Thoughts on The Last Jedi:
- SAME OL’, SAME OL’
I confess I’m quite baffled some people think The Last Jedi somehow “subverted expectations” and took Star Wars in some bold new direction. Most of it was a lazy copy-paste from the original trilogy, much like The Force Awakens. I get that’s intentional; it’s still bad.
Much of TLJ is a retreading of scenes from The Empire Strikes Back (and Return of the Jedi). The Luke character seeks training from the hermit-like Yoda character; the Luke character goes to a dark creepy cave and hallucinates; the Yoda character tells the Luke character not to go try to help save people; the Luke character and Vader character ride up the elevator to the Emperor character, where the Vader character kills the Emperor character to save the Luke character, of course after the Emperor character shows the Luke character the Rebel fleet being destroyed outside the window; literally Yoda teaches Luke stuff; the main characters escape from their base planet in a ship at the beginning and are pursued by the Empire’s fleet for much of the film; the Rebels hole up in trenches on the Hoth planet and are attacked by Imperial walkers. Worst of all, even much of the dialogue is ripped straight from the originals (“I feel the conflict within you”).
Don’t get me wrong, there were new, fresh elements. The depressed, disillusioned Jedi; Leia showing a new Force power, survival and movement in space; mutiny among the Rebels; Luke’s Force projection; a casino planet; hyperspace kamikaze. These were great ideas, for the most part executed really well (minus the first one, see below, and the fact the Rebels opened a door to space to let Leia in without all dying). But new stuff is something we should expect in movie series, and indeed each Star Wars film has new stuff. Unique elements being present shouldn’t be groundbreaking.
So why else do people think it subverted expectations? Because Rey’s parents weren’t famous Jedi? Wowwww. Because the Darth Vader character killed the Emperor character in movie two instead of three? Woahhhh. Because we didn’t get a Snoke backstory and Luke doesn’t care about his old lightsaber and rich people fund both sides of the war? Slow clap. Maybe if you expected a higher-quality movie your expectations were subverted.
Think instead about all the ways the film could have betrayed expectations but did not. If Luke hadn’t been redeemed nor helped the good guys in the end; if Rey had taken Kylo’s hand, to either join him in building a new world without the war, try to turn him, or try to kill him later; if Finn hadn’t been saved by Rose, sacrificing a main character. I’m not necessarily advocating these things (except the one about Rey, absolutely), but just making a point about what really would have flipped the script, surprised us, shocked us. But of course Luke will be redeemed, Rey will fulfill her good gal role, and Finn won’t die. How dull.
- LUKE’S INANE THEORY
The idea of a depressed, hopeless, bitter Luke going searching for the first Jedi Temple at the edge of the universe was great. He’d failed as a Jedi master, lost all his students, and hadn’t stopped Kylo, his own nephew, from going evil. Luke is crushed and ashamed, plus is seeking answers to how things could have gone so badly for him, so he disappears. But those answers in the film make little sense, and TLJ misses a huge opportunity that will haunt me forever.
Luke explains to Rey that the Jedi need to end because they always end up training pupils that turn to the dark side. It happened to Darth Vader and Kylo. That’s the argument, that’s it. This sounds like an 8th grader’s idea. Sure, what Luke is saying is true, but it ignores important realities. A) Don’t the Jedi also do a lot of good that won’t get done without them? Do these positives truly get outweighed? B) More importantly, plenty of other big Sith baddies arise who were not trained by the Jedi. So if you shut down the Jedi, that won’t end the Sith. It’ll just let them take over everything. Which was basically happening. Luke can be depressed, but he shouldn’t be an imbecile.
What irks me is that, despite this being middle school-level thinking, it is actually so close to genius. Imagine if Luke actually found true Enlightenment. What if he’d begun suspecting, feeling in his heart, that something was wrong with the Force. What if he’d read the ancient texts and found a long-lost secret. Namely, that the more the Force is used the easier it is for more people to access (it grows stronger), and because the Force always balances itself, the only way to finally defeat the darkness is to let go of the light. Thus, end the Jedi, shut yourself off from the Force, and so on, which would inevitably lead to Kylo’s death, Snoke’s death, a weakening of the Force and the start of a new era without it. (The era doesn’t have to last, Disney has more movies to make, but it’s an interesting story for this trilogy.)
(This would explain why Rey, and the random kid with the broom on the casino planet, are so powerful and use the Force easily, without any training — the dark side’s growing, so more people can more easily access the Force, and the “light rises to meet” the darkness.)
Rey could have come to see this wisdom. She would have resisted at first, but her arc throughout the movie could have been to end up thinking as Luke did, and thus would have taken Kylo’s hand in hopes of convincing him too. Episode 9 would have been that struggle, and eventually Kylo would either come to agree or have to be killed; either way the trilogy ends with Rey being selfless, giving up any idea of becoming a Jedi, letting go of the Force, and as a result helping end the dark side and the Sith. That would have been a bold new direction, unique. (But no, Episode 9 will probably be good v. evil, where good wins, per usual.)
Luke could have either gone against what he’d learned to save Leia and the others as TLJ envisioned, leaving Rey to clean up the mess and get things back on track, or stuck to his guns, his Enlightenment, perhaps by physically going to the salt planet to stall for time, save the Rebels, and sacrifice himself, but not using the Force.
- THROW AWAY CHARACTERS & PLOTS
Like a lot of action films too timid to kill main characters, TLJ creates a throwaway character to fulfill the needs of a plot with a cool hyperspace kamikaze attack in it. This is Holdo, who we meet in TLJ and never really have a reason to care about. Thus her sacrifice has no emotional impact, and neither does the scene. Imagine if it had been Leia, or Po, or R2-D2, or literally anyone we had a relationship with. Even Akbar would have been better (instead he’s simply blown out the window and forgotten about early on).
Snoke is likewise a throw away character, even in The Force Awakens. He really serves no purpose in either movie, and really should never have existed. The plot needed Kylo to go evil, and no one could think of any other way to bring this about other than whipping up an Emperor 2.0 (the fact Kylo is blood related to Darth Vader, and curious about him, wasn’t enough apparently). We don’t know anything about Snoke, other than the one-dimensional trait of him being a bad guy wanting to, yawn, rule the galaxy, and thus we don’t care about him. He’s promptly murdered to take care of this issue. He’s pointless, and I think the creators realized it.
Another one is Phasma (literally just had to look up her name), who we saw for about 5 minutes in The Force Awakens. The creators seem to think that’s enough build-up to a big Finn-Phasma rivalry, animosity, and duel. Phasma dies and it’s hard to care.
Here is an appropriate place to include stupid cameos in the film. This may seem like splitting hairs, but so be it. Maz Kanata’s shoehorned appearance I didn’t mind too much, even though it felt like fan service or just a reminder that she exists. But I thought it wasn’t realistic to this world, and a lame attempt at humor, that she took a holo-phone call during a battle, and had prefered her as just an old bartender rather than a hero Rebel warrior. But no matter. Yoda’s cameo was the painful one. He looked awful, for some reason had reverted to the crazy act he played for an hour with Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, and his presence, for me, was just another reminder than Luke should have reached Enlightenment in this film, should have gained, painfully, the wisdom that would change everything. He shouldn’t have needed Yoda. Instead, Luke needs to learn another lesson from him. The Empire Strikes Back Again.
Rose isn’t a throw away character necessarily, but only exists to join in a throwaway plot. The journey to the casino planet, a location I find cool, simply made a long movie longer. It’s pretty clear the creators just wanted to give the Rebels, stuck on a ship being pursued, more to do. Thus, some Rebels sneak away to the casino world to find a hacker, and other Rebels stage a mutiny on the ship. Having both was really unnecessary. Imagine if Finn and Rose had simply joined in with Poe on his mutiny, and the film focused deeper and longer on the causes, planning, execution, and consequences of the mutiny. That would have cut out a pointless third plot. Then more time could have been spent on Rey and Luke, too, the main event.
This being said, Rose is sort of a shapeshifting character. She’s basically whatever the plot needs her to be in the moment. When we first meet her, she goes from heartbroken sister to fangirl Finn worshipper to badass Rebel guard in seconds, enough to give whiplash. The plot wants some low-quality CGI horse creatures to trample a casino, but wants it to have some emotional weight and justification, so Rose exists. Her home planet, we learn, was robbed to feed fat cats like those at the casinos, and she broadcasts what’s about to happen (cringe) when she says “I’d put my first through this place if I could.” Then, like magic, it happens! What a coincidence. (Between the cheesiness, spoilers, and bad CGI, this felt more like prequels-level stuff, as did BB-8’s operating a walker toward the end.) And of course, when Finn tries to sacrifice himself to save all the Rebels in the mountain, Rose becomes his lover, crashing into him to save him — presumably dooming all the Rebels. She says they had to “Save who we love”…uh, that’s what Finn was doing (and what she was certainly not doing, if she had any love for the other good guys). Before this moment, Rose seemed like a decent person who cared about the Rebels. But Finn needed saving. Thus now she’s the embodiment of selfishness, willing to let them all die, for a guy she met yesterday. I get that her sister died in battle and she doesn’t want to lose someone else, but we got zero indication she was capable of this monstrously unethical act (which the creators pass over like it’s nothing and will probably not address in the next film).
- FAILURE OF THE THEME OF FAILURE
While I don’t really think TLJ was sophisticated enough for themes, it’s supposedly all about failure. That’s the theme. Yoda says it. Failure’s the best teacher. That is always an interesting motif, but it’s not wholly accurate here. There’s less teaching and more just…lucking out.
True, lots of things go wrong for our characters. But, as my brother Sam pointed out, there’s no consequence to any failure. Seriously. Finn and Rose fail to find the hacker; it’s OK, another one happens to be in the cell they’re locked in. What a happy coincidence. Rey fails to be properly trained by Luke; no problem, she is still able to lift a mountain of rocks and save everyone in the end. Poe fails to follow orders, and his mutiny fails; he learns a lesson, but he’s never really punished. The Rebels fail to disable the bad guys’ tracker; it’s fine, a throw away character saves them all. Finn fails to sacrifice himself; it’s good, all the Rebels make it out of the mountain anyway.
“Inconsequential failure.” Great theme.
- REY AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
I wish the creators had written better Rey-Luke dialogue and not left their relationship seeming so…underdeveloped. More broadly, Rey, our main character, doesn’t really have much of a character arc. That’s what makes stories interesting: when characters face struggles and change, for good or ill, because of them. Sure, Rey becomes more friendly with Kylo, which I liked (Reylo is absolutely how this trilogy should end; it would have been cooler in my version, where Kylo is convinced after much struggle to let go of the Force, but whatever). Sure, she gives up on getting Luke to come with her and goes to fight on her own. But are these quality arcs? Not really. Overall, she ends the movie where she began: a hero, fighting for righteousness, who is super strong with the Force despite no training. Her perceptions and beliefs and attitudes haven’t really changed. At least in The Force Awakens she lets go of staying behind on Jakku to await her family, accepting they are never coming back, freeing her to a life of adventure. That’s a big difference in her between the beginning and end of the film. Rey is our main character, our beloved hero. She needs an arc with substance.
Other characters get more. Luke is redeemed. Poe perhaps learns to not be such a hothead, to follow orders, because you may not have the full picture. Finn wants to run away and save himself at the start, then is willing to die for the Rebels in the end. Kylo has a slight arc, changing from someone who seeks Snoke’s approval and spars with Hux into a strongman who needs nor tolerates either. Not every character in a film needs a substantial arc, but the main one does. Rey is left out, and thus her story in TLJ isn’t as interesting as it might have been.
Don’t let the brevity or position of this last point fool you: dialogue is a massive problem in this movie. Most lines are very poorly written, making them difficult to deliver even for decent actors, like when Luke explains why the Jedi have to end because they train future Sith. There are moments when characters literally sound as if they are reading off cue cards, offering a bland, stale, I-am-acting delivery, notably during one scene when Rey is asking for Luke’s help (for the third or fourth time) by Luke’s meditation rock. Many lines are cheesy, such as when Finn and Rose express their delight that they just destroyed the casino, and everything sounds like a cartoon. In action-adventure films like this, a little bit of cheesiness can make for some funny moments, but The Last Jedi, sadly, shows the peril of overdoing it.