Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Reviewed by Eliza DoLots
By any measure, The Last Jedi (TLJ) has a difficult job. The surprisingly successful franchise reboot, The Force Awakens (TFA), set the bar very high and it was unlikely that any sequel was going to be “good enough” for some. It isn’t surprising, then, that TLJ is getting very mixed fan reaction. TFA fans who delighted in Rey’s abilities and transcendent niceness are disappointed that this movie portrays her as less special than had been assumed. Fans of Kylo Ren’s dark, broody evil are disappointed that TLJ makes him less intimidating, less imposing.
There’s logic in the idea that you must be doing something right if both sides of an argument disagree with you. Though not without serious flaws, TLJ definitely does some things right. If this were an episode of Friends, it would be called “The One Where Everyone Fails.” Failure is one of the major themes. It begins with failure and failures occur at every moment, from every side. There is only one success in the film and the bad guys (who’ve had their share of failures) are the ones to pull it off.
Failure and how you respond to it are the driving issues of the movie. Do you learn from it? Do you grow because of it? Do you run away and hide? TLJ explores all of those responses. I am quite sure that some people in the audiences find the failures frustrating saying: “They don’t accomplish anything!” That would not be entirely true. Repeatedly the characters (on both sides) completely fail to do what they set out to do, but they do accomplish important things. This is particularly true of our heroes, new and old. They learn—if at great cost—to be better at what they are doing. They learn—even if it’s much delayed—to admit their failures and face them head on. They salvage the destruction of a mortal enemy from an otherwise failed mission.
Directed by Rian Johnson—who was recently given the go ahead for a Star Wars universe trilogy outside the main story—The Last Jedi is a solid entry in the ever-expanding Star Wars library. While not the enjoyable, revelatory, nostalgic romp of The Force Awakens, it is also not a bad movie by any standards.
On the downside, there are significant breaks in character. Leia has one moment which seems incomprehensible and Poe’s initial failure involves doing something that seems highly unlike him. How much people are bothered by these is going to be determined in part by how deeply they are involved with the fandom. As someone who just watches the movies, I had an easier time overlooking them than some will (though, not the thing with Leia, that’s just not Leia, it’s wrong). Luke reveals a moment in his past which will strike many as out of character. Because I’m old, I understand how someone might consider doing something very bad for a good reason. But I know that “Luke would never even think of doing that!” is a cry being heard ‘round the internet.
Johnson shows a distinct disregard for some aspects of canon. The Force is used in previously unseen—and exceedingly unlikely—ways by multiple characters. Snoke, Luke and Leia all use the Force in ways that can only be described as magical. There is even Force Ghost magic that is beyond anything we were shown a Force Ghost could do. Each of these moments feel like the screenwriter wrote himself into a corner and said “oh, well, the Force will get me out of this scene.” The problem is we’ve watched seven other movies (and many have read/watched loads of other material) and if the Force could be used in these ways, we would have seen it. If Force Ghosts could manipulate matter in the interests of furthering their plans, they would have. I’m not going to specify the other things that are done in this movie because that way lie spoilers; however, the situations are not sufficiently different from situations we’ve seen before to warrant new Force abilities. These are just magical powers created to salvage a poorly thought out storyline. I suppose it’s a natural thing to happen within the Fantasy genre (and whatever you may have thought before, this movie establishes once and for all that Star Wars is Fantasy, not Science Fiction). JK Rowling screwed with established canon in the last Potter book to get herself out of difficult situations. When that book was turned into movies, the scriptwriters found ways to avoid her canon errors, highlighting how unnecessary they had been. This happens repeatedly in TLJ and is one of the most serious complaints I have of the movie.
That said, this movie actually seems to respect the prequels and other “in Universe “stories as much as The Force Awakens respected the original trilogy. If you’ve been waiting for the prequels to be referenced, you get your wish. TLJ spends more time than any previous movie examining the ethos, history and future of the Jedi religion. That isn’t to say it spends an inordinate amount of time on it, but it does give us movie glimpses of things apparently discussed in comic books and the animated series Star Wars Rebels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. (The Tree? I don’t get the Tree. But hey, if you know about the Tree and you’re excited about the idea of the Tree, it’s here!) In this respect, it is a movie that will appeal to many of the more meticulous members of the fandom.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s respect for canon doesn’t seem to include The Force Awakens. Other than character names and very basic characteristics (Finn and Rey are friends, BB-8 and Poe are besties) the movie that restarted the franchise is somewhat ignored. The youthful (dare we say “millennial”) style banter of TFA is missing. In the original trilogy, there is a substantial time lapse between the first and second movies. This explains the maturing of the characters. They have gone from ragtag adventurers to military leaders. n TLJ the time frame is much more condensed. We see these characters mere moments after we left them in TFA. There simply hasn’t been time for them to lose their youthful ways. This makes the dialogue seem stodgy.
Another negative about TLJ is the resolution of the main villain. We were introduced to Snoke in TFA as a fully formed, rather intimidating hologram. In TLJ we go to his lair to meet him in his robe and slippers (seriously). He’s still intimidating. Visually he has changed since TFA. The open scars/holes on his face are now closed. Did he spend time in a rejuvenation tank? That would have been worth a few seconds to show us. As it is, we are left feeling this is a stylistic decision. His movements remind me of the Cloners in Star Wars, Attack of the Clones. He’s clearly not of the Kamino race, but his carriage and even his dress are reminiscent. Is it an homage or is it a clue? We may never know because it appears we are done with Snoke. To introduce a “Supreme Leader” of such power and evil in one movie then simply remove him in the next seems like a bad play to me. Though, the way this character resolves does make it seem like The First Order is run like the Mirror Universe in Star Trek. At any given time, The Supreme Leader is just the last guy to win a fight.
It’s probably not fair to include comments about fan reaction in a review, especially one which is trying not to spoil the movie, but there is one aspect of the movie and fan reaction that I have to address. I’m going to say it doesn’t count as a spoiler because my conclusion is: the answer we are given to a major question is from a completely unreliable source and cannot be considered the truth. The issue is Rey’s parentage. The person who gives her the answer is an abusive asshole and doesn’t deserve one moment of our belief. The line he gives her (“You’re nobody to them, but not to me”.) is a classic line used to humiliate women and tie them to their abusers. I’ve seen people say “she says it first, he only confirms it”. No, she speaks her fear at his insistence, then he slams her by telling her that’s the truth. Likewise, a scene in which this man is revealed in a state of undress is a classic abuse tactic, creating a false intimacy which makes Rey feel closer to him than their relationship deserves (to forestall any “he didn’t pick the time” argument I point out that she asks him to put something on but he refuses). It’s wrong, it’s bad and no woman watching should accept it as right and true. Really, no man should either, but I’ve seen men on the internet claiming these were efforts to “woo” Rey. It’s nauseating. I find it particularly disturbing that people are jumping on this at a time when we, as a nation, are finally realizing how men have historically manipulated and controlled women. While it’s entirely possible that Rey will turn out not to be a Skywalker, the idea that she is simply no one flies in the face of the obvious recognition Kylo Ren shows her (when the escape of the Falcon is reported, Kylo is most interested to hear that BB-8 left the planet with “a girl”, at those words he force drags the soldier to him to demand more information) and the many instances where what we see of Rey’s life contradicts the story she is told. (SOMEWHAT SPOILERY FOOTNOTE BELOW)*
The only way this can be true is if we completely discount The Force Awakens, something no sequel should ever require. J.J. Abrams, who returns to helm Episode 9 will have to address Rey’s parentage. If he fails to do so, if he leaves it that the TLJ answer is the truth, I will be very disappointed.
So, what does the movie do right? Ship Porn for one thing. If you enjoy seeing lots of ships (and the destruction thereof) then you’ll be fine. Acting for another. There are no discordant notes. Carrie Fisher, whether through familiarity, special effects or something else, seems less frozen, much more animated than in TFA. John Boyega continues to be a delight. San Diegan Kellie Marie Tran runs the gamut from tragic to fun as Rose, a new character introduced to give Boyega’s Finn someone else to play off of. Domnhall Gleeson, as Hux of The First Order, is far more interesting (and less spitty) than in TFA. Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo of the Resistance, is under used. Mark Hamill, who has been doing excellent voice work for the last few decades, delivers his best, most nuanced on screen performance to date. This is a solid cast performance. Porgs! Porgs are good. Cute, feathery inhabitants of Luke’s island; porgs are not as threateningly cute (at least not yet) as the Ewoks. They provide some much needed comic relief without slipping into total slapstick. Likewise, the Caretakers who tend Luke’s island are charming and I would really like to learn more about them. One of my deeper hopes for the next movie is that the answer to the one success The First Order has is that every Rebel ship needs a porg. This would force them to return to the island to negotiate with the Caretakers and every scene on every Rebel ship would have at least one porg in the background. This would make me very happy.
Finally, this movie has hope. There is no cliffhanger, no one is encased in carbonite. Instead, it recalls the ending of A New Hope. We are left with the feeling that the future has yet to be cast and that the players will come from far and wide to defeat evil. Above all, the Jedi, while undergoing some serious adjustments, are not dead. The Force, as an agent of good, remains.
Rey is told that she is a slave, that she was traded to Unkar Plutt by her parents when she was young. But Rey is not a slave. Rey trades and barters with Plutt. He is obviously not her owner or he would simply claim BB-8 when she shows up with it. Rey’s entire existence in TFA as well as the vision imparted to her by Luke’s lightsaber (and Maz’s comments) speaks to a child who was left behind by parents who expected to return to her. Counting off the days one has been either incarcerated or abandoned is not something a slave would do. Wanting (needing?) to return to the planet to be there in case her parents come back is not something a slave would do. If we want to see what a slave who escapes does, we can look at Finn. His goal it so to get as far away from the people who captured and enslaved him as possible. It is only his affection for Rey that keeps him from abandoning the Resistance and escaping to “the outer rim”.
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