This post discusses the plot of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” only in the broadest possible outlines discernible from the trailers for the movie: for example, that the First Order still exists, that lightsabers exist and people use them, that there are porgs and they are adorable. I’ll write another column discussing the movie’s plot in intense and finicky detail on Monday.
“We are what they grow beyond,” one older character says to another at a turning point during “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” That person is reflecting on the inevitable transition between the generations, and the unavoidable differences between mentors and the people they hope to shape and nurture. But that simple sentence is also a stark reminder of what the newest “Star Wars” movies have been fundamentally unable to do: break away from not merely the templates but also the exact concepts and story beats that defined George Lucas’s original trilogy. Whether you think that’s fine or a problem, and what you consider the best, most intriguing elements of the “Star Wars” universe will largely determine whether you think “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a triumph or a mess.
Given that, I think it’s fair to tell you where I stand: For me, the essence of “Star Wars” is not the conflict between the Empire (or the First Order, an Empire knockoff) and the Rebellion (or New Republic, or Resistance), nor even the struggle between the Dark and Light sides of the Force. All of these concepts can be handled in interesting ways, of course. But what I love best about the “Star Wars” franchise was the way the universe in which it took place arrived feeling fully realized and capable of unfolding in near-infinite directions. Even a pair of sentences as simple as “You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? … It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs” teems with possibility, implying a world where people do know about this ship, suggesting a regular route through space and suggesting a common understanding of top speed. I love the now-abandoned “Star Wars” Expanded Universe for its willingness to push into the corners of that universe, and its ability to evolve beyond those core dynamics.
All of which means that the extent to which “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” feels the need to gesture back to the original trilogy, and in particular to the best of the bunch, “Empire Strikes Back,” felt to me less satisfying than conservative — I recognized the reactions people around me were having to various callbacks, but I simply didn’t share them.
When the movie starts (and really when it ends), the basic conflict differs only in intensity from where we left our heroes: The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is increasingly pressured by the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and with military campaigns executed by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and a conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, outstanding as always and providing lots of fodder for Alexandra Petri’s Emo Kylo Ren Twitter feed). The Jedi are hermetic, the bad guys’ weapons are oversized, and our heroes are all above average.
The desire to preserve this dynamic lets “The Last Jedi” re-create moments like the Stalingrad-with-walkers homage from “Empire Strikes Back” and show us lots of crisp black First Order uniforms. It also raises questions the movie isn’t really comfortable tackling, like at what point and what scale the Resistance seeks to be a meaningful political or military force in the galaxy. Sticking to this fundamental conflict also means that “The Last Jedi” frequently feels constricted for all of its grand scope and opulent battle sequences: The movie zips through other locations and backstories but fills them out with exposition rather than actually spending time and energy making these diversions feel real and vital. You can paint on a big canvas, and you can even paint with visual skill and intelligence as director Rian Johnson so often does here, and still make your ambitions for and curiosity about a fictional world feel awfully cramped.
Part of what made “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” a frustrating experience for me is that it has genuinely thrilling sequences. The opening battle is crisply and unflinchingly shot and sets up a theme the movie develops fairly well: the hideously high costs of a losing military campaign, and the different ways people react to being in a situation where victory is truly out of reach. A later battle concludes in a way that feels first startling, then inevitable and deeply sad, a decision underscored by Johnson’s wise decision to lay off the movie’s iconic score. “The Last Jedi” features what is arguably the most exciting lightsaber fight in the entire franchise, a scene that is even more striking for the way it emerges from a moment of genuine ambiguity and refuses to resolve in a way that would provide easy satisfaction. The movie even managed to surprise me at a crucial juncture. There’s a lot of terrific, melancholy acting, particularly from Driver, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Daisy Ridley as Rey and Fisher. The porgs are as cute as advertised.
But the contrast between these elements and what feel like fundamental failures of movie writing is stark to the point of being jarring.
Whatever is going on at Lucasfilm, the franchise still regularly struggles to provide dialogue that sounds like a plausible exchange between actual humans (or aliens). I adore Oscar Isaac, but the character of Poe Dameron appears to be whatever the “Star Wars” equivalent of kryptonite is for him, turning him wooden, shouty and one-note. Finn (John Boyega) is even more underdeveloped, and “The Last Jedi” saddles him with a plot that has literally no impact on the actual course of the movie and provides him with no discernible character development: The whole thing could have been excised from the film, and the only difference would have been a zippier run time, a smaller special-effects budget and a tighter story. The movie throws off threads ranging from a distinctive lapel pin to a bunch of missing people with abandon and then never follows up on them. And it also manages to undercut some of its strongest decisions in truly baffling ways.
One way to look at “The Last Jedi” is that it’s a movie for the fans, in that it’s largely concerned with playing variations on familiar themes, and sometimes succeeds in breathing new, even beautiful, life into them. Another way to judge it is to suggest that it’s a betrayal of the franchise’s most loyal fans, in that it’s frequently sloppy and frayed, full of ideas and events that fall apart the minute you start to examine them in any detail. “The Last Jedi” probably works best if it’s a movie you want to surrender to, rather than one you want to ponder deeply. The difference between those two kinds of fandom is as vast as the gulf between the Dark and Light sides of the Force.