“This is not going to go the way you think.”
It’s hard to find a more succinct primer for the The Last Jedi than Luke’s line from the trailer. Rian Johnson knew what he was doing, at least insofar as he was aware of the shakeup he was introducing to Star Wars. I’m not sure he anticipated the extreme response that shakeup would prompt, which was, probably, a bit naive; the toxicity of “fandoms” has been injected with some kind of asshole growth hormone and is out of control these days. And while the vitriol is, as ever, a profound overreaction, it’s pretty undeniable that The Last Jedi is… weird.
Note that “weird” does not mean “bad”. It means disjointed, poorly paced, awkwardly written, and sometimes just head-scratchingly *bizarre* but it does not, even with all of that, mean “bad”. I didn’t love this movie, but I actually enjoyed it, probably more than I did The Force Awakens. I didn’t hate this movie, but I walked out feeling very, very odd about it. Star Wars fans have informed me that I need to react with either white hot rage or slavish devotion and I, as an insufferable contrarian, am rather smugly pleased with my current middle-ground feelings regarding the film.
It’s taken me awhile to formulate that opinion on this movie, and while I think I need more time and possibly another viewing or two for that opinion to solidify, I’m at least marginally confident enough to start putting words to paper about it. I don’t know why this is the movie that has prompted me to try writing these sorts of things again. It wasn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year. It might not even be in the top five. Conversely, it’s not bad enough for me to want to eviscerate it in text. I didn’t write about The Force Awakens, probably because everyone had already seen A New Hope so it wasn’t really necessary to dive into and pick apart that stylistic re-treading of the story. The Last Jedi, however, is different. It diverges from expectations, it gleefuly upends every “fan theory” out there, and it is interestingly flawed in so many of its attempts to do so that it bears a little more attention.
Plus, it’s Star Wars, dammit. I use the original trilogy as a point of comparison for so much of what I talk and write about that it’s almost a compulsion for me to throw my voice into what has already become a dumpster fire of hot takes, shit-slinging, and butthurt. This is why I’ll never be happy in life, but hopefully y’all can get some entertainment out of it.
Probably goes without saying, but this post is gonna be heavy on spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll have to wait outside. We don’t serve your kind here.
Alright, now that it’s just us cool kids, I’ll get right into it: perhaps my biggest problem with the movie was made apparent about 60 seconds into the film. We’ve seen the opening title crawl, we’ve been made aware of the dire stakes surrounding the situation we’re about to witness, and the dramatic profiles of starships come into view. The audience should be tense, expectant, and a bit curious. As a filmmaker, you have established a compelling introductory tone.
So, naturally, you immediately piss it all away by injecting awkward comedy.
I had this problem with The Force Awakens as well, and my gut instinct tells me that the now Disney-owned Star Wars franchise is attempting to take a page out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s book by injecting quippy Whedon-esque dialogue into more scenes. This works for Marvel movies, which are largely modern-day adventure romps featuring silly costumes and bright colors. This most definitely does not work for Star Wars which are played-straight space fantasy stories, more grounded in their own imagined setting.
The original trilogy had comic relief, to be sure, but all of it was delivered as a natural extension of the characters. C-3P0 is prissy, and his flustered reactions to more blunt characters was a joke in itself. Han Solo did his best to portray a cool, dashing rogue (which he was) but when things go wrong for him (the Falcon breaking down, Leia giving him shit) the breaks in his otherwise cool demeanor are meant to be humorous as he struggles to regain his composure despite the situation no longer being under his control. These moments are funny, but they also fit neatly within the world as presented.
The “comedy” in The Last Jedi does not fit within the world. It is an awkward encroachment of external comedy elements into a story and a setting that is otherwise played straight. The movie begins with a character pretending to be “on hold” while talking to the tertiary antagonist of the film. If this reference to a real-world, modern day concept of telephone communication doesn’t strike you as a bit jarring, you might instead be caught off guard when this same character delivers a “yo mama” joke in the exact same scene. Again, this all happens within the first few moments of the movie. I was visibly wincing, worried about what the rest of the movie would hold.
And while that is probably the worst offender of the film, the awkward slapstick delivery never really goes away. The resolution to the dramatic lightsaber hand-off from the end of the previous film is a comedic beat where Luke simply tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and walks off camera. A lesson in the mysteries of the Force is undercut by Luke trolling Rey with a joke your uncle would play. BB-8 inexplicably has a spring-loaded cannon that shoots loose change at people. A tiny penguin/hamster gets tossed around the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon and does a faceplant into the window like it’s in an episode of Loony Toons.
Sure, the jokes might have got a couple laughs out of a few people. In that sense, I guess they accomplished the intention of getting a momentary laugh from an audience that may never watch this movie again. There’s your comic relief during your big popcorn movie. Good job, I suppose. But these awkward jokes really damage the tone of the film. The decision-making process leaks out of the screen and suddenly I’m not seeing characters in a story, I’m seeing actors who were instructed to deliver a quirky line to make the audience laugh. Luke’s line of “What a piece of junk!” from A New Hope is meant to be funny and elicit a chuckle, yes, but it’s also a believable response from his character. Luke’s jokes in this movie don’t feel like character moments, but rather instructions from the director saying “tell a joke”. The actors change gears and suddenly begin delivering lines with comedic cadence, their dialogue slips into the modern parlance, and it is very obvious that the idea is “OKAY AUDIENCE BE AMUSED NOW”. Admittedly, I’m a well-established grouch, but I wasn’t amused, I was just distracted.
Stylistically, this was one of my biggest gripes about the movie. But unfortunately, I have structural gripes as well. The plot beats for this film seemed haphazardly cobbled together. Ostensibly, Rian Johnson filled both the writer and director roles for this film; Disney seemingly put creative control of one of their major franchises into the hands of this one dude. In a lot of cases, I’d actually be pretty excited about that, as movies led by a single creative force can often be less impeded by committee decisions that can bog down production. I’m not sure, then, why this film seemed to be comprised of a bunch of disparate scenes and plot beats that were pitched by different people and then needed to be connected hastily in the final draft.
Alright, maybe that’s a bit uncharitable: there were obviously strong thematic connections running throughout the movie and I’ll get to those later, I’m just talking about the precise nature of individual scenes.
First off, the setup for the central point of tension in the film was messy. The Resistance (which still doesn’t make any sense as an organization in a setting where The Republic was supposedly restored) has evacuated their base from the previous film. They withdraw from the planet, take out a big ship, and then jump to hyperspace. But uh oh, the First Order tracked them and now they’re right back where they started. They can’t jump again or they’ll just be tracked again, this time out of fuel, and helpless. So they just… turn and fly away, and for some reason The First Order can’t catch them. There’s some lip service about how they can’t cover their fighters from that range (ignoring the fact that the Resistance looks to have only a handful of pilots left and The First Order doesn’t seem to care much about wasting their troops as long as the job gets done). They are within big gun range, however, and their cannon fire, which travels in a ballistic arc somehow, is able to hit the fleeing Resistance ships. They seem to have better shielding than any ships we’ve ever seen in Star Wars before and so we have our setup: The First Order will pursue the Resistance through space, pummeling them with laser fire the whole time until their shields go down or their gas runs out and then they can be destroyed.
The fact that this seems to be a metaphor for how Disney plans to treat the Star Wars franchise was not lost on people, I think.
The Resistance has 18 hours until they’re toast, and from here our actual stories start kicking into gear. Poe doesn’t trust the new leadership because this plan of “run away until we can’t” doesn’t seem particularly viable. For the record, he’s right: Resistance leadership was needlessly secretive about their plan and stoked an internal conflict that was completely unnecessary. It also reduced Poe’s character arc to something that can best be described as “blindly trust authority figures”. But since for the time being he does not blindly trust those authority figures, he sends Finn and new character Rose off to find a codebreaker who can get them through the First Order’s security so they can shut down the device that’s tracking them through hyperspace.
Here’s how this actually unfolds from a plot perspective:
- Resistance Ships can’t escape First Order
- Smaller Resistance ship carrying Finn and Rose can escape first order somehow
- They jump to a different planet an unspecified time and distance removed from their starting position
- Look for codebreaker
- Find replacement codebreaker
- Wacky chase sequence
- Return unspecified time and distance back to the fleet (though at this point it’s literally one ship)
- Sneak onboard First Order Ship to disarm the tracking thingy
- Finn fights Brienne of Tarth so we could get that shot into the trailer
- Escape and link back up with seemingly doomed Resistance forces planetside
The entire side plot with Finn and Rose, which serves as the resolution for the “race against time” staging narrative for the movie, is ultimately pointless. They just end up going with the Resistance leadership’s initial plan anyway. Yes, it reinforces some of the core thematic elements of the movie while they’re off on their little adventure, and to that end it probably needed to happen. But did it need to happen this way? “Failure is a learning tool” is a perfectly fine lesson, but having that failure stem from a planet-hopping, time-defying, wacky buddy story (or poorly-established romance story) is fairly unsatisfying. It feels almost like the movie wasted your time a bit by making the failure so elaborate and drawn out, especially when the actual resolution to the problem was already in motion and concealed from the characters and the audience.
That’s the most egregious example of structural bloat that stuck with me, but it’s far from the only one. The movie as a whole feels like it reaches a good stopping point about two hours in. The trouble is that it keeps going for another 30 minutes. In fact, the entire resolution of the film is a chaotic mess.
Rian Johnson tries to turn expectations on their head once more by having the confrontation with Supreme Leader Snoke (God, that’s still a stupid name) come here, at the midpoint of the story of this trilogy. This way, he isn’t just Emperor Palpatine with an uglier coat of paint, which is good. This way, he’s a non-character that has basically no bearing on anything and never should have existed in the first place, which is bad. Seriously, Snoke did not have a character at all. He was “generically evil” but had no personality or goals beyond that. Who the hell is this guy? Why is he influential enough to lead what is now apparently the dominant force in the galaxy? How is he, pretty handily, the strongest force user we’ve ever seen in Star Wars? If you’re going to establish this intensely evil and powerful character then do something with him.
Perhaps it’s not fair to say that he’s completely useless. He does serve as a vehicle for Kylo Ren to actually complete his character arc. Which, actually, I liked; this was one instance where Johnson subverting expectations actually worked for me. Everybody’s been assuming that Kylo Ren was going to be another redemption arc. That was the emotional payoff from the original trilogy, after all: the redemption of Vader was a great moment and everyone was expecting that from Kylo. This is not an unfair assumption. But this felt like a natural progression of his character. Vader was conflicted about giving everything over to The Emperor and the role he was playing in the destruction of his family. Kylo is also wracked with conflict, but instead of being tempted by the dark side, he sees himself as being tempted by the light. He’s given himself over to the dark, and the lingering connections he has to the good things in his life are what he sees as a weakness. And he wants to cut that weakness out so he can try to build his glorious new world.
The audience tease surrounding his potential turn was excellent. He and Rey play off of each other the entire movie, each trying to sway the other to their side. When Kylo turns on Snoke the assumption is that Rey has won; she’s vindicated, her belief that she can save him is borne out and now everything will be fine. But then those hopes are dashed and Kylo makes it clear that he has no interest in fighting evil to save the day. He was let down by Luke on the side of light, and his pursuit of carrying on Vader’s legacy had failed him as well. The hell with the status quo: from now on, he’s not following anybody but himself. Everybody he had previously looked up to had failed him, so now it’s his ballgame and he’s going to play it according to his own rules. He’s not a redemption parable, he’s an opportunistic megalomaniac. And that’s great. Kylo Ren is well on his way to becoming one of the most interesting villains in Star Wars. It’s just a shame that the other villain needed to be cast aside so carelessly to make room for that.
We also get another twist here that I was actually pretty happy with. One of the other big mysteries set up in The Force Awakens is that of Rey’s parentage. Who are her parents, why did they leave her, and how is she so freakin’ strong? So then here we finally get an answer. And the answer is… it’s not important. Her parents are nobodies who cast her off for a few bucks. Apparently this has pissed a lot of people off. I loved it.
The Star Wars setting has been somewhat mired in its small scope ever since it was first created. Everybody needs to be a damn Skywalker. All the conflict and drama in the setting seems to stem from this one dysfunctional family. The old expanded universe gave us some good stories involving new and original characters, but those were limited in appeal only to nerds like me who consumed that stuff almost out of habit. If this new franchise wants to continue, then it needs to make the case that the setting is larger and full of more possibilities than we’ve been shown so far. Rey being an unknown, unimportant figure is the perfect way to start that process. Luke may have been the son of Vader, but before we knew that he was just a farm boy on a godforsaken planet, staring longingly at the setting suns. We need some of that magic back.
So we’ve just been hit with two very big revelations. In the language of the franchise, this is the “No, I am your Father” moment. This is the crescendo, the big reveal that will inform what happens to the characters from here on out. We need to wind down, set up the next part of the story, and roll those credits. But then the movie starts to panic. It’s hit its natural climax, but there’s still like, three different sub-plots that need to be resolved. So what the heck do you do? Well. Apparently you throw in another climax.
After this darn near perfect scene, we planet hop yet again and are treated to a scenario that’s eerily similar to the defense of Echo Base from the beginning of Empire Strikes Back; a scene that would have made more sense at the very beginning of the film when the movie was setting up its introduction with the exact same concept as the beginning of Empire Strikes Back. There’s AT-ATs and soldiers in trenches and poorly equipped flying vehicles and reddish salt stuff instead of snow. There’s a drawn-out battle sequence involving a superlaser, heavy armored units, and legions of infantry vs. a haggard collection of Resistance fighters with assorted small arms and 13 beat up speeders with no discernable armament whatsoever. It’s a hopeless battle and probably would have worked pretty well at the beginning of this movie.
Only we’re now pretty much exhausted. The movie has peaked, it’s been given absolutely no time whatsoever to settle, and now it is attempting to peak again. Congrats to your wife, Rian Johnson, but the rest of us need some time to recover, alright?
So then after the big lightsaber battle in Snoke’s throne room against a bunch of ninja turtles we’re teased with another one. And it’s what you’ve all been waiting for. Here comes Luke mother-effing Skywalker and he’s gonna throw down, yo. Get ready, nerds, because it’s time for a one-on-one laser sword duel. Luke struts out like a total badass and lowers his hood to reveal that a bunch of the grey went out of his beard. And his hair is different. And then he pulls out that blue lightsaber that got broken in half earlier. And survives a 60-second barrage of heavy lasers without a scratch. And then performs a matrix-dodge when Kylo Ren tries to hit him. And if you haven’t figured out by this point that he’s not actually physically present then I don’t know what to tell you.
Yeah, the big climactic duel is a bait-and-switch. Not just for the audience, but for Kylo Ren as well. Luke is projecting himself across the galaxy (which I guess is a thing Jedi can do now) as a means to stall the First Order from just storming the base and killing everyone. This is… fine. Mostly. It’s a way for Luke to finally remove himself from his isolation and get involved in helping people again. It’s a plot-advancing move to buy time and save the rest of the surviving Resistance by dangling an irresistible confrontation in front of Kylo Ren’s face. And because it’s apparently a ludicrously draining effort to project yourself across the galaxy (Kylo Ren does state that if Rey were to actually try something like that it would kill her) it’s a way to phase Luke out of the Star Wars movies. This is how Luke Skywalker exits the setting, helping others and fading away to be one with the Force like Yoda before him.
I honestly have no problem with any of this thematically. But structurally… why didn’t he just go there? The movie has no real issues with people hopping from one part of the galaxy to the next seemingly without much concern for distance or time. We see his has an X-Wing submerged beneath the water on the island he’s hanging out on, and raising an X-Wing out of the water is something he probably should have mastered sometime between Dagobah and now. If he’s going to die anyway, then why not just have him physically go to where the battle is, do more or less the exact same thing his projection did (minus the laser barrage but you can write around that easily; Kylo Ren is a conceited hothead who would want to kill Luke himself, not just have other people gun him down), and just Ben Kenobi himself in a nice little homage to his first teacher.
It’s not a huge deal, but keeping him physically separated from the events taking place while simultaneously showing off a ridiculously powerful trait that Jedi had never been shown as able to do before just felt off.
There are other issues. Indeed, the more I think about the film, the more I find. For example, if Luke really was running away from the galaxy and waiting to die, then why the hell did he leave a map so people could find him? That’s something that just occurred to me in the last 5 minutes. I’m sure I will uncover more as time goes on. But ultimately, most of these complaints are stylistic: I don’t like Leia being able to fly like Superman through the vacuum of space. I don’t like Rose falling in love with Finn with absolutely no setup whatsoever. I don’t like the alien casino sequence that feels like it was ripped from The Fifth Element. I don’t like Laura Dern’s stupid gender-studies-major pink hair.
But I actually really liked this movie thematically. It was maybe a bit self-indulgently meta, and sometimes way too on the nose, but this movie had a pretty consistent set of themes running through it that extend to the Star Wars franchise as a whole. It’s these themes that I think are causing the most uproar amongst super-nerds and traditionalists, which I always thought I sort of fell into by default. But this is maybe proving me wrong.
I began this post with a trailer quote that neatly summed up the audience experience. But there’s another one that I think sums up the story experience (see what I mean about things being a bit too on the nose sometimes?). Kylo Ren is trying to forge a new order, one devoid of Sith, Jedi, Republic, or Empire. Something unrestrained by the galactic conflict that’s been continuing un-abated for 40 years.
“Let the past die,” he says. “Kill it, if you have to”.
A bit extreme, perhaps, but maybe the kid has a point.
The Force Awakens was panned as being “the same as A New Hope”. While that’s true, it was kind of a necessary re-treading. The audience needed a re-introduction to the tone and style of Star Wars, especially after the tonal clusterfuck of the prequel movies. We needed to go back to basics, introduce some new characters, and put them in a familiar setting so that we could remember how it feels to go to a Galaxy Far, Far Away. But now that we remember that, we need to mix things up a little. If there’s going to be any hope for a Star Wars “franchise” it cannot keep re-treading the same stories over and over. I’m one Death Star away from an aneurysm.
No, this movie was not the fan-fiction “Luke destroys the entire First Order with a laser sword” fantasy fulfillment some people thought it would be. It isn’t a re-tread of the same story (mostly). It’s sure as hell not the masterpiece that Empire was. But it’s at least making some kind of attempt to do something different. Rogue One was similarly a different kind of story than what we’ve seen before. Was Rian Johnson perhaps a bit to ostentatious with his twists and subversions? Yeah, maybe. But I wasn’t just watching Empire Strikes Back re-skinned and done again, which I’m grateful for.
Admittedly, I’m not sure where we go from here. The defeat visited upon the Resistance by the end of this movie was so comprehensive that I don’t feel like recovering from it is within the realm of possibility. They make the point that they’ve lit the spark of rebellion again, but they showcase that through the upturned gaze of a young boy on far-off planet; how long before he’s gonna be much use to anyone? It’s like we need a significant time jump between this movie and the next. The first thing I said to my friend when the credits started rolling was “that feels like the shot you use at the end of this trilogy, not the middle”. Where JJ Abrams set up a million and one different dangling plot threads that he had no idea how he was ever going to actually tie up, Rian Johnson has seemingly abandoned some and severed the rest. What do we do? What’s next?
I’m not even going to try and speculate. If this movie showed us anything, it’s that speculation is pointless and is just going to leave you frustrated if you invest in it too heavily. However this franchise proceeds, I’m glad it’s not going to be 100% mired in re-treading the same plot beats. Whether it can escape from the existing iconography and forge something genuinely new remains to be seen (Rogue One was all about the Death Star, and the next spin-off is all about Han Solo, so not exactly uncharted space).
To be honest, I’m not even particularly invested in much of this stuff anymore. The death of Carrie Fisher and the shuffling of directors and creative talent behind the scenes on these movies doesn’t fill me with confidence. The accelerated release schedule of Star Wars movies to match the cadence of Marvel movies, which I have largely grown tired of, takes it one step further and almost makes me dread what’s going to happen to these films. They’ll probably be perfectly acceptable, largely competent, enjoyable movies, but they won’t be particularly special. I for one, have largely abandoned the idea that Star Wars, in its continuing state, will ever be “special” again. It can still be fun. It can still be good. But I’m never going to feel the way I do watching the Binary Sunset shot ever again. I’m okay with that. Hopefully some of the folks unleashing hell at this movie can learn to be, too.
There’s still a million other things I could go on about, but that’s what friends and beers are for. For now, I’ll go ahead and bring this to a close. I have no idea if I’ll actually have the willpower to keep writing things like this about other movies. This alone has taken me about 2 days to put down on paper, and you can see what a jumbled mess it is even after taking the time to clean it up. But I have kinda missed it. Who knows.