This is not the Star Wars movie you're looking for . . . and that's ok!
This is it, guys! After two years of waiting, we're back on the island of Ahch-To! Rey is about to hand Luke the lightsaber! His father's lightsaber! It's the moment we've all been waiting for! Perhaps the biggest moment in a Star Wars film ever!
Or . . . maybe not.
There's perhaps no better summary to Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi then Luke casually tossing his legacy off a cliff and walking away without so much as a question to a startled Rey. Writer/director Rian Johnson might as well have stood up in the theater with a megaphone at that point and shouted "This is not going to be what you expect, and everything you think is important is not."
Much as with the Force itself, there is both good and bad in Johnson's choice.
As loved as The Force Awakens was, most everyone acknowledged that it relied heavily on tropes and regurgitated previous themes and plots from the original trilogy. This sin was largely forgiven by audiences, perhaps because we were all so collectively starved for new Star Wars content we just didn't care. But The Last Jedi didn't have the benefit of being the first Star Wars movie in a long time. Johnson was left to make tough decisions. Think about where JJ Abrams left him at the end of TFA. We have a talented pupil in need of training by a wise old master so that (s)he can challenge a powerful agent of evil who may yet still be redeemed but is under the sway of a mysterious villain. Sound familiar? Is it any wonder that Johnson chucked the lightsaber?
It was a bold, yet difficult choice. In doing so, Johnson has left the Star Wars universe in a much better place, detached from the ball and chain of the "Skywalker saga" and able to move forward into unchartered territory. But some price had to be paid, and we see that in the disappointment of some fans, many of them diehard Star Wars nerds (myself included, to some extent).
Like many, I was incredibly curious about Supreme Leader Snoke. From where did he come? Was he a Sith Lord or something new? How did he corrupt Ben Solo? I needed answers! And then during his scenes in TLJ, it became clear that this dude was powerful. Even more reason to know who he is.
But here's the real question: does it matter? We all want our curiosities to be indulged, but does it really matter who Snoke is in the end? Johnson is essentially saying no. Snoke was just a JJ Abrams stand-in for the Emperor, necessary at the time for the construction of the character of Kylo Ren. And Kylo Ren is a GREAT character! Perhaps the most interesting character in Star Wars. So Johnson makes the pragmatic choice and dispatches with Snoke. Had he not, we'd likely be faced with the prospect of an Episode IX from Abrams that has the same sins as TFA (in this instance, a retelling of ROTJ) without the luxury of being the first new Star Wars movie in a long time. Alternatively, we now have an Episode IX in which Ben/Kylo can shine. I think we should be thankful for that despite the Snoke letdown. Incidentally, Johnson recently addressed the idea that he could have still provided some Snoke backstory in TLJ, suggesting that it ultimately would have amounted to twenty minutes of transparent exposition that would have derailed the story. He's probably right there.
Admit it. You wanted the Skywalker love child, didn't you? It's ok. We all did. But again: does it matter? Here, I think the answer is even easier. No. It does not matter. In fact, by making Rey a nobody, the Star Wars universe is opened up to new possibilities, which I feel is the point of the last scene with the kid in the stable. Luke even said that the Jedi are not, or should not, be the sole caretakers of the Force. Bloodlines, traditions, midichlorians, "The One," prophecies, etc... do no matter. Let it go. The Force is for everyone, and it calls to whomever it pleases.
Before he was even brought on by Disney, Rian Johnson was my current favorite director, and I think he did a great job here, particularly on the "craft" side of things. I think he got the absolute best out of Mark Hamill, who was admittedly reluctant to play a defeated hermit Luke. I find both Rey and Kylo to be two of the most interesting and well-developed characters in the Star Wars universe, and Johnson's development of their story was excellent. The perpetual chase sequence feel of the movie was a little stale, in large part because the main diversion to find the codebreaker wasn't all that entertaining. I did find the interjection of economics and the idea that wealthy interests behind the scenes sit back and reap the benefits regardless of who wins and loses the fight extremely interesting. It also made Finn's decision at the end more meaningful, as the guy who was never quite into it and now has even more reason to be cynical does something very unexpected. I can appreciate that. There's also something to be said about the Resistance's goal in this movie merely being survival (reminding me of Battlestar Galactica). With the destruction of Starkiller Base at the end of TFA, many viewers may have forgotten that the First Order had still annihilated the entire Republic, including its fleet. All in all, I was more than satisfied with the overall story.
Where Does it Rank?
This is tough to say, as I've found my thoughts on Star Wars movies can change upon second viewings. But here's a quick ranking:
1. The Empire Strikes Back - Still the gold standard that, interestingly enough, wasn't exactly well-received when it first came out.
2. A New Hope - As long as we're clear that Han shot first.
3. The Last Jedi - Again, subject to change.
4. TIE: Return of the Jedi/The Force Awakens - There are some brilliant moments in both films but also a lot of warts.
5. Rogue One - I'm not as high on the movie as some. It's fun, but the characters largely seem like they're just along for the ride. I also would have preferred that the Death Star NOT be used in the movie, as I think it diminishes its menacing presence in ANH.
6. Attack of the Clones
7. The Phantom Menace
8. Revenge of the Sith