Having now seen The Last Jedi twice, I feel better able to consolidate my thoughts. There’s still a lot to digest and despite how much closure the movie offered, there’s a lot to debate.First and foremost, watching it a second time really improved the experience. Knowing the plot and the surprises beforehand really helped me to just let the story as-is play out, and not worry about all the ways it defied my expectations.
In the spoiler-free review, I had three criticisms. The foremost problem I had focused on the slow middle of the movie. The Finn/Rose subplot on the Casino planet could have been cut and reworked into something simpler and quicker-to-resolve and the movie would not have lost anything of consequence. Even the great performance by Benicio Del Toro could have been retained; just put him on the Resistance capital ship’s brig instead of a jail cell on a planet we didn’t need to go to. You can do the same plot in its basic form (Finn and Rose go rogue to find a codebreaker to break onto the First Order flagship) without so much bloat.
Watching it the second time, the bloat was still there, but it didn’t feel as pace-halting as it did during the first viewing. It’s still worthy of mention, but it’s not film-breaking the way some of the lesser parts of the prequels were.
Another complaint was on the lack of new musical material by John Williams. Watching it the second time, with less angst and jitters that come with a premiere screening, I noticed a strong motif for Rose. I had the same complaint two years ago about the music in The Force Awakens, and now I can’t get Rey’s theme out of my head. I should really stop doubting John Williams.
So let’s talk about the movie.
The Force Awakens established a trio of trios. Rey, Finn and Poe for the good guys, Snoke, Kylo and Hux for the bad guys, and the legacy trio of Han, Leia and Luke. The movie was built around those nine and each was used in a very particular, memorable and character-defining way.
It’s the job of the first movie to set the story up but it’s the middle movie that has to toss it all into a blender.
To that end, The Last Jedi takes each of the remaining eight members of that trio of trios and does some wonderful things with some, some surprising things with others, and overall takes almost every expectation you may have and tosses it out an airlock. Here are my five biggest thoughts, touching on what worked, what didn’t, what intrigued and what excited me about the middle chapter in this new trilogy…
1) The very modern dialogue was jarring, almost to the point of being distracting. It’s one thing for Poe to talk about Hux as a “pasty white guy” since that fits his devil may care character. Han Solo could get away with modern language like that but it would have been weird coming from Obi Wan. So it was especially weird to hear Yoda talk sarcastically about books as “page turners.” It got a laugh from the audience, so I guess it achieved its intended effect, but still it was surprising.
Along the same line is the usage of humor, which is getting the majority of the criticism by fans online, with many conspiracy-theorizing that Disney wanted more of a “Marvel” feel to it. Really it felt more like Rian being worried that his movie was too dark. If you strip away the gags, the one-liners and the light-hearted moments, you’re left with a pretty deep, philosophical, and occasionally sad story. I can understand the need for levity to keep the casual audience engaged.
2) As said in the spoiler-free review, the two big lines from the trailer (“this is not going to go the way you think” and “let the past die”) are basically the theme of the movie. Rian took all of JJ Abram’s mystery box world-building from The Force Awakens and said “Nah I don’t want to tell that story.” The first movie set up a big mystery about who Rey’s parents were. It set up Snoke as a powerful new Sith user, powerful enough to consolidate the remnants of the Empire into his image, who seduced the nephew of Luke Skywalker right under his nose. He too was a source of great mystery. Instead Snoke is offed and Rey is revealed (or is she) to be the child of nobody.
I’m not saying it was the “wrong” decision, because that’s subjective. This was Rian’s story and he told it his way. He wanted to use Snoke as a red herring and he clearly thought Rey being a Skywalker or a Kenobi or whatever else the theories were was too predictable and that there was more drama in her being a nobody and using that as the crux of her temptation to join the darkside. Again, it doesn’t matter if I would have done it differently: I didn’t make the movie. The question is did Rian effectively tell the story he wanted to tell, and he told Rey’s story excellently and created a heck of a twist in tossing Snoke out as nothing more than a means to an end (getting Kylo into the role of Supreme Leader).
3) From a writing perspective, The Last Jedi doesn’t follow a three-act structure, but instead a four-act format. It made for a movie that didn’t flow the way I expected it to, yet I still remained engaged. Look at other movies in the series; you can easily spot the three-act structure because they almost always correspond to a particular planet. A New Hope: Tatooine, Death Star, Yavin. Three acts. Empire Strikes Back: Hoth, Degobah, Bespin. Three acts. Return of the Jedi: Tatooine, Endor, Death Star. Three acts. Same with the prequels. Episode I (Naboo, Tatooine, Naboo), Episode II (Coruscant, Tatooine, Geonosis), Episode III (Coruscant, Utapau, Mustafar). In The Force Awakens you had Jakku, Takodana, and Starkiller Base. Three primary settings for three acts.
Now what about The Last Jedi. There’s Ach-To, where Luke and Rey interact; those scenes follow through the first three-quarters of the movie. There’s the Casino planet that deals with only a fraction of the ongoing plot. There’s the drama in space between the First Order and Resistance ships that covers the first three-quarters of the movie. And there’s the finale on Crait. The movie isn’t laid out in the way all other Star Wars are. It’s a four-act structure not beholden to locals; it’s built around character moments.
The major characters of Rey, Finn and Poe all move through their stories with a beginning, middle and end, throughout the first three acts of the movie, where they have tiny little successes and failures, conflicts and resolutions all independent of each other, all over the galaxy. And then they all come to a head in one place: in the stars above Crait. They’re still separated (Rey is with Kylo, Finn is with Rose and Poe is with Leia) but they’re closer in proximity. During that third-act we get a very finale-feeling scene in Snoke’s throne room. It felt like the finale of the trilogy, not the middle movie. And sure enough, when it ended, there was still another quarter to go, as everyone reconvenes and finally comes back together on Crait for the fourth act. There’s never been a Star Wars movie paced like this; it made for a strange first-viewing experience, but it was so much more pleasant the second time around.
4) Luke’s death was graceful and beautiful. Unlike with Han two years ago, I went into this movie not expecting Luke to die. I fully expected him to be around and possibly die in Episode IX. But by the time it happened I was not only prepared for it, but fully understanding of it from a storytelling perspective. When the title was revealed there was so much debate about whether “Jedi” was singular or plural, if it meant Luke was the end of the Jedi, or if it meant Luke and Rey were last ones to wear the title, etc. Then came the teaser and Luke saying it was time for the Jedi to end, and everyone lost their minds. As it turns out, there was much more poetry and “theme” involved in the title than anyone predicted.
The movie begins with Luke being the last Jedi and wanting to hurry up and die so the order can die with him. It ends with Luke realizing he was being foolish and that Rey can be a worthy addition to the name Jedi. Once she is, he dies at peace, leaving Rey to be the Last Jedi but (as the final scene shows) she won’t be the last for long. Luke’s story is of the legend who failed to live up to his legacy. He trained Ben and failed, and his failure was equal parts Ben falling to the dark side by Snoke and Luke’s own failures as a teacher. So he locked himself away on a hidden planet, intending to die and let the Jedi die with him. From his perspective, if he’s the last Jedi, then there shouldn’t be anymore, since he failed to continue the legacy. Turns out the force had its own plans and awoke Rey to carry things on. Once Luke came to terms with his own failures and the potential for Rey (thanks to one final lesson from Yoda), he was able to die in peace, and let Rey continue the legacy of the Jedi.
I know some fans wanted nothing more than for Luke to be a saber-swinging, Jedi superman, but there’s so much more drama with the story Rian told. JJ Abrams said that as he and Lawrence Kasdan wrote The Force Awakens they kept pushing back the time we finally meet Luke because, whenever he showed up in the story, everything immediately came to be about him, when they wanted to keep the focus on the new kids. Rian solved that problem by keeping Luke on the island and giving him an internal plot to resolve, not an external one. It was smart, it was well-executed and while it may not have given us two hours of Luke going crazy with a lightsaber, it did give us something far more substantial and better within the context of this new trilogy.
5) There was so much resolution by the end of this movie it felt like the end of the franchise, not the middle act of a trilogy. I have no idea how they’re going to finish this trilogy in two years. There is very little story hanging on the cliff. That’s exciting, but also worrying. I’ll have more to say later about what Episode IX might hold, but for now, Rian seems to have subscribed to the Christopher Nolan school of storytelling: Put your best out there hold nothing back for later. It’s up to the man who started this trilogy—JJ Abrams—to stick the landing.
For now we’re left with the boldest, riskiest film in the saga. It’s still not a perfect movie but its flaws lessen after the initial viewing. It’s a movie that will probably continue to age well and, despite so much resolution, be talked about for years to come, not just because of its mysteries (which will be answered in two-years time) but because of the themes and the story-telling choices that Rian Johnson was willing to give us.
See it twice.