It is to be expected in modern cinema for a movie franchise to bloat then implode like a giant stellar body; crushed under its own weight. “The Force Awakens”, despite its derivative structure, gave long time-fans of the beloved Star Wars franchise hope that a rebirth in the Universe they love could be imminent. However, the backlash to “The Last Jedi” is palpable and there may be an objective storytelling explanation to this…
I feel the issue with “The Last Jedi” is it fails to really land on any of the plots laid before it. It feels almost disjointed from Episode VII entirely and transforms into a series of branching subplots that flow more similar to one of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations than any cohesive Star Wars adventure. In the Original Trilogy it was common for characters to be split up then reunite. It had become a trope of the series, but all causes seemed united in the end. Even Luke, who abandons the Rebellion to pursue his Jedi teachings and to confront Darth Vader alone as part of a greater calling, ultimately returns to fight alongside his allies by the third film.
In Episode VIII it seems like they wanted to follow the same path but without any guidance or endpoint. The big climax of the movie is a short, almost lifeless battle that, while beautifully shot on a planet covered in salt, is a ripple in a puddle instead of the needed tidal wave. Most of the characters are out of the action and the events feel motionless and without spirit. It all unfolds with no gravitas; no explosiveness. Despite urgency, hurriedness and the illusion of a fatal threat, at no point is any real danger properly conveyed. I think this is where “The Last Jedi” really falls flat. There is so much going on that none of it feels like it really matters.
The cluttered events of the film all overshadow each other, resulting in no one character really having a moment of great strength. Instead, the movie is flooded with superfluous characters, one of each archetype, and none of them have actions that are all that impactful. A touch that made Star Wars so relatable was that the heroes were not super-soldiers; They were hermits, farmers and criminals. They were not established icons of the galaxy who did their jobs well; They were regular people who rose to greatness. “The Force Awakens” had this and was (for the most part) successful in how it developed Finn and Rey. In TLJ, neither of these two characters contribute much on their own and instead the writers egregiously gave several heroic sacrifices that would have been great turns for lead characters to faceless new “heroes” we did not know or care about because the writers (and probably Disney) did not want to risk killing off a named character. This toothlessness is a massive weakness to this movie.
Lastly, I think the biggest problem with TLJ is Rey. As a character, she’s fine; and Daisy Ridley gives a solid performance when she is actually given a chance, but she is used so poorly that it ultimately becomes a waste. The writers give her no flaws, they give her no real moments of weakness and the one turn that could have been amazing (occurring when she confronts Kylo Ren in person) is avoided because she has to be good. Not only is she good, but she is spectacular at everything. Luke Skywalker had this problem, too. He was a solid shot with a gun, an ace pilot, and a Jedi savant but at least he did appear to work for most of this, especially when it came to the Force. Rey is just good at everything for no reason and because of this massive writing flaw, everything on screen acts against her or happens to her and she is always outside of the action, even when she’s in it! It’s a trope that is common in movies that I and some others call “Lead Character Invincibility”, where nothing too gross or horrific can happen directly to a character if the writers feel it is essential to make them pure or perfect. Rey’s been labeled by fans a “Mary Sue”, but I’m not even sure if that’s entirely accurate. She’s more like an avatar. She exists in the movie as a perfect Jedi hero for fans to project themselves onto. As a result she must be a blank slate. She can’t have too much personality or too much of an apparent emotional connection or turn, otherwise it can be hard to sell her as an action figure.
..and that’s the the major issue isn’t it? The heroes and villains in “The Last Jedi” are all just action figures. None of them feel solid. They all sort of flop around and do their action figure things in their action figure vehicles. There are great action scenes but we aren’t talking about set pieces, we’re talking about characters. They’re all self-insert shells to set up moments of greatness that never really pay off for any one character. The only moments where any of the characters actually come across as living things in this Universe are when the badass pilot Poe Dameron takes out an array of anti-cruiser cannons from a ship all by himself and when the villain Kylo Ren (a character that steals the show thanks to Adam Driver’s great performance) is faced with a moment of conflict when facing Rey. Everything else is set dressing. Even Luke Skywalker’s triumphant return is executed lazily and blandly.
I do not think Episode VIII is a bad movie. It’s certainly an entertaining action film but it is not a strong entry in this franchise. It is too lacking in character or personality to really matter. Everything is shallow and lifeless, like a scene in one of the many Star Wars coloring books on sale right now in your local grocery store for just $2.99!