As Star Wars fans find themselves in the middle of a film drought but a streaming series monsoon, we are coming up on some milestone anniversaries for the Disney-era films. Today marks the fifth anniversary of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, which delighted critics, angered some fans, and opened the door even further for the kind of toxicity that has permeated every major franchise since. In the eye of the storm lies Rian Johnson, whose career was not only unharmed by the whole affair but was actually bolstered. And, as much as some Star Wars fans would vehemently shake their heads in disagreement, it wasn’t because The Last Jedi was the worst thing to ever happen to Star Wars. The film even had moments of brilliance.
But those moments were overshadowed by some uneven character development and questionable side plots. Let’s revisit what made The Last Jedi great and what left most fans scratching their heads, wondering what happened.
The Good: A Return to Auteurship
There were mixed feelings from fandom and critics on the “success” of The Force Awakens as a continuation of the Skywalker Saga. On the one hand, making a trilogy that was better than the Prequels was a low bar, even though Prequel fans have become louder and more prominent in sticking up for the narrative and storytelling choices of George Lucas. But George Lucas was the director and writer of all three Prequel films, so, love them or hate them, these films are his singular creative vision.
And even though the wooden dialogue only inspired wooden acting, you understood the story and the message Lucas was trying to convey. How did Chancellor Palpatine swindle the galaxy and become Emperor Palpatine? He initiated a war based on justified grievances from the Republic and the Separatists. He forced the Jedi Order to become the enforcement arm of the Republic instead of neutral peacekeepers.
There is a reason why Rian Johnson’s name is more famous than JJ Abrams, and it is not because he is hated by a section of the fandom that feels personally slighted by The Last Jedi. It’s because he took a swing. And when you take a swing at a beloved franchise, it is going to be divisive.
Rian Johnson has even gone on and started another successful franchise from the murder mystery genre with Knives Out. A true gift to murder mystery lovers as this will spawn copycat films and TV shows that will hopefully stand on the same level with Johnson’s franchise and not flounder like Kenneth Branaugh’s Hercule Poirot installments.
On the other hand, the Sequel Trilogy was a continuation of the events of the Original Trilogy, which is considered the Bible of Star Wars. And JJ Abrams did what JJ Abrams tends to do, copy the bones of the beloved original with some slight surface tweaks.
What Rian Johnson offered with The Last Jedi was an opportunity for the Sequel Trilogy’s own The Empire Strikes Back moment (two of them, in fact), both of which were regressed by JJ Abrams in The Rise of Skywalker.
The first was Kylo Ren killing Snoke to become the Supreme Leader. Unlike Darth Vader, who was a pawn to the Emperor, Ren cut down his Master when the former thought he had the upper hand. This turn, followed by the confrontation with Luke, opened the door to exploring the weight of a family legacy like the Skywalkers. Contrast this with a powerful Force-user like Rey, who was set up as a “nobody,” and you have fascinating commentary about identity and who gets to be a hero in the Star Wars universe. Rey struggles with finding balance and desperately wants to know about her parents. Despite joining the Resistance and having friends, she is still that little girl left on Jakku to fend for herself.
The Bad: Uneven Character Journeys
However, while Kylo and Rey both had compelling arcs in The Last Jedi, the development of Finn, Poe and Rose fell flat. Finn, who risked his life to protect Rey in The Force Awakens, spends the first half of this film trying to run away before going to a casino planet for someone who ultimately betrays them. He then tries to make a difference by sacrificing himself but is stopped by Rose. Speaking of the latter, Rose was a new character Rian introduced to act as the commentator. It is Rose who points out slave labor on Canto Bight and who comments on the pointlessness of self-sacrifice. She is not as loved as her Knives Out equivalent, Benoit Blanc, who also points out the absurdities of the characters and events surrounding him. Rose Tico was given the Jar Jar Binks treatment of ridicule, and Kelly Marie Tran was harassed on social media. Like with Ahmed Best and Binks, history and time will be kinder to Tran’s Rose (who already has one of the more popular quotes from the Sequel Trilogy). But it does not change the fact that she and Finn were given one of the worst storylines in the film. The purpose of the side plot is clear: Finn had to understand the power and importance of choosing to fight for something other than himself and to continue to fight. But if the journey to the point is poorly executed, the message holds little meaning.
The runner-up was Poe, who was learning to become a better leader via General Leia Organa and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. In the opening scene, Poe leads a counterattack on the First Order Dreadnaught. They successfully destroy the ship but at a significant loss of fighters. Leia attributes that to Poe’s stubbornness in always wanting to fight and not knowing when to retreat. Holdo felt the need to keep Poe in the dark about the plan to try and escape the First Order. Near the film’s end, when the Resistance is cornered by the First Order, Poe uses Luke’s distraction to get everyone left to safety. You cannot win a war if no one is left to fight. It is another vital lesson that Rian Johnson introduces but gets lost in weird character decisions. Why didn’t Holdo share the plan of evacuating to Crait with Poe? That level of secrecy in a dire situation would spur a mutiny, and Poe was justified in his concern. And it is unfortunate, but cannot be overlooked, that these weaker storylines involve all the characters of color.
And because Rian Johnson was not involved with The Rise of Skywalker, it opened the door for JJ Abrams to retcon what was refreshing about The Last Jedi: he took Rey Nobody and made her Rey Palpatine. It also left Rose Tico out to dry with 76 seconds of screen time after being the main character in Episode VIII.
Most people have the biggest issue with how Luke Skywalker was handled because he was not the Luke they remember. Never mind that it has been 32 years, and people change over time. I don’t care. There has already been enough Luke Skywalker content and will be more in live-action if Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau have their way that can fill in those gaps to make Luke’s later years digestible for disgruntled fans. This Sequel Trilogy was about the new characters, and Kylo, Rey, Poe, and Finn (with all their flaws) are still the best thing about these films.
But The Last Jedi has two of the most memorable scenes in the Sequel Trilogy, and they occur back to back in the film: Kylo Ren turn on Snoke/fight alongside Rey and the Holdo Maneuver. Say anything otherwise, and you are lying to yourself.
The Bottom Line
The Last Jedi is not the worst film in the Skywalker Saga (not even close), but it is, perhaps, the most disappointing because it gave a glimpse of genius buried somewhere beneath the bombast. It was like whiplash after watching a safer The Force Awakens. Although I wouldn’t say I liked how some things played out, I was curious about where things were going. More importantly, it made me realize that this should have been Rian Johnson’s Star Wars trilogy, and Lucasfilm should have gone all-in with him. Because Rian Johnson would have planned out the three films. Rian Johnson would have kept “Rey from nowhere” a nobody and leaned on the message that you do not have to be of the Skywalker, Kenobi, or Palpatine bloodline to be important.
The Last Jedi feels like a promise unfulfilled of a better trilogy. And five years later, that still hurts.