Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an enthralling mess

The Jedi strikes back.
The Jedi strikes back.
Image: Star Wars
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This review contains no spoilers 

It’s impossible to fully deliver on the expectations of millions of Star Wars fans. Some will be upset by any stylistic decision that doesn’t match the version of the Skywalker saga that they have imagined; others will be furious at even the most minor of changes from the original trilogy. Those people are annoying, and a good filmmaker shouldn’t worry about them.

But The Last Jedi is itself a movie about failing to live up to expectations. Many of the primary characters, old and new, are trapped by their inability to reach their potential, or stand up to to their legends. It’s almost as if director Rian Johnson, working on easily the largest project of his career, tried to shed insight into the challenges of crafting this film, the eighth feature-length film about the Skywalker family.

The Last Jedi is also the second in the trilogy, so it has to be the bridge between the setup and the resolution, but unlike The Empire Strikes Back (or even, to a lesser extent, Attack of the Clones), it doesn’t build towards anything in particular. We spend much of the movie listening to characters explain their struggles, some of which are resolved eventually, while others are just brushed over. By the end, we are left with a collection of characters unclear as to where they are going (literally, they are on a ship), and a story that leaves few plot points untied. We basically find out who the last Jedi is, and most of the tension underlying the film’s rocky narrative is resolved, leaving few opportunities to build suspense for the final installment. But at least we find out what Porgs are.

Many of the characters in the film meet unceremonious endings, and several of the original trilogy’s main characters, like Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2, are afterthoughts. The film isn’t difficult to follow exactly, but it often makes no sense. For example, characters act selflessly with surprising regularity, but in ways that don’t actually help the Resistance. Humor is a constant, but it’s used cheaply, and in an attempt to fill plot holes. It rarely works.

The Last Jedi’s commitment to nostalgia is surely intended to tug at the heartstrings of fans who have enjoyed the series longer than some of this film’s leading actors have been alive. But leaning on that nostalgia, instead of developing the newer characters for a next generation of fans to love, feels like a mistake. There is far more urgency in the actions of Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens than The Last Jedi. Here, they are mostly in the background as many of the older characters attempt to resolve their own storylines. Supreme Leader Snoke’s backstory is not explored at all, and Kylo’s Ren’s descent into the Dark Side is just cursorily mentioned. New characters like Vice Admiral Holdo and Rose Tico don’t add much to the plot. (Side note: It is very unclear why Laura Dern’s purple-haired Holdo wears a ball gown as she commands a starship.) General Hux appears to be the only general in the First Order, and Captain Phasma is still just very angry with Finn. But at least we have Porgs.

Then again, not everything is a mess. Johnson has produced what is easily the most beautifully shot of any of the Star Wars films, featuring wonderfully choreographed fight scenes and a stunning use of color and scale. The film is rich with beautiful worlds, including what I can only describe as a space Monte Carlo, and some great new creatures (I really can’t get enough of the Porgs). The last battle scene is nothing short of a work of art. Watching it, there were moments that I couldn’t help saying “wow” out loud (sorry, everyone sitting near me) and there were some legitimately surprising plot points.

But I came out of the film feeling surprisingly hollow for witnessing the last moments of some characters that have been a part of my life as long as I can remember. (A year after her death, it’s still difficult to believe that I won’t get to see Carrie Fisher act as Leia Organa again.)

Growing up, I was enthralled with the Star Wars universe. Still young when creator George Lucas re-released the original trilogy in 1997, I, like so many kids from unassuming backgrounds, felt joy at watching a farm boy, a hoodlum, and a princess help good triumph over evil, as the universe showed them, and me, that greatness can be anyone’s destiny.

But decades later, I’m just a normal person doing normal things. And the characters of the original trilogy seem to be struggling with the same realization. This latest installment makes them historical figures before they’ve finished living. They’re just stories now.

The Last Jedi received rave reviews in press previews, but I’m unsure what the critics loved. Was it that it doesn’t retread old ground like The Force Awakens? That it adds a bunch of new characters? Did they find it funny? The Force Awakens may have been a little turgid and obvious in its plotting, but at least it hung together. 

No matter. Disney has already signed Rian Johnson to work on a new trilogy separate from the main Skywalker saga, which culminates with a last installment—directed by JJ Abrams—in 2019. And there is indeed a nod to how Johnson will expand the Star Wars universe at the end of this film. It’s a cute moment, reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker at the start of The Phantom Menace, but more oblique. It is clear that Johnson, and Disney, are more interested in turning Star Wars into a zombie franchise that will continue on forever, steadily deteriorating in quality (kind of like The Simpsons), rather than genuinely resolving the decades of drama and tension that have built up across generations of movies (and fans).

The more Star Wars content Disney releases, the more ordinary these characters, and this universe, feels. The joyous escapism the franchise used to provide will continue to fade, and the luster of exploring a galaxy far, far away will be less like a thrilling ride into the unknown, and more like slipping on an old pair of sweatpants. But, I guess, we all lose our fire at some point. Then again, someone once suggested that it was better to burn out than to fade away.

All these new films are going to be a great way to sell a lot of plush Porg toys, though—those things were cute as hell.