Because fuck it, I may as well get this off my mind, and what better way than writing it out so I don’t have to think about a movie that came out several months ago anymore.
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi managed to divide fans of the franchise in ways unseen since the prequels. However, was it really anything worth getting so pissy about? The first time I saw it, my impression of the movie was that it was unevenly made, with much to dislike and some things to think were fine at the very least. However, a second viewing caused me to rethink my opinion a bit, so I figure I may as well lay those thoughts out here. Note that I tried to avoid going into too much detail, because that would have lengthened the review even more, so I focused on areas of which I felt most strongly regarding the movie. As is my habit, there will be spoilers.
Things that Rocked: Luke’s Last Hurrah
Regardless of my ambivalence about Luke’s treatment as a whole, if one thing was done well in regards to his character, it was how he went out, as it was true to the ethos of the Jedi and to what he has always represented within the context of the saga.
Based on what Yoda emphasized in the original trilogy, the Jedi were supposed to the Force not to attack, but for knowledge and defense. Luke’s big moment at the end lived up to this. While some might be disappointed at him not coming in to save the day to kick ass, it was fitting for the greatest of the Jedi to do what he needed to without committing violence, a fitting contrast with his earlier failure to do so leading to the current events of the story. By doing what he did, he managed to not only buy much needed time for the Resistance, but also successfully humiliated his nephew even as he made clear that there was still hope for him, even if it was not obvious at the time.
Speaking of hope, this was the second reason why Luke’s behavior worked for him as a character. The earlier movies emphasized time and again that Luke was the best hope for good to triumph over evil, and that his very actions inspired it in others. It’s Luke who represents the last hope of a free galaxy and the Jedi by the end of the prequels, and it is Luke who restores hope when he blows up the Death Star. It’s Luke who draws Vader away from the darkness in which the latter steeped himself, and it’s Luke again who manages to, through the righteousness of his character, triumph over everything Palpatine represented. If hope could be personified, here lay its great champion. To know that Luke’s sacrifice not only bought the Resistance another day, that his actions would inspire those hearing of the event through secondhand sources, was as fitting an exit as it gets for him.
Things that Rocked: The Esoteric Force
Another detail I appreciated was how the Force was returned to its mystical roots. With midichlorians, Lucas had attempted to scientifically quantify the nature of what had been a vague, all-pervading existence that surrounded and bound all things, which in many respects was in conflict with the mythical nature of the story up to that point.
It was also rather decent of the movie to also give viewers a better idea of the nature of the Force. The island and the water mural both served to illustrate the interplay between the Light and the Dark, with neither side so much in a perfect 50-50 balance as constantly shifting back and forth like waves, this interaction in turn creating the energy field known as the Force.
I also thought the sequence with Rey in the cave was actually a visually striking one that added more insight into the nature of the Dark Side. Rather than being evil in itself, the Dark seems to offer insight into the self, including some of the harsher truths of the individual. If anything, the problem with the Dark Side is that those who try to use this introspective part of the Force for their own purposes become obsessed with the self to the point of losing all regard for everyone and everything else, not helped at all by how the Dark is connected to the more destructive aspects of nature.
In short, the Force works similar to a mix of Yin-Yang and Christian morality. Nature has Light and Dark, with neither having anything to do with morality in themselves, but it’s when people try to use them that morality becomes involved. It also averts the trap of ‘grey’ by indicating that balance isn’t using both sides of the Force, but in mastering the self in order to achieve true benevolent selflessness.
Things that Bugged Me: Rey in the Dark
As much as I did appreciate the attempts to explore the Force in a mystical manner, something that did irk me was that there was little sense of the Dark Side tempting Rey despite her not even bothering to resist its pull on the island. While it did reveal an important truth to her, it also failed to live up to its usual standard of offering some form of internal conflict for the character to work past. This kind of contributes to the idea that Rey is just plain bland, even compared to the previously idealistic Luke, in that there’s just nothing to hint at her potentially falling (it doesn’t help that she is shown getting emotionally worked up during battles yet this doesn’t seem to ever go anywhere). Maybe it was so that it would be easier for Kylo to take advantage of her emotional vulnerability?
Things that Bugged Me: An Odd Lack of Sensible Emoting
Another bit that stood out to me was Luke’s seeming lack of response to hearing of Han’s death, as well as his muted reaction to meeting Chewbacca for the first time in years. What should have been an emotional beat was quickly passed over, even if there was a hint of something more when Luke sneaks onto the Falcon and handles the dice. It was all the more striking given how much more visibly touched he was to see R2-D2 again.
To be fair though, Luke wasn’t exactly showing much in the way of extended mourning behavior after his aunt and uncle got flash fried and Obi-Wan was struck down in front of him, so maybe this was just the result of maintaining a fast-paced pulp adventure with a light tone.
Things that Sucked: The Chase
One of the major plot lines of the movie involved the Resistance fleet being pursued by the First Order, with the former being unable to escape the latter due to their ability to track them through hyperspace. It was like watching Fury Road, except if the chase in that movie had been a low-speed chase completely lacking in tension and boring to watch. Cripes, I may as well have been watching the LAPD chase a white Bronco for all the ridiculous hype placed on such a tedious plot line. Had they wanted to do a continuous chase through the galaxy, it might have been better to take some cues from the far superior one in The Empire Strikes Back.
The problems with the chase’s execution should be clear to even the most casual viewer. First up is the fact that the chase possesses nothing in the way of a sense of speed. A good chase gives a sense of progress, and this often involves use of the surrounding environment. However, the only real environmental markers came in the form of the darkness of space and passing stars in the background. Whenever the ships are shown, there’s nothing to indicate rapid movement. It’s just one set of ships firing languidly at another just ahead of them.
The above wasn’t helped by Leia’s moment. You know the one. Look at that scene and stifle your chuckles a bit (I thought the idea of Leia getting a moment to use the Force was fine in concept, just terrible in execution). Notice that she’s drifting in space for a bit, yet manages to get back to a ship that is supposedly moving at top speed away from the scene.
The second reason why the chase sucks comes from how lacking in tension it is as a result of how monotonous the entire thing is. Much of it occurs off-screen, and what we do see is completely unexciting. There’s no use of editing or cinematography or what have you to make us feel the noose tightening around the Resistance. Sure, we see other ships get taken down, but it’s so brief and happens to characters we have no reason to care about. To add to this boredom, the fact that the entire chase hinged in part on limited fuel supplies was not supported by the fact that the movie’s other subplots failed to make events feel as compressed as they should have. Remember how Finn seems distracted once he sees the casino? That’s not exactly a great way to show a character who’s in a rush to save the Resistance. In fact, the chase felt like it took a few days or even a week when it should have felt like several hours or a day (although this does raise questions about how the hell Han got to Bespin without a hyperdrive).
Things that Sucked: The Idiot Plot
So let’s get to another thing that really drags this movie down for me: the fact that a lot of what happens only does so because characters act like morons. In this case, let’s point out the subplot involving Poe and Holdo.
With Leia out of commission following the First Order’s surprise attack early on, a new character who we’ve never so much as heard of in the movies takes command. Obviously, as an unknown factor, the point of this is so that the audience is able to more easily root for the recognizable faces and question both the competence and allegiance of Holdo. As you should know by this point, Holdo turns out to be on the up and up, and Poe winds up engaging in a foolish attempted mutiny. However, a closer analysis of this plot line reveals quite a few cracks.
First up is Holdo’s introduction. She’s obviously a little out of place given that she’s wearing a fancy dress in a military setting. Unlike Mon Mothma, she doesn’t appear to be a political leader, and even Leia, who was fine with wearing more formal wear in this movie, was also shown wearing more practical items in the context of her position. So Poe comes in and gives her a bunch of information without asking and consideration for the possibility that she herself might be privy to it and more given her position relative to his own. She also undermines him, which, while somewhat understandable, is done at the wrong time and perhaps a little more harshly than should be done during a desperate situation. Furthermore, when prodded for a plan, rather than at the very least offering some assurances as a good leader should, she merely pulls rank, an act which is not likely to earn an underling’s respect (which makes it seem that whoever wrote this had no idea how effective military hierarchies, for all their emphasis on a chain of command, work). It’s clear at this point that Holdo has effectively been promoted beyond her level of competence.
Later on, a visibly desperate Poe again asks Holdo if she has a plan. A capable superior officer would, recognizing low morale, work to alleviate this. Even if she were not to spill the beans, she could have at least assured him that there was a plan, and also engaged in actions that would have kept things from reaching a point where her underlings saw fit to stage a mutiny. Unfortuately, Captain Queeg there fails to do anything that is actually productive.
I get the sense that in an earlier draft of the story, there were fears of a spy among the Resistance, hence Holdo being so tight-lipped. Not only would this justify her secrecy, but it would also create a tense atmosphere that would have been alleviated only if the Resistance had figured out the secret behind the First Order’s ability to track them (the hyperspace tracker, which was instead revealed early on in the film).
Poe then finds out that Holdo intends to have everyone abandon ship, and because things have gotten this bad, Holdo is unable to explain things in time before the situation hits a breaking point.
As a result of the above, Poe stages a mutiny which quickly falls apart, and poor communication decisions cause the bad guys to get wind of their opponents’ escape plan. It was a poorly written plot that centered in part around a character we couldn’t help but hate because of her sheer incompetence. Killing herself and taking a chunk of the villains with her at least somewhat redeemed the character, even if it did cause new complaints among those who argued about the viability of simply striking military targets using hyperspace ramming.
Things that Sucked: The Unnecessary Subplot
Unfortunately, a lot of these issues surround the writing of the new character of Rose. When Finn and her are making their escape from Canto Bight, she takes the time to free the fathiers, considering this act the real victory of the day.
I get that this moment with the alien horse with the creepy uncanny valley face was meant to show the importance of small acts of kindness even among the greater conflicts going on, but the logic used there was rather poorly thought out. For one, they didn’t free the kids from their oppressive existences, and chances are that the fathiers would either be hunted down and returned to their previous roles, or the track owners would just find new ones. This sort of short-term thinking brings to mind the logic of a limousine liberal who engages in volunteer tourism and corporate charitable donations despite suggestions that such activities actually don’t do much good and in fact harm the locals, and then justifies themselves less out of a desire to help than to feel good about themselves. In that way, I can’t help but wonder how out of touch the writers in Hollywood must be to think this argument holds water.
And let’s not forget yet another dumb moment late in the film when Finn, eager to finally die for a cause he believes in, engages in what he expects to be a suicide run against a battering ram laser, only for Rose to slam her vehicle into his in order to save his life (good thing that the crash didn’t kill either of them), and then for the story to make this seem like a wise decision when as far as either of them were concerned, they and their comrades were about to be hunted down like animals. To make matters worse, Finn winds up having to drag her dumb ass all the way back to the Rebel hideout.
I feel bad for Rose’s actress. I truly do. She gets what should be her big break only to wind up playing a badly written character and then harassed for it by idiots when the only ones worth criticizing (not harassing) for anything other than the quality of her performance were the people who went ahead with the creative decisions surrounding the character.
Aside from Rose, another issue that bugged me was the whole thing they had about war profiteering. It was silly enough that the military industrial complex is the most lucrative in the galaxy, but the whole thing doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels like a jab at real world politics and a lame attempt to insert moral greyness into the story, and worse yet, the focus quickly returns to the black and white conflict between Rebels and Empire. The entire matter brings to mind George Lucas and his attempts at making the Clone Wars more complex by suggesting that the Separatists had legitimate gripes with the Republic, only to show none of this in the movies and to treat all the Separatist leaders as moustache twirling villains.
And let’s not forget that this entire plot thread with Finn and Rose takes its sweet time despite the fact that the two characters were supposedly in a rush.
Things that Sucked: Sticking to the Status Quo
Now here’s the original sin of the sequel trilogy: the fact that there is almost nothing new under the sun. The problem a lot of people had with The Force Awakens was that it was ultimately nothing more than a greatest hits album put to film of the original trilogy. You had a bunch or rebellious Rebels facing off against the Empire but not really with the intent of transporting an important MacGuffin while having to launch a ground assault in order to remove a shield in order to blow up a bigger Death Star while there was moral and martial conflict between parents and children. Throughout all this, the movie sought to remind you of things that evoked the original films, including a scene at a bar where a bunch of shady looking aliens hanged out. However, given the need to revive the franchise after the divisive nature of the prequels, this was understandable, and hopes were that the following episode would allow the sequel trilogy to form its own identity.
Unfortunately, The Last Jedi, despite claiming to be doing something different, merely evoked even more of the original trilogy in an attempt to subvert its expectations, all the while establishing a new status quo that looked eerily similar to the previous films.
Meanwhile, all this did not distract from the fact that the sequel trilogy made the original films seem completely pointless. Luke, who was the new hope of the Jedi and the galaxy at large turned out to be a failure in both regards despite previous movies (to say nothing of the ending of Revenge of the Sith) making clear that he was the person destined to make everything as it should be after his father went off the right path. The Jedi are all but extinct, and need yet another single person to revive the order. The galaxy is back to having an imperial superstate in charge that needs to be removed. Han moved on from his shady past, only to regress back into it once his family collapsed. Leia was able to combine her desire to fight for a cause with personal fulfillment, and then her son went bad, and her marriage collapsed, and her political career went down the shitter, and she went back to being a military leader of a rebellion. The result of this is that the original trilogy now has a fresh paint of futility applied to its coat after the fact. So much for idealism and happy endings.
And don’t give me that crap about how this reflects real life. This series was never meant to reflect real life in its complex entirety, but rather the fairy tales of myths of old that told their audiences that there were battles worth fighting and that evil could be vanquished, or at least beaten back. But now it’s just another gritty war story where happy endings are short-lived and idealism is not nearly enough to make the fight worth fighting in the grand scheme of things.
Things that Sucked: What is the Context?
Another one of the original sins of the new trilogy is the lack of context into which the audience was thrown. In this movie, despite knowing little about him, we finally got to meet Supreme Leader Snoke, and then his top half decided to get a closer look at the floor of his throne room.
Now you might argue that it was the same with the original trilogy. We didn’t know much about Palpatine, not even his name. He was just the emperor. The difference is that we didn’t need to know about him beyond what we got. The premise that was set up since the first film saw the heroes having to fight the Dark Side of the Force and the evil Empire that ruled the galaxy. We knew that there was an emperor who ruled it, and he made a brief appearance in the following film before appearing in person in Return of the Jedi. By that point, what we did know of him was what was important to know, namely, what he represented. As the emperor, he was the personification of the Empire and all its material and social evils. As Vader’s master, he was the personification of the spiritual evils that came from surrendering to the Dark Side. To confront him was to confront the one being that represented everything wrong that needed to be righted in the saga.
Now compare that to the situation we have in the sequel trilogy. As a continuation from previous films, the audience was thrust into a situation in which the seemingly happy ending of the previous movies was completely undone, and little explanation is given for why. The audience needs to know these details. The original trilogy could get away with it because it was a new story and the premise was all that was needed to start with. Meanwhile, because these films are sequels, actual context is required, and that includes information on this Snoke fellow, where he came from, and how he undid the heroes’ victory from earlier. To see him get cut down has no significant dramatic impact because he’s such a vague concept both as a symbol and as a character (to say nothing of the fact that he came off as a discount Palpatine).
Having gone through my thoughts on the film, I’d say that my opinion of it has shifted somewhat. After my first viewing, I was ambivalent about the whole thing, and thought it rather uneven. After a second viewing, I’ve come to find myself, while not hating the movie, leaning somewhat toward disliking it as a whole. It’s not the worst movie ever, but I would not consider it anywhere near the best of the Star Wars films. It probably didn’t help that I’m not sure that the choice of director was ideal for making the next Empire.
I’ve made no secret of my less than positive feelings toward mainstream films that are designed to get decent Rotten Tomatoes scores without necessarily being great films in their own right. At the same time, there’s a quote from Rian Johnson about this sort of thing that kind of worries me even as it seemingly captures what I wanted out of a mainstream blockbuster:
“I would be worried if everybody across the board was like ‘yeah, it was a good movie’ it’s much more exciting to me when you get a group of people who are coming up to you who are really really excited about it. Then there are other people who walk out literally saying ‘it’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.’ Having those two extremes is the mark of the type of movie that I want to make.”
While it would at first seem that he is trying to do something special, look at the quote again. He wants it to be either a “good” movie or “the worst movie.” That’s where I have a problem with his reasoning. A creator aiming for something beyond the norm should strive to make something that inspires belief that it is one of the all time greats or one of the worst works ever. Merely being “good” means being relegated to being somewhat above average. Better to instead go big or go home, because at least serious critics will argue over the merits of your work long after you’re gone.
My hopes for the next movie at this point are simple: that they manage to at least stick the landing and make a worthy finale to the capstone of three separate trilogies. I hope that the characters are actually written well and that maybe Rey’s darkness is properly explored instead of being reduced to the generic and poorly handled “strong female character” that she started out as. I hope that there is actual tension instead of forced conflict. I hope that instead of wallowing in nostalgia, the final film can instead develop its own identity. I hope that the writers remember that the story is a morality tale, and that it is righteousness that wins the day rather than power levels. I also hope that John Williams turns in a stronger score, because while the music for the sequels thus far has been passable, it hasn’t lived up to what we would expect of a franchise praised for its music.
But then again, maybe it’s just time for the franchise to end.