Star Wars: The Last Jedi was always going to have an uphill struggle compared to The Force Awakens. With Episode VII, audiences hadn’t had a proper Star Wars film to sink their teeth into in over a decade and those last films were the prequel trilogy which had left a bad taste in their mouths. So, audiences were desperate for new Star Wars and so long as it was good it would cleanse their palette of the prequels. And The Force Awakens was good, if a little too similar to A New Hope, but that was a flaw that fans could accept, at least for now. But The Last Jedi comes on the heels of that film which began a new generation of Star Wars fandom, and of an extended universe including films such as Rogue One. Suddenly, thanks to Disney, fans are spoiled for Star Wars content in a way they weren’t just a few years ago. To compete and live up to expectations The Last Jedi can’t just be good. To inspire those same fans, to assuage their fears and spark interest in future instalments, The Last Jedi needed to do more than The Force Awakens. It needed to be great.
Unfortunately, The Last Jedi is just good. The film is full of strong premises, such as Poe Dameron learning the burden of leadership isn’t just big showy battles and heroic risk-taking, or Finn sneaking on to The First Order ship to disable their tracking software, or Rey finding Luke Skywalker and learning that the origins of Kylo Ren are much more grey than light or dark. These are all great ideas with promise and potential and some of that is realised largely through the strong acting of the cast. But even stellar performances all around can’t help that in execution a lot of these plotlines don’t really go anywhere and leave the audience empty and dissatisfied.
There are going to be spoilers ahead, so if you’ve yet to watch the film, go do that first. And for the record I do think this film is worth seeing, at least once, but don’t expect to be blown away. Anyway, as an example of this premise vs. execution, let’s look at Poe Dameron. Poe begins the film in a big space battle with a dreadnought. He takes out the ships surface cannons and then calls in bombers to take down the ship proper. And while this does happen it costs a lot of casualties, with many of the bombers being blown up before they can release their cargo. And even when the Resistance/New Republic escape they find that the First Order can now track them through lightspeed, so they lost a lot of good soldiers and still didn’t actually shake the First Order off their tail.
For this Poe is demoted and although there’s a new plan to escape, he’s basically shut out of it. Poe, believing that the leaders don’t have a plan, hatches a daring scheme of his own where Finn and their new engineer friend Rose sneak off to find a codebreaker and sneak into the First Order command vessel and disarm the tracking software while Poe mutinies and warpspeeds away when they can’t be tracked. However, it turns out the leaders do have a plan, one that involves sneaking away under the radar and a plan that is later revealed to the First Order by the codebreaker. So, everything would have gone off without a hitch had Poe, Finn and Rose not tried to do anything.
The problem with this plot is that it relies on none of the characters talking or communicating with one another. Had Admiral Holdo simply explained the plan to Poe he at least wouldn’t have felt the need to do something to ensure the survival of the Resistance. Had Poe brought his scheme to Holdo perhaps she could have been able to provide support. It’s like one of those will they-won’t they plots from sitcoms where two characters don’t know how the other feels because they just won’t talk to each other. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch.
Episode VIII also wastes several plots that had been set up from the previous episode. Usually sequels develop or expand on threads from the first film but here The Last Jedi mostly ignores or drops a lot of the storylines, such as who is Snoke and Rey’s lineage. Now, honestly, I’m fine with Rey’s parents being junk traders who sold her for money (though it raises the question of why she’s not in servitude in The Force Awakens); it turns the Darth Vader reveal from Empire Strikes Back on its head and subverts expectations. But the fact that it comes along with so many other questions being ignored, like why Luke left a map if he didn’t want to be found, or wrapped up without ceremony, such as Captain Phasma’s swift exit, means that the mystery around Rey gets lost under all the other disappointment.
For this I actually don’t blame Rian Johnson, although I’ll get to why he doesn’t get off scot free in a moment. I blame J. J. Abrams. This is not the first project where Abrams has basically set up a bunch of questions and mysteries without any idea how it all plays out and then left it up to someone else to come up with the answers. And when those mysteries are legion and hyped up, it’s difficult to avoid disappointment. And I’m not just gleaming this from his works, Abrams has talked about this at TED where he discusses mystery being more important than knowledge and infinite possibilities. That’s where Abrams is coming from when he’s writing and producing these shows and films and again it always falls to someone else to make sense of these mysteries for some kind of pay off and at a certain point people realise that you can’t explain all these mysteries without two and a half hours of scrolling text so in the interest of a comprehensible narrative some mysteries have to be jettisoned. Does knowing that make me any happier about how it was done? No. It was still underwhelming and dissatisfying, but I suppose at least I know why it was underwhelming and dissatisfying.
As I said though, Rian Johnson doesn’t get off that easy. There are pacing and tone issues which are absolutely his doing. Star Wars has always had comedy. It’s interweaving of westerns and dramas and comedies and science fiction and a whole slew of other genres is part of what makes it so unique and special in the hearts of fans. But the comedy in The Last Jedi feels like a parody of itself. Like the transmission call that Poe makes to General Hux in the beginning of the movie where he keeps pretending to be on hold and not able to hear Hux’s tirade and insults sounds like something Seth McFarlane would do on Family Guy rather than part of an actual Star Wars script. Furthermore, the Canto Bight section lasts far too long and is bogged down with a ‘the source of all war is greed’ message. When it all comes together what we get is a film that’s still several rewrites away from release.
So, this has been a bit of a long one, but necessary because to really get into why The Last Jedi is how it is, it takes a bit of dissecting. The take away is that hardcore fans will be disappointed, but Episode VIII will more than suffice for a winter outing this Christmas. Conversely, if you thought it was great and that I’m out of my mind, hit me up on the comments or social media with your opinions. If you enjoyed this review and want to read more from me, I’m currently doing a serial review of Vikings season 5, or you can find other film reviews in the archives. Hit the follow button to subscribe and keep up to date with new content on his blog. And since it is winter, why not curl up by the fire with my own novel, Carrion Youth, which you can read for free at swoonreads.com.