My Thoughts on The Last Jedi

I think it’s fair to say that The Last Jedi is…divisive. I’ve tried to avoid reviews so far (I wanted to keep my palette clean until I’d written these thoughts, and I knew I’d want to write them), but the article and video titles I’ve seen make that much clear on their own. So do the TV Tropes entries, which I’ve skimmed in the process of jogging my memory. I’m inclined to agree; there’s a lot I liked about The Last Jedi and a lot I didn’t like. As mentioned, I knew I’d want to write about it by the time I finished watching the movie, so…here we are. I’m writing this, and to my surprise, you’re reading it.

The Force Awakens tries to do a lot of stuff I like, and succeeds at much of it. But it also fails at other parts, and does things that I don’t like, and some things which hardly anyone likes. It’s a film with many fans and many detractors, because it does many good things and many bad things. So I’m going to write down my thoughts on the movie and throw them into the uncaring void of the Internet.

My first general thought, other than “This does some stuff well and some stuff poorly,” is that it seems like a mixture of two films. I don’t mean “one good and one bad,” or “one about Finn and one about Rey,” or even something like “it’s like someone mixed The Empire Strikes Back with the end of Rogue One”. From my status as a layman who watches some YouTube channels focusing on the art of filmmaking, I conjecture that there were a couple of drafts of The Last Jedi, covering essentially the same character development and leaving everything in the right place for Episode IX.

Perhaps neither of them covered all of the bases as well as they would like, so the strongest parts of each script were combined to make the movie we saw. It’s also possible that something happened (say, a major actress dying), forcing them to revise their plans and throw in elements from the secondary script to cover the holes which revisions added in. Whether either of these possibilities are true, or neither, almost every individual moment in the movie shines, but occasionally cracks form. Combine with a handful of individual moments that really don’t shine, and you have a polarizing movie.

But I don’t want to leave it at that; I want to explain myself. Be warned that it’s been a week or two since I’ve seen The Last Jedi, so my recollection may not be entirely accurate. Hopefully this won’t be a major issue. In case you also haven’t seen the film lately, let’s start with a summary of the two stories present in The Last Jedi. First is the story of Finn, Poe, and some new characters as they try to save the Resistance from a First Order fleet by hacking their sensors with a detour to pick up a hacker; the second is the tale of Rey, Kylo Ren, and the last of the Jedi.

 

The movie, naturally, opens on a big battle. Unlike TESB, it’s a space battle! The last of the Resistance are evacuating a planetary base while their fleet holds off the Imperial—I’m sorry, First Order—fleet. Poe Dameron leads his wing on a reckless attack, despite orders specifically not to, and ends up destroying one (big) First Order ship at the cost of several of his own…ships the Resistance can’t afford to replace, crewed with rebels (resistors?) they can’t afford to lose. Neither leader is happy with the results; Leia is pissed that Poe ignored orders at the expense of his allies, while Snoke is pissed that Hux wasn’t perfect.

Luckily (for him), Hux is tracking the surviving Rebels. They promptly jump to the Rebels’ location and begin a new attack. A wing lead by Kylo Ren himself destroys the flagship’s bridge, nearly killing General Organa; however, she manages to Force herself back into the spaceship, where she can be put on life support. Vice Admiral Holdo is in command, and takes a seemingly passive strategy—have all remaining ships try to outrun the First Order for as long as possible (about a day). It’s revealed that she also intends to have the Resistance escape the big ships via smaller transports. Poe and Finn aren’t happy about this, so they recruit BB-8 and a mechanic named Rose Tico (whose sister died in Poe’s assault on the dreadnought) to attempt a daring plan. Poe mutinies against Holdo’s “cowardly” plan, while Finn, Rose, and the droid follow a lead provided by Maz.

This lead brings them to Canto Bight, another planet, where they intend to pick up a master codebreaker, who is currently hanging out in a casino. They end up detoured when they are arrested for a parking violation (I’m not exaggerating), but they luckily find a substitute codebreaker—a “slicer” named DJ. With his help, they escape from prison, freeing some mistreated racing animals in the process, before returning to the main part of the plot. While they were gone, the First Order picked off most of the Resistance’s ships (which were evacuated first), but not much else happened. They attempt to break into the First Order ship and disable the tracking sensor thingy, but are stopped, in part due to DJ’s betrayal.

Meanwhile, Poe discovers that Holdo’s plan is not as moronic as it sounds. There’s an old rebel base on a nearby planet, which Holdo intends to send the Resistance to so they can hole up and contact other resistance cells. Holdo would stay behind on the main ship, to trick the First Order into not noticing the transports. Unfortunately, when Finn and Rose explained the plan to the traitor DJ, he got enough of it to the First Order that they managed to find and understand the purpose of the transports. In other words, Poe’s and Finn’s mutiny and plotting screwed things up further. Luckily, the First Order’s efforts are disrupted by Holdo ramming the First Order flagship at FTL speeds (creating a debris cloud which destroyed much of its escort) and the strangely unrelated death of Supreme Leader Snoke. Unluckily, Kylo Ren takes up the reins and follows the Resistance.

The Resistance holes up in the old Rebel fortress, but there are some problems. Not the least of which is the First Order force which landed behind them, bringing with a small superlaser[1]. The Resistance sallies out with a force of weird ski-fighters to try and blow up the siege superlaser, but a bunch of TIE Fighters show up to ruin the day. Since the TIEs can fly and the ski-fighters can’t, the situation seems hopeless, but then Rey shows up in the Millennium Falcon and draws off the TIEs (thanks in part to Kylo ordering the Falcon blown up the moment he recognized it).

The Resistance broadcasts their message, but nobody responds. (At least, not in the time they have. It’s probably on their answering machines.) No help is coming; the galaxy might be doomed. But then, Luke shows up, chats with the Rebels some, and goes out to hold off the Order. This buys the Resistance time to escape; with the help of Rey and Chewbacca, they do.

 

During the opening scenes in space, we see Supreme Leader Snoke goad Kylo Ren on. Snoke mocks Kylo for failing to embrace the Dark Side in all of its malicious, mustache-twirling glory. He also pokes fun at Kylo being a Vader fanboy. Kylo takes this criticism to heart, smashing his old helmet before leading an attack on the Resistance…but he holds back when he senses his mother. His wingmen destroy the bridge regardless, but the hesitation is still important. Kylo is clearly torn.

Rey begins the movie on an isolated planet with Luke Skywalker, who seems fed up with the Jedi and apathetic to the galaxy. Luke is eventually convinced to train Rey, despite his strongly-held opinion that the Jedi’s time is over. However, he remains reluctant. Rey’s power reminds him too strongly of Ben Solo, and there are hints dropped constantly that she has a dangerous curiosity towards the Dark Side. But the plot thickens as Rey starts Force Skypeing with Kylo Ren, to the confusion of both.

Through conversations with Luke and Kylo, Rey discovers that Luke (who, in a moment of weakness, considered killing Ben) accidentally drove Ben to destroy Luke’s Jedi temple in what he perceived as self-defense. But that’s not all she discusses with them; Luke lectures Rey about the teachings of the Jedi and how they failed, in the process introducing and deconstructing some old books of Jedi lore. Meanwhile Kylo criticizes Rey for trying to find replacement parental figures. Ultimately, Rey abandons Luke, returning to the Resistance which Luke refused to join, hoping to turn Kylo Ren to the Light Side. (Oh, and Chewbacca is there, too. He doesn’t do much, aside from piloting the Falcon.)

Rey goes to Snoke’s ship to meet Kylo, and the two of them are promptly brought forward to the Supreme Leader. Rey tries to turn Kylo to the Light Side, but Snoke is amused by her feeble attempts at getting Kylo to not be a colossal dick. It turns out that Snoke orchestrated the whole thing, getting the two budding Force-users connected on Force Skype as part of a plot to discover and destroy Luke Skywalker. Rey tries to attack Snoke, but Snoke retaliates, using his unparalleled Force power to literally throw Rey around. Snoke then commands Kylo to kill Rey.

Unfortunately, the whole “don’t be like Darth Vader” thing sunk in too well; rather than remaining loyal to Snoke until he talked about replacing Kylo, he just slices Snoke in half.[2] The two of them work together to fight Snoke’s guards, and do so quite well. Afterwards, though, things grow tense. Each tries to (metaphorically) seduce the other to their preferred side of the Force, but neither wants to see their preferred galactic order destroyed. Ren gets Rey to all but admit that her parents were…nobody! Just a couple of poor, unimportant junkers who sold her into slavery for drinking money and are probably dead by now. The two of them get into a struggle, each trying to claim Anakin’s lightsaber, and it explodes. Rey recovers first, and flees the spaceship on Snoke’s shuttle.

Admiral Hux arrives at the scene and almost executes Kylo Ren before he wakes up. Kylo tells Hux that Rey killed Snoke before making the new pecking order clear. Supreme Leader Ren brings the First Order to the nearby planet of Crait, known for its sea snakes, beautiful salt fields, and rebel base where the Resistance fled to. After a brief skirmish/siege-engine shot, Kylo sees Luke in front of the base and orders everything to open fire on him.  When the dust settles, he’s unscathed. Kylo runs out to engage Luke, first using his words, vowing to destroy the Jedi and the Resistance. Luke replies that they’ve been reborn in Rey and the Resistance. Kylo attacks, discovering that Luke is nothing but a Force projection, sent to taunt and distract Kylo. But doing so was too much effort, and back on his planet, Luke collapses. Then he gets back up and discorporates.

Oh, and Rey helped lead off some fighters and brought surviving Resistance members to safety. The movie ends with her talking to the Resistance, and throws in a couple of reveals. One is obvious and probably unimportant; some kid that Finn and Rose talked to is revealed to be Force-sensitive and have the Resistance ring they showed him, which probably isn’t important beyond thematic implications. The second is less obvious but probably more important—Rey picked up the Jedi books.

 

These two stories are almost completely unrelated; aside from some overlap in the big battles, mostly courtesy of Kylo Ren, they are entirely independent narratives. This isn’t inherently a problem; the sequel trilogy is an ensemble story, and has always been billed as such. It’s not the story of one Skywalker, it’s the story of Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren and maybe a couple others depending on who you ask. I imagine that all drafts of the film had split stories like this; you can’t really integrate Finn into a story about Rey finding herself as a Jedi without Finn also learning Jedi-ness, and the setup for that wasn’t all there by the end of The Force Awakens.

But there are other places where the integration of these hypothetical drafts seem to come apart. One is the Canto Bight cul-de-sac, which was a sequence I loved in isolation despite the voice in the back of my head asking why they had to go to another planet in a hopefully-not-to-distant part of the galaxy when they had hours before the Resistance ran out of fuel. The other is the climax—or, rather, climaxes. If I had to guess, I’d say that one draft had a climax in space, on the Imperial flagship and the fleeing rebel transports, while the other had the climax planetside in a siege on the rebel base. Neither individual climax could be worked to tie up all narrative and thematic loose ends (or at least not to the desired level), so they put them together in an elongated climactic sequence.

In and of itself, this isn’t a huge problem. One plot cul-de-sac and a drawn-out climax aren’t great, but they’re hardly crippling issues. But if my (idle, untrained) speculation is correct, the troubled scripting and possibly other production issues which share a cause with it are likely at the heart of most of The Last Jedi’s issues.

 

Let’s analyze that plot cul-de-sac, because I think it’s a bit unfairly maligned. I admit, it doesn’t move the plot forward, and sticking a jaunt to a nearby planet in the middle of a lengthy chase scene feels something akin to popping down to Spain to help a French Resistance squad currently being chased by Nazis. (The travel times and timelines presumably work out somehow, but it feels wrong.) Yet taken alone, it’s one of my favorite segments in the film.

First, we have the city itself. There are three primary settings in the film—the mossy little island Luke was on, the area around the old rebel base, and various starship interiors. Visually, the gaudy casino/resort was a pleasant contrast to those three. The city’s appearance also contrasts audience expectations; from the vague descriptions we hear ahead of time about Canto Bight being the worst place in the galaxy, we expect to see a hive of scum and villainy like Mos Eisley, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yet parallels are still drawn between the two places; tell me that the casino music doesn’t remind you of the Most Eisley cantina’s signature song. While we’re on relatively shallow (yet still important in their own way!) aspects, I liked the sequence where the herd of racing animals were being run through the city; it was mostly spectacle, but it was a distinctly different kind of spectacle from battles with starships or Jedi or what-have-you.

But there are deeper points to be made. Canto Bight builds the character of Rose and foreshadows how she will impact Finn’s character development. The former comes mostly from exposition, but the latter is a bit subtler. One moment I loved was at the end of that stampede, where Finn and Rose had just run a bunch of giant animals through the city, screwing with the lives of the war profiteers who Rose said she hated and (in part) blamed for her home’s destruction…yet the film made it clear that she didn’t care about that. She only cared about freeing the animals. This helps Finn let go of his desires for vengeance so he could protect what he loves.[3] Finn’s character arc falls apart without these scenes, and Rose is rendered just a love interest to dampen Finn/Rey shipping. (As if that would work.)

I also like what DJ brings to the table. Rather than being a loveable rogue revealed to have a heart of gold like Han Solo, he’s morally ambiguous. DJ is a criminal, and knows it; that’s why he ends up betraying the Resistance. But he doesn’t just have his own moral ambiguity; after the Canto Bight segment builds up the war profiteers of the planet as bad guys supporting bad guys, DJ brings up the fact that they sold to both sides. Sure, they’re still war profiteers, but that hardly stopped the rebels from working with them. It’s only a little moral greyness in the grand scheme of things[4], but it’s still more than Star “Jedi Good, Sith Bad” Wars usually has. He also fits into the film’s deconstruction of a couple of tropes I think are horribly overused and underexamined, but that’s a topic for another time.

And yet, despite all of these great elements, the segment still has its issues. Its ultimate effects consist of DJ joining the team, exposition about Rose’s backstory, and a small step in Finn’s character arc. Were all of those scenes really required for that? And what about how they forced Poe’s side of the storyline into a holding pattern while they were out? And what about that whole flying to a nearby planet to get help hacking a First Order ship which was in the middle of chasing and destroying a Resistance fleet? And—well, I hope you see what I mean when I say the sequence is good on its own but doesn’t work quite as well in the movie as a whole.

 

There are also a few bits which don’t work great alone, either. Some are personal taste; for instance, I thought the porgs and BB-8 took up a few too many quick little shots in the middle of tense moments. I appreciate that a little levity can help those scenes flow better, and understand that some people love cute droids and aliens, but I don’t think they were handled well. That said, some are a bit less subjective. (Obviously, they’re still mostly subjective, just less based on personal taste.) Interestingly, two of the big ones center around Luke Skywalker.

The first is, of course, Luke briefly considering the murder of Ben Solo. Some (ranging from Mark Hamil to my father) have argued that such an action is entirely outside of Luke’s character; if he thought Darth Vader, one of the most destructive men in the galaxy, could be saved, why would he give up hope on one of his students? I’m inclined to be a bit less harsh; a lot can happen in a couple decades, and it’s common for us to consider things in low moments which would horrify us 99% of the time. But the issue wasn’t fleshed out enough for us to understand Luke’s perspective, so it seems paranoid, foolish, cruel…out of character.

The second is one of the last things in the movie. The editing—specifically, the choice of which shots to include—is odd. Luke, hovering while projecting himself across the galaxy, collapses onto the ground. Then he clambers back onto the rock he had fallen off of, gets into a meditative position, and vanishes. One of those shots would have communicated what happened more efficiently and more clearly. Then there’s the whole projection thing. Putting aside if Luke should be able to do it at all, we have Luke apparently showing up, getting shot to no effect, talking with Kylo, getting stabbed (to no effect), and then revealing his trick shortly before vanishing. Also, he talks some with the Resistance. The only reasons I can see for having him project instead of being there physically (and having an Obi-Wan-like death) are to avoid explaining how he got there, to have him survive the initial barrage plausibly, and so he wouldn’t have to use his full force against Kylo. Only the second feels particularly strong (show a spaceship, emphasize how much Luke’s connection with the Force has deteriorated, and you’ve mostly solved the other issues), and that hardly feels necessary. It’s just a confusing sequence.

 

That said, there’s a lot to like about The Last Jedi. I’ve mentioned some bits already, from Rose Tico’s backstory to Snoke’s death scene. The characters aren’t the deepest or most compelling I’ve seen, but most of them are still good. The spectacle is spectacular, the alien worlds breathtaking, and the struggle is epic. It’s a film with all the polish and production values you’d expect from Disney and Lucasfilms, and with a heart beneath it. There’s a lot to love, and a lot to dislike. If only things had gone smoother in pre-production, I could see this being the best Star Wars film by far.

But maybe that’s not fair. After all, you could turn Suicide Squad into a gem if you removed the pre-production issues. That’s such a broad description that it can solve almost any problem. We should look at what The Last Jedi is, not what it could be. I’ve had trouble with that in the past; I admit that I’ve liked a few movies for what they tried to be despite them not remotely living up to it. Through that lens, The Last Jedi is still a good film…but perhaps not a great one. But it tried! It took risks. Some succeeded, some failed. In the end, what we have is a film that people will be arguing about for quite a while.

 

 

There’s a lot more to say about The Last Jedi, but I don’t want to get too wordy. Maybe I could talk about the themes of Finn’s arc, or what the actions of Luke and Rey mean for the end of the Jedi. I’d love to as eloquent about all the typical tropes which The Last Jedi dissected, and how this might have affected peoples’ opinions of it. So, if anyone reading this wants to read more, let me know what sounds interesting to you.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The kind of weapon used by the Death Star. Dialogue implies it wasn’t new tech (just old tech on a new scale), but if I’m not mistaken this is the first time we’ve seen a non-planet-buster-scale superlaser. 

[2] I love this scene; it underlines Snoke’s arrogance and his reliance on the Force. If he had opened his eyes instead of just watching Kylo’s feelings, the trilogy would have gone a vastly different direction. 

[3] Incidentally, this forms a nice parallel with Kylo Ren, who consistently rejects the love showed to him by everyone from his father to Rey[5] in favor of getting vengeance on those he hates. And sometimes on those he also loves. People are complicated. 

[4] Though my personal taste in fiction might have miscalibrated my moral greyness…sensing thing.

[5] Not that I ship them; platonic love is a thing, and probably not a thing Kylo Ren has had in abundance since turning to the Dark Side.

One thought on “My Thoughts on The Last Jedi

  1. I am a little confused by how much controversy TLJ has about it. It just seemed like a good, entertaining movie. There’s a warmth to its energy I don’t feel from any of its predecessors, and, like, Holdo’s jump to lightspeed? Worth 2 hours and $16 in itself.

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