Warning! Major spoilers follow. Read at your own risk.
I saw Last Jedi last night, and I must confess. I’m troubled. And not because it’s a bad movie. It’s not. If you came in without expectations it’s a fun night at the movies — like watching an Avengers movie. But I don’t want Star Wars to be like a Marvel flick. It’s supposed to be something more. It could have been something more. The story of Last Jedi is a story of a movie walking right up to the brink of greatness, staring cinematic immortality in the face, and saying, “Nah.”
How does it drop the ball? Let us count the ways. The opening battle was extraordinary. The doomed charge of the rebel bombers was reminiscent of the doomed attack of the American torpedo squadrons at the Battle of Midway. In a way, the movie picked up emotionally exactly where Rogue One left off — putting the “war” in Star Wars.
Then it did something almost entirely unexpected. The movie killed Princess Leia, and it killed her early — at the hands of a no-name Tie Fighter pilot who blew apart the bridge of the rebel heavy cruiser. It was shocking. It was sad, and it set the tone for an entirely new Star Wars movie.
Or not. In spite of explosive decompression, flames, and shrapnel, Leia floats in the vacuum, uses her own heretofore under-explored Jedi powers, and zips herself right back to the ship. Not only have we not seen Leia exercise that kind of power, I don’t recall any Jedi in any previous movie showing that level of survivability. But Leia had to live, so she transformed for a moment into a Marvel-style unkillable superhero.
Next, the movie accomplished what Lucas couldn’t quite pull off in the prequels. It made a convincing case for Kylo Ren’s rage. After all, if you wake up and your Jedi master is hovering over you with his lightsaber ignited, apparently ready to kill you in your sleep, I’d call that a betrayal and a declaration of war.
(I’d also note that this is typical Jedi BS. Remember when they attempted a summary execution of the lawfully-elected Chancellor of the Republic? I do.)
All at once, we see not only why Ren is such a conflicted, emo Sith, we also see why Rey might have compelling reason not to trust Luke. He made a colossal, deadly miscalculation. Moreover, a Jedi who would even consider killing a sleeping kid is not exactly the hero you thought he was or the hero you need. Then, when Ren saved Rey’s life, and they fought together in one of the most epic lightsaber sequences in Star Wars history, I thought we just might see something extraordinary — an ambiguous ending, with Jedi and Sith hand-in-hand and undefined. Good or evil? Did the light prevail or the dark or the dark over the light?
But no. Just after saving Rey’s life, Ren lapses into back into cartoony villainy so over-the-top that joining him would betray everything we know about Rey. So she refuses, and we’re back to normal Star Wars again.
(By the way, let me just interject here and say that the light-speed kamikaze flight of the rebel cruiser was so freaking cool that it almost redeemed the whole movie. Almost.)
Finally, let’s get to Luke’s last stand. It would have been cool to see the “last Jedi” unleash his full powers to survive the walkers only to fall at the hands of his old pupil, his vitality drained by the effort to survive the First Order onslaught. Instead, he was essentially a hologram. It cheapened the entire confrontation and made his decision to fade away far less poignant than the epic gut-punch of Obi-Wan’s “death” in Episode IV.
Imagine a different ending, with Luke and Leia escaping a newly-united Kylo Ren and Rey. That would be the kind of ending that replicates the craziness of Empire. One of the things that made Empire so great was its willingness — as the middle chapter — to embrace ambiguity. There was no happy ending. We were shocked by Luke’s identity, fearful for Han’s fate, and wondered what the father/son bond between Luke and Vader would mean for the next chapter. A Ren/Rey alliance (convincingly created) wouldn’t mean she’d gone to the dark side or he’d gone to the light. It would mean the story was up for grabs, and it would have built an incredible amount of anticipation for the next chapter.
But no. To the extent there’s any suspense, we’re basically wondering how a resistance reduced to a force that fits in the Millennium Falcon can offer any kind of response to the First Order. The next movie’s got some work to do to make this new story half as memorable as the original trilogy. Right now, it’s settling in between the prequels and the originals. That’s a lot of fun, and it’s totally worth seeing, but it’s not the story we hoped to see.