(originally published Dec 21, 2017)
SPOILER WARNING: There be spoilers
Star Wars: The Last Jedi shows that different doesn't always mean better, in the longest and least-essential entry in the storied saga. Rian Johnson had a monumental task at hand when undertaking both the writing and directing of the "Empire" episode of an aimless new trilogy, and while he succeeds in a few ways, he left me bored and wanting in many others. Picking up right where The Force Awakens left off, this film feels less like a standalone SW episode and more like a bloated, 150-minute epilogue that they were making up as they went along. For better and mostly worse, this film feels like it was created as a reaction to The Force Awakens, resulting in an interesting, but messy attempt at a course correction. I didn't hate this movie, but I didn't really feel anything for it either, which was almost more frustrating.
A problem that people have often cited with Rian Johnson is that he has a hard time with film structure and narrative momentum. Nowhere is that clearer than in The Last Jedi, which bounces between too many different subplots that are inelegantly woven together. The Rey/Kylo storyline is the best of the bunch, but it didn't amount to much and barely connected with the others. Finn drew the shortest straw in this one, embarking on a time-wasting prequel-level side quest where he and a new character named Rose fail at every opportunity and end up right back where they started.
Learning from failure is a common theme in this film. Pretty much every single character fails in some way, but unfortunately, very few of them learn anything or change at all. When I say this is the least essential film in the saga, it's for this reason. Everyone ends up pretty much right back where they were at the start of the film, rendering the whole film a mostly pointless exercise. Why are we spending two and a half hours with these people and making them fail all the time if they aren't going to change in any way? In the show-stopping lightsaber melee with Kylo Ren, Rey, and a bunch of new action figures, there are hints of the movie taking things in bold new directions (will he leave the dark side? Will she join?), but are quickly scrapped in favor of keeping the status quo. It's like the film is taking baby steps toward new ideas which, like an actual baby's steps, are encouraging, but ineffective.
Tonally, the film is confusing. They've made arguably the "darkest" story of any Star Wars film, but it never feels as weighty as it wants to be thanks in part to the aforementioned structural issues, but also due to its completely inept attempts at humor that fell flat pretty much every time. The tonal dilemma of this movie can be summed up in one shot that occurs early on, when Luke Skywalker cheekily tosses his dad’s lightsaber over a cliff behind him, essentially saying "meh" to one of the most weighty moments of the last film. It feels like Disney saying "you bastards want the opposite of The Force Awakens? You got it!"
I respect their intentions, but a film can't survive on intent alone. It still has to function, and The Last Jedi struggles to do that. It's a sensory feast made up of mostly-tasty ingredients that have been thrown in a casserole dish and left on the counter. Fans of space fights will be pleased with the few inspired moments that are peppered in. The aforementioned lightsaber duel with Rey and Kylo Ren was a pretty great one. There's a lightspeed kamakaze moment that was breathtaking (though it was given to the wrong character), and the battle of Salt Hoth was pretty awesome (until the last moment when Finn had the makings of an incredible character moment interrupted by another prequel-caliber event).
Otherwise, most of what happens in this film is inconsequential, making the whole thing pretty disappointing. I didn't think it was as useless and god-awful as Rogue One, but I also didn't think it was as fun as The Force Awakens despite that one being wholly unoriginal. As evidenced by the polarizing reviews from the public, your mileage may vary on this one. Good luck, and may the force be with some other studio someday.