The Last Jedi: Too Much or Too Little?
Why Rian Johnson's Star Wars is the most important, and also the worst.
The above title, I must confess, is a falsehood; The Last Jedi is not quite as bad as Hayden Christensen in the infamous romantic comedy, The Attack of the Clones. That being said, Rian Johnson’s attempt to write and direct a Star Wars movie has numerous conspicuous problems, and its efforts to differentiate the sequel trilogy (ST) from the Star Wars of yore consistently come off as awkward and nonsensical. The more serious issues, however, stem from the script, as the more conservative, primarily plot-driving dialogue of the original three movies has been replaced with blatant cliche and frequent attempts at humor, which often appear even in the most intensely serious moments of the movie. A few thoughts:
The events of The Last Jedi, of course, must be taken in context with the previous Star Wars movies, both the Original Trilogy (OT) and Prequel Trilogy (PT). All three story arcs follow similar trajectories, strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Within each there are three main heroes that fill important character archetypes: the hero (Luke, Anakin, Rey), the skilled, comic relief sidekick (Han, Obi Wan, Poe), and the love interest (Leia, Padme, Finn). The Prequels are the only trilogy that strictly follows the classic triad, as in the OT Luke and Leia are siblings, and Han is given a larger role as Leia’s love interest in turn, while in the Sequels romantic boundaries are never quite set up.
The main plot difficulties within the ST tend to stem from the fact that there is almost no romance storyline on which to center the framework of the narrative; thus, while the other trilogies used two separate storylines coupled with a relationship dynamic to maintain audience interest, the Sequels, and, in particular, The Last Jedi, are forced to run three storylines at the same time. Within the eighth episode, this manifests itself with the Rey/Luke arc, the Poe/Leia/Vice Admiral Holdo arc, and the Finn/Rose arc. The main consequence of this triple split is the lack of screentime awarded both Vice Admiral Holdo and Rose’s backstory (beyond “my sister literally just died”); as a result the audience ends up caring for neither Holdo nor Rose. Finn and Rose’s kiss reads as extremely unexpected (especially in light of the fact that approximately half of Finn’s lines and decisions seem to be solely focused on Rey) and thus confusing, whereas Holdo’s sacrifice comes across as a writer’s desperate attempt to add emotion to the possibly the coolest moment of the film.
In the case of both the OT and PT, the pivotal movie came as the second of the three movies. This makes sense, as it is the least formulaic of the trilogy systen; the first deals a lot with exposition, naturally, while the third resolves the story as a whole as well as all the loose ends set up in the first two. Thus, the middle movie is left the most up to the director and writer as to how the narrative will progress. In the Original Trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back is often held as the best Star Wars film due to the innovative way it advances the storyline without needing a resolution, as well as the fact that it contained possibly the largest, most shocking plot reveal in cinematic history. By contrast, The Attack of The Clones is usually considered the worst Star Wars movie, due to a nonsensical plot, poor writing all around, and Hayden Christensen having to show emotion on-screen. Both defined their respective trilogies, but The Last Jedi goes farther; not only is it so far the most important movie in terms of defining the Sequel Trilogy’s role within the Star Wars universe, it is also the most important movie in terms of placing Star Wars within the film industry. It highlights both the failures of the Prequels as well as the successes of the OT, all while remaining the least “Star-Wars-esque” movie of the eight so far.
Star Wars, of all the popular monomyth-based sci-fi/fantasy universes, by far takes itself the most seriously. Serious moments are uniformly serious, comedic moments are few, far between, and very segregated from moments of intensity. This trend shifted dramatically in The Last Jedi, as the most emotionally charged moments were not safe from inane physical or surprise comedy. Think Luke brushing his shoulder after Kylo Ren’s barrage, or even Poe’s “on hold” joke with Hux at the beginning of the movie; these irreverent moments are the antithesis to the atmosphere within the universe as a whole, yet not uncommon within The Last Jedi. Whereas Star Wars portrays itself as meaningful on multiple levels (Luke v. Vader, light v. dark, son v. father, lone hero v. dystopian authority), other series such as Harry Potter and Hunger Games never make claims to an entire universe serving at the whim of the mental health of a single young adult, and thus it seems that much more serious by contrast. The Last Jedi completely counteracts this dynamic, seemingly betraying the entire ambience of the universe as a whole. Not only that, but many of the comical moments do not even fit within the movie alone, such as Finn’s water suit adventures or Luke’s island exploits (milking, fishing). This physical and surprise-based comedy elicits cheap laughs if any, and is completely out of place within the narrative. The jokes that do work, such as Rey’s physical reach out and Luke’s resultant shenanigans or “Permission to jump in an an X-wing and blow something up”, rely properly on acting and comedic timing, and thus are included within the flow of the scene far more easily. In general, however, the jokes come far too often and land far too rarely.
The above represents just one issue with the script. While Star Wars and its campiness has frequently ridden the line between cliche and good writing, The Last Jedi seems to make no attempts to liven the dialogue with new imagery. Examples include the words “spark of hope”, which are stated far too many times within the movie as a whole; Rey having seen Luke’s island only in memories (important dreams are a supremely common trope within fiction writing); Finn being told he must have 1000 questions, and his reply of “Where’s Rey?” (which seems to solidify his function within the trilogy, and yet ultimately just serves as a red herring of indirect characterization. Unless the Rose kiss is just a fluke, in which case he resumes his role as the love interest?). Not only is the script riddled with cliche, it’s quite clunky in general. Snoke tells Hux “my faith in you is restored” after he figures out a way to track the rebel fleet through hyperspace (which is probably the most important plot development within the movie, and yet never receives even a cursory explanation), which is not a phrase that has ever been uttered in actual conversation. Vice Admiral Holdo says “Godspeed, rebels” as she watches the transports make their way to the nearby moon, which manages to function both as a cliche and as an extremely awkward thing to say alone in a room by oneself. The script, in general, is not up to snuff in terms of Star Wars quality, even in comparison to the Prequels or The Force Awakens; there are too many times over the course of the movie when characters say and do things not representative of their characters, due to ulterior motives on the part of the writers (either to scrape a small laugh together or attempt to make the movie atmosphere fit within Star Wars). Both motives ultimately fail in their purpose, however, which represents the script’s failure as a whole.
One of the chief reasons the OT works so well with audiences is its careful selection of well-rounded heroes. Black-and-white characters such as Darth Sidious and Luke, Obi Wan and Leia, and even R2D2 and Jabba the Hutt create a blank canvas on which the morally ambiguous characters such as Han Solo and Darth Vader are able to operate. Within the Sequels, however, the writers have done their best to make every character human. While this seems like a worthwhile decision, it has a few costly consequences; compare General Hux to Grand Moff Tarkin, of A New Hope. Grand Moff Tarkin is an immaculate Imperial leader, never wavering in his purpose and undoubted in his expertise. Hux is an entirely different creature; not only is he rattled by Poe in the early stages of the movie, but when he finds Kylo after Snoke’s death and moves to kill him his inability to act paints him as extremely weak. This, in combination with Kylo’s inherent juvenility, creates a First Order without foreboding leadership moving into the final movie.
The whole Holdo/Poe conflict seems to make no sense. Within the movie, the back-and-forth between the pair is the main factor influencing the Resistance movement as a whole, yet by all rights it should not even exist. There is no reason that Poe’s and Finn’s plan could not (and does not) perfectly compliment Holdo’s escape strategy; Finn, Rose, and BB-8 are the only resources at risk for the Resistance, and it does nothing to harm the evacuation. Holdo also has no motivation to not tell Poe what her plan is; I understand that is her prerogative as his commanding officer, but it seems rather foolhardy, especially considering the eventual consequences.
Why is Finn in this movie? In a situation similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the events of the movie would have played out almost identically without Indy, if the Finn/Rose storyline did not exist, nothing within the movie would change. Honestly, why is Finn even a main character? Diversity? He was valuable during The Force Awakens because he got Rey off Jakku, but at this point his only added value to the Resistance is that he has a very select knowledge of the inner workings of some First Order starcrafts. One would think this information would be valuable, but Finn accomplished nothing once he got on Snoke’s ship. Not even his subsequent escape had any effect on the battle around him; the misfit trio slide right into the Resistance base in true ex machina form, providing the cinematic shot of Leia staring out into the wilderness as she wait for the doors to close.
Finn’s escape is actually another area that is not quite believable: there is no reason the door should be open when he arrives. All of the Rebels from the transports are already in the base, and they clearly were not waiting for Finn, as they immediately start shooting at his ship when it crashes. While it does give Leia the opportunity to look wistfully off into the distance, it makes no sense plot-wise.
The movie also attempts to make the audience care about too many characters. Consider the sheer number of individuals/personas the audience has to pay attention to: Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, Rey, Finn, Poe, Rose, Han’s memory, Kylo, Hux, Snoke, Captain Phasma, BB-8, R2D2, C3PO, the Millenium Falcon, Rose’s Sister, Vice Admiral Holdo, Admiral Ackbar and the rest of command, the Brad Pitt-looking codebreaker, the small child Rose gives her ring to, Maz Kanata, Yoda, etc. That is far too many characters for a viewer to care about (even in 2.5 hours). The movie resembles The Force Awakens in this; Captain Phasma reprises her role as an unexplained villain that appears for one fight, this time with a cameo by her eye. Because there are so many characters, a good number of them are not relevant to the plot at all (Finn, Rose, Captain Phasma, R2D2, C3PO, the codebreaker) or just have bit appearances (Admiral Ackbar, Maz, Yoda), yet we are still supposed to care about what is going on with them. This point is not as disastrous as it could be, due to the good character development in previous movies, but it definitely takes a toll on the audience.
I’m kind of devastated that Snoke is dead. He was a compelling, devious villain (even though his existence makes no sense - all the Sith and Jedi except for those explicitly stated are assumed to be dead after the events of the Prequels). His perfect manipulation of both Hux’s and Kylo’s weaknesses displayed a character judgement not regularly found in a villain of any caliber, and made me excited to see what would become of him. Until I saw what became of him. Then I was just disappointed that he died because his sense of lightsaber was slightly too weak.
What is the time frame of the movie? The ship storyline operates in approximately 24 hours start to finish, considering the planet evacuation as the movie starts, the 18 hours worth of fuel, and the final battle on Crait (the salt planet). The Rey/Luke/Kylo storyline, by contrast, seems to occur in anywhere from weeks to months. It seems like this arc picks up exactly where the last movie ends, while the Resistance arc could potentially have started much later, but this is never close to explained. There are also a few times when the beacon between the two stories is used as a scene change, which certainly implies a temporal consistency, but that is literally impossible considering the events of Rey’s storyline. In addition, the movie adopted an almost Game of Thrones-like disregard for the relation between time and movement; one second characters were across the galaxy, the next they were in the thick of battle. Some of this can be accounted for by hyperspace travel, but the idea is not nearly fleshed out enough within the narrative.
All of these criticisms are not to say I did not enjoy the movie; there were definitely a few moments I greatly enjoyed within The Last Jedi. A few of the jokes hit quite well, and Holdo’s blast into hyperspace was honestly breathtaking (enough to be mentioned twice in the same essay). The parallels between Rey and Kylo were well thought out, even if the final lightsaber split was predictable and cliche. In particular, when Rey stands in the ocean spray, behind Kylo there are sparks flying from First Order construction in the same portion of the screen. This worked extremely well.
I think the best acting in the entire movie can be awarded to the First Order monitor who notices the flicker in the shield when Finn, Rose, and the codebreaker enter Snoke’s ship. Seriously, 10/10.
The best moment in the movie, for me, was the single line, “Salt”. Rian Johnson clearly knew he was cutting it close in comparison with Hoth, and the simple scene both provided extra context on the planet and assuaged the doubts of Star Wars fans as to whether the planet was too similar to its snowy precursor.
The ending was extremely vanilla for how much the rest of the movie clearly was trying to not be a Star Wars movie. However, it seemed to have some of the similar problems that plagued the rest of the production; Luke conveniently does not tell the Resistance to run, allowing a plot point to form. Not only that, but the Luke hologram makes no sense, lore-wise. The only evidence that the Force can do such a thing is the earlier interactions between Rey and Kylo, and neither of them are of the magnitude of what Luke pulled off. I recognize he is a very powerful Jedi, but that seemed like another ex machina discovery to wrap up the loose ends.
That being said, Luke’s send-off was touching, tasteful, and ultimately well executed. The recollection of Tatooine, with the two suns on the horizon as his cape flew away, was powerful and heartwarming, and the subsequent glances between Rey and Leia completed the image perfectly.
By contrast, the end of the movie was far too saccharine. The collection of characters on board the Millenium Falcon as they left Crait seemed far too choreographed to be real, making it more a tableau than an actual functioning scene. The immediate transition into the child with Rose’s ring felt rushed, disconnected, and made the sugary scene even sweeter, as Johnson clearly wanted to leave the audience with a positive taste in their mouth, sparing no cinematographic expense.