Spoilers ahead, obviously. If you haven't yet seen the film, just...don't read this post. Certainly nothing beneath the picture below.
As detailed below, I have some quibbles with the film, but they're mostly plot-related, or carry-overs from Force Awakens. For the most part, I enjoyed the movie, which is one of the most thematically-rich entries in the saga, one which manages to effectively callback and homage the previous films while still being remarkably surprising as it takes some unexpected turns. It also leaves the franchise in a really interesting place that makes me even more excited than I would have been already to see what's next.
Things I Don't Like
Force Awakens Carryovers
This was a problem in Force Awakens and it remains so in this film (which, given it picks up minutes/hours/a few days, in various places, after TFA is not surprising): the overall state of the galaxy remains maddeningly unclear. The opening crawl tells us the New Republic is gone (not surprising, given its capital system and thus governmental body was wiped out last movie) and the First Order has risen in its place, but just how big is the First Order? Is it more than the ships we see in this movie? Is there an entire bureaucratic structure of governors and generals out there seizing systems in Snoke's names? Or is just the half dozen Star Destroyers and Snoke's ship that we see pursuing the Resistance? If so, does that essentially put the Resistance on even footing with the First Order at the end of the movie (in which the vast majority of the fleet chasing the Resistance seems to get wiped out by Holdo), or does Kylo Ren have untapped resources out there still at his command?
Along similar lines, it seems odd that for all the First Order's technical superiority, they seems to only ever have one gun capable of shooting down ships, and it takes FOREVER to aim and charge. Given how heavily armed Star Destroyers are, and how they're meant to be capable of surpressing a planet from orbit, it seems like none of the Resistance transports should have survived by the end. Unless there's additional technical limitations on the First Order weaponry in place, in which case the film needed to establish them.
Okay, so I'm fine with Holdo (Laura Dern) withholding her secret "stall til we reach Crait, then sneak the Resistance down to an old Rebel base" plan from Poe. It's need to know, he's kind of a punk, and learning to follow orders/respect the chain of command is an important part of his character arc. But there comes a point where withholding makes no sense other than for the weakest of plot reasons. Basically, when Poe spots the transports and is all outraged that Holdo is running away, that's the point where she should sigh and say, "fine, look, here's the plan". At that point, Finn & Rose are already off on their mission, so that part of the plot has been serviced. And Poe will have already learned his lesson, without the whole thing devolving into the ridiculousness and forced tension of his mutiny.
I get that the Resistance is naturally secretive and very cell-oriented, keeping things close to the vest, but there's a point where that becomes harmful, and this plot sped well past that point.
Better to Have Done Nothing At All
So the whole Finn/Rose/Canto Bight plot is important to the film, in terms of Finn's character arc and in developing the movie's themes of how anyone can be a hero and that the Resistance is sparking hope all over, but in terms of the narrative, Finn not only fails in his mission, but he actively makes things worse (since DJ reveals the cloaked Resistance transports). I'm fine with Finn failing (not every hero mission has to be a success), but I'm not sure that having him make things worse, combined with Poe's mutiny, was the best decision considering the film still wants us to root for these characters by the end. Ultimately, all it did was add a bit of extra tension to the "Resistance flees to Crait" sequence, and that tension at that point in time wasn't really necessary.
Who the Heck is Snoke?
This is another TFA carryover; I'm not saying Snoke needed to be "someone" (ie Darth Plaguesis, Mace Windu, Ezra, Tarkin, etc.), and in fact, I'd prefer he not be. But we still needed to know SOMETHING about where he came from, how he created the First Order, how he trained in the Force, how he got his hooks into Kylo Ren, etc. We don't need a lengthy dissertation on the matter, and I know a book or comic series will come along that will likely flesh out a lot of his backstory, but within the context of this film/trilogy, the story needed at least a line or two explaining where he came from (Luke: "we thought Vader was Sidious' only apprentice. Turns out he had Snoke waiting in the wings all along." Just something like that). When the Emperor was introduced, before the Prequels fleshed out his rise to power, it worked, because the setup was simple: the Rebels were fighting an Empire, he was the Emperor, and he was Vader's boss. But the setup of this trilogy is more complex; both the First Order and the Resistance exist in juxtaposition with the old Empire and Rebellion, and Snoke is a Dark Side Force who ascended at a time the previous films told us all Dark Side force users were gone, so it's necessary to understand more of Snoke's deal before writing him out, because "evil Force-using bad guy leader" just isn't enough to get by on the second time around.
Where are the damned Twi'leks?
Another problem shared with TFA (and to some extent Rogue One): why are there no pre-existing alien species represented amongst the various group/background shots (notably in the casino at Canto Bight)? Where are the Twi'leks, the Bothans, the Given, the Gran, the Duros, the Nemoidians, the Talz, the Bith, the Rodians, etc. I have no issue with the new films wanting to add new species, but it would hurt nothing to throw in a few pre-existing aliens into the backgrounds of scenes, if only as an Easter Egg to hardcore fans, and it would help the new films feel connected to the existing canon with a minimum of effort.
Things I Do Like
Everyone Got an Arc
All four of the new trilogy's main characters, Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren, received a character arc in this film, coming out the end of the film different than when they started. Rey comes to accept her parentage and Force-abilities, Finn learns to care about something bigger than himself and his immediate friends (chiefly Rey), and to stop running away in the face of trouble, Poe learns to think strategically and not just tactically, that sometimes doing nothing is better than something, and grows as a leader overall, and Kylo Ren rejects Snoke but not the Dark Side, claiming the First Order for himself.
In fact, I came out of this enjoying Kylo Ren way more than I did in TFA. After that film, Ren seemed like the weakest character, a wannabe Vader with some of Anakin's emo tendencies, set on a standard arc of questionable redemption. But here, Ren became an increasingly more interesting character. Having him kill Snoke, then fight side-by-side with Rey, seemingly setting up the expected redemption, only to have him turn to Rey and be like, "uh, yeah, I'm not a good guy. I just decided to be the main bad guy now" is a fantastic subversion of expectations. Combine that with the fact that he's still not entirely bad - he couldn't kill his mom earlier in the film, and he so desperately wants Rey to like him - and the fact that for all his exhortations of rejecting the past, he still really, really hates Luke (and that, from his point of view, he has some valid reasons to do so), and the character becomes so much more complex and entertaining to watch. After TFA, I couldn't wait to see what was next for Rey; now, I can't wait to see what Kylo Ren does next.
Narrative Parallels and Upending Expectations
One of the big problems with TFA was how structurally similar it was to A New Hope, right down to the climax involving a pilot making a trench run in order to blow up an orb-shaped super-weapon moments before it destroys the scrappy Rebel heroes, and the fear going into this movie, particularly since it was already poised to feature at least some training between Rey & Luke, was that it would similarly repeat Empire beat-for-beat. Thankfully, it doesn't, and while it still echoes Empire in plenty of places, the nods are just that: echoes, rather than repeats, of familiar beats (when I saw Luke's X-wing underwater, I immediately feared we were going to see Luke or Rey raise it from the water in a rehash of Yoda doing the same in Empire).
We have a novice learning the Force from a cranky teacher, but the teacher is now decidedly nihilistic, and while the the student storms off before finishing the training (we never do learn what Luke's third lesson was), it's to ostensibly save the villain, not the other heroes, and while Yoda & Ben were probably right that Luke shouldn't have rushed off to face Vader, Luke is decidedly wrong to hold back Rey (even if, in the end, he's right that things didn't go as she expected them to). Ghost Yoda even pops up, both to make us fondly remember Empire but also to take the piss out of Luke.
Moreoever, the film doesn't limit itself to echoing Empire, instead drawing from the entire saga. From New Hope there's the reprise of Leia's message to Obi-Wan, along with a second Binary sunset, and Luke echoing Obi-Wan's sacrifice to buy the heroes time to escape. The Rey/Ren/Snoke scene is staged exactly like the Luke/Vader/Emperor confrontation in Return of the Jedi (which only adds to the excitement when Ren upends expectations and isn't drawn back into the light by Rey). There's even shades of Revenge of the Sith in some of the musical cues as Snoke goads Rey and Ren attacks Luke, and a callback to The Force Awakens as Ren urges Rey to let go of the past to join him, with the fiery embers from the destruction wreaked by their lightsaber fight snowing down in a reminder of their last face-to-face meeting in the snow on Starkiller Base.
While this film is lacking in any significant new musical theme (aside from one that seems to be either an overal Resistance theme, or one specifically for Rose that get reprised as part of various Resistance stuff and in the closing credits; it's fine but not terribly memorable), it contains the most callbacks and references to previous themes of any Star Wars film ever. My eyes watered just hearing Yoda's theme in a movie theater again, and by the time Luke & Leia's theme piped up over their reunion (my all time favorite bit of Star Wars music, I fell asleep listening to it nearly every night from the ages of roughly 15 to 24), well, let's just say it was getting hard to see the screen.
There's been some criticism of the film for its humor being too forced, plentiful, etc. But at the very least, Poe trolling Hux at the very beginning in order to stall for time seems right in line with some of Poe's earliest dialogue in TFA, when he deflates the rising tension of being captured by Kylo Ren with the whole "who talks first? Do you talk first?" exchange.
And in general, I kind of love how this movie portrays Hux as something of a puffed up boob, from Poe taking the piss out of his grand pronouncements to Kylo Ren casually Force slamming him into the side of his ship's cockpit. If he was the main villain, it would undermine his menace, but he is poised to be the perpetual second fiddle villain, and as such, is perfectly positioned to suffer as the butt of some jokes.
Use the Force, Leia
While the visual of Leia using the Force to pull herself back onto the Raddus didn't quite land, I really love that we finally got to see Leia show off her own prodigious Force strength and do something with it other than sense things and know when people died.
Of all the great things that happen in the scene between Luke & Artoo aboard the Falcon, the best is easily Mark Hamill's performance, as he effectively channels his younger self. For that brief scene, gone is the gruff, jaded Luke, as the character sounds as though he's 18 years old again, about to remove Artoo's restraining bolt in his uncle's garage. It's a fantastic bit of acting from an overall excellent performance from Hamill (arguably his best ever live-action work), and does a lot to show the strong bond between the two old friends.
I always appreciate any reminder that the Prequels, in all their messy, problematic, complicated glory, are still canon, so I love that Luke referred to the Emperor as "Darth Sidious" in detailing the Jedi's failure. Now I am eagerly looking forward to the story of how Luke came to learn the story of the Prequels and the Emperor's Sith title.
Mischievous Dagobah Yoda is the best Yoda, and it was a delight to see him pop up here, imparting more crucial wisdom to Luke (ie failure is an important part of learning, all students are meant to surpass their masters) while also trolling him about the Jedi books (telling him Rey already has what she needs as the library burns down...because Rey took the books with her before she left).
Putting aside the fact that the story really required at least a tiny bit of backstory on Snoke before killing him off, I really love that he died in this movie, which is probably the best bit of expectation-upending in a movie filled with it. It's the kind of thing that would usually happen in the final film of a trilogy, and it's great that Rian Johnson took out the new Emperor figure here, so as to make it that much harder for JJ Abrams to turn Episode IX into a carbon copy of Return of the Jedi (also, I loved the way Snoke died, with Ren doing a little in-universe expectation-upending of his own and emphasizing that old "certain point of view" Star Wars chestnut).
Rey & Ren
Snoke's death leads to the best action scene in the movie, which is, not coincidentally, the only one to feature extended use of lightsabers, as Rey and Ren fight back-to-back against Snoke's elite guard. That this ends both with Ren not rejecting the Dark Side but with another parental reveal/plea to join the bad guy in ruling the galaxy, is another example of how the movie plays with expectations and expertly handles Empire callbacks.
Holdo lightspeeding her way into Snoke's flagship and taking out the First Order fleet was a top-notch "fuck yeah!" moment, and I loved that it was shot silently and the effects work involved in depicting the action (specifically the crackling lightning effect that essentially split the First Order fleet open).
Poe patting BB-8
There's a brief shot when Poe and BB-8 are reunited on Crait in which Poe pats BB-8's belly like he's a dog and it is all the adorbs.
Luke's Journey Ending Where It Began
Luke Skywalker is hands down my favorite Star Wars character, and one of my all time favorite characters, ever. When I played Star Wars as a kid, while everyone else was Han, I was Luke (because Luke had the Force and a lightsaber, and that trumps snark and a blaster any time/all the time). A lot of stuff happens to Luke in this movie, and it's the first real look we've had yet at a canonical post-Jedi Luke (most of the books and comics have largely shied away from featuring him). And it's going to take me some time and additional viewings to fully sort out in my head everything that happens to Luke and how I feel about it, and how much of what I feel is down to filmmaking decisions and not just being presented with something different than what I was expecting in my head (I mean, I've long wanted to see Luke engage in some kind of spectacular lighsaber battle on par with the Prequels, the kind of thing we got occasionally in the old EU but that we've never seen in live-action, but just because this movie didn't give me that doesn't means what it did give me was inherently bad. This is not unlike a similar effort I had to make with TFA and its declaration that Han & Leia didn't live happily ever after despite what I had play-acted as a child and absorbed through decades of old Expanded Universe stories).
That said, I never doubted that Luke was going to die in the course of this trilogy, and while the exact details of his death were not what I was expecting (see above re: blaze of glory), in the end, his death was absolutely fantastic. I have a long and deep relationship with the Binary sunset scene from A New Hope, the shot of Luke gazing out over the setting suns of Tatooine as the Force theme swells to completion for the first time. It is my favorite shot of the entire series, and it perfectly encapsulates Star Wars: Luke, on the precipice of his journey, yearning for more than his provincial life, for a life of consequence and meaning. And then in this movie his journey ends exactly where it began, with Luke looking out over another binary sunset as his physical form fades away. It is both an ending I never expected for him (I was primed for the Obi-Wan-esque "strike me down..." that ultimately turns out to be a feint here) and the absolute perfect ending for his character, and I get choked up thinking about it even now.
Saving what we love, not destroying what we hate.
Rose's declaration that the Resistance is about saving what we love, not destroying what we hate, absolutely floored me. It's a perfect encapsulation of the ethos of Star Wars (in which the Big Bad of the Original Trilogy is defeated by a son's love for his father, a love the father has done absolutely nothing to earn), a quiet repudiation of some of the nihilism found in Rogue One that left me cold, and one of several bits in this movie (more below) that make it resonate it at this particular moment in time.
After TFA ended, the path forward for the story, at least immediately, seemed pretty clear: The First Order would strike back, the Resistance would run, Rey would train. And while some of that held out (the First Order did strike back), Rey's training didn't exactly go as we expected. But with the end of this movie, I have no idea what to expect from Episode IX, aside from more general Resistance vs. First Order business. In fact, with the Resistance whittled down to a ship's worth of people and the weakened First Order now fully in the control of the unstable Kylo Ren, it's hard to even picture how that conflict will unfold. Instead, it almost seems like Episode IX is poised to be the post-Return of the Jedi film we never got, with the new (and now properly-introduced) heroic trinity working to restore order to the galaxy while the First Order struggles to keep itself together. Whatever happens, Episode IX is now positioned to be the start of something new, instead of just the running out the exepected conclusion to the immediate story started in TFA, and that is to this film's credit.
I love that Rey's parents aren't somebody. That she's not a secret Skywalker, an illegitimate Kenobi, the improbable child of Jyn Erso. She is, like Anakin Skywalker, just a nobody from a backwards world with a strong connection to the Force. This is important, both to the narrative in terms of widening the Star Wars saga beyond that of the Skywalker family, and in terms of the themes of this movie, the notion that anyone, of any bearing or heritage, be they a mechanic-turned-security officer-turned Resistance hero, a backwater junker, a defector, a farmboy, or a freed slave, can be a hero, a source of hope. That heroism is a choice, not something inherited by dint of being born from an already-important character. And I desperately hope Episode IX doesn't role back this revelation by revealing that Kylo Ren was wrong or lying.
The Spark That Will Light the Fire
From the celebrations of Episodes IV, VI and I, to the mounting dread of Episode II and plaintive hopefulness of Episodes III and VII, each Star Wars film (except Rogue One) ends with a dialogue-less coda that uses a combination of music and imagery to closeout each movie with a specific tone and underscore its themes. The coda of this film is arguably the strongest of the lot, as we see firsthand the sparks of rebellion referenced repeatedly in the film, while at the same time are reminded once again that heroes can be nobodies, as a small Force-sensitive child, living a life of cruel servitude, regales his friends with tales of Luke Skywalker's heroism before stepping outside to gaze with longing at the distant stars, dreaming perhaps as Anakin, Luke and Rey did before him, of a better life, a life of meaning & purpose & heroism & hope.
Not only is it the perfect encapsulation of the movie's central themes, but it's the perfect ending for this movie at this moment in time. Contrary to what some online trolls believe, Star Wars has always been political, a product of its time filtered through the very specific experiences of its creators. The Original Trilogy exists in the shadow of the Vietnam War (with Lucas considered the Rebels as like unto the Viet Cong and the Empire the US), while the Prequel Trilogy gains something unfolding as it does amidst the (now-quaint) fears of increasing government oversight in the wake of 9/11 and the ongoing Bush presidency. This film, with its arguments to save what we love, that anyone, anywhere, can be a hero, that all it takes is a spark of hope to fan the flames of resistance and burn down a harsh autocracy that would impose its will on its subjects, resonates deeply in Trump's America. At the risk of trivializing some very real, very serious real-world concerns, that bullying stable master may as well be Trump, the kid with the Force broom everyone who isn't a rich white plutocrat that is currently fighting or yearning to fight to make the world a better place.
If you're curious, here's how I currently rank all the Star Wars films, in terms of how likely I am to reach for one to rewatch it at any given time (so not how I rank them in terms of objective quality, but in terms of how much I like watching them). The top and the bottom usually stays the same, but the middle is constantly in flux somewhat.
Empire - Jedi - Sith - New Hope - Last Jedi - Force Awakens - Attack of the Clones - Rogue One - Phantom Menace.