Two years already since The Force Awakens. How time flies. I know I don’t update this website very much. And there has been some fascinating sci-fi released since then. Ex Machina (see it!) and Alien: Whatever (avoid it!).
I heard a lot of preliminary buzz about The Last Jedi ranging from people squealing that this was the best Star War since The Empire Strikes Back or, alternatively, that this was the worst thing ever. Nowadays, with billions of dollars at stake, and social media a kind of catnip for toxic people, anything popular is curated by some of the worst impulses of the human animal.
But here we are. The technological advancement that has made Twitter and GIF memes possible, also lets us seamlessly make our dreams into simulated reality. When Star Wars arrived in 1977, the special effects pioneered by Lucas’ creative team made a whole new world of make-believe possible. Lucas himself once said that “…a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” We went from that to a bouncing, animated Yoda sword-fighting with Emperor Palpatine in an embarrassingly short span of time.
The appeal of Star Wars wasn’t just the fantasy of cool ships and laser swords and pyu! pyu! It was a story with characters on a mythical journey. Periodically, the flow of StarWars™ product ever since has periodically been isolated from the human story, telling more and more formulaic stories that are about spectacle more than story.
I liked The Last Jedi. As a fan of the series, I probably am willing to like it too much. Similarly, I am likely to be disappointed if it were to burst some canon bubble I carry around in my head which is baggage from previous StarWars™ product. But on its own, it is a singular vision of a fantasy series, and it comes close to being a very good movie. I do think it is its own worst enemy, and there are numerous reasons why it’s not that good of an actual movie. I’ll get to that.
I’m going to separate my opinion on this. Because there really are two parts to having a reaction to this movie. There is the StarWars-y mythology thing, and then there is the way it succeeds or fails as a movie. The Last Jedi, in my opinion, succeeds very well in being StarWars-y mythological thing. But it has much to be desired as a movie. I will extol the virtues of the former, and decry the latter, anon.
::: | ::: | :::
If They Should Buy Wars, Please Let These Wars Stay
The dominion of us Nerds are divided on the Star-Wars-y worthiness of The Last Jedi. I thought it was a triumph of recovering the greatness of the original trilogy, and has done so far more than any other product has done since then.
I think a major problem with the prequels and the subsequent other media from the subsequent era, is that George Lucas essentially wrote Star Wars into a corner. What The Force Awakens began, and what The Last Jedi finalized, was breaking out of these corners. I’ll list here my rundown on the painted corners from which Rian Johnson has thankfully liberated this saga.
The Rule of Two… Who Cares?
In the original era, Darth Vader was referred to as “Dark Lord of the Sith” without further explanation of what that was.¹ The original trilogy had established only that there was a Dark Side and a Light Side, and that Vader was once a Jedi, and the rest was left open. This was expanded somewhat in the subsequent Expanded Universe novels and comics, which explored the idea of “the Sith” as an order like the Jedi. The Phantom Menace introduced the Sith as the baddies directly opposing the Jedi. It established that “there are only two, a master and an apprentice.” It established that the Sith were a secret order, with a sort of self-defeating org-chart with masters pitted against their apprentices who were always plotting to usurp them. These were very specific plot devices for the prequel era.
¹I think this was the comics. I don’t believe that “Sith” was uttered in the original trilogy.
This limitation was the easiest one done away with in the The Last Jedi. Kylo Ren is not a Sith. Snoke is not a Sith. Or at least they do not say he is a Sith anything. And it doesn’t matter. The issue is thankfully dropped and not mentioned again. Hopefully not ever. Let the past go.
Midichlorians and the Force Are… Who Cares?
Once again, The Force Awakens began to get the Force right, and The Last Jedi completes the rehabilitation of the concept. Luke has more than a few scenes in which he goes into detail on what the Force is, expanding on the lessons we got from Obi-Wan and Yoda in the originals. Once and for all, this movie buries the notion that the Force runs only in a bloodline. Other Star Wars stories with multi-generational Jedi and Sith presaged that the universe is completely at the mercy of either genetically gifted wizard-monks who kidnap children, or psychopathic sorcerer-tyrants who kill children. What a depressing prospect. Maybe it is time for the Jedi to go after all.
Luke explicitly says the Force belongs to everyone and that everyone is a part of it. There is not even a hint of the dreaded “M” word.
Slight spoiler here: we learn that Rey is at least neither a Skywalker nor a Kenobi. The theme that the Force comes to anyone, and that a random person from nowhere can in fact be a hero, gets right back to Joseph Campbell’s original mythology. I wanted to stand up and cheer when it became clear that the build-up and fake-out mystery of who Rey is was resolved with a shrug. Much, much better plot point than her being part of a dynasty or someone who was conceived or created or cloned for some kind of destiny set out for her ahead of time.
Snoke is… Who Cares?
One of the corners into which the prequels had painted the story is that Emperor Palpatine, who was almost created as a one-off baddie in Return Of The Jedi after a brief cameo in Empire, becomes the main villain of the whole saga. To his credit, Iain McDiarmid took advantage of the scenery-chewing required and was always entertaining as Palpatine. But the story got pretty stale pretty quickly, with the Jedi playing Wile E. Coyote to Palpatine’s Roadrunner.
There is no background given to us going into this movie for who or what Snoke is. I liked to entertain the theories that he was an old Sith, or some kind of malevolent undead entity. He obviously is introduced as an Emperor stand-in for the soft reboot in The Force Awakens. In the The Last Jedi, the Snoke theories are all pretty much just similarly ignored and the plot drives right past him. It doesn’t matter, and he’s not the main point of the story. Thank the maker.
Everything doesn’t have to tie together. We no longer have to think about grade-school Darth Vader building C-3P0, baby Boba Fett, or Obi-Wan commanding an army of Jango Fett clones. Things are set back to being a vast universe in which our heroes only play a small, but significant, part.
Jedi are No Longer Super Heroes
This is probably one of the changes which is the most controversial. It takes away something which has been extremely popular for StarWars™ product over the last couple of decades: the Jedi as having super powers. This started with The Phantom Menace when we see Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon cut through enemies with no tension, or sense of danger, or anything at stake. We saw them effortlessly make superhuman CGI flips as though they were weightless animation. We saw them using lightsabers as acetylene gear. Thus began the era of animated, ridiculously overpowered Jedi, whether it was Starkiller in The Force Unleashed video game throwing around TIE Fighters, or Anakin and Obi-Wan effortlessly skipping over a lake of lava in the course of an insanely obviously computer-generated lightsaber fight.
Let me stick to that one, as it is commonly cited as one of the highlights of the prequels. The Anakin vs. Obi-Wan fight is to me the height of this ridiculous phenomenon in the live movies: there is no sense that either participant had actually expended physical effort, possessed an inner ear for balance, or was once in any way terrified of the molten rock and heat around them. Only when the plot demands it does Anakin get burned by the lava. Until then, there is no sense that either character is doing anything other than controlling a bloodless avatar in a computer simulation. Neither seems to suffer from the heat or caustic gasses one would be subjected to over a flowing lava stream. The animated series, sad to say, only continued this super-power trend, and made it worse over time.
For what it’s worth, I think the Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul fight in The Phantom Menace is by far the best fight scene in all the prequels. Every other attempt to create overwhelming (but perfectly coordinated) chaos in every battle scene in every subsequent movie is just CGI cacophony. Obi-Wan facing down General Grievous looks far less convincing than Luke facing down the Rancor.
In The Last Jedi, Luke actively mocks the idea that he can be some savior facing down the First Order with his “laser sword.” We knew then that we weren’t going to get a CGI Luke Skywalker floating up, cutting Imperial Walkers in half, or combining with Rey to double-team Snoke in some massively coordinated melee. I’m sure this rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way based on a lot of the backlash there has been. Luke’s place is thematically consistent with where Obi-Wan was in A New Hope. And it makes Luke’s decisions, both heroic and ill-considered, to have more consequence. Most importantly, it is consistent that Luke Skywalker knows that the legend of heroes will matter much more than what the heroes do themselves.
I agree it would have been fun to have seen a Luke in his prime, kicking some butt. Well, we’ve had years of comics and novels about the further adventures of Luke Skywalker. It’s too bad that all we get with Mark Hamill is the grumbly, bitter Luke. But those movies or TV shows would have had to have been made years ago. So as a torch-passing performance to a new cast, I thought this was an excellent use of Hamill as Luke, and, as cannot be said enough, was thematically consistent as well. That’s all I will say about Luke’s fate. See it for yourself to see the twists.
Luke also addresses another major plot hole the prequels steered us into: namely that the Jedi were failures. Luke points out that the Jedi were fooled and defeated by Darth Sidious. They inadvertently trained Darth Vader. They arguably did as much damage as they did any good in the galaxy at the end of their run. Luke is wary of any power wielded by Force users, which is of course the big lesson that should have been learned by the prequel events.
And it of course fits perfectly with a lesson on human nature. Good and evil at war within a human heart is very much a theme of classical heroes and villains. The Last Jedi wonderfully recasts this entire moral story. It’s taken a long time, but suddenly the moral metaphors in the SW universe mean something to people who may use the Force, but are still human, and neither all-powerful nor invulnerable.
What we really got in The Last Jedi more than anything was a development of the characters of Rey and Kylo Ren. Which is as it should be. The crux of their relationship, including Kylo’s entreaties that they rule the galaxy together, is thematically similar to what we’ve seen before, but it is a different form. I’ll address this more on the issues I have with the movie’s pacing itself, but the scenes with the two of them were very much the climax of the story that was being told here, and the best parts of the movie.
There are fans who would have preferred that the Jedi-as-super-hero trope continue on. If Episode IX were to include a light-saber fight between a bouncing, weightless CGI Maz Kanata, and a bouncing, weightless CGI Snoke, there are fans who would have clapped and shouted and justified it as the best thing ever.
The Universe is More than Just Remixes on What We’ve Seen
The B-story adventure in Canto Bight had some fun parts, although I know a lot of people found it over the top or silly. (I think this is definitely part of what needed fixing with editing or pacing, as I say below.) As for the premise of the expansion of the fictional universe into the territory of casinos and politics and war profiteering, I think it was necessary. After all, the series is based around stories of war. We’ve already seen developments which should be plenty depressing on their own, considering the way that endless war and genocide has been a plot device throughout the series.
I thought the expansion of the universe into some weird tangents was a great choice. It remixed some of our expectations and gave us a moral weight to the actions we saw. We can see that the war affects other people in the galaxy in other ways. And we see that there is a moral dimension to the Force, as we get a sight that even a slave child in the stables has a spark of the Force within him.
A political dimension to the Star Wars universe is also nothing new. The points made about war profiteering may rub some fans the wrong way. I can understand some of the complaints that it wasn’t a point that they would choose. I don’t entirely agree with making war profiteers out to be a villain, either. (In the real world, it’s not such an easy answer.) But then again, I respect the film for having a point of view. This makes this universe more lived-in than just a Jedi vs Sith role-playing game. And thankfully, if we’re going to get political allegories, it wasn’t horrifying Asian stereotype-creatures with names that are puns for American political leaders.
That last bit was maybe a little too cruel on ol’ George. I will give him this: Star Wars was always political. The metaphor of the Death Star was clearly a weapon of mass destruction, and the mechanized Empire was not-even-subtly a stand-in for 20th century fascist regimes, down to Nazi and Japanese-Imperial uniforms. Lucas himself also intended his films to directly point fingers at the USA and the Vietnam war for that matter, made more explicit as a metaphor with the Ewoks in Return of The Jedi. (I, like, many others out there, will fast-forward through all Ewok scenes if I am to re-watch any of ROTJ, anyway.) For that matter, when Ronald Reagan went with the metaphor and analogized the Soviet Union with the Empire, that was hardly out-of-bounds, either. In the 1970s, the Empire was a buzzingly obvious metaphor for evils in the real world.
To keep the Star Wars universe updated while also mining nostalgia, there was always going to need for an overriding political metaphor for the villains which would meet some kind of emotional impact on the audience. World War 2 was very much still in living memory during the original trilogy, although today it is less so. I personally thought that the First Order with their full-on Nazi drag act in The Force Awakens was stretching it a little bit. The world faces dangers from conflicts like Daesh nowadays, or bloody border wars in ethnic conflicts. In this, I thought Kylo Ren was a good successor to Darth Vader. He was wonky, unstable, more full of anger than competence.
I heard another take on the First Order from Mr. Sunday Movies which I do think is interesting. The original Nazis were scary evil and scary competent. The “alt-right” guys in their Nazi T-shirts and bad haircuts are scary in an unbalanced, desperate way. Hux, then, is more of a LARPer of an original Imperial Moff rather than a cool, competent ruler. In that sense, it works.
::: | ::: | :::
So the Mythology is Awesome, But is it Any Good?
In the age of the internet, I’m doing what nobody regularly does. I have a split opinion — a shade of “gray,” if you will, rather than pure black or white. I am firmly on the side of approving of how Rian Johnson handled the mythology of Star Wars, preserving what is awesome about it. And I mean “awesome” in the dictionary meaning of the word.
The movie, The Last Jedi, however, is just not a great movie. I certainly may hold a more critical eye than others, but I’ll be as objective as I can without spoilers. The flaws I find may not bother others, and it may be much more fun for kids. But that doesn’t make it immune from criticizing the things which tax our patience or halt our suspension of disbelief. The original trilogy was insanely popular not because it was a “kid’s movie,” but because it was entertaining for a wide audience on different levels.
Now, this brings up all kinds of objections. People will say, sure, “b-b-but the original had plot holes! So this film has plot holes too, so it’s exactly the same in quality as the first one!” I can say The Empire Strikes Back is a classic that everyone compares every other sci-fi action movie to because it is a master class on pacing and editing. People can reply, “yeah, well, uh, that had flaws, too, and people didn’t like it at the time, either, so… no one can say The Last Jedi isn’t as good!”
There is a role for opinion and then there is a role for taste. But there are objective things that can be measured.
The first problem with the movie which I think most people will notice is simply the running length. At two-and-a-half hours, it’s a lot to sit through. And there are several scenes which don’t really pay off for the story, which I believe would make the movie much more enjoyable had they been excised.
A theme that runs through the movie is failure and redemption. “Let the past go” is something which is important to Luke, as he is trying to excise the legacy of the Jedi’s horrible mistakes.
A chase plot sets the pace and ticking clock that frames the movie’s drama. With this setting and this conflict, different efforts to find a way out of impossible odds meet with degrees of failure or success. The chase parallels Rey’s time on Ach-To with Luke, and eventually these events link up, bringing our characters more and more successes and failures.
The problem with the story here is tone. There is a sense of desperation and a need for characters to risk their lives or to even outright sacrifice them. This is played for tension. But there are also moments where characters clearly need to sacrifice themselves and we can see it coming for quite a while.
Are we supposed to be horrified at the deaths, or ignore them as ships blow up left and right? Should we feel tension when a character seems about to die, or should we feel numbed because of the rate of destruction of everything else? I found myself frustrated when characters would fret about saving a single other character while ships or people are literally being blown to pieces around them. It’s not a spoiler to say, no, of course not everybody dies — we all knew that was going to happen. As if, well, our heroes really, really messed up and got a lot of people killed for no apparent reason.
The tone would definitely be helped if a few scenes were removed or excised altogether. I would have given editors a goal of removing at least half an hour from the movie to make the story flow in a tighter way. Some scenes linger simply because there is a desire to introduce more characters for no good reason. (Or to sell the toys? Such cynical thoughts do cross one’s mind.) Since Captain Phasma is in the trailers, I believe it’s not a spoiler to note that she is in it for a couple of extended sequences. She serves utterly no point other than to have a battle which is completely distracting to the plot. It is also edited in strange ways.
Now, granted, that is my critique of the main chase story. I think that there is a truly great story within this film about the arcs of Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren. Luke’s final scenes in the film are, I think, some of the best things ever in Star Wars. By contrast, a lot of the prelude to this with the actions with the other characters was, frankly, padding.
I can handle plot holes such as wondering why the bombs in space want to fall downward. We get it: it’s mainly a WW2 metaphor, and whether we are given an explanation or not, we can imagine that there probably is one that we don’t need to be concerned with. I can’t criticize the movie for having physics that doesn’t make sense. That’s always been Star Wars. This is fantasy, not hard sci-fi.
Other plot holes that just speak to bad editing are little more jarring. “Wait, did that person just drag his injured friend two miles? That would take a lot longer, wouldn’t it?”
The movie, as everyone can tell from previews and the trailers, starts at exactly the ending of The Force Awakens. We don’t know, say, how long exactly it took Rey to travel to Ach-To, but even if it is a number of days to pad the events, it’s still not much time. The chase sequence at the beginning of the film has an exact timeline, so we know for a fact that the whole movie seems to take place in a matter of three to four days. (I lost count.) So that does not leave a lot of time for Rey to make the, er, progression, she seems to do. By the end of the movie, it’s still at most a week after Han’s death and her fight with Kylo Ren.
I will gladly praise Daisy Ridley’s charisma in playing Rey, and I think the character is absolutely perfect for what she is. But it’s not hard to make the Mary Sue critique for some of how she was introduced. It’s a minor gripe, as I think a lot of plot holes like can easily be fixed by a simple line or two of exposition. My grip is that this exposition is never offered.
Rey turns out not only to know how to fly the Millennium Falcon, but she’s incredibly good at it? It wouldn’t have hurt to indicate that she had worked as a pilot on Jakku on the weekends. It turns out that she is incredibly competent with her sword and staff and requires no training whatsoever to use a lightsaber competently? It wouldn’t hurt to note that she received specific melee training back on Jakku, for instance. Because if a person can become a Jedi in a matter of days, it sort of takes away from how special it should be.
This is a critique that is more applicable to The Force Awakens, of course. But it’s still relevant to this movie, as we see a lot happen in a very compressed period of time. Ironic, then, that we get some important speeches about the importance of learning from failure. This is hard to do when you go from being a scavenger to hopping around the universe, training as a Jedi, and killing many people, all in less than a month.
::: | ::: | :::
I am disappointed in how it seems the Disney/Marvel machine might be churning these movies out without as much careful editing and pacing as I would like. But this movie may get a lot of guff it doesn’t deserve from people more upset about the necessary re-set of the Jedi mythology. There are a lot of places they can go to from here. They can tell stories without some of the constraints from previous incarnations. Let the past go.