by Bob Cesca
For the last several days, I’ve been debating myself about the new Star Wars movie. Frankly, I’m happy to be thinking about a somewhat controversial subject which, in this case, doesn’t involve nuclear war with North Korea, or a despotic, delusional president who allowed his party to strip healthcare from 8.9 million children and 13 million adults. There are zero real-world ramifications linked to the success or failure of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and I hasten to underscore that I’m barely taking this whole thing seriously.
That said, I’m a Gen X man who came of age with the original trilogy of Star Wars films, then who began a family during the rollout of the infamous prequel trilogy, allowing me to see the 1999-2005 series of films through the eyes of my Millennial step-daughter. Star Wars is something I’m passionate about, both as an obsessed child with all of the old Kenner toys and as a partly-obsessed 46-year-old adult whose toys have been replaced with statues, maquettes and a lot of bookmarks leading to Star Wars fansites.
For better or worse, I seriously care about these stories. They’re inextricably woven into the fabric of my personality like any iconic piece of music or compelling art — a phenomenon that clicks perfectly and harmoniously in sync with my brain waves. There’s something endlessly attractive about the mythology of the Star Wars universe, the details of which I could elaborate upon for hours and hours. More than anything else, though, I’m emotionally invested in the Skywalker legend and the magic that sparked the family’s tumultuous narrative. I’m so invested, too, that I’ve been known to ignore some of the filmmaking glitches in the various incarnations of the movies, mainly the prequels.
The Last Jedi has a lot of glitches. Some of them I can’t shake. And you might’ve noticed that fans are more divided about this movie than any other Star Wars film since 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Some of the controversy is stupid, other aspects of it are valid.
Let’s start, though, with what I loved about the movie.
I’m passionately in love with everything involving the new hero of the saga, Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, and her interactions with Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. Both Ridley and Hamill turn in two of the best performances of any Star Wars movie so far. Hamill’s performance was almost shockingly strong. The same goes for Adam Driver’s villain, Kylo Ren, aka. Ben Solo. The adjoining stories of Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker and Rey would’ve made for an excellent movie by themselves — a movie I would’ve graded pretty close to an “A+.” Suffice to say, I’m a Jedi vs Sith junkie and, here, The Last Jedi did no wrong, especially the culmination of the story in which Kylo suddenly murders his master, Supreme Leader Snoke, while facing down Rey and then joining forces with her to kill Snoke’s guards.
Indeed, in every movie, including the prequels, there are story threads that are similarly gripping. But here, we were treated to new twists on old tropes that elevated it beyond anything we’ve seen or expected. (Put a pin in that thought.)
I also enjoyed the comedy, which stands out here more than any movie since Han and Leia’s snappy, sexually-charged banter in The Empire Strikes Back. Although I noticed that I was the only dude laughing out loud at Oscar Isaacs’ Poe Dameron as he pranked Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux with a bit of cellphone humor that seemed like a modern take on Han’s “slight weapons malfunction” bit in the original movie.
I also laughed out loud that Chewbacca actually murdered, barbecued and nearly ate a Porg — a too-cute penguin/pug species that lives on Luke’s Jedi island. Star Wars has always featured a patina of dark-ish gallows humor, and the Chewie bit with the sad Porgs fits perfectly within the legend. Another funny line was delivered by John Boyega’s Finn when the Millennium Falcon appears — something like, “[Kylo Ren] hates that ship!” Nice.
Of course, not everyone likes the comedy. I think some viewers are superimposing the Disney/Marvel universe’s approach onto Star Wars, forgetting that Star Wars has always been funny.
Oh, and I literally got chills seeing Luke interact with both Yoda and Leia one last time. Probably the most emotional moments of the saga since Han Solo’s death in Awakens.
Now, here’s what I hated.
I found myself growing increasingly annoyed with the central plot of the movie in which the Resistance fleet is a sitting duck within range of the First Order fleet. Through most of the movie, we’re talking about an uncharacteristically slow chase. Watching paint dry — that slow. We’re led to believe here that the armada of Star Destroyers can’t utterly annihilate the much smaller, limping-along Resistance fleet sitting right in front of them, even though we’ve seen countless similar interactions end quickly with ships being blown up all over the place. Simply put: I just didn’t buy the central jeopardy of the film. Since when is a fleet of Star Destroyers incapable of pulverizing a smaller and crippled group of ships? Lacking a believable crisis created a gigantic hole in the fabric of the movie. I’m talking about a prequel-sized hole that reminded me of the unseen and unexplained jeopardy of the Trade Federation invasion in Episode I.
I also hated, hated, hated the pointless story in which Finn and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose set out to find a code-breaker who might disarm the First Order’s mcguffin: a device that allows the First Order to track ships through hyperspace. This leads Finn and Rose to a very prequel-ish casino and eventually into a jail cell where they just happen to bump into Benicio del Toro, who’s easily the most pointless character of the new trilogy (followed closely by Captain Phasma who, even though she’s played by the great Gwendoline Christie, has almost nothing to do). Anyway, Rose and Finn don’t find the code-breaker and end up being double-crossed by Benicio. Eventually, Finn and Rose end up back with the Resistance as if none of the casino story had ever happened. Wasted time. And I grew more annoyed. It was an agitating error in storytelling that reminded me of the inexplicable journey through the planet core in Episode I or the confounding Geonosis sequence with Obi-Wan in Episode II.
Speaking of pointless story elements, Leia is sucked into the void of space early in the movie. She uses the Force to revive herself then to float back into the ship, injured enough to incapacitate her, allowing Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo to take command — a character we’ve never seen and don’t care about. There’s some interesting events here in which Poe is accused of treason. But, of course, it doesn’t matter and has no consequences. Leia returns and takes over again. Poe is freed. And Holdo, again, a character we don’t care about, sacrifices herself for the fleet by using hyperspace to dice up the entire First Order armada. A cool move, but one that raises the question: why didn’t they do that in the first place? And, knowing that Carrie Fisher tragically died shortly after completing the movie, why didn’t Leia sacrifice herself, perhaps after elevating one of our heroes to a leadership role?
Then there was the ending, which was, in a word, horrendous. Luke shows up to save the day, but as a Force projection of his younger self (the real Hamill with a darker beard and short hair). The projection fools Kylo Ren (who should’ve sensed the use of the Force, by the way), allowing The Resistance, which is trapped inside an old rebel base with no way out, time to escape. But scanners show there’s not a back door or even a cave — until our heroes notice poorly rendered cartoon ice dogs fleeing through, yes, a secret exit. Rey shows up after somehow escaping Snoke’s ship and uses the Force to remove a ridiculously-placed pile of stones that are blocking the exit. Rey lifts the rocks with the Force and everyone escapes. Roll credits. Why didn’t Luke show up in person? How could he give Han’s dice to Leia if he was just a projection? And why did Luke’s effort cause him to suddenly die and vanish? And why were all those AT-ATs deployed but never used? The whole thing looked like writer/director Rian Johnson ran out of ideas and just used a Star Wars mad-libs to finish the story.
Much has been discussed online about two of the main themes of the movie: failure and abandoning “old things” as Kylo Ren says in one of the best scenes of any Star Wars film. I loved this concept, and I assumed they’d use it to inform the plot or trigger new events. Instead, both themes seem to have been cop-outs in storytelling. Excuses for the gaping holes in the filmmaking.
Yes, failure is solid theme, just as it was in Empire. But failure should be accompanied by lessons or consequences of some sort that fit into the story. In Empire, Luke foolishly tries to save his friends while confronting Vader and fails in both endeavors. He loses a hand and is nearly killed in the process while Boba Fett escapes with Han anyway, setting up the entire first third of Return of the Jedi. In The Last Jedi, Rey fails to turn Kylo Ren to the good side and yet exactly nothing happens as a result. Kylo is still evil and the Resistance is still in jeopardy and Rey is unharmed enough to save everyone in the end. Maybe Episode IX will address this, but given the predominance of anticlimactic plot threads, I’m not hopeful. (I would’ve loved the Luke/Rey/Kylo plot thread even more if Rey had acquiesced to the Dark Side and teamed up with Kylo. After all, Luke, Obi-Wan and Padme have all been tempted to team up with the Sith, etc, and refused, so why not try it now? Instead, nothing. No consequences.)
The adjoining concept of abandoning the “old things” likewise doesn’t pay off at all. I love that Johnson wanted to subvert expectations by not hitting the same beats as previous films. But he seems to have done it merely as a breaching of the fourth wall, as a comment on the saga, and especially The Force Awakens, rather than as a storytelling device with set-ups and payoffs. It was the self-consciousness of the script that yanked me out of the movie once I realized that it was basically a series of anticlimaxes passed off as being meaningful statements about, presumably, the rise of the Millennial generation.
Basically, Johnson told us that many of the things we’ve come to like about Star Wars were, I don’t know, disposable. Again, I like trying new things, but they should make sense and, worse, these new things didn’t pay off. After trying to convince Rey to join him, Kylo simply returned to being the bad guy and Rey returned to being tangentially linked to the good guys. I liked that Snoke wasn’t linked to the old movies. I liked that he was killed. I liked that Kylo and Rey teamed up briefly. If only it led somewhere within the narrative threads of the movie.
The relationships between our new characters Rey, Poe and Finn were subverted as well. Indeed, it just occurred to me that Poe and Rey don’t even meet until the end of The Last Jedi. The set-up of Poe and Finn as pals, perhaps our first gay characters in Star Wars, is abandoned mostly. The romantic relationship between Finn and Rey, which led Finn to being nearly killed by Kylo Ren at the end of Awakens, was abandoned, too.
Along those lines, it wasn’t just the tropes of the original trilogy or even the prequels that were subverted — Johnson seemed to reject many of the threads established in Awakens, too. So, those of us who were told we should invest in these relationships during Awakens were kind of trolled by The Last Jedi. This was a Star Wars movie that hated Star Wars movies including even J.J. Abrams’and Lawrence Kasdan’s Awakens.
The Last Jedi, with the exception of the Luke/Rey/Kylo material, was a series of cop-outs and weak story ideas that led nowhere.
Some viewers have explained the movie’s problems as being something only Millennials understand. It seems as though they mean the abandoning of old things, but I honestly didn’t mind that aspect of the movie in theory. But it sounds like we’re being told that Millennials are also fine with pointlessness and anticlimaxes in their Star Wars movies. I find that difficult to believe. There are some things that ought to be universal and multigenerational. Rejecting the ways of the past? Fine. But rejecting story meaningless story threads? That seems like shoddy filmmaking.
We’re also talking about a Millennial generation that grew up with the awkwardness of the prequels. In that regard, perhaps the new generation of Star Wars fandom has been conditioned to accept some of the more off-balance aspects of the saga’s craftsmanship. The prequels were the formative and primary Millennial frames of reference for Star Wars, their introduction to the universe in the same way the original trilogy introduced Gen X to the saga. So, I suppose I get that, too.
I think, though, my dissatisfaction stems not from the rejection of the old ways, but that it happens in a series about a very specific group of Skywalker family-related characters who exist and grow within a story that’s literally about many of the tropes being rejected. It’d be like Johnson rejecting the dichotomy of the Nazis and the Allies in the middle of a World War II miniseries that specifically follows the story of the Nazis and the Allies. In other words, perhaps Johnson’s rejection theme would have been better suited in a standalone Star Wars movie, or at the beginning of the next non-Skywalker-related trilogy, which Johnson is slated to helm, and not within a nine-episode arc about the Skywalker family. Or perhaps his rejection theme should’ve elevated the story rather than acting as an excuse for a lack of good ideas.
I’m afraid that The Last Jedi, despite a solid half of the movie being among the best Star Wars has offered to date, will ultimately be regarded as being just a notch above the prequels, given its annoying flaws. I can’t even imagine how Mr. Plinkett will savage this one. As a lifelong fan, it makes me alternatively excited, disappointed and angry, especially knowing how good it could’ve been, but at the end of the day, the six-year-old in me, with his Kenner action figures and Luke Skywalker bedsheets, is happy we’re still being treated to new Star Wars stories. And we remain dedicated fans despite the saga’s many false starts and mistakes — a testament to the power of the mythology and the fact that when Star Wars works, there’s nothing quite like it.