Episode VIII directed by Rian Johnson continues the story of the opposing forces of First Order versus Resistance and gives us a whole bunch of clawing-into-your-friend’s-arm moments. Most people are raving about this movie but why was it a let-down for me?
Let’s start with talking about the overarching structure and the themes of the movie and go into more specific details later. First of all, it becomes pretty clear that this is a Rian Johnson movie in the opening sequence. Poe Dameron, our beloved loud-mouth and the best pilot we’ve seen in a long time, leads us into an action sequence that gets your heart racing. And with the innocent mindset of just having started the movie, I enjoyed the heck out of it and didn’t realize this was going to be pretty much every second scene. My point is: the pacing of this movie was off throughout the entire episode for me. One action sequence chases the next and while they are incredibly entertaining and pretty-looking, they lack substance. Plus, they overshadow, if not suffocate, the scenes scattered in between that offer exposition or emotional grounding. It needed to slow down for more than a few minutes and let the story breathe.
A friend told me that we can either accept the new form of storytelling in the Star Wars franchise and celebrate it or be sad and mourn the “George Lucas touch”. However, this is not what causes my criticism. I like every Star Wars movie, including the prequels and also this one, but I get bothered by movies that have explosions and throw-downs as their centerpiece when they’re actually about something else. Mainly because I have yet to find more than a handful of projects that can juggle over-the-top action and actual emotional effectiveness. The Fast and Furious franchise is great because it doesn’t try (at least not too hard) to be anything else but action-packed fun. But the force is connected with spiritual themes and serious questions of morals and existence which where neglected in episode VIII.
This also connects to my next point: the movie tries to comment on war, animal abuse and slavery but doesn’t take it to the end, which feels really pointless. Criticizing individuals that profit from war while every 5 minutes thousands of people are shot or blown up in those epic battles that are made to look cool and function as the primary entertainment device, is hypocritical and cancels any attempt of including social commentary. The same is true for animal abuse: while Finn and Rose are in Canto Bight, one of several instances occurs in which the movie tries to pull our heart strings by utilizing animals. In this city, Fathiers are forced to race and are housed in pretty terrible conditions. Rose and Finn team up with the children there and release them all (mainly to escape themselves). Thankfully, their prosecutors don’t think of shooting their ride, this is Disney after all. And all we get is a final “Now it’s worth it” from Rose before we leave this planet for good and are supposed to believe that those Fathiers live a happy and free live from now on? Thematic strings were lazily left dangling which, again, felt pointless.
The humor in this movie is something that both makes it better and tips the tone just an inch too far to the cheesy side. Once more, I have to say that the quieter moments sometimes felt cheesy because they were overtaken by blasters and jokes. Not to say all of it was counterproductive: probably my favorite scene in the entire movie is when Luke finally takes the lightsaber from Rey (seriously, her arm must’ve hurt), looks at it and then just casually throws it over his shoulder. That was absolute gold and felt exactly like something a fed-up Jedi Master, especially one named Luke Skywalker, would do. Leia had some very funny scenes and C-3PO delightfully harmonized with other characters such as Poe. Kylo Ren and General Hux continued their competitive feud with the addition of amusing back-and-forths. Overall, I laughed at almost every joke and joyfully smiled at throwbacks and fanservice moments.
Let’s move over to characters and their relationships. The one person that really disrupted the story for me was Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). In general, it felt like the storyline of the Resistance was desperately trying not to drop the tension and increase or change the stakes every few scenes. It starts off with a little conflict between Poe and Leia (100% Team Leia btw), then a pretty much unexplained lightspeed tracker appears, then they lose Leia’s leadership and she gets momentarily replaced with Vice Admiral Holdo. She literally functioned as a plot device and had nothing to her character but the role of a cardboard stand-in to oppose Poe. Her connection to and with Leia is only shown when the significance doesn’t matter anymore. The attempt to create a sense of distaste for the character in the audience and then turn it around to maybe even admiring her (like Poe did) completely falls on its face because no time is actually invested in her personality. We are just told that she’s a hero and her selfless death is supposed to seal the deal. All of which could’ve been prevented if she just told everyone her plan right away. What good is it to make everyone believe they’re most probably going to die anyway? Leia said the Vice Admiral was protecting the light rather than trying to seem like a hero but what does that matter when she left the Resistance literally in the dark about a plan that might’ve sparked hope? And in the end, she totally goes the dying-for-a-cause hero route relentlessly.
Before explaining what I loved about the characters (which will happen, I promise!), I have to get two more things out of my system. First, Finn and Rose. When they meet, their exchange is really funny and I immediately liked Rose. Their adventure to look for a master codebreaker was unnecessary but their dynamic was enjoyable. What tipped the boat was Rose’s sudden outburst of romantic feelings for Finn, resulting in kissing him. However, I will consider the possibility that she was high on the thrill of war and simply relieved to have saved Finn, in which case, this is totally fine and kind of sweet. But if this will actually turn into a love story between the two, count me out. Again, not enough time was invested to build this kind of relationship so the kiss felt forced and out of place for this kind of future development. And secondly, Captain Phasma. After the outcry of Star Wars and just outright Gwendoline Christie fans, I was on high alert when she finally got more screen time. Unfortunately, she only gets a two-second fight with Finn which should’ve been an emotionally charged battle between a slave and his master. Her death really disappointed me and the entire sequence was weirdly orchestrated. Benicio del Toro’s character (DJ), which I really enjoyed, apparently only served for them to get caught by Phasma, leading to the final confrontation. And when Vice Admiral Holdo basically slices the ship in two, Finn and Rose are conveniently separated from Phasma and her troops, who – just a second later – walk out of the dust in perfect formation like nothing happened.
And now the things I really loved: First of all, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker was brilliant. He brought the humor, the brooding, the power and balanced all in one great portrayal of the beloved character. His relationship to Rey was highly reflective of his own experience with Yoda and executed in a sweet and heartfelt manner. Although I still don’t really understand the island with its 5-book library and dark side pitfalls and I would’ve liked some more information, Rey’s development on said island is really amazing. You can see the desperation and fear in Luke’s eyes when he (and Rey) slowly realizes more and more how strong she actually is. Daisy Ridley does a stellar job and conveys insecurity, loneliness, being lost, wisdom, power, pain, love and fear with the exact right amount of intensity.
Kylo Ren is definitely a controversial character, I am one of those people who always really enjoyed him. This movie made me love him. What this instalment cleverly achieved was to show us snippets in the trailer, sparking all sorts of theories and placing them in a completely different context in the movie. Just like Luke said, “This is not going to go the way you think”. This includes Rey’s “I need someone to show me my place in all this”, Snoke’s “Fulfill your destiny” or Kylo’s hand reaching out for Rey. The scene showing Kylo speeding towards Leia with the intention to destroy her ship was really impactful and for a brief moment, Kylo loses to Ben. Now, this moment was very well directed and edited. Adam Driver’s and Carrie Fisher’s painful eyes sent a shiver down my spine and the fighters racing past Kylo, shaking him out of it made me gasp. And what follows is one of the most deserved character developments: Leia finally shows us that she can use the force and in no small matter that is. She just casually pulls herself back to the ship in outer space like the badass she is.
Rey and Kylo were the perfect polarized representatives of the force and both their struggles to choose one side is what ultimately connects them. Their first contact via force-Skype felt displaced but all their other interactions were tense and touching. Even if you had your mind made up about the future of these two, their influence on each other added some stakes that made me forget to breathe. And talk about epic fights that made me bury my nails into my friend’s arm! Their side-by-side combat against Snoke’s security guards was one hell of a spectacle. All of the scenes with Rey, Kylo and Snoke were brilliant, except for the actual demise of Snoke. Honestly, he wasn’t a highly engaging character to begin with and I’m fine with how he went out, it just felt somewhat rushed. After Rylo had taken out the red shirts, there was a moment where I actually thought that they would team up. Kylo wants a completely new world and I would think that to be the best option as well, just not with him as the leader. The actual conversation about Rey’s parents was what got a little swallowed by lightsaber-through-the-eye-socket epicness. Many theories have spread across the internet but I was absolutely certain that her parents would be “nobody”. If they had actually chosen a family tree of any significance, I would’ve rolled my eyes beyond return. Ergo, the reveal was a little weak but the actual information is awesome! Rise from nothing, Rey, and show the world that you don’t need special blood to be great.
And finally, the relationship between Luke and Kylo was entertaining, stirring and heartbreaking. All of which contributes to the possibility of Kylo finding his inner Ben again. At this point, anything can happen and while the positions of the First Order and the Resistance remained essentially the same at the beginning and end of the movie, the loss of the OPs Luke and Snoke leveled the playing field and now enables these complicated, multi-faceted conflicts within and between Kylo and Rey. They are not as black and white as their masters… maybe some shade of grey?
There are so many other things that I would like to discuss but I think that would be an endless endeavor. Bottom-line: there are many things that bothered me (Dark BB8) but there are also many things that I absolutely freaking loved (Yoda). To all the plot holes, convenient story developments and weak characters there are thrilling twists, exciting stakes and glorious interactions. It’s almost as if there were a balance between good and bad, light and dark.
Because I am aware that further viewings might gravely alter my opinion, I will withhold my rating for now and give myself into the experience that doesn’t end with the credits. I’m in constant conversations and discussions with friends and hearing opinions is just as fun as sharing them so please tell us what you thought in the comments below!