Updated: Jul 7, 2020
(Photo Credit: Lucas Film/Disney, URL: Mammoth Gamers)
All the online petitions in the world won’t remove this film from canon or upset it’s profit margins. The Last Jedi has proven to be as successful as other Star Wars films from Disney, but I’m interested mostly in its new direction and how it’s set the nerd world on fire.
Of 2015's The Force Awakens, people’s main criticism was that it was a shot-for-shot remake of the original 1977 Star Wars. I didn’t expect any different from JJ Abrams, and I think that was the safer bet to make when reviving something as old and popular as this. The Last Jedi’s Rian Johnson had an arguably tougher task: to rehash familiar elements in line with Disney’s vision while also taking the franchise into new territory that will sustain it for the rest of our mortal lives.
In that regard, I think the film largely succeeded. Johnson created an entertaining film that pays homage to the Holy Trilogy while turning assumptions about the Star Wars universe on its head in creative ways.
TLJ is a combination of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in it’s major plot points, though shuffled in order a bit. But more than that, it offers some new possibilities for a franchise that somewhat stagnated in the prequel trilogy and in its transition to Disney.
That doesn’t mean the film was perfect, though. It faltered and downright stumbled at times, largely in issues of pacing and in plot choices. But overall, I’d say the good outweighed the bad and the herculean task of positioning the franchise for even greater heights was accomplished in visionary style.
Below is a list of some of the things I liked or didn’t like about the film, in no particular order.
It goes without saying, vast spoilers and fanboy rants ahead.
The best part of the outrage over this movie is that the film itself is actively making fun of the reasons why people dislike it. Johnson, a fanboy himself, is poking fun at the blind allegiance of those who keep expecting things to be the same while also criticizing when nothing changes. Johnson uses the theme of the film to rebuke these expectations.
All the people who are boycotting the film because of its portrayal of Luke Skywalker (or his inevitable death - though don’t worry, space ghosts exist, he’ll be back) are the butt of this film’s joke.
I mean, the dialogue practically hits you over the head with it.
“This is not going to go the way you think,” Luke tells the naive and gullible Rey, who has no idea she’s being manipulated by her own emotions into false assurances. Just about every line Luke has in this film is pointedly chastising people for assuming that everything will work out just like it did before and the characters we know and love won’t have changed in 35 years.
Grow up. These movies don’t belong to you, to say that they do is vanity (see what I did there?)
I get where the knee-jerk hatred of that portrayal comes from. After all, it's hard to see our heroes for all their warts and it would be tempting to have had Luke stay closer to the man he was when he burned his father on the pyre. But would that have even been realistic? Could Johnson have done that after Episode VII fully embraces the fact that a defeated Luke wants to never be found again? I suggest adjusting your expectations a bit if you wanted that.
In reality, it’s a wonderful storytelling technique that complicates Luke’s character while complicating the whole idea of Star Wars. Yes, we all got along for the ride because these lovable heroes always found a way to overcome the odds and achieve the impossible. But the films are moving to a different tone, albeit in the same galaxy far, far away. Luke’s character in TLJ is not only a way of introducing some new themes to the franchise, it’s a self-reflexive warning that fans need to stop living in the past if they want to continue to enjoy Star Wars.
2) Theme Strikes Back (with a feminist tone)
Continuing the thought from above, the difference in the franchise now is also found in the more realistic views of heroism.
Poe Dameron and Finn’s characters both act as impulsive “flyboys” who think charging in and kicking ass will always save the day. Poe gets a reality check from two women in Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo, Finn in the form of Rose Tico. In both cases we have a heteronormative male role being brought down a peg by powerful female ones; not only for the sake of proving a point, but for the sake of expressing love and imparting wisdom.
It’s a remark on the fact that the good guys can't keep winning a war on luck alone (You mean, you're going to shut down the Empire's shield with a recon squad and a tribe of teddy bears?) Couple that with heroines being the ultimate voice of true leadership and you’ve got a feminist theme wrapped in a commentary on the way Star Wars is changing.
If you’re one of the people who thought Holdo and Leia should have told the plan to their subordinates to avoid the whole mutiny, maybe you’re right.
But equally important to note is that trust is earned and there's a chain of command. Poe and his young cohort of lower-ups haven’t earned it with their constant lack of discipline or trust in their leaders (I mean people are trying to jump ship, you think they're blabbing the plan to everyone?)
Poe was actually demoted within the course of the film, meaning his own “need-to-know” got brought down a peg, too.
If you want an even better summary on the gender dynamics at work in the film, others have already said it best.
3) Kylo Ren
I confess, I didn’t like him in Force Awakens much at all. I think mostly it was the way that his mask ended up making a big reveal of his chiseled face and perfect hair to the point I simply couldn’t take him seriously.
I think Rian Johnson had similar thoughts on the mask/helmet ("Take that ridiculous thing off!"), which he does away with in the first 10 minutes of the film when Kylo smashes it unceremoniously to pieces. The shattering of the mask marks a turning point in the character and takes him in an interesting direction.
He takes more agency in his destiny and becomes disenchanted with looking backwards and trying to emulate the Sith before him. He begins to see how his own master, Snoke, is just manipulating him and that the old generation only wants the same tired goals to be achieved.
“Let old things die,” he tells Rey.
Rebuild the Republic? It’s already been crushed twice. Conquer the galaxy in the name of the Empire? That’ll just invite a new Resistance. These same star wars keep going on and on in perpetuity because everyone keeps fighting the same fights.
Fuck that noise.
Instead, he just wants Rey to join him so they can be in love and make their own way. In a sense, it’s a very Skywalker realization, with a bit of a cynical twist.
4) Luke "faces down the entire First Order with a laser sword" (at least in spirit)
Would it have been more satisfying for Luke to have lifted his X-Wing out of the waters of Ahch-To and flown to Crait in person? Of course. Would that have been as realistic? I don’t think so.
For one, I wouldn’t have bought how a unfueled ship that’s sat submerged for years could turn around and make a hyperspace flight in the first place. Plus, if you paid attention to his surroundings, it’s clear that Luke dismantled crucial parts of his ship in order to build some accommodations for himself, so he would have had to put it back together somehow and ain’t nobody got time for that.
In terms of plot, it helped highlight how unstable Kylo Ren is and made a good statement about how the Dark Side, seductive and powerful though it may be, is a treacherous path.
So swept up in his anger is Kylo that he doesn’t pick up on all the visual cues we’re given that Luke is so obviously not there (no red footprints, shorter beard, different lightsaber, avoiding physical interaction - except with Leia, whom I suspect he was able to touch because they are Force-connected.) You could explain some of that to say that’s just because Kylo doesn’t know what Luke looks like now, but he himself had a hand in shattering Luke’s blue lightsaber just moments before this and should have known that Luke’s new one is green.
(The lightsaber change in color, by the way, brings it’s own kind of symbolism in Luke’s return to his younger hope in order to leave older demons behind and to wield his father’s lightsaber for one last good deed. Not to mention a refusal to use the lightsaber he once drew on his failed apprentice against him again.)
What we ultimately get ends up being one of the most epic scenes in all of Star Wars. Luke shows off some impressive gymnastics in his old age and gets to sound, at long last, like Ben Kenobi as he tries to impart some lasting wisdom to Kylo: “If you strike me down in anger, I’ll always be with you. Just like your father.”
I admit the Force-projection is a weird choice whether it was effective or not. I waffled myself on whether I liked it or not for about a week, but I came around to it - mostly because Johnson found yet another way to add something we’ve never seen before into the film in a way that still fit in the story.
The Force itself is starting to take the shape of something more powerful than just “lifting rocks.” That’s ultimately what I’ve been waiting for all along. The prequels, for all their new technology, didn’t even do that - save for letting Yoda suck up some lightning with his palms, which is cool but, like, not all that interesting.
Johnson’s film may be intentionally flying in the face of what the old school demands in a lot of ways, but that isn’t to say TLJ isn’t true to its roots. Specifically, there’s the scene between Luke and R2-D2 on the Millennium Falcon and the conversation that Luke has with Force-ghost Yoda.
These are obvious fan service, but they’re done in a way that pays dues while still perfectly lifting us up into that same hopeful John Williams score and nostalgia.
In both scenes we have a wonderful recycling of the original effects: the Princess Leia hologram message (one of the most iconic recordings in film history, I might add) and in the practical puppet Yoda.
And in each case, we see Luke more as he was before, an apprentice and a lost farmboy trying to make sense of his place in a vast galaxy.
Alone again in solitude once Rey leaves, he’s not the grizzled Jedi Master and legend that others see, he’s the Luke we all remember: rash, ignorant, and still just a touch naive. Even a Master needs a lesson once in a while.
R2 reminds him of what started his journey by showing him the message to Obi-wan. Yoda tells him to stop dwelling on the past and look at what’s right in front of him (I’m telling you, Johnson is beating us over the head with this theme. . . )
If those scenes didn't move you to tears, or at least redeem any sleight you might have saw to Luke's character in this film, then I find your lack of faith disturbing.
6) Visual Excellence
Due to my almost heinous love of this franchise, my review has focused abnormally on plot substance and continuity of ideas, rather than on some of the many other things that make films great or not. So, it behooves me to stick at least one highlight here on the film medium itself. Namely, Johnson and crew deliver once more on creating a visual language that adds so much depth to the film (I was familiar with his indie work on Brick and Looper, which you should check out if you haven't.)
In many ways, this film is masterful eye candy. The red-soaked throne room of Snoke, the flowing gold of Canto Bight, the verdant mistiness of Ahch To - all these elements were crafted by a production staff that really knows how to create a fantasy - in a good way, obviously.
Couple this with Johnson’s own ability to punctuate a well-known franchise with his own style, and you’ve got a splendidly directed picture. I found myself on the second viewing wishing that I could pause the feature and just soak in some of the images - but alas, the folks at Regal Cinemas won't stop the picture for my fancy.
That’s the kind of attention to detail in framing and color and shadow that makes a film worth watching down the road. These elements can tend to not come across to us on the first couple viewings, when we’re all so sucked up in the ride and the franchise elements we forget to watch this as a piece of cinema. But Star Wars at its best provides production elements that will stand the test of time - and TLJ delivers in spades, story issues or no.
1) Holdo’s sacrifice
To be clear, I thought the act itself was incredibly badass . . . but Leia should have done it.
As I write this, it strikes me that this is the one-year anniversary of Carrie Fisher’s death (Dec. 27, 2016.) Damn it, now it hurts all over again. I’ll say once again what came to mind 12 months ago: “To me, she’s royalty.”
Anyway, ramming a ship at lightspeed is a daring attempt at putting something we’ve never seen on a Star Wars screen before and it pays off. I especially liked the lack of sound for a full 10 seconds while Snoke’s ship is decimated.
But, Disney execs have made pretty clear Leia will not be in the next episodic Skywalker film or recreated with CGI in future films, so why Johnson kept her alive throughout the film and killed off a new character instead is a mystery to me.
I liked that Leia sticks around longer than you think, since we’re all going into the film with the assumption that due to Fisher’s real-life death, her character must not last long. But c’mon, she’s gotta go somehow and few onscreen moments would have given her the hero’s send-off she deserves than to cover the Resistance’s retreat and do something no one has ever done before in a Star Wars film.
2) Leia’s space float
While we’re talking Princess/General Leia, this is again something I liked in principle but not in execution. There are two reasons I keep hearing that this was bad and I only agree with one of them.
To the people who are angry with the scene because Leia never had Force-powers before and they just seemingly dropped it in, “Let me learn you something big.”
Leia is a Skywalker. If we learned one thing and one thing only from these movies, it’s that this family is incredibly strong in the Force. We even see hints of her connection to Force abilities in Empire when she communicates telepathically with Luke and Yoda says “there is another” in reference to her as a chosen Jedi other than Luke.
Not to mention, while the dozens of novels and other expanded universe materials were not considered canon by Disney, that doesn’t mean that the new storylines won’t take their cues from some of that influence, by which I mean decades of build-up to the fact that she can use the Force.
Plus, the background literature that IS canon and came out before this movie straight up says that Leia trained to use the Force after the events of Return of the Jedi. (She used a blue lightsaber, in case you're interested.)
Do your research before sitting at the adult table and saying how shit “should” be (Yes, I know I’m doing the same condescending fanboy shit I criticized above, but hey, sometimes it’s warranted.)
Even without all that, the rule that people have to be trained to use the Force is fast-dying, and, I’d argue, was never a rule to begin with. I mean, we never saw Luke levitate anything before he pulled his lightsaber out of the ice on Hoth. All we ever saw him do was block some blind potshots from a droid.
Furthermore, one thing that some people never seem to realize is that the Force is its own character in this universe. Just ask yourself why an entire movie was called “The Force AWAKENS.” All this talk of balance and reactions in the Force across eight movies, you’d think people would pick up on it by now - the Force does things itself, it’s not just used by certain people to do things.
The whole series is, basically, about the Law of Conservation of the Force. For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. It’s neither good nor evil, it’s the balance in between, and it preserves its own balance by whatever means necessary.
Not for nothing, those means have, up to this point, almost ALWAYS been by “awakening” massive amounts of power in people named Skywalker. So even without training, there’s tomes of evidence to suggest that someone who’s Force-sensitive may find themselves suddenly capable of amazing things.
Anyway, I digress.
To the people who disliked the Leia space-waltz scene because it was just cheesy and seemingly impossible, THAT I agree with. I won’t quibble about whether someone could survive in the vacuum of space for any length of time - we’re talking about space magic here, I'll suspend my disbelief and move on.
I will say, however, that it just LOOKED dumb and gauche. While I thought it made sense to try and make the imagery seem somewhat surreal and almost like a ballet, I just don't feel like the edges were soft enough on this choice for it to work. It struck me and everyone I've asked so far (admittedly only two other people) as a strange scene that felt forced and out of place.
I would have welcomed a way to show Leia’s powers without a display that makes her look like like a floating space witch. As a writing point, I'm for it. As a visual execution, not having it.
3) Canto Bight
One of the biggest complaints I had is this seemingly useless second act for Finn and Rose.
Okay, I get it: we need this new pair of heroes to do something together, and sending them off to get the tools in place to disable the hyperspace tracker is a good idea. However, there is so little story progression for how long they take on this quest.
You can argue that this is another point the movie tries to make: that half-baked plans often don’t bear fruit and just waste everyone’s time. But I’d argue we have enough of that trope going on in the film without this chapter.
Someone pointed out that the ultimate goal was to make a point about animal rights, which I applaud but also feel there was plenty of in the film what with Chewie going vegetarian and the crystal foxes ("vulptices," by the way) saving everyone's asses on Crait.
The movie’s long run-time needs to contain elements that keep us interested throughout and are essential to moving the plot forward. Even without this scene, in all it’s marvelous costume design and set-building, the film is too dense to waste time.
Furthermore, Rian Johnson is a liar when he says they couldn’t fit Lando Calrissian into this movie. You’re telling me that we go to a CASINO PLANET and there’s nowhere to fit in the galaxy’s most notorious gambler? Piss off.
Johnson rebuts that they needed to add a new character in Benecio Del Torro's DJ to betray the heroes at the end, which Lando certainly wouldn't have done (at least, not again.)
Might I suggest: Have Lobot with Lando (since the android would have been Lando’s codebreaker/hacker anyway) then, either have Lobot betray them outright or have the First Order BB-droid hack into his halo somehow and take the information about the Resistance shuttles.
Plus, it would make Maz Kanata’s useless appearance as a hologram seem all the better as she essentially tries to hype up the sexiness of a character who we don’t even end up using in the film (the flower-pinned code breaker, played by Justin Theroux, seen for all of five seconds.) Lando, however, already fits into the suave smuggler role and has the fan history to play up that kind of introduction.
I mean, I thought Del Torro’s character had some good lines, but those would have carried even more weight coming from a guy who’s got skin in the game already. I would totally have been behind a lecture to Finn from Lando about how people profit from both sides of the war and how the lines between good and bad are blurry.
Lando himself switched sides at one point, and while I don't think he'd do it again, he certainly understands the moral ambiguity of war. Plus, if you want to be diverse and new, Disney, how about having two black characters talk to each other for the first time ever in a Star Wars movie?
When a writer and director says that they couldn’t work something in, it either indicates a lack of vision, or, in this case, I suspect, some secret that Disney doesn't want to articulate to the public (like the unconfirmed rumors that Billy Dee Williams couldn’t play the character well anymore.) Disney is not in the business of taking profitable characters off the table for no reason.
4) The slow-speed space chase
A slow-speed chase is a pretty banal premise for the spine of a movie, particularly after beginning it with such a badass space fight.
I actually liked some of the more technical elements of the premise involved in the chase: that the First Order has hyperspace tracking and that the Resistance ships are lighter than the Star Destroyers so as to keep out of range. Those are clear efforts to try and add some nuance to a war in the stars, but to have that be the engine for the whole core of the movie felt a little tired by about mid-way through.
If the second act on Canto Bight wasn’t forced into the middle, perhaps they could have filled that with something else that would have added some liveliness to the space battles that was greater than ships running out of fuel and getting blown up.
5) Did we get any answers?
I'm fine with the many instances where Johnson was actively trying to get out from under the expectations thrust upon him by The Force Awakens. He was able to make some changes (like destroying Kylo Ren's mask) that felt pertinent and came off as a way of making his own mark.
But there were other dangling questions left over from the previous film that there was not only no attempt to conclude, but further building of the suspense after we're already expecting the pay-off.
This film talks yet again about Luke's other disciples who turned on him along with Kylo Ren, whom everyone is sure are the fabled Knights of Ren we've heard so much about. But still they aren't here? Like, fine if you want to leave that down the road, but what the fuck? No signposts in the story? Just wait another two years and hope the next movie covers it? We already did that!
On that front, I don't know how to feel about the half-hearted, potential reveal of Rey's parents. I'll say that fans built the speculation up more than the previous film actually did, but still.
On the surface level I don't really buy that her parents are nobodies, as poignant as it might be to have a completely unrelated new hero in the franchise. It seemed to me like something that Kylo Ren said to cloud Rey's mind and that she somewhat blindly accepted due to her trippy run-in with her many reflections on Ach-To.
The fan theories, I think, will resume. And after seeing her own reflection, my money's on the idea that she is born of the Force, similar to how Anakin Skywalker himself was born (with a mother but no father.) But if it is true that she's nobody, that just felt too unceremonious for the amount of speculation that the filmmakers definitely knew was out there.
Like sure, shatter expectations and go against assumptions, but give us SOMETHING. There's a difference between playing off an audience's assumptions by altering characters or themes and simply ignoring the fan culture altogether by not even trying to address who Snoke is, Rey's lineage or the Knights of Ren. It's a slap in the face of fans that just isn't constructive.