SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi follows.
Another December, another new Disney Star Wars movie. While The Force Awakens and Rogue One had their detractors, The Last Jedi has attracted a vociferous reaction from irate fans. The criticism feels short-sighted and reactionary. This movie requires a tad more thought than previous Star Wars installments; it relies on its audience to fill in some key gaps. It rejects most of the mysteries laid out by J.J. Abrams in The Force Awakens, and in doing so it provides the framework for expanding the stories told in a galaxy far, far away.
A Long Time Ago…
Tell me if you’ve heard this before. The band of plucky rebels, having secured a massive victory over the evil empire, is forced to flee its hidden base in a last-minute daring escape. The party of heroes is split. The wannabe Jedi goes off to seek a master and receive training, but is rebuffed by the master who fears the student is not ready. The student eventually receives training but has a close brush with the Dark Side. Meanwhile, the remaining heroes are forced to use questionable tactics after a hyperdrive failure. Eventually the group arrives at a visually striking city, only to be betrayed by the man they find there. An inexplicable fan-favorite bad guy with a minimal role is summarily killed. The Jedi-in-training abruptly leaves the training when sensing distress across the galaxy, and surrenders to the Big Bad in hopes of turning the Dark Side apprentice. Instead, the two foes end up in a deadly lightsaber battle.
All that sounds familiar enough. That’s the plot of The Empire Strikes Back and bits of Return of the Jedi. It’s also the plot of The Last Jedi. Just like The Force Awakens hewed close to the formula of A New Hope, The Last Jedi stays on the course charted by the rest of the original trilogy.
But there’s more to a story than its plot. And The Last Jedi excels in those aspects.
Looking on the Bright Side
My fellow Discourser Paul outlined his issues with The Last Jedi. Offering my counterpoint provides an ideal springboard for providing my positive thoughts.
“One of the biggest and most compelling mysteries in the whole Star Wars saga turned out to be one giant red herring. While a small part of me appreciates going against the grain and doing something unexpected with Rey’s parents, I mostly just found it amazingly annoying”
My first response to this criticism is: what possible parentage would have been satisfactory? Some fans would be upset if it was Luke (“Too lazy and predictable!”). Others would be upset if it was Kenobi (“Too unpredictable and contrived!”). Any established Star Wars character as Rey’s parents would have made some fans upset since it would not have fit their particular theory. As this Ringer article states, “The Last Jedi incites a negative reaction from fans because it is, in many ways, an affront to the culture of internet theorizing that surrounds beloved franchises.”
By making Rey’s parents nobodies, it embodies the true ethos of the Force. As Kenobi told us in A New Hope, “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” The Force was never meant to be held by the powerful elite of the Jedi and the Sith, and especially not consolidated in the single family line of the Skywalkers. The hubris of Darth Sidious was in thinking he could destroy the Light Side by destroying the Jedi.
And Luke’s low opinion of the Jedi includes ridiculing the notion that the Jedi control the Force:
Luke Skywalker: What do you know about the Force?
Rey: It’s a power that Jedi have that lets them control people and… make things float.
Luke Skywalker: Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong.
Also, we have no idea if Kylo Ren is telling the truth to Rey. He has all the motive in the galaxy to lie to her, to convince her she has no link to Luke, the Jedi, or even the Light Side. Why are we, the audience, so willing to take the bad guy’s words as gospel? I certainly hope they are true since Rey’s ignoble origin is far more powerful than adding yet another link to the Skywalker lineage.
And, of course, the film’s epilogue highlights a potential new wave of “nobody” Force users. The events on Ahch-To lead us to believe that the next generation won’t necessarily conform to the old standards of the Jedi. That’s a good thing for telling stories going forward. Based on all the Jedi bureaucracy we witnessed in the prequels and the ultimate failure of the Jedi against the Emperor, maybe it’s a good thing for the galaxy, especially if you ascribe to the theory that superheros attract supervillains. There’s also still plenty of room between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens to fill with young Jedi trained by Luke.
“it “subverted expectations” and was “fresh” and “new”. In my opinion, that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
- Luke nonchalantly tossed his vaunted blue lightsaber off a cliff, breaking his connection to the original trilogy.
- Kylo Ren crushed his security blanket helmet, breaking his strongest connection to the original trilogy.
- Rey’s parents are nobodies, breaking her connection to the Skywalker linage and the original trilogy.
- Luke wants to end the Jedi rather than train more.
How does all that not subvert expectations and radically change the course of Star Wars? I think fans are upset precisely because it subverted all their expectations. This begs the question of how much moviemakers of beloved franchises owe the fans versus making artistic statements and expanding said franchises. So far, Disney is showing a willingness to take chances. Rogue One was a huge risk, not only in dovetailing so close into A New Hope, but also for killing every single main character. With The Last Jedi, they are letting the past die, killing it if they have to. Severing the links to the original trilogy is the only way to allow Star Wars to move on and become what it is now meant to be. Episodes I through IX will contain the totality of the Skywalker saga, as (mostly) originally envisioned by George Lucas. The hero’s journey was completed at the end of Return of the Jedi; that was Beowulf killing Grendel’s mother. The Last Jedi is Beowulf taking on the dragon.
“I found it unbelievable that Luke Skywalker was really considering, even for the briefest of moments, killing a boy who had done nothing wrong yet simply because Luke sensed that he had some darkness in him.”
In the “Legends” Expanded Universe, Luke constantly has issues skirting the Dark Side. There are countless instances of Luke being tempted to use his powers for ill. The moral is Luke always comes back from that brink. That’s what makes him a true follower of the Light Side. It’s like bravery: you still do something even though you’re scared. Similarly, Luke won’t succumb to the Dark Side even though he’s scared, no matter how easy its solution may appear. Luke was pretty much ready to kill his own father at the end of Return of the Jedi, but the Emperor’s extra goading reminded Luke of his higher calling.
Every real hero is tempted to do something evil at some point, but being a hero means they ultimately do what’s right rather than what’s easy. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Some members of the Rebellion are willing to bend that rule (Captain Cassian Andor’s back alley murder of an informant, General Draven’s command to kill Galen Erso in Rogue One) but ultimately the good guys in Star Wars follow the warning (Captain Cassian Andor doesn’t take the shot to kill Galen Erso, Luke doesn’t strike down Darth Vader, Luke doesn’t kill Ben Solo).
“it seems overly dramatic and frankly cowardly for his response to be to abdicate all responsibility and run away to a secluded planet in the hopes of never being found again and dying as the last of the Jedi”
Of course, that’s essentially what Yoda did when he went to hide on Dagobah. Find fault with Yoda, do you?
Luke’s actions might seem cowardly upon first glance, but take a second look. Both Anakin Skywalker and Ben Solo started out as Jedi before turning to the Dark Side, and they certainly were not the first fallen Jedi. While Luke states it’s time for the Jedi to end, I think he really means it’s time for the division between Light and Dark to end. It’s the only way to stop the eternal conflict. If Luke trains more Jedi then the Sith will continue training new members, and the entire galaxy gets caught in the middle.
A cynical point of view would be that the Jedi’s main purpose is to seek out Force users and to indoctrinate them (and then turn them into tax collectors). The Jedi council certainly seemed full of its own internal politics, making those beneath them bow to authority. Presumably that’s all in the name of good, and certainly Jedi like Yoda have that altruistic attitude. But it’s entirely possible, even likely, that other Jedi joined up simply because they had no other choice once the Jedi discovered them. Look at how Qui-Gon bargained with Anakin’s mother to take him away.
“If he really wanted to end the Jedi, why not destroy the ancient Jedi texts and then kill himself?”
Yoda answers this perfectly in a manner befitting the Buddhist/Eastern ethos of the Jedi. He sets fire to the sacred tree and to the Jedi texts without a second thought. Yoda chides Luke for thinking physical objects define the Jedi. He even wisecracks that the books weren’t exactly page-turners and questions whether Luke even read them.
Luke’s reluctance to destroy the Jedi texts, and his reaction to Yoda taking that same action, shows Luke was conflicted about his decision to end the Jedi. If he really thought destroying the texts would end the Jedi, then he could have done it easily. But he couldn’t. Either he didn’t really want to end the Jedi or he didn’t believe that destroying the texts would destroy the Jedi. Besides, ending the Jedi seems like a fairly Dark Side action, and Luke has shown he’s unwilling to take that final step.
On one hand, Luke blames himself for letting Ben Solo fall and become Kylo Ren, so he doubts himself as a competent teacher to train new Jedi. On the other hand, Luke understands that the only way to prevent Snoke, Kylo, and their ilk from ruling the galaxy is to combat them. But that fight doesn’t require the Jedi and all their mystical baggage; it never did. It just requires Force users willing to stand for good against Kylo.
Look at how Luke treats Rey’s training: he basically mocks her naive assumptions about how the Force operates and its utility. What Luke does believe in, with all his soul, is the Light Side and Dark Side. That’s all that ever mattered to Luke. He was never officially a Jedi because there was no council to anoint him. He believed his father, who once followed the Light Side, could be brought back from the Dark Side, meaning people can change from Jedi to Sith and vice versa, so the titles become practically meaningless. It just all becomes religious sect squabbling.
I’m willing to forgive Yoda’s new Force power to summon lightning as a ghost. It has never been explicitly laid out what powers are possible with the Force. This new power does not break anything. When in the past movies has a Force ghost even been present during a battle where such physical effects would have been appropriate? Again, this is subverting modern fans’ expectations of having strict definitions and rules for everything. It used to be acceptable for a wizard to have magical powers and do whatever was needed (e.g. Gandalf); nowadays a fantasy world has to provide a full, in-depth explanation of the inner mechanics of its magic system. Can’t we just let fantasy remain fantastical?
“The whole legacy of Sith Lords is that the apprentice overthrows the master.”
It’s never been stated that Snoke and Kylo Ren are Sith. The Sith aren’t the only practitioners of the Dark Side of the Force, just like the Jedi aren’t the sole users of the Light Side. If Snoke and Kylo were supposed to be Sith, they should have the title “Darth” just like Darth Vader, Darth Sidious, and Darth Maul. Abrams even told Empire in August 2015, “Kylo Ren is not a Sith. He works under Supreme Leader Snoke, who is a powerful figure on the Dark Side of the Force.” This assumption that Snoke should have seen Kylo’s betrayal based on Sith ritual doesn’t line up with what we know.
“It also made zero sense why she acted so coldly towards him the entire time but then mentioned to Leia that she liked him.”
Yeah, because Leia treated Han so much differently until the carbon freezing chamber in The Empire Strikes Back…
“the biggest head scratcher of them all is the revelation that hyperspacing through a ship is a very effective way of destroying them. This is a total game changer that frankly breaks the logic of much of what we’ve seen not only earlier in this particular movie, but earlier in the Star Wars saga.”
I could conceivably see the tactic being deployed by the bad guys in Star Wars. But the good guys are the good guys for a reason. It’s the same reason most people in real life frown upon use of biological weapons, chemical weapons, and terrorism. If you think the problem could be solved by using droid ships to avoid the human sacrifice, just look at all the flak real-life officials have taken for deploying drones.
I agree that that still leaves the quandary of why bad guys and terrorists don’t employ the tactic. But, I could see the Empire and First Order not willing to take that public relations hit. Both organizations are fascists but still need the basic support of the worlds they rule. Otherwise they’d spend all their time putting down internal insurrections. It’s easier if they can consolidate their efforts to a single rebel organization.
Take the scene for what it is. A powerful visual image that serves as a symbol of the sacrifices the Resistance is willing to make to ensure the First Order doesn’t retain its power.
“pushing a Finn/Rose romance to the forefront that felt like it came out of nowhere and wasn’t earned at all”
I don’t see how the romance was pushed to the forefront considering the only romantic element was a last kiss before Rose died. Prior to that, Rose was just a fawning fangirl of a Resistance hero. Even her final kiss could be seen simply as hero worship rather than romantic love. As for not being earned, have you seen the ending to the movie Speed? That teaches you all about “relationships based on intense experiences.”
The Last Jedi Isn’t Perfect (But Nothing Is)
That’s not to say The Last Jedi is a perfect movie. While, in my opinion, the extreme fan backlash is overblown, I can’t deny there are some problems.
There’s never truly a reason given for withholding Vice Admiral Holdo’s plan from the rest of the crew. If there was concern about a mole within the Resistance, then the whole movement is in trouble. Worrying about the crew being unwilling to go along with the plan doesn’t make sense either. The only answer is the writer wanted tension between Holdo and Poe. Of course, Poe is also the only one who really questions Holdo’s authority.
I can see why Poe fans were disappointed in his role in The Last Jedi. Thinking back to The Force Awakens, he didn’t do all that much to warrant such fandom. He was supposed to die after the crash on Jakku anyway, and his return was sloppily covered up. He wants to be Han but his character doesn’t measure up or fill the same niche as well. Like Finn, it felt like the writer had a hard time figuring out exactly to do with anyone from The Force Awakens besides Rey and Kylo (who are rightfully the center of this trilogy).
Another issue is why the First Order landed its battering ram cannon so far away from the Resistance base. However, this has a strong precedent in the Imperial attack on Hoth. Both battles feature plodding AT-ATs landing far away and slowly moving toward the rebels. In Empire Strikes Back, this tactic appears to be about the element of surprise. But Vader admonishes Admiral Ozzel for giving away the element of surprise by arriving too close to the planet. Which means in both cases, the rebels are fully aware of the impending attack. So why bother to land the surface attackers far away? Why not just land them as close to the base as possible? Perhaps in the case of the battering ram, the First Order took the calculated risk of getting the cannon in range before the Resistance could scramble any defenses for a counterattack, so distance worked in the First Order’s favor.
What Happens in Star Wars Vegas, Stays in Star Wars Vegas
This brings us to Canto Bight.
The scenes taking place in Canto Bight are deservedly the biggest point of contention most viewers have with the movie’s length and plot. These scenes do feel tangential, something to give Finn and his new friend Rose something to do. The centerpiece is the fathier stampede during Finn’s and Rose’s escape, which is quite a spectacle but is essentially just lots of exploding walls. The tight time frame for the events taking place simultaneously at Canto Bight and in space seemed a little too incredible; it all happens within hours.
However, there are some fantastic ideas explored thanks to Canto Bight. Just like Rogue One showed an edgier side to the previously saintly Rebellion, Canto Bight shows the seedy underbelly of intergalactic war. The code breaker DJ shows Finn and Rose an arms dealer who sold weapons to both sides. To the manufacturers of weapons, it can unfortunately be all about profit, which means sides don’t matter and the fighting must continue. This hearkens back to Han Solo’s attitude in A New Hope and the first half of The Empire Strikes Back; he just wants his reward money so he can pay off his debt to Jabba the Hutt and get back to his smuggling. Han’s mercenary attitude was exemplified in the “Legends” novel Honor Among Thieves.
That still didn’t need such a huge chunk of screen time. While it offers a view on a little-discussed aspect of the war in Star Wars, it arguably doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie and doesn’t influence the storyline. It barely links thematically to the concept of power not always coming from those on top, but even that feels like a bit of stretch. Ultimately there could have been a better alternative for the rebels to attempt boarding the Supremacy and a more engrossing role for Finn. I’m glad we got the character Rose, but not at the cost to the movie’s overall quality.
Oh, and drunken alien shoving coins into BB-8 was funny, I don’t care what you say.
One intriguing question left from the Canto Bight storyline is, when exactly did DJ sell out Finn and Rose? Was he always in cahoots with the First Order? That would make sense for why he had the codes in the first place, considering how hard Maz made it sound to obtain those particular codes. Or did DJ contact the First Order surreptitiously while en route? Or did DJ somehow strike a deal while Finn and Rose were unconscious? That last option is probably the most likely but begs the question of how he avoided getting shocked and managed to get enough words in to sweet talk his way to a reward. The fact he got a reward means the First Order accepted his story of luring the rebels. But why would they believe that story at that point, let alone reward him? And if he was in league before that, why didn’t they just capture Finn and Rose immediately after they boarded rather than let them get so far into the ship? I enjoyed Benicio del Toro’s portrayal of DJ, but, like all of Canto Bight, he seemed extraneous.
May the Force Be With You, Always
Despite its problems, The Last Jedi is a great movie that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. While The Force Awakens was focused on reengaging fans for a dormant franchise, The Last Jedi expends a lot of time and effort on expanding the world of Star Wars. In that regard, even low points like Canto Bight serve a purpose. Just ask any fan of Captain Phasma or Boba Fett if they mind the characters were mostly afterthoughts but included for sake of making a fully realized backdrop.
Joe Hill provided a concise summation of The Last Jedi in his December 19, 2017 newsletter “Escape Hatch 013: Thirteen Is Your Lucky Number“:
The debates will rage across geekdom for a generation, but to me it’s obvious… Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the best entry in the entire franchise. The stakes are real. The losses are deeply felt. It’s no spoiler to say that Luke Skywalker figures prominently in this picture, and this is the best iteration of the character (so much better than the dull monk we met in Return of the Jedi). Rey, Finn, and Poe are allowed much richer inner lives than our original heroes, and the entire fictional universe is richer for it. I came out feeling so full and so satisfied. I thought Star Wars could never recover from the fatally bad prequel pictures. It has.
Try to remember watching the original Star Wars trilogy as a kid. Recall the feeling of wide eyed wonder at the pure spectacle of Lucas’ cinematic wizardry. Then bring your adult sensibilites to see the nuances of The Last Jedi, the shades of gray introduced between the simplistic Light/Dark dichotomy.
We are what they grow beyond.
Kill the past.
I can’t wait to see where Star Wars goes from here.
We have a diversity of opinion here at Rampant Discourse. Check out an alternative take on The Last Jedi here.