My Problem With Star Wars: The Last Jedi Isn’t That It Changes Too Much — It’s That It Doesn’t Change Enough
Buried beneath the madness of plot developments and huge moments, The Last Jedi ultimately paints a standard picture for the future of Star Wars.
Internet, you absolutely tire me out sometimes. And there’s no better example of that then the discussion surrounding the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Technically, the film has only been released in America for five days, but I’m already exhausted by the pure amount of conversation around it. The thousands of tweets, the hundreds of think pieces, the almost uncountable numbers of long, drawn out comments filling up all the message boards — it’s exhausting, even for a film that has so much to talk about (like The Last Jedi undebatably does.) And for someone like me, who both A) writes about movies online and B) likes to have things stew in my brain for a while before putting hypothetical pen to hypothetical paper, it creates this feeling that my thoughts on the film are coming out wildly late compared to the rest of the world, and that, at this point, absolutely nothing I write about the film has not already been expressed a hundreds of times by dozens of other more talented, more deadline driven writers than me.
Let me once again remind you that it has only been seven days. But in internet time, that might as well be a month.
But, hey, talk surrounding The Last Jedi has really yet to abate, once again proving just how divisive and loaded the finished product turned out to be. I already laid out my initial thoughts on the film in last week’s timely piece but, since then, I’ve had a lot of time to further reflect (and, to be quite honest, grapple with) my ultimate feelings on the film. I also got the chance to see the movie a second time, which really does refine my overall thought process, for both better and worse.
Because, seeing The Last Jedi again, I was certainly taken in more with the experience. I generally like the movie, and even did at the time I initially wrote about how disappointed I was in what it ultimately was. But, make no mistake: I still remain somewhat disappointed in what we got with The Last Jedi. Because, as much as I can now appreciate it is a good movie…it has failed to really convince me of its ultimate greatness.
And that dichotomy ultimately struck out a great deal watching the movie a second time. Finding so much more to enjoy, the things I didn’t like became all the more glaring. And the more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that my problems with the film stem from one essential truth: as good as the concepts were in The Last Jedi (and make no mistake, pretty much all of them were), I feel like Rian Johnson didn’t take things far enough to really push the film into the all-time great echelon…even just amongst Star Wars films. Unlike what the internet tries to tell me, my issues with The Last Jedi don’t stem from a place of being afraid of change — my favorite moments of the film, really, are based around the idea of “playing around” and doing something different with the concept of Star Wars. But, time and time again, I was left with the feeling like The Last Jedi was still pulling its punches, especially in regards to what everyone was telling me otherwise.
Which is an interesting point when it comes to this film: inevitably, there was going to be a lot of hype from others sitting in my head as I watched the movie. Which, for what it’s worth, is no fault of The Last Jedi itself — you can’t really blame a film for the hype around it. That being said, having all the pre-release buzz about how The Last Jedi changes Star Wars and does things that are unpredictable and controversial certainly peppered my initial reactions. In a perfect world I would be able to avoid all this pre-release conversation and hyperbole that Film Twitter unleashes upon my brain…but a perfect world this isn’t. So, going into The Last Jedi, I was really expecting a movie that would change everything I expected from this new trilogy of films.
Suffice to say, The Last Jedi did not, and I’m baffled by both the insistence that it A) it does and that B) the reason I didn’t love the movie is because I’m afraid of said change. It’s a narrative being toiled about all over (though, again, mostly through Twitter) from the people who unabashedly love the film, and it simply has to stop. In fact, all the assumptions made by either side about why or why not someone might love the film needs to be given the kibosh. But, since I already made that point clear on the social media network that thrived on such discourse, I’ll let the Twitter thread below speak for itself:
But, being Twitter, I could of course not delve into the actual meat of this argument, and explore the fact that my disappointments with The Last Jedi stem from something no one else (except a few other detractors like myself) seem to see: hidden beneath the admittedly beautiful gloss and fast-paced, roller coaster ride atmosphere, The Last Jedi is a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too. It’s a Star Wars film that wants people to know that it’s BOLD and DIFFERENT and doesn’t think ANYTHING IS SACRED…but then spends the entire denouement putting things back into place, rather than moving things forward. On the surface of the movie are bold decisions, ones that could leave all our characters in fascinating places before the final installment. But it doesn’t take long before The Last Jedi renegs on all its ballsiest developments, returning things to the status quo and abandoning potential plotlines that, frankly, would have been far more exciting than what we actually got.
I’m being vague, though, so let’s go ahead and dive into the nitty-gritty (with SPOILERS attached, obviously.) Probably the most keen example of the “change” that everyone keeps talking about is in regards to the light side vs. dark side debate, and how both Rey and Kylo go about it. Personally, though I liked the plotline, it didn’t feel particularly fresh for this universe: arguments over the light side and dark side are stock material for Star Wars at this point, and it’s just slightly starting to get old. I for one can only take so many conversations about how close someone is to going to the dark, or how someone can turn the other to their side, or what have you. So much of The Last Jedi delves into the light side/dark side issue in a way that I personally didn’t find very different to what we have seen before from this franchise but, to be fair, it didn’t have to be. The only reason I expected something more was because people were telling me TO expect something more and, once again, I can’t really blame the film for that.
But what I CAN blame the film for is flirting with something different, before rejecting it completely. In what might be the highlight of the entire movie, Kylo ends up killing Supreme Leader Snoke, in a clear nod to Vader killing the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. We all expect it to go into a similar, predictable manner from here (with Kylo joining forces with Rey, him getting redemption, etc)…until it doesn’t. Instead, Kylo used Snoke’s death as a power grab of sorts, and tries to bring Rey onto his side by speaking of how harmful living in the past is, and how they both need to push the galaxy forward, and so and so on.
This is a really interesting beat for the film and, as much as it would hurt to see Rey join forces with Kylo, would make for a fascinating conclusion to the sequel. If Rey choose to actually join Ben, if they dismissed the forces of both The First Order AND the Resistance, and truly set out on their own path, that would have been interesting. That would have been new, and different. But, instead, Rey denies Kylo’s request (as all heroes must do,) manages to escape unscathed, and embraces her destiny as a true Jedi. Kylo, meanwhile, becomes the ultimate force of evil, leading The First Order (THE BAD GUYS) against The Resistance (THE GOOD GUYS.) So, basically, we are back to where we started from…we just now know that (hopefully) the issue of Kylo’s potential return to the light has been put to rest.
And, really, it’s the 100%, black-and-white view on morality that kind of irks me by the end of the film. Because there’s plenty within The Last Jedi that leads viewers to think it might go against such a firm grasp of good and evil. From Benecio del Toro’s whole speech about the arms dealers who sold to both the Resistance AND First Order (and his final line, which seems to echo a sense of pure exhaustion from the endless back-and-forth between the two groups, something I wish the film delved far heavier into) to the reveal that Luke pushed Ben to turn to the dark side due to his premptive actions, it seems the entire goal of The Last Jedi was to upend what we think about this universe, and present us with a Star Wars story we’ve never seen before. But the only problem is that the movie doesn’t do that — in fact, all it does by the end is reinforce what we all thought to be clear from the get-go: First Order BAD, Resistance GOOD. And, once again, there was so many opportunities presented in the film itself for that NOT to be the case.
Take, for instance, the entire subplot with Poe Dameron. I was digging the storyline throughout the first half, and thought the moment that Poe ended up committing mutiny on Vice Admiral Holdo was, once again, pushing things back into the whole subversive nature of the movie that I was promised. I mean, how ballsy would it have been if Holdo actually WAS evil? What a bold statement it would be if the hierarchy of the Resistance was just as crooked as The First Order, and a civil war of sorts broke out within the group, spurred on by the power vacuum of Leia’s (narratively more interesting) death? What if this film left us with a disillusioned look at the Resistance, and only our core group of main characters (Rey, Finn, Poe, Rose, Leia, etc.) left to fight both sides? Wouldn’t that create not just the ultimate downer ending for the sequel, but also reinforce the film’s themes of throwing the past away? After all, the Resistance is just Rebellion 2.0, and to turn our understanding of “The Good Guys” completely on its face would truly be ballsy.
But, instead, Holdo turns out to totally be a hero, Poe was being an idiot, and should have totally trusted his superior officer despite giving him literally zero reasons to do so other than the fact that, currently, she was the one in charge. Even more frustrating, Poe’s mutiny was treated with little more than a slap on the wrist, with both Leia and Holdo immediately afterward complimenting the former Commander, as though his little bout of treason was just a funny little character quirk they all kind of like (“That’s our Poe!”)
It is here where the failure to truly embrace change also backfires on The Last Jedi. Next to the whole “forget the past” mantra at the center of the film, another major theme in The Last Jedi is the idea of embracing failure, learning from it, and finding ways to move forward despite the setbacks it presents. That’s an admirable theme, if it wasn’t for two main problems: 1) seeing our main characters continue to make stupid mistake after stupid mistake is frustrating to watch and 2) the characters never actually face any consequences for the mistakes that they make, which leaves me scratching my head about the reason to have the lesson in the first place.
When Rey stupidly turned herself into Kylo Ren and Snoke, based on a single force vision that she could turn him, did she suffer at all for being wrong? Not really, no. Sure, her lightsaber broke in half, but I imagine that will just give her the opportunity to turn into a double bladed one for the next movie (which, admittedly, will be pretty sweet to see.) And she gets a little cut, which kind of sucks. But, after the whole throne room scuffle, Rey literally just walks away, escaping off camera and disappearing for like 20 minutes of the film (this happens to a lot of characters in The Last Jedi, unfortunately.) When she returns, she is joviality shooting shit on the falcon, making wisecracks and overall enjoying her day.
Forget the fact that we have no idea how she ended up rendezvousing with Chewie and the Falcon again (was he just circling around in the back or something, just waiting for her? Where exactly did he go during the entirety of that throne room confrontation? How did she find him again using Snoke’s escape pod? The film knows this entire chain of events is messy so, like most things it deems messy, chooses to completely ignore it instead.) My bigger issue is the fact that Rey made a stupid decision, and she never once has to come to terms with her failure. Nor does Poe with his mutiny attempt, or even Finn with his attempted suicide run towards the end of the movie (sure, Rose gets injured, but it probably would have had far more impact if his actions actually killed her.)
This comes in stark contrast to The Empire Strikes Back (probably the closest analog to The Last Jedi), a movie which also had many of its main characters fail in what they were trying to do. But when Han’s trust in his friend ends up backfiring, he gets captured and frozen in carbonite, potentially never to be seen from again. When Luke makes his own stupid, arrogant choice and goes to fight Vadar, he ends up getting his entire arm chopped off. Empire is so brilliant because it perfectly ramps up the tension for all our main character, making the grasp of the Empire envelop them like a tightening noose. After such a heroic victory in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back is true to its title, which I would argue made for a very brave and, more importantly, very satisfying sequel. The Last Jedi, by comparison, only goes halfway on both of those things.
I’ve already gone long bagging on a film that I (once again, feel like I should reiterate) mostly liked, but one more final note before we conclude things. If you’ve read this article to this point (somehow), there might be one prime argument you will try and use to refute me: I keep judging the movie based on what I wanted to see, rather than what The Last Jedi actually is. This is another very common bit of fansplaining that I’ve heard people use to detract from the detractors (what a time for discussion that we live in, folks!), and it’s one I have thought about quite a bit. Are my issues with the film solely that it didn’t go the way I wanted?
It’s an interesting question, and I certainly feel there are people who hate the film (you know, the ones giving it like 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and the like) primarily for this reason. Clearly, I too have put a lot of thought into the future of this trilogy after Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a movie I still really love, by the way), and did indeed spend a lot of time dreaming about where the future of the series would go after such a strong reintroduction. There were plotlines that I created in my head, potential developments and twists in the story I was hoping to see happen. None of them were of the “DUH SNOKE IS DARTH PLAGUEIS” variety, but they were certainly still predictions, and could probably be pushed into the category of fan theories.
But here’s the thing: that was not a thing I do exclusively for Star Wars. I do that for damn near EVERYTHING I watch, because I’m a geek and a writer and I like to tell dumb stories in my head sometimes. And though I often create the plots of movie sequels wholesale just to entertain myself, that very rarely prevents me from enjoying the actual, final film on its own terms. Take another sequel to a blockbuster film I loved: War for the Planet of the Apes.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is probably my favorite blockbuster of the past decade and, after its big cliffhanger ending, I dreamed plenty about what would come in its follow-up. But not a single one of my predictions could prepare me for War for the Planet of the Apes, which ended up being a weird, atmospheric character study masquerading as a summer blockbuster, with only the bare minimum of action and adventure you would expect from something titled War for the Planet of the Apes. It was 100% not the movie I was hoping for, or the one I created in my head. But, taken on its own terms, it was FANTASTIC, and ultimately, I loved that it wasn’t the film I initially made thought it would be. It was, plain and simple, better.
I do not feel similar about The Last Jedi. To reiterate a point I’ve made countless times in this article, it’s not the fact that The Last Jedi went in directions I didn’t expect, or even necessarily want. It’s the fact the fact that the path there was filled to the brim with plot contrivances, missed character beats, and extremely rushed plotting. You can only get so far with a film based solely on the ideas that it’s tackling: like all things, execution is key. And, with a good amount of The Last Jedi, I found the execution to be lacking. Even worse, at the end of the day, I found myself in an odd place: I don’t care about what happens next. The only reason I (and millions of others) created the fan theories we did and “geeked out” about what the rest of the trilogy could contain was because the conclusion of The Force Awakens got us EXCITED. The possibilities were wide open after that film, and I was so eager to see how the story would build with its sequel. But this feels like less of a ramp-up for the conclusion of the trilogy, and more like a wrap-up to it. After this one, I have literally no idea what is to come in Star Wars: Episode IX. And, far worse? I have no desire to try and figure it out.
Originally published at Freshly Popped Culture.