Star Wars is and always has been an underdog story. An action-packed intergalactic odyssey about small legions of rebels rising against seemingly insurmountable adversaries, Star Wars is rooted in an idea of hope against all odds, and you don’t need C3P0 on hand to butt in for that calculation. After the politically-charged prequels, The Force Awakens (and Rogue One) returned to this central conceit of a Sisyphusian struggle – toil in the face of utter improbability – depicting new characters taking their turn against a tyrannical empire, its limitless armada and impossibly supercharged firepower and with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, hope has never seemed so out of reach and victory so unachievable.
Starting back on the cliff that J.J. Abrams hung his last shot (in the most on-the-nose cliffhanger of the century), The Last Jedi picks up exactly where The Force Awakens left off. The new-fangled core trio of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Fin (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are as splintered as its legacy characters, of whom Han is now no more. As Fin recovers from battle wounds sustained in the prior chapter, Poe finds himself back in the cockpit proving his title as the “Rebellion’s best pilot” but taking unnecessary risks for the sake of macho heroics, think Luke running his T-16 down Beggar’s Canyon chipping at romp rats, much to General Leia Organa’s (Carrie Fischer) chagrin. Meanwhile Rey tries to convince a cantankerous and unwilling Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to give her some much needed training in the ways of the Force so that she can face down Sith patricide Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
While The Last Jedi isn’t a mirror image of The Empire Strikes Back in the same way that The Force Awakens was to A New Hope, there are intentional parallels between the sophomoric chapters in these respective trilogies. With Rey training with a reclusive Jedi master on a largely abandoned planet and our other heroes on the run from the Empire’s imposing star fleet, the similarities are obvious. Fortunately, writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) exploits our expectations as often as he can, feeding an also decidedly on-the-nose narrative about destroying the past to make way for the new. Though dynamics look similar, beneath the surface Rian is often busy turning the norm on its head and here The Last Jedi succeeds. We see glorious plans end in failure, great hopes dashed and familial reveals that can be painful for all the wrong reasons.
Unfortunately, The Last Jedi has almost as much Attack of the Clones as it does The Empire Strikes Back in that it’s overlong, under-edited and has at least one particularly long-winded CGI flurry of a sequence that harkens back to the darkest days of the franchise. There’s no whining about sand getting everywhere and the acting is really strong across the board (Hamill is particularly great back in Jedi robes, ham and all) but The Last Jedi could definitely have used a second editorial pass. More than one character is treated to a subplot that amounts to nothing more than a drawn-out red herring, with a copious amount of wasted time invested in easily edited-out dead ends. A scene in an opulent casino is easily the most painful yet in this new generation of Star Wars flicks, eliciting images of the green screen busy set pieces of the early-2000 franchise additions, enticing to the youngest members of the audience who need their stories overly padded with shiny spectacle.
There are a handful of new characters, including scoundrel code breaker/Lando-stand-in DJ (Benicio del Toro), Laura Dern’s headstrong Vice Admiral Holdo and the low-ranking but high-spirited Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who makes the biggest impression of the new arrivals, embodying the youthful glimmer of hope and rebellious spirit that once characterized a young Luke. Even at over two-and-a-half-hours, The Last Jedi doesn’t have the room to do all of its characters justice, with some internal transformations happening in a slapdash manner at plot convenience light speed. The further stretching of the character stable comes at the expense of others, usually on the villain side of the equation, notably the pock-marked, pink-faced Raisinette Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), Domhnall Gleeson‘s puckered, snarling and shouty General Hux and chromed-out bureacrat Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) all of whose potential is again left wholly unrealized. Driver’s Kylo Ren becomes an even more complicated character but even his true intentions remain a bit hazy and impossible to parse when all is said and done.
Unlike previous installments, The Last Jedi splits from its predecessors in taking a decidedly more nuanced approach to good and evil. In the feature film continuity, the Jedi and the Sith stand as polar opposites, the later being a tempestuous pull towards absolute power, but The Last Jedi further erodes the wall behind the two sides and brings to light the inherently problematic nature of the Jedi order standing as some kind of moral superior. Luke goes so far as to call the notion of good and bad merely words. Questioning ethical supremacy in interesting and thoughtful ways that have only been hinted at in past installments but never to this level, Johnson proves more interested in the grey area than the stark light and darkness. The exact divide that the Jedi would like to prescribe to the breakdown between their kind and the Sith.
Morally ambiguity defines critical moments in The Last Jedi, which makes for exciting and totally unexpected turns of tide, but also draws characters to make shocking decisions that don’t necessarily hold up upon closer scrutiny. There are a handful of gotcha moments peppered through The Last Jedi that I wouldn’t dare reveal here. And though they make for huge, audible gasps in the moment, some left me wondering if they weren’t cheap solutions that only partially make sense in terms of character motivation.
A bond between two unlikely characters becomes the focal point of the moral ambiguity though the way that it’s ultimately resolved left me cold and unsatisfied, as if Johnson had written himself into and out of a corner by the skin of his teeth and then just left it to hang like a recently limbless Luke dangling with little hope of rescue below. Though Johnson tries to reach the emotional pinnacle of Kylo betraying and killing father Han, he just can’t manage the same goosebumps-inducing heights of the best moments in The Force Awakens, much less the most iconic reveals among the franchise’s greatest hits.
Thinking back on The Last Jedi less than 24 hours later, there are really only a handful of scenes that stand out to me, some glaring and unnecessary, others wowing and extraordinary. The new cast is generally more developed – it’s nice to see Isaac get a much bigger character arc, Rey remains a standout and Fin finds something to believe in – and fan service is kept at a manageable level but all and all, The Last Jedi only has a handful of epic moments and they’re not enough to overlook its many shortcomings. Yes, John William‘s score is powerful as a hug from a Wookie and the special effects are as stunning as hologram chess for the most part (an apt blend of practical and digital) but outside of the cold open, I don’t think anything really punched me in the gut the way that it was meant to.
Like bantha fodder riddled with kyber crystals, The Last Jedi is a jumble of really good and kinda bad, with some rather harebrained plot holes and a saddle-bagged second act that keeps it well outside the upper tier of Star Wars offerings for me. Expectations are a bitch and even though I tried to keep mine in check, I couldn’t help but expect more from a Rian Johnson-directed Star Wars movie. J.J. Abrams, for his film’s many faults, teed up what could have been a doozy of a sequel and though The Last Jedi is by many accounts a fine addition, one with no shortage of laughs, a bundle of warm fuzzies (the divisive Porgs are as adorbz as the Ewoks without being anywhere near as narratively intrusive) and ooh’s and aah’s that moves the story forward in some genuinely compelling ways, I can’t help but express my genuine disappointment in the overall product. But Star Wars is an underdog story, Disney overlords or not, so I’ll always be there rooting for it to turn towards clearer seas.
CONCLUSION: Midichlorians level reporting mild. ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ is a mixed bag that explores new emotional and intellectual territory for a Star Wars property while hedging in an unfortunate number of unnecessary subplots and iffy, prequel-inducing CG set-pieces, where characters make rash decisions and the narrative doesn’t always make sense when you scratch beneath the surface. Lacking the chills of its predecessor, ‘The Last Jedi’ can be brainier in spots and is certainly more morally ambitious, remaining a sharp technical marksman across the board, even if it’s a bit of an overall comedown for this devoted fan.