SPOILERS AHEAD: As an introductory warning, this post will describe plot and spoilers for the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Go back now if you do not want to be spoiled before seeing the film. In addition, there are some Game of Thrones spoilers used as examples. You have been warned.
Unless you have been living under a rock (or a desolate island on a far away planet) you’ve heard about the newest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi. Released two years after The Force Awakens, and a year after the bridge film Rogue One, The Last Jedi continues the journey of Rey, Poe, Finn, and Kylo in a post-Empire, post-Rebellion galaxy.
While I do not focus on movies or film on this blog, I really wanted to write my thoughts on Last Jedi as the reviews have been highly polarizing. I am by no means a proper critic or do very much evaluation of film in general, so bear with any disjointedness present in this post.
In general, I was not pleased with the film. I am struggling to determine the exact reason for my disappointment. Did I want a traditional Star Wars movie? Did I want a predictable plot where Luke saves the galaxy again? Was it just a weak installment in a series that has fallen into the trap before?
Before diving in, and to give some context, I greatly enjoyed the original trilogy. The prequels, while initially and universally panned, have grown on me somewhat. Episode I has aged a little more into my good graces (heresy I know) but Episode II and III are mostly forgettable to me. Perhaps this stems from the lack of watches in comparison to the original trilogy, or maybe the lack of watches come from my lack of enthusiasm. Chicken and egg problem I suppose.
Regardless, I definitely enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back the most, and for the record, I actually enjoyed Force Awakens for the most part. In fact, I enjoyed VII despite the fact that I went in expecting disappointment. Again, was I set up to be surprised with low expectations?
Last Jedi Missed on its Character Development
With the preface that I have no experience in properly evaluating film, I found the lack of character development, and in turn my connection to any of the characters, my main qualm with Last Jedi.
In movies, TV, books, or games I’ve grown increasingly fond of learning and empathizing with characters. Exploring why each character does what they do, what their motivations are, how they came to be in the current situation — all interesting points to my viewership and important to my enjoyment in caring about what it going on.
For example, I have recently binged on Mindhunter, the Netflix show based on the book of the same name. The premise is a couple of FBI agents are beginning to explore criminal psychology and behavior in order to potentially understand and preempt serial killers in the future. Not a lot story technically occurs in the show, but each of the characters are explored alongside the exploration of the criminal mind. You learn to understand why the characters are pursuing this new area of criminology, and you learn about their subjects, the serial killer interviewees, creating a genuine connection between viewer and character.
Likewise, Game of Thrones has renewed the focus on character development. Wipe away all we know about Sansa, The Hound, or Jon Snow and we are left with a generic fantasy frolic of realpolitik but without any real connection or care as to why one king or the other is killed in cold blood. You care about the characters, you guess on their next moves based on their backstory, you want to know more because you know enough to want more.
The Last Jedi falls flat by failing to embrace what I feel is one of its most important aspects — its characters. In the original trilogy, everyone became quickly accustom to Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie. You cared about these characters and we learned, slowly but surely, about Luke’s origins, Vader’s origins, and finally how Leia tied into the whole mess. You rooted for the characters invading Endor because you wanted to see them make it through. Sure, they are the heroes so they’ll probably survive, but you wanted to see it nonetheless.
Episode VIII is not lacking potential characters to latch onto. We have the old favorites of Leia and Luke, but the new focus is on Kylo, Rey, Finn, and Poe. We know that Rey comes from far off junk planet, has unknown parents, and has a powerful connection with the Force.
Well, we’ve got some great room for development here — lets look at what her parents could be: Obi Wan? Luke? Perhaps some other twist? At least through VIII, the most we get is that they were simply nobodies. How do we learn this? Kylo just says it. No exploration, no explanation, no journey, just two lines of dialogue telling you that they were no one. Now, perhaps Kylo is lying, perhaps they still have a big reveal — but we are still missing the journey, the development arriving at their identities. Are we simply going to get a reveal that, hey Rey, your father was Obi Wan? Its lacking on several levels.
Rey’s connection with the Force might derive from her parents, but we wouldn’t know because that development has been stifled. We are left wondering why, but aren’t presented with any clues or signs as to her Force origins. Her power is apparently obvious to Kylo and Luke, and she deftly wields a lightsaber without any training. Please, Rian Johnson, please give us the tiniest thread on this lead. We just know she is strong in the Force. In New Hope, Obi Wan identified Luke’s power early. He nurtured it, alluding to Luke’s father, the once powerful Jedi struck down by Vader. We got breadcrumbs before the big reveal of Vader as his father. Rey’s backstory is simply nonexistent, and we have no clues or reason as to why it is such.
On the other hand, Kylo has received at least a smidgen of development. We know that he is the son of Han and Leia, and we know that he had a less than optimal final confrontation with Luke before running away to the First Order. We know he has Force power, developing from Leia and Anakin before her. He kills Han in VII, signaling his devolution to the Dark Side, which he further embraces in striking down Snoke in VIII. The whole “Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise?” meme went straight into my thoughts when I saw Kylo strike Snoke down.
Despite the bits we get about Kylo, his ultimate question — why has he turned to the Dark Side — has been hand waved down the line. We know that he has malicious intent, but we mostly glean that from his black armor and anger to his subordinates (the obvious villain signals). Of course, we get a great example in his striking down of Han, but that is noticeably tempered with his inability to fire the torpedoes into Leia’s flight deck. Finally! We get some interesting push and pull, some wonderment at what drives Adam Driver. Why can he strike down Han but not Leia? We want to know his motivations, and we appear to learn more and more throughout the film.
Snoke is the biggest miss here for me. He is killed by Kylo and honestly I couldn’t care less. I was sitting wondering why he was normal sized in his throne room compared to his portrayal in the first movie. Large, almighty dark side user that can use the Force in new and amazing ways? Cut down immediately before ANY discovery of what Snoke was or is. Very disappointed with his “character” or lack thereof.
The big point here is the Why Do We Care? angle. If the characters can simply be substituted for any other characters, as long as its bad guy v good guy, I just cant get invested. On the other hand, in Game of Thrones, we learn to appreciate and respect Ned Stark’s stubborn devotion to honor, making his demise all the more shocking and eventful. If Rey were to be struck down, it’d be more interesting because Disney is killing off a main character moreso than I care about her wellbeing. Sure, I want to see her do well, but that stems more from just general empathy with the “good guys.” Give me more — lets see Rey’s flaws exposed like Kylo’s, lets see her motivations explored further than simply “wants to know her parents” and “wanting to help the Resistance who helped her.”
The Dialogue Could Use Some Work
Dovetailing with the character development issues, the dialogue in Episode VIII completely missed with me. Sure, the comedic bits rubbed many the wrong way, but they also just missed on making any meaningful, impactful lines. “Luke, I am your Father” became iconic for a reason.
To begin with an example, when Luke and Rey are discussing the Jedi and Kylo and how Luke failed Kylo at his new academy, the exchange becomes increasingly unnatural and toothless. Luke has some anguish as to his part in creating Kylo Ren from Ben Solo. Makes sense given the confrontation we see in flashbacks (notably in two different accounts) and with the obvious parallel to Obi Wan’s guilt in Vader’s rise. But instead of probing Luke’s emotional attachments or seeking to draw any further information or context, Rey simply begins to blather about how Luke can save him, that Luke didn’t push Kylo to the Dark Side. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t she just helping his mental anguish? Sure, but it comes off as weak and generic. Rey has no idea of Luke’s and Kylo’s relationship other the memory Luke just shared. She knows nothing and immediately speaks in platitudes. It doesn’t help that its highly generic either.
Humor plays a stronger part in the dialogue in Episode VIII. I’ve seen this critique in other reviews and I mostly agree. Star Wars has always had bits of humor, with some going overboard (like Jar Jar). Small lines or instances are part of the series. However, in Last Jedi, I think it does go a bit too far.
For me, the sin of comedy occurs in the opening sequence. When Poe is setting up the distraction with General Hux, he starts sarcastically mocking the First Order superior. It fits Poe’s style a bit — the wild, gunslinging bravado he displays in his flying, fighting, and decisionmaking. However, that point is made loud and clear after the first round of “I’ll wait for him to respond…[insert low level insult here].” We get it, we can move on. Drawing it out starts destroying the credibility of seriousness.
Seriousness is not a prerequisite to strong dialogue, but I think it impinges on the legitimacy of the First Order. Traditionally, the Moffs and other Imperial superiors were fairly sullen, serious old men. Subject to rank and military order, during tense combat or interactions with their enemies, the Empire of old was all business, as would likely be consistent with their training. Its part of their calculation.
In comparison, Hux’s interaction with Poe leads to an immediate self-aggrandizement. Perhaps that’s the point, but it comes off as a nearly cartoonish, bumbling villain stereotype. It breaks the immersion of the viewer when the cold, calculating First Order is depicted in this humor-laden breakdown for 30 seconds too long. Maybe the goal is to make Hux look like a complete idiot, but that point at the same time seems to indicate the First Order is a complete fleet of bumbling fools by extension. How can that be the case when they have come so far to resurrect the Empire’s original vision?
On the whole, the dialogue in the film could use some more oom-pah, something a little more deep, a little more interesting, a little less generic. The comedy is good in splashes, but at times was taken to absurdity, shredding the immersion of the viewer in the critical early stages of the film.
The Visual Presentation Was Consistent For The Series
Star Wars has been the marquee franchise for special effects and sweet visuals. Episode VIII delivers in most respects on the visual contract between fan and series.
The space sequences oozed cool for the most part. Despite the fact we had a low-level spaceship chase that drove the movie (a whole plot sequence I was not fond of), the lackluster premise still delivered some eye candy.
The kamikaze moment by Holdo will stick out with most viewers, and I was equally in awe during that moment. It’s a move never contemplated in the series, but makes perfect sense in the context of the Star Wars universe. Most importantly, the movie made a great decision in rendering the critical moment in initial silence, allowing the viewer to take in all that the move meant in the context of the film, and to marvel at the splitting capital ships slowing falling apart in space.
Star Wars also has all those moments of badass-ery, such as Yoda’s lightsaber battle, or Obi Wan striking down Darth Maul. In Last Jedi, Kylo’s deft TIE Silencer piloting made for one such moment. Spinning and guiding his Tie/sf’s, Kylo looked like a feared star pilot of old, his grandfather Vader in his trusty TIE Advanced. The Silencer itself is an awesome looking ship, but it also just oozes Kylo with its sleek black look and hull brimming with raw impetus.
We also get our requisite lightsaber duel in Snoke’s throne room, this time against his guard wielding some interesting vibro halberds and axes. Most will remember Rey’s throw of a lightsaber to Kylo to headshot one of the guards, but my favorite moment was when they kick one of the guards into the open shredder in the floor. The gratuitous gore as the guard’s remains are flung upwards for a brief moment intensified the battle for a split second, and was a rare mature moment for a Disney film (I’m also a bit of sucker for these gratuitous scenes of violence that are nearly comedic a la Tarantino).
My one qualm with the visuals was the seeming lack of puppet and practical effects. This boils down to a pure personal preference, but part of my original appeal to the trilogy were the practical effects Lucas and his team used in places like Jabba’s sand skimmer. I’m not averse to CGI, but it definitely breaks my immersion when its overdone.
In addition, I felt like Episode VIII was missing the exploration of all the fantastic and interesting beasts that inhabit the galaxy. We got a taste (Luke more directly so…green milk…) on Luke’s little hermit island, with the Keepers and other creatures making some brief cameos, mostly for humor’s sake. I wanted a little bit more — like Mos Eisley or the podracing sequences that really showcased some varied and interesting denizens that inhabit the galaxy. Last Jedi was full of an awful lot of humans. The casino scene was a missed opportunity to me — a perfect moment to flash some creativity of such creatures.
What Was The Point? What Were They Going For?
I don’t want to delve too deeply in exploring the deeper themes, but I think it warrants an small discussion, at least as a benchmark for what I viewed as the endgame goal of the movie.
I think the main message of the movie is Failure. In comparison to the cookie cutter variety of action movies, I think the director here was trying to smash the glass of what we’ve come to expect.
Luke’s failure with Kylo is the obvious example here. He’s overwhelmed to the point of isolation. Poe’s gambit and mutiny for one last quick escape falls flat when Leia reawakens. Finn’s travails in the casino was pure failure — without BB8 that whole plan ends quicker than it did.
Failure is not normally a concept that creates an end for the main characters of a popular action franchise. We are conditioned to see the good guys fall down but get right back up and triumph. Here, there is some remedy in their escape aided by Luke but ultimately the Resistance loses all of its ships. They lose Luke and their distress signal doesn’t get any response. The Resistance’s victory is simply escape on the Falcon. Is that really a triumph? It’s not a satisfying conclusion modern audiences come to expect. While the decision to go that route can be respected, did Johnson pull it off?
In addition to the failure angle, the marketing angle cannot be overlooked. Star Wars was purchased by Disney to make money. They have no obligation to feed fans anything other than what will get them paying. This is a cynical view, but one that I think directly colors the decisionmaking in the film. They need the main characters to be lovable to sell merchandise. They need the Porgs to be cutesy like Pixar’s Minions. I have no personal issue with this, but if I feel its negatively impacting the film in the interest of selling toys, I think that hurts my grade of the movie.
I also believe that Rian Johnson, who will be getting future Star Wars movies to play with, was also trying to tear down JJ Abrams plot lines. I don’t think he did it maliciously, I think it was done to carve out his own personal take. The director should have latitude to do what they see fit. I think that becomes difficult when the film is the middle installment in a three part series. Cutting out Snoke, Rey’s back story, Luke, and even Finn for the most part, Johnson has abruptly cut off the audiences from the teasers of Force Awakens. If the third movie can reconcile this divergence, I think it may be forgiven, but the straightforward cut down of previous plot lines was jarring.
This is an incredibly shallow analysis of the goals and motivations of the movie, but I think it helps give context to what *I* believe the movie is built on. Others may disagree about the driving factors of the film, and that alright. Putting out my assumptions can help in my next analysis, why didn’t this movie click for me?
So Why Didn’t The Movie Click Overall?
At the end of all this discussion into characters, dialogue, and visuals, I’m still left wondering what exactly went wrong for me. I have a couple of ideas, but honestly, I’m still sorting through which are the main culprit:
- Last Jedi deviated from every plot thread set-up in Force Awakens — Abrams left us wondering on several different cliffhangers from the first movie. In many ways, this what a movie trilogy needs, some common threads that follow through the entire saga. Last Jedi cuts them all up to ribbons, Rey’s parents, Luke’s reentry into the series, Snoke’s backstory. I can respect the decision for Rian Johnson to make his own way in the franchise, but it feels like his approach was hamfisted in cutting off the first movie. Don’t crush all the threads for the sake of ending those plot lines.
- The movie went on too long. At over 2 and a half hours, Last Jedi is quite a commitment. I have no problem with longer movies, but you’ve got to keep interest up for the duration. I personally felt the movie went on for about 30 minutes too long. I think this has to do in large part to the Finn/Rose kidnapping mission. I understand this sidequest, framed as a quick 18 hour adventure, was meant to showcase Finn and touch on the whole theme of “failure” imbued in the film, but it felt unnecessary given the development we see on the salt planet between the two. Again, certainly not the determining factor for my lack of enjoyment.
- The movie wasn’t traditional Star Wars. This is a hotly debated point, with some crying out the movie had too many parallels to the former films, while others decry the complete lack of callback to an iconic franchise. Getting this balance is incredibly difficult. I think I might have come in with a preset notion of expectations for a Star Wars movie and was disappointed when the film deviated from that. Challenging your worldview and all. The movie did feature many parallels (Luke’s island to Dagobah, confrontation in the throne room from Last Jedi, etc) but I think it certainly diverged in many other spots. Honestly, I think my personal qualm was less that it fit the “mold of Star Wars” and more that it failed to meet my expectation as a good movie. What’s good is subjective, and given my points made earlier, the important parts of a film to me where not met.
In sum, Last Jedi was a good enough movie that I do not regret seeing. However, given my attachment to the franchise, I was left wanting as my satisfaction with the film. Per above, I place value on the interaction and development of the characters I’m watching, and thus when I felt Last Jedi was lacking this focus, and my enjoyment dropped. When missing that focus on characters, I think the film then could not meet the high standard I set for Star Wars films.
Of course, this is completely subjective, and I think this post has been somewhat therapeutic in collecting my thoughts on what went missing. I think I need to rewatch the film to give it a fair shake, going in with a new expectation of what the film sets out to accomplish.
What were your thoughts on Last Jedi? Did you think it diverged from traditional Star Wars? Did you hate it? Did you love it? Comment below!