This review for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is coming later than usual because I wanted to think about the film I saw on opening weekend before plunging ahead with words about its merits…and faults.
The first part of this review will be spoiler free and talk about the latest Star Wars film in general terms. The second half will discuss in more details my impressions, which will go into spoiler territory.
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi continues the saga of the universal struggle between good and evil in a distant galaxy. It takes place shortly after the last film where fledgling Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley), finds the long-lost Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a distant planet called Ahch-To. She wants to be trained and enlist Skywalker’s help in the struggle against the First Order, the despotic government that rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire.
Meanwhile the ragtag group she belongs to, the Resistance, is in dire straits and on the run from the First Order. Its leader, Snoke (Andy Serkis), and his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), are determined to wipe out the pesky Resistance once and for all and destroy Skywalker, who is the film’s titular character. This largely sums up the plot of Star Wars: The Last Jedi without giving anything away.
The eighth film in the main Star Wars trilogies is a mixed bag. There are so many powerful moments and unpredictable developments. These will resonate not only with fans, but with the overall saga. Admittedly, this film borrows elements from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but only superficially. Certain expected narrative beats never occur and the film left me guessing as to what would happen next. The unpredictable nature of the latest Star Wars film will leave viewers unsure about the fate of characters, which creates genuine tension. We genuinely wonder if certain characters will survive by the end of the film. The film also takes time to examine the Force, the mystical energy wielded by the Jedi and the bad guys. Unlike those stupid midichlorians, the Force in this film rightfully returns to its metaphysical roots as the film explores its nuances. For the eighth film in a franchise to be this unpredictable and out of the box is a testament to the skills of writer and director Rian Johnson.
Unfortunately, there are too many flaws in logic and gaping plot holes that cannot be waved away with a Jedi mind trick. As skilled as he is, Johnson failed to think through the plot. Too often, we keep asking “why did so and so do that? Why don’t they just do this and be done?” This is a problem Johnson displayed with his acclaimed (and overrated IMO) film Looper, where cool concepts were undone by flaws in narrative logic. Honestly, this makes me wonder about the quality of the new trilogy he will oversee.
Just as crippling is the film’s pace. It starts with a blast, but meanders in the middle and feels uneven, though the final 45 minutes are terrifically nail biting. Certain characters fly off on meaningless quests in scenes that could have used another pass in the editing room. Other characters are given well-rounded and satisfying arcs that allow them to grow and change. Others should have not appeared at all.
No matter where one stands with it, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is a very polarizing film. It is unlike previous Star Wars films, which will disappoint many fans. On the other hand, story and character wise, Star Wars: The Last Jedi strikes bold new directions that anyone would have to admit bring new and much-needed wrinkles to the Star Wars saga.
Alright, this is the final warning for anyone who has not seen Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi and does not want to be spoiled.
For a film called Star Wars, this entry feels like it has the least amount of “Wars” in it. This entry is mostly a slow burn and action fans will be disappointed that its major space battle take place in the beginning and that now-famous walker confrontation scene does not play out like a copy of the Battle of Hoth. This final battle is decidedly one-sided, but it helps sell the point that the Resistance is down to its last, desperate handful. Rian Johnson wisely decided not to let the final moments play out like a standard Star Wars film with an epic fight that our heroes miraculously win.
Instead, the conclusion of this battle on the planet Crait underlines the film’s running theme of failure and learning from it. At the beginning, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) wins a hollow victory against the First Order but at the cost of most of the Resistance fighters; Finn (John Boyega) and Rose’s (Kelly MareTran) covert mission to find a code breaker leads to disaster that nearly dooms the remaining Resistance; Rey is unable to convert Kylo to the Light Side of the Force and she cannot convince Luke to help her and the Resistance. But by the film’s end, they learn from their mistakes and become better persons.
This is a daring motif to bring up in a Star Wars film and is partly why so many fans are dissatisfied with the film. Instead of doing like J.J. Abrams and cloning A New Hope with his film, The Force Awakens, Johnson takes story beats from the other two Original Trilogy films and try something different with them. This results in fascinating takes on the film’s characters.
The one character who grows the most and is the most compelling is Luke Skywalker. Hamill gives his best performance as Luke, who is now broken and dispirited over his failure in training Kylo Ren. He feels responsible for the creation of this monster and just cannot bear to deal with the consequences of his defeat. What is worse is that Rey can do little to get him to take up the lightsaber once more. It takes a surprise and most welcome appearance by the great Yoda (Frank Oz) to look past his mistakes and forge ahead. What follows is one of the greatest Star Wars moments ever: Luke arrives on Crait in the nick of time to help the Resistance. When he leaves the safety of the Resistance’s shelter to confront Kylo Ren and the First Order are unabashedly crowd pleasing, but not in the way you expect.
Instead of decimating his opponents, Luke demonstrates why he is the greatest Jedi ever. Intense blaster fire from walkers have no effect on him, and he easily dodges every strike from Ren’s red lighsaber. In the end, we’re gasping as we find out all of this was a Force projection from the Jedi Master as he remained on Ahch-To. Unfortunately, the strain of his action is too much for Luke, but it does not matter. He finds peace and acceptance as he becomes one with the Force and transforms into a legend.
Luke Skywalker is not the only captivating Jedi in this film. Rightly so, Rey is the core character who has her own dilemma and demons to grapple with. She is eager to become a full-fledged Jedi and defeat the First Order. At the same time, she wrongly believes that Kylo Ren can be redeemed. Her hopes are crushed midway through the film when Ren rejects her plea to join her and instead goes about consolidating his power in the First Order.
Ren himself is actually a well-developed foe this time and is far less annoying. He no longer behaves like a spoiled child and we can feel the rage within him as he struggles to purge himself of his past. He becomes a genuine threat and an irredeemable figure that must be vanquished without hesitation in the final film of the new trilogy. I cannot wait to see that.
The other villains in Star Wars: The Last Jedi are less impressive. Snoke turns out to be a red herring who is dispatched without any revelations about him. On a side note, many of Abrams’ mysteries presented in The Force Awakens are largely swept aside by Johnson. The First Order officer Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is even more annoying than he was in the last film with his screeching and overacting. Meanwhile, poor Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is undeniably the Boba Fett of this trilogy since she gets overhyped only to be used sparingly.
Other than that, the rest of the cast put in solid performances including the late Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa. Star Wars purists are up in arms over her incredible usage of the Force, but they shouldn’t since she is a Skywalker and the Force runs strongly in the family. The film’s conclusion sets Leia up to be the main old school protagonist in the final film, but it is difficult to see how this can be given Fisher’s untimely passing. Hopefully this will be tastefully addressed when the time comes.
The Finn/Rose subplot feels superfluous and something that comes from the worst of the prequel films. Only in the very last shot of the film do their adventures on the planet Canto Bight have any relevance; even then it is something that won’t have any pay off until probably the next trilogy. The idea of the Force living on with the young slave children is a poignant one that gives the entire saga a measure of hope, but I can’t help thinking that it may have been a better coda for the next film.
The other major fault lies with the languid pursuit of the remaining Resistance ships by the First Order. It is stated that the Resistance does not have enough fuel to stay ahead of their enemies and can only make one more jump to hyperspace. They are being tracked so trying to use hyperspace to escape is futile. But as the First Order fleet pursues them in normal space, I kept wondering why don’t the bad guys jump into hyperspace and emerge in front of the Resistance convoy to cut them off? This would not be so nagging if the scenes were better directed, had more tension or were better paced.
This film would have ranked high among the Star Wars films if not for its critical failings. Johnson took some chances with Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the results are mixed as seen by audience and critics’ reactions. Like with many Star Wars films during their initial release, this entry is being flooded with praise, but only time will deliver the final verdict. Objectively, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is not as great as The Empire Strikes Back nor is it a disaster in league with The Phantom Menace. It places somewhere in the middle and what your opinion of it is subjective to your personal connection to the film saga.