I’ve been trying to come up with a pithy way to effectively review Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi, and the truth is, I’m stumped.
I was really looking forward to this film. But after two screenings, I think I need to come to terms with the fact that, well…. I just don’t like it that much.
And considering a lot of the reactions on Twitter, YouTube, and Rotten Tomatoes, I’m apparently not alone.
It turns out that The Last Jedi has been incredibly divisive for fans.
In listening to commentary on YouTube channels like Screen Junkies and Collider, a lot of people seem to be throwing up their hands and saying that since the reaction to The Force Awakens (such as mine) was that it was a beat-for-beat remake of “A New Hope”, and since now some reactions to The Last Jedi are mad that it’s “too different” (more on that later), there’s just no way to please Star Wars fans.
There’s a grain of truth to this.
Obviously, the most avid fans are always going to be the biggest critics and it’s not an totally unreasonable complaint. The Last Jedi director, Rian Johnson recently responded to some of the backlash in an interview with Business Insider:
“I’m aware through my own experience that, first of all, the fans are so passionate, they care so deeply — sometimes they care very violently at me on Twitter. But it’s because they care about these things, and it hurts when you’re expecting something specific and you don’t get it from something that you love. It always hurts, so I don’t take it personally if a fan reacts negatively and lashes out on me on Twitter. That’s fine. It’s my job to be there for that. Like you said, every fan has a list of stuff they want a “Star Wars” movie to be and they don’t want a “Star Wars” movie to be. You’re going to find very few fans out there whose lists line up.”
Johnson’s right that you can’t please everyone, and I get it: If fans don’t want a movie that’s the same as the original, and they don’t want a new story, what’s left?
But there’s clearly a third option that everybody is just leaving out.
Why not a new story with (mostly) new characters that’s actually executed well and doesn’t completely ignore or trash the legacy of the original trilogy?
It’s unclear to me why this is out of the question, but what is clear is that this movie doesn’t accomplish anything of the sort. The trouble is, to properly understand this, I think we actually need to go back to…
The Force Awakens
Yes, it’s a flawed film, but I would argue (as I did in my 2015 review) that it also did a lot right.
For example, using Princess/General Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca as mentors for Rey, Finn, and Poe; and having a major part of the plot revolve around finding Luke Skywalker (who went into exile after his nephew and apprentice Ben Solo turned to the dark side and became Kylo Ren) was an excellent way to bridge the gap between the original trilogy and what they’re trying to build in the new series.
For the most part, The Force Awakens respected the original films while breathing life into new characters and settings, and did a pretty good job of threading that needle. They even hit a home run with BB-8 by managing to make him cute and useful, without being annoying like Jar Jar or ridiculous like the Ewoks.
So I actually think the idea that the hardcore fans hated all the parallels to Episode IV is wrong.
To the contrary, the only thing they seemed universally hate was the fact that everything culminated with yet another Death Star. And that was further compounded by the fact that it makes no narrative sense for the First Order to have amassed so much power in the first place, considering how the original trilogy concluded.
Red Letter Media’s in-depth Plinkett Review of The Force Awakens offered an alternative plotline that kept many of the same action beats but made it more about how the First Order rose to power and was able to effectively build a terrorism network out of the ashes of the fallen Empire, and that would have been an infinitely better story, but alas…
We got the movie we got, and the positioning of the First Order as just another Empire and using Starkiller Base as the final action set-piece were always terrible choices on Abram’s part which definitely created a number of serious problems that the rest of the trilogy was always going to have to deal with.
I devoted a large section of my review to those problems, but in the end, I still called the film “fantastic”. It’s lost some luster for me in the two years since, but I stand by my original claim when I wrote:
“In spite of all that, I actually don’t mind that the film is so derivative in general. In some ways, I think it needed to be, given how important it was for this iteration of Star Wars to really feel right.”
And it did.
The Force Awakens brought the feel of Star Wars back to the franchise, which was really the only job it absolutely had to get right. I’m ok with that. After the Prequels, fan faith in Star Wars was incredibly low, and I think that the only way to get back to the style and tone of the original trilogy was to try to mirror the source and reset.
In context of people’s expectations, keeping the core plot structure from “A New Hope” was probably the smart move. Combined with the production design that actually fit into the original Star Wars universe, it was a great way to bring some familiarity to fans while introducing a ton of new characters and ideas.
Even most of the “fan service” in that movie was smart and executed with some subtlety.
What’s more, The Force Awakens raised all kinds of interesting questions about the world that created an incredible sense of excitement and anticipation for the viewer. Here’s a partial list raised by the film.
- Rey’s core motivation is wanting to find her parents/hoping they’ll return to Jakku. Who are they? Why doesn’t she want to leave?
- Why did Kylo Ren abandon his family and murder his friends at Luke’s new Jedi Temple? Why was he so attracted to the Dark Side? Can he be redeemed?
- Why did Luke go into exile? Where is he? Is he planning to return? Will he train Rey in the ways of the Force?
- How is Rey so good with the Force without any training? Is she somebody important?
- How did Han Solo’s death impact Kylo Ren?
- How is it possible that after clearly defeating the Empire, turning Darth Vader back to the Light, and destroying Emperor Palpatine and restoring the Republic, the First Order managed to take over the galaxy again so quickly?
- How is it that after saving the galaxy, Leia is back to being a “resistance” fighter?
- Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? How did he attain political power and why is he so powerful as a Sith? Also… Is he a Sith?
Setting up big mysteries like these has always been the one thing JJ Abrams does incredibly well.
Unfortunately, what Abrams does really poorly most of the time is coming up with quality answers to those questions or mapping out stories in such a way that those answers would actually be satisfying.
And that seems to be what has happened here. But it’s not entirely his fault.
Writer/director, Rian Johnson seems to have been given entirely free rein as to how to pay off all of the beats that JJ’s story set up, and at the same time he seems to have been entirely uninterested in actually doing so in The Last Jedi.
As a result, Johnson casually tosses aside not only everything that Abrams set up, but also the characters many of us have loved since childhood.
A lot of the questions that JJ Abrams opened could have generated interesting moments and satisfying reveals, but revisiting The Force Awakens in context of The Last Jedi, they just end up just looking like gaping plot holes.
So my main criticism of The Last Jedi isn’t that it’s trying “new” things, but that most of those things are seriously poor choices that fail to expand on the good new ideas in The Force Awakens while significantly exacerbating most of the problems at the same time.
Consequently, I’ve had a running conversation about this movie going on in my own mind for the last several days.
As I’ve sat here writing this review, I’ve considered several different ways to explain myself, but in the end, I think the best way to share my thoughts on this film require me to just pull back the curtain and invite you to experience…
A (Spoiler-filled) Conversation With Myself About Star Wars:
Me: The whole plot of The Force Awakens was about finding Luke Skywalker and getting him to come back and save the Resistance. So… Where is he? What’s the deal with the island?
Also Me: Luke is living at an ancient Jedi Temple on an island in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty neat.
Nice. Why did Luke go into exile?
Because he totally failed at preventing his nephew and Padawan Ben Solo from turning to the dark side and becoming Kylo Ren. So now he wants the Jedi Order to die with him.
Woah, so he trained a kid who turned out to be a wannabe Darth Vder and then just ran away instead of trying to stop him from joining a cult of space Nazis? And that kid was his nephew?
Yeah. Basically, Luke is a sad old coward now.
I know. It also seems a little out of character for somebody who stopped at nothing to save his friends and wouldn’t even give up on redeeming his dad, who was the actual Darth Vader.
But doesn’t he know what’s going on? Can’t he sense that Leia and everyone else is in trouble? Doesn’t he know what Kylo Ren has been up to?
Nope. He cut himself off from the Force (which, I guess is a thing you can do), and didn’t even know that Han Solo was dead. The great galactic hero and Jedi Master is now just some old guy.
Okay. But if he’s abandoned the Force and wants the Jedi order to end, why would he go to a Jedi Temple?
Is he planning to come back?
But what about Rey giving him back his lightsaber? Didn’t that mean anything to him?
Nah. He looked at it for a second and casually tossed it over his shoulder. It was the second silly joke in the first 10 minutes of the movie.
But… Wouldn’t seeing the lightsaber have conjured up all kinds of meaningful and important memories?
I’d have thought so… I mean, it was his father’s before he became Darth Vader. It was given to him by his first mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. It was the first object he ever lifted using the Force. It was lost to him when Darth Vader cut his hand off during their first encounter at Cloud City. You know, the one where he learned that Vader was his father and nearly fell to his death. You’d think that if nothing else he’d want to know how Rey got it, since the last time he saw it, it was clutched in his severed hand hurtling towards the center of a gas planet.
Do we at least learn how Maz Kanata found it?
Ha. No. Of course not. Rian Johnson doesn’t care about stuff like that.
Do we see Maz Kanata again at all?
Yeah, on a video screen, as a way to kick off the most useless B-Story in the film. But we can talk about that later.
Ugh. Will Luke at least train Rey in the ways of the Force so she can go off and be a badass?
Because he’s afraid of her power and thinks it’s time for the Jedi Order to die. He said that in the trailers, duh. But it doesn’t matter anyway.
What do you mean?
Well… Rey is pretty much a Jedi Master already. In the end, Luke does give her two beginner level lessons (after promising three), and even though that’s literally the first time she’s ever connected with the Force on purpose, it’s all she needs. After that, she can lift super heavy objects with her mind and beat well-trained Praetorian Guards with a lightsaber. No problem.
Those are the red armor guys, right?
Yeah, they guard Emperor– I mean, Supreme Leader Snoke. Also, those guys have weapons that can stop lightsaber attacks, and armor that their own weapons can’t cut through, but somehow lightsabers cut through the armor like butter. Work that one out.
That’s weird. But if she can beat Snoke’s top guards really easily, Rey must have powerful parents. Is she Obi-Wan Kenobi’s daughter? Is she some kind of Force-baby virgin birth like Anakin Skywalker?
Nope, and nope.
Then who were her parents?
Nobody. It doesn’t matter.
Uh… Okay. I guess that’s cool. Not everybody in this universe has to be a Skywalker, right?
Sure, and that could be a great point. They even state it outright a couple times in the film – the Force is everywhere, and isn’t just owned by the Jedi or the Skywalker family. But with all the build-up for the last two years about Rey’s parents, how important their identity seemed to be in The Force Awakens, and how powerful Rey is with absolutely no experience or training, having the answer be “nobody” really just opens up more questions about why is she so damn good at everything… Plus it means we don’t actually learn anything new about Rey in this movie at all.
Not really, no.
Damn. But okay, do we learn why Kylo Ren abandoned his family and murdered his friends at Luke’s new Jedi Temple?
Yes. We do learn more about that. Sort of. He was probably corrupted by Supreme Leader Snoke just like Leia and Han said in The Force Awakens. But he was also pissed because, well…
Luke tried to murder him.
I wish. But no. Luke Skywalker realizes that Ben Solo is turning evil, so for a “fleeting moment” he ignites his lightsaber, creepily hovering over his own nephew at night while he was asleep and seriously contemplates cutting him in half.
But I mean… He doesn’t actually do it, so… Yay?
What the heck
Yeah, it’s pretty grim. Luke Skywalker – the guy who risked everything to save his evil father just because he sensed a tiny bit of “conflict” and good in him – actually thought that maybe the best way to handle a young kid flirting with the dark side was just to execute him.
His own nephew…
Leia & Han’s son.
So I guess that explains why Ben Solo was so attracted to the dark side.
Well… Yes, but also, Luke says that Snoke warped his mind, but that makes it even weirder that Luke would consider killing Kylo instead of just seeking out Snoke and putting an end to him instead.
Yeah. About that guy, by the way… Who is he?
I have no idea.
Yeah, literally nothing about him is ever explained. Then he dies.
Woah… Really? How?
Kylo Ren manages to trick him into thinking that he’s going to kill Rey, but ends up killing Snoke instead. Then he tries to convince Rey to forget the past by murdering the remaining Resistance fighters and join him so they can rule the galaxy together. She declines.
How does he pull that off? I thought Snoke was super powerful.
Me too. So, I don’t know. But then, I don’t know anything at all about him and probably never will.
Clearly, if Kylo Ren is powerful enough to easily defeat Supreme Leader Snoke, he kicks Rey’s ass when she tells him she won’t join him, right?
No, remember when I said Rey’s a Jedi Master now?
Oh, you were serious?
Uh huh. Rey & Kylo Ren play Force tug-o-war with Luke’s old lightsaber until it breaks in half and explodes. Kylo gets knocked out but I guess Rey doesn’t, because she manages to escape somehow.
Yeah. She’s just that good. Even though there’s no actual reason why she would be.
I bet Kylo feels like a real loser not being able to overpower her even after probably a decade of serious training with Luke and then Snoke.
He should. That whole “stopping a blaster in mid-air” moment in The Force Awakens made him look like a real badass, but he pretty much sucks at everything.
So there’s no explanation of how the First Order managed to take over when they’d already re-established a Republic and destroyed the Empire in the original trilogy?
Nope. That’s still a mystery too.
Geez. Okay… At least tell me that they did something cool to honor Carrie Fisher. Did she die doing something amazing?
Nah, she just got sucked into space with Admiral Ackbar when a Star Destroyer blew a hole in the bridge of her ship. Ackbar’s gone, but Leia’s still alive.
How? Wasn’t she frozen in the vacuum of space?
I mean… She was, for like a second. But then she just woke up and used the Force to fly back into the ship like Superman.
I am not.
So how are they going to deal with that in Episode IX?
I do not know. The last we see of her, she’s hanging out on the Millennium Falcon with Rey, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, and basically all the main characters except Luke.
What happened to him?
Oh, he’s dead.
Yeah. He never left the island, but he did manage to project a Force hologram of himself to the other side of the galaxy and trick Kylo into thinking he was on some planet defending the last like 10 surviving Resistance members from a bunch of AT-ATs. That was pretty sweet. Kylo had all the AT-ATs fire everything they had at Luke and when the dust cleared, he just stepped out like it was nothing. Badass.
But then… It’s seriously undercut by the fact that he only survived because he wasn’t actually there to begin with.
Cause he was just a Force hologram?
But then, if he wasn’t even there, how’d he die?
I guess it was just a lot of work to project himself that far through space that clearly?
After he was done he just sat on a rock and faded away like Yoda in Return of the Jedi. He just kind of checked out.
So he’s a Force ghost now?
I assume so, yeah. Seemed like it was by choice.
But… Wouldn’t it have been really useful if Luke stuck around and helped with the final battle against Kylo Ren — the kid he basically pushed to the dark side by trying to murder him in his sleep?
Yeah. That seems like the decent thing to do. But Rian Johnson’s version of Luke Skywalker isn’t really that good of a guy anymore. And anyway, maybe it doesn’t matter.
Cause I’m pretty sure Force ghosts can actually physically interact with the world and use the Force and stuff now so being dead is probably no big deal.
How do you mean?
Well, at one p0int Yoda shows up to have a really touching and beautiful conversation with Luke, who is just about to go burn down an ancient hollow tree where all the original Jedi books are kept. But when Yoda appears, Luke hesitates, probably thinking that Yoda is going to tell him not to destroy what’s left of the Jedi Order. But Yoda uses the Force to create a massive lightning to strike and lights it on fire anyway.
So I guess if you’re a Jedi, now you can be immortal and keep doing everything you’d do if you were alive?
Yoda is in this!?? Way to bury the lead, dude!
Yeah. That was probably my favorite scene, actually.
It’s basically the only moment where Rian Johnson takes two of the original characters and allows them to interact with each other in a way that actually feels respectful to who they are and what they mean to each other, and to fans of the original series.
So there are actually some good parts in the movie?
Yeah. There are bunch of good things about The Last Jedi. It’s just that they’re buried underneath a ton of stuff that makes no sense and feel like they’re written by someone who didn’t care that much about either the original trilogy or The Force Awakens.
Johnson didn’t answer the questions JJ set up so much as he just ignored most of them outright and did whatever he wanted instead. And that attitude carried over to the way he treated beloved characters like Luke, Leia, and even Admiral Ackbar.
I mean, dude. Ackbar is just unceremoniously sucked into space. No fanfare, no moment of sadness for the guy who literally ran the operation that blew up the second Death Star.
Just… Gone. Nobody cares. And that’s the problem.
In the interest of time, I’ll end the conversation here, but in reality…………….It just keeps going. And that brings us full circle.
New Ideas Are Only Good If They’re Executed Well
Luke’s casual tossing aside of his old lightsaber at the beginning of the movie ends up being a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with the film in general. It’s an idea that could be clever and subversive, but ends up being kind of insulting instead.
I like the idea that Luke would be so jaded and over being a Jedi because of his failures that he wouldn’t even care about his lightsaber… But if it was something that brought up painful, angry memories, he wouldn’t toss it comically over his shoulder for a laugh. He’d turn around and hurl it into the ocean getting it as far away from him as he could.
Likewise, if he is so burnt out, why would he go to a Jedi Temple to live out the rest of his life in the first place instead of, oh… I don’t know… Tattooine, where he grew up?
If he really wanted to disconnect from the Force, why did he go to one of the most sacred places in the galaxy?
I find that the more I think about The Last Jedi, the more these kinds of questions crop up. And they all strike me as really fundamental character writing problems. Rey, Finn, and even Poe are thin. We know very little about any of them and this film adds absolutely nothing of consequence. Kylo Ren is more interesting, but also hasn’t really progressed much in two movies. Luke is like a completely different character, and while that would make sense if it had been earned, the reason he exiles himself is aggravating.
Remember, Luke Skywalker resisted when Emperor Palpatine tried to get him to give into fear and anger and strike him down, and even once Luke does finally break and attack Darth Vader, in the end he chooses not to kill when he clearly could. Instead – in the most significant character-defining choice of the entire series – Luke chooses instead to throw his lightsaber at the foot of the Emperor and stands proudly, saying “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
That moment is critical. It’s the moment when Luke realized that even someone he considered to be evil could be redeemed and bringing balance to the Force would be accomplished by choosing not to kill or continue to fight in anger. It’s massively important to his character and would clearly define the rest of his decisions from then on. Knowing that even the baddest villain in the galaxy could be brought back to the light is insanely important.
The point is… Luke Skywalker doesn’t contemplate murdering kids. He certainly doesn’t think about it seriously enough to draw his laser sword.
The sad thing is, jaded Luke would be an interesting character to see. And Mark Hamill does a fantastic job with what he has to work with. But… The why of it all makes absolutely no sense. If for example, he was jaded because he did everything he could to train Kylo and although he sensed the rising darkness, he refused to take action, believing he could save him as he had his grandfather, but then Kylo murders all the other students and burns down the temple anyway, Luke would still have failed and feel responsible for the deaths of a few dozen of his students. But his choice would have been driven by his actual character.
Likewise, if he went to the ancient Jedi Temple to study the original Whills of the Force, partly out of shame, but also in the hopes that he could save Kylo and redeem his own failure; but then in his studies discovers that the whole notion of dark vs light and the Jedi religion was a misreading of the original texts… That could have been interesting as well.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, Johnson just ignores who Luke became in the original trilogy and does all his supposed character-development off-screen. It’s truly terrible writing.
And to compensate for those issues, it seems like Rian Johnson just tried to stuff the movie full of plot points that lead to nowhere.
For the first two thirds of the film, most of the First Order vs. Resistance confrontation comes down to a low-speed Star Destroyer chase that is both incredibly visually slow and yet is simultaneously supposed to take place over an extremely short period of time.
In what we’re told is a maximum of 18 hours (before the Resistance runs out of fuel)…
- Finn wakes up from a coma, steals a homing beacon, tries to jump in an escape pod and meets new character Rose.
- Admiral Ackar dies.
- Leia dies.
- Oops. Leia’s alive again, and uses the Force to fly back to safety, but then she goes into a coma. anyway.
- Vice Admiral Holdo shows up and takes over, even though we’ve never met her before.
- For absolutely no reason, Holdo won’t tell anybody anything about her plans, so Poe starts a mutiny.
- Finn and Rose sneak off the Resistance ship, evading detection both by Vice Admiral Holdo and by the First Order so they can go find a guy who can crack the First Order’s shields.
Then we get a dumb casino sequence that includes a cringey, prequels-worthy horse race. From there…
- We meet an underutilized Benicio del Toro who introduced moral gray areas that could have been tied into the film, but weren’t.
- Finn, Rose, and Benicio sneak onto a Star Destroyer to shut down a tracker. They fail and get caught.
- Leia wakes up and shuts down Poe’s mutiny by shooting him with a blaster.
Meanwhile tons of stuff — and yet nothing at all — is happening with Rey.
- She’s following Luke around as he milks a space walrus and goes fishing.
- She has a bunch of conversations with Kylo Ren on the other side of the galaxy using the Force.
- She eventually gets Luke to teach her some stuff, but immediately gets seduced by darkness.
- Luke gets mad.
- She falls into an evil pit and tries to learn something about herself, but doesn’t.
- More conversations with Kylo Ren.
- Luke gets mad again.
- Chewbacca cooks a couple porgs, but they guilt him into going hungry.
Now… It’s not entirely clear if all of that is supposed to be happening at the same time as the low-speed Star Destroyer chase… But it’s cut like it is, and when Rey & Chewbacca leave the island in the Millennium Falcon, he drops her off in an escape pod right in the middle of the battle so she can go confront Kylo Ren.
Chewbacca, by the way, immediately re-enters hyperspace and goes…….. Somewhere?
Let’s just go ahead and call that a plot hole since he reappears with Rey at the end of the movie and it’s entirely unclear how they reconnected.
And again… This all happens in a maximum of 18 hours instead of over multiple days.
What’s worse though, is that none of this really amounts to anything. Most of the Resistance gets killed. Poe’s mutiny fails. Rose & Finn fail. Rey’s plan to bring Kylo Ren back to the light fails. Kylo’s plan of bringing Rey to the dark side fails. Snoke’s plans fail. Leia & Holdo’s plans fail. Even in the end Kylo Ren’s “final solution” fails.
Everybody loses. Nobody wins.
The Last Jedi has a ton of beautiful moments. It’s also the film that made me seriously question the direction that Disney has taken the series. The Force Awakens opened a bunch of interesting new questions. It had issues, but most of them could have been resolved with smart, thoughtful payoffs in Episodes VIII and IX.
But none of them were resolved at all.
And that means that the next film in this trilogy — which is once again being directed by JJ Abrams — is going to have to pick up the pieces, and I have absolutely no idea how that’s going to work.
I don’t hate the movie. I’m not mad at it. I’m not going to rail against Rian Johnson for ruining my childhood or anything like that. But… I’m disappointed. And the more The Last Jedi sinks in for me, the more that disappointment has grown.