Movie Review: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” (Major Spoilers!)

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediYes, it finally happened. I watched it.

As some readers may recall, I was, shall we say, not impressed with the first film in the Disney Star Wars series, The Force Awakens. It was so bad that I had no interest in seeing any of their subsequent efforts.

But then I started to hear things about The Last Jedi. It’s controversial and polarizing. The alt-right is griping that it’s full of preachy progressive politics. There are hundreds of YouTube videos made by angry fans complaining about multiple aspects of the film. At the same time, I also heard elements of the film’s plot compared to the game Knights of the Old Republic II, which I consider the greatest Star Wars story ever, and one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever experienced.

This sounds like fodder for an interesting review, I thought. Could be a lot to talk about here. I enjoy writing reviews, and I am no stranger to unorthodox opinions on Star Wars movies, whether it’s my hatred for Force Awakens or my defense of the prequel movies. I wondered how I would react to this most divisive Star Wars film.

Well, there certainly was no lack of things to talk about. This is going to be one of my signature long, sometimes meandering reviews, so settle in for the long haul and prepare to read my thoughts on The Last Jedi.

But first!

First, I have to talk about a relatively little-seen crime caper from 2008 called The Brothers Bloom. It was also written and directed by Rian Johnson, the writer/director of The Last Jedi, and I think having seen it influenced my expectations for the latter.

You can read my review to get the full picture, but the main thing to know is that a lot of the comedy comes from subverting the tropes of action movies. The best example is a scene where Rachel Weisz is sneaking away from a heist by crawling through an air duct. Air ducts are a standard escape route in spy thriller movies, but in Brothers Bloom, it works more like it would in real life. The scene cuts from her in the duct to a group of soldiers standing around outside of it, patiently listening to all the metallic rumbling as she struggles through. Finally, it collapses and she is captured.

I liked The Brothers Bloom, but there’s no denying it’s an odd film, full of plot holes that are covered up with humor. Case in point: after Weisz’s character is captured, in the next scene, we see her talking cordially with the soldiers, who let her go free–but it’s never stated what she said to get them to release her. It’s left to the audience’s imagination. The ending of the film likewise works on an emotional level, but makes no logical sense.

This was my first experience with the work of Rian Johnson, and I feel like he brought that same sensibility to the Star Wars universe. If you weren’t braced for his style of storytelling, I can see it would be jarring.

The film starts out with an Imperial “First Order” fleet attacking a Rebel “Resistance” base. In order to buy time for the fleet to escape, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) flies up in his X-Wing and harasses the lead enemy ship, taunting the enemy commander, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).  Why a general is commanding a ship is not clear–shouldn’t he be an admiral?

Anyway, Poe knocks out the surface cannons and, in violation of the orders of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), leads a bomber attack force that manages to destroy an enemy ship, but at the cost of almost the entire bomber fleet. Leia rebukes Poe for his recklessness and demotes him. The rebel Resistance fleet is able to escape, but General Hux explains to his leader, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the evil Darth Sidious knock-off commanding the Empire First Order that they are tracking the fleeing ships through hyperspace, which allows them to attack again, damaging one of the ships and badly injuring Leia, forcing Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) to take command.

Holdo and Poe immediately clash. Poe favors an aggressive strategy–he wants to take the battle to the enemy. Holdo, though, wants to just keep fleeing, keeping rear deflector shields activated and trying to get away. Poe argues that this is a doomed plan, since they are running low on fuel, but Holdo pulls rank on him, reminding him that Leia demoted him,  and essentially telling him to shut up and follow orders.

I’ve heard people complain that Holdo seems aggressively emasculating in her cutting remarks to Poe. I’m not seeing it myself. To me, what was weird about the scene was her delivery of the lines–she reminds Poe of his demotion almost flirtatiously. Her manner seemed to say, “Oh, you naughty boy!”

That said, it did seem like a poor choice for a newly-minted fleet commander to be so dismissive of a respected veteran soldier, even if she outranks him. It’s not the sort of thing that would inspire trust in the rest of the soldiers under her command.

Everything about the character of Holdo is kind of strange. She follows in the Star Wars tradition established by characters like Dexter Jettster and General Grievous as someone who gets introduced out of nowhere to fulfill a plot function. Also, as many people have pointed out, her clothes and hairstyle seem idiosyncratic for an admiral:

Image result for admiral holdo
The hair itself isn’t bad, but some sort of uniform would’ve been better.

..but then again, women’s fashion in the Star Wars universe has always been a bit bizarre. Ask Natalie Portman about that.

As for who actually has the better strategy, Poe or Holdo? Well… we’ll get to that, don’t worry. For now, though, Poe is distrustful enough of the new commander that he hatches a plan with Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to sneak aboard the enemy flagship and disable their tracker. I would have thought that disabling the tracker on their own ship would be easier, but OK, whatever.

(Side note: they make a big deal out of the fact the Empire First Order can track them through hyperspace. I thought in the very first movie, A New Hope, the Empire tracks the Millennium Falcon through hyperspace to find the rebel base on Yavin. Am I misremembering that?)

Unfortunately, to sneak a shuttle through the enemy ship’s defenses, they need a master code-breaker to crack the defenses. And no one onboard is a master code-breaker. So they call up Maz Kanata, who you may remember as the character from The Force Awakens whom I ridiculed as the worst in all Star Wars because she so obviously existed solely as a deus ex machina to move the plot along.

Well, she serves the same function in this film, telling the heroes that they need to go to a casino planet to find the master codebreaker. She tells them to look for a man with a particular lapel pin. Finn and Rose agree to sneak off and find this man while Poe stays behind and keeps an eye on Admiral Holdo.

This whole situation confused me. The imperial First Order fleet has been following closely behind the rebel Resistance ships. So close, it seems like General Hux could look out the window and see any smaller craft departing the main vessel. Add to this that they repeatedly talk about how they’re “low on fuel” and it seems like this means the casino planet must be nearby. And yet apparently the folks there (who, we’ll soon learn, are all arms dealers) aren’t concerned that the two largest space fleets in the galaxy are fighting nearby?

I feel like if the Russian and U.S. navies were dueling in the Mediterranean, Monte Carlo might shut down, or at least take some precautions.

Anyway, Rose and Finn head to the casino planet. Hold that thought though, because I need to switch gears to talk about the other major plot thread: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her quest to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

Well, actually, she already found him at the end of The Force Awakens. That film ended with Rey extending a hand to offer Luke his old lightsaber. The Last Jedi picks up that thread with Luke taking the lightsaber, looking at it, and then tossing it aside and walking away. I know a lot of people hated this, but I loved it. Seemed like just what a tired, cynical old man would do.

Luke does not want any part of the current war, or to train anybody else in the ways of the Jedi. He rebuffs Rey’s requests to come back and aid the rebels Resistance. He’s even cut himself off from the Force.

OK, time for another digression. This is the part of the film that gets compared to Knights of the Old Republic II, and anything that draws comparisons to KotOR II is worth discussing in-depth.

First of all: if you’re a Star Wars fan and you haven’t played the game, you really, really should. It raises all sorts of interesting questions about the Star Wars universe. I’ve written about it at length here and made an hour-long video about it here. And I still haven’t said everything I want to say about it. It’s kind of impossible to summarize such a sprawling tale concisely, but I’ll try to quickly explain why it’s relevant to The Last Jedi.

KotOR II is set several thousand years before the original Star Wars series. You play as a former Jedi Knight exiled from the Order for defying the Council and fighting in the Mandalorian Wars. The Jedi has been nearly destroyed by Civil War, and you’re traveling the galaxy trying to find the last few remaining Jedi Masters.

One of your companions on this journey is a mysterious old woman named Kreia. Kreia is a force-user with ties to both the Jedi and the Sith, but identifying with neither side. Her signature quote, when asked which group she’s with, is this:

“Perhaps I am neither, and hold both as what they are: pieces of a whole.”

Eventually, with Kreia’s teaching, you come to learn that your character was cut off from the Force as a result of the final horrific battle of the Mandalorian Wars. This, in turn, has spawned a new Sith threat that feeds on life by severing connections to the Force. What Kreia realizes is that your character alone can fight the new threat because unlike the Jedi, you have learned to survive without the Force.

There’s a whole lot more to the story than that, but for our current purposes, the important thing to know about KotOR II is that one of its major ideas is that the Jedi are not perfect paragons of wisdom, but a deeply flawed, insular organization that has grown too reliant on their Force powers.

This is pretty much the same conclusion Luke seems to have reached in The Last Jedi. He even acknowledges one of the under-appreciated aspects of the events depicted in the prequels: the the Jedi, through arrogance and incompetence, allowed Darth Sidious to destroy the Republic and train Darth Vader. If that’s what having a Jedi Order does for you, Luke reasons, he wants no part of it.

And Luke has another reason to not want to train Jedi: he tried it once, and trained Leia and Han Solo’s son, Ben, who became Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Darth Vader-wannabe who serves as Snoke’s right-hand man. More about him later. Luke is disillusioned by the experience, feeling he failed as a teacher.

A big criticism I’ve heard directed at The Last Jedi is that Luke wouldn’t behave like this. The hero who blew up the Death Star and defeated Darth Vader wouldn’t just give up and go away to an island to die.

It didn’t bother me. In fact, given that everything Luke fought for in the original movies has been destroyed, it makes total sense that he would respond like this. You can argue that it’s ludicrous that something like the “First Order” exists–again, where are they getting all these soldiers and weapons?–but given that it does, it seems quite reasonable that Luke would feel like his whole career had been a waste.

It reminded me of the trope that’s so common in Western movies: the old gunslinger who just wants to hang up his pistols, but gets lured back by some young pup. Star Wars is nothing if not space cowboys, so it worked for me.

I also liked how R2-D2 ultimately makes Luke change his mind and agree to train Rey: by playing the old hologram of Princess Leia pleading for Obi-Wan’s help in A New Hope. Any Star Wars fan gets the same feeling of nostalgia that Luke gets in this scene, so it works very well.

During her training, Rey gradually starts to experience strange moments where she communicates telepathically with Kylo Ren. Rey implores Ren to turn back to the light side, Ren tempts Rey to join the dark.

These scenes felt very odd. It was interesting how they were shot, with the two characters in completely different locations reacting as if they are looking at one another, but it was also jarring–nobody’s ever used the Force to communicate like that in the previous films. You might use it to do a little bit of supernatural audio communication across space, sure; but nothing this good–at one point, it looks as if Rey and Ren are really in the same room.

It didn’t help that they didn’t use these dialogs to accomplish much. Rey would say “stop being evil”, and Ren would say “come be evil with me”, and that was about it. Also, possibly because Ren looks like an emo-vampire, it reminded me of some similar telepathy scenes between the lead characters in the Twilight movies.

That’s not a good thing.

Rey eventually becomes convinced she can turn Kylo Ren back to the light side, and so leaves the island despite Luke’s protests. She and Chewbacca depart aboard the Millennium Falcon. Luke, dispirited at having failed once again, decides to burn the cavernous room where he’s been keeping all the ancient Jedi texts. (As far as I can recall, this is the first movie where we’ve heard of any ‘Jedi texts’.) As he’s on his way to do this, the ghost of Yoda appears and summons a lightning strike that sets the room ablaze.

Yes, you read that correctly: the ghost of Yoda summons a lightning strike. Force ghosts are getting way overpowered. It was one thing to have people’s ghosts briefly appearing in the fog and whispering vague instructions–it’s quite another for them to have power over the seas and skies; raining down lightning bolts and then sitting down for a chat with old friends, which is what Yoda proceeds to do with Luke.

Meanwhile, back on the casino planet, Rose and Finn fail in their attempt to find the master codebreaker–he’s in sight, but before they can talk, they are captured by the authorities and thrown in a prison that is conveniently located near some stables where the casino operators keep horse-like animals that they use in races.

As luck would have it, Rose and Finn are imprisoned with a sleazy arms merchant named DJ (Benicio del Toro) who isn’t half-bad at codebreaking himself. He helps them escape the prison, and they release the trapped animals, helping some Dickensian-looking children who work in the stables in the process. Riding on the freed animals, they race through the casino floor, smashing windows and destroying property left and right before eventually escaping the planet. Finn and Rose ultimately persuade DJ to help them break the code and board the imperial First Order ship, after Rose offers him a down-payment in the form of one-half of a pendant, the other half of which belonged. to her sister, a bomber pilot who died in the attack at the beginning of the film.

While all this has been going on, Poe has been growing more and more fed-up with Admiral Holdo, who still hasn’t told anyone her plan as she leads the fleet on a slow-motion chase during which their pursuers have been shooting down their support ships. The last straw for Poe comes when he discovers that Holdo is fueling up the small transports to allow the remaining crew to evacuate. He considers this cowardice bordering on treason, and leads a mutiny to take back control of the ship from Holdo, locking her out of the bridge.

I loved the pacing in this part of the movie; the way the different strands of the plot started to tie together, with all the characters converging on the same place. Rey showing up in the Falcon to confront Kylo Ren at the same time that Rose and Finn are sneaking aboard the same ship, while communicating with Poe who is simultaneously taking over the bridge of the rebel Resistance ship. It was fast-paced and flowed well. It reminded me of what is probably my favorite sequence in all the Star Wars films: the last act of The Phantom Menace, when there are four different battles going on at once.

Rey surrenders herself to Ren, who takes her to Snoke’s throne room after another debate about who is going to turn who to which side of the Force. Snoke tortures Rey for a bit, and then reveals he created their telepathic connection in order to undermine Luke. Snoke then commands Ren to kill Rey. Ren ignites his lightsaber and…

Oh, can I just say how much I hate Disney for giving the protagonist and the antagonist names that are only one letter apart? I’ve had to reread these paragraphs repeatedly to make sure I didn’t say “Rey” when I meant “Ren” or vice-versa. I could call him “Kylo”, I guess, but that seems wrong, and spellcheck always wants to change it to Kyle.

As I was saying, Ren rebels, and refuses to run Rey through. Instead, he kills Smoke, and then he and Rey fight off Snoke’s elite guards together. (Elite guards never seem to fare well in these movies.)

Meanwhile, Leia rises from her sickbed just in time to take back the bridge from Poe, whom she hits with a stun gun and gives back control to Holdo, who packs the rest of the crew off onto transports to escape to a nearby planet while she stays behind on the rebel Resistance ship to draw the enemy’s fire. (Apparently, because they are only tracking the main ship, they are too stupid to look out the window and notice the transports escaping?)

At the same time, Finn and Rose nearly succeed in sneaking all the way to the tracker on the imperial First Order ship, but at the last moment are captured. DJ, it emerges, has betrayed them, proving himself just the sort of amoral Viktor Bout-like character he appeared to be, and sold out to the bad guys.

Rose and Finn are taken to the hangar (?) to be executed by guards under the command of Captain Phasma. Yes, the same Captain Phasma who should have been killed in The Force Awakens after she was dumped in a trash compactor on a space station that exploded shortly thereafter is somehow back with no explanation. All I can think is that somebody at Disney was too attached to the idea of a chrome-armored female stormtrooper to let her go that easily.

All right. I’ve put this off as long I can, but it’s time to talk about the casting.

When The Last Jedi came out, there was a big uproar about the huge disparity between professional critics’ reactions and regular audience reactions. Critics mostly liked the movie, whereas fans apparently hated it.

There are several facets to this fan backlash, but there are two main ones that I’ve seen: Comic Book Guy-style complaints that it violates the Star Wars canon (which I myself have made in this review) and complaints about progressive identity politics in the film itself, part of which involves the diverse cast.

Some of the gripes about Admiral Holdo are part of this–the argument is that Disney is aggressively forcing progressive gender politics into Star Wars by creating powerful female characters, and having them command male characters, like Poe.

Like everything else in the West, Star Wars has become a cultural battleground for different groups to snipe at each other through the lens of Identity Politics. The alt-right is upset that Lucasfilm is casting non-white, non-male actors in lead roles. Lucasfilm is responding by doubling down on diverse casting.

It’s gotten to the point where you can’t have an opinion about a movie without having it interpreted as a sign of which side of the Identity Politics aisle you’re on. You like The Last Jedi? You must be a misandrist feminazi and/or soy boy! Or, you didn’t like it? Well, I guess you’re a racist, misogynist fascist!

Like everything else it touches, rampant tribalism is destroying our ability to enjoy and talk about art.

But that’s not what I really want to address. What I want to talk about is the basic question of whether The Last Jedi is carrying the standard for gender equality and racial diversity, because I think both the progressive left and the revanchist alt-right agree that it is–they just disagree as to whether that’s good or bad.

The irony is, they’re both starting from the wrong premise.

The heroes of the original Star Wars trilogy, in addition to white males Han, Luke and Obi-Wan, also included a woman (Leia) and a black man (Lando). The supporting heroes also tended to be diverse–there were female and black rebel pilots, as well as rebel leader Mon Mothma.

Now look at the original trilogy’s villains: they were led by old white man Emperor Palpatine, his second-in-command Darth Vader, who proves to be another old white man. Their officer corps seems to be made up entirely of British men (Seems right for the giant colonial Empire, no?) and they command a bunch of faceless, emotionless soldiers all dressed in inhuman white and black uniforms.

The prequel trilogy’s heroes, in addition to white males Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Anakin (who isn’t really a hero), included a woman (Padmé) and a black man (Mace Windu). The supporting heroes of the Jedi, Padmé’s bodyguards, and the Naboo soldiers in Episode I, are extremely diverse, including women and people of color. Again, the “optics”–to use the political word–is that the heroes of the prequels are a very diverse group.

And now we look at the villains of the prequel trilogy: an old white man (Palpatine) commanding a few aliens, another old white man (Dooku), a cyborg (Grievous) and, to judge by appearances, Satan himself. (Darth Maul) Their foot soldiers are literally machines in Episode I, and in Episodes II and III, we see that in addition to wearing identical dehumanizing white suits of armor, their soldiers are all clones. They are uniform right down to their DNA.

The original six Star Wars movies make the contrast between the good side and the bad side very stark: the good guys are a diverse group, with all kinds of people (and, frankly, aliens) from all over the galaxy. The bad guys are a uniform, faceless machine led by an old man hungry for power. Good guys are colorful, bad guys are homogeneous.

And then we get to the Disney Star Wars movies. Sure, the good guys are still diverse–maybe more even a bit more diverse–but so are the bad guys! Captain Phasma is a woman. The stormtroopers are apparently not clones, and Finn is one of them. From him, I guess we can assume that they are just a bunch of regular guys (draftees?) from all over the galaxy. Early on in The Last Jedi, one of the officers on General Hux’s ship is a woman, and another one looks to be of Asian descent.

I’m not saying this is bad, as such–and from a behind-the-scenes standpoint, I think it’s nice that they’re hiring diverse actors and actresses, regardless of what roles they’re playing. But in terms of what you see on the screen, it feels really strange. This was brought home to me by the scene where Rose and Finn are sneaking around the Imperial First Order ship disguised as officers. In the old Star Wars, you’d have expected the bad guys to stop them for looking different–isn’t that the sort of thing bad guys do? But apparently they didn’t raise any suspicion in this new, multicultural totalitarian regime.

The original six movies were thematically way more progressive than the new ones. They had a pro-diversity message baked into the story. These new Disney movies make it an afterthought.

In my opinion, the Empire First Order would be a lot more menacing if they implicitly had a Nazi-like ideology devoted to “purity” or something like that motivating them. As it is, they seem to be just a random collection of people who put on old Imperial uniforms and go around being jerks.

Back to the story: the un-killable Captain Phasma has captured Finn and Rose, DJ has revealed the rebel Resistance plan to the bad guys, who open fire on the transports. Holdo realizes that if this keeps up, they’ll destroy all the transports before they can land on the planet below and escape to the safety of a well-fortified abandoned base. So she takes a desperate gamble and jumps to hyperspace directly into the enemy flagship, instantly blowing it apart in a suicide attack.

This is another bit of the movie that’s received heavy criticism. The ability to use light speed as an offensive maneuver has never been foreshadowed, and it raises the question of why no one else in Star Wars history thought of this. It’s a valid criticism, but it didn’t bother me at all in the moment. Tactics in Star Wars have never made much sense. Why didn’t the Death Star in A New Hope just blow up the planet that’s obstructing its line of fire at the rebel base? Why are the ships in Revenge of the Sith engaging each other at roughly the same range as 19th century warships?

File:Naval style.png
I’m not sure the ships were this close at the battle of Trafalgar

There’s no point in asking questions about this sort of thing. It was an emotionally effective moment, and it was edited together well, to come at a moment of high tension, just as Rey and Ren are fighting over Luke’s lightsaber and Phasma is about to order the headsman to bring the axe down on Rose and Finn.

Yeah, they’re executing them with axes. That certainly doesn’t seem contrived at all.

After the impact of Holdo’s ship, everything aboard erupts in flames, allowing Finn and Rose to escape. Finn fights a duel with Phasma, breaking her helmet and sending her plunging into a fiery pit that has erupted in the hangar floor.

Tragically, Rian Johnson has said there are no plans for Phasma to be in future films. That’s too bad; it would be hilarious if it became a running joke where she seemingly gets killed in every film only to inexplicably reappear in the next one. ‘Tis but a scratch!

Rose and Finn escape, as does Rey, having failed to turn Kylo Ren to the light side. Ren seems to think he can run the Empire First Order, although what he wants to do with it isn’t really clear.

The transports arrive at the abandoned rebel base on the planet below, which is buried in the side of a mountain with a huge, super-strong door that they close just behind Rose and Finn as they fly inside in a stolen shuttle.

Their assumption that the door is impenetrable is quickly shown to be incorrect, as Kylo Ren and General Hux fly down to the planet in hot pursuit, along with some sort of huge cannon designed precisely for destroying seemingly-impenetrable doors. The cannon is escorted by the latest model of AT-AT walker. The remnants of the rebel alliance Resistance coalition soldiers hastily take up defensive positions in trenches outside to mount a defense.

That’s right, they’re going to re-fight the battle of Hoth from Empire Strikes Back, only instead of snow, the ground is covered with salt.

I’m not joking here. There are multiple shot-for-shot references to Episode V here. This was the weakest part of the film for me. It was the only part that gave me the same feeling I had throughout The Force Awakens; that the people making it were so cynical they believed they could recycle old material and have the audience accept it on the strength of nostalgia alone. Fortunately, this only lasted a few minutes in this film.

Finn, Rose and Poe mount a counter-attack in some rusted old speeders they found in the old base, and head out to meet the attackers. They immediately come under attack from TIE fighters–apparently, the bad guys learned one thing from the battle of Hoth, and made sure to give the walking battle tanks some air support this time.

Rey arrives in the Millennium Falcon–how she got back to it is not clear–and draws the TIE fighters away from the speeders, allowing them to continue their direct attack on the cannon. However, the cannon begins to fire before they get to it. Poe orders them to break off the attack and retreat, but Finn keeps going in a doomed effort to hit the cannon, even though it seems to be too late.

At the last moment, Rose crashes her speeder into his, pushing him out of the cannon’s beam. Rose is injured doing so, and as Finn rushes to her side, asks her why she did it. She replies that this is how they’ll win–“Not fighting what we hate,” she says, but “saving what we love.”

Remember a few thousand words ago, when I said I would come back to the question of who was right in the Poe/Holdo strategy debate? This is why I was holding off on that; because this scene is the same concept. Multiple times, the movie goes out of its way to repeat this idea that daring, bold aggression is the wrong answer, and that sometimes retreating from the fight is the wiser move. Both Leia and Holdo tell Poe variations of this point, and now Rose is telling Finn roughly the same thing. Luke also seemed to have adopted the same philosophy when he told Rey not to directly confront Kylo Ren.

Strategically speaking, is it true?

My gut instinct tells me no, it isn’t; and in fact most wars are won by people making bold, outlandishly risky moves that seem borderline insane. There’s a reason many military units use the phrase “Fortune favors the bold”, which dates back to Roman times. There’s a reason the SAS adopted the motto “Who Dares Wins” from the ancient greek warrior-philosopher Thucydides. There’s a reason Napoleon Bonaparte said that “If the art of war were nothing but the art of avoiding risks, glory would become the prey of mediocre minds.”

Whether it’s delaying the Persians at Thermopylae or surprising the Hessians at Trenton, war generally requires aggressively taking high-risk, high-reward options to achieve victory. (It’s worth pointing out that Holdo’s suicide attack itself is exactly this sort of bold move, which undercuts the theme a bit.)

I think this is something that really rings false to a lot of people, because it runs contrary to most previous Star Wars movies–and heroic epics in general, for that matter–which exalt brave risk-takers. For a character to be heroic, they need to be doing something extraordinarily dangerous that most people would not do; risking their own welfare for someone else. “Marines run toward the sound of the guns” etc. People who aren’t running big risks and making big sacrifices don’t seem heroic.

It seemed like The Last Jedi was trying to make some subversive commentary on this idea, but it was never clear what it was. Plus, sometimes the heroes did do typically brave, risky things anyway. So thematically, it’s a muddle–that’s not very satisfying.

The rebels Resistance soldiers all retreat into the base, which is now basically a huge killing field in waiting, because the door has been  breached, and there is apparently no other exit. It looks like all is lost. Even Leia is despondent.

But then, as if by magic, Luke arrives, briefly says hello to Leia, and then walks out the front door of the base to confront the entire attack force alone. Kylo Ren sees him and orders every available weapons platform to fire on Luke. They launch a massive barrage of cannon fire at the solitary figure, enveloping him in a huge black cloud of smoke and dust. But Luke emerges unscathed.

Ren descends and confronts him in a lightsaber duel. Meanwhile, with the enemy forces halted outside, the rest of the rebels Resistance retreat farther into the base and discover a possible exit, a caved-in tunnel. With Rey helping from the outside, they clear the rocks and escape in the Millennium Falcon. Meanwhile, Luke finally reveals that he is merely an astrally-projected Force vision. Luke’s physical body never left the remote planet he was hiding on. Ren enters the base with his soldiers, but he’s too late to catch Rey and the rest.

Luke, exhausted from his projected fight with Ren, collapses in exhaustion and peacefully dies, or becomes one with the Force, much as Obi-Wan did in A New Hope. Personally, I don’t know why he didn’t do it sooner–honestly, being a Force ghost is the sweetest gig in the galaxy. You can appear anytime, anyplace, people can’t hurt you, and apparently you can start huge fires with a wave of your hand. Nice work if you can get it.

Aboard the Falcon, Leia tells Rey and the rest of the survivors that while things may look bleak now, the rebellion has everything it needs to rise again. On the casino planet, some of the Dickensian stablehands are telling stories of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi, before one of them uses the Force to grab a broom and gaze hopefully out at the stars. (This gave me Mass Effect 3 flashbacks.) Then the credits roll.

So, what to make of this movie?

Well, for starters, it’s much, much better than Force Awakens. That film felt like hack work; a retread of A New Hope designed to sell more merchandise. The Last Jedi seemed like the work of people who had a vision, and wanted to try some new things with Star Wars. I give Rian Johnson a lot of credit for trying to do something a little different–but as often happens when trying new things, not everything works out well. The casino planet sequence, in particular, should have been cut.

It bothers me that this film received the backlash that The Force Awakens deserved. Do people really just want Disney to keep re-making the original Star Wars movies again and again? A lot of the things people complain about in The Last Jedi are problems that were created in Force Awakens, so it’s baffling to me why this film got attacked for them.

There are quite a few plot holes in it, to be sure–I don’t know if there were more than in the typical Star Wars film, but it felt like it. As with Brothers Bloom, Johnson favors hitting the right emotional notes over writing a clockwork plot.

There are still lots of callbacks and references to things that happened in previous Star Wars movies, but at least they’re usually handled with a degree of wit that was missing from Force Awakens.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two groups of Star Wars fans: those who want to relive the magic of the original Star Wars movie and those who want to see the universe expand in different directions. And the problem anyone making a Star Wars film has to face is: how do I tell a new story while still making it feel distinctively like Star Wars?

J.J. Abrams abandoned the “new story” concept and just flat-out remade A New Hope. Johnson tried something a little more daring–he followed (unknowingly, I assume) in the path of the best example of how to tell an original Star Wars story, Knights of the Old Republic II. The difference is, that game is a 20 to 40-hour epic tale that needs to be played twice to see everything it has to offer. The first two-and-a-half hours of the game are spent just establishing the setting and laying the groundwork for the intricate, nuanced tale to follow. Whereas The Last Jedi had two-and-a-half hours to tell its entire story.

The other difference is that KotOR II had a new cast of characters, and was set with enough distance between itself and cinematic Star Wars that it could be told without the old characters and situations constraining it.

This is the problem Disney is going to increasingly face–the more of Star Wars they explore, the more fans they’re going to anger, and the more the writers are going to be weighed down by all the accumulated baggage of a massive, contradictory canon.

In his great analysis of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy operas, critic Gayden Wren argued that the early and middle operas were driven by a thematic core exploring human nature. This, he said, was what made them so popular. The later operas became self-referential meta-operas that relied on nods to previous works, or to breaking the conventions of theater itself. These works were less popular, and lacked the staying power of the earlier ones.

The same thing is happening to Star Wars. They have to keep reminding us what we’re watching, with callbacks, in-jokes, and references to previous films. More and more, the result is going to be films that try to stitch together nostalgia and innovation in a way that leaves nobody satisfied. They can’t just tell a new story, on its own terms. Johnson only made a feint in that direction, and audiences weren’t having it.

So, I guess this is a long of way of saying The Last Jedi was a decently entertaining film, but it felt kind of hollow.

Oh, and also the small arms designs in this movie are really cool. In particular, Poe has this awesome rifle on the last planet. Look at this thing, it’s beautiful.

11 Comments

  1. If I remember correctly (it’s been awhile), my feeling about this movie was that it was primarily a rehash, a recombination, of scenes from earlier Star Wars movies. I think your point about the effort to stitch together nostalgia and innovation is exactly right. You know, at some point the characters from the earlier movies have to die, don’t they?

    1. Whenever I watch these movies, I find myself wondering why they can’t put all these people and special effects towards making a brand new sci-fi adventure instead of reinventing the wheel over and over.

      Oh, well; that’s showbiz!

      1. You know Episode III was the first and only movie I’ve ever fallen asleep while watching in the theater. I’m nowhere near the fan of these movies as you are, but they’ve pretty much spanned my entire adult life. I’ll watching IX when it comes out and then likely give up on the franchise. Just far too much bad acting, bad dialogue … just so schlocky. Which is likely part of the charm for a lot of people.

        1. That’s hilarious! Episode III was my favorite movie as a kid. Re-watching it as an adult, I kinda feel bad for making my parents sit through it multiple times. I grew up with the special edition and the prequel trilogy, so for me, it’s easy to look past their flaws and just revel in the nostalgia of reliving the fun I had watching them as a 12-year-old. (12 year olds are really the target audience for these, I think.)

          I guess where I’m different from a lot of the SW fans is that when I feel like having some nostalgia, I just go watch the old movies again, rather than wishing somebody would make new ones that give me the same feeling.

          1. We took our kids to see it, after a morning of yard work and an early afternoon beer for me. There was a moment about 30-40 minutes when where Annakin and Padme are talking to each other and I just could not stand the stilted dialogue and horrible acting and though. “hmmm, I’m kind of tired. I could take a nap here.” So, I did. There are moments in VIII where the dialogue and acting are equally horrible. I don’t know the names of the characters as well as you, but the scenes between the black male rebel and the Asian female rebel are just soooooo painful.

            Episodes VII to IX could have been really, really good, but the need to keep the nostalgia alive and recycle characters and … basically just keep telling the same story over and over again … nah, they didn’t do it.

            I get the appeal of the movies for the fans. They are, as you pointed out in your review, derivative of a lot of different things. They are basically a space version of the old westerns. They are simplistic but classic versions of good versus evil. Just wish they would have advanced the story a little further in the course of nine movies.

  2. I saw only 2 of the SW movies, way back in the ’70s. I guess I’m not a fan 😀 but I appreciated this thorough review, Berthold. These movies are part of pop culture, and you’ve analyzed it quite well. (Now going back to my obscure and dusty niche!)

    1. Thanks! Glad to hear the review was understandable even without having seen all the movies. Obscure and dusty niches are where all the most interesting things are, anyway. 🙂

  3. As harsh as it sounds, I kind of agree with Luke Skywalker’s position that the legacy of Jedi is failure, hypocrisy, hubris. At the height of their power, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, to create the Empire, to wipe them all out.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?