I really needed to sit and think on this one awhile. We saw it on Tuesday and I left the theater in a state of deep conflict about it – did I like it? Did I love it? Hate it? I wasn’t sure, and I can honestly say I’ve never had that reaction to pretty much anything, ever. I was anxious and felt like I just had an argument for two hours.
Now that the brain sifting has happened, and I’ve allowed myself to read others’ reactions, I can definitely say that I liked it. A lot. But there are flaws, and the flaws are a bit problematic less for this particular film and more for the franchise going forward.
First, the good: the old guard were excellent. Mark Hamill rocked, and the entire interplay between him and Daisy Ridely (who rocked equally) was one for the ages. Carrie Fisher, when they gave her scenes where she was conscious, was great, too. Although I’ll confess to having a very “WTF?” moment with her use of the Force, after a bit I thought, that, too, was rad in both conception and execution (and not a little bit because of how off the wall it really was).
Of the new guard, again, Daisy Ridley/Rey is an excellent character and actor pairing. Adam Driver is also great, and Ren is probably as iconic as a character can be without quite getting to Darth Vader level icon-level – and that’s saying something, since nothing ever reaches that level. The cartoonish, ripped-off, and sketchy aspects of their characters that left them not quite popping in The Force Awakens were all gone here. Rian Johnson knows how to write dialogue and he knows how to direct actors as well as stage action, and any time the film engaged with their story, it worked like crazy. In fact, all the scenes that pushed along the Jedi/Sith (or whatever the fuck Snoke was) mythology were, in a word, great.
Moving down the list from great to ‘oh, so close,’ the introduction and dispatch of Laura Dern. Her end was an iconic moment, one of the most stylish and thrilling action beats in the history of the franchise, but, well, it didn’t belong to Admiral Holdo, it belonged to Laura Dern. Why that wasn’t given to some other established character rather than one we’ve never met before and only has five minutes cumulative screen time is kind of a mystery, and it’s just not smart filmmaking.
Now the problems: I’m not sure what Johnson has against John Boyega, but, holy shit, did they manage to take a character I really liked in the previous film and make him a useless appendage. The entire storyline was a bust, and all the screen time we spent with Finn, Rose, whatever the heck del Toro’s character was named, and BB-8 became an increasing drag. Every time the film cut back to their story, at first, I was interested. Then I was disinterested. Then I was bored. Then I was annoyed. All the points that Johnson was trying to make about the universe around the clash between the Republic/Resistance and the First Order were cool on an intellectual level but death for dramatic tension. And by giving Finn’s only motivation as to save Rey, and then maybe save Rose, the final grudge match between him and Phasma was just empty flash.
Johnson also mishandled the remaining legacy characters, especially 3PO, Chewie, and R2. 3PO’s general anxiety from the original series has morphed into being a cretinous jerk, which is sort of a drag. And I couldn’t tell you what R2 did during the film other than show Luke Leia’s message again if you held a gun to my head (please don’t test that theory).
The other bit of bad filmmaking was by doubling down on the questionable timeline of The Empire Strikes Back. So much shit happened in this film – a timeframe that took place over the course of 18 hours, once you do the math – that it almost rendered the amazing bits on Ach-To between Luke and Rey dramatically null and void, because of the effort I kept having to exert to ignore the fact that they did their whole song and dance over the course of a single day. Again, testament to how good Hamill and Ridley were together that I was able to just be in the moment, but why make such a stupid choice?
And lastly: I fucking hate Oscar Isaac with a crate full of hate. Not Poe, mind you: Oscar Isaac. Poe could be an interesting character if he were played by someone that didn’t possess the extreme anti-charisma of Isaac. I disliked him in The Force Awakens, but thankfully he was barely window dressing in that film. Here he was in every other scene, and on top of that, Poe’s fuck-ups were the source of almost every setback the Resistance had. Completely self-inflicted, so in addition to knowing that I’m going to have to deal with more goddamn Oscar Isaac if I want to see Episode IX, I now also have to deal with the damage that Johnson did to the character in this film, by taking the ‘cocky pilot’ archetype and just making him into a treasonous, catastrophically misguided, macho asshole.
That’s what I mean when I said earlier that I’m worried about the future of the franchise: given that Fisher is dead, and Hamill’s part will probably be little more than a cameo in Episode IX, I now like exactly one of the protagonists. That ain’t good. I could give a shit about more Finn/Rose/Poe adventures. Hopefully they make Driver and Ridley the big event in IX and everyone else gets very little to do.
All of that said, I liked this movie a lot, and could possibly even come to love it. I’m a defender of Lucas’s prequels for the primary reason that despite their flat acting and endless supply of guffaw-worthy moments, they were genuine works of a gifted auteur. What we were seeing in Episodes I-III was the vision of the guy who created the franchise given full rein, and that meant I loved it all, the good and the bad together. The Force Awakens barely had an impact on me because it was such product, which is why I’m not thrilled about the one-two punch of the divisive reaction Johnson’s film has had and the return of J. J. Abrams to the chair. Abrams is the dictionary definition of a safe and derivative hack, and the studio will now be less likely to take any risks. What a drag, because above all else, what I loved about The Last Jedi was that you could feel that it was the work of a gifted filmmaker with vision, passion, control, and originality. I hope TLJ is a film where the public consensus turns around, and that – plus the billion-dollar-plus global take and the general critical acclaim – ultimately convinces Disney/Lucasfilm to continue to take some risks and to again entrust the future of the franchise to people who, like Johnson, tried to give us something new.