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Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Last Jedi!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is not at all the film that I expected it to be.  It is very different from The Force Awakens, but a satisfying continuation of the story that film began.  The film is exciting, suspenseful, and emotional.  It is funny and it is heartbreaking.  It is weird and not afraid to take narrative digressions or even just a split-second moment to explore around the edges of this vast, wonderful Star Wars universe.  It is visually gorgeous, brought to life by some of the very best special effects you can hope to see.  It digs deep into Star Wars lore and connects to some of the most beloved moments of this saga, while also being unafraid to chart new courses and introduce new characters, worlds, and situations.  It is also too long, with a middle section that sags dreadfully.  But its third act is magnificent in a way that allows almost all sins to be forgiven.  The Last Jedi is not better than Rogue One, which I consider to be the pinnacle of modern Star Wars films (any film made after the Original Trilogy).  The Last Jedi is confounding at times, but also staggeringly glorious at others.  Kathleen Kennedy is three for three with the new Star Wars films created under her tenure as head of Lucasfilm.  Considering how even George Lucas himself struggled so mightily with his prequel trilogy, this is something of a minor miracle.

Whereas all previous Star Wars sequels have picked up the story a significant amount of time after the events of the previous film, The Last Jedi begins immediately after the end of The Force Awakens.  The First Order has learned the location of the Resistance’s hidden base and dispatched Star Destroyers to annihilate it, sending Poe, Finn, Leia, and the rest of the Resistance on the run.  Meanwhile, Rey has found Luke Skywalker, but the grizzled old man Luke has become has shut himself off from the Force and refuses to train her.  Desperate to understand her place in the galaxy-shaking events unfolding around her, Rey finds an unexpected connection with… Kylo Ren, the man who was once Ben Solo.

The Last Jedi shares certain broad-strokes story beats with The Empire Strikes Back.  Both films begin with an Imperial assault on a hidden rebel base that sends our heroes on the run; both depict a young Jedi seeking out an old master to be trained in the ways of the Force; both feature our heroes scattered for most of the run-time; both end with the heroes battered and the villains still a threat.

But beyond those surface similarities, The Last Jedi is an entirely different film than The Empire Strikes Back, or indeed, from any previous Star Wars film.  Unlike The Force Awakens, which felt like a “greatest hits” version of all the previous Star Wars films mixed together, The Last Jedi has a very different structure from previous Star Wars films, and goes in different directions.  The film continually surprised me.  Sometimes pleasantly so, and sometimes not, as I will discuss in this review.  But almost every time I thought I could predict where the film was going, it surprised me.  I don’t like all of the choices Rian Johnson made, but I love the way he continually did the unexpected.

Whereas The Force Awakens gave the spotlight to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo above all other OT characters, The Last Jedi belongs to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker.  The final scene of The Force Awakens made a promise that this film had to fulfill, and it does.  Mr. Hamill is as good, if not better, than he has ever been.  This is a very different Luke Skywalker, one who has been broken by what unfolded after Return of the Jedi (events hinted at in The Force Awakens that are, thankfully, explored more fully here).

This is not a version of Luke that I ever expected to see.  The Force Awakens, in many ways, set up an impossible story problem.  As compelling an idea as it was in TFA to have Luke missing from the galaxy, what could possibly drive the heroic Luke to forsake his responsibilities to his family, friends, and the galaxy, and run away?  The Last Jedi gives us about as good an answer as is possible.  I love the way the films slowly peels back the truth of what happened, and Mark Hamill’s great work allows us to see how this destroyed Luke.  But it still feels irredeemable that, after everything went down, Luke would let Ben Solo run around loose across the galaxy (and murder BILLIONS of people when the Starkiller Base blew up a bunch of planets in The Force Awakens) and go run away and hide rather than go out and stop him.  (I feel the same way about Yoda and Obi-Wan’s actions at the end of Episode III — why not team up and try again to kill Anakin/Vader and the Emperor, rather than running away to hide while leaving the galaxy to suffer for two decades??)

The late, great Carrie Fisher is also given many moments to shine.  I had read previously that the intention was that while Episode VII spotlighted Han and Episode VIII spotlighted Luke, Episode IX would focus on Leia.  That is not to be, and it is doubly heartbreaking watching this film, both because I can see how the narrative was heading that way, and because of how great Ms. Fisher is in this film.  I thought, in all honesty, that Ms. Fisher’s scenes in The Force Awakens were a little shaky, but she’s a lot stronger here, with some great leadership/heroic moments and some tender character moments.  (I have absolutely no idea how Episode IX is going to handle the absence of Ms. Fisher.  I hope that they are able to find a way to give Leia’s story a satisfactory ending, somehow.  I have some guesses which I will detail below, in the spoilers section of this review.)

What The Force Awakens did best was to introduce a new core of characters with whom I fell in love by the end of that film.  The Last Jedi does right by (mostly) all of them.  Daisy Ridley proves her work in The Force Awakens was no fluke, as she is once again an incredible main character here, playing Rey.  I love this character and the journey she is on, and I love Ms. Ridley’s performance.  Rey can be flawed and goofy, but she is noble and honest and incredibly brave.  I love that this strong young woman is at the center of these new Star Wars films.

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron was, famously, supposed to die in the first act of The Force Awakens (when his and Finn’s stolen Tie Fighter crashes back on Jaku).  Thank goodness they reversed that plan (though you can still see the seams of it as Poe doesn’t actually have much of an arc in the rest of that film).  That’s not the case here as we see Poe struggle with the differences between being a hotshot pilot and a leader.  (Though the film does, somewhat inexplicably, punish him for basically doing what every other Star Wars hero has done before him: ignoring the odds and common sense and trusting in his friends to save the day.)

John Boyega’s Finn gets a bit of the short shrift in the film.  He gets plenty of screen time and is just as endearing and funny as always, but I didn’t love the way Finn gets sidelined from the main action for most of the film.  His trip to Canto Bight was one of the film’s main weak points (more on that in a moment), and Finn doesn’t really have much of an arc in this film.  (He sort of relearns the same lesson that he learned in The Force Awakens, about putting aside his personal concerns/fears in favor of the importance of the Rebellion/Resistance.)  But boy is John Boyega great whenever he is on screen.  He can sell even an otherwise stupid line like calling Phasma “chrome-dome.”

I loved Adam Driver’s evil Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens almost as much as I loved the three main new heroes Rey, Finn, and Poe, and we get a lot of terrific Kylo Ren material in The Last Jedi.  Ren is still a baby (see his helmet-smashing tantrum in the elevator), but he feels more dangerous in this film, more powerful and less uncertain.  I like that we get to see a lot more of Mr. Driver’s face in this film, and I love the very funny plot-point that sets that up.  I love the way the film encourages the audience to study Mr. Driver’s face, and his eyes, to see if we can see any hint of the conflict that Rey feels must be there.  Can Kylo Ren be redeemed the way Vader ultimately was?  The film is playfully cruel with the audience on this point, and your opinion will probably vary at various points in the film, exactly as Rian Johnson intended.

There are some fun new characters and new locations in the film.  Kelly Marie Tran is the best new character, a mechanic in the Resistance named Rose who winds up swept on an adventure with Finn.  I also enjoyed Laura Dern’s Holdo, a Resistance leader.  (Though I wish her character didn’t display a Lost-style inexplicable inability to tell anyone around her what she’s up to — there was no reason not to, and it would have spared everyone a whole lot of grief.  At least she was redeemed by the end.)  I was pleased that most of the film takes place in new locations.  We glimpsed Luke’s island on Ahch-To at the end of The Force Awakens, but we get to really explore that island (and its alien inhabitants) here.  I loved the red-dust-covered planet Crait where the final battle takes place; those crystal-covered dogs were wonderful.  (Did they remind anyone else of the helpful Loth-wolves we’ve been seeing lately on Star Wars: Rebels?)  Snoke’s throne room was a nice new spin on classic Star Wars bad-guy lairs.

OK, I have a lot more to say about The Last Jedi, the things I loved and the things that bothered me about the film.  But there will be some SPOILERS ahead.  So this is a good point to stop, if you haven’t yet seen the film, and return after you have.

OK?

Still here?

All right, here we go…!

The film’s big weakness is that it is too long, and that it exhibits some of the same plot sloppiness that weakened The Force Awakens.  I found the entire excursion to the casino planet Canto Bight to be a bore.  We don’t spend long enough on the planet for the setting, or any of the new characters, to make much of an impact.  At the same time, it feels like Finn and Rose are stranded there forever, away from the main action of the film.  Imagine this movie without that entire section.  Forget the need to find a code-master.  Forget Benicio del Toro’s character altogether.  Finn and Rose come up with a plan to sneak onto the Star Destroyer to disable the tracker, it fails, and Poe gets into trouble.  That’s exactly the same story without all of that time wasted!  Look, I like that Rian Johnson played with the audience with that whole sequence, in that it defies expectation by going basically nowhere… but that still means that at the end of the day, that whole sequence goes basically nowhere!  And it’s sort of crazy that Finn and Rose can leave the Resistance ship and go off and have that whole adventure, all the while the Resistance are still slowly being chased by the First Order.

Which brings me back to that insane slow spaceship chase that spans almost the entire movie.  I truly don’t understand why the First Order ships couldn’t catch up to the Resistance ship.  These ships have faster than light travel!  Why couldn’t a few First Order ships just zip right in front of the Resistance ship to intercept it?  I just can’t wrap my brain around that, and it sort of undermines the entire film, because it’s the main structure of so much of the story, the ticking clock of the Resistance ship running out of fuel.  But it doesn’t make any sense to me.

Also: Since when do Star Wars ships have Star Trek-like circular shields surrounding them?  And since when do Star Wars ships have cloaking technology (which the Resistance tries to use to sneak their smaller ships off the bigger ship)?  (Why didn’t they use that trick earlier in the film?  Or, say, ever before in any previous Star Wars film when trying to hide from the Empire?)

I like Benicio del Toro, and I enjoyed his scenes in the film… but at the end, I felt his character was sort of meaningless.  If the film was trying to make a statement about shades of grey in war, it didn’t land because the First Order is so over-the-top evil.  Also, it seems like such a huge coincidence that this useful guy happened to be in the same holding cell as Finn and Rose that I immediately expected him to be not-on-the-level, so his ultimate betrayal was not a surprise at all.

So because of all of those mid-film problems, my heart started to sink as the film made its way past its half-way point.  Thankfully, all of the Luke/Rey stuff was dynamite, so that kept my interest.  Then we got to the third act, which was fantastic.  We get some absolutely tremendous action — the ship-to-ship combat on Crait was great, and that Luke/Kylo Ren lightsaber duel was epic.  We also got some incredible emotional moments.  Luke and Leia’s reunion was amazing, as was pretty much every single moment with Luke on Crait at the end: the way everyone’s head turns to watch him as he walks out to battle, alone; the way he stands there on the plain of Crait, facing down Kylo Ren and that First Order armada (a great pay-off to Luke’s earlier line to Rey that it’d be ridiculous to expect him to pick up his laser-sword and face down the entire First Order); and then, of course, that terrific duel. Great, great stuff.

There were lots of other moments I loved in the film.  The entire mid-movie showdown in Snoke’s throne room was fantastic.  It was great getting to see Snoke in the flesh, and having him and Ren and Rey in the same room was a great move by Rian Johnson.  And that lightsaber fight with the Imperial guards??  Fantastic!!  That was a phenomenally well-choreographed duel, and a nice piece of fan-pleasing action to finally see those Red Guards do something other than just stand around.  (Are we to understand that those Force-wielding soldiers are the Knights of Ren — Ben Solo’s fellow Jedi students who turned evil?  It’s strange that the film mentions that Ben had partners who also turned evil but then never addresses what became of them.)

The end of Snoke was certainly a fantastic surprise moment, and I loved how cleverly that went down with Kylo Ren Force-moving both lightsabers at the same time.  But in the end, I was left feeling very disappointed that we never learned anything more about Snoke.  Who was that guy??  How did he become such a powerful Dark Side master?  How did he initially connect with Ben Solo and then seduce him to the dark side?  How had he gotten so injured?  I am sort of shocked that we never got any of those answers.

There are times when The Last Jedi was weakened by the ways that The Force Awakens failed to properly set up the new status quo in which these movies are set.  Where did the First Order come from, and how did it grow so powerful that it has been apparently able to take over the entire galaxy with very little trouble?  What went wrong with the Republic — why was Leia on the outs?  Why is no one else in the galaxy fighting the First Order except for this small Resistance?

But getting back to surprise moments, I was bowled over to see Yoda — once again voiced by Frank Oz! — as a Force Ghost!  I had hoped we might get a glimpse of Yoda, but didn’t dare dream we’d get such a meaty scene.  I loved that scene, though it does beg the question what the heck Force Ghost Yoda has been up to for the past 30 years as the galaxy has slipped back into chaos.  Yoda seems mightily unconcerned about all that!  Still, I enjoyed how he still calls Luke “Young Skywalker” and how he reminds Luke of what his final words to Luke were back in Return of the Jedi.  My big problem with that sequence, though, was that I thought the Yoda puppet looked TERRIBLE.  Totally stiff and unconvincing, to my eyes.  I can understand wanting to avoid the CGI look of Yoda in the prequels (even though I think that by Episode III, the CGI Yoda looked fantastic) and to connect to how Yoda looked in Empire and Jedi.  But something went awry here.

Another great surprise moment was Leia’s unexpected use of the Force to save herself after getting blasted into space.  That was a long time coming!!  After Yoda referred to Leia as another potential hope back in Empire, it has always seemed weird to me that Leia has never really used the Force (except her mental communication with Luke at the end of Empire).  So this was a fantastic moment.  I just wish that the film had built on that or referenced that somehow at some point in the rest of the movie!  Was that Leia’s first time using the Force like that, or has she been doing that for years?  It was quite a momentous moment and so it was weird that the film didn’t address it at all after it happened.

One of my favorite things in The Force Awakens was getting to see the Millennium Falcon really soar and engage in some incredible combat — The Last Jedi gave us a bunch of great Falcon moments as well, particularly that great Tie Fighter chase in the red caverns on Crait.

I loved all the new ships in this film, from the First Order dreadnought and Snoke’s flagship to the Resistance bombers and those banged-up old ships they take into battle on Crait in the end.

I liked that Chewie got some great moments in this film — particularly banging down the door of a stubborn Luke’s cabin.

I enjoyed the exploration of the Jedi Temple own Ahch-To, though I wish we’d learned more about its origins.  Did the Jedi Order really begin on that island?  I liked the light side tree and the dark side cave (which of course echoed the dark side cave on Dagobah), though I’d have loved to have learned more.  What is the deal with these dark side caves in places where Jedi are hanging out?

Did the X-Wing pilot played by Greg Grunberg (who I believe is glimpsed once early in the film and then never seen again) survive the film?  Did Admiral Ackbar really die off-screen at some point in the First Order’s pursuit of the Resistance?  That’d be a bummer, if so.

I loved the sequence in which the Resistance ship jumps to light speed right into the pursuing First Order ships.  It’s such a clever move, I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before on Star Wars.  Oh wait, we actually DID just see almost that exact maneuver performed in a recent episode of Star Wars Rebels.  It’s weird to see that moment in the film be slightly undermined by having just seen a similar thing on Rebels… I am surprised that happened.

I loved Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens, and was disappointed she wasn’t more involved in that film’s third act.  (Apparently was was in earlier versions, as I’ve seen and read evidence that at one point she would have been at the Resistance base at the end.)  I was hoping she’d have more to do in this sequel, but sadly that was not to be.  Will we ever get the story of how she wound up with Luke’s lightsaber in the first place??  It’s not looking that way…

I was happy to see Captain Phasma back.  She had seemed like she’d be an exciting character in The Force Awakens but she got taken down ridiculously easy.  I loved seeing her and Finn confront one another in this film, though I was again disappointed that she was beaten so relatively easily.  They needed to have shown Phasma actually being smart and effective at some point to have made her into a better villain.

Can anyone explain to me how the First Order was tracking the Resistance through hyperspace??  (Or why that was only being controlled from one First Order ship?). When this came up, I immediately guessed that they were using Finn — that maybe all Stormtroopers had some sort of tracking mechanism implanted into them — and that Finn was going to have to leave his friends to try to draw the First Order away.  (Wouldn’t that have been better than what the film actually gave us?)

Shall we discuss the film’s ending?  I have already commented above that I loved all the action and emotional beats on Crait.  I’ll say again, it was thrilling and hugely satisfying to see Luke stride out there to fight Kylo Ren.  The duel was amazing… and the revelation that Luke wasn’t really there?  Phenomenal.  That final shot of Luke staring into the twin suns, as he had as a boy, was deeply emotionally satisfying.  On the other hand, I didn’t love the idea that Luke just faded away at the end — I guess because he used up too much power/Force energy to create that simulacrum from across the galaxy?  That felt like a bit too quick and easy an end for Luke, and also a bit of a foolish waste of the last surviving Jedi, seeing as Kylo Red and the First Order are still out there and a terrible threat.

When Leia sent out the distress call at the end for their friends and allies on the Outer Rim, I felt certain that Lando would show up to save their bacon at the end!  Sadly that didn’t happen.  (Another place where I thought I’d guessed where the film was going, but wound up wrong.)  Why hasn’t Lando been seen in these new films??  Even Nien Nunb has been brought back — why no Lando??  I really really really hope to see Billy Dee Williams back as Lando in Episode IX.

I liked seeing that boy at the end grab his broom with the Force.  But the bit with the Rebel ring seemed silly.  (Who is making those rings??  Do all the Rebels have them?)  For that matter, how did these kids on Canto Bight find out about Luke Skywalker’s actions on Crait?  That the film’s last shot was the boy raising his broom like a lightsaber didn’t quite land for me.  After the incredible ending of The Force Awakens, which left me desperate for the next installment, that final moment was a “meh” one for me.

I was surprised, in the end, that the film’s title didn’t prove to be accurate.  Luke insists, at the end, that he is NOT the last Jedi.  I like The Last Jedi as a title, and I loved that moment in the film, even though that moment sort of undermined the title by making the title incorrect.  This is NOT the story of the Last Jedi.  So I found that a little weird.

Speaking of the film’s title…  Because of that Last Jedi title, and the scene we saw in the trailer in which Luke declares “it’s time for the Jedi to end,” and hearing Rey describe in the trailer how she could see “the light,” “the dark,” and “the balance,” and because Star Wars Rebels had introduced the Bendu that incorporated both the light and dark sides of the Force, I had thought that, in this film, we’d see Luke reject the dichotomy of Jedi-Sith and propose a new, middle path, that incorporated both the light and dark sides of the Force.  Since Jedi seem to keep turning evil and wreaking havoc on the galaxy, maybe this could be a way to stop that cycle?  In the end, the film didn’t go there… which leads me to wonder where things are heading in Episode IX.  How can the good guys really win and break this cycle of violence?  What’s to stop more future Jedi from going bad?

On a similar note, why is Ben Solo irredeemable when even Darth Vader wasn’t?  (Or is that not the case?  How will Ben/Kylo Ren’s story end…?)

Seeing that the filmmakers stuck to their guns and didn’t rework Carrie Fisher’s role in this film despite her death, I am left scratching my head as to how the absence of Leia will be handled in Episode IX.  They’ve said they won’t recast the role, and also that they won’t use CGI to recreate her.  It’s hard to imagine how having Leia simply vanish from the story won’t wind up being disappointing.  Here’s my guess: Episode IX will take place a decent amount of time after the end of this film, and the first line in the opening crawl will be about how Leia has died.  The story will then start with Poe, Finn, Rey, etc. having to step up and become the new leaders of the Rebellion/Resistance.  While I am disappointed that Carrie Fisher’s death robs us of allowing Episode IX to be her spotlight — and also while I am bummed that after this film’s terrific Mark Hamill’s performance that the “death” of Luke at the end means that even if Luke reappears in Episode IX as a Force Ghost, it will be in a minor supporting role — I am excited that the third film in this trilogy will rest solely on the shoulders of the new characters.  That could be cool.

It’s an absolute pleasure that this new Star Wars film brought with it another incredible new John Williams score.  There were some great new themes in this film (the music in the Snoke throne room sequence stands out), and, of course, the score beautifully wove together so many earlier and much-loved themes.  Rey and Kylo Ren’s themes from The Force Awakens continued to play a major part, musically, and Mr. Willians knew exactly when to weave in the Force theme, the Imperial March, the Rebels theme, the Han and Leia love theme, and so much more.  I was particularly happy to hear the Luke and Leia theme — a gorgeous piece of music used only ONCE before, in Return of the Jedi when Luke tells Leia that she is his sister — play when Luke and Leia were reunited.  Brilliant.

OK, I could keep writing forever but I think we’ve reached a good place to end.  As you can see, there is a LOT to unpack in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The film isn’t exactly the film I’d hoped it would be, and there are some choices that didn’t work for me.  But it’s a fun, exciting, emotional film that thankfully chooses to take some unexpected paths rather than following a familiar route.  This cast and these characters are fantastic, and it is a joy to see their stories continue.  Rian Johnson and his incredible team of collaborators have crafted a movie that 100% feels like Star Wars, while trying to do new things and explore new territory.  The film is so jam-packed with creative ideas that I definitely need to see it again to be able to process everything.  Tonight, after a first viewing, I am not as over-the-moon in love with the film as I was after seeing Rogue One.  I might not even be quite as excited as I was after seeing The Force Awakens, which washed away the pain of the prequels by showing that it was indeed possible to make a truly good new Star Wars film.  But I expect that The Last Jedi might do better upon repeat viewings than The Force Awakens did for me.  (I still love that film, but repeated viewings have exposed more of the film’s flaws.)  We’ll see.  But for now, I am so happy at this gift of another great new Star Wars film.  I can’t wait to see what future adventures await.

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