Relatively spoiler free but you might as well not read this if you haven’t seen the film.
To say you have problems with Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens is to say you don’t like it. That’s where geek culture is, and has been for as long as geeks have had a culture in the first place. That’s on me just as much as anyone. When it comes to the big series and franchises, I love or hate them. But, hear me, I didn’t love The Force Awakens but I still liked it. It’s possible to think that J.J. Abrams’ 2015 offering was entertaining but lacking and still be a Star Wars fan.
How you felt about The Force Awakens will definitely play into how you feel about The Last Jedi. I hope people who enjoyed that first film will like this new one, but the way the internet is drawing lines in the sand (or salt), I doubt there’s going to be lots of carry over. For myself, I can say that I found the movie exciting, emotional and satisfying.
Rian Johnson has a visual eye that I don’t think Star Wars has had since The Empire Strikes Back. The planet of Crait, with white salt covering the red dirt underneath, allows for stunning shots of ships dragging along the ground and gorgeous caverns. Snoke’s chamber, awash in red like it’s out of the film Kagemusha, is a highlight in simple but effective set design. That won’t be the last time Akira Kurosawa’s films are referenced, which in it’s own way is a reference to the original Star Wars films.
But, for the most part, people don’t come for the cinematography of Star Wars (the lighting change as Luke flies off from Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back is one of my favorite shots in all of film). What people want is space battles and great characters. Luckily, The Last Jedi has them both, but you millage may vary on how satisfied you are with either.
The new characters introduced in the The Force Awakens are given more room to breathe this time around, with a longer run time and less death stars. The two that benefit the most are Rey and Poe Dameron. Rey’s journey of self-discovery and false father figures continues but she comes out being a bolder and stronger character, one that feels worthy of leading this franchise forward. Dameron gets much more to do this time around and I finally feel like I understand his character. He’s a hotshot, to a fault, but that’s because he’s relentless in the cause. He’s a true believer in the Resistance, but he has to learn that, sometimes, cooler heads prevail.
Finn is a different case. Plot-wise, his story has little impact. It’s a side-quest that doesn’t effect the main story, though that’s because of turns taken in the third act. But, character-wise, his story brings him into the Resistance proper. In The Force Awakens, Finn was looking to get far away from the First Order and only hung around to rescue Rey. In The Last Jedi, Finn’s story brings him to an understanding of why the galaxy needs the Resistance. It seems like he has a reason to stay now, outside of Rey.
Kylo Ren is still entertaining, but he has the least amount of growth as a character, staying more or less the same as when we first met him. His story is still interesting and I’m excited to see where his character goes from here, but it’s less of a revaluation as Rey or Poe.
Leia gets more screen time than the previous film, but, unfortunately, it’s easy to tell Lucasfilm had more plans for the character in the next movie. Her scenes here are great, but there’s a reservation with her character that most likely would have been released in the next film. There are some great moments with her, made bittersweet by Carrie Fisher’s passing.
Luke Skywalker is there as well. And luckily, the direction his character goes in isn’t proving to be controversial at all! I mean, outside of the internet and all of fandom, I guess. I can’t say how you’re going to feel about Luke in this film, as it seems like it will be one of the most subjective elements of all the Star Wars films. In my certain point of view, Mark Hamill is fantastic this time around, delivering some of my new favorite lines and carrying the emotions for the two of us.
There’s a cameo later on in the movie that I didn’t think I wanted, but proved to be a gut-punch nonetheless. Watching that scene, with music from The Empire Strikes Back, brought up emotions I didn’t know I had and I was happy to find them. And Luke’s “Everything you just said is wrong” tag later on was one hell of a delivery.
Another area where you might end up disagreeing with me is the resolutions of Rey’s parentage and Snoke’s identity. I didn’t realize how little I actually cared about Snoke until this movie, so I didn’t mind his reveal at all. And for Rey’s origins, all I can say is that I was relieved by it all. I didn’t realize how exhausting lore can be until this movie. While I don’t want the same tactics in every movie, Star Wars or otherwise, this time around, it was a welcomed change of pace.
Outside of the characters, The Last Jedi is an exciting ride. It’s a slow build, but when the film reaches the tipping point, it doesn’t stop. There’s the stressful ticking clock that reminded me of a certain Battlestar Galactica episode, some stressful lightsaber duels and a stressful last stand…you know, actually, this movie might be stressful! I found myself never knowing what was going to happen next, even if I was certain I knew how it would all play out. And what an opening.
I will say, since I made such a fuss when The Force Awakens went to the remake-side of the Force, that The Empire Strikes Back is all over this film as well. A perusing enemy fleet, a young hero looking for training from a reluctant teacher, trench warfare against giant, walking tanks on a white planet (salt, not snow, as the movie makes sure to point out). Star Wars, since the first movie, has been nothing if not referential. But, I found that tendency to be less annoying this time around. Maybe that’s because it subverted a lot of those references, or maybe I just think The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film. Whatever the reason, seeing an X-Wing submerged in water made me laugh instead of rolling my eyes.
I don’t know where the series is heading or how this trilogy will conclude. I’m not thrilled with homage master J.J. Abrams back in the helm, as I’m worried he’ll undo a lot of the good done by this film. And where Rian Johnson is influenced by Rashomon and Casablanca, Abrams seems influenced by Star Wars alone. Maybe he’ll surprise me, but I don’t think surprise is in Abrams wheelhouse, no matter how fun or talented he is as a filmmaker.
For now and the next two years, I’ll take joy in the fact that The Last Jedi is an exciting, dark, interesting film that plays around with presumptions about Star Wars movies. I won’t rank it anytime soon, as it took Revenge of the Sith ten years to become my second favorite of the films and I spent most of my childhood preferring Return of the Jedi over The Empire Strikes Back. I’ll have to rewatch this movie a few times to see if it stands up with all it’s secrets laid bare but I’m confident it can handle the pressure. If the next movie can be as surprising and thrilling as this one, this new trilogy will be just as good, if not better, than the original films.