Two years ago Star Wars roared back into the collective consciousness of the world as The Force Awakens dawned a new era for the saga. The installment left many viewers speechless and eagerly anticipating this return to a galaxy far, far away. Luckily in this era of Disney’s rule, the wait was only 2 years (with a nice side of Rogue One in the middle) for Rian Johnson’s addition, The Last Jedi.
First, let’s start historically. It is clear that the original “Rebel” generation was unsuccessful in passing on it’s values to the next, as the galaxy has quickly descended back into the universe of pre-prequel. A government that became ineffectual, split into populists and centrists, all the while allowing the First Order to rise, unchallenged because, they’re not really a threat. “Relax, the First Order is the JV squad”. The greed and corruption in the galaxy has returned to what we saw in the prequels, as people line their pockets with ill gotten gain, selling weapons to the highest bidder, on any side. It all boils down to this one truth not being clearly passed on, “freedom isn’t free”, and sadly there are too few in the galaxy who seem to understand that.
Where are you getting all of this, you might ask? Well, not from the movies. All of this has been cobbled together from the ancillary materials that have come out surrounding this new sequel trilogy and that’s only, vaguely been hinted at in the films themselves. The main issue here is that The Force Awakens did very little to set up the context of the galaxy and now The Last Jedi suffers even worse because of it.
Think back to the Original Trilogy, as you watch those movies, you have an instinctive understanding of who all the characters are as well as the overall context of the movies because Lucas based them on archetypes that we know. The heroes’ journey, an evil empire and a a small group of freedom fighters looking to rescue the galaxy. In the Prequels, it’s the fall of a Republic and the story of a man that cannot let go and will do anything to hold on to what he “loves”. Each of these previous trilogies gave us the context we needed to know about the universe as a whole and the characters so that we could understand the journey we were on.
And here’s where this all comes into play, not just with the world building but with the characters. Not only do we not truly understand the state of the galaxy, but we also don’t know the history of these characters and it’s clear the writers of the film don’t either. Say what you will about Lucas, he always knew the history and the future of his creation. Some details may change along the way, but the journey ended up much the same. The same can be said for Rowling with Harry Potter, she knew the end from the beginning, so she understood what each character needed to go through to get them to that end.
It’s been clear from The Force Awakens and now through to The Last Jedi that there is no knowledge of what the end game is for their characters. Writing 101, if you don’t know their past and future, you don’t know how to write their “present”. You can see this in the all of the characters. Take Snoke. We have absolutely no idea who or what he is. We don’t know how he came to power or seduced Ben Solo, he’s a vague phantom menace so that when he goes out like a punk in this movie… well lets just say fans may be arguing whose death was better, Snoke or Boba Fett. Oh and remember Phasma? Well don’t worry, you don’t really need to, turns out she wasn’t all that important any way.
Ben suffers from this same problem we saw with Snoke, he’s completely ill defined and so is his “fall”. As with The Force Awakens, there is still no context to his story other than him having darkness in himself and somehow, Snoke temps him to the dark side. It’s all so nebulous that when he turns on Snoke, I don’t know what to make of it. There is no weight to his decision because I don’t know enough of the history of the character to actually care.
As bad as this issue is for Ben, my first impression was it was worse for Rey. The ultimate mystery box seemed to still be very much an enigma. The answer we get about her family was vague and unconvincing, I still don’t believe she’s a nobody and while I am frustrated that they skirted the issue of her family, I can see why they sidestepped that to make the focus, who she chooses to be. Her struggle for identity is fascinating. The questions of who we are, is it a product of bloodline, upbringing or are we a sum of our choices and experiences is brilliant. I think the movie comes down on the side of choices and experiences and the idea that personal responsibility is the answer is outstanding. Rey shows us that even though we are personally responsible for ourselves, we are also responsible for those around us, to look after one another, teach each other, guide one another, pass on hope to one another and the chance of redemption.
The most damaged in all of this is Luke Skywalker. We know Luke’s past, how he saved his father, who’d effectively become space Hitler, because he believed there was still good in him. By the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke is the culmination of the collected wisdom of Anakin, Obi-Wan and Yoda but greater because he avoids the mistakes of the past and forges a true, new path for the Jedi. But then, we get nothing. Oh we know Luke started a new Jedi Order and thought he could help Ben, only to be scared by his raw power and darkness. Wait, really? This is the same guy who redeemed Vader but can’t find a way to help Ben? Luke was right, “This is not going to go the way you think.” It’s as if the history of Luke has been forgotten. Now, I get the idea that Luke, like Obi-Wan, feels the pain of taking too much on, but at least Obi-Wan didn’t try to murder his student in his sleep and gave him a chance to change before delivering the “killing” blow.
Now, all that said, the lesson Luke learns about failure being part of life and how to deal with it, is actually a timely one. In life, failure is the best teacher. Yet, again, Luke’s past should have prepared him for this, his knowledge about Anakin and the help of force ghosts like Yoda, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, should have been able to help shepherd him through this ordeal, instead of running away to an island to die, screaming, “get off my lawn” to anyone who comes calling.
It is interesting that Kylo and Luke are actual after the same thing, Kylo wants to burn it all down and so does Luke, but for different reasons. Kylo because of his anger at everyone and everything and Luke because of his own hubris. He sees the Jedi as a failure, as well as himself, yet he’s blaming the wrong thing. In the end, it’s people and their choices that lead them to the dark or to the light, not the teachings of the Jedi. The Jedi texts and code are only a guide, that applied properly, promote peace, prosperity and hope in the galaxy. Over a thousand generations is not a bad run. Even though Luke gives Rey a lesson in humility in relation to the Force, it seems much to learn, he still has.
All of the issues I do have, stem from there being no direction for this trilogy. With no clear plan or endgame, this is what is left, each installment trying to make sense of the last, leading to it not always having fullest depth or payoff. This is post modern story telling at its worst, characters and plot without history and context that could have been more cohesive with planning.
Pass on What You Have Learned
Just as the galaxy and the characters in the movie lack context, the original characters fail to pass on their wisdom to the next generation and Luke is the biggest offender here. He seem incapable of passing on what he has learned as Yoda told him to. He’s driven by fear to almost kill Ben, and then the same fear leads him to reject training Rey for most of the movie. When he finally does train her, there is no depth or true substance to what he offers. You’d think someone with access to the original Jedi texts and a few good force ghosts would be able to provide more guidance than what we see.
Just because one has talent at something, does not mean they don’t have to practice, be taught and hone their skills. Rey is never given any of this, in the end, she’s forced to intuit who she should be for herself and from who Luke was, in the Original Trilogy. This may fit into the post modern world of “make your own way and your own truth”, but it’s not Star Wars. Lucas himself said,
“Star Wars has always struck a cord with people. There are issues of loyalty, of friendship, of good and evil…I mean, there’s a reason this film is so popular. It’s not that I’m giving out propaganda nobody wants to hear…Knowing that the film was made for a younger audience, I was trying to say, in a simple way, that there is a God and that there is both a good and bad side. You have a choice between them, but the world works much better if you’re on the good side.”
Lucas is clear, wisdom is meant to be passed on, the wisdom of failures and of triumphs. It’s what both Obi-Wan and Yoda both do for Luke. Yes, they were wrong about Anakin, but that does not mean they didn’t have wisdom to share. Proverbs reminds us, “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” And the place to find wisdom is through, as Job reminds us, “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” Lucas was once asked how he felt about the human condition and he said,
I am very cynical, as a result, I think the defense I have against it is to be optimistic and to think people are basically good, although I know in my heart they’re not.
It is clear that he understands that wisdom and goodness must be passed on and taught because they are not something we are born with’. Sadly Rey is left to find her own path, alone. Hopefully the books she saved from the force temple will give her some guidance, now that she is the last Jedi.
Luckily Rey seems to instinctively understand what Luke did at the end of Return of the Jedi, the Jedi are the embodiment of hope and light in the galaxy. Rey allows people to be defined by their choices, not their bloodline or possible history. She does not lose hope in that person’s chance at redemption until they make the choice to turn away from it completely. At that point, she stands on the side of the light, in it’s defense and in the defense of others. I think this is what is frustrating, is that I still feel like Luke should have been the one to show her this and he does, it’s just the Luke from the past not the present.
The only one in the movie doing any actual mentoring is Leia. Her relationship with Poe is a good example of passing on what you have learned. She gives Poe responsibility and then takes the time to discipline him, instruct him and trust him all over again when needed. Sadly the story is muddled with the interjection of Admiral Holdo, but it’s still the best example of someone passing on what they have learned to the next generation and it actually changing the character being taught.
The plot of the movie is all over the place. The most glaring issue is with the Resistance story line. They don’t seem to know what to do with them, in the least and it leads to the worst “chase” scenes since Speed 2. There is no logic to what is happening. In space, there is no weight, so it’s all about thrust. If the First Order ships can create enough thrust, they could catch up to the Resistance ships. Another possibility is having a ship jump into the system, in “front” of the Resistance (it’s three dimensional space so there really is no “front”) and take them out. Now here is where context comes in again. Because we have no idea how big the First Order is, are we to assume that all the ships chasing the Resistance are it? And even if they are, could they just not jump “ahead” of the Resistance fleet and be done with it?
Another massive plot issue is why Admiral Holdo refuses to tell Poe and the rest of the Resistance her plan. Does she suspect a saboteur or a spy and that’s why? Well, we’ll never know, because the movie gives us no indication what she is thinking. It just creates a bad plot reason for Poe, Finn and Rose to come up with their alternative plan, to give Finn something to do.
As mentioned above, in the previous section, context creates a maelstrom of issues revolving around the plot points between Luke, Snoke, Rey and Ben. This leaves us with not always feeling the fullest weight behind who they are, the choices they make and who they become as the movie ends.
I enjoy the music, the effects are wonderful except that Yoda puppet, not too keen on his look. The design work is not bad here. Canto Bight is cool, but why is it in the movie and why is that not the story for the Resistance? Going to Canto Bight to try and rustle up support for the cause seems like a much more intriguing idea than the universe’s slowest chase. And would it kill the sequel trilogy to have some aliens we know from the rest of the series? What’s it going to take to get a freaking twi’lek in this series?
Another point of contention in the movie is the humor. Lucasfilm seems to be taking a page from the Marvel playbook and has inserted humor everywhere. Humor in itself is not a bad thing and the Star Wars saga is replete with funny moments, but The Last Jedi pushes it too far. So much of the humor that works in Star Wars is the dry, sarcastic kind that is exemplified in The Empire Strikes Back. Here, it feels forced in many places such as the constant porg jokes, Poe’s ribbing of Hux or Finn waking up in a clear suit and leaking fluids everywhere as he walks down the hall. It just does not feel as organic as it needs to, to truly work. The Star Wars franchise has it’s own rules on how things work in it and as Gareth Edwards said, “There’s such a fine line in Star Wars, if you go just slightly to the left it’s not Star Wars, it’s another sci-fi movie that doesn’t feel right. And if you go slightly to the right, you’re just copying what George did. So trying to navigate this thing where it’s new but feels fresh was like the dance that was the process of making the film.”
The Last Jedi suffers under the burden left to it by The Force Awakens. With no clear trajectory or plan for this trilogy, Johnson works to forge his own path but it’s one fraught with plot holes and many times, muddied character motivations. The universe, as it stands, lacks cohesion, history or context and it’s hurting the story. I love that Johnson tired to be different and some of it really works now that I have seen it a second time, while other parts still fall very flat. I love some of the moments in the movie, especially Luke’s noble end and the strong work done with the Rey/Ben/Luke story but Abrams has his work cut out for him with Episode IX. I never thought I’d say this, but J.J. Abrams, you’re our only hope. The Last Jedi is rated 2.5 out of 5 stars.