…and I think the fact that they brought back Palpatine for this one really says it all (Warning: I don’t give a shit about spoilers for this one. You have been warned).
Upon its release on December 20, 2019, this film was just as divisive as its predecessor, The Last Jedi. Fans who hated The Last Jedi applauded it as a return to form for the franchise. Fans who liked The Last Jedi panned it as a nakedly obvious case of corporate cowardice on the part of Disney. This review is being written by someone in the latter camp, unfortunately. Granted, I am more of a casual Star Wars fan who’s only watched the movies so far, but I still think I have a right to give my two cents here.
There were several aspects of The Last Jedi that had a lot of more traditionalist fans angry with director Rian Johnson, but probably the biggest was the reveal that Rey’s parent were nothing more than “filthy junk traders,” in Kylo’s words, who “sold [her] off for drinking money.” This made many fans upset, as they couldn’t fathom how Rey could have such mastery over Jedi magic without having been born from a previous Force-sensitive lineage. So how did J.J. Abrams decide to remedy that “problem” here? By making her Palpatine’s granddaughter.
Of course, Palpatine being alive in this movie in the first place is its own can of worms (assuming this is a clone of Palpatine, like some characters in the film suggest, how did they recover his DNA from the wreckage of the Death Star?). But by far the biggest insult in this reveal is how it slaps fans who liked Johnson’s message from the last movie in the face. The Last Jedi tried to teach the message that anyone can be destined for greatness, illustrated beautifully by the film’s final scene. To be fair, Abrams insisted that he thought making Rey Palpatine’s grandaughter would show a more powerful message by having her come from “the worst place possible.” But it still runs into the trap of the “divine right of kings” issue that has plagued previous Jedi protagonists in the franchise.
Another aspect that really pissed me off was how Rose Tico was sidelined after her actress, Kelly Marie Tran, was bullied off social media by racist and sexist alt-right trolls. Many people criticized Disney for this, as they felt the company was capitulating to the absolute worst aspects of the Star Wars fandom. One of the film’s screenwriters, Chris Terrio, tried to defend the choice by arguing that she was written to be a companion of Leia in this film, which became a problem when Carrie Fisher died in the middle of pre-production. But that doesn’t explain why scenes between her and Rey were also cut and why the character was also removed from official merchandise.
Speaking of wasted characters, many reviewers have argued that Finn’s character was utterly wasted in not just this film but the trilogy as a whole. This includes his actor, John Boyega, who felt that Disney had used him as a token minority and didn’t give his character a proper arc. It was implied in the novelization for this film that Finn was going to be revealed as Force-sensitive, but that reveal didn’t make it into the film for whatever reason. Indeed, the only character that felt like he had a genuine arc was Kylo Ren, but his abrupt swerve away from the Dark Side, which was completely against everything Johnson set up in The Last Jedi, made the arc feel hackneyed and without an adequate explanation for his motivations.
But ultimately, that brings us to the biggest reason this film failed: it tries so hard to be the anti-Last Jedi that it completely fails as a standalone film. Doing so completely undermines any artistic purpose that the sequel trilogy could have had and basically turns it into a trite retread of the original trilogy. Indeed, the scene where Palpatine gloats to Rey about how her friends in the rebel fleet are being destroyed in front of her during the climax was so similar to the climax of Return of the Jedi that it was physically painful for me to watch.
The film’s technical aspects were good; the special effects, the camera work, the art direction, etc. The performances were still great, especially from Adam Driver, who manages to sell Kylo Ren’s redemption as well as he can with the script he’s working with (he only says one word after his conversation with Han’s force ghost and acts mostly through body language and facial expressions). John Williams’ music is as exciting as ever, and the battle scenes are as good as they can be given the film’s breakneck pacing.
But still, as someone who really liked the direction that Rian Johnson was hinting at the end of The Last Jedi, I would much rather be watching that film instead. And I’m giving this one a 4/10.