Updated: Aug 29, 2020
*This post is extremely different from everything else on here. It's literally just a review of a Star Wars film that came out several years ago so turn away if you're not into that
I was too young to know what a stab in the back The Phantom Menace was. Putting that in consideration, I hope I can be forgiven when I say, that while it is certainly not the worst Star Wars film, The Last Jedi was the most disappointing.
It’s also the movie that’s the most difficult to untangle because, unlike the prequel trilogy which spewed incompetence in everything from the writing and directing to the cinematography, The Last Jedi should have been a better movie. It had an extraordinarily competent writer-director at the helm, the generic retread movie was out of the way in The Force Awakens, and the setup is one of the most compelling with one-time hero Luke Skywalker in self-isolation for unknown reasons. Unlike reviews of the prequels, you can be too indulgent when criticizing this film.
I didn’t even dislike the movie when I first left the theatre, I just felt emotionally confused, and I think it has a lot to do with tonal discrepancies (which most people don’t notice at first because the film is moving from plot-point to plot-point entirely too quickly). Rian Johnson famously imported Marvel’s humor, but the real problem is how characters often react to their situations in ways that contrast with their situation. “I like this!” cheers Rey as she happily knocks another tie-fighter out of the sky from the Millennium Falcon. Meanwhile, below her, hundreds of Resistance fighters are being slaughtered down to about 20. This is further enhanced by the fact the plot threads are so disparate in tone that, rather than balancing each other, they jarringly cut each other off. We go from a plot that features a wild romp in a casino that could have been featured in a Looney Tunes cartoon to a border-line suicidal Luke Skywalker and back again.
It’s often said that villains set the tone in adventure movies, and the villains here certainly concede my point. It’s Star Wars tradition that evil minions like stormtroopers are worthless against characters with names and literally can’t shoot easy targets to save their lives. It’s another tradition that higher officers serve as punching bags for the wits of the roguish heroes. This leaves all source of tension in the hands of the top-ranking elite villains like Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and Emperor Palpatine. By the end of The Last Jedi, this role is fulfilled by General Hux and Kylo Ren. The former handles conflict with the smug fatuousness of Daffy Duck and the latter with the temperance of Yosemite Sam. Together they have the competence of the goons from Home Alone. Their buffoonery in earlier scenes and previous movies dissipates any real suspense that should be felt at the climax.
Johnson was right to implement somber themes; he should have stuck with them. Hundreds of people die, and the greatest hero of the galaxy has his legacy tarnished with no more saviors to turn. We can handle that. He didn’t have to throw in a bunch of goofy scenes in a misguided attempt to lighten the tone. Star Wars is at its best when it serves as a grim, even if child-friendly and heroic, alternative to the uplifting Star Trek that assumes a robust optimism in humanity’s future. One of Star Wars’ most prominent themes of carrying hope in a pessimistic and oppressive universe is what opens Star Wars to its heavy religious and spiritual themes via the Force.
Another problem is emblematic of larger trends in Hollywood which is incomprehensible characters. Somewhere between the 1980s and 2010s, protagonist IQs must have dropped some 20 points. In this film, Po Dameron’s story and Finn and Rose’s story suffer from what experts call an “Idiot Plot” – a plot that can only happen if every character with decision-making capacity is an idiot. For starters, there is no reason for Admiral Amilyn Holdo to not reveal her plan to Dameron. The fact that he has good reason to believe she is willingly leading the Resistance fleet to certain death is grounds to dismiss her for incompetence or even being deranged. Contrary to popular belief, expectations of absolute obedience without reasonable communication is unrealistic and not expected in most armies except ones driven by brainwashing or fear (qualities which the Resistance does not possess). Holdo is even framed as a wise and humble alternative to Dameron’s heroic recklessness, except that her poorly thought-out strategy gets almost all of the Resistance members killed (and would have gotten them all killed if Luke Skywalker hadn’t astro-projected at the last minute). Her leadership literally has a track record worse than Jar Jar Binks’.
Finn and Rose, meanwhile, blatantly park their ship in an illegal parking space to find a smuggler/hacker guy (knowing full well they need to avoid attention). When they are inevitably discovered, they flee law enforcement and are caught after some brief animal-rights activism in a startling moment of bad prioritizing on Rose’s part. They escape prison by dumb luck (excusable in a Star Wars adventure) and trust their lives and the fate of the Resistance to a man who openly and shamelessly asserts to Finn that morals and ethics are pointless and that his only obligation is the pursuit of self-interest and wealth. This means there is no reason in hell for him to stick to what is effectively Finn and Rose’s suicide mission. It would have made a lot more sense for those two to stay away from the Resistance fleet entirely than to bring this guy along. To add insult to injury, his inevitable betrayal is framed as a big reveal as though to shock to the viewer. I occasionally understand having low expectations of the audience (especially after the toxic backlash and cyber-bullying by fans), but really? Finn and Rose’s arc culminates in an out-of-place love story that blossoms at the worst possible time (yet another of Hollywood’s worst trends). Apologists for the film talk about how these beats were an opportunity for these characters to grow. While that’s definitely the right mindset in a Creative Writing 101 class, and flaws for a character to overcome are welcome (like how headstrong Luke is in Empire Strikes Back), very few traits will cause me to lose more sympathy for a character than persistent stupidity. Worse still, it’s frankly lazy writing to require characters be this stupid to build conflict except in a comedy.
This film also suffers from shoddy story-structure (which is surprising from someone with Rian Johnson’s talents). Pretty much everything has to be made painfully obvious to the viewer and veers far too often in tell-don’t-show territory which I’m surprised isn’t brought up more often. Deus-Ex Yoda makes an unwelcome appearance at the end of the film to explain to Luke Skywalker the themes that were supposed to be in the movie and the lessons he was supposed to have learned. It sure would have been nice for this to have come across in a character arc instead of an exposition spill. What makes this irksome is that Rian Johnson had 2 and half hours of screen time to make well-paced and compelling arcs. Oh, right, he had to make room for the Las Vegas casino in space - say what you will about the prequel trilogy, they at least had original and interesting settings – but I digress.
What’s more baffling is that the thread featuring Rey and Luke, even without the need of spaceships and shootouts, had the most potential to carry the movie by itself. You’ve got audience-drawing Luke Skywalker in a deeply vulnerable position of crippling guilt and our protagonist, Rey, who is looking for answers to questions that have haunted her for her entire life. If you’re swinging for good drama, you can’t ask for a softer pitch. But rather than doing anything with this, the segment drags on at an excruciating pace with conversations that mostly go nowhere (they didn’t significantly move either character in any direction internally) and whose only real substance (at least from the audience’s perspective) is Luke’s big reveal about his history with Kylo Ren. There are a couple of touching moments, like Luke and Rey bonding over their shared experience of growing up in the middle of nowhere, but these moments sputter out before they can carry anything meaningful. The whole film feels like this; slowly building powerful anticipation of something new and interesting to take the film, or even the saga, in a new direction (like the end of the jedi order as Yoda predicted in Return of the Jedi) only to disappointingly loop back on itself; “I will not be the last jedi,” declares defiant Luke Skywalker. Would’ve been cool if you were, Luke, but OK, I guess. By the way, is Rey supposed to be the one to carry the jedi legacy after Luke’s gone since she took the texts? Because in her last moments with him she tried to kick his ass with a stick and, failing to do so, threatening to murder him. You know, because she practices the way of the jedi and has matured so much over the last two movies.
The most unappreciated problems come down to lack of subtlety, especially in the characters. I think the difference between how the original and sequel trilogy handled subtlety is illustrated best in the difference between Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. I’ve heard a lot of people give the opinion that Kylo Ren surpasses his predecessor in complexity and nuance, thereby making him a more interesting villain. On paper that’s true. Literally. If these movies were published books, I would agree with that opinion; but they’re not. A director, actor, or editor can contribute a great deal to a character to add layers not intended or portrayed by a writer. What’s most impressive about Darth Vader is how this is accomplished without the use of facial expressions which are usually key. The movie makers use the inflection of his voice to convey restrained irritation when he feels Grand Moff Tarkin’s incredulity is bordering on dismissive; “Obi-Wan is here.” They use his body language to express perplexity when he can’t find Obi-Wan’s body. When holding Princess Leia captive, he brings a droid to torture information out of her (though it’s never stated explicitly for the kiddos). As the droid approaches a squirming Leia, the camera zooms in on Vader’s expressionless face as he stares her down, giving the impression of sadistic enjoyment.
The Empire Strikes Back is even more nuanced in how it develops Darth Vader through scenes like this and it culminates in a richer character than most people anticipate. Vader can go from smugly triumphant, to coldly seething, to oxymoronically pridefully imploring his son with an outstretched arm. His mostly mechanical body signifies his restraint from acting on extreme emotions (the only impulsive act he takes is saving Luke’s life), but he shows he’s not above feeling them in the first place. As they say in film school: you may not have noticed this, but your brain did. And it made all the difference.
But this unappreciated groundwork is never done for Kylo Ren and his character suffers for it. Kylo rarely expresses irritation or anger, just wrath. I get why: he has something to prove and he’s insecure. If Darth Vader represented the oppressive and cold control of totalitarian regimes (his armor is partially based on Nazi aesthetics and his minions are called stormtroopers), then Kylo Ren is the Alt-Right youth gnashing his teeth at not feeling so powerful and getting what he’s entitled. He’s never just angry, he’s furious. He’s never just somber, he’s sulking. And he’s never just pensive, he’s brooding. He fails to be fully realized because he’s incapable of expressing anything but an extreme that isn’t abundantly clear to the audience.
It blunts Kylo from being as compelling as he could be, and the sad part is every character in the sequel trilogy has a similar problem with their preceding counterparts. Han Solo struck a cool balance between dashing adventuring and savvy self-preservation, but Po Dameron has the former trait without the latter. It might “make sense” for Po’s character and within the Star Wars universe, but it still leaves him a less interesting character than his predecessor. Similar problems happen between Rey and Luke, Mas and Yoda, and Snoke and Palpatine. They have the iconic traits without the nuance that made those traits work in the first place. Comparing the sequel trilogy to the original can be a lesson on how powerful subtlety can be to a story and character (and this subtlety usually requires originality). Movie makers will hopefully one day have the chance to be surprised at how liberating it can be to make characters beyond the scope and understanding of studio directors.
I don’t want to just wail on this movie. As I said before, it has some admirable qualities; the last scene with Luke Skywalker, for instance, is one of his finest in the whole series. The fact I took the time to grapple with how I feel about this film is something of a compliment. It’s the strongest of the sequel trilogy when compared to the unimaginative retread of the Force Awakens or the cheap pandering of The Rise of Skywalker. What makes this movie such a particular let down is that The Last Jedi could have been the Star Wars movie of our generation. A generation that’s fed up with righteousness being portrayed as an obvious binary and villainy only being associated with specific action. Rian Johnson was on the right track in addressing baked-in systematic evil, a theme that was hinted at but never explored in the first trilogy, he was just too indulgent to make it compelling.
The original trilogy is about individual actualization through a spiritual quest, The Last Jedi is about individuals coming together because personal development, while essential, is not enough to change the galaxy. There is a place for heroes and role-models to springboard people into action, as Luke does with the power of his literal image when he confronts Kylo Ren. But they should not be a source of comfort that unwittingly encourage complacence, which was Rey’s mistake when she first found Luke hoping for easy answers and for him to save the day like last time. Just because the movie’s for kids doesn’t mean that her sentiment doesn’t uncomfortably echo how our cultures views revolutionary heroes in times of oppression or crises (both fantasy and historical). “Oh, the prison-industrial complex? That’s way different from Jim Crow, just like the First Order is way different from the Empire. And besides, I’m sure a Martin Luther King Jr-like figure or specific politician I’m promoting will come along to set things straight. America always has a way of rectifying itself before too long.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people on the internet comparing Bernie Sanders to Luke Skywalker (ready to walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole 1%) or comparing Gary Johnson to Batman.
Millennials and Generation Z, well Americans as a whole I suppose, need to understand that not every generation gets to vanquish the darkness, most only get to preserve the light. That task, while less gratifying or glorifying, is just as vital. It’s certainly no reason to give up like Luke or be desperately foolhardy like Po. The Last Jedi tries its best to carry that theme, I just wish it had done so on stronger legs. I certainly wish the following movie had been brave enough to see it through.