Having seen Star Wars The Last Jedi at a midnight screening, I've been digesting the film for a couple of days now to see if my impression of it improved with time. Sadly, it has not. The Last Jedi is the worst Star Wars film since the prequel trilogy, and it's not particularly better than those.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
Seriously, if you haven't seen the film yet, stop reading here, I'm am going to go full Tarkin on The Last Jedi after this paragraph. I'm going to strip this film apart piece by piece.
In many respects, The Last Jedi suffers from a bad set up from The Force Awakens. As you watch The Last Jedi, you realise that, somewhat ironically for a genre that normally does this to death, The Force Awakens could have done with some more exposition. Other than a single Resurgent-class battlecruiser and Starkiller Base, we're never really told how much of a threat the First Order poses to the galaxy. While this mimicked A New Hope, where we only ever saw two Star Destroyers and the Death Star, the film got around this with enough exposition to explain the wider situation in the galaxy - that is that it was under the rule of the Empire and the Emperor had just claimed down on the last remaining spark of democracy.
In The Force Awakens we're never really given the impression that the First Order has done much directly to the Republic. This could have been addressed with some simple lines of exposition, potentially as Starkiller Base launched it's strike on the Republic Senate in the Hosian system, we could have also heard of simultaneous attacks by the First Order's fleet throughout the galaxy. It needn't have been shown on screen, but it would have added to the desperation of the Resistance, and could have opened the opportunity for General Leia Organa to add a throw away line about "if only the Republic had listened to us."
While the opening crawl tries to address this shortcoming, as has the game Star Wars Battlefront II, you still enter The Last Jedi without a clear impression of the relative strength of the First Order or the Resistance. It makes it all a bit jarring when you realise that the Resistance is essentially just three capital ships and a solitary base, versus the sudden might of the First Order who have several Resurgents and a dreadnaught turn up.
All of this brings me to the next issue, and it's an issue that applies equally to both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi - the First Order just aren't believable enough bad guys for the suspension of belief to take hold throughout the films. I get that they're meant to be Imperial fanatics, but the gloating and screaming of General Hux as he talks with Poe's X-Wing takes you completely out of the moment. That Hux and his crew fall for it makes you wonder how the First Order makes their breakfast in the morning, let alone managed to ambush and subdue the Republic.
General Hux, and Kylo Ren's characters are written as trying too hard to seem evil, when all they really come off as are badly tacky caricatures.
To illustrate this point, one anecdote I remember from A New Hope is that David Prowse (the guy inside the Darth Vader suit) basically yelled half of Darth Vader's lines. When Lucas was watching the first cut he realised this didn't make Vader seem evil, rather it made him seem impotent, so instead he got James Earl Jones in who provided a much more measured, cold, and controlled voice for Vader that helped him become one of cinema's most iconic characters.
Hux and Ren have this same problem throughout The Force Awakens, and for Hux and at least the captain of the First Order dreadnaught in the opening scene it carries over into The Last Jedi. Instead of conveying the cold, calculating confidence of Grand Moff Tarken, or Admiral Piett, Hux instead seems more like a poor substitute from a James Bond knockoff film. It takes you completely out of the film with how badly executed it is.
At least in The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren's petulant anger from The Force Awakens gets somewhat explained by demonstrating how Snoke taunts him as being just a boy behind a helmet. Ren's teenage like temper seems more with the character at the start of the film, though it grates on you towards the end.
The climax of the opening scene is Poe leading the Resistance's bombers against the First Order dreadnaught. Rian Johnson has clearly paid attention to comments made by George Lucas, who modelled the space combat in A New Hope off the gun camera footage from World War II. That idea made for very exciting dog fighting action. Rian Johnson seems to have taken that approach, but instead went with bomb camera footage from B-17 bombers. Sadly this doesn't have the same effect, and makes for a very boring and sluggish climax to the battle. The large, slow, ponderous Resistance bombers seem out of place versus the other smaller, faster bomber craft we've seen in the Star Wars universe before, such as the TIE Bomber, Y-Wings, and B-Wings.
The one highlight from this opening sequence is at the very end, where Hux is forced to report his failure to Snoke on the bridge of his ship. Even though Snoke is only a hologram, he's still able to ,through the Force, throw Hux around like a rag doll. It's a nice demonstration of Snoke's strength which, until now, we haven't seen.
From here the film struggles onwards. Daisy Ridley is probably the standout of the film, and her scenes with Mark Hamill both echo Luke Skywalker meeting Yoda, but also offer a fresh new take on it all. There's just the right mix of humour, frustration, and determination, to make it work. Luke is perfectly enigmatic, Rey is wonderfully idealistic and persistent.
As Luke and Rey's scenes take place very much in their own little story line, I'll delve into them a bit further before coming back to the Resistance and First Order. Rey's persistence eventually pays off and Luke agrees to teach her three things about the Jedi and why they need to end. We learn that Rey is exceptionally strong in the Force, just like Kylo Ren, and that she's a quick study.
Rian Johnson's abilities as a film maker come through in two respects during these scenes. There's the sequence in the dark side cave, where Rey thinks she's going to have her parents revealed, but instead ends up in a beautifully executed scene with multiple Rey's. It's done very well and had we had some revelation during the film that Rey was a clone, it would have been a beautiful way of hinting at it in the same way as Luke's confrontation with the apparition of Darth Vader on Dagobah suggested his own heritage, or risk of what lay in his future.
The moments where Rey and Kylo Ren communicated through the Force were generally good. The only moment that took away from it was when Kylo Ren was topless and Rey asks him to put on a towel. I get that we're meant to feel that Ren is wearing down Rey's hostility to him, but the humour just didn't work for me.
One problem that did plague Luke and Rey's time together was the question of what happened with Kylo Ren turning to the Dark Side. The Force Awakens suffered from this too, and at the core of it is that I feel that the story of Ben Solo's turn to the Dark Side, and Luke's failure as a teacher, would have made a far better story than the current trilogy is.
The whole ideal of Luke Skywalker, of all people, for a moment thinking he had to kill Ben Solo, just seemed so completely out of character to me. If anything, Luke has always been too confident, too sure of his abilities. To suddenly doubt himself so much that he'd think killing Ben was a better idea than saving him doesn't fit at all with the Luke Skywalker we've seen on screen across all of the Star Wars films. This is the Luke Skywalker who fearlessly took on Darth Vader on Bespin, who without having ever piloted an X-Wing before took out the Death Star, having just lead a reckless rescue mission to that very battle station. We see the same confidence on display in Return of the Jedi, where Luke tries to barter with Jabba the Hutt, and is sure he can turn his father back from the Dark Side. Likewise, this is a Luke Skywalker who wouldn't submit to the Emperor even as the Emperor tortured him. The notion that Luke would rather kill Ben Solo than try and save him, it just didn't wash.
To cap it all off, the confrontation between Rey and Luke was well done. While we know by this point that Luke has cut himself off from the Force, seeing Rey best him was still exciting to watch.
Now back to the Resistance. We discover that the First Order can track the Resistance through hyperspace. At first, I thought it would have been a nice touch had it been Kylo Ren sensing his mother - Leia - through the Force to achieve this. It very much seemed like this would be the case when, after having Snoke mock him for being a failure and so powerless, Ren leaves seemingly full of anger and determination to make amends. It would have made for a much better MacGuffin that the eventual realisation that the First Order had some random technology that could do that for them.
With the First Order once again ambushing the Resistance, we see the Resistance start to flee, setting up the slowest chase scene in all of movie history. It's also amongst the dumbest scenes too. While it does make some sense that the Resistance cruiser is faster at sublight speeds than the First Order's massive warships, two things grated me here:
- We know the First Order has plenty of fighters, and presumably they have bombers or transports of their own. There seems to be little reason why they couldn't have deployed these to attack the three Resistance ships. The notion that they couldn't provide cover to their fighters from the range the Resistance cruiser was at is at odds from the rather throwaway nature of which we've seen the Empire and First Order treat their ships and soldiers in the past.
- Why didn't Hux simple hyperspace a few battlecruisers ahead of the Resistance forces and trap them? For the guy who's meant to be the commander of the First Order's armed forces, he seems remarkably dumb. That's not to say that we haven't seen dumb commanding officers before (Admiral Ozzel who came out of light speed too close to the system for instance), but Hux seems to be in a league of his own when it comes to incompetence and inability to think of new solutions to problems.
It's from this point that the film starts to go downhill. From this slow motion chase which lacks any tension, we're introduced to new characters, including Admiral Holdo, who ends up being a complete waste of screen time. She serves no purpose, and her role could have easily of been filled by Admiral Ackbar, had Rian Johnson not stupidly killed him off earlier in the chase.
There were a few nice touches here though. Kylo Ren's conflict about killing his mother being one of them, and his shock when his fellow TIE Fighters attempt to do it for him. Then Leia's demonstration of his own Force powers to get back to the ship. Likewise the characters Poe, Finn, and the introduction of Rose Tico work well throughout this segment. The insertion of Maz Kanata seems a little weird to get the code breaker to get them onboard Snoke's ship - the Supremacy. Only Finn has had anything to do with her, and her trying to communicate with them while being involved in a union dispute that's erupted into a firefight didn't work for me.
To be honest, the only reason to include Maz seems to have been the excuse to get Finn and Rose off the ship to go visit a new planet and try to convey some sort of moral lessons into the film. The entire plot on Canto Bight really didn't add anything to the movie. In many respects, it brought back the worst parts of the prequel trilogy. Just as we don't really care about watching procedural issues in the Galactic Senate, we don't really care about a bunch of arms dealers gambling on a planet we've never seen/heard of before. An excursion to an established world from the expanded universe, like the Hutt moon of Nar Shaddaa, could have been far more interesting in terms of the plot, but also nice fan service.
The return to the Supremacy worked well, with Rey, Finn and Rose turning up at roughly the same time. I didn't mind the scenes with Finn, Rose, and DJ on the Supremacy. They nicely played homage to A New Hope and sneaking around the Death Star. The final betrayal by DJ, and subsequent showdown between Phasma and Finn, worked nicely, even though it was a little disappointing to bring Phasma back just to see her taken out again relatively easily.
If we segway back to the Resistance and Admiral Holdo. While the Resistance's plan seemed fine - evacuate to the transports then hide on Crait from the First Order until help arrived, ideally undetected. The whole sacrifice of Admiral Holdo, let alone the need to hide the plan from the crew, seemed pointless. Using the cruiser as a hyperspace missile to cripple the Supremacy was a cool move, but I would have cared about it more had it been Admiral Ackbar at the helm of the cruiser rather than Holdo, a new character who you hadn't had any time, or reason, to build any attachment to.
Rey's confrontation with Snoke is another story though. The parallels with Return of the Jedi were fine and help reinforce that you're within a Star Wars movie. Likewise, Snoke's toying with Rey executed well. Though it could have done without him bopping her in the head with Luke's lightsaber which seemed fairly childish for the big big bad guy to do.
The problem comes after that though. Having easily defeated Rey by demonstrating his mastery of the Dark Side, Snoke's death by being betrayed by Kylo Ren seemed clumsy and a waste of the only antagonist who seemed genuinely interesting. It feels like all this speculation about Snoke, the Dark Side Force welder who turned Ben Solo to the Dark Side, and scared Luke into hiding, was for nothing.
I get that Snoke's overconfidence in his apprentice is meant to be his weakness, just as the Emperor's faith in his control over Darth Vader was his. But Darth Vader betrayed the Emperor when the Emperor was in the middle of trying to kill his son. Kylo Ren betrayed Snoke while Snoke was gloating. For an all powerful Dark Side user, not sensing Ren's impending betrayal of him wasn't well executed and just left an empty feeling when the deed was done. Even a small touch, such as not showing the manipulation of Luke's lightsaber on the armrest could have helped things, as we would have just assumed he was talking about Ren's lightsaber the whole time, rather than not realising that Ren was focused on Luke's lightsaber instead.
In short the dispatch of Snoke seems a waste of the only villain whose character seemed to work in either movie.
The confrontation with the Praetorian Guards was a nice piece of action, though it was taken away from with some poor set design. The red curtain background to Snoke's throne room, which burned away during the fight, always seemed more like you were looking at some terrible recoloured green screen. Snoke's throne room would have looked far better with an expansive view over the wings of the Supremacy.
The moment of choice between Rey and Ren also went well, though it did bug me that we're no closer to knowing who Rey's parents are. It seems odd that they could just be galactic nobodies, though that's essentially what Anakin Skywalker was when Obi Wan and Qui Gon found him. The subsequent explosion of Luke's saber, and Rey's escape from the Supremacy would have made for a good end point to the film. The Resistance would have still been on the run, Ren would have been in control of the First Order, and Rey would be able to go back to Luke or the Resistance to help them. We would have been well set up for the finale.
That the film then dragged on for another 30 or 40 minutes after that moment was unnecessary. The confrontation between Luke and Kylo Ren on the surface of Crait, in fact that whole battle scene, didn't add anything to the movie. Luke's death too, seemingly from the exertion of projecting himself across the galaxy, felt a little hollow. All of it was plot work that could have easily gone into the first act of the final part of the trilogy, as it's now hard to see how much lower and desperate the Resistance can be made to be. Had this been saved for the final instalment of the trilogy, I might feel the moment of crisis in that film might matter more.
So having taken apart the story like, the other criticisms that I think are worth noting include some pretty terrible set design, woeful creature effects (they could have taken a leaf from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in this regard), and a few too many characters. Rian Johnson did do some good things, as I said the scene with Rey in the Dark Side cave worked well, as did the shots following the suicide ramming of the Supremacy, but these didn't make up with what was a generally pretty average plot.
Suffice to say, if the entropic death of the universe occurs before Rian Johnson is next allowed near this franchise, it'll still be too soon for me.