Another December, another massive opening for a Star Wars movie—this time to the tune of $450 million worldwide. That alone isn’t really surprising; Star Wars fans tend to be the See It Opening Weekend type. What is surprising, though, is how divisive the film turned out to be. (Star Wars fans also tend to be the Argue About Changes to Their Fave Franchise type, too, apparently.)
What’s at issue? Largely, according to the reviews below the film’s Luke-warm 56 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, folks didn’t like that writer-director Rian Johnson’s chapter veered in deeper and darker directions than The Force Awakens and didn’t love what the movie did with Skywalker (and many of the characters in general).
We here at WIRED, though, are on board with Johnson’s version. But the dust-up does have us thinking. A lot. To work through our feelings, we assembled writers and editors Peter Rubin, Jason Tanz, Angela Watercutter, Brendan Nystedt, and Jordan McMahon to talk it out. Let’s get started. May the Force be with us, always.
(Spoiler alert: There will be spoilers here. You’ve been warned.)
Angela Watercutter: First off, I deeply enjoyed The Last Jedi. I’ve seen it twice already and am not ruling out seeing it again with childhood friends when I’m home at the holidays. I got earnestly choked up a couple different times. (Some of this was mourning Carrie Fisher/Leia Organa. When she and Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo were discussing the losses the Resistance had suffered? Full waterworks.) The lightsaber battle with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in Snoke’s throne room might end up being my new favorite lightsaber battle of all time. And there were just so many beautiful, wonderful shots and moments. When the whole movie went silent as Holdo destroyed the First Order’s ship? Who even does that? Rian Johnson does that.
Which is why I’m so surprised it’s turned out to be so divisive. I was prepared for it to upset a few fans mad at the inclusion of so many women and people of color, but this is something else. This is just folks thinking the filmmaking is bad. Which seems odd. Am I alone here? Is there anyone here who wants to take the side that it’s garbage? Or perhaps offer theories as to why people are insisting on dragging this movie?
Jason Tanz: I will take up that challenge, Angela—well, partly. I fully enjoyed the movie and expect to see it again. That said, I can’t say I left wanting… more. In fact, I wanted less. Less Dameron/Holdo drama. (I’m not a “What’s the plan?” stan.) Less Finn/Rose MacGuffin-chasing on Planet Baccarat. A little less Luke-Skywalker-scaling-a-hill. (Though I could have used a little more beast-milking, tbh.) There are movies—including some Star Wars movies!—that zip by. This was not one of them. And the endless series of climactic scenes had me grabbing my coat prematurely, only to sit back down after realizing that no, we still had 30 more minutes of lightsaber-rattling ahead of us. My response was certainly flavored by the fact that I caught the 11pm show (which previews pushed back a full half hour) and thus left the theater at TWO IN THE FREAKING AYEM. So, Angela, perhaps some people are dragging this movie because it dragged.
Now look, fans don’t necessarily come to Star Wars for efficient storytelling, which is why I still give this film a thumbs-up. The last hour was a cascade of pleasure—I particularly loved the crimson under-tundra in that climactic battle. But some of the film’s best moments were, in retrospect, head-scratchy. Rey’s Malkovich moment in the Dark Side was audio-visually arresting, but the metaphor didn’t fully track for me—why is her flirtation with evil illustrated by a domino rally of snaps and gasps? Likewise, the (BIGTIME SPOILERS FOR REAL) revelation that Luke was holo-apparating into his showdown with Kylo Ren was genuinely thrilling… but his death felt tacked on. We hadn’t seen Force-Pushing (or whatever we’re calling this) deplete anyone’s power before, so why should it kill him?
As I say, none of this bothered me, not really. I don’t come to Star Wars for narrative cohesion or metaphysical rigor. I come to be emotionally manipulated and visually overwhelmed, and boy howdy was I! By the standards of Star Wars (which are super-high standards), I thought Last Jedi more than accomplished what it set out to do. Are the haters wrong? Not exactly. They just wanted the wrong movie.
So, let’s ignore them and think about where this film rests in the canon. Where does it place in your ranking? Which film does it remind you most of? Which elements were you most excited to watch them remix?
Brendan Nystedt: I totally agree with Angela. This movie challenges our notion of what Star Wars is while also paying homage to all of its many facets. TLJ is far from perfect but when a big-budget two-and-a-half-hour, 200-million-dollar Christmas release can have an audience cheering for a guy stuck on a faraway island meditating at its climax, there’s something special going on. The collective gasp of the audience when Holdo jumps to lightspeed, slicing the First Order fleet to ribbons, as Angela already brought up, sends chills down my spine when I think about it.
This isn’t the comfort-food casserole that J.J. Abrams brought to the Star Wars potlatch with The Force Awakens—it’s challenging, flawed filmmaking with big ideas I think the franchise hasn’t had since the prequels. It’s a defter hand at work here (as much as I love and appreciate the work of George Lucas) but still.
I’ve seen this movie twice and I’ll be lining up more viewings to come. To answer one of Jason’s questions, I think that this film resembles no other single Star Wars film—there are shades of Hoth towards the end on Crait, and Snoke’s chambers resemble the Emperor’s Throne Room scene in Return of the Jedi, which itself was already nodded to at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, and many of the gags this film reminded me of humorous asides throughout the saga (whether it’s R2-D2 lighting battle droids on fire in ROTS or the various critters in Jabba’s palace). Most of these callbacks are superficial, I feel, and Johnson takes every opportunity he gets to turn the audience’s expectations upside-down.
Another thing he turns upside-down is J.J.’s beloved Mystery Box. Rian gleefully throws out the annoying questions raised by TFA regarding the backgrounds of Snoke and Rey. Snoke’s dead and Rey’s a nobody.
Having thought about the backlash from the fans, I can only imagine that it’s something to do with the somewhat toxic relationship people have with criticism and the studio system. If a film’s too on-the-nose? You’re being pandered to! Get angry! Film isn’t what you expected? Rage against Rotten Tomatoes! There’s no pleasing some people either way. For what it’s worth, the fans I routinely interact with on Star Wars Twitter either respectfully had issues or absolutely loved this film for its character arcs, bold decisions, and emotional sensitivity.
I think if I had anything bad to say about the movie, it’d be that there are a lot of characters and I think not everyone gets what they deserved. Poor Phasma yet again gets relegated to metallic villain-of-the-week status, this time getting engulfed in flames after a showdown. At least her beef with Finn seems to have been concluded. Maz Kanata appears so briefly that you’d be forgiven for missing her entirely during a bathroom break.
I don’t rank Star Wars films any more, but I know for sure that I’ll be enjoying The Last Jedi for years to come, and I love the polarizing reaction. It’s going to be a long two years until Episode IX…
Jordan McMahon: I’ve only seen The Last Jedi once so far, but I’m already anxious to see it again. Brendan’s absolutely right, this doesn’t feel like any other Star Wars movie. That can be polarizing, but Johnson’s willingness to toy with audience expectations at every turn paid off.
It’s been mentioned before, but Holdo’s jump to lightspeed was a standout scene for me. I’ve never experienced an entire theater go silent for that long, especially on opening weekend when some buster is always eager to crack a sub-par joke. It wasn’t just a spectacular shot, it was a nice payoff in a movie where it felt like the good guys were taking L’s at every turn.
I went in without reading too many reviews, and I was hopeful that we’d get some answers as to who Rey’s parents were, or find out more about Snoke. On that front, the criticisms make sense, but Johnson’s handling of those questions felt more rewarding than any other answer could have. By ditching those plotlines, we got one of the most spectacular lightsaber fights we’ve seen, backed by Ridley’s and Driver’s excellent performances. That’s sort of where I land. Johnson’s decisions aren’t always a home run, but by subverting our expectations he was able to bring some new concepts into the Star Wars universe that made it feel new and exciting.
I do wish we had gotten more time with Holdo, Maz Katana, and Captain Phasma, which we maybe could have gotten if the scenes Jason pointed out had been cut down, but I walked out of the theatre with a smile on my face. What more can you ask for in a Star Wars movie?
Peter Rubin: More time? You wanted to take more time? I love Rian Johnson’s movies, and I love Star Wars, but the last thing this movie needed was more time. Maybe we can work out a trade, though. We can add in more Holdo and Phasma, as long as we streamline the paper-thin parable that was Rose and Finn’s much-adieu-about-nothing digression, and relegate half the new creatures to the standalone movies, where they can work on their charisma and narrative function before slapsticking their way into a saga feature. (I say this as a fan who had an Ewok thermos as a third-grader: Porgs are bad.)
I liked The Last Jedi. I liked it a lot, even. But—and I recognize that this casts me as Darth Grumpious—it stirred nothing within me. Its thrilling moments weren’t dessert, but salvage. It felt unremittingly self-conscious; every tiny drunk casino-goer stuffing BB-8 with chips, every Hux-Kylo odd-couple bicker, every Thor-pool that Rey fell into on her journey to nowhere felt like another smoke-puff or mirror that I had to fight through to connect with the movie’s heart.
And that heart was there! Luke and Leia, both apart and together, kept a smile on my face whenever they were on screen; Rose, with her familial legacy and bone-deep Resistance, feels like a Rogue One infusion to the saga in the best way possible. Even the kids on Canto Bight—yes, even the kid who I thought was about to re-enact Turbo’s magical-sweeping sequence from Breakin’—gave me hope for the galaxy. I just wish the saga’s core quadrangle did the same. Thankfully, Johnson is the perfect writer-director to take the universe in new directions. All the Porgs in the galaxy can’t dim the glimmer of that brief Hardware Wars easter egg.
But rather than rehash the movie all over again, Angela, let me instead play the opportunist like DJ and ask you this: if we’ve got one movie left in this part of the saga cycle, what would you like to see J.J. Abrams do with Episode IX? (And for extra credit, what do you want to see Johnson do with his new trilogy?)
Watercutter: Well, I know what I don’t want Abrams to do, and that’s remake Return of the Jedi. Considering the arcs folks are on, that might be hard regardless, but as our colleague Brian Raftery pointed out in his review The Force Awakens often stuck too closely to the New Hope playbook and while that worked fine for a movie that was trying to reboot a whole franchise, I hope he doesn’t borrow too much from the past. I’d like to see him take some chances. I’m not saying it should end with the First Order ruling the galaxy (although that might actually be fun?), I just think he should really dig in on the half-dozen characters we’ve come to love over these last two movies—Rey, Kylo, Poe, Finn, Rose, BB-8—and focus there. Give them something to dig in on. Rey doesn’t have to go into another sphincter of evil and self-discovery, but letting these characters stay conflicted is a good place to start.
As for Johnson’s new trilogy, I hope he completely throws out the playbook and starts from scratch. Shoot me. I just feel like every fight we have about Star Wars now revolves around whether some new movie follows some rulebook that no one in the conversation wrote. It’s no wonder making these things ends up being so painfully difficult for directors—they’re trapped in carbonite from the second they sign their contract. If he’s clear from the start that this won’t be like other Star Wars movies, no one can say it wasn’t what they wanted. Start from scratch, Rian. Galaxies are big. Jason, would that make you happy or nah?
Tanz: I totally agree. Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be. That’s what I say.
Oh, whoops, no it isn’t! That’s what Kylo Ren says, in the closest we get to a “No-Mr.-Bond-I-expect-you-to-die” soliloquy. Of course the fact that it’s the most malevolent character making this point, at the apex of his crumminess, suggests that Johnson doesn’t fully endorse this idea. But The Last Jedi is all about leaving the past behind—check the title of the goddamn movie, for crying out loud! When Yoda waves away Luke’s attachment to the sacred Jedi texts as “not exactly page-turners,” and then sets his library aflame, I could hear Johnson signaling to his fans that the coming films are about to get a lot less slavish in their doctrinal devotion.
As long as we’re overturning doctrine, I’d love to see Johnson complicate the simple morality that has defined these tales so far. In the Star Wars universe, you are a good guy or a bad guy. Some times you are a good guy who turns bad. Occasionally, you are a bad guy who flirts with turning good. But you are always either one or the other—never both simultaneously. I’d love to see future episodes work through a character who is neither all-good nor all-bad, but lets both sides coexist within them. That might be a stretch for Star Wars but not for Johnson, who helmed some of the best-loved episodes of Breaking Bad, a series all about a man whose light and dark sides are in constant conflict. He could be the perfect director to take Star Wars beyond the binary.
Brendan, what do you think? Where does the Force go from here?
Nystedt: Well, I think you nailed Rian’s intent with many moments in the film: this is where things change. I don’t think we’ll get grey Jedi, but Rian’s opened things up for further change in the future. That said, J.J. Abrams is returning to the galaxy and it could either work out brilliantly for a sweeping, energetic conclusion to the new trilogy…or it could end up giving us another somewhat safe film like The Force Awakens. Whatever happens, I’m hopeful that Kathleen Kennedy and the LFL Story Group stick to their guns, because the franchise needs to change in order to survive. Some core fans might kvetch, but it’s more valuable to the long-term health of Star Wars that new fans are brought into the fold.
As far as what’s actually next in the story, I know what I want at the bare minimum: I want a few years to elapse in the galaxy before the events of IX take place. I think one of the strengths of Star Wars is that, at least until the last two episodes, there’s time between chapters that let the storytellers take the next episode in surprising new directions. Advance the story, age up the characters, tell some side stories in the comics and novels, and surprise the audience.
I think it’s also high time that more legacy characters get sidelined further; R2-D2 and C-3PO both deserve a relaxing retirement. Perhaps Leia perishes in a battle offscreen, so we don’t have to suffer through a CGI’d Carrie Fisher. Angela gets it—our new heroes are Rose, BB-8, Rey, Finn, and Poe…long live the young leaders of the Resistance! They are the spark that will light the fire that will burn the First Order down and deserve to fully carry the next film.
And long live Rian Johnson! It’s a savvy move to keep this guy in the Lucasfilm fold for three more films. I can’t wait to see where he takes us next. What do you think TLJ means for the future of the franchise, Jordan?
McMahon: I think my hopes for the franchise can be wrapped up in TLJ’s final moments, with the boy on Canto Bight doing a Force grab of his broom. By the end of the movie, the Resistance isn’t left with much—their army’s taken a big hit, and they’re going to be facing a more reckless foe in Kylo Ren than they did in Snoke.
Brendan, you’re right that our heroes are Rose, BB-8, Rey, Finn, and Poe, but I think that last scene shows that they’ll need more than that for what’s coming. Obviously you can’t have a bunch of younglings facing off against the New Order’s army, so a time jump would be welcomed here. We’ve had two movies of Rey and Kylo’s internal conflicts, let’s wrap that up without dragging it on throughout the movie. If we see an older Rey training a new wave of Jedi, that opens some really interesting doors for the future of Star Wars.
Luke made it clear that the Jedi had a lot of problems. I’d like to see Rey struggle with tackling those problems before taking on a new generation of Force users, lest they repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. If Star Wars has shown us anything, it’s that this battle is ongoing. To avoid telling the same story over and over with a fresh coat of paint, they could open up the world to more characters like the boy on Canto Bight, because the battles they’re fighting affect more than just the main crew — I’d like to see more of those stories, both in the main franchise and in their side stories.
Peter, Porgs aside, how do you see them wrapping this all up nicely before going off into their next adventure?
Rubin: Honestly, my hope is that it doesn’t. A big part of me really wanted Rey to take Kylo’s hand when he offered a galaxy-leading partnership. TLJ gave the story group a huge opportunity for a more complex, layered psychology, and while it wasn’t (yet) to be, I’d still savor some fraught, uneasy power struggles in the universe.
Assuming we’ve only got one movie left with our young Resistance-stoking heroes, I suspect that Abrams will make sure they all get their place in the pantheon; my real hope is that Finn does it without spending 75 percent of the movie incapacitated. The question is, will the movie serve as an exclamation point, or a comma? Given the uncertainty of the Resistance in practical terms—the Canto Bight junior brigade has a decade before they’re ready to pull a Biggs and run off to enlist, leaving us the skeletal crew that made it off Crait—we’ll need some new characters either way. (Those Outer Rim allies got some ’splainin’ to do.)
I’m not enough of an Expanded-Universe person to even consider who might be imported to the saga a la Kylo, but I’d hope that with so many of our beloved non-human characters gone (rest in power, Ackbar!) Abrams stocks the story with some compelling, cogent new allies. And last on the list, as a popcorn-shoveling pulp-escapist of the highest order, I assume he’ll find a way to give General Hux the grand (moff) comeuppance he so desparately.
What I’m really waiting for, like it sounds so many of you are, is Johnson’s big-arc trilogy. After all, he set an interesting table for Abrams, even if J.J. does nothing but stacks them neatly back in the cabinet. With three movies to plan out, and with the ambition he’s already shown, I can see the universe’s new ruler plotting a course for some emotional territories both Lucas and Abram left uncharted.