Star Wars: The Last Jedi (A Review)
Spoilers. Spoilery spoilers that will spoil the newest entry in the Star Wars saga because spoilers. Spoilers. If you care about spoilers and haven't seen the movie, don't read this. Because spoilers.
To start, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Let me also say that there’s a high chance that I like every single Star Wars movie that is made, and in general I’m predisposed to liking movies more than I should when I see them in the theatre. These are things that I understand about myself and why I wanted to write this to consolidate my thoughts on the movie.
It’s only in retrospect that I can analyze these things, because I enjoy being a fan too much and can’t help but light up with excitement when I see an A-Wing flying around at the start of this movie. That’s all it takes to get me. It’s a low bar.
But I’m also trying to better understand story, and story structure. As a fan, I want to be critical of this thing that I like. I’m not worried about it diminishing the experience, because I’ve done this in the past and I’ve had the long discussions about problems with the new Star Wars and I still have so much fun going to see the films and even rewatching them at home.
I mean, spend a few minutes talking about the new Star Wars films with my brothers-in-law and you’ll understand.
There are problems with this film. Oh, are there problems.
Now, this won’t be an exhaustive discussion, because I’ve only seen the movie the one time and I’m slow on the uptake of this stuff (given my disposition to like these movies) so it usually takes me two watches to really dissect the thing. While not exhaustive, what I can highlight are the things that I noticed, that really jumped out at me and said, “You know, maybe this could have been done differently/better/without.”
Firstly let me say this is a long movie. At two hours and thirty three minutes, it’s the longest Star Wars to date. Consider that the original trilogy all clocked in around two hours, give or take. The prequels (AHEM, sorry, AHEM), were in the range of two hours and ten to twenty minutes. The Force Awakens was two hours fifteen.
Why does this matter? Well, I don’t necessarily think that the problem here is that the movie is two and a half hours long. It’s that it FEELS long. Plenty of movies are long without FEELING long. I was sitting in the theatre (again, fully and supremely enjoying my experience), and I thought multiple time, “The movie should be ending soon, right? How are they going to wrap this up?” The only other time I have felt that way in a movie was watching the Return of the King. And honestly, there’s a bit of the Return of the King action happening at the end of this movie. Rey saves the day (end? No). Pensive scene with Kylo and we see Luke evaporate (end? No). The dregs of the resistance flying away on the Falcon, with a nice group shot of people with expressions of hope and a swelling of the music (ok, surely the end now? No). Some random kids playing with dolls and telling the legend of Star Wars to each other, followed by one kid using the force and looking out over the sunset (seriously, this is the end? Yes).
The ending is indicative of one of the other issues I saw in the movie—which is related to its length—and that is over-complication. There's too much happening in this movie. Maybe just one too many things? I'm not sure specifically where this went wrong, but there are slightly too many plot events and characters and things to follow.
I'll concede that I think they did a good job jumping between all the stuff that was happening. I didn't feel lost or confused about what I was watching in the slightest, which is good. But just because you can do something well, doesn't mean you should do it.
I want to talk about theme in the category of things I liked, so I won’t broach it too much here. But I will say that I think theme is where they pulled this movie back from being just a jumble of random stuff that happened, and it was decent execution.
Where I really felt this complication was the little trip Rose and Finn make to the casino planet (can’t remember the name). They tie in the themes they are working with here, so it’s not a pointless excursion, but it’s a little ridiculous. At this point in the movie we have Luke on his island planet, Rey in the Falcon flying through space, the Resistance running away from the First Order, and Rose and Finn bumbling around a casino trying to be heroes.
And again, executed differently maybe and this isn’t an issue. My problem was that I noticed it. I felt that it was a little overcomplicated.
Why have these characters run off to a nearby planet to find some guy to help them crack into the star destroyer? Wouldn’t it be more economical to have them launch a sneak assault from the fleet? I get that people might say, “Why is it so easy to sneak onto a Star Destroyer?” But sneaking onto the bad guy’s stuff has happened so many times in Star Wars that doing it again wouldn’t break anyone’s immersion. They could spend more time sneaking on the Star Destroyer and less time fleshing out the backstory of a random new character that we are supposed to care about now. Oh, and maybe reduce the runtime of the movie.
Supreme Leader Snoke
What if we had a Death Star, but bigger? What if we had Emperor Palpatine, but more powerful? This goes back to theme a little bit, which I’m putting in the good section, for better or worse.
Andy Serkis does a good job here. I really believe that. He’s become so good at playing the CGI character that I find myself just accepting it. I mean, even when I watch Lord of the Rings I accept Gollum as a character regardless of the CGI. It’s the same thing here. He looks hideous, but I think that’s just to keep him outside of the uncanny valley (hello Tarkin and Leia from Rogue One).
What stinks about this character is that he has godlike force powers (granted he’s dealing with what are essential kids in regards to the force), some delusions of grandeur, and is immediately dealt with.
The obvious parallel is Emperor Palpatine in the original trilogy. Palpatine shows up in Empire as a hologram, Snoke shows up in Force Awakens as a hologram. Palpatine “captures” Luke and confronts him in Jedi and is killed by Vader, Snoke “captures” Rey and confronts her in The Last Jedi and is killed by Kylo. These are easy parallels, Snoke just shows up one movie earlier and is killed one movie earlier and cements the real Bad Guy of the movies as Kylo.
Except I don’t think Kylo is the bad guy. I might be wrong, but my speculation is that Kylo turns in the last movie of the series. Maybe he turns when he’s on his deathbed or something, but I feel like that’s the way they are taking this. I’d be willing to bet that the real bad guy of this movie is the desire for power or control or dominance, or something a little more nebulous like that.
I’m putting this here as a non-issue. I know a lot of people struggle with the physics and technology and ideas about “if they have suck-and-such technology, why wouldn’t they just blah blah blah…”
I don’t have a problem with this. There are points where I see something in the movie and say to myself, yeah the real world doesn’t work like that, or yeah seems like they could be a little more efficient with their technology here, but I let it go. It’s a suspension of disbelief thing, and it’s entirely subjective. What I will say is that you have to treat these movies as Fantasy and as Mythological stories. The entire thing (even from the original trilogy) is told in a fairy tale sort of way. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away. This is legend and myth that we are talking about, and who really believes all the little details about the myths and legends they are told.
So, what I’m saying is, cut some slack. You have to see the part where Leia floats back to the ship after being blown out into space as a mythical telling. There’s no other way to interpret that.
Somewhere in the Middle
The conversation I have more than any other is about Rey. From discussions of female protagonists to Mary Sue, I’ve heard a lot of it. If you’ve talked to me about this you’ve heard me say that I wanted to wait on at least Episode VIII to have a real opinion about this character. So, here we are. What do I think?
This movie, this series of movies, is about the Skywalkers.
I struggled with where to put this heading, because I think this is a good and a bad of the movie (and also The Force Awakens). For all the speculation and fan theories about who Rey is and who her parents are, we find out that she’s just a nobody. And this is the best thing they could have done with her, in my opinion. Everyone wanted her to be Kylo’s sister, or Luke’s daughter, or Obi-Wan’s descendent (how, exactly, does that work?). Turns out she was a junk trader’s daughter that was sold to pay off some debt. Her parents are dead.
This pulls some of the spotlight off of Rey. She was front-and-center in The Force Awakens as the new Luke Skywalker. But that’s not what she is at all. Yeah, she does the Luke analog stuff, going to train with the Jedi master (except not really), running away to save her friends, confronting the supreme leader (emperor), and trying to turn the Darth Vader analog from the dark side.
Rey is a protagonist in this movie, but she’s not the main protagonist. Just look at the key moments in the movie, the big turning points for the plot, and all you see are the Skywalkers/Solos. Luke, Leia, Ben. The biggest thing that Rey does is wakes up Luke from his cynicism and forces Kylo to confront his motivations.
Kylo kills Snoke, Leia saves the fleet (partly through her protege), Luke saves The Resistance. Rey supports the completion of this stuff, but more in the vein of how Han supports the Skywalkers in the original trilogy (especially given how she swoops in near the end and takes out the tie fighters).
And this wraps all the way around to why I was conflicted about this topic being in the good or the bad. Because why is Rey so prominent in this movie, and in The Force Awakens? Part of the answer to this is that they wanted a “Strong Female Protagonist.” This is how Disney is doing things, and I don’t want to go into the feminist/political discussion because I don’t want to and that’s a completely different subject and it shouldn’t matter. The fact of the matter is that Rey is not a particularly strong protagonist because she doesn’t advance the story in big ways. She does advance the story a little, as I said she wakes Luke up from his stupor and confronts Kylo and swoops in for the save a few times. But she doesn’t make the big moves.
If having a strong female protagonist is important to Disney, then why Rey? I get it, she’s powerful, but that doesn’t mean she’s strong in the story sense. I don’t have a problem with Rey being a woman, what I have a problem with is how they are handling her character and the prominence she’s given. You might read that and think that I have a problem with female leads in movies when I really don’t. What I have a problem with is female leads that don’t necessarily lead or drive the story.
If they wanted a strong female character in the story, why not make Kylo a woman? Rey could still be a woman, but they could take the spotlight off of her a little bit and still say that they have a strong female character.
Or just make Rey a Skywalker and have her DO more stuff. I don’t like this option as much, and again not because Rey is a woman (I feel like I have so many of these caveats), but because we would be talking about a major change to the movies, and to some of the themes of the movies.
The last possibility of why we are following Rey even though she isn’t as strong of a protagonist as I would like, is that we just haven’t seen it yet. Sort of like how I was waiting on this movie to have an opinion, it might be that they are playing this character as a sort of trilogy protagonist where each individual movie has another main protagonist. Maybe in the last movie of the trilogy she does more stuff and starts pushing the overarching story forward to its climax, which would fit with the broader three act structure when looking at each movie as an act in the trilogy. Complete conjecture on my part, but possible.
Somewhere in the middle because I wish there was more original to these movies, but there is reason to believe that the next one will have more original content. In Force Awakens we saw a lot of the same plot points and scenes as in A New Hope. But in The Last Jedi we get stuff from both Empire and Return of the Jedi. Again, this is Disney we’re talking about, so don’t get your hopes up too high, but Episode IX might actually be something entirely new.
All of the original characters are dead (or rather most likely will be by the start of the next one due to Carrie Fisher’s passing). We’ve rehashed most of the original trilogy iconic scenes. Now can we have something new?
Let me just reiterate that I’m a weirdo that likes these movies more than I should. I’d like to think that I am pretty open to their failings (as I try to show above), but I also know that I can fanboy pretty hard. So, fair warning, some of the stuff that I really liked in the movie is squarely in the realm of fanboy. Some of it is genuine story-related stuff and I’ll try to hit that first.
Let me start here because this movie is oozing with theme (as it should, as Star Wars is wont to do).
- What happens when a legend fails?
- Can someone who is nobody make a difference?
- What does it mean to be a hero?
- How is a war won?
- Is it better to leave the past in the past, or learn from those who have gone before?
- Is it better to destroy evil or to preserve good?
These are all really poignant questions asked in the film. At it’s core, Star Wars has always been about the struggle between good and evil. Individual films are not necessarily about good vs. evil, but one of the overarching themes of the series is: can good defeat evil? This is very simplistic theme, and if every movie in the series was about this it would get old fast.
The idea of theme is something I’ve been trying to pay more attention to in movies I watch and books I read. It’s this strange thing where there are things happening in the story that you see and then there is a theme underneath all of that stuff that is what the movie is really about. The Last Jedi is not about the Resistance running away from the First Order and Luke coming back and Kylo overthrowing the Supreme Leader. All that stuff happens in the movie, but it’s not what the movie is about.
I think the central theme of this movie is blatantly stated near the end. I don’t have the exact quote, but it’s something like, “This is how we win, not by blowing up what we hate, but by saving what we love.”
Watch the movie from the beginning where Poe recklessly takes his squadron into the jaws of an enemy dreadnaught, at tremendous cost, and destroys the thing. We’re starting from a state of, yeah, blowing up bad stuff works. Then we immediately have Leia berating him for the cost of his little mission, and demoting him. The climax is almost the opposite, where Luke sacrifices himself so that the Resistance can escape. He doesn’t destroy the bad, as we learn he tried to do, or at least briefly thought about doing, in the past. He saved the things he loved, his sister, the cause he believes in. In the end he saved, or at least wanted to save, the Jedi order instead of destroying it.
I love thematic elements in movies like this. I also really loved the minor themes running through it of failure, and what you do with failure. We meet Luke as a failure, and he’s given up. Kylo has failed to be the next Darth Vader. Poe fails to save the resistance even though he was daring and brave. Finn fails to be a hero by trying to run away. Rey fails to get Luke to come back (at least initially), and fails to get answers about her family.
I haven’t seen this kind of failure and subversion in Star Wars before. They take this legend of Luke Skywalker and just shatter it. They take all the shine off of him. Sort of like they did with Han in Force Awakens, but it cuts a little deeper. We met Han and he was just back to where he was before A New Hope, just a scummy smuggler running around the galaxy scamming people. Now we get a similar treatment with Luke, he’s in hiding, too afraid to open himself to the force because he doesn’t want to screw up again.
Is not J.J. Abrams. That in itself might be good enough to put him in the good. This isn’t J.J. Abrams hate. I enjoy his work, I like the things that he does, I like his style, but I don’t think it’s good for Star Wars.
J.J. seems to dwell firmly in the realm of the “mystery box” where he likes to introduce mysteries and then NEVER EXPLAIN THEM. See L.O.S.T. for more explanation of the mystery box approach. So much of the stuff in The Force Awakens sits in this mystery box realm, where he’s playing to the audience with the understanding that there are more movies to come. We didn’t get that in A New Hope, because it was the first movie George Lucas made in the series, and even all the Episode IV and subtitle stuff came later. It started as just Star Wars, the movie wrapped up nicely at the end, they could have left it there. The Force Awakens needs the subsequent movies for it to work well. It still kind of works by itself, but there are so many unanswered questions. Important unanswered questions.
Case in point? Rey’s parentage. J.J. posed this massive question of “who is Rey,” and never paid it off. I didn’t like how prominent this question was in The Force Awakens. I felt it detracted a little bit from the story. It was too heavy handed for me, like they were trying to get people to speculate rather than let it happen naturally. And whether or not this was Johnson’s idea or Disney’s idea, just making Rey a nobody was such a refreshing revelation.
Now, the cynical side of me knows that they can just as easily reverse this. I wouldn’t put it past Disney to come out in Episode IX and say, “Actually Kylo was lying and Rey is actually his sister.” But that would ruin so much of this movie to make the series unwatchable, so I think it’s unlikely.
In The Last Jedi, we get an ending. Yes, there is clearly room for more to be told, as we haven’t defeated Kylo Ren yet (or turned him). But the important questions that were posed in the movie were answered, the questions from the previous movie that should have been answered there were answered here, and we got an ending. All of this might be a way to explain the movie’s length and stuttering ending, because Johnson had to clean up Abrams’s mess.
Stepping away from comparing him to J.J. Abrams, I loved the little snippets we see of Rian Johnson in this movie. It has this feeling and style of being much darker than previous installments. We get some just beautiful shots of the Vice Admiral going to lightspeed and cutting a massive star destroyer in half. Everything goes silent and we just hang on this super high contrast shot of the dark Star Destroyer sliced through with a streak of white.
Rey confronts the darkness on the island and there is this great, very Rian Johnson-esque shot of many Reys standing in a line, snapping fingers and whispering. It’s creepy and weird and great.
When we get shots like the one of just Kylo’s feet as he’s running forward to kill Luke in a very Japanese Anime sort of way, it’s refreshing and gives Star Wars some motion that it’s never had before.
The idea that this guy is making a new trilogy in the Star Wars universe that is completely separated from the Skywalker saga films, that follows new characters with new circumstances, is incredibly exciting to me. It’s probably going to be many years before it appears, but I’m already sold.
He brought the stuff. I was wondering whether or not he would sound/look/act like Luke again, but he totally nails it. And he brings this sort of irreverent humor that I haven’t quite seen in Star Wars yet. The first scene we see with him is the continuation from the end of The Force Awakens, where Rey is extending the lightsaber to him. He looks at it, takes it, and promptly chucks it over his shoulder, off the cliff, and walks away.
This is the kind of Bathos that Star Wars needs to keep ramping the tension. We immediately see here’s a guy who has given up. We immediately get Star Wars: A New Hope style Luke Skywalker. “Leave my island. I failed. I can’t train you. The Jedi are finished. The Jedi always fail.”
In The Force Awakens, Luke is scene as this great legend and everyone wants him to come back and fix everything. Turns out he’s a cynical old man that just wants to die. And I’m going back to theme again, which we already talked about.
Can I just say really fast, thank you for bringing back old-school Yoda. We get to see the trickster side of him, and he’s a puppet again, and it’s great. That’s really all I have to say. I was expecting him to show up at some point, and he showed up at the moment where I expected him to. I was worried they were going to try to do some weird CGI Obi-Wan, like they did in Rogue One for Leia and Tarkin, but I’m glad they didn’t.
Fanboy alert. I love the starships in Star Wars. Probably my favorite non-story thing. There are A-Wings at the start of the movie, and that just blew my mind and made me so excited, even though they didn’t really do anything. They had these crazy slow bomber ships that were incredibly weak and blew up if you looked at them funny, and their version of snow speeders for the salt mining planet.
There’s a little insight into why I liked the end of Rogue One so much. Give me a space battle and I’m happy.
A New Beginning
If you’re still reading this, I admire your stamina. I expected to sit down and write a few thoughts out about the movie I just watched and I ended up with over 4,000 words.
Overall, I really enjoyed this movie. I sure hope you have already seen it before reading this spoiler review, but if you haven’t, I would recommend it. If you are a fan of Star Wars in general, I think this is an excellent edition. I think it’s safe to say that at the very least we are through the era of the prequels and of Star Wars movies being bad. I think they are solid. Maybe not amazing works of art and incredible storytelling, but at least decent. Far from the worst movie made this year.
To give an accurate placement of where this movie “ranks” in the Star Wars cannon I would need to watch it again. This is always true because where my first viewing is the fan viewing, my second viewing is where I can be more critical.
I think this movie is ushering in a new beginning for Star Wars, and I’m excited to see where they take the finale. I’m also excited for the continued ancillary movies and the new trilogy from Rian Johnson. There may come a day when these get old for me like the Superhero movies have, but at least, for now, there is only one a year.
Star Wars seems to have become a very divisive topic, so thanks for reading and bearing with my ideas. Just remember they are the thoughts of some random guy, and by no means gospel. I’m a geek, and I enjoy talking about and analyzing the things that I like.
And I fully expect Luke Skywalker to show up in his robes and scowl at me, then say, “Everything you just said was wrong.”