Here follows a review of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, written several hours after I saw it with reckless disregard for spoilers, because I don’t get paid to review movies and so I just can’t be arsed. You’ve been warned!
My top line review is that The Last Jedi is a good movie, both on its own and in the greater Star Wars mythos. It’s not without its flaws, though many of them are imposed on it by having to clean up The Force Awakens’ messes, whereas Episode VIII largely manages to deliver cool moments alongside fully realized character arcs, and without screwing things up for whoever gets tasked with bringing this trilogy to a close. It’s pretty good y’all, I suggest it.
NOW. Time for the nitty gritty.
Actual Arcs, From Characters New & Old
The area in which The Force Awakens did so well—and that Rogue One failed so utterly—was with its characters. It’s the chief saving grace of EpVII in my book. Rey, Finn, and Poe were all already great characters by the time they got to this movie, and EpVIII did us a solid of giving arc to each of them, as well as to Rose, Luke, and Kylo. That’s a lot going on in one movie, and while it did feel overstuffed at times, each arc was fully realized.
Probably my favorite was Luke’s arc, though largely because of how good Mark Hamill’s performance was as a grumpy, crotchety, jaded old miser of a washed up Jedi master. He sold that really well, and while it was perhaps the most obvious redemption arc (idealistic young trainee redeems the cynical old master), it’s an oldie and a goodie for a reason. Plus getting to see Luke play the cocksure legend as he brushed off his shoulder was GREAT. Hah!
Rose and Kylo had the other two stellar arc. Though now that I think of it, Rose’s was more of an exploration of a new character, as opposed to a development and/or change in that character. Not that she didn’t have growth—she went from despairing that Finn wasn’t the hero she thought he was, to not only pushing him along his redemptive arc, but also taking her own place among that pantheon of heroes, and clearly feeling like she deserved to be there (or just was going to do it anyway because there was no more time to be starstruck, which, you know, fair)—but even some of the arcs that I didn’t jive on so much had more movement. Probably I was just fooled by Kelly Marie Tran’s superb performance. I’m going to be saying that a lot, I feel.
Kylo Ren—well. Adam Driver delivered a phenomenal performance as well (see?), Disney really found the perfect star to play this boiling font of frequently impotent rage, or maybe they matched the character to his acting abilities. Either way, seeing Kylo’s decision to destroy everything from the past takes Star Wars into new waters, away from the traditional “Kill the Jedi, build an Empire” villain motivations. Finn and Poe both had good arcs as well, Poe’s especially allowed him to support a whole B plot on his own, but I’ve prattled on enough for now.
Here It Comes—and Juked! (Partially)
Maybe The Last Jedi’s most frequently used trick is to build up to a scene or event that we (the audience) knows is coming—and then juke. The writers constantly played into the mythology of Star Wars, used the audience’s knowledge of basic tropes, or simply did something that seemed irreversible and then reversed it in a way that worked. The result was new spins on old tropes, and it was heartily appreciated.
The biggest of these is in how Luke confronts Kylo at the end. The scene reeks of parallels to Obi-Wan’s death, so that I (and I suspect everyone else) was just waiting for Luke to allow himself to be struck down like his former master. And we got there, but the Force Projection was an excellent zag where we were expecting them to zig. More on that later.
Finn’s forcibly aborted Independence Day Russell Casse-style suicide run at the battering ram laser is another one. As soon as that was happening, I was both expecting him to do it (and maybe die) or get out of it for some contrived reason, but Rose’s interception was, while the least surprising of these, a truly lovely moment.
Finally, Leia’s death is certainly one of these. As soon as she was blown out into the vacuum of space, it was entirely reasonable to assume she was dead. To see her then use the Force—she is Luke’s twin, remember?—to save herself was not only a great zag, it was fanservice in the best of ways. Hells yeah Leia, rock on!
Settings & [Sci-fi/Fantasy] Systems
This is The Last Jedi’s weakest area, though it’s nearly all The Force Awakens’ fault. A lot of the decisions that EpVII made, and the effects they had on the galaxy these stories are set in, reverberate through EpVIII in damaging ways. Here I’m talking principally about the various sci-fi/fantasy “systems” that make up the setting, such as how the Force and all the tech works. Let’s use how hyperspace functions as an example.
EpVII destroyed hyperspace. Now, I’m an old Star Wars fan, the kind who read the old EU and was immersed in all the minutiae, so you’re free to take this with a grain of salt. But how hyperspace worked in EpVII (being able to warp out of ships, into gravity wells, etc) broke a lot of the old established rules, and they did it in ways that damage EpVIII.
For instance, if using the Mon Cal cruiser as a hyperspace battering ram was so effective, why doesn’t everybody do that? Where are the hyperspace missiles? Why are they even bothering with blaster cannons at all? It was an awesome moment in the movie, but it threatens to enfeeble all future space battles if the characters don’t use this incredibly effective tactic. This is as opposed to the old method, where a large gravity well (planet, star, interdictor cruiser) would yank the ship out of hyperspace (or occasionally destroy it completely), where it was difficult to make extremely short jumps (hyperspace is fast), and no mention was made of ramming via hyperspace anyway when ramming via sublight drives yields so much more drama. Now that Pandora’s box is open, it can’t be closed again.
The other big hyperspace issue remains from EpVII as well, and it’s how the third trilogy’s neigh-instantaneous hyperspace travel makes the galaxy feel small. I wrote about both of these issues in one of my The Force Awakens posts, but it was most clearly felt when Finn and Rose had their little side adventure to the gambling planet while their allies were engaged in the most boring sublight chance in history. That + the rebels expecting allies to get there from the outer rim in time to save them—look. This kind of space travel can work. The Dune series used space-folding to great effect. But Star Wars isn’t built for it. It’s space fantasy about plucky rebels fighting evil empires, and if the rebels can broadcast to the entire galaxy and anyone can get to them instantly, I have a hard time believing that a planet or two wouldn’t go, “Hmm, defeating Space Nazis might be in my best interest.” Especially all the alien civilizations. They can’t have forgotten the Empire. It hasn’t been that long.
But none of these issues are problems if hyperspace is fast but not super fast–if it’s like getting on a ship as opposed to jumping in a prepped supersonic jet. And to be clear, I’m not complaining because something changed about an old favored franchise. In-setting technology can change, like it did with hyperspace communication (it used to be impossible to contact the outside galaxy while in hyperspace). I have a problem because these changes hamper future writers’ abilities to tell good stories in this universe. It’s a symptom that Disney isn’t maintaining the nuts and bolts of the setting all that well, along with some familiar old issues (walkers are still terrible military design, but so were those rebel bombers—those needed to be much better shielded if they were going to be that slow).
Also, I wish more characters were aliens. Disney’s Star Wars is too human-centric, in a time when they have the money and technology to go hog-wild with alien characters. Do better.
Cool Scenes That Don’t %$&# Over EpIX
I think the biggest issue with how J.J. Abrams went about constructing EpVII is that he set out to make every scene “delightful”, and he succeeded. He just also made them insubstantial and forgettable. The Force Awakens didn’t have any weight, it didn’t have any bones to its plot (aside from what it stole from EpIV). It was all just fluff and action scenes and funny quips (and good characters, which absolves many a sin).
What The Last Jedi accomplished is that it still deployed some super cool individual scenes—some truly “delightful” moments—but the plot is meaty enough to prevent them from being forgettable. Leia using the Force! Yoda’s ghost! Luke’s badass walk at the end, and everything he did and said to Kylo at the end! While other scenes are less memorable (Rey and the repeating mirrors vision, Chewie’s flight through that thin cavern thing), EpVIII delivered a handful of scenes that I’m confident Star Wars fans will never forget, and it did it while still building and executing a story that gives the EpIX director/writers something meaty to work with.
The Force Ain’t No Thang
Another issue persists from EpVII, though this one was mitigated somewhat in this movie: the Force is still too easy. One of the great things about the original trilogy is that Luke is basically shit at the Force until Return of the Jedi, he’s a total scrub in A New Hope and he’s only got enough skills to be dangerous to himself in Empire Strikes Back. Rey got way too good way too quickly last movie, and while she at least tried to do some training this time, the pace of the movie was such that she clearly got almost none. Yet she was able to do some crazy stuff. It feels cheap.
The one change is that, all things considered, the Force is the only thing that Rey focuses on and is abnormally good at in this movie. And no, I still don’t think Rey is a Mary Sue, nor was she ever. The only problem she had in The Force Awakens is that they made her reveal that she was good at a bunch of things in rapid succession (space them out and we wouldn’t have noticed), and they were skills that were a half-step off from what seemed reasonable (I can understand her being a good mechanic, but why would a Jakku scavenger know how to fix a hyperdrive? I’m fine with her being a good pilot, but has she ever piloted anything other than a speeder?) Compare this to Luke, who in A New Hope said he was good at flying his T-16, an airspeeder—which is nothing like an X-wing (not having to deal with atmosphere is kind of big), but that’s only if you think of it. (Or contrast to Anakin in Phantom Menace, who is a total Mary Sue.)
All of which is to say, Rey was never a Mary Sue, but The Force Awakens was constructed in a way that gave that particular fire extra fuel, above and beyond the sexist undertones. The Last Jedi does none of that, because the only uber-awesome skillset Rey deploys is her unnatural ability with the Force, while everything else is personality stuff (thinking there’s still good in Kylo Ren) or linked to the Force (Jedi tend to be good shots in the Falcon’s turret).
(The one exception: Why does Rey know how to swim? She’s from a desert planet. Hax!)
Related: they also skirted more of EpVII’s Mary Sue argument-fueling mistakes by setting up the battles and involved characters better. Instead of Rey piloting the Falcon during tricky maneuvers, it’s Chewie, and yeah—I think Chewie is probably pretty good at flying the ol’ hunk of junk. Instead of having a newbie force sensitive and a non-force sensitive get into a lightsaber battle with a trained Sith warrior, a Jedi and a Sith fight some (maybe force sensitive, maybe not?) royal guards, while Finn fights Phasma—still a tough fight, but much more reasonable.
I have a feeling I’m going to be using The Last Jedi to explain why The Force Awakens is kind of shit for a long time. The gift that keeps on giving!
This is perhaps my favorite moment of the movie, and it’s nakedly because they did what I would have done with Rey’s parents: they were nobodies. Junk traders who sold her for booze and died in the sand. She’s not the daughter of Skywalker, or Solo, or Palpatine, or Qui-Gon or Obi-Wan or anyone we know. She’s a nobody. The universe rolled the dice, and they came up as, “Give her all the Force power!” for her. That’s it. She’s absolutely nobody and I couldn’t be happier, because if she can be nobody and still be the main character, then that means Star Wars isn’t the story of the Skywalkers. That was just an era. It also means that little kids can make believe that they’re Jedi without having to pretend they have a certain last name too. Space wizarding isn’t a meritocracy, you’ve gotta be born with it, but at least everyone’s got a shot, even if the blue bloods still get it handed to them. That’s life though, even in a galaxy far, far away.
The Republic Crumpled Too Easily
Once again, a mess left dangling from EpVII: the Republic crumpled like a bunch of bitches. I know why J.J. Abrams did that, he wanted to direct A New Hope again and that meant he needed the good guys to be plucky rebels. I still lament for that missed opportunity, because we could have gone down a new path for the Star Wars movies at the beginning of EpVII instead of having to wait until the end of EpVIII, but The Last Jedi didn’t help matters. I mean, do people want the First Order? Is there a thirst for facism? Even the prequels did a better job of showing how the Empire rose (as does the original trilogy, by virtue of not having to explain it at all, because the evil empire already existed). The Republic was presumably so powerful, having spread across the entire known galaxy, and then it collapsed utterly after the First Order iced a few planets?
It’s the same issue as before. When it comes to setting and world-building issues, The Force Awakens screwed so many things up, and The Last Jedi either cleans up the mess or doesn’t have time to fix them. It remains an issue, though.
The Supreme Ruler is Dead, Long Live the Supreme Ruler
Not only was this exchange between Kylo and Hux spine-tinglingly rockin’ (Hux being Force choked at the time was a definite bonus), what I appreciate what was required to bring it about: Snoke’s death.
Snoke was always the least interesting villain to me. Even Hux was more interesting in that sniveling, ambitious way of his. Snoke was just a weird CGI face before this movie, and in it, while he certainly had some menace to him, he never got the chance to get to full-on Palpatine levels of sinister. He was just another would-be emperor of a force sensitive, Sith-adjacent feel, and while Palpatine could get away with that because he was the first one of those in this setting, Snoke ain’t. It’s in the same way that Kylo Ren would have been boring if he was a carbon copy of Vader, but he’s not, and in his own personal failure to become Vader he’s become an intensely interesting character. Snoke never had any of that, and offing him takes the franchise in a new direction it hasn’t been in before, which I like.
Of course, this could blow up in the franchise’s face if the next director isn’t able to capitalize on it, particularly since there’s no clear external antagonist anymore; Kylo Ren is still there, of course, but we keep flirting with him having some good left in him, but who would be turn on? Himself? Selfless suicide is certainly an option, but that’d be a bold move on Disney’s part.
I could go on longer, about Luke’s death (it was the right time for him to die), about how cool Poe is (very), about what a hilariously murderous bastard BB-8 is (very), and about how the red ground underneath the salt on that last planet made for some really cool visuals, but I’ve gone on long enough. The Last Jedi is a great movie. I’d rank it within the top three of current Star Wars movies, up there with A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, though I refuse to nail down a precise ranking between those three. Those three, Return of the Jedi, and then some other movies. I’ll rank no further.As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).