With two trilogies, one epic stand-alone film and the movie that relaunched a franchise as its predecessors, Star Wars: The Last Jedi had extraordinarily big shoes to fill.
It seems as if the folks behind the film cared more about replicating the feel of the stand-alone spin-off Rogue One than about advancing the story introduced in The Force Awakens. This approach is the source of both the film’s greatest strengths (thrilling action and lovable rebels) and crushing weaknesses (a flat plotline where the villain and central hero are concerned).
Rogue One, particularly lauded for its unparalleled intensity and ceaseless edge-of-your-seat action, was a story about non-Jedi rebels on a singular mission – obtaining a piece of information. Likewise, in The Last Jedi, although Rey’s path is technically a key aspect of the story, the film is built around one continuous battle between Kylo Ren’s evil First Order and Leia’s Jedi-less rebel forces. All they want to do is escape Kylo Ren so that the resistance lives to fight another day, biding time for Rey/Luke to restore the Jedi. The simplicity of the scopes of Rogue One and The Last Jedi allow the excitement of battle to take center stage. In other words, The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, does not disappoint in the pulse-pounding adventure.
Additionally, like Rogue One, The Last Jedi thrilled because its band of rebel characters were each uniquely interesting and likable. The Last Jedi introduced new figures like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, a solid addition) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Rose is a plucky young rebel who befriends her idol, Finn. She’s fleshed out with pure-hearted loyalty, a touching back-story and a sister whom we watch die for the cause early on. Vice Admiral Holdo is a rebel leader who's hard to get a read on, as she appears both ally to the cause and adversary of Poe (with Dern’s restrained performance enhancing Holdo’s mysterious aura). The film also does an excellent job further developing two core characters introduced in The Force Awakens: Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Poe takes point in the combat, and over the course of the movie, gets a lesson in proper leadership, on his way to becoming more than just a skilled pilot. Meanwhile, Finn is forced to further explore the man he wants to be, regarding his role in the resistance.
However, while the personal journeys of the rebel heroes flourished and their adventures thrilled, Rey’s underwhelmed. When Rey found Luke Skywalker on that island and offered him his light-saber at the end of The Force Awakens, we were left expecting a mentoring relationship greater than any before. Instead, we mostly got Rey teaching herself while Luke wallowed in fear, guilt, doubt and self-pity. The more compelling relationship turned out to be between Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo.
More on that in a minute. First, let’s look at Rey’s overall evolution toward being a Jedi. In The Force Awakens, we were given an incredible new lead. Rey (played by the effortlessly charming Daisy Ridley) is a strong young woman who is as talented and resourceful as Anakin with Luke’s purity of soul. She is the best of both Skywalkers and thus, arguably better than either. And in her debut film, she essentially beat Kylo Ren in a light-saber duel. It would be reasonable to expect she’d top that feat as she learned more about the force. For a while, though, in The Last Jedi, all we got was her besting a sorry, old Luke in a spontaneous duel. We did eventually get a taste of next-level Rey. She and Kylo Ren shared what was perhaps the best fight scene in the history of the franchise and she demonstrated incredible command of the force in another instance as well.
It’s just too bad her improvements had nothing to do with Luke – though maybe her self-made strength actually makes Rey even cooler.
Back to her relationship with Kylo Ren. Half of Rey’s story was about whether Kylo Ren would turn her dark or vice versa. The ultimate resolution of this conflict doesn't measure up to the build-up of it and the hints toward one particular outcome. It feels like the audience was flat-out conned. What’s worse, there are no real motivations provided for Kylo Ren’s choices. We still don’t know why he turned dark in the first place. We don’t really know what he wants as the villain – he says to finish what Vader started, but didn’t Vader end as a good guy, in which case that makes no sense?
This lack of answers was frustratingly prevalent. Besides not getting much more insight into Kylo Ren’s mindset, we still don’t know much about Rey, or about what her and Kylo Ren's destinies are. After The Force Awakens, audiences were inspired to share compelling theories about who Rey's parents are, who the villain Snoke was, as well as end-game ideas, like that Kylo Ren and Rey will abolish the idea that the force has a good and dark side – a reinterpretation of the force, needed to bring true peace to the galaxy. If the folks behind The Force Awakens intentionally set the stage for such speculations, those behind The Last Jedi either negligently left us hanging, or purposefully destroyed the notion of some epic surprises.
Also, though romance has been a staple of the franchise (Han and Leia, Anakin and Padme), the focus of The Last Jedi seems to be more on friendships, which removes some of the emotional punch of the earlier trilogies. Instead of expanding on potential connections laid out in The Force Awakens, new possibilities are introduced -- perhaps even a love triangle, square or pentagon. And the attention paid to newly introduced critters Porgs – penguin-ish creatures from the island, that take to Chewy – also fell short of the hype.
Perhaps all the answers the audience deserves will come in the third installment of this trilogy. Mid-series films can, after all, sometimes be more transitional than anything else. Or perhaps The Last Jedi is just a victim of excessive hype. Yet without knowing where the next movie will go, it’s hard not to be frustrated with some of the shortcomings of this film. Perhaps, as posited, it really did suffer from a “copy Rogue One” instead of “advance The Force Awakens” approach.
Overall, this film was still an excellent adventure filled with delightful humor, pulse-pounding action, heart-warming interactions, and enduring nostalgic callbacks. Let’s just hope that the train ride to nowhere we just boarded with The Last Jedi reaches its destination in the next installment – and if we’re lucky, maybe the destination will be paradise. May the force be with us.
Catch Star Wars: The Last Jedi in theaters now.
A thrilling ride to nowhere, filled with fun yet empty of answers: Star Wars movie review6