‘The Last Jedi’ Revisited
To say that 2017’s The Last Jedi was a divisive film among Star Wars fans is akin to saying Dagobah is a little swampy. Many detractors often point to the following as evidence:
I strongly believe that this is not only an unfair indictment of the film, it’s inherently flawed. Rotten Tomatoes is nothing more than an aggregator both on the critics side and the audience side. Can you really judge the inherent quality of a film based on 400+ critics’ reviews and 200,000+ audiences’ reviews when literally millions of people saw this film worldwide, some multiple times? I would argue no, and film, as I’ve stated in the past, is incredibly subjective. The same can be said for box office results. Just because a film makes money doesn’t mean it’s good. (See Transformers: Age of Extinction.)
The vehemence with which people have argued for and against The Last Jedi is unprecedented. I had naively hoped that this sort of vitriol had ended with the prequels. But I forgot this is Star Wars and for some it’s more than a movie, their very identities are wrapped up in the mythos. I personally loved the film but I understand why people had issues with it. It’s always disappointing when you have high expectations for a film and those expectations are not met.
With the year anniversary of the film’s release having just passed, it came as no surprise that old grievances and animosities reared their ugly heads on social media. The flame wars back and forth were legion. So much so that it called into question my own feelings for the film. Was I crazy? Is The Last Jedi really a bad Star Wars movie and I’m just too stupid to realize it?
I decided it was time to revisit the film and see if some of the criticisms levied against it were in fact valid. I hadn’t watched The Last Jedi in a year and I felt some distance would give me a little perspective and ability to objectively gauge some of the complaints. Because here’s the thing about being a film fan as you get older–your opinions change. I LOATHED Blade Runner when I first saw it as young teenager but my perspective completely changed when I watched it again over a decade later. Now I consider it to be a masterpiece in the annals of cinema. Similarly I used to love Gremlins but I no longer hold it in such high regard as I used to.
For those of you hoping I would delve into the “Social Justice Warrior” debates that rage around this film, you can stop reading right now. That way lies madness and I’m not going to wade into that tub of Bantha poodoo. Instead I resolved to focus on the legitimate film criticisms of the movie: narrative choices, direction, dialogue, acting, choreography, etc. You know, the ACTUAL components that make up a film, not some fanboy’s ridiculous diatribes that demonstrate their own insecurities.
So having said that, let’s reassess director Rian Johnson’s film.
***WARNING!!!! SPOILERS BELOW FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN THE LAST JEDI!!!***
One of the major complaints against The Last Jedi was its use of “Marvel” humor, that the jokes were out-of-place for a Star Wars film. That is an argument that possesses some merit. Upon re-watching the film I noticed that much of the humor feels stilted and almost cringe worthy. The “General Hugs” bit at the beginning of the film that ends in an off-hand “Yo mama!” joke from Poe Dameron is just outright bad and unfunny. Additionally, Rey’s destruction of the Caretakers’ property on Ahch-To fails miserably. Also the part where Luke asks Rey to “reach out” with the Force and she literally reaches out with her arm, prompting Luke to hit her with a willow reed, falls flat. However, the Chewy/Porg sight gag still cracks me up and Luke’s line, “Ok that is kind of from nowhere” when Rey tells him she’s from Jakuu, is delivered perfectly. Every Star Wars film contains a certain level of camp and you occasionally need some levity. However, J.J. Abrams and company might want to tone down the humor just a tad in Episode IX.
One thing I noticed watching The Last Jedi for a third time is that some (not all) of the dialogue was clunky at times. Lines like “How they made their bank” or “Let’s go chrome dome!”…these are things someone living in the 21st century would say, not characters living long ago in a galaxy far, far away. It’s really eye roll inducing. Additionally, there’s occasionally too much exposition such as when Rey explains to Luke why he needs to come back or Finn explaining his and Rose’s plan to infiltrate Snoke’s ship. However, there are some incredibly well written pieces of dialogue in this film such as when Kylo Ren tells Rey about her parents (“filthy junk traders”) but expresses to her that she is important to him. Additionally, Yoda’s line, “The greatest teacher, failure is” while simple is also profound. And let’s face it, Luke’s line, “Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong” still gets a lot of traction even by people who hate the movie.
I never thought the idea of fuel would be such a bone of contention in a Star Wars film. I legit do not get the hang-up about this plot point. What do you think starships run on? Fairy dust? Even lightsabers have a power source, they run on kyber crystals. The Resistance fleet running out of fuel as they attempt to escape The First Order helps drive the narrative. It increases the stakes, ups the tension, and makes for a literal “race against time,” putting more pressure on Rose and Finn’s mission. I will admit that General Hux’s decision to continue to hary the Resistance ships with turbolaser fire when it was pointed out to be ineffectual, just to “let them know we’re still here” seems like a waste of resources however. The fact that fans were upset by fuel concerns just because it had never been addressed in a Star Wars film before makes zero sense to me.
DJ AND MAZ KANATA
Here’s two characters that I had issues with. Let’s start with DJ, Benicio Del Toro’s character. First off it’s a stupid fucking name for a Star Wars character. You don’t give the same name that Candace Cameron had on Full House to a shady codebreaker. It’s just dumb. Secondly, I don’t understand why he didn’t just break out of his cell earlier. The fact that he waited until Finn and Rose unveiled their plans to reveal himself and then break out is pretty damn convenient. The only plausible explanation is that somehow he was waiting for this opportunity, but even that’s a stretch. Additionally, I found myself really not liking the character this time around. His affected speech delivery and stutter were very off putting. It makes me wonder what the story would have been like if Justin Theroux’s Master Codebreaker had been the actual one to help Finn and Rose.
As for Maz Kanata, while I liked her character in The Force Awakens, she feels shoe-horned in, in The Last Jedi. Her only purpose was to tell Poe, Finn, and Rose about the Master Codebreaker. Furthermore, the fact that she tells the trio this information while she’s in the midst of a blaster fight seems impractical at best. It might have made more sense to keep her out of The Last Jedi altogether and save her for Episode IX.
Oh boy, this landmine. Critics have gone on ad naseum about Kelly Marie Tran’s character and performance in The Last Jedi. The backlash and personal attacks she received are nothing short of deplorable. The biggest complaint seems to be that her character was uninteresting and boring. I disagree. While her character development was lacking at times, you have to remember this is the first time we’ve seen her character. She’s (hopefully) going to grow and develop in Episode IX. Rose represents one of the cogs in the Resistance machine, someone whose role although small, is still vital. And she fundamentally believes in the cause. When we first meet her she’s grieving the death of her sister but she believes her sister died for a purpose. It’s devastating to then see her faith in the cause shaken when Rose witnesses Finn, a “hero” of the Resistance, fleeing to save his friend. That scene to me was quality acting and embodies the old adage of “don’t meet your heroes,” something that’s played out on a larger canvas with Rey and Luke. I personally liked the Finn/Rose relationship. Rose reminds Finn that sometimes duty is more important than friendship to the point that Finn’s willing to sacrifice himself at the end of The Last Jedi. Yet she evolves as well, choosing to save Finn and delivering one of the more profound messages in the film, that the Resistance won’t win by killing what they hate but by saving what they love. The former is the way of the First Order and in order for the Resistance to win, they need to be better than that. I can understand the criticisms against Tran’s performance. After all no actor or actress is absolved from criticism. But for my money, I thought her acting was at worst solid and far from terrible.
For denigrators of The Last Jedi, the scenes on Canto Bight were some of the most problematic and unnecessary. In fact it’s been said that you could excise that entire part from the movie and it wouldn’t have made a difference in the narrative. Well…yes and no. On the one hand you can argue that point since Finn and Rose’s mission ultimately failed. They don’t acquire the Master Codebreaker and DJ ultimately ends up betraying them. From that perspective the detractors are correct. But honestly, plans fail, our best intentions go awry, things don’t always work out perfectly for our heroes. This is one of the important lessons of Canto Bight.
Additionally, there’s much more going on here than just a failed mission. I loved the idea of a casino planet. The set design and atmosphere was like the Bellagio on acid. And something I really appreciated was that they addressed the idea of war profiteering. Yes what the Resistance is doing is noble and necessary, but there is also collateral damage that affects real people. Is it an attack against consumerism? Yes to some degree, but let’s not pretend that rampant consumerism is a good thing. Despite what Gordon Gekko might have said, greed is not good. And for those who feel there’s no place in Star Wars for social commentary or that there’s no room for politics, I question what Star Wars films you’ve been watching for the last forty-plus years. Star Wars has ALWAYS had social commentary. It’s always been political to some degree.
I will admit that the Fathier escape sequence was waaaaay too long and maybe unnecessary. However, ultimately Rose and Finn are able to plant the seed among the downtrodden (i.e. “Broom Boy” and his fellows) that the Resistance is alive and well and that they are trying to make a better galaxy. And from that perspective it makes the Canto Bight sequences relevant albeit a little too lengthy.
HOLDO AND POE
Man some people really hated Admiral Holdo and they really hated the dynamic between her and Poe Dameron. Critics of Holdo see her as some kind of overbearing, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar-I-hate-men stereotype. That line of thinking is reductive and untrue. I mean why? Because she calls out Poe for being a “trigger happy flyboy”? He IS a trigger happy flyboy! Leia said as much to him when she demoted Poe. The biggest complaint I’ve read time and again is why didn’t Holdo tell Poe her plan? I’ll tell you why. Because she’s an Admiral and whether or not she chooses to share her plans with her subordinates is Holdo’s perogative. I’m sure a private questioning a general in the Army would fly real well. Indeed Poe shows a callous disregard for the chain of command when he goes behind her back and authorizes Rose and Finn’s mission. It’s childish. Then he doubles down and mutinies late in the film. Bottom line is that Holdo knew they weren’t going to be able to outfight the First Order. Her goal was for the Resistance to escape and live to fight another day. It’s a concept that’s beyond alien to Poe. Blasting his way out of any problem is the only lane he knows. And yet it’s Holdo’s actions and self sacrifice that end up changing Poe’s way of thinking. By the end of the film he’s finally able to get his “head out of his cockpit” and stops the Resistance from helping Luke. Poe knew in that moment that Luke was sacrificing himself so the Resistance could escape. Survival through retreat becomes the greater goal. This evolution will ultimately make Poe a better and, I believe, the eventual leader of the Resistance.
LUKE’S REASON FOR LEAVING AND THE WISDOM OF MASTER YODA
One of the more intriguing questions (indeed maybe THE question) from The Force Awakens was why Luke vanished in the first place. Why does he retreat to Ahch-To? Rian Johnson came up with, what I thought, was a compelling reason for Luke to be there. Essentially, Luke’s reasoning is that at this point, the Jedi have done more harm than good. There are two main pillars that he predicates this assertion on. The first is that in the Jedi’s hubris at the height of their power, they allowed Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader to rise, leading to almost the near destruction of the Jedi and the subsequent subjugation of the galaxy. Second, Luke in their wake believed he could revive the Jedi, yet suffering from his predecessors exaggerated arrogance, their same fate almost befell him. Luke lost Ben Solo to the Dark Side and gave birth (presumably) to the Knights of Ren. As the light rises so does the dark, in an endless battle that leaves many innocent people dead in its wake. Luke believes that if the Jedi end that this vicious cycle will also end. Additionally, Luke specifically states to Rey, “To say that if the Jedi die the light dies is vanity.” The latter is undoubtedly true. To presume that the Jedi are the only authority on the Force is akin to saying only the Pope and the Cardinals of the Catholic church truly understand God. Yet although the latter may be true, the former is empirically false. With Luke’s retreat, Snoke and Kylo Ren only grew stronger.
Luke’s belief that eliminating the Jedi will also eliminate the Sith/Dark Side is distorted by his own failure. He becomes so crushed by his epic failure with Ben Solo and his students that it paralyzes Luke from trying again. It is Master Yoda who makes Luke realize the truth. “The greatest teacher failure is” Yoda states. This is a vital lesson Luke needs to pass on to Rey. As Yoda also says “We are what they grow beyond” referring tacitly to Rey. It’s a reminder that while the past can be a teacher, you cannot be a slave to it. That the wise and old (like Luke) don’t always have all the answers. That sometimes trusting your own ability, standing on your own two feet makes the most sense. It’s a Force kick to the nuts for Luke, essentially compelling Luke to learn from his failure and be the legend, the hero, the galaxy needs. Legends inspire, as evidenced by the closing scenes of The Last Jedi.
REY FROM NOWHERE
In The Force Awakens J.J. Abrams, seemingly, laid the groundwork for Rey’s lineage. She was a powerful, raw Force user and the Force vision Rey receives after touching Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber coupled with the voices of Obi-Wan and Yoda in that same Force vision, implied that she had SOME connection to the Skywalkers. In the subsequent two years between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, speculation ran wild. Pundits pegged Rey as everything from the daughter of Luke Skywalker and Star Wars Legends character Mara Jade, to a female clone of Emperor Palpatine. In the end The Last Jedi reveals that Rey is nothing more than the daughter of nameless filthy junk traders who sold her off for drinking money.
While this enraged many who were expecting her to derive from some noble Jedi lineage, I would argue that Rian Johnson’s narrative choice is the more compelling. Making Rey the daughter of Luke or the granddaughter of Obi-Wan Kenobi is easy, safe, and borderline lazy writing. It is far more interesting for her to come from nowhere for a few reasons. First it reinforces Luke’s claim that the Force is not the sole purveyance of the Jedi. You don’t have to come from some great Jedi ancestry to be a powerful Force user. Secondly, it makes the Star Wars universe bigger. My biggest complaint (and I’m not the only one among Star Wars fans) is that it always comes back to the Skywalkers. The mythos needs to grow beyond them, and since Episode IX is supposed to conclude the Skywalker saga, I believe that’s what’s happening. I think Rey learning that she’s not special evolves her as a character. Part of her journey and growth is realizing that in life you don’t always get the easy answers. That sometimes your heroes (Luke) will let you down, that you have to stand on your own two feet and can’t rely on legacy. Those hoping Rey’s parentage will be retconned in Episode IX I feel will be sorely disappointed. And if for some reason it does happen, I feel it will be an utter disservice to the character.
Listen I get why people were upset that Rian Johnson made the choice to kill Supreme Leader Snoke at the end of The Last Jedi. People were desperate to know where he came from, how he acquired his Force powers, if he had a connection to Emperor Palpatine, etc. For what it’s worth I think this information at some point will be explored, not necessarily on screen but in canon books or comics. I personally felt and still feel, we deserved to know how he drew Ben Solo to the Dark Side. That component of Kylo Ren’s backstory has been regrettably glossed over.
However, the narrative choice to kill Snoke makes sense if you look at it objectively. Essentially, Snoke was becoming an ersatz Emperor Palpatine. All the traits were there from his authoritarian leadership of the First Order right down to his goddamn throne room and guards. Why go down that same path? Why repeat that trope? Kylo Ren is the much more compelling and interesting villain. And he’s able to do what Vader never could–slay his master and take his place. (Yes I know what you’re thinking. I would argue however that it wasn’t Vader who killed the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi, but a redeemed Anakin Skywalker. He did it to save Luke not to obtain Palpatine’s power.) It shows Kylo Ren’s full embrace of the Dark Side and the end of his conflict. Snoke’s death at the hands of Kylo Ren in addition to the murder of his father Han Solo cements Ren’s place as a full Dark Side user and someone who is irredeemable. I would be shocked if he turns to the Light Side in Episode IX.
THE LIGHTSABER BATTLES
Here is a criticism that I am fully on board with. The Last Jedi contains two lightsaber fights. I hesitate to even call them lightsaber fights because *technically* lightsabers do not clash in either instance. The first involves the fight Rey and Kylo have with Snoke’s elite praetorian guard. The second between Luke and Kylo Ren. Let’s examine the first fight to start.
While upon first glance the exchange between Rey, Kylo, and the praetorian guard seems awesome, a closer examination reveals otherwise. Aside from two cool kills (Rey dropping the lightsaber, catching it in the other hand and slicing the guard in two, and Rey flipping the lightsaber to Kylo so he kills the guard through the eye) the choreography in this scene is actually quite bad. The long shot, while an interesting visual choice, tries to mask the woefully inadequate fight choreography. Most of it is tantamount to swinging the lightsabers about willy-nilly. It’s slow, awkward, and clumsy. There’s no elegance and it’s not even close to being on par with the fights in Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith. Episode IX needs to contain an epic lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo. If Abrams is smart he’ll hire the fight choreographer that worked on the prequel trilogy.
The second “fight” between Kylo and Luke isn’t really a fight at all. It’s merely Luke avoiding Kylo’s swings in a Neo-from-The Matrix fashion. The reason of course is because Luke isn’t really there at all but merely Force projecting from Ahch-To. There’s two problems I have with this scene, one minor one major. The first is how did Kylo not recognize that Luke was fighting with his old lightsaber, a lightsaber Kylo just saw on Snoke’s ship a short time before with Rey? The only explanation is that he was so caught up in the moment that he wasn’t paying close enough attention. That’s a stretch though and it would have made much more sense for Luke to use his green lightsaber in that instance.
The bigger problem as I see it is that the fight between Kylo and Luke was a missed opportunity. Force projection (which I loved) was something heretofore never seen on screen before. Johnson could have used it in any way he saw fit. This includes real resistance from Luke’s projected lightsaber when it clashes with Kylo’s. Consequently, if done well you could have had an epic lightsaber battle between Kylo and Luke but still have the conclusion to the fight end the same way. This would have kept the narrative direction in tact while adding a little sizzle to the steak. It’s fan service, but one I would have eagerly gobbled up.
While I originally meant for the above to be a Twitter thread while I was watching the film, I quickly realized my thoughts necessitated a more in depth post. Indeed, this article is among the longest I’ve ever written. I occasionally found myself lost in the weeds. However, I feel that this experience was cathartic and made me look at The Last Jedi in a more objective manner.
I no longer consider The Last Jedi to be the masterpiece I once touted it to be. There are some glaring flaws to this film, some which could have easily been corrected. And yet, I still found myself thoroughly entertained and enthralled. You could say I love The Last Jedi in spite of its flaws. Unlike Rogue One or Solo, Rian Johnson’s film will be one I revisit again and again over the years. The film has not ruined Star Wars for this fan.
Nothing ever will.
You can follow me on Twitter at @DarthGandalf1