Welcome back, readers! I hope you all had a happy holiday, and consider this a moderate spoiler warning.
Let me start by saying this: I didn’t like The Force Awakens. I found it to be a shameless rip-off of A New Hope, as well as the embodiment of the most cynical accusations ever leveled against the series, helmed by none other than marketing genius and professional franchise-milker J.J. Abrams. Thankfully, The Last Jedi is an improvement over that clunker in every respect.
Since the main characters split up at the end of the last movie, the sequel’s story is essentially comprised of three subplots: Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) tutelage under Luke (Mark Hamill), Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) trying to infiltrate an Empire vessel, and Poe (Oscar Isaac) butting heads with his military superiors. Fighting back against all of them are the Sith baddies, headed up by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and puppet master Snoke (Andy Serkis). Generally the movie juggles the three narratives quite well, maintaining a brisk pace and rarely lingering on any one for too long.
But what’s most heartening about The Last Jedi is its effort to step out of the shadow of the original trilogy. It’s not the copy-paste job the last movie was, nor does it indulge in its obnoxious pandering. Though Luke and Leia (Carrie Fischer) are present, they’re treated as actual characters rather than shiny objects, and the references to the original movies contain at least a modicum of subtlety. For these reasons alone, The Last Jedi should be considered a significant improvement over its predecessor.
The problem (among others) with The Last Jedi is that the story beats remain severely predictable. There’s no sense of danger for any of the key characters, and I counted exactly one moment where I was truly surprised. It also has a serious case of middle movie syndrome, where most of the plot lines seem to serve no greater purpose than spinning their wheels before the final chapter. This is never more evident than during Finn and Rose’s prolonged detour to a casino planet, a fifteen-minute chunk of the movie that could have been easily cut with only minor adjustments. Poe’s subplot doesn’t fare too well in this department either. By the time the story is over, his repeated clashes with Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, sporting hair dyed gender-studies purple) essentially amount to nothing, and once again one can’t help but get the odd feeling that this two-and-a-half-hour-long movie is stalling for time.
The Last Jedi is strongest when focusing on the force-wielding trinity of Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke. It’s here that it actually feels as though the larger story is being advanced, though the plot inevitably reverts to a state of relative status quo by the end. Adam Driver remains the most reliable actor of the new series, and there’s no denying the thrill of seeing Mark Hamill taking up Alec Guinness’s mantle. The scenes of Rey begging Luke to train her get off to a rocky start, but the movie’s climax provides them both with some fittingly epic Jedi moments.
Unfortunately, one issue this new installment has failed to drop is the weakness of its villains. Other than Kylo Ren, the First Order remain lame, unthreatening antagonists, doomed to incompetence by lazy screenwriting. This blandness is personified in the form of Snoke, an ugly CGI creation who never amounts to anything more than a poor man’s Palpatine. Then there’s General Hux, once again brought to life by Domhnall Gleeson’s appealingly hammy performance, who’s the victim of some rather dire (and, dare I say, forced) comedy hijinks.
While much of I’ve written here may sound like a bad review, I assure you it isn’t. Despite its flaws, I still enjoyed The Last Jedi. It’s a far more visually accomplished movie than its predecessor, with rousing action sequences and the occasional visual head-trip. Make no mistake, it’s still a product, designed above all to make boo-coo bucks and sell toys to impressionable children, but at least it’s a product of satisfactory quality. What I’m getting at is this: I had fun in the theater, and sometimes that’s all the endorsement you need.