I don't want to write this review.
Gushing about an amazing movie in a positive review is so much more fun than writing a negative one. So honestly, I haven't had a whole lot of fun writing reviews for the last several months. Thor: Ragnarok was a joke - literally. Justice League was a huge letdown.
And now I find myself here, adding Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi to that disappointing list.
So here's what's going to happen. I’m going to write this initial, spoiler-free review for those who haven’t yet seen the film. Then I will post a second, full-spoiler, in-depth take later on. Here we go.
Early press for TLJ was overwhelmingly positive. That always makes me nervous. I had hoped that maybe the movie would live up to the hype, but I also took that praise with a grain of salt. I didn't read any reviews beforehand obviously, just looked up a few scores from regular sources, and one or two short takes on Twitter. So while my expectations were primed, I cannot say that my disappointment is a by-product of an overhyped film. It isn't.
The Last Jedi is a gigantic, clunky mess. Structurally speaking, this thing feels cobbled together with parts that were never meant to align. There are several subplots that feel unnecessary, underwhelming, and poorly executed. One never gets the sense that this story has a central drive, purpose, or destination. The narrative is so loose that by the end the audience has to work to gather all the pieces together in an attempt to make sense of what happened.
Tonally, TLJ is all over the place. There are a few moments of true heroism amidst dire circumstances, and some genuinely high emotional stakes. But once again, as was the case with Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, and even Justice League, sixty seconds into the movie we are already being bombarded by silly jokes. There are some well-placed moments of comic relief that are genuinely worthy of laughter, but yet again, for every good joke there are a couple bad or poorly placed ones. And that quantity and quality of silly humor is not something that needs to be in Star Wars.
Part of good storytelling is setting up expectations and fulfilling them in satisfying, and possibly surprising, ways. Following The Force Awakens, there were obviously some very pressing questions that we were all asking, questions that we hoped would be answered in The Last Jedi. These questions not only go unanswered, they are dismissed. Much of what was setup in The Force Awakens is either ignored completely or disregarded. Creating expectations and then subverting them in a creative or clever way is a tried-and-true storytelling technique. But there is a huge difference between subverting expectations, and disregarding them entirely. The Last Jedi consistently does things you will not expect, but in an entirely unsatisfying way. It contradicts your expectations not for a narrative purpose, but simply for the sake of being different or surprising. And that is not good storytelling.
I had high hopes for Rian Johnson’s take on Star Wars, as I’m a fan of some of his earlier work. But in all honestly, it’s like he got the keys to the Star Wars toybox and set about make-believing his own Star Wars story like a child at playtime. Granted, that toybox has some awesome toys, action figures, and practically bottomless resources (because the toybox has Disney written on the side of it). But the film felt like a child’s parody of what a Star Wars movie might look like.
Most of the problems come from bad writing, plain and simple. Much of the dialogue is insipid, cliché, or far too on-the-nose. Characters make utterly baffling decisions and take ludicrous actions which entirely detract from the believability of the story. Some of the new characters are altogether uninteresting or flat-out bad. And one whole plot-thread could have been easily avoided by having a very short conversation between two characters, and there is absolutely no reason why that conversation shouldn’t have happened. The film seemingly promises big pay-off moments that it never makes good on. Throughout the whole film I was left wondering, “Why do it this way?” None of it seems to make much sense at all.
However, there are a few good moments. The backstory between Luke and Kylo Ren is a highlight, but even that could have been better executed. The relationship between Luke and Rey had some really good moments, but should have gone far deeper. Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa gets several moments to shine. Mark Hamill gives probably his best performance as Luke Skywalker. And perhaps the strongest part of the film is the tenuous connection between Rey and Kylo Ren.
But these moments are too few and far between to save this movie. The Last Jedi is a whole lot of spectacle and not a lot of substance. It’s a movie that consistently goes for the momentary thrill versus lasting storytelling, for the mildly-shocking surprise rather than the genuine payoff.
I hate saying this, but Star Wars: The Last Jedi is not a good movie. It’s entertaining. It’s pretty to look at. It might even make you laugh. But on the inside, it’s empty. It’s just nothing. And that is hard for me to accept. Star Wars, and my childhood heroes, deserve much, much better.