Let me just start this post off by saying that I don’t think Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a good movie. I got over a 1000 words into writing this and I realized I hadn’t yet gotten to the reasons why I think so, so I decided I shouldn’t bury the lead so badly and instead should communicate right off the bat where I stand, before going into all the analysis of the movie’s strengths and weaknesses.
This analysis, by the way, is going to be jam-packed full of Spoilers.
Perhaps more than any other franchise, Star Wars engenders an almost religious fervor amongst its devotees. For some, the Force, the Jedi & lightsabres are not just the trappings of a fiction, but almost like icons of faith. So it’s not surprising that people come into each new film looking for very different things. Some are after nothing more complex than a two hour thrill ride; but others they are looking to visit the fantasies of their childhood; and still for others they are wanting to exploration of a life philosophy.
Maybe this has heightened the disparity of responses that The Last Jedi has been met with. Many have come away disappointed, or even frustrated, angered, enraged, with the way it has developed its mythology. Others have hailed as the best Star Wars movie ever made, or one of the best, perhaps because of its thoughtful approach to the franchise’s themes and subversive take on fan expectations.
What’s my approach to viewing Star Wars? I’m a child of the 1970’s, and so I grew up watching the original trilogy. Like many of my age, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi basically introduced me to adventure fiction, and for years every other movie started from a position of vague disappointment because it wasn’t Star Wars. I had Star Wars trading cards, I played with Star Wars action figures, and there’s still a Death Star playset at my parent’s place.
But I also outgrew Star Wars (I’m not claiming any uniqueness in this, by the way). I discovered that movies could go well beyond their type of story, and I could see the weaknesses in George Lucas’ original series, as much as I continued to enjoy them. Still, I was excited when the special editions rolled around, and even as the prequels began to come out–though they turned out to be mostly an exercise in curiosity and disappointment.
I rediscovered the fun of Star Wars a couple of years ago as I introduced the films to my children (we chose to view it in an order I’d heard about–Episode IV, V, then I, II, & III, and then back to VI for the conclusion, which mostly worked, but man the prequels are a chore when you get to them). So when The Force Awakens came out in 2015, I was well prepared for some old-school adventure that wanted to make fans like me happy. I noticed the ridiculous way the movie followed all the story beats of the original, but I didn’t really mind, because the action, characterization and humor were all so well directed and so much fun. I was disappointed that I was watching what turned out to be the last Han Solo story, but I assumed that was something that a crotchety Harrison Ford had insisted upon in exchange for his return.
I liked Rogue One as well, and so I came into The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, fully hoping for the fun to continue. Sure, the trailers evoked a darker, Empire Strikes Back-kind of vibe, and I was worried that they’d go the annoying route of turning either Luke or Rey evil (something that some fans seem obsessed by), but in general I had high hopes.
And I believed the movie aspired to high achievement. It wanted to take us on a journey of adventure and self-discovery, in which characters would come to understand who they were in the context of an expanding Star Wars landscape, while the audience would come to understand that while the Star Wars universe would not always be what they expected it to be, it would always be challenging, engaging and inspirational.
To this end, there are things that one might say the movie does well.
It tells an original story
As I alluded to, one of the big criticisms of The Force Awakens was how obviously it basically remade the plot of Star Wars (I’m one of those annoying viewers who refuses to call it A New Hope–that is not the name of any Star Wars movie, even if it is internally the name of Episode IV of Star Wars saga): a young desert scavenger comes across critical intelligence hidden inside a cute droid that lead him/her to escaping the confines of their existence in a junky spaceship with a rogue of questionable loyalties, visiting a disreputable bar, learning the ways of the Force, watching their mentor die, and then helping to destroy a super-weapon.
Though The Last Jedi certainly takes some cues from The Empire Strikes Back, it keeps these limited to broad strokes: an overwhelmingly powerful enemy relentlessly advances upon the fleeing heroes while our young hero learns the ways of the Force from a grumpy teacher before he/she goes off precipitously to confront the bad guy. Beyond that, however, The Last Jedi re-structures these events significantly, while bringing in fresh approaches to familiar moments. Indeed, it often subverts our expectations–things that we might have previously cheered at (eg. a daring assault on an enemy ship) we now find ourselves questioning the wisdom of. On top of this, there is lots of new stuff, so the movie never feels like it is just rehashing Star Wars‘ greatest hits.
It takes that story as far as we might be able to guess
Speaking of parallels with the original trilogy, this movie not only reflects aspects of The Empire Strikes Back, but also Return of the Jedi with the confrontation between Snoke, Kylo, and Rey. In all of this, the question of Ben Solo’s conflicted allegiance with the Dark Side are answered, the mystery of who Snoke is made irrelevant, the future of the Jedi is revealed…and we are left wondering, what is Episode IX going to be about? Picking up the pieces of the Resistance, one imagines, and defeating the First Order, but how? Never before have we been in the midst of a Star Wars trilogy but had so little idea what was coming, and in theory that’s not a bad place to be.
It expands and deepens the universe
The movie introducing us to Rose, who is basically one of those people we see signalling the X-Wing planes down their runways with those little sticks with the lights on them, and makes her a main character. By developing her backstory, including her relationship with her sister, and hearing about the situation she has grown up in, we get to see a side to the Star Wars world that normally hasn’t been developed. The visit to the casino planet full of arms dealers and other people who have gotten rich from the activities of the First Order helps to bring home the horrifying implications of the evil that exists in world that we’re watching.
It works to give all the main characters clear story arcs
Perhaps more than any Star Wars movie before this, The Last Jedi puts a lot of effort into all of its main characters having clear points of growth as characters. Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe Dameron and Luke Skywalker all come to a greater understanding of who they are as people.
Of course, some are better than others. Rey’s story is perhaps the most successful, and the most surprising. The question of her parentage has been one of great speculation amongst fans for the last two years, and now we find out that it is just as much a question for her. The revelation that she is not anyone in particular, and so “has no place in the story” is startling and maybe disappointing, but serves as an effective “anti-twist” in a world full of fans who have been wondering if she is Luke’s daughter or Han’s daughter or Obi-Wan’s granddaughter or Chewbacca’s daughter or whatever. It frees the character from her own expectations (and fan expectations) and prepares her to go in new directions.
Kylo Ren similarly goes through a lot of confusion before coming to a clear point of characterization: he is indeed evil, and not just a bad guy in the story, but the bad guy. My friend pointed out that Kylo’s story is similar to Anakin’s, but better told: he’s a gifted young person who has gone down an evil path. He’s full of internal turmoil about it, but we see in this film when he does indeed strike his master down (as the Emperor used to goad Luke to do), that that actually signifies him fully embracing the darkness within him. And the fact that he thinks that Rey “has no place in the story” because her parents aren’t anyone special seems to symbolize that he is someone who can’t move on, who can’t move past his history or heritage as much as he wants to, and thus will never find the freedom that Rey does.
And the Luke story, perhaps the most divisive one for fans, does work. If you can accept a disillusioned, guilt-ridden and even fearful Luke Skywalker (more than Mark Hamill himself could, apparently), then the story behind the reasons why he is like this, and his eventual turnaround work pretty well. And indeed, his anti-smackdown with Kylo Ren outside of the Resistance’s last stronghold makes for a spectacular and surprising climax. The reveal that Luke is not physically present is one of the movie’s best moments, and a bit of a cinematic triumph.
I’m only disappointed that the film makers feel like they had to make this the last Luke Skywalker story. Why was this necessary? Unlike Han Solo, there is no sense that this is because of any reluctance on the part of the actor (whether that impression is correct or not). It seems instead that the producers had some idea of giving each of the classic characters just one last big adventure before writing them out–maybe so they wouldn’t continue to overshadow the new cast? Whatever the reason, I think this was a mistake.
See, we all wanted to see a heroic Luke Skywalker again, and though for a moment we did, it was only a brief instant. Then it was over, and we knew that this was the last Luke Skywalker story we’re ever going to see (the last official one, anyway). For years, Star Wars fans have wanted to see another Luke Skywalker story, and when it finally came, it featured him being grumpy for two hours, awesome for five minutes, and then disappearing forever (Force Ghost notwithstanding).
Now, if the movie had not ended with him disappearing, but rather getting up after his faceoff with Kylo Ren, and doing a bit of “do-but-not-trying” that X-Wing right out of the water, and then flying off to join the Resistance and help relight the spark of hope to the galaxy, than I for one would have walked out of that movie cheering in my heart…and I’m not even all that big of a fan of Luke Skywalker. I would have been eagerly looking forward to Episode IX in two years, rather than just reflecting on all of this movie’s problems.
This Movie’s Problems
Because The Last Jedi does have problems, and there are lots of them. And their big problems.
The big one is that the movie’s efforts to expands the universe and break the expeced mold and create so many story arcs all come at the expense of actually telling a good story. So much of what is contrived to create the plot that supports all the movie wants to do makes very little sense, either internally to the universe or externally in the world of storytelling. It takes time where it should be economical, it truncates stuff that should be developed. It takes forever for the story to get places, and when they do they often up sabotaging their own efforts.
A big example of this is the huuuuuge diversion where our heroes decide that the best way to pull victory from the ashes of defeat is sneak off of the transport that’s being chased, go to a casino, find a guy wearing a certain pin, sneak onto a Star Destroyer, shut down a piece of tech for five minutes, and then run away real fast. It’s a strange rambling, roundabout sort of plan to build the plot of a movie upon. It all ends up being kind of silly and boring, and even worse, not only does the plan ultimately flop but it turns out to be 100% counterproductive. Indeed, if only Poe, Finn and Rose had not gone on such a fool’s errand, and had, you know, obeyed orders, then hundreds and hundreds of Resistance members would not have died. It’s hard to see any reason for the movie to have included any of this except that the film makers wanted to “expand the universe” and serve Finn & Poe’s “character arcs”. But in choosing to do so, they have–I’ll say it–made a bad movie.
Finn’s character arc is underserved. It’s a good idea, to see him go from potential deserter to someone who fully identifies with the rebels and even willing to die for them, except that you know, that was already his story in the last movie. And here, there’s really nothing new. Of course, it’s cool to see him face off with Captain Phasma, but it’s not set up well enough to be satisfying. Neither is his supposed emotional connection with Rose, whose sacrifice to prevent his sacrifice is dubious at best (did she just nearly commit the rest of the Resistance to death?) Actually, if Finn had died, that would have made for a powerful ending to his story that I think would have had a lot of impact.
But as thin as Finn’s story is, it’s not the absolute train wreck that is Poe Dameron’s. The idea is supposed to be that this guy goes from being the play-by-his-own-rules rogue to the man who takes responsibility and makes the hard calls as a leader. But along the way, he is continually wrong about everything and makes a bunch of bad decisions which, as I’ve already mentioned, leads to the death of something like 85% of the Resistance. All of that could have worked (although it might not have been very fun) if the movie had been actually about someone whose mistakes nearly destroy his entire cause, but that’s not the story they were telling. The characters move past it pretty easily and the movie itself treats him like he’s still this awesome hero, and not a complete failure and idiot. It’s frustrating because it’s like the movie is hoping we won’t notice, or is not smart enough to notice itself, but so far it’s been a glaring flaw to everyone I’ve spoken to. When the character arc of your hero comes at the unintentional expense of the audience being able to engage with him, then you’ve blown it as a storyteller.
It’s a shame because this whole disaster could so easily have been averted. Indeed, the whole sequence where Finn and Rose travel to casino-world and pick up an untrustworthy creep and tell them all their secret plans so he can betray them should have been scrapped completely. All it does is set up a bunch of stupid situations that our heroes have to work like crazy just to get out of for no gain whatsoever, and fatten out the middle of a movie which desperately needed streamlining. Just imagine if the The Force Awakens bits with those monsters on board Han Solo’s smuggling ship had lasted 45 minutes, that’s the sort of feeling you get here. Indeed, The Last Jedi is really long, with the middle that is so heavy that it’s a bit shocking when you get to the last act and you realize it’s not over. And the casino subplot doesn’t in any way advance the actual plot of the movie, about Rey trying to bring Luke into the battle or the Resistance trying to escape.
Of course, this brings up the problems with the basic idea of the Resistance’s escape, which is that it’s absurd that the First Order can’t do anything but slowly wait for them to run out of fuel. The conceit is that the Resistance doesn’t have the energy for more than one more hyperspeed jump, but they don’t do it because they know their enemy will just track them down again. But the First Order aren’t under any such limitations, and they have more than one ship. So there’s no reason why they can’t send a couple of ships ahead a few parsecs by hyperspeed and just surround the Resistance. The whole idea that we’re supposed to buy this slow chase happening for hours on end is ill-conceived, and that segment of the story should have taken up about a third of its runtime, with them quickly moving toward the plan of getting to the old Rebel base. Finn and Rose could still have had to sneak aboard the Star Destroyer as part of the plan, and there could still have been the hyperspeed ram (though this brings up the question of why people don’t do this more often. Some have argued that it’s because it’s obviously suicidal, but the Admiral’s plan already required someone to sacrifice themselve so I’m not sure what difference that makes).
Anyway, the seige of the Rebel stronghold could then have been beefed up rather than feeling like an afterthought to a movie that was already over. Kylo still could have turned evil, Poe could still have turned into a leader, Finn probably should have died, and the movie would end with Luke on his way to meet the survivors in the Millennium Falcon.
(Of course, we would have missed out on Finn and Rose yahooing it up on space-horses or that little boy force-pulling a broom. But you know what? I wouldn’t have minded that one little bit.)
So much more satisfying, and so much more full of the Oh yeah! moments that I’m wanting from an adventure story.
So okay, what am I looking for in a Star Wars movie? Well, I want characters that I can cheer for who take me on adventures that thrill me. I want to see beleaguered good guys fighting imposing bad guys, while learning what being good actually means. I want the intensity of high stakes drama where I’ve been drawn in so well that the victories makes me want to pump my fist into the air, and the defeats threaten to break my heart. And I want to see things that surprise me and make me realize the story is happening a long time ago in a galaxy far away.
But most of all, I want the same thing I want from every movie, which is a story that works, with a plot and characters that are motivated and make narrative sense.
Overall, The Force Awakens, for all its problems, did all of that. The Last Jedi, on the other hand, doesn’t fail on every level, but it does on a bunch of them, and some of the ones I think are most important.