That's why I can tell you with total seriousness that, despite their horrendous flaws, I enjoy the Star Wars prequels at least as much as the original trilogy. That's why I can say with a straight face that I like the Special Editions and don't mind any of the changes that were made—well, except in Return of the Jedi; Prequel Anakin and his creepy smile have no place at that bonfire, and angels somewhere are still weeping about the removal of "Yub Nub." Whether we're talking Clone Wars (the movie, the TV series, or the good TV series), Rogue One, The Force Awakens, or Caravan of Courage, I'm pretty accepting of Star Wars in any format. With no deep personal attachments to this universe, all it really takes to make me happy is stuff blowing up real good.
I think I may need to revise my standards. For years, I've made people wince when I talk positively about the prequels; now I finally have some understanding of the pain they must have endured while watching Phantom Menace for the first time. Never before had I spent nearly two and a half hours wishing a Star Wars movie would either get better or end already. Never before had I seen The Last Jedi.
This is where the spoilers kick in, and where I start running from the angry mob that's starting to form outside.
I went into The Last Jedi more out of fanboy obligation than genuine interest. Entertaining though it was, The Force Awakens failed to get me overly excited about a new trilogy. It isn't a proper sequel to Return of the Jedi, and it isn't a strong foundation for future movies to build off of; it's a nostalgia-drenched reboot that happens to introduce some characters and ideas that could be developed in a sequel. Too many mysteries for the sake of having mysteries; too many important details left unexplained so you'll go buy the book that fills you in on the backstory you're missing. I had no real hopes or expectations for the next episode, because frankly, I had no idea how anyone should follow up on a movie like The Force Awakens.
It should be gratifying, then, that The Last Jedi looks at the plot threads it's been handed and proceeds to tangle or burn every one of them. Luke's first words to Rey? Don't care. Rey's parents? Don't care. Who is Snoke? Don't care. Ben Solo turning to the light side? Let's make it interesting. Captain Phasma? Let's make it a running gag that she's an afterthought who keeps falling down holes. I could go on. This is a movie that revels in subverting expectations, and I respect that—but at the same time, it feels less like an attempt to delight the viewer with surprises, and more like a big middle finger to JJ Abrams for providing a lousy foundation for a new trilogy.
"You are no Vader. You are just a child in a mask." That's not Snoke speaking to Kylo Ren. That's a scathing commentary on The Force Awakens, delivered with a subtlety worthy of Star Trek. As someone who enjoyed the spectacle of The Force Awakens but was disappointed by the derivative story, I find The Last Jedi to be refreshing in its efforts to clear the slate and give this new trilogy a better identity. Unfortunately, that makes it abundantly clear that this was not the direction the trilogy was intended to go. When the plot twists and dialogue so frequently feel like one writer/director trying to undo or criticize the work of another writer/director, it's hard to stay fully immersed in the story. I want to be engrossed in the power struggle between the First Order and the Resistance, not the power struggle between JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson.
Lack of immersion is the single biggest problem I had with The Last Jedi. From the very beginning, the film drives home that it is not to be taken seriously. The first problem is that I misheard "General Hux" as "General Hugs," which instantly gives your villain zero credibility, especially when his superior has a doofy name like "Snoke." The second problem is that Hux is a caricature of a villain—and his interaction with Poe Dameron drives home that not even the heroes take him seriously. "LOOK AT ME, I'M SO EEEEEEVIIIIIIILLLLL! YOU WILL RESPECT MEEEEEE!" Then Snoke's ridiculously large head shows up and eats Hux, further demonstrating that these villains are to be mocked, not feared. NOM NOM DARK SIDE NOM NOM. The first scene of a movie sets the tone for the entire thing, and the beginning of The Last Jedi is outright goofy.
Except...it's weirdly serious, too. Suddenly there are ships exploding and heroes dying in droves. But also Finn lumbering down the corridor leaking fluids everywhere. But also the Resistance getting slaughtered. I found myself having extreme difficulties settling on a mindset for this movie; this was not "serious, with forced comic relief" like Phantom Menace, nor was it "serious, with well-timed organic humor relieving the tension" like Rogue One or Empire Strikes Back. This felt disjointed and inappropriately irreverent, especially following The Force Awakens, which was reverent to a fault. Compare this with Thor: Ragnarok, which expertly uses its opening scene to reset expectations for the series before juxtaposing its newfound sense of humor with anything of weighty consequence.
Another issue with The Last Jedi's opening scene is that it's completely unbelievable. Who flies their bombers so close together that they can all be taken out in a chain reaction because of one stray TIE fighter? Who designs bombers so slow, ungainly, and poorly defended that they can't even reach their target? Who the heck thought it was a good idea to put the bomb deployment button on an easy-to-lose handheld device instead of on a freaking control panel where it belongs!? I'm on board with Poe's poor leadership decision getting the whole Resistance into trouble, but the way it's handled is incredibly contrived. Still struggling to wrap my head around what kind of a movie this was supposed to be, I started to settle on the only answer that made any sense: "poorly written."
For the next two hours, I fought to suspend my disbelief long enough to get immersed in the film. It never happened. I started noticing all the nitpicky holes in the story that you're not supposed to notice on a first viewing—like how our moron heroes never bother to ask Maz Kanata for any personally identifiable information about the codebreaker they're pinning all their hopes on. "The dude is probably wearing a flower" is the kind of clue you settle for in a Carmen Sandiego game. And don't get me started on the whole "let everyone think we're going to run out of fuel and die" plan, which is more about creating drama and setting up a plot twist for the viewer than it is about the characters actually trying to stay alive.
If it wasn't the story taking me out of the moment, it was the visuals. Yoda looked fine at a distance, but strangely terrible and fake close up—a problem I never had with him as a puppet in the original trilogy or as CGI in the prequels. None of the Force-enhanced movement looked natural; when Leia returned from the cold void of space and when Rey got pulled across the throne room, it looked like someone was dragging clipart around a PowerPoint presentation. And for as awesome as that fight sequence in the throne room was, I couldn't get over how the room itself looked more like some planet from the original Star Trek than the inside of a spaceship. Does it look cool to a movie audience? Yes. Is it plausible that Snoke would have chosen to decorate the room that way if a movie audience weren't watching? I'm not so sure.
Time and again, I was reminded that I was watching a movie. After I gave up on trying to get immersed, the movie started looking ridiculous and childish, and it hurt to disengage so brutally from the experience. Sci-fi has always been my favorite form of escapist fiction, and I've never wanted so badly to escape from the fiction. The Last Jedi left such a sour taste in my mouth that I've started skipping Star Wars music when it comes up on one of my playlists. I don't want to be reminded of how uncomfortable and detached I felt watching this film. I don't want to think about what a terrible mess this latest trilogy—and by extension, the whole franchise—is turning into. I'm already bracing myself for Star Wars: Episode IX: Let's Reboot This Trilogy One More Time.
Say what you will about George Lucas. Rian Johnson ruined my childhood, and JJ Abrams made him do it.