After having seen and cogitated on it, here’s my assessment of the movie:
- It’s the funniest episode of the lot. From Luke’s reaction to Rey’s offer of the lightsaber onward, there are some genuinely funny moments. There is even a “Hardware Wars” Easter egg!
- Kylo Ren is the most interesting villain since the original Darth Vader, and his backstory here helps to deepen his character a great deal.
- The relationship between Kylo and Rey was very well done. It is ironic that the best special effect in the movie was just a simple cross-cutting of Rey and Kylo’s perspectives.
- The two lightsaber duels were awesome.
- Luke’s arc was interesting and yet made sense. His conversation with Yoda had some lovely dialogue about mentoring, which is a paramount theme of the saga.
- In a movie with three distinct plot lines, two of them were either boring or superfluous. Finn’s storyline could have been completely excised and the plot would not have changed a whit. Poe’s plot line was little better; after the first battle, he has little to do as well except rage against the Rebellion machine. “The Force Awakens” bequeathed three engaging heroes; “The Last Jedi” only knows what to do with one of them.
- There was very little continuity between “The Last Jedi” and “The Force Awakens.” If this movie picks up right after Episode VII ends, can someone explain to me how, despite the destruction of Starkiller Base, the First Order managed to wipe out the Republic and rout the Resistance?
- There was an awful lot of buildup about Snoke as the Big Bad, but in the end none of it mattered. He apparently served as little more than a plot device, and an unexplained one at that.
- It was long. Dear God, it was long. This was the first Star Wars film when I looked at my watch.
- If you think about it, the entire film suggests a smashing military victory for the First Order. The Republic is gone, and the remaining Resistance fighters are few enough to fit inside the Millennium Falcon. No one answered the Resistance’s last calls for help. I’m sure Episode IX will be retconned so that the Resistance is resurgent. The radical shifts in fortune based on the opening crawl, however, are disorienting.
I have long believed that there is an inverse correlation between the quality of a Star Wars episode and the quality of its politics. The original trilogy had very simple, Manichean politics, and the films were great. Lucas’s prequels had some genuinely interesting politics, and the films were rubbish.
The latest trilogy is somewhere between the other trilogies in terms of quality. Same with the politics. The one virtue of the casino visit was to explain that arms merchants sold to both sides. That was interesting but not revolutionary.
What is interesting is what Rian Johnson does with the Jedi. As I noted a few years ago, there is a central theme to all Star Wars trilogies: “an obscure, powerless individual on an impoverished planet is suddenly thrust into the most important and pivotal political struggles of the galaxy.” First Anakin, then Luke, and now Rey.
But where, in previous trilogies, the Jedi were viewed as the proper galactic elites, the best parts of “The Last Jedi” are devoted to tearing down that myth. Luke takes pains to tell Rey the myriad ways that the Jedi screwed up, from permitting the rise of Darth Sidious to his own poor mentoring of Ben Solo. This is crucial to tearing down Lucas’s conception of elitist politics.
The primary struggle in “The Last Jedi” is between Kylo Ren and Rey. Kylo represents the closest thing to aristocracy in the Star Wars universe. Grandson of Darth Vader, son of Princess Leia, the force runs strongly though him by birth. Rey, as we learn, has no such august parentage. If the big reveal in “The Empire Strikes Back” was that Luke was Vader’s son (and therefore Jedi royalty), the big reveal of “The Last Jedi” is that Rey has no hereditary connections. And I agree with Slashfilm’s Jacob Hall on the meaning of this:
I imagine we’ll see Star Wars fans upset about Rey not being a secret Skywalker or a Kenobi or a clone of Emperor Palpatine or the reincarnated Anakin Skywalker (the internet is a bad place), but Rey’s origin as just a person is more powerful than even the most shocking twist. Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker emerged from a nothing planet as nobodies and rose to the occasion, stumbling into destinies they could never have imagined. To tie every character of significance to them and their circle of allies and enemies would be to rob them of their power. The beauty of Star Wars, since its earliest days, has been the depiction of heroes coming from every corner and every walk of life. A farm boy. A princess. A smuggler. They have no business saving the galaxy, but damn it, they have to! Who else will?
[Of course, Poe’s plotline undercuts this message a little. The point of his story is that Princess Leia and her subordinates actually do know best, and cocky fighter pilots should respect the chain of command. But as I said, this was a boring plot.]
If Rey and Finn have anything in common, it is that they come from nothing. The very end of the film hints that any support for the rebellion will come from similar groups of people, such as stable hands. Maybe, in Episode IX, we will not see Rebellion admirals contemplating a grand attack. Maybe, instead, we will see if, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the power of the powerless mattered.