There’s been quite a bit of hubbub about The Last Jedi out there on those internets since even before the movie released. Much has been made of Mark Hamill’s misgivings about the direction the story took Luke Skywalker. Based on its Rotten Tomatoes score, critics love the film while audiences (at least audiences motivated to leave a Rotten Tomatoes score) hate it. And many, many people have written better commentaries on the film than I can aspire to. This one by Arkady Martine on Holdo is excellent, in particular.
But I had S O M E T H O U G H T S on the movie, so I figured I’d toss them out there. Non-spoiler overview first, then spoilery details later on.
Is TLJ a Garbage Fire with MASSIVE story problems and inconsistent characters?
No. I loved it. While watching it, I was swept along, and thoroughly enthralled (except during one bit, but I’ll talk about that later). I felt feelings when the filmmakers wanted me to. I was awed, amused, and devastated at appropriate times. The character writing was superb (the best part of the movie, honestly–especially Luke, though it feels odd to disagree with Mark Hamill on that point). The plot accomplished what it needed to, and at times was some of the most thematically powerful storytelling Star Wars has ever done, though I think it could have been stronger. The major weaknesses, however, result from flaws in The Force Awakens, not The Last Jedi itself (PLOT TWIST!)
Is TLJ kind of unusual for a Star Wars film, with THINGS to say about the Star Wars mythos that might upset long time fans?
Maybe? As I long time fan I LOVED the things that TLJ had to say about the Jedi, about the consequences of a galaxy locked in perpetual warfare, and about the burden of legacy. I’m personally baffled by the backlash to the movie. It felt tonally in line with the original trilogy, and if its interesting new take on the Force and the Jedi was disruptive of anything it was disruptive of the Jedi-as-presented in the prequels, not the Jedi as presented by Ben Kenobi and Yoda in the original trilogy.
So why are people so dang cranky about this movie?
I think it comes down to one thing; a lapse in the power fantasy. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is not a movie about larger-than-life heroes succeeding against incredible odds. It is a story about retreat, about loss, about the failures that must be endured in order to grow. Luke Skywalker grew old, and lost his way somewhat, and is no longer the heroic ideal that many Star Wars fans made of him. The Resistance is not the plucky Rebel Alliance, it is the shattered remnant of a Republic on the run (though I think this could have been better emphasized–but I blame TFA for this, not TLJ). The new heroes are not undergoing the monomythic transformation that Luke went through. They have their own journeys. Journeys that are fraught, and challenging, and require them to grow in directions that the Star Wars films have never explored before. I think people are upset about TLJ because it feels like failure–but that is, in fact, Rian Johnson’s success.
FOR REAL SPOILERS
GOOD THING: Luke Skywalker
The best, best, best part of this movie for me was its treatment of Luke. This rendition of his old age–as a hermit, disenfranchised with the Jedi, fled to a secret monastery to hide for the rest of his life–is brilliant. Luke is old. He’s suffered. He is the last student of an ancient, deeply flawed religion, and he’s seen those flaws, and yet feels himself inadequate to carry the torch forward to the next generation. Luke’s speech about the Force, particularly the explanation that it is, ultimately, NOT FOR THE JEDI, floored me. His attitude has taken a notably postmodern turn as he balks at the arrogance of the Jedi to think that they can contain and command an all-pervasive energy field. If anything, I wanted him to go further, not only calling for the end of the Jedi, but advocating for a genuine middle path, a balanced way, embracing the Force on its own terms rather than separating it into (and I’m going out on a limb here, but I think there’s room for this interpretation) arbitrary categories of Light and Dark. Even without that further leap into radical postmodern Force-wizardry (or the best possible version of the Gray Jedi) I was delighted to see Star Wars turn a critical lens on itself and articulate some of the deep-seated flaws of the Jedi ideology. Who thought we’d ever see a clear deconstruction of the Jedi-as-power-structure in the mainline Star Wars canon? And on Disney’s watch, even!
I can understand criticism of Luke’s loss of faith in Ben Solo. It is definitely off-putting to see Luke–heroic Luke, who tried to redeem even Darth Vader!–standing over his nephew with lightsaber in hand. Isn’t this a step too far? A sacrifice of character for the sake of storytelling?
First, the film makes it clear that Luke drawing his lightsaber resulted from a momentary panic. He was ready to turn it off and seek a better solution at the very moment that Ben woke up. While recounting the story to Rey, Luke describes his sense that Ben had been slowly falling under Snoke’s influence, slowly fading to the Dark Side. In Return of the Jedi, Luke was “tempted” by the Dark Side himself. He knows its allure. He feared for his nephew. But Luke lost his mentors when he was still young. He never got to observe how the Jedi dealt with students suffering from Dark Side inclinations (and, I wager, if he had, he’d have been offered a very poor model, just based on the prequel series). Luke panics. He can see Ben’s power, he can imagine Ben becoming a new Darth Vader–and he has to solve that problem. Because if he doesn’t, who will? Luke is The Last Jedi, the only one who stands between the galaxy and the Dark Side.
Or so he believes, from the skewed perspective of a largely self-taught Jedi relying on an old and demonstrably failed system of religious indoctrination.
So Luke draws his saber, panicking. And standing over Ben he realizes that this is COMPLETELY WRONG. He can’t kill his nephew! No matter what danger Ben poses to the galaxy, Luke has to find a way to solve this problem without murdering him. In that moment, he realizes that the black-and-white thinking of the Jedi–the idea that the Dark Side must never, ever be touched, that it is a thing to be feared, to be avoided at all costs, a barrier trespassed only by the wicked and irredeemable–is broken and dehumanizing. Luke Skywalker, who thought–against the advice of Yoda and Ben Kenobi–that he might be able to redeem Darth Vader, realizes that he can save his nephew, too.
In that moment, after failing Ben, he realizes the need for a new way.
But Ben wakes up.
Luke’s failure is compounded. Not only does he fail Ben by adhering too rigidly to a dehumanizing belief system that has never really been his own, but that failure spirals outward, resulting in the realization of the very nightmare that Luke wanted to prevent.
Of course he retreats. Of course he hides away. He is crushed by twofold failure. He saved the galaxy once, tried to restore it to the mythic golden age by training a new generation of Jedi, and in so doing plunged it back into chaos. He needs to find a better way–but he is, at the same time, old, and tired, and ignorant, and afraid that he lacks the insight to find a way forward.
Is it any coincidence that he retreats to Ahch-To, to consult the original Jedi texts? He is looking for answers. He doesn’t find them. The oldest source of the ancient religion leaves him only further disillusioned. The need for a way forward has never been more clear. But Luke is tired. And a failure. And doubts that the answers he seeks exist.
He knows enough to give the speech he gave to Rey. To deconstruct the Jedi, to gesture towards a dismantling of the Dark Side/Light Side dichotomy, but not enough to build something new.
That will be her role. To forge something new from the ashes of the old way.
It is time, after all, for the Jedi to end.
Could it have been done better?
First, I think more could have been done to establish the internal conflict raging within young, student Ben Solo. Luke’s struggle–and the decision to draw his lightsaber–would have been more clear if we had seen Ben’s slow descent toward the Dark Side, if we had seen Luke’s fear and frustration (spending some time here, and a bit less on Canto Bight, would have been a solid choice, I think). I think Luke’s arc works without this, but giving more concrete context behind that decision to draw the lightsaber would have given Luke’s arc even more weight than it already had.
I also think the idea of Ben Solo reacting to Luke’s attack by just up and murdering or recruiting the rest of his students doesn’t work. That’s slipping back toward the Light Side/Dark Side dichotomy that the rest of the film gestures towards dismantling. Ben Solo’s fall feels hackneyed as a one-off incident followed by an unprovoked murder rampage (granted, seeing your uncle looming over you with a laser sword would be pretty scarring). It would have worked better, I think, if Ben had accidentally destroyed the temple and killed Luke’s other students in his attempt to defend himself–an accident that makes it even harder for Ben to face his friends and family, after having caused so much death. Or maybe the other students rush to Luke’s aid and Ben kills them all in self-defense. Either way, I think Ben’s reaction to Luke’s failure could have been more nuanced. It’s fine as it is, but it could have been better.
FURTHER GOOD THING: Kylo Ren
Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is the best goddamn character the Star Wars universe has ever had. He was the one thing I really loved in The Force Awakens. Adam Driver DRIPS with internal conflict every moment that Kylo is on screen. He masks confusion and weakness by putting on the affectations of a legendary ancestor–the irony of that ancestor’s own struggle with confusion, lack of purpose, and internal conflict forgotten in favor of the mythic image. Kylo Ren seems to have forgotten–or never known–Anakin Skywalker the raging, heartbroken adolescent, but only Darth Vader the walking embodiment of Imperial Power, his voice itself modulated as part of his put-on identity.
Kylo Ren is more like his grandfather than even he, himself, understands.
Luke’s flashback to his failure only further complicates and strengthens Kylo Ren as a character. Now his angst and lashing out make sense. The good guys–the Light Side legacy of his uncle, father, and mother–have betrayed him. So he turns to Darth Vader, his grandfather, the Dark Side of his legacy in order to find his identity and purpose.
He killed his father. But he can’t kill his mother.
Instead, he kills Snoke, the Emperor-wannabe. And, for a moment, he is free. The galaxy lies open to him. He can take a step in any direction, escape the vacuum of the dichotomy between Light and Dark that has defined his family history. He doesn’t have to take Rey’s hand and join the Resistance.
He can simply walk away, and let the past die.
But he doesn’t. He can’t escape the prison of legacy, the eternal war between Light and Dark that defines the Star Wars universe. He is trapped in the way things have always been, unable to see a way forward that doesn’t involve Sith and Jedi, Empire and Rebellion, First Order and Resistance.
Instead, when Rey refuses to join him and fill the power vacuum left by Snoke, Kylo Ren defaults to the old narrative. He falls back into the patterns of power and war.
And, ultimately, he is humiliated by Luke Skywalker, using the Force for that which it was first shown to do in A New Hope – a mind trick, but on a massive, unprecedented scale.
Because Luke won’t confront Kylo. Not because Ahch-To is too far from Crait for him to make it in time, but because Luke, ultimately, doesn’t want to kill Ben Solo. He wants to buy time for his friends to escape, but he drew his blade against his nephew once. Never again.
Kylo Ren delivers the film’s philosophical message. Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. Do away with old patterns and structures of power. Look for a new way, a humane way, a way that doesn’t pit father against son, uncle against nephew. But he cannot live up to it. The past has trapped him–his own failure, but also a failure of the mentors in his life who, blinded by the structures they understood, unable to see beyond Light and Dark–and he cannot move forward.
ANOTHER GOOD THING: Failure, Retreat, and Growth
The major theme of The Last Jedi is the process of learning from our failures. Every character experiences failure, and must grow as a result. But growth is not easy. We cannot find a new path until we see that the one we have been following is broken. I don’t want to spend a ton of time on this, but here are a few highlights.
POE and the DUMB PLANS that were VERY DUMB
Poe’s plan is really dumb, you guys. All of Poe’s plans in this movie are dumb. They’re cool–they involve crazy X-Wing maneuvers, crack piloting skills, and heroic sacrifices–but they’re dumb. Terrible plans, if your goal is win a war.
Poe sacrifices MOST of the Resistance’s ability to strike at First Order capital ships in one hare-brained scheme to take out one–albeit very big and probably expensive–star destroyer. A cool plan. One that–sort of–succeeds, in the sense that the big star destroyer is in fact destroyed.
But it’s so, so dumb.
The Resistance is on the run. That’s established from the get-go. The Republic home worlds were all blown up in The Force Awakens. Their capacity to regroup and recuperate from the heroic sacrifice of so many bombers is basically zero. Poe takes out one high-value target, yes, but at the cost of the Resistance’s ENTIRE ability to do any damage of consequence to the First Order. He’s a great pilot, and a terrible strategist.
So of course someone else has to take over when Leia is incapacitated.
We as the audience, seeing things from Poe’s point of view, are meant to sympathize with his desire to be in charge, to be in the know, to make the decisions and execute the crazy, last-ditch plan to save the Resistance. And that desire is subverted.
First, because Holdo is exactly the kind of leader the Resistance needs to survive its current ordeal. She is level-headed, restrained, and careful–so careful that she keeps the details of her plan on a need to know basis, a decision that is justified when Poe blabs about them over an unsecured communications channel immediately after learning what her plan, in fact, is. If anyone is going to save the Resistance, it’s Holdo and her caution, not Poe and his predilection for balls-to-the-wall action sequences.
His plan to send Rose and Finn to Canto Bight, while satisfying their collective need to DO SOMETHING DAMMIT ultimately costs the Resistance dearly. And only then does Poe learn that the attitudes and skills that serve you well in battle are not the same that leadership requires. If he is going to help keep the Resistance alive, he will need to pause, take a minute in the hold of the Millennium Falcon, and reconsider his priorities. He will need to find a new way of being. One that doesn’t put his friends and all he holds dear in jeopardy.
FINN and FINDING A CAUSE
This one is pretty straightforward. Finn and Rose fail to save the Resistance with their mission to Canto Bight, and in fact only make things worse. But they achieve some minor successes along the way. Finn gets a sense of the larger scope of things going on in the galaxy around him, and–with Rose’s help–comes to see the value in fighting for the Resistance. Not as another faceless soldier in a military organization, but as a hero for the downtrodden, a person who puts himself in between the powerful and the powerless. Something he literally does on Crait. In The Force Awakens, Finn does little more than run away, growing only slightly in his personal connection to Rey. In The Last Jedi, Finn becomes a hero in his own right.
REY and NOTHING WORKS OUT THE WAY SHE THINKS
Second perhaps only to Poe, Rey’s journey through The Last Jedi is a parade of failures. The Jedi master she hoped would guide her into power and purpose tosses away the macguffin she spent the whole last movie escorting, rejects her, and does nothing but give confusing, obscure, postmodern lectures (and aggressively drink green milk from creatures that look like they wandered out of a Tool music video). Also, she keeps having visions guiding her into a creepy cave, where she finds a magical mirror that will SURELY provide some answers!
Instead she suffers a waking nightmare for a while, and comes away having learned nothing, her confusion and sense of displacement only worsening.
Meanwhile, she starts vividly hallucinating her greatest enemy, only to develop sympathy for him. She decides to follow that thread, and it leads her directly into the throne room of Supreme Leader Snoke, who tortures her and tries to goad Kylo Ren into killing her. Then something FINALLY goes right when Kylo kills Snoke and teams up with her to kill his guards. But when the dust settles, he hasn’t changed at all, and asks her to betray her friends and values and help him lead the fascist cosplay murder coop that her friends are currently fighting.
Oh, also, he tells her that her parents were NOT, in fact, legendary heroes or mythic figures out of the past to give her some sense of identity, legacy, and purpose. Instead, they were exactly as awful and unimportant in the grand scheme of things as she knew they were all along.
Rey fails again, and again, and again. Nothing works out for her. None of her expectations are fulfilled. She was not born into the center of the power structure. She will have to carve her own, better path through the galaxy.
MEH THING: Canto Bight
Overall, the Canto Bight story line works. Poe, hotheaded meatboy that he is, sends Finn and Rose off on a last-ditch mission to a skeevy casino planet to find a hacker who may or may-not even be interested in helping the Resistance. It’s just the sort of dumb, unlikely plan that the Rebellion might have gotten away with. It needs to exist, because it needs to fail, because the Resistance isn’t the Rebellion (however muddle that may be, thanks to TFA). The Resistance needs to grow. It needs to be an organization that values lives, that doesn’t throw away its people on last-ditch suicide missions (unless, as in Holdo’s case, that is absolutely necessary). For these reasons, Canto Bight needs to happen.
It also accomplishes a lot of solid thematic work for Rian Johnson. DJ’s speech on the profitability of warfare helps illustrate the need for change in the galaxy. A state of perpetual conflict does not a healthy, equitable society make. The introduction of the urchins, and their reincorporation at the end, further sells the theme that the Force is not a thing to be owned by powerful religio-political structures, but a thing that presents itself to even the most downtrodden in society. So yeah, Canto Bight not only needs to happen, it’s important.
But it’s a bit overlong.
I think the entire fathier chase scene could have been cut without losing anything. Rose’s line that the real victory is setting one of them free doesn’t land. The scene itself is so much spectacle without any real impact. Cut it. Introduce the fathiers, have Finn and Rose release them to distract the Canto Bight cops, but cut the chase scene.
Also, I don’t think it was necessary for DJ to be the “second choice” hacker. While this does compound the failure of Rose and Finn’s mission, I think it would have been even more potent for them to recruit the hacker they were sent to find (still DJ, still played by Benicio Del Toro), only for him to double-cross them upon learning about Holdo’s plan. That would have been an even greater gut-punch, and would have further undercut Poe’s hot-shotness. (I mean, really, sending people to recruit a known criminal to your cause in the middle of a tense retreat? What a stupid idea.)
THE MAJOR FLAW: The Force Awakens
Ok, here’s the part where I get negative. There is ONE big, huge weakness in The Last Jedi that I want to talk about.
THE RESISTANCE’S PLIGHT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE
At the beginning of the movie, despite the title crawl, I was profoundly confused by how the Resistance became reduced to one cruiser and a few support frigates. Like, ok, the core republic worlds were blown up in The Force Awakens. That would certainly hinder them. But it seemed like they had a lot more going on than one cruiser and a few support frigates in The Force Awakens. Also, they just blew up Starkiller Base! If the Resistance is reeling, the First Order should be reeling just as much. They lost a planet-sized death star! But, ultimately, I can’t fault The Last Jedi for this, because…
THE RESISTANCE vs. THE FIRST ORDER NEVER MADE SENSE
This bothered me in The Force Awakens. I understood where the First Order came from–hell, living through 2017 only further cements the realism of fascist resurgence. But why was the Resistance a rag-tag team like the Rebel Alliance? The Republic exists, doesn’t it? Surely Leia should have been leading a contingent of the Republic military, not a hodge-podge squad?
The whole concept of “the Resistance” feels like a half-baked attempt to maximize the similarities between TFA and the original trilogy.
Ok. I can understand the Republic sending only a small force to stop the First Order–maybe the Senate doesn’t take the threat of Imperial fanboys with a few refurbished Star Destroyers very seriously? But still, if the First Order was any kind of threat at all, even just a little independent fascist militia, the Republic should have sent a legitimate contingent of soldiers to deal with it.
Lets say that happened. Then, when the First Order reveals Starkiller Base and blows up the Republic core worlds, then OF COURSE the contingent sent to deal with them would be left reeling. With the Republic essentially annihilated, Leia’s forces manage a last-ditch assault on Starkiller Base, blow it up, and then immediately retreat in the few ships they were given by the Republic. The First Order, now no longer hiding its full strength, falls into pursuit with its full contingent of Star Destroyers, picking off ships one by one, until only one cruiser and a couple of support frigates remain.
There. Now the setup for The Last Jedi makes sense. And the tiny, tiny remnant of that original Republic force (perhaps the last remnant of the Republic military, as far as they know) beaten and broken and on the run after countless failures, huddling together in the belly of the Millennium Falcon, you can rightly call those people the Resistance.
It’s a good movie. It’s not perfect, but no movie is perfect. It’s better by FAR than The Force Awakens, and easily on par with the original trilogy. Kylo Ren is my favorite villain in anything right now. I’m enthralled by the potential of Rey forging a new order of Force users, building on the forward-looking, deconstructive thinking that Luke passed on, however reluctantly. This one was good. It blew Star Wars up in exactly the right ways. Let’s hope Episode IX builds something worthy from the ashes.