WARNING: The very premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far.
Starkiller Base has been destroyed, but the First Order continues their campaign undaunted. Having disposed of the Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke has deployed his forces in order to subjugate the galaxy. The only thing standing in their way is General Leia Organa’s Resistance fighters. Although certain that her brother will rejoin the fight and light a spark of hope in the Resistance, their existence has been exposed. It is only a matter of time before Snoke’s forces overwhelms the Resistance.
Although J. J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens was a resounding success, it did draw a bit of criticism for trying to emulate A New Hope – the film that started it all. Although I feel it was partially necessary in order for the franchise to regain the goodwill it lost during the lackluster prequel trilogy, it is a valid criticism. It’s like scanning someone else’s picture. You get something that vaguely resembles the genuine article, yet lacks its essence. Worst of all, you could easily have used that piece of paper to create an original work of your own – something far more valuable than a copy of something people already like.
With The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson made it no secret that he wanted to challenge his audience. He wasn’t going to settle for making The Last Jedi a parallel to The Empire Strikes Back; he set his sights higher. The result was a film that won the universal admiration of contemporary critics. Any of them slightly skeptical about The Force Awakens were instantly won over by The Last Jedi. Some of them even went as far as declaring it the single greatest film in the franchise. There were various reasons as to why critics adored the film, but there was a common thread among their assessments – that Mr. Johnson so thoroughly subverted everyone’s expectations, injecting the franchise with much needed originality. Was he successful? I definitely know where I stand if asked that question, but it because it wouldn’t make sense without context, it’s best to have my review provide the answer.
The film begins when General Leia orders an evacuation from Planet D’Qar. As mentioned in the opening text crawl, the Resistance members are in dire straits. Even if they destroyed Starkiller Base, they couldn’t prevent it from wiping out the Republic along with its entire neighboring planetary system in the Hosnian Cataclysm. In fact, while destroying Starkiller Base was a major triumph for the Resistance, it also means they are exposed to the brunt of the First Order’s wrath. Because they are clearly outmatched, the Resistance must escape to fight another day.
During this time, ace pilot Poe Dameron manages to shoot down various First Order spacecraft. Leia orders Poe to retreat. He ignores this order, instead feeling a better idea would be to take down a powerful enemy dreadnought. To do this, Poe acts as a messenger for General Hux as the latter is giving another one of his grand villain speeches. He then proceeds to stall Hux for a long enough time for him to charge his booster. The bombers follow his lead, and they successfully destroy the dreadnought, allowing the remaining resistance members to escape. Tragically, one pilot loses her life in the process.
I have to say that as the first significant battle scene, it is very impressively filmed. Mr. Johnson was especially proud of the research that went into the film. As the Galactic Empire, and by extension, the First Order, was primarily inspired by the Axis Powers of the Second World War, he saw fit to directly hark back to the era with this sequence. The Resistance bombers are a direct reference to real-life ones. They even expend their payloads in the exact same fashion – by opening up a bay that drops the bombs vertically.
There is little doubt that a lot of care and attention went into this scene. It also marks the exact moment the film takes a massive nosedive in quality from the previous installment. While I’m sure paying homage to the Allies who fought in the Second World War sounded great on paper, it simply cannot be ignored that the ships are not optimized for their situation. The bay doors open, somehow avoiding exposing its pilot to the vacuum of space so that the bombs drop down onto the dreadnought. However, as any kid who has ever flown a spacecraft in a video game could tell you, directions are completely meaningless in space due to a lack of gravity. Despite this, the bombs fall as though they were subject to Earth’s gravitational pull instead of floating ineffectually into the nonexistent breeze. This could imply the dreadnought has a gravitational pull comparable to the planet Earth. This is unlikely given that, when you think about it, gravity is not a strong force – a magnet the size of your finger can easily overcome it. For that matter, it could mean the bombs themselves were magnetized, but if so, they probably would have fallen much faster. Either way, it doesn’t seem as though Mr. Johnson was thinking through his implications.
It’s true that Star Wars has always taken creative liberties with outer space – most notably, how interstellar battles are still as noisy as ever. However, this premise stretches the suspension of disbelief way too far. It’s especially nonsensical because the original trilogy prominently featured Rebel ships known as Y-Wings. These vehicles were made exactly to address the need for bombers in a space setting. Making use of ion cannons and energy-based bombs, they could get the job done without gravity. One might argue that the Resistance, being in such a bad way, couldn’t afford Y-Wings, but this explanation is fragile. I don’t think it’s unfair to assume ships resembling B-17 Bombers would be obsolete when people began waging wars in space. This would be like if a natural disaster hit a city in the twenty-first century, and in order for the local news reporters to write a cover story, they were forced to find and use typewriters.
The exact manner in which Poe stalls for time is highly problematic as well. While it does start off legitimately funny as a result of Poe’s audacity, it eventually devolves into what amounts to a highbrow “yo mama” joke, which by 2017, was rightly considered outdated and trite. While it seems like a comparatively minor slight compared to the existence of the B-17 Bombers in space, it is very much at odds with the film’s tone. The Resistance is in danger of being wiped out entirely, yet Mr. Johnson felt it was appropriate to have the characters joke around at inopportune moments. While one might be willing to forgive the flaws in this opening scene as artistic liberties, I can assure you that they are not isolated incidents.
For having defied orders and attacking the dreadnought, Poe is slapped in the face by his superior and subsequently demoted. This begins a trend that runs throughout the entire rest of the film. While previous films would have had Poe’s superiors commend him for his quick thinking, Mr. Johnson subverts our expectations by implementing surprisingly realistic consequences. What makes this particular instance insufferable is that the dreadnought would have obliterated Leia’s Resistance cruiser in seconds had Poe followed her orders. They were in a situation in which they had no good options, and Poe’s just happened to be the least bad. Despite proving his skill time and again, he is unceremoniously demoted and placed under the command of one Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo.
Things take a turn for the worse when the First Order catch up with the Resistance’s main vessel. Kylo Ren, the First Order’s second-in-command, hesitates to fire upon it when he realizes his mother, Leia, is onboard, but his wingmen destroy the bridge in his stead. Leia is then dragged into the depths of space and it would appear she is done for. However, she then uses the Force to fly herself back into the undamaged part of the ship.
This scene was maligned by those who didn’t like the film for being too unrealistic. While I do agree the scene doesn’t work, it’s not for that reason. NASA tests conducted in the 1960s revealed that subjects could survive and fully recover after being exposed to the vacuum of space as long they weren’t out there for more than two minutes. Leia manages to avoid this fate by flying into the ship with ten seconds to spare.
The real problem with this scene is twofold. To begin with, it looks ridiculous; detractors likened the sequence to Mary Poppins, and that is an apt comparison. The second problem – and the one more relevant to the plot – is that Leia using the Force at all is something the series had never been clear on. It stands to reason that the daughter of Darth Vader would be highly sensitive to the Force, but there was very little empirical evidence to suggest she could use it to this extent. Sure, Luke could have taught her how to use it in the interim between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, but this is something that the audience needs to know. It’s not a sign of good storytelling when the audience has to fill in logic gaps for the director.
With Leia unconscious, Holdo is now in command of the remaining Resistance forces. Things are looking dire for them because they realize the First Order can track them through hyperspace. Poe, having been demoted, asks the admiral if she has a plan. Rather than calmly explain Poe her plan, Holdo condescends to him. She claims she knows his type and judges their course of action is on a need-to-know basis. This is among the stupidest decisions ever made by a superior in the Star Wars canon. If she did indeed believe Poe to be hot-headed and impulsive, that would give her all the more reason to let him in on the plan. Even assuring him that a plan exists and urging him to trust her would’ve been better than what she actually does. Instead, she treats the single most talented pilot in the Resistance with no more respect than an unruly child.
Despite such a lax, scatterbrained approach to leadership, the character of Holdo was heavily praised by culture critics. In general, it’s easy to read Poe’s interactions with Holdo as an attack on male chauvinism. If that was what Mr. Johnson intended, then he failed to grasp how sympathetic his characters are. It’s much easier to sympathize with Poe because he is actually trying to throw ideas out there while Holdo’s actions wind up demoralizing enough of her crew for him to successfully stage a mutiny with their help. Meanwhile, Holdo herself comes across as the kind of person who can’t handle being in an authoritative role without resisting the impulse to throw her weight around. Exactly how a wise figure such as Leia could trust someone like that is anyone’s guess. If these were the intended reactions, then it’s a classic case of the writer succeeding far too well.
One culture critic in particular claimed that Holdo’s arc teaches men to trust women in power. If that’s the case, then The Last Jedi doesn’t make an especially great case for such a venture. What it practicably argues is for subordinates to blindly trust their superiors – for good and for ill. You can’t question people in power. They were put there for a reason and know better than you for every possible situation. The collective propensity to blindly trust authoritative figures is precisely what allows countless oppressive regimes – both real and fictional – to thrive. Irony of ironies, what was almost certainly intended to be a progressive message instead reads like something from an author with right-wing political leanings. Anyone who blindly trusted someone such as Holdo in real life would either be led to their quick, unglamorous death or responsible for committing thousands of war crimes in their campaign.
As it is, Holdo’s leadership sensibly results in her troops deserting her. Poe thinks of a plan to deactivate the First Order’s tracking device. To do this, he will need help from an expert hacker in the casino town of Canto Bight. Poe entrusts this task to ex-Stormtrooper Finn and a mechanic named Rose Tico. Even among fans of the film, this subplot is highly controversial. Merely looking at it from a storytelling standpoint, the subplot is very contrived. Finn and Rose end up getting arrested for having double parked in front of the building just when they are about to meet the hacker. This could have worked in a Star Wars parody film such as Spaceballs, but featuring it as a dramatic plot point is, once again, tonally discordant. It doesn’t help that this subplot contributes nothing to the overarching story in the end. Finn and Rose manage to find another skilled hacker – a random person named DJ who happened to be in the same exact cellblock – only for him to later betray them. This prompts Holdo to evacuate her ship and ram into Snoke’s flagship at light speed.
While the scene itself looks astonishing, it falls apart when you realized they could have just done that from the beginning. In fact, if they hadn’t recruited DJ, hundreds of Resistance members wouldn’t have died when he betrayed them. Again, Poe wouldn’t have felt the need to act out of line if Holdo let him know the full plan. What is intended to be Holdo’s greatest moment is negated by her own actions. This isn’t even getting into the question of why, exactly, nobody in the entire history of the galaxy ever thought of this tactic. If it is so demonstrably effective, why hasn’t anyone ever invented a drone-controlled ship for the express purpose of crashing into a pursuing enemy spacecraft? I would’ve assumed it to have been among the very first things strategists conceived upon inventing an engine capable of exceeding the speed of light.
However, what I find makes the subplot especially grating is its excessively preachy nature. The people in Canto Bight have profited off of the war, selling weapons to both the Resistance and the First Order. Consequently, it’s easy to read this as scathing attack on capitalism, punctuated by the rich people owning child slaves and having various wild animals in captivity. We are then meant to cheer when Finn and Rose free some of the animals, causing them to rampage through town.
To be clear, that Mr. Johnson wanted to include this message isn’t a problem in of itself. The problem is that he happened to get the preachiest during what turns out to be a meaningless subplot. Because of this, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that he halted the main plot for the sake of forcing his audience to listen to his message. In addition to causing pacing problems, the message comes out of nowhere and stops being relevant to the story once they’ve left the planet – save for one callback in the final scene. It could be argued that this sequence was intended to show who the Resistance is fighting for, but the narrative doesn’t make a strong enough connection between the First Order and the tycoons of Canto Bight. For all we know, the latter managed spring up independent of the galaxy-spanning conflict – the only significant change being their clientele.
Exacerbating matters is the sheer amount of mental gymnastics Mr. Johnson had to perform in order to make this message work. This is a world in which worker droids are commonplace. I don’t think it’s unfair to assume anyone rich enough to own a successful resort could afford top-of-the-line droids to fulfill all menial and janitorial services. Slaves, on the other hand, would need food, water, clothes, living quarters, and other basic necessities to perform their duties. Furthermore, the only slaves shown to the audience are children, who would be a less-than-ideal choice to perform feats of manual labor. Droids wouldn’t need anything other than the occasional maintenance check, and they are much stronger than human children, allowing them to be far more efficient. As presented to the audience, Canto Bight’s business plan is a nightmare from both logistical and logical standpoints – and an unnecessary, self-imposed one at that. There is no sane reason why these rich war profiteers would need to resort to using human slaves. Obviously, they were written that way to establish them as evil with a capital “E”, but a diegetic reason either doesn’t exist or is so weak, it shatters the suspension of disbelief.
How Finn and Rose deal with this problem is another case of Mr. Johnson not thinking through his implications. Freeing the animals and having them rampage through town wouldn’t be a meaningful setback to those profiting off the war. In fact, all Finn and Rose likely accomplished was putting the entry-level workers, who had nothing to do with these unethical businesspeople aside from receiving paychecks from them, in peril. Even worse, wouldn’t messing up the casino just result in more hard work for the slaves? It’s not as though Finn and Rose made an effort free them, instead settling for letting loose a few captive animals to go a brief rampage that would realistically result in the deaths of several innocent bystanders.
There is also an elephant in the room regarding this message. Specifically, it is greatly undermined by the company that owned the Star Wars franchise at the time: Disney. Throughout the 2010s, Disney was determined to dominate the entertainment industry. This was punctuated by their acquisition of 20th Century Fox, but they would also constantly use their acquired proprieties to prevent them from entering the public domain. Their ruthless business tactics and copyright policies ensured they had little in the way of meaningful competition by the second half of the decade. Consequently, a product bearing their name espousing such a strong anti-capitalist sentiment would be like a rich mob boss with hundreds of political connections earnestly telling people that crime doesn’t pay. It makes me wonder how those who praised the film for this message reconciled the cognitive dissonance.
Of course, no critique of this film would be complete without addressing the character of Luke Skywalker himself. The Resistance clearly considered him a beacon of hope, for when he had vanished, they went through Hell in an attempt to find him. They did what they could to ensure the First Order never found him, making several sacrifices along the way. Redeeming Darth Vader and playing an instrumental role in taking down the Galactic Empire is now the talk of legends. Even the poster of The Force Awakens acknowledges his importance, as his actor, Mark Hamill, was billed second on most posters despite having no dialogue when Rey found him. Then again, he didn’t really need dialogue, as the moment spoke for itself. For those who had been following the series, it really was a powerful moment.
Rey hands Luke the lightsaber he inherited from Anakin. Seconds later, Mr. Johnson renders the scene a complete joke by having Luke toss aside the lightsaber over his shoulder. Anyone expecting Luke to be brought back into the fight and face off against a new wave of fascists is in for a disappointment when he reveals he hid from the rest of the galaxy to die. As the last Jedi, he believes the order should come to an end, citing how their complacency when they were in power caused the Sith to rise and rule the Galaxy for decades. Even after defeating the Empire, he was powerless to prevent the First Order from finishing what their predecessor started.
It is nearly impossible to overstate how out of character Luke acts in this film. Gone is the idealistic young man redeemed Darth Vader of all people and in his stead is a cynical old man who tells Rey to leave him alone. To play the devil’s advocate for a moment, I don’t think this was a bad idea in of itself. Characters – especially ones as dynamic as Luke Skywalker – absolutely can change over time. However, the point of an arc is that we get to see the character evolve in response to significant life events. As it stands, while the idea for an arc is there, we, the audience, only truly see the two endpoints – the first rooted in Return of the Jedi and the second coincides with his appearance in The Last Jedi. By not properly demonstrating a logical progression, Mr. Johnson essentially created an original character who also happened to be named Luke Skywalker.
To be fair, there are a few flashbacks that shed light on what caused him to radically change his viewpoints. Unfortunately, what is revealed to us succeeds at doing nothing but shooting more holes in the narrative’s credibility. Luke had trained Kylo – Ben Solo as he was once known – before he fell to the dark side. He claims that he entered the hut to confront Ben before the latter went rogue and collapsed the structure. Kylo himself manages to catch wind of this and, using a psychic connection between him and Rey, tells her ha different story. Luke had attempted to murder Kylo in his sleep. When Rey confronts him about this, Luke admits the true story. He had sensed a profound darkness in Kylo and, against his better judgement, considered killing Ben. His student then saw him standing over him with his lightsaber drawn, causing him to fall to the dark side.
The purpose of this plot point is fairly obvious. A running theme throughout this narrative involves the demystification of legends. Luke Skywalker isn’t presented as an all-powerful, all-knowing sage, but rather a flawed human being like everyone else. The problem, I find, is that this revelation casts Mr. Johnson’s interpretation of the character in a very negative light – more so than the director likely intended. Even if he regretted his action immediately, Luke pushed Ben to the dark side, indirectly causing countless deaths at the hands of Kylo Ren.
Considering that, against all odds, he stuck to his idealism and redeemed his father Darth Vader, allowing him to die as Anakin, being quick to run Kylo Ren – his nephew – through with the lightsaber makes no sense at all. On top of that, he didn’t even try to make up for his error in judgement by joining the Resistance, causing the First Order to carry out their campaign largely unopposed. This is especially tenuous when you consider that Leia has far fewer qualms fighting off the First Order despite losing her son to them or even after the trauma she suffered over thirty years prior when her home planet, Alderaan, was destroyed by the Death Star. Meanwhile, all it took was one comparatively minor setback for Luke to throw in the towel completely.
For that matter, the whole idea of bringing the Jedi to an end is equally nonsensical. Again, what Mr. Johnson attempted to do was clear. In a series that saw the worlds in shades of black and white, he wanted to introduce moral ambiguity to the proceedings. It’s not a bad idea, but the problem is that the antagonists are doing objectively horrible things. The Jedi may have had their flaws, but you could count on them not to causally blow up planets or oppress entire populations. In fact, they were trying to prevent that kind of suffering from happening. To equate them with the Sith, the Galactic Empire, or the First Order is ludicrous. It comes across as the kind of development you would see self-proclaimed super-fans of Darth Vader and the Empire pen terrible fanfiction. This is incredibly jarring when you consider Kylo Ren was intended to be a critique on that exact kind of fan.
I don’t think the comparison is unfair either; I guarantee if you’ve read such pieces, you will espy a few of the bad storytelling trends within the narrative of The Last Jedi. It’s especially apparent in the way Mr. Johnson paints Kylo Ren in such a sympathetic light while downplaying the atrocities committed by him and the First Order. Just the fact that he would downplay the actions of a fictional faction whose ethos and crimes against sentient beings were heavily inspired by those of Nazi Germany – to the point of calling their foot soldiers Stormtroopers – carries with it a truly incalculable number of unfortunate implications.
Mr. Johnson even ended up implementing the stereotypical fanfiction trope wherein the author attempts to place the protagonist and antagonist in a relationship – regardless of how many hoops one needs to jump through to get there. At one point, Snoke establishes a Force link between Kylo and Rey. From there Rey begins uncharacteristically displaying feelings for Kylo. They’re not quite romantic, but she does suddenly care a lot about him for some reason – which is exacerbated by giving the dark lord an out-of-place shirtless scene. With the way she tells him to put on a shirt, you would never guess they tried to kill each other a few days ago.
I will say that there is nothing untoward about the protagonist sympathizing with their archenemy, but one must establish the correct context in order for it to work. As it is, Rey’s attempts to bring Kylo back to the light side only make sense when we project ourselves onto her – not when we go by what she herself has witnessed. With Princess Leia and Han Solo being one of the most beloved fictional couples of all time, of course plenty of people would want to see their son become good. Diegetically, however, Rey’s own investment in Kylo’s plight makes no sense.
The Last Jedi takes place immediately after The Force Awakens. To even reach Luke, Rey had to fight tooth and nail against Kylo and his forces. While the mission was a success, Han lost his life attempting to redeem his son. While I can believe that Rey would attempt to reach out to him after hearing of how important he was to Leia and Han, killing his own father should tell her Kylo is not at all interested in being redeemed. Despite this, and having no personal reason to do so, she ends up being more insistent on reaching out to him than even Leia. In other words, Rey goes from being a focused warrior to exhibiting behavioral patterns disturbingly similar to hybristophilia.
When The Last Jedi was released, critics had nothing but praise for it, believing it to be very progressive for its multiracial, inclusive cast. If that was what Mr. Johnson tried to do, this single piece of characterization prevented him from realizing his goal. The idea of girls falling for bad boys is one that had existed long before the debut of Star Wars – James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause being the classic example of this trope in action. As mentioned before, it was practically a staple of fanfiction with authors – stereotypically women – romanticizing attractive, male villains.
However, in the 2010s, the philosophy was picked up by self-proclaimed nice guys. Although they called themselves nice guys, a thorough evaluation of their psychological profile – or talking with them for more than two minutes – revealed they were anything but. These were the kinds of people with thoroughly repugnant personalities and no self-awareness whatsoever. This caused them to lash out at the world for not providing them a woman, believing they overlook nice guys in favor of bad boys. While Mr. Johnson doesn’t go as far as making Rey kiss Kylo, these story beats are uncomfortably similar to the narrative those nice guys spun. I’m sure it wasn’t his intent, but it is impossible to ignore how chauvinistic his characterization of Rey manages to be. It especially doesn’t help his case that he has expressed interest in the pairing in certain interviews, suggesting the romantic subtext may not have been unintentional.
This sudden, mutual interest does wind up benefitting Rey – albeit at the expense of the plot’s integrity. Through the link Snoke established, Kylo brings Rey to him. Snoke reveals that he established the link to defeat Luke. Rey attempts to go for the killing blow and put the conflict to an end, but she is quickly overpowered. Snoke then orders Kylo to kill Rey. Continuing the plot’s propensity to throw curveballs, Kylo bisects Snoke with his lightsaber, killing the Supreme Leader. This development was cheered by critics, who believed it to have been one of the single greatest twists of its day. It’s easy to see why it was admired. Because of how similar The Force Awakens was to A New Hope, people naturally assumed Snoke would be the main villain. For the second film to kill him off halfway through the plot blindsided even the savviest viewer.
I myself found myself enjoying this twist – or at least until I took a few minutes to think about the underlying implications. Snoke was established as a person with powers to rival Emperor Palpatine. Setting aside the plot discrepancy of where Snoke was in the original trilogy, the biggest problem with how his character is handled is that it actively hinders any kind of meaningful storytelling. Obviously, Snoke would have to be a powerful Force user to not only establish the First Order, but also corrupt Kylo, yet he gets killed off as though he were a novice. Arrogance is a flaw commonly associated with villains, but his death makes one wonder how he managed to suppress any attempts at usurping his position when Kylo managed it without breaking a sweat. I do like that Mr. Johnson didn’t make him a second Palpatine. He never would never have fallen for such a tactic so easily, having placed Darth Vader in an inefficient life-support suit to ensure he could never overthrow him. Still, there were far more interesting routes to go with Snoke’s character than killing him off unceremoniously.
Kylo then fights off the Praetorian Guard with Rey’s help. Rey urges Kylo to abandon the dark side, but the latter instead offers to rule the galaxy with him. This is a twisted version of how Return of the Jedi ended wherein Darth Vader redeemed himself by turning on his master, thus saving not only the galaxy, but also his son. Here, Kylo killing Snoke doesn’t start him on the path towards redemption – on the contrary. He now wants to kill off the past by eradicating both the Jedi and the Sith to prevent the cycle from beginning anew. Rey refuses, fighting Kylo for control over Luke’s lightsaber. Unfortunately, the weapon is broken in half in the fight. Undeterred, Rey renders Kylo unconscious and escapes the flagship. Upon regrouping with the rest of the First Order, Kylo declares himself the new Supreme Leader.
While I think this was an interesting setup, the actual execution leaves a lot to be desired. The main problem with Kylo Ren as the new main antagonist is that he utterly lacks the sheer intimidation factor his grandfather had. Granted, his inability to live up to Darth Vader’s image is a central part of his character, but it doesn’t change that his success is invariably in spite of himself. It’s easy to assume Darth Vader made such an effective villain because he was extremely powerful and capable of effortlessly defeating countless Rebels. While that certainly established him as a credible threat, what really made you realize the gravity of the protagonists’ situation was when you realized he’s the emperor’s second-in-command in a hierarchy enforced by power. It told viewers that as bad as Darth Vader was, his master outclassed him.
With The Last Jedi, Snoke is set up in a similar fashion – to the point of defeating Rey easily much like how Palpatine brushed aside Luke. He is then killed off by Kylo, which would logically place the latter as the new main antagonist. This proposition doesn’t work in practice when you examine Kylo’s track record against Rey. The first time they fought, Rey managed to defeat Kylo despite the former lacking experience and the latter having been taught by Luke Skywalker himself. Similarly, their clash in The Last Jedi results in Rey successfully escaping Kylo. When this film concludes, the narrative wants a man who has lost to Rey twice to be taken seriously. Sure, anyone else who goes up against him is practically doomed and he did kill two major characters, but the protagonist – the natural choice to take down the main antagonist – has already handily defeated him twice.
Indeed, at this point that a persistent criticism against the sequel trilogy must be addressed. Ever since Rey’s introduction in The Force Awakens, various sources accused her character of being a Mary Sue, which is to say an impossibly competent, perfect character. To strengthen their argument, they pointed out that it made no sense for a random scavenger on the remote planet of Jakku would not only overpower a lifelong Force user, but also somehow fly several spacecraft with no problem. I personally assert that just examining The Force Awakens alone, these criticisms were untenable. Rey really hadn’t done anything that, by this series’ standards, would’ve been considered especially outlandish. Luke himself had managed to pull off many of the same things in A New Hope. If anything, Rey’s profession goes much further in explaining how she is able to fight and commandeer aircraft than Luke’s original status as a farm boy. The Force Awakens also justifies her victory over Kylo Ren well enough because Chewbacca had severely wounded him with a blaster beforehand – and even then, she only barely defeated him.
I don’t personally have an answer to this debate even after watching The Last Jedi. That being said, I do have to say that even if she isn’t a Mary Sue, the detractors’ arguments now had a ring of truth to it. Rey, as she is depicted in The Last Jedi, is borderline invincible, being completely resistant to the dark side, defeating Kylo Ren a second time, and later swooping in on the Millennium Falcon to save the Resistance in the nick of time. Like many Mary Sue characters, there is no explanation as to how she is this powerful. Many speculated she was the daughter of Luke or the granddaughter of Palpatine, but The Last Jedi asserts her parents are nobodies. In the end, if you took Luke and removed all of his character flaws, you would get Rey as of The Last Jedi. It’s to the point where Luke arguably learns more from her than the other way around. So while I can’t say for certain whether or not Rey is a Mary Sue, my most generous assessment is that she skirts the line far too close for comfort.
Regardless, I feel many people draw that conclusion as a result of how poorly her arc is handled. In the original trilogy, Luke starts off as a fresh newcomer with mysterious powers that allow him to trounce the entry-level Stormtroopers and destroy the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, he is given a brutal wakeup call in the form of a resounding defeat at the hands of Darth Vader only to rise from the ashes in Return of the Jedi. If Mr. Abrams intended to have Rey’s arc progress similarly, Mr. Johnson completely destroyed that notion. By the end of The Last Jedi, the Resistance may be in a horrible position, but Rey herself has suffered no lasting setbacks other than losing to Snoke. While Star Wars always had an idealistic tone to the point where the Rebellion’s victory was more of a question of how – rather than if – it would happen, the original trilogy’s narrative still had suspense to spare going into Return of the Jedi as a result of Luke’s defeat and Han’s freezing. When The Last Jedi concludes, Rey is still largely undefeated with Snoke’s victory over her being comically short-lived. This leaves the audience with practically no suspense at all. They’re just waiting for Rey to land the blow that will end the First Order once and for all going into the third film.
Finally, it’s worth noting that The Last Jedi utterly fails to stick the landing. It’s certainly not the worst way I’ve seen a film end, but every weakness exhibited in the narrative thus far comes back for an encore performance. After Holdo’s sacrifice, the remaining Resistance members regroup on Planet Crait. Along the way, Finn had to face off against his former superior, Captain Phasma, a second time. That she survived the previous film is surprising given Han’s suggestion to toss her in the trash compactor. What is equally unsurprising is that Finn easily defeats her. Once again, Mr. Johnson’s inability to give his characters a challenge ensures the path between points in their arcs is a straight line.
The final battle itself is representative of the film’s greatest sin. That is to say, it looks amazing, but falls apart the minute you begin thinking about it. In other words, it’s a case wherein style triumphs over substance. Crait is a planet made of salt, and Resistance ships take advantage of this by scooping it up, thus creating natural smokescreens. However, these tactics prove ineffective when the First Order’s siege cannon arrives to break open the Resistance’s fortress. Finn, refusing to run away anymore, decides to sacrifice his life to save his friends. He nears his destination, but at the last minute, Rose swoops in and crashes into Finn, saving the both of them. She then tells them that they will win the war protecting what they love rather than fighting what they hate.
This is considered by many detractors to be the single worst moment in the film. Rose’s speech after saving Finn is something that wouldn’t feel out of place among the poorly written lines of the prequel trilogy. More to the point, the scene is edited very poorly. Finn had to have Poe create a diversion while he got close enough to the cannon to destroy it. Despite having a significant lead, Rose somehow caught up to and collided with him to save his life. While this happened, the First Order’s forces apparently just stood there and watched. Once both ships are out of commission, they immediately resume their onslaught, leading to a piece of unintentional comedy when you see explosions in the background as Rose is giving her speech.
It also cemented Rose Tico as one of the most divisive characters in the franchise. So severe was the backlash against her character that some felt she managed to be worse than the infamous Jar Jar Binks. I will say she certainly didn’t help the film. Her lines often consist of cheap platitudes that barely have anything to do with the plot. However, I also have to say that the character got far more hate than she deserved. Sure, she’s not a well-written character, but it’s difficult to differentiate her bad lines from everyone else’s. Even retuning characters Luke and Leia are poorly written. One could reasonably argue she has the worst-written dialogue overall, but I would attribute the poor reception to her character to having debuted in this film, thus being sabotaged from the beginning. When a character is introduced in a bad installment, there’s usually nowhere to go but down. If nothing else, she at least recognized that Holdo’s leadership was lacking and participated in Poe’s mutiny. It doesn’t explain her skewed priorities on Canto Bight, but again, I blame that more on the writing than anything else.
Shortly thereafter, Rey arrives in the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca. However, even their timely entrance isn’t enough. Fortunately, Luke appears to confront the First Order alone. Kylo, seeing his former mentor orders his fleet to fire upon him, but the Jedi emerges no worse for wear. Kylo then confronts him personally and after trading a few lightsaber blows, runs Luke through. It then turns out Kylo was fighting a Force projection. This allows the Resistance to escape, but Luke, exhausted from the strain, collapses and dies, thus becoming one with the Force.
I do like the fight between Kylo and Luke because it’s an interesting callback to the iconic duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in A New Hope, but the problem, once again, is that the moment isn’t earned. When one makes the decision to kill off a character as famous as Luke Skywalker, they must take great care to give them a proper sendoff. As it is, the scene’s tone is all over the place. After the initial salvo, Luke nonchalantly brushes his shoulders off, keeping in line with the film’s propensity to crack jokes at the absolute worst moments. Followed up by the revelation that he is projecting himself from afar, it makes his final interactions with Leia come across as retroactively hollow. Plus, he ends up dying anyway, negating the purpose of projecting himself in the first place.
The film then ends with the Resistance leaving the planet. It’s surreal watching these sequences because everyone is in such high spirits despite the Resistance being far worse off than the Rebellion ever was. Indeed, while many people in 2017 praised it for being such a dark take on the franchise, the narrative sabotages its own goal at every corner. It features the First Order at their most powerful, yet its top members come across as incompetent stooges. It tries to demystify the Jedi and the past, yet constantly casts the current main antagonist in a sympathetic light. It warns us of the dangers of unchecked, unregulated capitalism despite coming from a company that was one of the greatest beneficiaries of such a system. It attempts to provide a dark deconstruction of the series, yet it can’t stop cracking jokes. It tries to shock audiences at every turn, yet it ends up being a disorienting mess when you reflect on said twists.
I understand and even sympathize with Mr. Johnson because plenty of people were expecting The Last Jedi to be a second The Empire Strikes Back. However, braving uncharted territory requires a greater level of focus than The Last Jedi ever displays. What The Last Jedi wants to do and how it goes about achieving its goals are so at odds with each other, watching it is akin to listening to ten different people tell entirely different interpretations of the same story at the exact same time. At some point, you just give up trying to make sense of it because you know you’re not going to get a straight answer if you ask them to clarify.
Parsing The Last Jedi immediately after The Force Awakens is interesting because I believe the two films to have the exact opposite problem from one another. While The Force Awakens fell short due to taking far too many cues from A New Hope to the point of arguably being a carbon copy thereof, The Last Jedi tries to throw several new ideas out there and not a single one of them works. In doing so, it brings to mind the quote commonly attributed to Samuel Johnson in that it manages to be original and good, but the good parts aren’t original and the original parts aren’t good. When an artist is eager to subvert expectations, they need to think more than one step ahead and consider the underlying implications of the new path they’re taking, which Mr. Johnson consistently fails to do. There is a fair bit of irony to be had in that while The Last Jedi received far more praise than any of the prequel films, it somehow managed to have more execution issues than any of them.
It’s as though when he was hired to make The Last Jedi, Mr. Johnson gained George Lucas’s fatal weakness. While Mr. Lucas could come up with great ideas, he wasn’t especially adept at connecting them. Unsurprisingly, his best work resulted from having his friends – successful filmmakers in their own right – look over his scripts and weed out what didn’t work. Alternatively, actors would adlib their lines to an astonishingly effective degree. On the surface, Mr. Johnson would appear to have had the same problem. However, what he did with The Last Jedi went a step beyond even that. Mr. Abrams had penned an outline for the entire sequel trilogy, which Mr. Johnson gleefully threw out in favor of writing his own script. In his article “5 Reasons We Should Be Worried About Star Wars Episode IX”, Jordan Breeding of Cracked honed in on the problem with Mr. Johnson’s approach, pointing out that The Last Jedi is the second act of an entirely different story. When one is hired to make a sequel, it is important to ensure the canon is consistent, lest one stretch the suspension of disbelief too far. The Last Jedi is barely a sequel to The Force Awakens, and creates so many contradictions and plot holes, it’s difficult to know what to take seriously – if anything. As Mr. Breeding suggested, the state in which Mr. Johnson left the sequel trilogy with The Last Jedi actively sabotaged any attempts at making a conclusion.
The biggest source of irony is the fact that even his attempts at creating an original story fell flat. Instead of coming across as something the franchise had never seen by that point in history, The Last Jedi still reads like The Empire Strikes Back in broad strokes. The First Order lose their big superweapon only to strike back and place the protagonists in a position worse than when the film started. It doesn’t help that the alleged original ideas are, more often than not, just haphazardly transplanted story beats from both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. The narrative has affectations of all three films, but they never combine to form anything greater than the sum of their parts – the exact opposite outcome results, in fact. While I found myself initially praising The Last Jedi alongside contemporary critics, I no longer think it’s a solid effort at all. In fact, one could make a serious argument that any of the much maligned prequel films are superior. For all that can be said about Mr. Lucas, at least he was trying to tell an original story – he just suffered from a lack of guidance.
In the end, The Last Jedi tries to be unique and forward-looking, yet comes across as extremely dated in hindsight. The original three films were all timeless delights that have enthralled – and continue to enthrall – countless generations whereas The Last Jedi can be traced back to the exact year that spawned it, drastically limiting its appeal. This was a beginning of an era in which critics began praising works purely because they lined up with their beliefs – the quality of the writing came a distant second, if at all. Because many of these beliefs failed to stand the test of time, it is unsurprising that many critical favorites from this time haven’t either. It’s impossible to deny that The Last Jedi was a beneficiary of a critical zeitgeist overwhelmingly favoring emotional resonance over logic and reason. The original three films understood that emotion and logic existing in harmony can work magic. As a fitting contrast, Mr. Johnson disregarding Mr. Abrams’s outline spawned a sheer amount of disharmony that sounded the death knell of the sequel trilogy’s integrity.
Final Score: 3/10