“The Last Jedi” is the Best Star Wars Film Since 1980

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Judging by the box-office returns, I’m guessing that some of you went to see The Last Jedi this past weekend. I’ve got some thoughts on the film, and will divulge them in a moment – although know that they come with FULL SPOILERS for the entire film. You’ve been warned…

A lot was riding on Episode VIII of the star-spanning franchise, perhaps even more so than its numerical predecessor. The Force Awakens proved that Star Wars could be compellingly adapted for a modern audience (and alleviated much of the ill will that had dogged the series since the prequels), but it was also deeply and inextricably linked to the original trilogy, and to the very first Star Wars film in particular. The Last Jedi, though, has the challenge of moving things in a new and wholly uncharted direction, all while keeping the spirit of the franchise which spawned it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, reactions to the latest chapter in the series have been mixed. Some viewers are praising it to the heavens, others trashing it as a betrayal of the Star Wars ethos.

While I understand the points made by both sides, I can safely say that I fall into the former category. I found The Last Jedi to be a spectacular film – perhaps the best Star Wars entry outside of The Empire Strikes Back.

As both writer and director, Rian Johnson has a lot to contend with, building off multiple characters and stories that JJ Abrams established in the previous installment. And for the most part, he succeeds marvelously. The Last Jedi is bigger, darker, and more gripping than its predecessor, with a greater emphasis on character development and humor and a lesser focus on franchise nostalgia.

In Rey, the producers strive to create the new Luke Skywalker, a young scavenger turned unlikely galactic hero. The seeds were planted in The Force Awakens, and began bearing fruit in the film’s final scene, as Rey came face-to-face with her spiritual predecessor. Student meets teacher. One generation passes to another.

Except The Last Jedi doesn’t make it that simple. Here, we learn that Luke has become a recluse not out of any noble or spiritual sense, but because he has lost faith in the entire Jedi Order. The darkness he saw in Kylo Ren – the same darkness that eclipsed Anakin all those years ago – could easily be replicated again, and again. What future does the Jedi have if it sows so many bad seeds within its own ranks?

Luke’s depiction in The Last Jedi may not seem of a complete piece with his character in the original trilogy, but it’s precisely this contrast – he’s gone from a burgeoning young hero to a pessimistic old hermit – that makes his scenes with Rey so compelling. Luke needs Rey’s voice of reason – her hopeful spirit in the face of overwhelming odds – to bring him out of his rut. He can learn much from her, perhaps even more than she from him.

And what of Rey herself? Her battle with Kylo Ren at the end of The Force Awakens pegged her as more powerful than she seemed, but also threatened to turn her into an idealistic Mary Sue. Who was this woman, we wondered, and how can she so effortlessly wield a lightsaber?

The Last Jedi seemingly resolves the issue, in part by toying with the idea that Rey will find herself inextricably drawn to the dark side. More notably, however, the film saddles Rey with a long-awaited backstory. After two years of theorizing – is she Luke’s daughter? Leia’s daughter? Chewbacca’s sister? (Okay, I was probably the only one with that theory) – we finally have our answer. But it’s an answer that has clearly polarized fans.

On the one hand, I can certainly understand how the revelation that Rey has no familial connection with the elder Star Wars cast can be anticlimactic, particularly how much hay was made about her supposed connection in The Force Awakens. (And I strongly suspect this development was not originally in the cards, only coming to fruition when Abrams handed the reins to Johnson.) But at the same time, I fully applaud this development. Separating Rey from the Solos and Skywalkers distinguishes her as a fresh face in the Star Wars lineup, and expands the potential of the Force beyond a chosen few. (Something the franchise had to do in order to keep Luke from becoming, as the title suggested, the last of the Jedis.) It may have made sense to biologically connect Rey to the previous generation of Star Wars heroes, but setting her apart makes her a more intriguing and unique character. (It also works as a nice rebuttal to the dreaded midichlorians, proving once and for all that the Force is not linked with biology.)

Rey’s expanded screentime and deeper characterization comes at the expense of some supporting players (notably Finn, who doesn’t leave quite the impression he did last time, some fun interactions with Rose notwithstanding), but it deepens the overall story, particularly anytime she shares a scene – physically or even just mentally – with Kylo Ren. Like Rey, Kylo develops very well from the previous film, as we spend time wondering if he will ultimately break free of the dark side. Rey and Kylo’s parallel inner conflicts reach a head in the film’s third act, as – in one of the most emotionally liberating scenes the Star Wars franchise has yet delivered – Rey and Kylo team up to face off against Snoke’s guards.

Alas, the partnership is not to be, as Rey and Kylo are ultimately drawn to the respective good and evil roles that the previous film planted for them. Rey becomes a true Jedi, while Kylo becomes the new Big Bad (in an unanticipated but welcome replacement of Snoke, who wasn’t all that interesting a character to begin with). These roles seemed predestined based on the previous film, but the journeys which the characters take to meet them make their development feel earned.

It may sound as though I’m being too kind to The Last Jedi. And indeed, I won’t deny that the film has its share of flaws. Finn, as I’ve already indicated, feels underused, and apart from his battle with Captain Phasma, very little of his actions here feel like emotional follow-through from The Force Awakens. (I’m also of a mind that he probably should have died in his climactic cannon-run, to give the film’s sense of loss an added punch, but the producers are likely hesitant to kill off what they perceive to be such an integral character.)

Another character poorly served is Laura Dern’s Holdo, who wobbles uncomfortably between ally and antagonist for much of the film. She and Poe clash nicely, but her character rubs off too much as a cardboard authority figure (even as, in some respects, she arguably has the moral high ground over Poe). Holdo’s heroic sacrifice makes for one of the film’s best visuals, but also leaves us feeling like her character has gone unplumbed.

My other issues with the film are largely technical (the pacing in the first half seems lengthier on the Rey side than in the Fin/Rose segments), or else are influenced by the film’s obvious merchandising plugs (the Porgs and BB-9E were both heavily marketed in recent months, yet barely appear in the film itself). They are ultimately overshadowed by the overall experience, where strong characters and dazzling effects kept me riveted for much of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time.

There are aspects to The Last Jedi which leave me skeptical of the trilogy’s conclusion. Killing Snoke was a daring move, but Kylo Ren will need to provide a true sense of menace in Episode IX to pay it off. I’m also concerned that Abrams (returning to the director’s chair for the next installment) will try and alter Rey’s backstory by revealing a familial connection all along, “fixing” something that Johnson never broke. And of course, the tragic death of Carrie Fisher has undoubtedly changed plans for the series, as Leia was very likely poised to play a key role in Episode IX.

Whether these concerns are legitimate remains to be seen. For the moment, however, it’s worth sitting back and enjoying The Last Jedi for the thrilling visual and emotional spectacle that it is. I’ve had concerns about the direction of the franchise ever since Disney got their hands on it, and have worried that the studio may oversaturate the market with Star Wars films until the well runs dry. That may still yet happen, but there are ways in which the franchise can remain strong and sturdy. Thanks to The Last Jedi, I have new hope.

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12 thoughts on ““The Last Jedi” is the Best Star Wars Film Since 1980”

  1. Awesome review. I saw it on Monday and I think I´ fall into a middle category. I liked it a lot but I also found it riddled with flaws. The Rey/Kylo Ren storyline was very good and I loved it all but unfortunately, the rest of the storylines felt short. That was my main issue: too many ideas, too many stories they wanted to tell but they didn´´´t give them time to breathe, to develop. Also, Finn and Rose were very poor and dragged the movie a bit. The casino part was unnecessary.
    I found it very uneven and without a clear focus. Also, Poe, Leia, Holdo, even Luke were underused.

    PS – It´s been a long time since I´ ´ve seen the originals but why are people outraged at the fact that the Force can now belong to another, without it being a Skywalker? That last scene with the boy was actually moving. And a response to Rey´s “Is this all we have left of the Rebellion?”. As long as there´´´´s someone willing to fight, to believe in something else, there is always hope, a spark of rebellion.

    PS2 – Please, review Rogue One. I found it to be a pleasant surprise.

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    1. I think the outrage stems less from the fact that the Force is being used by non-Skywalkers (which we did see occur at several points in the original trilogy) and more from the fact that TFA built up Rey as being a possible Skywalker, or at least connected to the family lineage. But like I said in the review, I think the revelation works very well.

      I may review Rogue One (which I quite enjoyed, albeit not as much as the other new films) and some other Star Wars films eventually. We’ll see where the new year takes us.

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      1. It was built up for Rey to be a Skywalker or a member of some other family by the fans based on the flashbacks Rey saw in TFA, which don’t really gel with what is ‘revealed’ in this film.

        Personally, I don’t see how Kylo Ren could even know who Rey’s parents were. He certainly didn’t know who the hell she was in TFA. I view this as Ren trying to make her see her family background as irrelevant, as he also views his. Rian Johnson made this issue far too meta by essentially trolling fans over all the questions in TFA that this film simply doesn’t answer. It dodges all of the important things fans want at least paid lip service and instead chose to focus more on wacky hijinks on a casino planet, which didn’t even need to be in the film.

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  2. Yeah, but fans are tricky to handle. I mean, some I know praise it to no end and seem to be oblivious to any flaws it might have.
    But I gotta be honest: I was left with little enthusiasm to watch the next one.

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  3. Great review. I’m one of those praising The Last Jedi for the masterpiece it is.

    I like the twist with Rey. Like you said, it makes the character special by not linking her to the Solos and Skywalkers. For a moment, I thought they were going to have her revealed as Kylo Ren’s long-lost sister. Look forward to how Rey’s journey unfolds in the next installment.

    I personally didn’t have a problem with how Finn was used in the movie. The way I see it, it was an important part of his overall arc. In The Force Awakens, Finn overcame his cowardice due to Rey’s influence. In the Last Jedi, he had to learn to step up on his own without Rey. He also needed to realize he was part of something bigger which Rose helped him open his eyes to.

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    1. I just wish they had found a way to make Finn more self-reliant without shunting him off to the side, into a not-very-SW-like subplot. Maybe spend less time with the space-horses and more time building tension between him and the also-underused Captain Phasma.

      But we’ll see if and how Episode IX rounds out his arc.

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  4. Keep getting ‘duplicate comment detected’ even though that comment hasn’t actually shown up. It’s a good job I copied it elsewhere before trying to post. This interface is very frustrating at times.

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    1. It’s probably best to log in before commenting. I leave the no-login option open for convenience, but the programming occasionally mistakes legitimate comments for spam. (Which I can recover, if you notify me.)

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  5. I found The Last Jedi to be a very competently done film and a very enjoyable watch. It isn’t a masterpiece though and there are very clear flaws that bring it down, even out of being one of the top films of the year. The previous entry Rogue One felt a far tighter story without needing meandering subplots that serve only to bloat out the runtime.
    The film’s strengths lie in the Rey/Luke and Rey/Ren interactions, which are interesting enough on their own. Rey explores both sides of the Force while trying to convince Luke to help and all of their scenes were very powerful. I also found the ‘Force bridging’ scenes between her and Ren very effective. These scenes move Rey and Ren’s personal plot arcs forward while the external plot moves little, and this makes the character choices feel very natural. When Rey finally decides to try and reach out to Ren, you felt like this was a very natural character decision for her. That said I felt it was simply unlike Luke to believe Ren was lost – he managed to redeem Darth Vader, but can’t be motivated to do the same for his nephew?
    The battle scenes (in particular the two that bookend the film) are suitably impressive, though it was Rey and Ren’s personal battle with Snoke’s guard that was the standout action piece for me. Their scenes on Snoke’s ship drew together both characters’ arcs and in the end both again made decisions that felt natural, without pulling more ‘fooled you!’ moments that would really have spoiled the tone. There was enough of that what with Snoke’s moustache-twirling that the Force bridging was really him all along…a ‘muhahaha!’ wouldn’t have been out of place here, and that’s not a good thing.
    The weaknesses aren’t legion, but they are significant. Finn’s sidequest turns out to be utterly redundant and seems to be an excuse to get Prequels-style comic relief into a film that really does not need it. Finn was slightly bumbling but ultimately heroic in TFA and this really doesn’t further his arc beyond a ‘sidekick’ schtick that teams him up with a wet-blanket character in Rose. Not that I dislike this character but she simply isn’t a good foil for the type of character Finn is – that’s why Rey/Finn were such a perfect team-up in the previous film! It does however make a good effort at showing that Finn can get things done himself. This sideplot wasn’t helped by the Del Toro character – his betrayal was telegraphed the moment he came onscreen and he added nothing to the plot. I really don’t know why they couldn’t have written a more interesting character here that actually helped them, allowing more time for the scenes on Snoke’s ship. It was good to see Captain Phasma used more here, but the character still seems thrown into these films for no real reason other than to create another fan-elevated favourite in the same vein as Boba Fett.
    Laura Dern’s character also seemed to only be antagonistic because it furthered the plot and created something for Poe Dameron to do – I’m not sure why in this case the Poe and Finn characters weren’t the ones teaming up, it would’ve been a nice follow-on from their early scenes in TFA and a way to continue their partnership. Those two really work well on screen together and sadly have more chemistry than Finn/Rose. In a way, the Dameron character could’ve been better served overall as a possible female love interest for Finn rather than introducing a brand-new character here. Dameron ends up committing mutiny for the sole reason that the Admiral simply did not want to tell them what Leia’s plan was. What possible reason does she have to keep this such a secret that it ends up provoking armed mutiny on the only ship the Resistance has left?

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  6. Another problem the film has is that it uses ‘Resistance’ and ‘Rebels’ interchangeably. I suspect this could be deliberate, but it comes across as the writers forgetting their terminology and simply putting in whatever popped into their brain. Just because there are not-Rebels (Resistance) and not-Empire (First Order) in these films doesn’t mean you can insult the viewers’ intelligence and not even bother proof-reading your own script.
    I also have issue with Johnson’s discarding of Snoke and Ren’s casual ‘reveal’ of who Rey’s parents were. Snoke provoked much speculation by fans and it is to be honest a slap in their face to kill off this character without even paying lip service to who the hell he actually was. In addition I find it unlikely that Kylo Ren knows anything about Rey’s true parentage – this was never even hinted at in TFA (he had no idea who Rey was in that film) and this film follows immediately after. It is more likely Ren was using this to encourage Rey to leave her past behind in a furthering of that theme from TFA and a reveal of sorts could still be in the cards for Rey. So while I like all of the character moments for and between these two characters, the backstory hinted at in TFA is rendered moot simply because Johnson wanted to be meta and troll the SW fans who had been obsessing over it. This felt like a real sour note in the film, a metaphorical middle finger from the director to all those expecting these elements to at least have some surrounding lip service paid to them.
    Finally, the twist with Luke seems to have been unearned and is simply another ‘fooled you!’ moment. This won’t reflect favourably as people go back and rewatch this film. Luke perhaps deserved his own Kenobi moment, sacrificing himself to allow Rey to understand the dangers of the Force and avoid making the same mistakes he did without having to sacrifice all of the good the Jedi ever brought to the galaxy. The director seemed pathologically afraid of moving Luke off his isolated planet and into the story – even when his own sister’s life was at stake plus the fate of both his nephew and pupil. Luke must have fallen far indeed to think nothing of letting all those people die without even attempting to come out of hiding. It shows that this Luke is incredibly cynical and really did desire to die alone.
    Overall, the film was of decent quality. It has many moments and scenes that bring it up above TFA but several others that make it worse than its predecessor, so I don’t think the film supports a statement as large as ‘best SW film since 1980’. Some set pieces could – perhaps – become as iconic as the speeder bike chase, Luke’s duels with Vader or the battles to destroy both Death Stars, but neither these nor the excellent character work for Rey and Finn can elevate the film too far because of the strange and at times illogical story decisions that were made here. So while I liked The Last Jedi, there was really not enough to put it alongside The Empire Strikes Back in terms of quality. Instead, it will sit alongside all of the other non-Prequel Star Wars films that contain plenty good things and some bad.

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  7. “Killing Snoke was a daring move, but Kylo Ren will need to provide a true sense of menace in Episode IX to pay it off.”

    It seems to me like the story was actually setting up Hux to be the primary (military) antagonist for the next film. I’m sure there will still be conflict between Kylo and Rey, but rather than having him just be evil and menacing (which would be terribly boring, they already covered that in the first film) I think they’ll both double down on the will-they-won’t-they team up conflict of morality and ends vs means. I feel like there’s a lot more depth and complexity to cover, and when you have Adam Driver in the role of course that’s where it’s going to go. I’m pretty interested to see where his character goes next.

    Hux however, is unambiguously 100% evil and I think we’re meant to see that he’s the one who poses an existential threat to the galaxy, not Kylo Ren. Kylo might be Supreme Leader at the start of the next film (though I have my doubts about how long that will last, Hux is getting ready to shoot him just before he wakes in the throne room, I see a coup coming) but it’s Hux who gave a passionate speech before ordering the weapon fired that wiped out the Hosnian system. And it’s Hux that we see menacing our Resistance members (Finn, Rose, and Poe via comms), again not Kylo in this film. Hux appears to be the leader of the military machine of the First Order; I don’t get the sense that Kylo’s role pre-TFA was anywhere in that chain of command (though we don’t have much of an idea of what he might have been up to before TFA but his costuming and subtleties in the dialogue “I leave that to you” certainly sets him apart).

    So I think we’re set up for some interesting conflict there- without Snoke, what is Kylo’s stake in the First Order? He clearly doesn’t get along with the leadership (Hux) and we get hints in both films so far that he could care less about their military objectives. Hux obviously loathes him and doesn’t seem like he’d be willing to take orders from Kylo for very long, regardless of the title he holds.

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