Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is very much a middle chapter, with all the positives and negatives that implies. In Star Wars trilogies past, the middle episodes have given us both the best movie of the franchise in The Empire Strikes Back, and the worst in Attack of the Clones. The Last Jedi is something in-between: lumpy and overstuffed, lumbering where its immediate predecessor was lithe and fleet-footed, with some moments that rival the original trilogy for the raw power of their pop-mythmaking—and other elements that are just as awkward, just as contrived, and just as visually overworked as the prequels at their worst. It’s a mixed bag.
As a critic faced with the task of reviewing the film, I confess the prospect puts me in a fatalistic mood. What’s the point? Is there any praise I can bestow upon The Last Jedi that will make you more likely to see it—or vice-versa, any critique I can levy that will dissuade you? Star Wars has entered the realm of Disney corporate franchise filmmaking, an…uh, Empire that includes the Marvel movies and that, with a pending Fox merger, is expanding even as we speak. No matter what I or any other critic says about the quality of the final product, it’s going to make a mint. The success or failure of such a film seems, at this point, less a matter of human choice than it does the inevitable, predetermined outcome of totalitarian corporate fiat.
And alas, this overdetermined quality does show up in the film itself, particularly in its first half. The story opens with the rebels fleeing their base as the First Order bears down, mirroring an identical plot point in The Empire Strikes Back. This sets up a stirring opening action scene, with acts of heroism and self-sacrifice by the good guys as the bad guys sneer from the safety of their battle stations. It should work better than it does, except the whole thing feels encased in amber. As the villainous General Hux, Domhnall Gleeson veers into caricature with unintentionally hilarious line deliveries; his later banter with Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is supposed to be funny but feels like an insert from an executive’s note: Put some one-liners here. The whole opening sequence is intended to set up a chase of sorts, with the rebels just outside range of the First Order’s cannons but unable to jump to light speed, with only a few hours of fuel left unless Poe and Finn and a new character named Rose, um…well, actually I’m still not entirely clear on what they were trying to do, because the details got lost in some technobabble that would’ve really been more at home in a Star Trek movie. Suffice it to say that they need to sneak across the galaxy to find a guy who can do a thing that will somehow save the day.
Far more compelling is what’s going on with Rey, who at the end of The Force Awakens found Luke Skywalker in hiding on a distant planet. The Last Jedi picks up there, with Rey giving Luke his lightsaber back and trying to get him to return to the fight against the dark side. This storyline also correlates directly with a storyline in The Empire Strikes Back, with the Rey/Luke relationship mapping roughly to the apprentice/master relationship between Luke and Yoda in the earlier film. There’s even a dark part of the island, matching the Dagobah swamp where Luke saw a vision of Darth Vader in Empire. That this storyline escapes being completely derivative is due in large part to distinctive backstories and motivations for both characters, and excellent performances by Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill. Rey’s obscure parentage, her abandonment issues, and Luke’s past with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) give this particular apprentice/master relationship complexity and texture beyond what we’ve already seen in other Star Wars films.
Nevertheless, the first half of the movie mostly doesn’t work, and there’s rarely a moment when I wasn’t painfully aware of the story beats having been engineered with post-its and a dry-erase board in a writer’s room. It’s not until the Rey/Luke storyline spins out of balance and the various plot threads come together again that the film’s plot takes on the feeling of contingency and risk, the characters’ actions begin to feel like real choices with consequences rather than preordained chess moves, and the film taps into the thrilling resonance of the franchise at its very best.
The best moments are all character moments. Luke has one quiet scene with an old friend that is just as philosophically and psychologically deep as anything in the Dagobah scenes of Empire. Rey and Kylo Ren, meanwhile, are drawn into a push-pull relationship that is as dangerous as it is surprising (Ridley and Driver are particularly great here). Poe Dameron is given a compelling arc that complicates and problematizes his hot-headedness. Finn and Rose’s pairing is a pleasant surprise (in spite of an awkward, self-referential introduction in which poor Rose fawns over Finn and is forced to awkwardly recap the events of the previous film). Even Laura Dern’s Amilyn Holdo is given her time to shine in a poignant moment.
Rian Johnson wrote and directed, and he more than justifies Disney’s decision to give him a Star Wars trilogy of his own. Overall, though, I found myself comparing The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens and concluding that JJ Abrams has a better feel for the franchise’s tone, its rhythms, and its story structures. (It helps that he got an assist from Lawrence Kasdan.) Even so, Johnson brings the narrative into a darker place, and introduces some interesting elements into the Star Wars universe that we haven’t seen before—in particular the franchise’s first true political vision, the prequels’ trade routes and senate debates notwithstanding. As explained by Rose, the First Order in this film is a fascistic colonialist force, subjugating native populations and harvesting economic resources to the benefit of the galactic one percent. A criminal played by Benicio Del Toro explains that they’re all just cogs in an economic war machine, rebels and villains alike. I half expected him to start talking about the military industrial complex.
Are such elements needed in a Star Wars movie? Do they add to the whole, or subtract? It’s hard to say. Ultimately, it’s all part of the grab-bag that is The Last Jedi—a hodgepodge middle chapter that combines great and thrilling pop filmmaking with more character arcs, set pieces, and story climaxes than you can swing a light saber at, a few bizarre lapses in storytelling logic (including an entire subplot that could have disappeared if a character just shared a piece of information that they had no reason to withhold), and a 2.5-hour runtime. The good outweighs the bad. But it could have been a whole lot better.