Shawn Eastridge and Richie Pepio join forces once again for a **SPOILER FILLED** conversation about a new Star Wars movie. Their extensive conversation was so expansive and robust, we had to split it into two parts. In this first part, the pair discusses their overall thoughts, the specific elements and scenes they love and things that didn't work so well. Stay tuned for Part II!
Here's where the fun begins...
SHAWN: “That’s it, we did it!” The Last Jedi (TLJ) has been released and we’ve both seen it. Obviously, we’ll need to see it again to absorb everything and enjoy it to the fullest - the same thing happened with The Force Awakens (TFA). This is how Disney works. They trick you into thinking you need to see their movies over and over again and giving them more and more money when you probably already know what you think of it.
Overall, even though I’m going to spend a fair bit of this review beating up on it, I really did enjoy TLJ. It did a lot of cool, exciting stuff. Rian Johnson (writer/director) took some of the characters to interesting places (keyword: ‘some’), and did a great job paving his own path. There are visual and thematic references to previous films, sure, but for the most part, TLJ feels like a unique creative endeavor and does not feel beholden to the saga in the same way TFA did.
My biggest problem is we didn’t get a lot of character growth from our new trio: Rey, Finn and Poe. I feel like either they didn’t progress much or they actually regressed. Finn in particular is a major sore spot for me and his and Rose’s storyline is the biggest lightsaber in my side about this whole thing. But we’ll get to that later. What are your overall thoughts?
RICHIE: Honestly, I loved most of TLJ, and there were specific moments that especially brought warm feelings to my heart. I think we’ve reached a turning point in the Saga and I applaud the changes Rian Johnson went for. I think how this movie will be judged depends on how successful the story for Episode IX is. We’re either going to look back on TLJ and think of it as the moment that changed the Saga for the better or the moment that changed it for the worse.
Even if I was disappointed by certain elements of it, I loved TFA and after TLJ, a lot of those disappointments have been amended in retrospect. Funny enough, I’m now disappointed by some choices made in TLJ. As long as Episode IX unites everything together for a strong close, I’ll be okay. Episode VIII seemed to close out a lot of storylines, so ideally Episode IX will end up not only capping this trilogy but cap all the trilogies, unifying everything into a single story. Unfortunately, this movie kind of threw away the idea of a single unified story told throughout the three films.
The problems with TLJ don’t overshadow the movie for me, and they’re not as glaring as the issues you’d find in the Prequels or even the repetitive nature of the latter two acts of TFA, but they are pretty glaring nonetheless.
SHAWN: Right, and I don’t want TLJ’s cons to outweigh its pros because there are a lot of pros. I feel like Rian (he and I are on a first name basis - total bestie status) is going to get a little beat up over the next couple months because of some of his creative choices, and I feel bad about that because, at the very least – and this is what I love about both him and Abrams (not on a first-name basis with him for some reason...maybe because I don't know what his actual first name is) – he has clear love and passion for the material and a desire to do something new and fun and exciting and take the franchise to new heights. At the very least, that elevates him above George Lucas’ handling of the Prequels.
RICHIE: And you see his love in the way he communicates with fans and documents the movie for them.
SHAWN: He went out and met everyone waiting in line at Celebration when they premiered the trailer and poster. That’s incredible. And he did such exciting stuff with this movie and took some big risks with the story, and he shouldn’t be punished by those same fans for that. The weaknesses of TLJ are not at all related to those risks.
Always Two There Are: A Comparison to The Force Awakens
SHAWN: What I really love about TLJ when compared to its immediate predecessor is that it’s less precious about Star Wars than TFA. TFA played things safe. Abrams really wanted you to like it, and even its twists feel a bit calculated. (Han Solo’s death; the way they set Finn up as the main character in marketing materials and it turned out to be Rey.) To me, the moment that is most representative of Rian’s take on this universe is Luke Skywalker tossing his lightsaber over his shoulder in that first moment we see him again.
RICHIE: I love that. There’s seems to be a bit of a backlash against that choice (and against a lot of other small choices) but it’s that fast and loose style that keeps things fresh.
SHAWN: It was hysterical and it was perfect. That’s the line being drawn in the sand where Johnson is saying, “This lightsaber represents the baton being passed from Abrams to me, and you know what? I’m just throwing everything out and telling the story I want without feeling like my hands are tied,” which is awesome. At the same time, there are big story moments and reveals that are going to be disappointing for some people. In fact, I think a lot of the negative reactions we’re seeing is a direct result of these things.
RICHIE: I think Rian Johnson’s take on Star Wars is encapsulated in the sequence where Luke is milking that giant space cow.
SHAWN: That’s a whole other review in and of itself. When you come back to do your 140 minutes of TLJ, you need to spend a LOT of time on that minute and discuss its beauty.
RICHIE: Yeah, when we get to Rian Johnson’s next trilogy I’ll rank the top milks in Star Wars... blue milk wins.
SHAWN: So while TFA is a consistently solid movie with some great moments, I don’t recall many instances where, as I was watching it, I sat there and said, “Wow. That was amazing.” TLJ has so many moments where my jaw hit the floor. I loved the weirdness of Rey’s Force hallucination where she’s in an endless loop. Honestly, I wanted more moments like that.
RICHIE: And the lightsaber fights in this movie weren’t just great because of the emotion involved - they were crazy cinematic. This managed to combine some of the fancier footwork of the Prequels’ saber battles with the gut feelings of the Original Trilogy.
SHAWN: The moment where Rey and Kylo Ren fight together, that first shot of them back to back kicking ass, I could not contain myself. That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. And there are so many great things like that in this movie, like when Rey confronts Luke and they have their little fight. And then that INCREDIBLE moment where Laura Dern hyperspaces the s*** out of the First Order and that moment of silence that follows. That’s such brilliant filmmaking. What was her character’s name? Admiral Ellie Sattler?
RICHIE: That’s it. My favorite part in this movie is when Admiral Sattler turned the power back on and said, “General Leia, I think we’re back in business!” And then Samuel L. Jackson’s hand plops on her shoulder and she’s relieved and says, “Oh, Master Windu,” but it’s his severed arm. Then she’s eaten by a raptor. (By the way, her real name is Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo.)
SHAWN: Right. Holdo. She was another great example of Rian Johnson up-ending expectations. The whole time I’m thinking, ‘Is this character a First Order plant?’ And then she’s awesome and sacrifices herself.
RICHIE: And I’ve heard all these complaints about Super Leia in space or whatever, but I loved that. I don’t care. It was a great twist.
SHAWN: Exactly. You’re thinking, “Well, of course they’re going to kill her off because of Carrie Fisher,” and then they pull a fast one on you. In works on multiple levels. First of all she’s flying through space like a superhero, so there’s the reveal she has some mastery of the Force, and then you thought they were going to kill her, but they didn’t. There’s something powerful about that image of Leia conquering death in light of Carrie Fisher’s passing.
RICHIE: It’s such a beautiful moment. Really all of her scenes are a string of beautiful moments. And I don’t know if I have these rose (tico) - tinted glasses on because of what happened to her in real life, but I think she’s so great in the movie - it just might be her most heartfelt portrayal of Leia. Nearly every scene she’s in could be the perfect send off for both the character and Fisher, with her reunion with Luke serving as the big standout.
Back when TFA first came out, my main beef with that film revolved around me just knowing there was going to be an interaction between Han, Luke and Leia. I knew going in that Luke was barely in the movie and I had a STRONG feeling they were going to kill Han Solo, but I was hoping they'd somehow meet up with Luke just before the end and have a moment together. In the end, I understood that wasn't the story they were telling, but they'd said this was their send off to the original cast so I knew it just had to happen. This was THE chance. And then Han died and I felt the sinking realization that their reunion would never materialize.
Look, my wishes for TFA were the basest form of fan service, but making a new Star Wars trilogy is an act of fan service, in and of itself. Just one scene between Han and Luke, then they could’ve speared Han Solo and slow roast him over an ewok spit for all I cared. While TFA’s climax was enjoyable, I would have preferred the movie spend their fan service bucks on the original trio rather than attacking Death Star III. Frankly, though, time heals most wounds and after a two year break and a powerful reunion between the Skywalker twins in the latest movie, TLJ made up for much of those harsh feelings back in 2015.
And Luke and Yoda – I got very emotional during that scene. It was so effective because it not only harkens back to a key relationship from the Original Trilogy that we loved so much, but it spoke to Luke as a character in this movie.
SHAWN: Yes. It wasn’t just an arbitrary cameo, it contributed to Luke’s development.
RICHIE: It was nostalgic and new and fresh, all at the same time: the perfect expression of what this new trilogy is aiming for. I loved it so much. And what about the lightsaber fight between Luke and Kylo Ren? The High Noon-style standoff mixed with Luke’s evasive and almost taunting swordplay - he fought like an Eastern master you could tell what Johnson’s influences were when making this.
SHAWN: The intense colors, especially with Snoke’s lair, reminded me a lot of Kurosawa. And yes, readers, I know who Akira Kurosawa is and I’m not just name-dropping him because I know he’s one of Lucas’ influences, so suck it.
RICHIE: He has all the Criterion blu-rays. He sleeps with them at night.
SHAWN: But, back to the point, it was like Abrams recognized the influences in Lucas’ work on Star Wars, but Rian actually went back to the actual sources to figure out how he could best integrate them. It felt less influenced by a Star Wars movie and more influenced by the same cinematic influences that inspired Star Wars in the first place.
Weesa in Big Doo-Doo This Time, Or What Didn't Work
SHAWN: I think the biggest disappointment for me is I thought TLJ would be, unequivocally, the stronger movie when compared to TFA. It is in some ways, but in other ways it isn’t. As I’ve already mentioned, TFA might be a little more precious with the material, but in terms of an overarching story, it’s stronger. TLJ has more impressive beats and moments, but it doesn’t cohere as well as TFA.
TFA takes its characters on a journey and by its conclusion they’ve all grown, they’re different than they were at the start. With TLJ, Johnson needed to take that a step further. Our new ‘Golden Trio’ Rey, Finn and Poe, needed to have their trial by fire. They needed to suffer. That’s what the second movie of a trilogy is supposed to be about: raising the emotional and physical stakes. But nothing that significant happens to any of them. Rey learns some new information about her parents, she learns some new information about Kylo Ren and Luke, but for the most part she’s the same at the end as she was at the beginning.
RICHIE: She knows a bit more about lightsaber technique and how to chop rocks in half, but she already magically knew about that by the end of TFA.
SHAWN: Right. Take a snapshot of her happy face flying the Millenium Falcon at the end of TLJ and put that up against a snapshot of Luke’s face at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and it’s like…one of these characters has seen some s***, and one of these characters has just kind of succeeded at everything they’ve done.
RICHIE: Because her origin was such a mystery, we need to find out in Episode IX or we needed to know in Episode VIII what makes her so special. And what’s great about TLJ on its own is that Rey ultimately being a nobody from nowhere reinforces that theme. It was even hinted at as far back as TFA trailer when we heard Maz ask, “Who are you?” and Rey responded, “I’m no one.”
But, WHY is the lightsaber calling to her in TFA? Why is she so powerful? And why is she so essential to the storyline if this is the Skywalker saga? People in these movies can be strong with the Force, but they need to be trained. If not, they’re like unmolded clay; they can’t stand against the forces of darkness. Rey seems to have this innate ability to face adversity, shed some tears and move on. She doesn’t even get her hand chopped off in this movie! Sure, she lived a hard life on Jakku, but she’s been able to easily escape high-security Death Star-knockoffs, outwit stormtroopers and out-fight Kylo Ren. Some people do like to argue that Luke only trained on Dagobah for, like, three weeks, and I’m like, alright, but that’s three weeks longer than Rey ever trained!
SHAWN: Right and Luke is actually being trained. We see it happen. At the end of the day, the length of time doesn’t matter as long as you see the lessons being taught. Yoda has many lessons to pass along – the moment in the cave, the moment with the X-Wing being lifted out of the swamp (“I don’t believe it;” “That is why you fail.”). He’s lifting rocks while doing handstands for crying out loud. The most Rey does is swing her lightsaber around and Luke gives her some brief lessons about the Force. We’ve seen her struggle a bit, but she doesn’t really grow.
It’s the same with Poe where, at the start of the film, Leia pretty much tells him the lesson he needs to learn: “You need to get your head out of your cockpit.” I remember thinking, “Oh, okay. Thank you, character arc.”
RICHIE: Yeah, but I didn’t mind. He seems so established in his status within the Resistance that I don’t really mind the on-the-nose statement of his character arc.
SHAWN: Oscar Isaac is so amazing that even when these movies give me more Oscar Isaac it’s still not enough.
RICHIE: What’s so funny too is I was carefully browsing the early Twitter reviews, trying not to spoil myself, and one mentioned that the sexual tension between Laura Dern and Oscar Isaac is so palpable. I thought I’d ruined something big about their relationship in the film, and my friend Lily said, “No, Oscar Isaac just has sexual tension with EVERYBODY on screen.”
SHAWN: And even with characters off screen in the audience. Especially me.
RICHIE: Maybe the problem was they got too comfortable with the characters because they knew they were going to make a trilogy and they kept thinking, “We’ll just figure that out in the next movie.” But they still haven’t figured it out. In A New Hope everyone’s struggles and characters have been beaten out. It was self contained. So they really earned the arcs in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s like the characters evolved to level two and I feel like with this new trilogy our characters are still stuck in level one. It’s the same type of vibe we’d get if Lucas immediately followed up A New Hope with Return of the Jedi and we were expected to care the same about the characters onscreen.
SHAWN: Another one of TLJ’s biggest drawbacks was its soundtrack. It might be the weakest in the entire series.
RICHIE: Yeah, one critic called out John Williams’ score as a big improvement on his disappointing TFA soundtrack. And I was like, wait a second, TLJ’s soundtrack is basically JUST TFA soundtrack. The only new theme I can think of is Rose’s. TLJ's soundtrack reminds me of the Attack of the Clones soundtrack, which had a great love theme, but reused most of The Phantom Menace’s score.
SHAWN: It’s very slight. There’s very little music that doesn’t sound recycled from a previous Star Wars movie. Each soundtrack Williams has composed tends to have its own identity, TFA especially…
RICHIE: The Resistance theme is great, Kylo Ren’s theme is great…
SHAWN: Rey’s theme…
RICHIE: Yeah! Her theme is perfect. It’s the one you hear all the time in these movies.
SHAWN: And then you see TLJ and you’re like, okay? It’s just all the same music from previous movies.
Obi-Wan Has Taught You Well: Singing the Praises of Luke and Kylo Ren
SHAWN: The two strongest characters in this movie by far are Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren elevates everything around him. I want to pretend he’s the main character because he’s way more interesting than the characters we’re supposed to be invested in. Adam Driver is an amazing actor giving a great performance here. Every time he and Rey are Force chatting it’s amazing. Their relationship is great.
RICHIE: Yeah and it’s a shame that they didn’t really follow through on that growth by having Kylo choose to join with Rey or vice versa. It didn’t have to be a permanent thing, but I wish they could have gone one direction or the other. Like you said before, most characters are back to where they were at the end of TFA and Ren is now the main villain. Even their conversation right after the fight in the throne room echoes the lines between Luke and Vader. The “rhyming” is nice, but while TLJ teases us with more unpredictable situations, it all ends up being a complex but pointless sleight of hand. We’ve seen all this particular Dark Side vs. Light Side fight before and I think we were all expecting these characters to make crazier decisions.
SHAWN: Kylo Ren’s the best example of how Johnson will make bold story decisions and then keep going back on them, like how no one in this movie is really all that different than they were at the end of TFA. At the end of this movie – and I hope this doesn’t follow through to Episode IX – Kylo Ren tricks us into thinking he might turn good, but then he’s all, “Hah-hah! I fooled you! Now I’m the Bad Guy! And I’m yelling and screaming at everyone!” And I’m like, okay, but what about the conflict? What about the moment he hesitated to kill his mother? You can’t throw that out and I don’t think they will, but it was more than a little disappointing to have the movie conclude with this character yelling and screaming like a generic bad guy would.
And this presents another problem I’m not sure how they’re going to solve in Episode IX: you can either have Kylo Ren get worse and worse and just make him pure evil and then kill him off without any sympathy, or you can have him pull a Darth Vader and redeem himself and then it’s just Return of the Jedi. Either way, it’s not very interesting.
But onto Luke, I love what Johnson did with him in this movie. I love that he’s broken, that he created the rift between himself, Han and Leia. By fearing what Ben might become and nearly murdering him, Luke is ultimately responsible for Ben’s transformation into Kylo Ren, and the trio’s falling out. Luke has put himself in exile because he sees himself and the Jedi Order as a fraud. He calls out the Jedi Order for pretty much making things worse all the time. I love that and I love his struggle to rediscover his humanity through training Rey.
RICHIE: It’s funny that he finds his humanity by tapping into the Force, the most otherworldly supernatural power ever...
You’ll Never Find A More Wretched Hive: The Infamous Canto Bight Storyline and the Trouble with Finn
RICHIE: Finn is trying to find his place in the universe, but I don’t really get a sense of his struggle. He’s immediately a good person in TFA even though he was raised as a Stormtrooper and everybody else seems to have become this hardened cog in the First Order’s machine. He, for some reason, is not. Like Rey we’re not given any example of what makes him special and different. He just is who he is.
It might have helped if there was some time between the two movies. This one starts immediately after the first one, and he and Rey just happen to conjure up magical fighting skills in one sequence and then they’re weak klutzes in another. Basically, they have as much or as little skills as the story needs them to have, without any leeway in between. Finn’s either getting the crap kicked out of him by First Order underlings or he’s kicking metal supervillain Captain Phasma into a fire pit. She’s a super-soldier and he’s a glorified janitor. I know everyone says he’s trained as a Stormtrooper, but it just doesn’t make sense.
SHAWN: Finn is by far the weakest character in this movie and I really wanted to sing his praises because I loved him so much in TFA. People gave him a lot of crap in that movie for being comic relief and goofy.
RICHIE: No, he’s a lot of fun in that movie despite the lack of development.
SHAWN: Right, but in the second movie you have to make him matter and Johnson doesn’t. Finn spends the majority of the movie doing nothing. He and this new character Rose, who, as much as I like Kelly Marie Tran, is ultimately pointless, go off together to the casino planet. And isolated from the rest of the story, their adventures are fine, I guess. It’s a new flavor. But what started to bother me about their subplot is that none of it matters. They’re supposed to be getting the codebreaker. Okay, they got a codebreaker (and Benecio del Toro is a special brand of weird I appreciated), but then that codebreaker ends up betraying them and screwing over the Resistance. So, not only did Finn and Rose not accomplish anything, they actually made things worse and got people killed.
RICHIE: And then they go on to make things EVEN WORSE when Finn is about to sacrifice himself toward the end of the movie. He’s about to do something meaningful for a greater cause and Rose selfishly rams her speeder into his to keep him from… I don’t know… STOPPING A GIANT GUN THAT WILL BLOW UP THE RESISTANCE!!! That moment made the hate flow through me.
SHAWN: Finn needed a stronger arc. At the end of TFA, he fails Rey. How come he’s not struggling with that? Does he feel incompetent or worthless? It doesn’t seem like he feels anything except confusion and then at the end he fights Phasma and is like ‘oh, I’m a badass now.’ It sure looked cool, but I have no idea why we needed that showdown to happen in this movie.
And how the hell does something like that even slip through the cracks when you have months or even YEARS of story development with writers getting paid millions and millions of dollars and you and I can have a five-minute conversation where we can recognize this as a major story problem and fix it by saying, “Oh, maybe we should take out this pointless Rose character and replace her with Poe and have Poe be a more active character.” (Credit to John Mills, a.k.a. kesseljunkie for that suggestion) I want more of their bromance! And at least they already have an established relationship from the previous film you can continue to develop. It makes more sense
RICHIE: I like Finn and Rose and I like the actors playing them, but I wanted them to feel more essential to what was going on.
SHAWN: Right, it felt like Lucasfilm was like, “Okay, we need to introduce a new planet to sell toys and a new cantina scene, so what can you do for us, Rian Johnson?” And he was like, “Uh, maybe this?” I just wish it had been more meaningful to the overarching story.
Check out Shawn and Richie's other Star Wars reviews too:
On the Prequels -
On the Original Trilogy -
On Rogue One -