Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★

What a mess. Rian Johnson has claimed he had near total freedom on The Last Jedi. I sincerely hope that's not true. If it is then I've overestimated him as a film maker.

I'll get into spoilers a bit lower down but first a few non-spoiler thoughts. In terms of the three Disney Wars to date, this ranks squarely in the middle. Not nearly as bad as Rogue One but quite a bit below The Force Awakens.

My hope had been that this would not only be a good movie but one that made TFA better by correcting some of its missteps. It sort of fulfilled the second part. TFA looks better now but only by way of comparison. It appears that JJ Abrams' memberberries fest might be the highlight of the post-Lucas era of Star Wars

***Spoilers from here on out***

The biggest problem here is structural. It'll be no surprise after TFA to learn that TLJ's plot has a lot in common with Empire (with some parts of Jedi lazily tossed in for good measure). But where TFA at least maintained the narrative coherence of A New Hope, this movie seems to have completely missed what makes Empire's plot work so well. We start at Hoth, expand into multiple plots, and converge at Cloud City. It's really a meticulously structured film.

Here we don't have a shared starting point, which, well not fatal, automatically makes things feel disconnected. The whole Resistance escape story line feels like a lazy rehash of the escape from Hoth, only this time it dominates the entire (very, very long) run time. We have a lengthy subplot involving Benecio Del Toro's codebreaker, which ultimately goes no where.

While that story drags on and on (while simultaneously feeling like small potatoes), the Rey/Luke/Kylo/Snoke story feels rushed. Again, this is a complete rehash of Luke/Yoda/Vader/Emperor but without all the elements that made that work. Empire ends with Luke being nearly killed by his hubris in abandoning his training. Rey suffers no such consequences. Her near-identical choices are a triumph for her. Fine, but where's the character arc? The Luke/Vader/Emperor stuff in Jedi is maybe my favorite Star Wars material of any of the movies (including Empire). The replay here falls flat because it lacks all the psychological and moral tension, not to mention the underlying character growth. We slowly built to that conflict in the OT over two movies. Here we reach it at lightspeed and get beyond it as quick as possible.

One of the big problems in TFA was the lack of information about our major players. Where did the First Order come from? Who is Snoke? What's the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance? I was willing to give TFA a temporary pass in the hope that we'd get more information later. Well, we're now two movies in and not only have we learned nothing on that front but all signs indicate they won't be answered. It's increasingly obvious that the First Order and Resistance are simply supposed to be the Empire and Rebellion. We're not supposed to ask questions about where they came from. In fact, the Resistance is frequently referred to as rebels, which makes 0 sense. For one, they were never part of the First Order so they're not rebelling. For another, if anyone is a rebel in this scenario, it's the First Order. This would be the equivalent of the Confederacy referring to the Union as rebels in the Civil War. It doesn't make any sense.

Then there's Snoke. I don't mind killing him per se, but man does it feel like a bizarre choice. We have no clue who is or where he came from so we're really not invested in him at all. That approach worked for the Emperor in the OT because we instantly attached negative archetypes to the character. We know what emperors are and we know from history what it looks like when they turn evil. Thus the character works. With Snoke we never got any of that so what was the point of him even existing? It also creates a problem for Episode IX since in no way, shape, or form is Kylo Ren a strong enough villain to carry a film.

The movie also has a problem with wasted opportunities. Once Snoke died, I thought they might actually have Rey and Kylo team up, setting up a major conflict between Luke and his two failed apprentices in Episode IX. For as much as the movie wasn't working for me, during the five minutes where that seemed possible I was pretty excited. Nope. Instead we go the safe route. God forbid we miss out on selling Rey action figures by having her temporarily turn evil.

One of the things TFA really had going for it was the strong character work. I had a million problems with that film but Poe, Finn, and Rey formed a solid trio. Rey is more or less the same here, so she gets a pass. Poe and Finn however are much, much weaker characters this time around. Poe makes dumb decision after dumb decision. Virtually everything he does in this movie is wrong and obviously so. He stages a coup and suffers no consequences for it. His character arc here is fine in the sense that he's learning how to lead but it all feels inconsequential. When, post-coup, Leia and Laura Dern shrug off his actions and say "I like him" it makes everything we've seen him do feel cheap. Finn is a little better but our new character, Rose, is not. She's so bland and forgettable that it's almost as though she's a leftover from Rogue One.

Not everything is terrible. Mark Hamill is great and even though it makes no sense in the context of everything we know about the Force, the stuff at the end between him and Kylo Ren is fantastic. I'm not sure how I feel about the Yoda cameo but given everything else it's pretty far down my list of complaints.

Like I've said when reviewing Rogue One and TFA, I love Star Wars. I've spent my whole life loving Star Wars. What I don't love is what this franchise is becoming. I keep waiting for Disney to prove me wrong and show me they can make a great Star Wars movie. Unfortunately they keep proving me right and showing me they're only interested in watered down efforts that feel like vague shadows of the trilogy I grew up loving

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