserably on screen. Finn's solid in Episode VII, but here, Boyega has the charisma of a 5-ton block of steel. Benicio del Toro's character feels forced and his inclusion is awkward. Tran is a fun actor, but her character doesn't really resonate. As for Poe, I'm still left wanting more. I love Isaac, but he's just fine here and was more memorable in Suburbicon. The little Ren-Rey-Luke triangle is the strongest element of the film, which is interesting to me because I found Ren to be insufferable in Episode VII. I suppose Rey being my favorite new character helps, though. In here is an interesting story about legacy, change, and carving your own path, and all three actors do a great job of making their dilemmas feel believable. Daisy Ridley was a great, great casting choice. I enjoyed her more in Episode VII, but I respect her arc here and am really looking forward to her interacting with the rest of the group again. 

There's something thrilling about watching these storylines, flawed as they may be, converging in the end in anticipation of Episode IX. There are emotional highs and extremely touching moments in that final act, and Hamill and Fisher (aside from that one hilariously awful moment early in the film) are, as always, a joy to watch. But...there's also something concerning about the way the film handles itself at other times. Some characters and plot points just don't seem to end up mattering, and that's a problem when you're also trying to throw in new characters with their own mini arcs. Phasma is wasted. Holdo "matters" in a plot sense, but not in a character sense. Snoke is more of a metaphor for hubris than a character, but does that mean he's not wasted? Finn, Poe, Rose, even a certain Rey backstory element. Honestly, outside of Ren and Rey, the entire conflict in the film between the First Order and the rebels. The First Order itself. National Treasure Admiral Ackbar. Why does everything just feel like it's being tossed around? Why do we, the fans, have to scramble to justify everything? Shouldn't we feel those justifications on screen? Perhaps a more unified sense of structure will help moving into Episode IX, and it'll really start to click as to why this sequel trilogy is being made. Or perhaps the magic is really lost after all.


Edited to add: The film is WAY too long, and it's slightly better than The Space Between Us. For now.

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