On Saturday night, I went with my wife and dad to see the new Star Wars film. I’ll save my general rating for the end of this review, but it’s very difficult to put an overall grade on such a chaotic film. There are great parts, there are terrible parts, and there’s a lot in between. The best way to break this thing down is to bifurcate between the good stuff and the bad stuff. So that’s what we’ll do.
STOP HERE IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS.
So, without further ado, here’s what’s wrong with the film:
1. The Force Awakens Apparently Never Happened. At the end of the last movie, you’ll recall, the Rebel Alliance blew up the Starkiller Base, devastating the First Order’s capacity to make war. Or not. It turns out that they’ve still got heavy advantages in weaponry, which they make obvious from the outset. It’s somewhat weird that the Republic was re-established and fell in less than 40 years thanks to weapons inferiority. I’m fine with pretending The Force Awakens didn’t happen — it essentially ruined my childhood by turning Han Solo into a loser absentee father — but it’s tough to dismiss the ending and just start as though the Rebel Alliance didn’t do a whit of damage to the First Order.
2. There Is No Gravity In Space. The opening sequence features bombers dropping explosives on a First Order dreadnought. It’s a cool scene. But the bombers literally drop explosives in space. That’s not a thing, guys.
3. Snoke Is A Throwaway. In the last film, JJ Abrams made a big deal out of this Snoke guy. Now, I’m not a fellow who spends a lot of time googling whether Snoke is actually Darth Plagueis or whether he’s Mace Windu. But if you’re going to build up a big baddie who has the power to seduce Kylo Ren to the Dark Side, completely override Rey’s force abilities, and threaten Luke, you’ve got to tell us who the heck he is. And then he’s dispatched in particularly easy fashion by Kylo Ren. It’s satisfying to see him go, but he can’t be that scary if Kylo Ren can take him out by activating a light saber.
4. Kylo Ren Isn’t Intimidating. This is the biggest problem. In TFA, JJ Abrams did Kylo Ren a tremendous injustice by making him a petulant man-child who is stymied by a Mary Sue. Remember, Darth Vader literally doesn’t lose a battle until Return of the Jedi — and even that’s after Luke nearly turns to the Dark Side. By castrating Kylo Ren in TFA, it makes it difficult to think of him as the ultimate bad guy in the universe. Snoke was supposed to fill that gap. Now Snoke is dead. Why, exactly, should the Rebel Alliance be worried? Rey has bested Kylo several times already, plus Leia apparently has Force abilities, plus General Hux isn’t exactly terrifying.
5. Rey’s Backstory Sucks. After the last film, there was an insane amount of buzz about who Rey was. Who were her parents? Was she Obi-Wan’s granddaughter? Did Luke have a kid he didn’t know about? Was she Han’s bastard? Then it turns out that she’s just a nobody. Now, some of this is George Lucas’ fault for his midi-chlorians nonsense in the prequels, which made coordination with the Force a sort of genetic inheritance. The series wanted to reset so that anybody could have abilities with the Force — a laudable goal. But by sucking Rey out of the family drama, we’re no longer dealing with the central storyline — a point Kylo Ren makes to Rey openly. I guess the idea is that we’re supposed to now think that small street urchins without any sort of bloodline can become incredible Jedi. That’s democratic, but it’s not true to the storyline, and it doesn’t provide any drama.
6. Luke’s Weird Farmer Life Is Weird. Did we really need a whole day of Luke going around milking an alien seacow and drinking it?
7. Luke Is A Bad Teacher. Luke says that he’s going to provide Rey three lessons. The lessons consist of him (1) telling her what the Force is (okay, we already knew that); (2) having her touch a rock and see the Dark Side (she’s drawn in by it but not seduced). There is no third lesson — that’s a lesson for Luke from Yoda, who makes an odd cameo to tell Luke that the Force doesn’t need old texts, so let’s burn us some antique books. Rey literally learns zero practical things from Luke. This isn’t Yoda teaching Luke on Dagoba. It’s just Luke moping.
8. Celebrity Cameos Make No Sense. Laura Dern with purple hair? Benicio Del Toro stuttering? What are these people doing here?
9. Poe Dameron’s Story Arc Is Foolish. Poe is supposed to be newfangled Han Solo. Fail. First off, there is no new Han Solo. Second, Poe is a dolt. And Admiral Laura Dern, working with Leia, has a plan they could easily just tell Poe and solve half the conflict of the plot. Why keep it secret from Poe? We never find out. Instead, Poe runs around like a moron, making stupid plans with Finn that have no actual effect on the plotline.
10. Finn’s Storyline Is Useless. Finn should have died at the end of TFA. He should have died at the end of The Last Jedi. Instead, he goes on a random jaunt to Monte Carlo with aliens, and then rides a bunch of camel/horse/kangeroos to freedom while street urchins cheer. It’s godawful. Then, finally, when he’s about to do something useful, Rose stops him from doing it. Why is he here again, except to have awkward hugs with Rey?
11. Rose Is Useless. Rose is added to the plot to give Finn someone to travel with and develop awkward romance with. But her presence is simply not useful. She doesn’t do anything particularly special. She does give Finn a lecture about income inequality, though. So I guess that’s something.
12. Social Justice Warrioring On Interplanetary Monte Carlo Is Awful. Awful. In this little jaunt, we learn that income inequality is bad (see, street urchins are riding the magic horsecamels, and that’s terrible!), that animal abuse is bad (see, the ugly alien is abusing the magic horsecamels and that’s terrible!), and that weapons dealing is bad (yeah, talk to the Rebel Alliance using all those X-Wings). This whole sequence never should have happened.
13. Captain Phasma Is A Nothing. She’s apparently a white woman who wears a cool suit, and then Finn — a dude who five seconds ago was a janitor — beats her. Welp.
14. Luke Shouldn’t Have Been A Hologram. Turning Luke into Obi-Wan Kenobe for purposes of the reset makes some sense. But his death made none. Why is it cool for Luke to survive a barrage from AT-ATs if he’s not even there? Why is it cool for Luke to best Kylo Ren in a light saber battle if (1) Rey has already done so, and (2) Luke isn’t even there? They easily could have brought Luke there, and had him do exactly the same thing, but sacrifice himself — or perhaps just fade away in front of Kylo Ren.
15. The Powers Of The Force Aren’t Magic. We learn that through the Force, you can now hologram yourself places, and that you can also survive being thrown into space (Leia). Wut?
16. Light Speed Can’t Be Used As A Weapon. You can’t destroy ships by flying at them at light speed. If you could, the entire first scene would have been unnecessary (forget the bombers, just shoot an X-wing through that dreadnought), and the Rebel Alliance could have taken down every Death Star ever in the same way.
17. Why Would Luke Try To Kill Kylo? He tried to save Vader after Vader destroyed a planet and cut off his hand. He sensed good in him. He senses evil in Kylo and for a moment wants to kill him? That seems like a mild stretch at best.
18. There Are No Interesting Characters Left Except For Kylo Ren. So, now everybody’s dead. Han’s dead. Luke is dead. Leia was never that interesting, but Carrie Fisher died, so Leia can’t stick around for long. That means we’re left with the new characters — which is the point, since Star Wars can’t survive on nostalgia forever. But Rey isn’t particularly interesting — they just gave her a crappy backstory — and Poe is apparently stupid. Finn is a nonentity and nobody cares about Rose. This leaves Kylo Ren as the only interesting character in the Star Wars universe, and unlike Vader, who was wildly intimidating because of his mystery, it’s incredibly unclear that Kylo Ren can carry this series on his shoulders. It’s also unclear why Kylo Ren would want to rule the galaxy at this point. Everybody’s dead, he’s gotten his revenge on everybody except Leia (who he didn’t want to kill), and he seems to have little idea how to govern except for Hulk Smash.
19. Kylo Should Have Sided With Rey. This is the biggest problem of all. Once Kylo and Rey team up, they should stay teamed up. Rey is a far cooler character as a moderating influence on Kylo than on her own. And Kylo is far more interesting as a character trying to hold his darkness in check than as a guy who gives into it. There’s also no hint that Kylo has some desperate need to rule the universe, so it’s odd that he gives up the possibilities of a joint rule with Rey in order to destroy the transports. Why wouldn’t he just call off the attack on the transports and then work with Rey? That would be a radically different direction for the franchise. As it is, we’re back to Luke vs. Darth, that binary fight that was only interesting the first time around.
Okay, that’s a lot of criticism. But it’s not all bad.
Here’s what’s right with the film:
1. The Kylo/Rey Connection Works. The entire film is built on this relationship. It’s the only interesting thing remaining in this universe. The scenes in which Kylo is being called to the Light Side by Rey absolutely work. They’re great. The truth is that Star Wars was always built on relationships, and this is the only remaining interesting one. You believe it when Kylo turns against Snoke. That’s what makes for one of the best scenes in the Star Wars canon.
2. The Light Saber Battle. The killing of Snoke works emotionally, although as noted before, it makes little sense to kill Snoke before we learn anything about him. But the Rey/Kylo team-up is awesome — it brought open cheers in the theater. The choreography works, it’s emotionally resonant. It was a mistake to immediately jettison that for a forced conflict between Kylo and Rey.
3. Luke’s Final Scene. The mirror image of Luke looking off into the distance at the two suns of Tattooine is his death scene. It works, and it’s heartbreaking. If you grew up with Mark Hamill at 26 and now you’re watching him fade out at age 66, that’s pretty moving stuff. That’s why he should have gone out in a blaze of glory rather than with a cheap apparition trick.
Those big things that are right with the film are more important, in many ways, than the things that are wrong with the film. Rian Johnson, the director, didn’t play it safe, and that’s great. But he did play it safe by having Kylo return to the Dark Side and turning Rey into an avatar of populism. Those are mistakes that will haunt the franchise. And without Luke and Han and the nostalgia factor, can Star Wars carry forward with the same legacy, without just turning into another Avengers series — a fun watch that has no real emotional resonance?
Overall, better than The Force Awakens, which doesn’t hold up on repeat, and planted seeds that poisoned The Last Jedi, particularly with regard to Kylo Ren. Not as good as Rogue One, and below Return of the Jedi. It’s difficult to imagine how Episode IX can remain interesting with a universe this narrowed and a set of compelling characters reduced to a grand total of two: Kylo and Rey.