The Not-So-Last Word on The Not-So-Last Jedi

The Force Awakens breathed new life into my love for Star Wars. The Last Jedi brought imbalance.

This post contains significant spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Update (January 24, 2017)
Though I'm still not overly fond of the scene, myself, it's been pointed out that there was a reason for Kylo to be shirtless in that scene beyond trying to make the audience laugh.

IMBALANCE

When I shared my thoughts on Rogue One, I mentioned that I don't know Star Wars anywhere near as well as I do that franchise with the dinosaurs. This is very true — but it isn't to say I don't know it at all. I actually have a fair bit of history with those wars in the stars, and can remember, with an odd degree of clarity for something so relatively innocuous, the very day that history began. If you'll indulge me, therefore, I'd like to begin this post by taking a brief walk down memory lane, by looking to the past — giving an idea of where I stand with Star Wars, before shifting my focus back to the present and Rian Johnson's oh-so-controversial addition to the franchise.

If, like Kylo Ren, however, you believe that the past should die, feel free to skip over this section — my thoughts on The Last Jedi itself begin in that titled The Conflict Within.

A LONG TIME AGO…

… in a galaxy not too far away, you would've found me leaning on the railings at the edge of the main yard of the primary school I'd soon be leaving forever, my eyes on the city stretching out below. I was probably staring at some shiny thing near the horizon — just beyond the point where said city gives way to rolling countryside — that caught the sun (and, therefore, my attention) during break time every day.

Though the identity of whatever I was looking at is still very much up for debate, I know exactly what I was thinking about: the advertisements for a film I'd be seeing that evening — and a certain, as-yet-unknown to me Jedi, voicing his disdain for flying.

As much as I'm ashamed of it now, there was a period of my childhood during which outside influences led to me believing that being a massive geek was, itself, something to be ashamed of. I vividly remember, during that period, thinking something along the lines of, 'Well… at least I don't like Star Wars!'

Irony, however, was poised to strike. When I walked out of Attack of the Clones, the shiny something I'd been staring at earlier that day entirely forgotten, I had a new obsession to add to my already extensive list.

The next few years were a whirlwind of obsession, of trying to learn everything I could about the galaxy far, far away, of toy lightsabers, improvised Jedi robes and Padawan braids, of Jedi Power Battles and time spent on various battlefronts, of, I must admit, much preferring the Prequel Trilogy to the Original.

Looking back on it, I think that preference was as much a result of my introduction to the franchise as it was of the Prequels being a good deal visually brighter — and, therefore, more welcoming — than the original films. My younger self vastly preferred the improved effects and intense lightsaber battles, too, and though, even then, I would've been the first to admit the alarming stupidity of Jar Jar Binks, I considered the Original Trilogy to have committed equal crimes against cinema with the ridiculous Ewoks. But I'm getting off track.

Though, as the years went on, I developed a greater appreciation for the adventures of Luke Skywalker and co., my obsessive love of Star Wars petered out until it became little more than a background feature of my life, something I'd check-in on every now and then, but that wasn't occupying much of my mind in general. When it was announced that Disney had stepped in and would finally be producing a Sequel Trilogy, I was interested, but little more.

I became, however, more interested with each trailer, and, when December 16, 2015 rolled around, suddenly decided that I had to see the state of things for myself, as soon as possible. It was far too late to get tickets for a midnight screening but, luckily, I managed to get some for a showing at half-past. And the rest is history.

The Force Awakens remains one of my favourite cinema-going experiences of all time. True, the film is far from perfect and exceptionally derivative, but I was, quite simply, floored by how much I loved it. I sat in a seat directly above the doors of the screen; there was, therefore, a balustrade of sorts in front of me, and I spent the entire third act of Rey's first adventure leaning with my arms folded on that balustrade, my head resting on them, watching things unfold with a completely satisfied smile on my face.

From the moment the credits began to roll, I couldn't wait to see what would happen next… and that, finally, brings us back to the present.

THE CONFLICT WITHIN

They say history repeats itself — and that was certainly the case with my initial screening of The Last Jedi; just as I'd done with The Force Awakens two years before, I left the business of getting tickets far too late. Fortunately, though — at the expense of having to deal with some truly horrible, neck-breaking seats — I was able to get to a midnight showing.

I had a good feeling when I left the house, a feeling underscored when, as I walked to the car, I looked to the sky and saw two meteors shoot overhead. If anything could be considered a good sign when heading out to see a Star Wars movie, that, I think, would be it — and when I left the cinema a few hours later, I had little reason to doubt it had been. It was only as the hours continued to pass that I began to realise that something was off; things I'd enjoyed in the context of that first viewing began to niggle, and the various issues I'd had came more and more to the fore, all but eclipsing the good.

Around a month later (and with some more time with the film under my belt), I'm left feeling thoroughly, 100% conflicted. See, I love so much of what The Last Jedi does, where it goes, and what it has to say — but I don't merely dislike those things I found disappointing… I despise them. Vehemently. Viscerally.

One of the foremost examples of this comes in the form of much-discussed new addition Rose Tico, whose Canto Bight-based exploits with Finn didn't bother me half as much as her blatant hypocrisy. Towards the end of the film, after preventing him from sacrificing himself for his friends, she tells Finn, 'That's how we're gonna win — not fighting what we hate; saving what we love.' This, despite the fact she stubbornly stood in the way of Finn doing just that in the beginning, declaring him a 'selfish traitor' for wanting to head off and warn Rey of the danger she'd face in returning to the Resistance. Pots and kettles, eh?

None of this is helped, of course, by the fact that — as petty as it sounds — she's just plain annoying. I wish I hadn't found her so, but I can't deny that I did. She's annoying, and her various appearances are made even more so by — as much as it pains me to say it — a twee, generic, and utterly cringe-inducing theme from the otherwise masterful John Williams.

And then, of course, there's Luke.

CONTEXT

I set a great deal of store by context, and while I believe that, if you take The Last Jedi at face value, almost everything it does works, I also believe that, if you take a step back, bring in some of that context, it falls significantly apart.

In the final moments of The Force Awakens, Rey finally finds Luke Skywalker on the cliffs of Ahch-To. She reaches into her bag, holds out that lightsaber, and looks to this man she'd thought was a myth, her face a kaleidoscope of emotion. As the music swells, we feel the weight of the moment. The wonder. The hope.

The Last Jedi takes this tremendous potential and discards it in favour of a cheap laugh. Would it not have had more impact for Luke to simply drop the lightsaber? Would it not have had more impact for it to simply fall to his feet, its abandonment in plain sight? Better yet — assuming Maz hadn't unsuccessfully tried to return it to him in the past — would it not have made more sense for him to ask from where the lightsaber, this incredibly important weapon that once belonged to the father he pulled back from darkness, had come?

Though, as with so many things, revelations may come in J.J. Abrams's Episode IX, it irks the excrement out of me that we still don't know the story behind that lightsaber's retrieval. Given that The Force Awakens was originally going to open with it, still in the grip of Luke's severed hand, floating through space before plummeting to the surface of Jakku, there's clearly one there — but I'm getting off track again.

Those initial moments on Ahch-To perfectly encapsulate what I consider to be The Last Jedi's foremost issues, the first of which, as I'm sure you can guess, is its many attempts at needless comedy.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying comedy has no place. Of course it does. Though they looked incredibly fake — I think, in fact, various practical creatures were distinctly odd-looking throughout the film — and the line was definitely crossed with the one in the Falcon's cockpit, I enjoyed at least some of the stuff with the Porgs; the narrowly-avoided carnage with the lightsaber and the barbecue in particular were great. I had no problem with Rey's various encounters with the increasingly exasperated guardians of Ahch-To, either — but was there any need, at all, for Kylo to be shirtless during one of his 'connections' with Rey?

Was there any need to reduce Hux from someone potentially interesting to little more than a cartoon? Was there any need to insert so much attempted levity into Rey's limited time with Luke? Was there any need to shatter the intensity of Luke facing down the First Order with that ridiculous little flick of the shoulder? (Although, I must admit, Luke looked so distinctly, awkwardly weird throughout that whole encounter that the scene, tremendous though it was, definitely had problems elsewhere.) And was there any need to devote so much time to trying to be funny — and, indeed, to disposable, preachy subplots — when other, infinitely more important elements of the story could've done with a good deal more fleshing-out and setting-up?

That, I think, brings me nicely to the second, and by far the most prevalent, of those foremost issues of mine: execution.

'THIS IS NOT GOING TO GO THE WAY YOU THINK.'

The Last Jedi subverts expectations in some pretty spectacular ways. I have no problem with this, none at all — in fact, I'm a big fan of what is, perhaps, its biggest subversion. (In concept, at least.) Snoke being taken out of the picture so completely out of the blue is a tremendous twist in the tale. Not so tremendous, however, is how it was handled — its execution.

Simply put, building up such a character, only to get rid of him without the slightest mention of where he came from, or the motivations that drive him, can't be explained away by the mere subversion of expectations. Is it a good twist? 100%. Does that justify how it was handled? Not in the slightest.

From what I've read — and, please, feel free to correct me on this if I'm mistaken — there was no fixed story for this trilogy from the outset. J.J. Abrams laid the groundwork with The Force Awakens, and Rian Johnson was free to take that groundwork and craft whatever sequel he saw fit with The Last Jedi. If this lack of a pre-established story is accurate, then Johnson, when writing, would have had no concrete idea of what will follow in Episode IX. 

To me, this doesn't make his handling of Snoke a mere twist — it makes it poor writing. I simply don't buy that there was no way to fit more of that character's story — or even mere hints at it, nothing more than a line or two — into the film without affecting the pace, not when such a relatively large amount of time was devoted to, for example, the ultimately inconsequential stuff with the fathiers, those woefully mistreated space horses.

Did it have to be an intricate story? No. Did it have to be grandiose, full of meaning? Sure didn't. Might Snoke's origins be explored in Episode IX? Anything's possible, but if Rian's stance really is that Snoke's story was disposable because it wouldn't matter to Rey… well, with all due respect, Mr. Johnson…

I'm not saying every little detail needed to have been worked out before production began — I think each director being able to make their own mark is a potentially great thing — but I do think that the pillars of the story should've been in place from the start. Establish the pillars, and let each new director get creative around them.

Of course, Snoke's demise isn't the only controversial surprise The Last Jedi packs. Also firmly on that list is Leia's use of the Force to pull herself back to safety after having been blasted into space. As with the business with Snoke, I have no problem with the concept — but significant issues with the execution. Well, just the one issue, really: how it was presented. I truly believe that scene would've come across as a lot less bizarre if it hadn't included the weird, Superman-esque shot of Leia zooming through space. If we'd been shown that close-up, that twitch of the hand, her eyes popping open, and just a hint of movement before cutting to her palm slamming against the window of the ship, I think it would've gone down a lot better than it did. The audience, I'm sure, would've been able to connect the dots.

As an old Jedi once said, there is, of course, another Skywalker, and — as is probably obvious from some of the above — I wasn't a fan of how Luke was handled throughout The Last Jedi. Again, however, the basic concept was fine. His doubt, his shattered faith, and his having cut himself off from the Force all speak to how deeply wounded he was by Kylo's fall to the dark side. But this is considerably undercut by the numerous attempts at levity during his screen-time; there was so much of that elsewhere that it really wouldn't've been missed. (Although, it would be utterly hypocritical to pretend that I didn't laugh at the, 'Reach out…' gag.)

If you ask me, Luke's entire arc would have been better served if he'd been portrayed as completely, utterly broken; it would've made his eventual change of heart — which is, honestly, distinctly underwhelming — all the more impactful, and might have helped the circumstances of his demise feel considerably less flat. You want another example of poor writing? Setting up Luke Skywalker's death with a single, throwaway line from Kylo.

Despite all this, though, it's not all bad. As I said above, I'm very fond of much of what The Last Jedi brings to the table.

'… AND LIGHT TO MEET IT.'

To deal, firstly, with the surface-level stuff: I love the look of the film, the cinematography, the style (even if, at times, it feels like a case of style over substance, and despite the fact that I'm a little baffled by Leia swapping out her excellent — not to mention practical — Force Awakens outfit in favour of that dramatic, but cumbersome-looking, dress). In a lot of films, great-looking shots are the exception; in The Last Jedi, they're far more often the rule. I'm not saying everything was great, but my proverbial jaw encountered the equally proverbial floor numerous times before the credits began to roll.

And then there's how the thing sounds.

Though you could make the argument that, on the whole, The Last Jedi's soundtrack is wonderful because those that came before it were wonderful, John Williams nevertheless proves that he still has a few more tricks up his sleeve. While I can't possibly overstate how disappointed and frustrated I was by Rose's theme, I loved so much of how the others were used, how they were woven together, old and new, to create something different. And there are very, very little words to describe how incredible the thematic accompaniment to Luke's showdown with the First Order — titled The Spark on the official soundtrack — truly is.

Kylo Ren — and, by extension, his relationship with Rey — remains the best thing about these films, but the other familiar faces are satisfying too; and most of the new characters featured alongside them also proved enjoyable, with Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo being a particular highlight, and Benicio Del Toro's D.J. being fun to watch, even if his time was all-too brief and the subplot that introduced him all-too protracted.

By far my favourite thing, though, was what the film had to say about heroes, about legends, and about the Force. Though the character himself looked all sorts of dodgy, the scene in which Luke encounters Yoda ranks amongst my personal favourites. Luke's fundamental misunderstanding of Yoda's old instruction to pass on what he learned strikes a truly deep chord, and only seconds later, the old Jedi's words about the true burden of all masters do the very same thing.

The deepest, most resonant chord struck, for me, however, was the very clear statement that you don't have to be a somebody to be somebody in the galaxy far, far away. Conveyed most obviously through the apparent revelation that Rey's parents were people of no consequence — which I'm a fan of, but don't entirely buy (those were some very specific visions she had in The Force Awakens) — the message is, I feel, far more effectively expressed through the stableboy on Canto Bight.

In the final moments of the film, in a gesture so subtle that it could easily be missed, that boy uses the Force to pull a broom to his hand. No sooner has he begun to put the broom to use, however, than he's distracted by a light in the sky. As he watches, that light begins to move — a ship, maybe even the Falcon, that streaks into hyperspace before his eyes, eyes filled with determination, and, maybe, just maybe, some of the hope inspired by the symbol borne by the ring on his finger.

The Force Awakens closed with hope from the past, The Last Jedi with hope from — and for — the future. I can't express how much I loved that ending. It is, perhaps, best put like this: I loved it just strongly as I hated those things that failed to resonate with me.

And that, really, brings me back to my original point about how I feel about The Last Jedi: conflicted. 100% conflicted.

You see, despite its many and varied issues, I still, to some extent, enjoyed the film both times I watched it. I have no doubt I will again when it's available on home media. On its own, taken as a standalone, it's mostly fine — but, as a sequel to The Force Awakens, as the second chapter of a larger story, I can't help but consider it an utter disappointment. At worst, in fact, it's a betrayal of what came before.

In 2015, The Force Awakens breathed new life into my love for Star Wars. In 2017, The Last Jedi brought imbalance. The story, however, isn't over, and I hold on to the hope that, in 2019, Episode IX will make things right.

Time, as it inevitably does, will tell.


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2 COMMENTS

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  • I hadn't considered that Luke misunderstood Yoda's request to pass on what he learned. That makes sense, and it's a great point. Perhaps that is specifically mentioned, but I don't recall it.

    I disagree with your take on Snoke's death, however. I think we were told all that matters about him…….he's a dark-side user who leads the sinister First Order. He's been pulling the strings from behind the scenes for a while, gearing up for war and manipulating events to his liking. I don't think we know any more about Emperor Palpatine in the original trilogy. We hear mention of him in ANH, see him briefly in ESB, but don't really meet him till ROTJ, where he dies by the film's end. All we really know about Palpatine is that he's a sinister, dark-side leader of the Empire. That's it. No more and no less than we know about Snoke in these films. That amibugity works just fine for me in the original trilogy, and it works just fine here. I don't see how the lack of backstory for the big bad is poor writing in this film, but acceptable writing in the original trilogy. Granted………..everything is subjective, but your rational isn't consistent to me, assuming you're fine with the lack of information about Palpatine in the original movies.

    I think what has changed about Star Wars is the expectations of fans……….we wish to know more about the characters, and we view any lack of explanation as some tantalizing hint that they must have a juicy, secret backstory. Thus, we feel disappointed when we are not given more answers, as though they were owed to us by function of the narrative. I don't think that's how the original trilogy presented its characters, and I see no reason why this new trilogy must abide by that reasoning.

    I'm not sure I understand your point about the levity in Luke's portrayal. He's a disillusioned, disconnected, aging man who laughs away his pain and makes sardonic jokes about things he once took admirably, even naively seriously. That just makes the character more believable to me, dramatically. He's your washed-up uncle, and he makes jokes that befit the character. That's my take, anyway.

    But your thoughts are appreciated. In particular, I enjoy how you weave in your state of mind and personal experiences into your assessment of the film. Where other writers might run from their internal preferences and circumstances, you embrace them and their role in how you view art. Well done.

    And you make a great point about how TFA ends with hope from the past, whereas TLJ ends with hope from the future. Spot on. I hadn't thought of it that way. I'm surprised that you think the film works well on its own, and not so well as a sequel to TFA; if anything, I would feel the opposite. I think the film is a brilliant sequel to TFA, but as its own movie, it's a bit disjointed and too dependent upon a broader story.

    Lastly, if you don't understand the need for Kylo to be shirtless during one of his encounters with Rey, I think you're missing the very obvious romantic tension between the characters……….or you're otherwise unmoved by it. Shirtless Kylo works for laughs and intimacy, but most importantly, it helps portray a very real awkwardness between these two characters, who feel something for each other despite the fact that they are literal enemies. Watching the tension play out as a sort of "fantasy" makes it all the more intriguing; it's like they're not even really acting on it. It makes their relationship that much more complex. From a creative perspective, it's bold, risky and worth every ounce of dramatic tension it provides — on its own, and perhaps even to set up a way in which the Skywalker bloodline might continue for the next generation.

    As you mentioned, Episode 9 hadn't been written as Rian wrote his story, and since these films have thus far served as a generational saga of the Skywalker family, it's wise and important that Johnson opened a window — and a tantalizingly interesting one — for the Skywalker family to continue. We'll see if JJ Abrams decides that it should.