Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, is the first Star Wars film to see me exit the cinema without a clear sense of the saga.

I think Star Wars hews towards being a generally accessible film franchise for a number of significant reasons. Among them, there’s the powerful blend of mythology with science, a deep resonance with family and conflict, and a rhythmic construction that propels each segment of the saga. Walking into The Last Jedi, I was excited and hopeful to see director Rian Johnson’s take on a galaxy far, far away.

Walking out of the cinema, however, my thoughts and feelings were mixed – and that’s significant, as despite Star Wars’ proclivity for controversial sequels and faltering additions, I’ve always enjoyed new entries in the saga.

It’s taken me more than a day to summarize my feelings on The Last Jedi. That’s because, quite simply, this a movie where spontaneity reigns, where the unexpected is common, and where railroads are thrown out in favour of trailblazing new lanes.

Put simply, The Last Jedi is really Disney’s first Star Wars movie. The Force Awakens, to my mind, is an effort in summary that was a bid to entice Star Wars fans to a new generation of heroes, and Rogue One was an excellent effort to capture some of the nostalgia that has defined Star Wars’ best parts. What Disney has yet to do is set up a branching universe of films with their own tonalities as it has with Marvel’s comic-based outings, and now The Last Jedi is our view to how the saga will be shaped going forward.

I didn’t entirely like it. Let me explain. Spoilers follow.

The mythology and science didn’t quite meet

I feel many ardent Star Wars fans were greatly looking forward to seeing Rian Johnson play with their expectations of the Force, the Jedi, and many other new and established characters. Johnson does do this, but in a manner that failed to satisfy me nor settle my emotions on watching new characters blend with the old in a complex ballet.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Last Jedi enjoys a rousing introduction that, while choppy, sets the tone for how humorous the film is (or tries to be).

One of my favourite perspectives on humour in Star Wars comes from Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back – who once quipped that while Star Wars needs laughs, it can’t have gags – and this is a trap that The Last Jedi almost immediately falls into. Characters pepper insults and earthly references throughout the film in a manner that doesn’t just punctuate the story rather than simply punch holes through it.

While The Force Awakens gave us our first glimpse into more Americanized humour through Poe Dameron and Finn, The Last Jedi sees most (if not all) characters dive into the action – and even Supreme Leader Snoke quips in a remark about Kylo Ren’s ‘ridiculous’ helmet.

The tonality defined by the film’s humour leaves it as a driving force to settle audiences in through scenes that, to me, can at times read like bad fan fiction. Kylo Ren and Rey’s connection through the force (esoterically, and apparently, established by Snoke) give us a ham-fisted array of dialogue that sees both actors stare at each other with clenched jaws and romantic tension as insipid as what we were subjected to in the Twilight series.

Unfortunately, what seems to drive Johnson is adding a blend of gregarious waffle and filler scenes with moments of bombast.

One of those moments which most disconnected me with the film involves Carrie Fisher, who tragically passed away late last year.

In The Last Jedi, General Leia – who is ripped into the vacuum of space – miraculously returns to her ship in a scene not out of a Christopher Reeve Superman film; flying through cold space with one arm outstretched. Star Wars is perhaps comfortable when pushing one’s suspension of reality, but it certainly doesn’t cope well when shattering it – and I personally would have been more than prepared to bid Leia farewell in the fire of war that defined her character rather than a deus ex machina moment of wish-fulfillment.

While Star Wars characters have been exposed to the vacuum of space before and survived, Leia’s survival feels like an unnecessary and patently obvious tug on the heartstrings that immediately disaffected me. Not only does the scene uproot some aspects of the science of Star Wars, it also over-empowers the saga’s mythology to the extent that nuance becomes spectacle.

The Last Jedi

Family and conflict failed to establish gravitas

Star Wars has always been a story of family, anchoring on deep and complex personal relationships between characters, family, bloodlines, and friends – and while the Last Jedi tends to refer to the latter three aspects through its runtime, it never really succeeds in developing these bonds.

Chiefly, I feel what lies at fault here is the fact that while JJ Abrams spent much of his film establishing mystery and controversy around new and old characters, Johnson seems to have far more fun tearing this all up and remaking the Star Wars galaxy as he sees fit.

I say this for a few reasons. Firstly, there’s Luke Skywalker (whose exile is founded on a somewhat unfinished decision to execute his apprentice, Ben Solo), Snoke (who’s grand position is snuffed out almost as quickly as it was created) and Yoda (who’s garish appearance in CGI manages to utterly detract from the magic of having the character return).

Let’s start with Luke. While I’m not adverse to the humour and complete unexpectedness of the galaxy’s greatest Jedi throwing his lightsaber away after having it handed to him by Rey, some of Luke’s early scenes are dominated by trite and silly additions – milking creatures, locking doors, and giving sparse reasoning behind his decision. There are simpler ways to show – and not to tell – of Luke’s obvious heartbreak here, and when The Last Jedi finally gets round to offering answers, they’re unfulfilling.

Ignoring what could be an emotionally charged reasoning behind Ben Solo’s corruption, the story instead anchors on the inexplicable emphasis of Luke considering the destruction of his apprentice – the latter of which then proceeds to launch off in an assault that sees Luke’s world crumble before him. Motive and truth are seldom explored here, and the reactions and beliefs of the characters seem disproportionate without further exposition.

Next up is Snoke, who is arguably the most controversial and debated Star Wars character to emerge thus far in the sequel trilogy. Instead of exploring some of the metaphysical implications of Snoke’s power (who himself is quickly established to be stronger in the Force than any character that we’ve seen previously), Johnson quickly dispatches the character to footnote status as Kylo Ren executes his master to become the First Order’s new Supeme Leader.

Fundamentally – and given the gravitas of Snoke’s apparent role in nurturing the First Order and the nascent Kylo Ren – this decision feels rash and more tied to shock value than any significance to developing the plot established in Episode VII.

Lastly there’s Yoda – a character I was genuinely surprised to see. While Frank Oz’ vocal perfomance remains wonderfully tied to such a phenomenal character, the hybrid Yoda we see on screen (a mix of the CGI and puppet portrayal) looks grim and lifeless, and at times it felt that Mark Hamill (who otherwise gives an excellent performance in the film) is aware he’s working off of no physical object whatsoever.

All of my feelings are compounded by the fact that Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is once again sent on a brief episode of Punk’d, while Benicio Del Toro’s DJ is predictably sent off into the ether as a double-crossing snake out of a Charles Dickens novel.

A mounting fear I have for Disney’s new empire is that much of the nuance and complexity that creates and powers these characters to pop-culture symbols will be lost and simply explained away in other source material at a later date – robbing audiences with the ability to adequately connect to the story as a whole.

While previous Star Wars sagas have been mired in multi-media efforts, one of the franchise’s best qualities is its accessibility – which I feel, thanks to The Last Jedi’s treatment of its characters – might well be oversimplified and stripped away over time.

The story lacked rhythm

I’ll be the first to say it – it only becomes more galling over time when one evaluates how close to the backbone of A New Hope that The Force Awakens ran, and I feel a common desire amongst Star Wars fans was for a completely new experience that had little resemblance nor reference to prior entries in the saga.

In the first endeavour, The Last Jedi does succeed. The story, structure, and beats are all entirely their own despite sharing some surface references with other middle-chapters in the saga. However, that doesn’t mean I can dismiss the fact that The Last Jedi employs a structure where rhythm is entirely sacrificed for maximum thrillseeking.

Where the film opens quickly and grounds its characters, it moves all too quickly to mire them in fuzzy plots and pointless back-and-forth filler scenes that do little else except expand the film well into its two hour and thirty minute run time. Where characters have an energy and excitement at the beginning of the film, by the middle they’re frustrated – and this does little to retain a balanced rhythm nor established beat for the audience to follow.

By the end of the film, the pendulum has by now swung in the opposite direction and time moves quickly again – save for a closing act with numerous tie-off points that hammer home the bizarre fact that The Last Jedi gratuitously manages to tie off several of the loose ends it has created, leaving exceptionally little for Episode IX to deal with.

In some cases, The Last Jedi feels somewhat like Rian Johnson’s own Star Wars trilogy (which, ironically, is now in the works) condensed into one movie – most of the action and set pieces can come across as self-fulfilling moments designed to empower some of what fan-fiction authors around the world produce on a daily basis.

Where Rogue One executed fan service by tying together elements from Star Wars’ wider narrative framework and source pool, The Last Jedi settles for being the film where all those things Star Wars fans talk about actually happen. Snoke gets cut in half! Luke uses astral projection! Yoda’s back! And heck, there are bigger and badder walkers, too!

The Last Jedi

Embellishing hope

To balance the scales somewhat, there were moments in The Last Jedi that I utterly fell in love with – and to Rian Johnson’s credit, the director can be established with bringing home some utterly powerful emotional moments and a cast who fit well into the mould of doing their purpose, and doing that well.

Let’s start with my biggest, and most unexpected highlight: Kelly Marie Tran absolutely shines in my eyes as a wonderful addition to the Star Wars cast who delights, empowers, saddens, and invigorates nearly every scene she’s in. Her chemistry next to Finn (John Boyega) cements a fun partnership who manage to render some of the quintessentially out-of-place scenes in the movie as innately enjoyable.

Next up is Mark Hamill, who – despite directing decisions and plotlines I am adverse to – manages to give a convincing portrayal of a broken Luke. Perhaps my favourite and most resonate scene as at the end of things, where Luke Skywalker looks one last time at a binary sunset before becoming one with the force that so aptly embraces both the elder and newer aspects of the character before concluding them.

Lastly, there’s the heroism and neo-Han Solo reportoire Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) brings to the table, and the savage intensity of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who to me remains the most novel character in Disney’s new outing.

Among set pieces, the battle of Crait is a (brief) visual spectacle, while the film’s decision to use a running train-line motif with the Resistance’s escape from the First Order’s capital ships is a bold decision. Thematically, there’s a potent sense of bitterness and tenacity that drives the film well into its close that must be commended.

Search your feelings

If Star Wars before The Last Jedi was an elegant weapon for a more civilized time, perhaps times have changed. Episode VIII is fundamentally Disney’s chance to really spread the Millenium Falcon’s wings, and that’s a decision (for better or worse) that the company takes.

The story of The Last Jedi is bold, unexpected, in some cases brash, and even lobsided. Characters develop in entirely different ways and in most circumstances the film feels more akin to its own entity rather than the closing chapter in a trilogy. Perhaps that’s due to Disney, perhaps that’s due to Rian Johnson, or perhaps that’s due to the pressure from fans themselves.

What alienates me most about The Last Jedi is its intent to discard some of the founding principles of Star Wars and move into a direction of spectacle. I’ve long since given up on predictable Marvel superhero movies where each new chapter is a similar slugfest through boring villians, B-grade plots, and little exploration, and I’m not sure if I’m prepared to do the same with Star Wars.

I feel The Last Jedi is most strikingly different – and perhaps most controversial – for the fact that it eschews its chance to significantly expand the Star Wars mythology, employs odd and castrating decisions with the development of family and conflict, and takes an usual gamble with rhythmic construction that struggles to find its pay-off.

I’ve yet to see The Last Jedi a second time, and another viewing might well temper my feelings and reassure my direction with the franchise.

However, I holistically feel a disturbance in the Force that doesn’t resonate well with me – and it’s one which I am left to hope that JJ Abrams can bring to an exciting close with the eventual reveal of Episode IX.

What are your thoughts? Did you enjoy The Last Jedi? Let me know your opinion on Twitter – @bryansmithSA!