Before you go any further, this is a dissection of Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. There will be numerous spoilers after this point. Continue only if you have already seen the film, or if you actively plan on not watching it. You have been warned.
Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is the eighth linear installment of the Star Wars franchise. It follows Resistance Leader General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) as she and her troops evacuate the base that they were using in Episode VII. With the New Order, led by Sith master Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hot on their tails, ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) must find a way to facilitate the dwindling Resistance’s escape from the clutches of their hunters. Meanwhile, on the other side of the galaxy, Rey (Daisy Ridley) must convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to return to the Resistance and once again bring hope to the galaxy. It was written and directed by Rian Johnson and scored by the inimitable John Williams.
Let me begin by saying that this is not a bad film. Really. It’s not. I just don’t like it.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, this review can be exactly what a review should be: balanced. It should look at both the strengths and weaknesses of the film and evaluate the various components in an effort to inform readers as to what we’re looking at within the framework of Director / Screenwriter Rian Johnson’s vision. So is this a film that can be enjoyed by all? Does it reflect the director’s vision? Does it present a story that we have never seen before, complete with characters that we can relate to, situations that test characters’ resolve, and resolutions to the greater questions that we have? Simply? I think so; probably; certainly (at least in the Star Wars world), mostly, certainly, and… not at all.
It is the latter that fills me with the most vitriol, but I’ll get to that later. My focus at the onset of this review should be why people are choosing to spend their money on this movie: what makes it good. Not just mildly entertaining, as I found Justice League to be; not perfect or nearly perfect, as Captain America: Civil War is, but good. When all is said and done, this is exactly that: a good film.
Having grown up with Star Wars, every time I see these characters, a surge of nostalgic love leaps out of my chest. These are characters that are more than just what they are on screen – they are real. Luke is a brother, Leia is a sister / love interest (and gods does that feel odd to write), and Han is that jackass that we know will have our backs. Know how we know that? Because of Chewbacca. Would the towering Wookie so readily give himself over to the protection of Han if Han was really as a bad as he seems? I think not.
So let’s talk Chewbacca for a second. We love him, right? He is a big, hairy, walking carpet that we all want to go up to and hug, right? He is that friendly chum that will always look after us, and who laughs it up when Han gets his comeuppance. He is awesome. How can we not love him? But how much do we really see of him? No, that’s the wrong question. The real question is what his story arcs are like. I mean, Han? He goes from smuggler to last-second savior, to general, to man who would give it all up for Leia, and eventually, to father, and to smuggler again. Rather cyclical a story, isn’t it? But where was Chewbacca the whole time?
Right by Han’s side – a loyal friend who might get some good punches in, but who, ultimately is nothing more than his partner.
Prior to Last Jedi, we actually never saw Chewbacca get his own story arc. He was only the buddy, the pal, the chum, the family dog who is just there to make us “Awwwww.” One thing that Last Jedi does right is that Chewie gets his own arc. Granted, it’s a tiny one, but for all that, it is more than he had ever gotten before.
Visually, Johnson gave his audience a whole lot to ogle: beautiful crystal caverns, a glorious and vibrant casino, massive dreadnoughts of destruction, Rey’s exploration of the Dark Side, the island (which was set in the savagely beautiful Irish island of Skellig Michael), exciting space and land battles, and the visual feast of choreography that was the final duel. The grittiness of the film feels just right to match the styling of Episodes IV through VI, while the beauty of the film reaches the same pristine quality that George Lucas created so well in Episodes I to III. In this regards, it struck a fair balance between the various generations. But, to introduce a spark of darkness into the light of this section, I was woefully unimpressed with the fight in the throne room. Aspects of it – namely, the use of alternating weaponry – was really fun, but many other areas of that battle felt sloppy.
One other key area where the movie shined was in the handling of The Force. We always knew that Jedi were powerful, but this was the first time we actually got a real glimpse of the importance of balance in the Force. Snoke, Supreme Leader of the First Order (Andy Serkis), uses his mind powers to bridge two individuals. This creates a deepening tension and comradery between two who were once foes, and it also raises questions as to what might befall this seemingly omnipotent antagonist. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we get Luke’s ability to create holograms in fa-off locales, and even Yoda (Frank Oz), seems capable of manipulating the energies of the Force even in death. While the latter opens up a whole can of worms regarding a Jedi – or even a Sith’s – passage into the Force, such explorations of the Force are not unwelcome. Indeed, it makes these various Force wielders all the more impressive.
In the film, Luke’s character has taken on the duality of character that Yoda plays with when first he meets Luke on Dagobah. He is an erratic individual, at once isolated hermit and powerful force of individuality, while all the while coming across as either just this side or just that side of crazy. Mark Hamill nails this balance perfectly. If he is crazy, there is just enough of a glimmer of sanity to keep him grounded. If he isn’t crazy, there is just the right amount of madness in his eyes to make us question where his mind truly is. Remember, boys and girls, this is the man who brought the Joker (of Batman fame) to life in the ‘90s. Hamill has the chops, and boy does he show them off in this.
Whether it’s Johnson’s direction or his smarts to just let the various actors bring their characters to life as they see fit, the ensemble cast did a fantastic job. Daisy Ridley does determined with the best of them, but she does so with a genuine joy. Every moment that she uses her Force powers, Rey is giving in to it, she stretches out with her feelings, and man, can we feel it. Not even the danger of Kylo Ren can keep such enthusiasm from her, and believe me, the pair play off each other in this film far more than one would expect.
Adam Driver, as Kylo Ren, is a remarkable character foil for Ridley’s enthusiastic Rey. Where she is haunted by her past but is buoyed by the Force, he is haunted by the joys of his past and oppressed by the Dark Side. Driver is Linkin Park in the dark clothing of the Sith – an emo, brooding hulk, with so much depth and artistic presence that we are seduced to join him in his efforts to give himself over to the darkness. Yet, in Driver’s Ren, he harbors shame so deep inside that he will do everything to free himself of the familial love that he feels for Leia, Luke, and Han. In the process, he makes stupid decision after stupid decision. Ren is a failure more than he is a success, and in this way, the nuance of Driver’s performance really shines.
The late Fisher gave us a wonderful performance as General Leia. Strong, powerful, sympathetic, utterly unwilling to put up with anyone’s ego, and possessed of a sense of humor that was hinted at in Episodes IV through VI, but that she never really got a chance to play with. One other area that Fisher got to explore was the world of the Force. Whether or not Fisher would have been thrilled to play with the Force, for me, seeing her actually – finally – use the Force was too long in coming. Though she only directly used it twice, both times made her a formidable presence that propelled the Princess, the General, into the realm of Badass worthy of Wonder Woman’s legacy. Whether giving advice, gazing into people’s souls, or even of calling them on their idiocy, Fisher sold Leia for top dollar. Her passing this last year was heart-breaking, but she will live forever in the Force and in our hearts as one of the most heroic princesses and leaders that we could ever hope to have.
One of the biggest problems I had lay in the side quests. Finn was pigeonholed into the story, given a rather unconvincing love interest, and sent out to fall prey to the First Order, all while heroically attempting to get the means for the Resistance to escape. While I liked the glimpse of the seedy underbelly of this new post-Empire galaxy, I did not like how much it took us out of the overall story. I like Finn, don’t get me wrong, but he was largely useless in this film. His break from the First Order was a compelling move, but in this, his role was basically: wake up, meet girl, go on adventure with girl, fail, then fail at a kamikaze run, and finally, meet up with girl you might love? So what gives? Give him an awkward love triangle, complete with a secondary latcher-onner? This whole Rose / Finn love-story feels really forced, totally out of left field, and distinctly uncomfortable. Basically, it all comes down to Rose stopping his kamikaze run, then, when she is hurt by the collision of their two ships, she essentially tells him she loves him, and dies. But wait! She’s not dead! Finn is then left with a Stockholm Syndrome of responsibility to this girl. If he bails on her to be with Rey, he will be a callous jackass who refuses the love of a severely-injured woman whose love for him runs deep. But at the same time, if he decides to stay with Rose, his emotions will always be in question because she essentially took his heart hostage in her suicide-halting. Forevermore, he will be asking whether he loves her out of a perceived debt to her or because his feelings are pure. Such brutal an approach to a love-story comes across as evil, manipulative, and quite simply – loathsome. After this, I’d as soon see the pair written off.
Kind of like what Johnson does with many aspects of the previous seven movies. In Episode VII, we are given visions not just of Kylo Ren, but an entire contingent of Dark Jedi called the Knights of Ren. Who are these mysterious people, and how will they take the murder of their master? Sadly, like them, we get no glimmer of an answer. Indeed, the whole situation that forces Luke to abandon his new Jedi school and retreat to the farthest reaches of the galaxy happens between only Luke and Kylo Ren. At no point do we see Snoke’s interference or the presence of the Knights of Ren. Just like the scar on Kyle Ren’s face, this was tossed, adjusted, modified, like this is really just a world that could be adapted like the communications disc on the Millenniums Falcon. In making this film, Johnson did a whole lot of altering that were probably for the same aesthetic that he adjusted Ren’s injury: that it just didn’t fit, or it seemed goofy, or whatever other reason he had for it. And in the process, he tossed aside questions that – to me, at least – seem quite important: Who is Snoke? How did he get into the position of power that he is in? What happened to his face? Did Luke encounter Snoke before? Did he fail against him? Why did the studio let Rian Johnson throw away Lawrence Kasdan’s original outline? What was on that initial outline? What kind of movie would we have gotten if he had kept it? Why should we care about the relationship between Finn and Rose? Wasn’t the relationship between Finn and Rey enough? How did the Republic fall apart? How did Snoke come to power? How did Snoke start twisting Ben’s soul? Where are the Knights of Ren? Who are the Knights of Ren? Why make everyone so dispensable (Admiral Akbar, anyone? Every other member of the Resistance?)? Who was Maz Kanata fighting? And then there are the questions about Luke: Why would he throw away his entire past? His successes? Would his failure with Ben really be so powerful that he would retreat into self-pity and exile? What was he really afraid of?
Sadly, we never get any answers to any of these major questions. For a second installment where the heroes of old are dropped like coins in a slot machine, this did a very poor job of maintaining my interest. Indeed, the variety of sub-plots just made me impatient, only to deliver something entirely different from what the story-teller in me needed: answers. What we were finally left with was substantially inadequate for the sheer amount of questions inspired by this film.
In this article, author Aaron Ross Powell writes that this movie “makes the whole of the Star Wars saga less interesting and compelling.” He says that the end of Return of the Jedi is rendered completely moot. It leaves us asking “What did the Rebels accomplish?” They toppled the Emperor’s Empire, sure, but what else? Not really anything – and certainly not the creation of a New Senate.
Sure, underdog stories are popular, maybe even more exciting than setting up or continuing a new government, but it is one thing to make a group of underdogs; it is another thing entirely to undermine everything that was created beforehand. In watching this film, I couldn’t help but consider Chinese history. When the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in the early-mid 20th Century, it was Chang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang who helped transition that land into the more modern China. However, as history shows, it is not Chang Kai-Shek’s revolutionaries who rose to power in the wake of their revolution – it was Chairman Mao Zedong and his Communist Party. Is that what Johnson was trying to do here? Was he hoping to parallel the creation of Taiwan in the Republic, only in making it so that unlike Chang’s KMD, Leia’s revolutionaries has no sanctuary to retreat to?
This is a taste of the overarching failures that permeate this story. Luke failed to maintain his composure in regards to his nephew, and in doing so, he forced Ben’s turn to the Dark Side. Leia’s great plan to escape toward the planet Crait was foiled by an informant. Finn and Rose failed to get the code-cracker. Chewbacca failed to turn the porgs into food (a lesser failure to be sure). Snoke failed to have the foresight to see the machinations in his student. Kylo Ren failed to convince Rey to join him. Rey failed to turn Kylo Ren back to the light. Hell, even Yoda failed to destroy the Jedi books (though, knowing the little scamp, that was probably all grand design). Everyone failed at something in this. Everyone, even Vice Admiral Holdo – who was given one of the coolest acts in the whole movie – failed at something, namely, winning over the total support of her soldiers and in preventing Poe Dameron’s mutiny to happen.
It is because the whole movie follows failure in many different incarnations that it was almost inevitable that Rian Johnson’s own failures in this film really come out. Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) is quoted as being “pretty much fundamentally [in disagreement] with every choice [Rian Johnson] made for this character [Luke Skywalker].” While he has gone on to explain his statement more, his gut reaction is not one to be ignored. In fact, to many people, this film will come as a gut punch of inconsistency, some very poor characterization, and paper-thin set-ups. With Luke, this comes across as a single moment of weakness that utterly defined every subsequent moment of his life, leading to his exile, and – in quite an extreme action – his severance from the Force. While sure, doing so keeps all the bad people away, but why? No. Really.
To what end? Does he just want to live like a hermit? Does he think that Kylo Ren and his master, Darth Snoke will track him down, discover the island where the first Jedi got their start? It is wholly nonsensical in the way that cutting off your arm because you got a splinter would be. Hamill was right: the Luke who faced down Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine would never go to such extremes.
This is, without a doubt, the biggest problem that I see in this movie. The problem is that it is big – like Death Star II big – like Starkiller Base big. It is such a glaring problem that even the awesomeness of Luke’s projection at the end is almost cheapened. Yes, I loved that. I loved Luke’s final confrontation with the Big Bad at the end. It was not only visually very well-done, but it was a brilliant emotional solution to the problem at hand. The choreography of the fight, the manipulation, the peace that Luke was in through the whole scene, and even Kylo Ren’s reactions were spot on. It was like this was the image that Rian Johnson had in mind when he created this film, and everything else was just a means of getting there. Unfortunately, he took the worst possible route to get to it, and in the process of it, he almost ruined the payoff by making a poorly-contrived arc for Luke to follow, one that stripped a Jedi Master not only of his wisdom, but also of his skill (Literally. Though like a Monty Python character, he did get better by the end).
Overall, while this review might be quite positive, it is the same kind of review that I would give of Dumb and Dumber – a movie that I utterly loathe. I hate every single moment of that film, I hate the jokes, I hate the characters, and – its biggest crime of all – I hate that it makes me laugh. The movie quite simply hurts. Yet, in its execution, it is brilliant and very deserving of its ranking as one of the greatest comedies ever. I honestly feel that Last Jedi will always feel that way to me, too. It is a really good movie. It does – or seemingly does – all the right things. It gets the feels out of me, and I react as I should, but I still hate it. I hate the transparency of Johnson’s efforts, and how much it actually belittles and compromises the efforts of the individuals within it. The biggest problem that I have with it is its blatant dismissal of everything that came before it. While it is true that the real world tends towards such wiping of history (resurgence of Nazis, anyone?), doing so with something like Star Wars is just a cheap means of avoiding any potential inconsistencies that Johnson wanted to create with this new film.
There are two potential solutions to this problem – the first could come in the Blue-Ray / DVD release. One thing that Johnson has said about this film is that he had to cut massive chunks from the final theatrical version. One of the most notable results of doing such is what we got with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. If one were to watch the theatrical cut of the film, and compare it with the extended version, audiences would be given a far richer and far deeper experience. After watching The Last Jedi, I was left with a whole lot of questions that had no nods, no answers, and no allusion to in the film. The above questions are large ones that deal directly with the continuity of the overarching story, and a total absence of answers regarding them just annoys me. That said, it is possible that many of the answers that I’m looking for will be in the Blue-Ray / DVD. I’m not going to hold my breath, but certainly, if Johnson manages to provide us with answers to these glaring plot holes, it would be a step towards assuaging my vitriol for this movie.
If it turns out that Johnson doesn’t give us a Director’s Cut in the disk versions of this film, then I’ll pretty much avoid further installments of this franchise, much in the way that I’m doing with The Transformers. When the first live-action Transformers film came out in 2007, I had to see it in the theaters. I did, and it filled me with utter joy. It was fun, exciting, and I could connect with the principal characters. Then came the second one, Revenge of the Fallen, which nearly made me throw up. Granted, it was created during the Writer’s Strike of 2008, but it shattered my trust in the franchise. I was a cautious beast going into Dark of the Moon, like I was hoping for something better, but I was expecting assault and abuse. Luckily, it was largely harmless; but the pain came in the 4th installment, Age of Extinction, a movie that just… bored me. Maybe it was franchise fatigue setting in, but Extinction not only made me never want to watch it again, but it actively killed any interest in seeing the fifth and future Transformers installment: The Last Knight. Reviews of this latter film were pretty critical, and for once, I listened before shelling out my $15. In fact, one of my students put it best, “If you go to see it, do it in 3D, because it’s not worth it otherwise.” I’m glad I waited. When I finally saw it on TV (for free), my student was completely right. Every single epic monstrosity in the movie (set piece, character design, explosion, scream, shout, etc.) was pretty, but boring. I was unable to find a single thing to invest my emotions in. I fear that after watching Last Jedi, I’ll be similarly reticent to watch. At least, not right away. If Johnson includes the Extended Cut of the film in the DVD’s, then maybe I’ll be more willing to tackle further episodes up front – as in, opening weekend.
In summary, The Last Jedi was not a horrible film – indeed, it was quite good in many respects. But just because it is a good film doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good Star Wars film. But maybe it is a good Star Wars film… it is not for me to tell you whether or not it was. So perhaps the best way to end this is by saying that it is – without a doubt – a poor film for Luke Skywalker, and being beaten over the head by the insensitivity that it treated him created a response in me normally reserved for the worst of cinema.