Star Wars:The Last Jedi

The short, non-spoiler reaction: I liked The Last Jedi a lot, a solid *** (out of four) entry in the series, about on par with The Force Awakens (maybe a little better). However, I’ve learned not to trust my initial reactions to a Star Wars film, so much of what follows should be taken with a grain of salt. Like a lot of folks my age, the original Star Wars trilogy occupies a special place in my heart, and that sort of goodwill carries over to any new entry in the series, even the prequels (which have obviously not held up). That said, I certainly have my fair share of issues with this latest offering, even if I think the good bits outweigh the bad. Assorted thoughts are below, and from this point on, Spoilers abound. You have been warned.

  • Many of the best things about this movie are also the worst things. The overarching theme of the film is the value of failure, which is a pretty bold stance to take for a series focused on fun adventures (though perhaps not an entirely unexpected one for a middle entry in a trilogy). You’ll notice I said “value”, as the film’s ultimate point is that there is a certain nobility in failure, provided you learn and grow from your mistakes. The three major plotlines are all about failure. The A plot, which follows Rey’s struggle with both Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren is steeped in failure. Luke’s failure to recognize Kylo’s path to the Dark Side, his failure to stop it, and his failure in retreating away from the Force (and his friends) to hide at a remote Jedi temple. Kylo’s failures are myriad. Rey tries to turn Kylo, but fails. The B plot, with follows Poe Dameron as he attempts to lead the rebel fleet’s escape from the First Order. At first his efforts seem successful, but then you realize that he sacrificed the rebel’s entire bomber squadron on what was ultimately a pyrric victory. He’s demoted and must find a way to redeem himself, perhaps not in such a hot-headed way. The C plot concerns Finn and new friend Rose Tico as they, um, go to a casino and try to find a codebeaker or something? Whatever, this is the one part of the movie that is almost completely pointless. Yes, it’s also about failure, but it does so in a way that is largely redundant and ham-fisted. Like, prequel levels awful. The A and B plots work reasonably well though, and there are enough parallels that it manages to tie together in the end. The structure isn’t particularly elegant, but it ultimately works.
  • All of my big issues with the series stems from the need to incorporate our heroes from the original trilogy into this new story… 30 years later. This implies a lot of backstory that has to be skipped over, but it also means that all of our heroes have to regress in one way or another. Luke was flying pretty high after saving the Galaxy and redeeming his father’s soul in the Jedi. Han and Leia were in love and would clearly become leaders in the New Republic. And if these new movies were made in the 80s, you might be able to pull off some stories (a la Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, which I think I enjoy more than these movies, but I digress), but now that it’s 30+ years later, options are more limited. You have to either make them tiny side characters with little actual influence, or you need to generate some sort of conflict that pulls them down from the success they achieved in the original trilogy.

    We can’t have the New Republic be super successful, because how then will the First Order be any threat? JJ dealt with that by creating a more powerful Death Star and destroying the New Republic’s stronghold planets, thus making the rebellion into underdogs again. Many of the complaints I’ve seen about The Last Jedi also stem from this imperative. Luke’s seemingly uncharacteristic retreat from his failure in training Ben (an event that also precipitated the break up between Han and Leia, after which they also regressed to their original character traits – but for some reason no one cared that Han reverted back to a careless smuggler in the previous movie. At least Leia was still trying to fight, even if that’s where she was at the start of the series too.) To me, the conflict generated by Luke’s failure was natural and logical, if not exactly what we want from the character. Luke has always been somewhat hubristic, as his failures in Empire demonstrate. Yes, he eventually made the right decision in the Emperor’s throne room, but he was clearly in over his head. I think his failure in training Ben followed by his retreat into isolation is perfectly cromulent. There’s a convincing argument to be made that he should have perhaps come around sooner once Rey explained how dire the situation had gotten, but I was fine with the way it played out. We also don’t get a ton of backstory here, just enough to see that Luke’s failure with Ben was traumatic to him. Of course, he eventually does the right thing and helps save the rebellion. But Luke isn’t the main character in this Trilogy, Rey is. She’s the eponymous Last Jedi, not Luke.

  • I was initially a little annoyed by Snoke’s unceremonious dispatching at the hands of Kylo Ren, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. Yeah, I’d like to know more about how Snoke turned Ben into Kylo Ren (wasn’t Knights of Ren supposed to be a thing? What is that?), but then I realized – we didn’t know anything about the Emperor in the original films. He looked and acted evil and Darth Vader bowed to him, which was good enough at the time. There’s a whole throne room sequence in The Last Jedi that recalls the Emperor scene in Return of the Jedi, but with the added and frankly unexpected twist that Kylo Ren kills Snoke not with the intention of saving Rey, but for his own selfish purposes (the way Vader was encouraging Luke to kill the Emperor so that they could rule the Galaxy as father and son). For her part, Rey does not give in to this temptation. She failed to convert Kylo Ren, but at least she didn’t destroy herself in the process. We also get an explanation as to Rey’s origins, solving a mystery that turned out to be a red herring – she’s a nobody! Taking into account where this information is coming from, this might not be true, but even if it is, I think it works. The Kylo and Rey dynamic has been the best part of this new trilogy so far, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it resolves (as it clearly won’t resolve the way the Luke/Vader relationship did).
  • I’ve already pointed out how bad Finn’s plotline is, but it’s worth reiterating that it absolutely doesn’t work. The whole trip to the Casino was at best redundant and at worst pointless and distracting. Benicio del Toro’s character was confusing and weird, and the whole didactic income inequality bit was unnecessary. You could probably excise the entirety of this little episode without losing anything from the story. The pairing with Rose could be fine, but it just falls flat because their task is pointless (and that whole relationship culminates with the biggest groaner line of the movie). Another challenge of incorporating the older characters with new ones is that we’re now juggling a lot of characters. This sort of ensemble thing is possible, but it’s really, really difficult, and Johnson couldn’t pull it off. It would have been better if they just found a way for Finn and Poe to collaborate or something.
  • Captain Phasma continues to underwhelm, in part because she’s just part of Finn’s story, so she felt shoehorned in for no real reason. Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo was fine and her sacrifice towards the end is a great, badass moment. Still, if she had just told Poe the plan earlier, or even that she had a plan at all, that might have been nice. Also, I think it would have been better if Admiral Akbar was the one to perform that badass turnabout maneuver, but that’s a minor point. Maz Kanata’s little sequence was pretty funny, actually, but it doesn’t fit at all with the movie and it’s part of Finn’s plot, so bleh. I loved the exasperated Jedi temple nuns who kept having to clean up after Rey. For the most part, I thought the humor in the movie worked well too. The Porgs were cute.
  • From a pure craft standpoint, the movie is beautiful and it sounds great. I need to see the movie again to really break down the visual language and make sure it’s not just style with no substance, but there’s a lot of standout sequences. The red salt sands were a nice touch (i.e. Luke’s projection doesn’t disturb the salt, a subtle hint at his nature) and quite beautiful. I’ll say the casting and all the performances were also very good, even when something isn’t working.
  • Some of my friends were complaining about the new Force powers in this one, and that apparently no one needs to be trained in the Force anymore. For the latter one, well, that was a problem that originated in The Force Awakens. For the former complaint, duh, the Force is just magic. No one complained when the Emperor started shooting lightning out of his fingers, they just thought it was cool. Similarly, I thought Luke’s projection was pretty badass. For all the spaceships and lasers, this isn’t science fiction, folks.

    If you try to come up with some sort of scientific explanation for it, you end up with bullshit like midichlorians.

  • Like The Force Awakens, there’s a lot of callbacks in The Last Jedi, but Johnson managed to put more of a twist on it. This isn’t wholly new, but it’s also not entirely reliant on nostalgia or rehashing the same old ideas and beats. This is exactly what I was looking forward to with new Star Wars movies, and one of the reasons I wasn’t in love with the inclusion of the original trilogy cast (along with the difficulties mentioned above). I would certainly like more originality in the future, but I think this gradual move is fine for now.
  • I really enjoyed the movie, but it still falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. The original trilogy still occupies the top, with these newer movies in the middle and the prequels way down at the bottom. I know this movie seems somewhat divisive, but I’m not entirely sure how widespread that is. Two of my friends were pretty annoyed with the movie, but everyone else I know seemed to enjoy it a lot (though all agree that Finn’s story blows). Critics seem to love it too, though the aggregate audience scores are more mixed. Also, while I like this a lot, it’s still my least favorite Rian Johnson movie. I am genuinely curious to see what he does with a new standalone Star Wars trilogy, one where he’s not bogged down by mandates and baggage from previous films… but I’d also he rather be making his own wholly original projects too.
  • Slightly off topic, but why hasn’t Disney released pristine, restored original cut Star Wars trilogy on Blu-Ray yet? The special editions have really not held up at all, and it would be great to have a good copy of the originals… (Update: I have been reliably informed that this was held up by rights issues, but now that Disney bought Fox, this might actually happen for reals. Godspeed, you greedy corporate goons!)

Not perfect, but quite enjoyable. Definitely looking forward to more Star Wars movies, even if I wonder when we’ll hit full saturation of this market… We’re starting to see cracks already, I don’t think it unreasonable to see a total bomb at some point in the series…

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