So here we are, at the middle juncture of another movie trilogy. This is where many series shine brightest, whether it's Terminator 2, The Dark Knight, The Road Warrior, or this franchises own legendary The Empire Strikes Back. This is where the characters have been introduced and so the filmmakers are free to take them on their wildest ride while not having to introduce the players. Unfortunately, The Last Jedi stumbles for many reasons, one of them being that there are too many characters. Writer/director Rian Johnson has all the characters still around from the original trilogy (Luke, Leia, R2D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca), and the ones introduced in 2015's The Force Awakens (Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe, Supreme Leader Snoke, BB-8), and instead decides to ratchet things up with even more new characters to introduce, including a nervous maintenance worker named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), Leia understudy Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), and a safecracker played by Benicio Del Toro in one of the oddest performances in a major tentpole movie I've ever seen. This ends up meaning that most all characters get shortchanged, and the ones we care about don't get the kind of development they need. This also causes the action to have less weight, which is aided by Johnson's incessant twists and turns trying to stay ahead of the audience, and the movie ends up being too long while not accomplishing anything to justify its length.
After an effective cold open, where rogue hero Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) ignores an order from General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and ends up taking out a dreadnaught First Order ship, but losing a lot of good resistance fighters in the process, we pick up right where we left off at the end of Force Awakens. Rey has found Luke Skywalker in his self imposed exile, and intends to convince him to join the rebel fight against the Empire (First Order, whatever, movie Nazis under a different name, it doesn't matter and Empire is quicker to write than First Order, though Domhnall Gleeson is playing his role of General Hux to the absolute delicious hilt of movie Nazism). And I'll stop with the plot description there because it doesn't matter. You've either seen it, or are going to see it, and plot description isn't gonna change that so let's get into the meat of the discussion.
What really works in this movie are the actors. Kelly Marie Tran as Rose is really good and a nice compliment to Finn on their end of the adventure. Carrie Fisher brings a nice gravitas to Leia's role, although her surviving in deep space with use of the force, and then being exhausted and comatose when she gets back inside the ship didn't work for me. I guess it was there to remind us that Leia is powerful in the force too, but since this is basically the only time we've ever seen it, it hit a false note to me. Laura Dern is fine in her role, but there's really not much there. She's an actress I always enjoy seeing on screen but I wish she was given more to do.
Rounding out the wonderful ladies of Star Wars is Daisy Ridley's Rey, once again bringing that certain undefinable star power and charisma to the character, including more emotions this time as we see Rey struggle with having no parental role models in her life as she tried to fill that hole with Han Solo, and probably Chewy to a certain extent, and now Luke. Ridley is wonderful in the role and I wish there had been even more focus on exploring her and her character. She's the lead of the series, but I think there's potential there that's being wasted.
Oscar Isaac has some good moments as Poe Dameron, but there's not a lot there outside of "rogue pilot". The same holds true for John Boyega as Finn. He brought so much humanity and humor to the role in Force Awakens, but here he's relegated to not much, really. And although we remember that he and Rey were kind of a team in Force Awakens, Finn's attachment to Rey and trying to look out for seemingly his only friend in the universe somehow rang hollow to me here. Mark Hamill brings a lot to the table as Luke, and although there's a little too many attempts at cheap humor for the character, Hamill plays everything wonderfully. You can see the hopeful kid we met in 1977's first entry, and see the wizened old man he's become, full of regrets and pain and disappointment. Andy Serkis's motion capture work as Snoke is blah. It's the standard villain role, crusty old man, deep evil voice, leaving no lasting impression whatsoever other than "nice cgi work." Though his obviously Dario Argento inspired lair is one of the movie's best highlights.
The real story of the male performances, just as he was in the previous movie, is Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Driver has quickly grown into one of our finest actors, and he does terrific work here. He shows all of Kylo's anger and power constantly bubbling under the surface, always looking to please his masters, whether it was Luke Skywalker in the past or Snoke now. And he's destined to be hurt and disappointed until he takes full ownership of his own power and steps into it, which he does here. Gone is the petulant man child from Force Awakens, but in its place is Kylo truly discovering his inner power, with grave potential for everyone around him.
The best part of the movie is the telepathic conversations between the two young leads (and best characters), Kylo and Rey. They spontaneously begin to see into each other's worlds and are able to interact. They both also believe that they can turn to other to their side of the force. These scenes are electric and powerful and fascinating and could not be better played by these actors. That's where he heart of this movie is and where more time should've been spent.
I must admit that when that famous music started blaring with the words "Star Wars" taking up on the screen, I had a rush of childlike glee within myself. I got goosebumps. I was prepared to forgive this movie any of its flaws just like I'd been able to do for The Force Awakens (and unable to do for the disappointing Rogue One). But as the movie went on, I realized that Rian Johnson had tried to trick us. He tried to outsmart us. He tried to stay two steps ahead instead of just making a great movie. There are too many twists and turns here. When the twist comes from Benicio Del Toro's character, we've not come to know him, we didn't have a trust in him, we didn't even know who he was, so his betrayal has no weight to it. And that same thing holds true to too much of the movie. Johnson was too concerned about staying ahead of us and so his twists and turns don't mean anything.
And it feels weird to say about a sci-fi action movie, but there's too much action. The movie has too many lasers being shot and people running or flying away and it all becomes just a bunch of noise. There's too little variation, and what could've been an impactful final light saber battle between two men who need to sort things out between them, falls down narratively (even if Luke standing against the oncoming AT-AT's is an amazing shot). It just doesn't hold the weight that it should have. And I'd say that about the whole movie. Whereas Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie because it's the darkest, most emotional, and narratively riskiest, The Last Jedi certainly aspired to that, but didn't achieve it.
Also, fuck those stupid little porg animals.