In less than 24 hours StarWars: The Last Jedi, which opened nation wide in movie theaters this week, has gone from being one of the most anticipated films of the year to one of the most divisive entries in the Lucasfilm saga. While the swing of the pendulum from raves to backlash is not only not surprising but typical of how movie love or film appreciation works in the days of social media. It requires a very short term memory. The last time Star Wars fans where this upset was barely two years ago when The Force Awakens came out and some dismissed it as a rehash of everything that was loved and idolized about A New Hope (like that's a bad thing). Regardless if you think that is oversimplifying that criticism or J.J Abrams excellent skills as a filmmaker, what can't be denied is that Episode 7 was a welcome reminder that a Star Wars film could be and should be FUN.
And that has been the expectation while waiting for The Last Jedi to arrive in theaters for the last two years, while the release of Rogue One fanned the flames showing us a different kind of Star Wars film, one that could expertly balance humor and profound pathos. Yet here we are and the internet Greek chorus has gone from AWESOME to TOO DIFFERENT FROM THE FORCE AWAKENS, quicker than a light speed jump, the reaction is not different from what happened when Empire Strikes Back was released three years after A New Hope took our collective imagination to a new level of pop culture bliss. Years later that second chapter in the Star Wars saga would be canonized as the best film in the series, but if you look at the reviews from most of the main critics of the era, the phrase 'not as fun as the first Star Wars' was used more than once.
So while it remains to be seen if appreciation for The Last Jedi will ever get to the level of Empire Strikes Back, in the case of the new Star Wars film, the backlash seems very similar to the reaction of someone who has been hungry for a bit fat juicy burger with fries being served with a very nutritious and fancy salad. And while that might not be the best analogy (or maybe I'm just hungry), you can't say that we weren't warned. "This will not go the way you think" was the stand out line from the last trailer for the film and that for the most part seems to be Rian Johnson's philosophy with this film in almost every level.
But his triumph lies in that he doesn't make it feel cheap or like he's just doing the opposite of what Abrams would have done. Johnson knows what a Star Wars film is or can be, and with this one he strives with bold strokes to take that to a new level. While he doesn't always succeed, The Last Jedi is the most daring film of the saga. Johnson's credo as a filmmaker manages to push the essence of these films and it's characters to new and unexpected places. He also retains the basic visual language of these movies while putting his own rich perspective on visuals that have poetic resonance and are meant to give the audience a thrilling emotional tingle on all their senses.
Which is to say that The Last Jedi is a much easier film to admire, but not as much fun as the previous one; and that Johnson is on much stronger footing here as a director than as a screenwriter. Most of film's imperfection has to do with a secondary storyline where Johnson is not able to hide how lost or bored he is with some of the characters that were launched in The Force Awakes. To those biting their nails, those do not include Rey or Kylo Ren. Whenever those two are on screen or Luke or Leia, the film has it's best moments and some of the most memorable and touching moments in the whole saga. Say what you will about where the story goes, but what can not be denied is that Mark Hamill has never been better as the farm boy dreamer turned Master Jedi. Johnson's touch with the classic character brings out a much more nuanced and satisfying performance from Carrie Fisher as General Leia than her outing in the previous film.
Johnson does good by BB-8 and Poe Dameron, given the new model of flyboy a satisfying if not predictable arc. But Johnson's main problem is turning Finn into an inconsistent weak link. While most of the other characters are facing life changing events that will alter the destiny of the fight between the Resistance (Good) and the First Order (Evil), Finn is given a throwaway mission to find a tracker that can save the rebels out of a life or death situation. Within that storyline Johnson is clearly more interested in his own creation Rose, a mechanic who is trying to honor her sisters sacrifice, than in Finn and he also lets Benicio Del Toro, as the hacker in question, to annoyingly quirk up his line delivery with what is clearly one of the most straight forward characters in the script. It takes getting to the end of the film to find out what Johnson was doing by sending Finn and Rose to the rich and decadent sector of the galaxy, but before the small payoff arrives the storyline feels like filler which was one of the Star Wars prequels crime.
So to be clear, StarWars: The Last Jedi is nowhere near the disappointment that the prequels were, but it also may not have the level of greatness that Empire Strikes Back reached (time will tell on that one). What is does do thrillingly well is to take Star Wars and it's beloved characters to new unexpected places while leaving the door open to a new film where literally anything could happen.
StarWars: The Last Jedi is in theaters NOW.