Not surprisingly, this second film in the continuing Star Wars franchise is much more complicated than the first. Mirroring Episode V as most expected and some feared, Episode VIII sees Rey (Daisy Ridley) spend time alone on a deserted planet with a grumpy old Jedi Master (Mark Hamill) learning the ways of the force, while her allies face dire threat from The First Order. Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and BB-8 must find a way to save The Resistance from being blown out of the sky as General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) tracks them through space and they slowly run out of fuel. Meanwhile Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), berated by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and connected to Rey via random Force-style Skype calls is going through an existential crisis. Will he rejoin the Light side? Or will Rey join the Dark?
|We can only guess -- pretty accurate guesses actually if we use Ep 5 as a blueprint.
The parallels between this and The Empire Strikes Back are pretty clear, though generalized, and while it all ends up in the place you'd imagine, it often takes the unexpected path in getting there. In fact I'm sure that while this was being written unexpected turns were eagerly sought. Everything we had to think about for the past two years was dealt with in a way that no one would see coming. Like Luke tossing his lightsaber over a cliff after Rey gives it to him. Everyone speculated wildly over who Rey's parents were -- so the reveal is that they were nobody. I have no strong opinions on plot direction, but doing the unexpected so determinedly did create difficulty at times.
Taking a clearer, more straightforward path, for example, might have helped what I thought was the film's biggest trip-up: the middle section. About halfway through the movie I looked up and realized nothing had happened for at least a half-hour. Rey was still on the planet with Luke who was still refusing to train her. Poe was still trying to save the day "the wrong way" and Finn and Rose were wasting time on his mission that wound up being totally and completely moot. Seriously, if they'd stayed on the ship and followed orders the exact same outcome would have happened. I like to see characters fail, but they need to do it in a way that affects the plot.
|"This is not going to go the way you think." No, it's just going to get there the most roundabout way possible.
Poe was my favorite character in The Force Awakens so I was excited at the prospect of him doing more this time around. Disappointingly, all he did was almost mess things up and then get taught a lesson like he was a child. He didn't learn anything, he just got told it. On one hand, at least they tried to give him an arc, on the other, I maybe would've preferred if they hadn't. Most of the other characters were lacking in various degrees also, but I had less investment and expectation with them. Rey does a few interesting things, and her and Kylo's dynamic was good. Luke is cooler than he ever was in the Original Trilogy, so that was nice. He makes a great grumpy teacher, and I would've watched a whole movie of him training Rey -- if only he had actually trained her any!
Honestly Kylo Ren is the best. I knew from the moment he first removed his helmet in TFA that he had a long journey ahead of him, and boy, is it rich and satisfying. Everything he does feels natural, and the way it was intended -- and still he goes in unexpected and exciting directions. All the best of the film is centered on him. He's involved in the most compelling drama, and a part of two absolutely wicked fight scenes. Hux looked fantastic with those dark circles under his eyes. He was undermined a bit, but made himself more useful than Finn and Rose did. They were really floundering trying to give Finn something to do, poor guy, and basically wasted him. Snoke in person was underwhelming, but he served his purpose.
|I liked his scar. And everything else.
We all expected this to mirror The Empire Strikes Back. I was actually excited at the prospect. I'm not sure if Empire is my favorite Star Wars film, but it's certainly my favorite tonally. It's cold and harsh on Hoth, then grimy on Dagobah, then bright reversed into dark on Bespin, and ends with a duel shot in shadow, one character losing and hand and another captured by the enemy. I guess I should have known these were the elements that wouldn't end up being copied. But Empire is "dark" and I think that was tried here. At its best it gets to be intense, and shot with breath-taking, edgy beauty -- but the dire situations never have the full... dark... force. They pointedly make the good guys fail, but in the end they've still won -- not just narrowly escaped after a defeat.
Very few things that happen have a significant impact on the story. Rey is still good and Kylo is still evil. Luke is dead after contributing a few epic scenes to the narrative. Everyone is in regroup-mode on the Falcon with no significant losses or urgent tasks at hand. Poe and Rey finally said hi to each other, and that made me happier than anything else this movie did. I only wanted to see one thing happen, and that was it. But I digress. No characters were permanently changed, except Kylo. He's the one thing that happened here. Snoke is dead, and I'm wondering where that will lead Kylo next. The Resistance is smaller now, but will probably grow again when their allies come along in the next movie, and their location has changed, but that's not significant either.
|Sorry Finn -- you were great before, but pretty insignificant here. Even this fight was insignificant.
The Last Jedi has the classic middle-movie syndrome, where there's too little to do and too much time to do it in, no solid starting place and no solid ending place. Rian Johnson did do a good job making it feel like a complete movie at least, and it sure was beautiful. That one moment when the ship light-speeds through the destroyer... man. He was right for the job for that alone. I also appreciated that he spent less time doing fan-service, and more time trying out new directions. I wish he had been able to commit to one of those directions. It felt like he was pushing the envelope out, but then kept bringing it back in. I would like to say that was because of the constraints of the studio, but I can't know for sure. I know that I like him as a director, and when I noticed his style here it seemed like a good thing. But all his movies so far have had flaws, and this one's no different.
My overall impression of the movie is positive. I half expected the shortcomings, so they didn't much affect my enjoyment, and there are some fantastic moments that will warrant sitting through the slow bits to see again. I imagine it could've got to the same end in a better -- and certainly faster -- way, but it's not a terribly offensive fault. Really, it's a classic fault of franchise films of this type; stories by committee and influence of expectations. This one tries hard to subvert expectations, but can only manage it within details. In the big picture it's still the same; everything's expected, and nothing is new.
|The Poe-Poe is coming. Oh no!
There are very few ways to truly fail a Star Wars film. Production is top of the top-notch, cinematography is strikingly gorgeous, the scifi world is rich and detailed, the good vs. evil themes are die-hard classics, and there's no tiring of light-saber battles and space-ship flying, and out-of-this-world adventure. Not the best Star Wars installment, which is expected, nor even the best it could have been, which is unfortunate -- but Star Wars is a low-risk franchise with a strong safety net. The Last Jedi produces a few duds, but it only hurts itself in the process, and in the end balances it out with a few exceptionally solid hits. And isn't that how The Force works?