I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
At its core, the Star Wars movies are about light vs. dark, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. Some fans of the franchise live their lives according to the morals presented in these movies. It’s a simple idea that has grown into a near-religious belief system. So, when a new scripture is made available, worshipers flock to watch the story expand and see good triumph over evil yet again. But what happens when that message starts to conflict and good and evil start to blend in a way that they never have before? How do you react to that information, and what do you do with it? That’s just what audience members come out of the theater asking themselves after seeing the latest installment in the franchise, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Below are my thoughts on the movie as well as my response to the huge turnout and subsequent backlash it has received since its opening weekend.
Picking up directly from the events of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) meets a very unwilling Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who resists her pleas to come with her to help the resistance fight the First Order. While she is gone, Finn (John Boyega) wakes up from his coma to find the First Order closing in on General Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) ships. He meets up with a young resistance maintenance worker named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and the two devise a plan to escape their tail before they run out of fuel. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still out to prove himself to the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and he forms a connection with Rey which he uses to try to convince her to join him. She sees the good still in him and seeks to turn him back to the light, a task that Luke believes is impossible and the root of his failures in his nephew’s Jedi training.
This movie is very fast-paced and full of the action you would expect from a Star Wars movie. There are several air battles, more lightsaber action, and plenty of explosions. The ending includes a great battle sequence with the resistance using ancient ski speeders to take out a First Order battering ram on a salt-turf planet that exposes red dust when the surface is scratched. This scene provides some of the best visuals and most emotional action moments in the film.
In fact, I would rank the sets as the best in the franchise. They really stand out from the previous films but still fit in as part of that world and the specific story that it is trying to tell. The First Order ships, with their flat black walls and red trim, exhibit their modern, evil ways. The gold and green casino on Canto Bight gives off the gilded arrogance of the site with its inhabitants clad in mixtures of black and white, highlighting the idea that they think they are the pure elite but are driven by evil greed. Then, there is the natural, mountainous landscape of Luke’s hideout which feels very organic and primitive, a quiet change from the busy landscape of the space-age sets.
All of the characters give solid, intense performances. The new cast and old mix well and each have a pivotal role in the story’s events. They each have a funny line or moment to keep the story from getting too heavy, but they are there for the dramatic beats when they’re called for. There are also a lot of small but unexpected twists and turns to keep you guessing until the end.
Sadly, where the movie falls flat is in the story itself. When fans critique a Star Wars movie, they dive deep into character actions and dialogue. You’re not going to find too many iconic scenes or lines to add to the franchise’s top 10 lists. It doesn’t deliver a satisfying lightsaber scene such as Darth Vader’s in Rogue One. There aren’t any major surprises like the “I am your father,” moment from The Empire Strikes Back, though there are several little ones sprinkled throughout the story. The movie is trying hard to not deliver on the fan theories. As a result, the answers we get to some of the questions we’ve been asking since The Force Awakens are pretty bland, and we are left with more questions than we had before.
Some characters, such as R2D2 and C3PO, are reduced to cameo-sized roles with very little purpose while the new cast is separated from each other for the majority of the movie, losing the dynamic, team-effort that made the events of The Force Awakens so compelling. Because there are so many characters scattered throughout different locations, the scenes flip-flop from one storyline to the next, not uncommon for a Star Wars movie but more clumsily executed.
As for the twists, some came off as confusion, some were strange, and some fell flat. Only one surprise actually thrilled me. It seemed like the writers were intentionally trying not to mimic any fan theories and were trying to throw curve balls that no one anticipated. As a result, they missed out on some more obvious but also more satisfying plot elements that fans wanted to see. I place half of the blame on the Internet in general, but filmmakers should recognize fan service when it is presented to them and take advantage of that information when it is outwardly desired.
While the space and speeder battles are great as always, the hand-to-hand combat is what I was waiting for, and there is very little of that. When characters do face off, they don't do much for very long. I was sure they would more than make up for the lack of lightsaber battles in The Force Awakens. Instead, they tend to spend their time talking or locked in a stalemate, adding to the already long running time but not to the substance of the plot or intensity of the scene.
The tone is off a bit as well. There are some dark themes playing out beneath the surface. You are given multiple versions of a story and are never unsure of whose version is the most accurate. There is a distrust at play, giving rise to the theme of balance which is both light and dark. Each character is layered and unreliable. There is an exhausting push and pull element where large motivations and plans are constantly interrupted and turned on their heads. We’re waiting for things to work out at the last moment as the scrappers use the luck factor that has propelled them through past stories.
Instead, there is a struggle within the ranks of both the First Order and the Resistance. As a result, neither side can get ahead. It’s very fitting for this year’s political climate, but it’s not really a story we need to see play out in a film that is supposed to provide an escape from the real world and bring hope, understanding, and a belief system that is supposed to inspire fans to become their best selves. I think this is why many fans felt betrayed by this movie and why they rate it as low as they do. Make no mistake, this is very thoughtful and visually stunning movie, but it doesn’t capture the spirit of the franchise or give its characters their proper character arcs.
Episode VIII is hard to swallow for such an anticipated movie. I’m not a Star Wars expert or even a hard core fan, but I was looking forward to this installment after enjoying both Rogue One and The Force Awakens. I thought those two movies were able to balance their story and characters well while still maintaining the spirit of Star Wars. This movie did not. Maybe it’s the story they needed to keep this latest trilogy from replicating the original. Maybe this movie will lead to a very satisfying ending in Episode IX. It’s a hard act to follow and maybe a hard story to accept on first viewing. I believe fans will eventually lighten up on this one, appreciate its strengths, accept its weaknesses, and prepare to jump on board Episode IX as soon as it’s ready.