Well, at long last Star Wars: The Last Jedi is finally here and, after seeing it on Friday afternoon, I’ve spent the past couple of days digesting it. (To clarify that a bit, since god only knows when we’ll be posting this, I’m enjoying a nice Sunday afternoon ale whilst I write my review here.)
There’s a lot there to process, of course, given that The Last Jedi runs a whopping 153 minutes in length and is bursting at the seams with characters, plot threads, and surprises. My thoughts on this film have wandered all over the place, but in the end I keep coming back to the phrase that came to me as I strolled out of theater on Friday afternoon.
Overall, The Last Jedi is a beautiful mess.
Luke Skywalker. I’ll say it straight out. This was Luke’s movie, plain and simple. Yes, we got another fantastic ride with our new batch of GFFA friends and foes, and yes Carrie Fisher’s final performance was everything I’d hoped it would be. No question about it. But for me, Luke was far and away the heart and soul of The Last Jedi. It was his film, even moreso than The Force Awakens was Han’s film. And that is, perhaps, as it should be.
The early trailers (I only saw the first two before I went on a self-imposed spoiler blackout) only hinted at how thoroughly done with all things Jedi Luke truly is in this story. He has not simply turned his back on the Jedi, he has turned his back on the Force itself, with a vengeance. This, of course, runs counter to just about everything that I, and I’d venture to say most of us, assumed about Luke’s life after the events of Return of the Jedi. Some fans I’ve spoken with over the past couple of days aren’t particularly happy about this, but it certainly worked for me. After all, a man who hides himself on a virtually deserted planet after essentially tearing up the map so that nobody can find it probably isn’t exactly going to be sporting the sunniest disposition. And indeed, in The Last Jedi we learn that the years of exile on the remote ocean world of Ahch-To have turned Luke not into a charming curmudgeon, but into a bitter old crank who genuinely wishes to be left alone to die. To his credit, Rian Johnson worked this angle virtually to perfection, using it as a springboard for a classic Buddhist master/pupil dynamic between Luke and Rey.
There was always some of this in Luke’s relationship with Yoda in the original trilogy, of course, but unlike the little green prankster, Luke isn’t playing around – at all. He genuinely does NOT want anything to do with training Rey. And, straight out of an old Buddhist tale, with prospective students being left to wait outside the gates for weeks or months before the master lets them in for a lesson, Luke continues to refuse to teach Rey or even really ackowledge her as much of anything but a nagging pest until she has followed him around for a few days and made it clear that she plans to stick around come hell or high water. Once Luke finally gives in and decides to teach her, their relationship continues to show heavy Buddhist undertones. At one point, Luke even pulls the old Zen master trick of whacking Rey with a reed in order to focus her attention. I found it to be a charming and effective way of portraying Luke as the reluctant teacher that the situation absolutely demanded that he be.
In fact, it was Luke’s agonizingly haunted worldview in the wake of what befell his nephew, Ben Solo, that gave Luke’s story its depth and texture. I can absolutely see why Mark Hamill said that he initially wasn’t crazy about Rian’s choices where Luke was concerned, but in the end I think it all made perfect sense for the story, and I found it eminently satisfying, and utterly unexpected.
A series of flashbacks present, Rashomon-style, three different versions of the night that Ben turned on Luke and destroyed his newly formed Jedi training academy. It turns out that Luke holds himself personally responsible for Ben’s fall to the dark side. Although the volatile young man had already been corrupted and pushed ever closer toward the edge by Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order, Luke has convinced himself that it was his own moment of weakness in responding to the growing darkness within Ben that served as the catalyst that finally turned him into Kylo Ren.
And so, in keeping with the grand tradition of teachers learning from their pupils even as their pupils learn from them, Luke is gradually forced to come to terms with his own past as he watches Rey develop her own connection to the Force.
This all culminates in Luke finally embracing the Force again at long last. And it’s a hell of a payoff when he finally does. First, we see an impressive new use of the Force, as Luke projects himself, seemingly in the flesh, onto Crait in order to distract the First Order while the remaining Resistance members find a way out of the mine base. After an impressive face-off between Luke and Kylo Ren, we get a nicely satisfying moment when Ren realizes that he’s been had, and that he’s been fighting a spectral image of Luke all along. Luke’s parting, “See ya around, kid” is a brilliantly Solo-esque exit line, both a crowd pleaser as well as a subtle reminder to Ren that the spirit of his father will always be with him, whether he likes it or not.
Then comes the moment that I think we all feared had to come sooner or later. Luke, lying on the ground back on Ahch-To, has obviously drained the last of his strength. As he struggles to pull himself up, he notices the deep brilliance of the setting sun – truly notices it for what may be the first time in years. Mark Hamill plays this scene exquisitely, his expression transitioning slowly from the mortal strain of the feat he’s just accomplished to the peace and pure childlike joy of immersing himself in the simple magic of a sunset. As he sits cross-legged on that cliff, it becomes obvious that that perfect sunset will be the last thing that Luke sees as he becomes one with the Force. And, sure enough, his empty robe collapses and blows away on the evening breeze as John Williams’ Force theme swells in the background.
While many fans probably envisioned Luke dying heroically in battle (I know I often did over the years) I honestly think that this quiet, peaceful, zen-like departure was the best and most dramatic choice. That he was watching a sunset at the end of his journey, just as he was in the last moments before his journey began in the original 1977 film was as perfect a bookending as that of his struggle against the Empire beginning with the shot of his burning homestead in the first film and ending with Luke standing before his father’s funeral pyre at the end of Return of the Jedi.
I’m not too proud to admit it – this was the last of several moments during the Last Jedi that put tears in my eyes.
As I mentioned before, in my view Luke’s story is the backbone of the entire movie, and I believe that on subsequent viewings it may be a big part of what pulls all of the disparate threads of the story together for me.
It’s these other story threads from which I feel the unevenness of this film stems. The MANY other story threads. Against the backdrop of a desperate and seemingly doomed Resistance retreat from the overwhelming firepower of the First Order starfleet, we get to see the development of no less than half a dozen characters and character relationships aside from those of Luke and Rey. It’s a particularly bold move, within a film that is packed with bold moves, to focus on this many characters, and as one might expect it’s a rather mixed bag in terms of what works and what doesn’t.
As when we last saw him in The Force Awakens, Finn is still trying to find his place in life following his defection from the First Order after a lifetime of forced service. Early in the film, he teams up with Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran), an earnest yet awkward young Resistance fleet technician who is dealing with uncertainties of her own, as well as with the recent death of her sister, Paige (who valiantly and dramatically sacrifices her own life to cover the Resistance’s escape from their base on D’Qar.) Finn and Rose end up going on an adventure of their own as they travel to Canto Bight, an intergalactic casino, to find a codebreaker who can help them to slice into the First Order’s network and disrupt their ability to track the Resistance ships through hyperspace.
Meanwhile, we get to see a lot more of Poe Dameron in The Last Jedi than what we saw of him in The Force Awakens. Poe leads the fighter/bomber attack on the First Order fleet as the Resistance evacuates their base, and later leads a mutiny against Vice Admiral Holdo (played by Laura Dern,) convinced that Holdo’s questionable decisions in commanding the remnants of the Resistance fleet will result in the First Order picking their ships off one by one until there is nothing left of them.
Princess Leia, meanwhile, is doing everything she can to hold the Resistance together while she waits to hear back from Rey as to whether Luke will agree to return from his exile and aid the Resistance in their struggle against the First Order. Leia spends the middle portion of the film out of commission after narrowly escaping death at the hands of her son, Ben (now the dark Force adept Kylo Ren,) who leads the First Order’s attack on the Resistance fleet from the cockpit of his TIE fighter. This attack results in a rather strange and awkwardly conceived scene in which Leia and her entire bridge crew get sucked out into the vacuum of space, and Leia uses the Force to draw herself back to the ship before the cold of space kills her. (While I get the concept Johnson was going for here, the shot itself looks laughably ridiculous, because Leia is so unnaturally stiff and static throughout it. I have to wonder if, had Carrie Fisher not passed away, Johnson might have shot a bit of additional footage of her to make Leia look more animated and natural.)
Let me take a moment here to state the obvious: Carrie Fisher was absolutely wonderful as Leia in this movie. As was the case in The Force Awakens, she projected a perfect balance of the strong, matronly military leader that Leia had become, and the bold, fearless young rebel that we first met in the original 1977 film. At the same time, Carrie got to show us how the weight of years of war and struggle bore down on Leia, particularly once the few remaining members of the Resistance had hunkered down in the mine base on Crait with the First Order minutes away from crushing them once and for all. And, as always, Carrie’s eyes spoke volumes in scenes like this – both Leia’s waning hope as the base’s shield doors closed before the First Order’s attack, and the reawakening of that same hope when Luke finally arrived.
Knowing that Carrie had been gone almost a full year made her scenes in The Last Jedi all the more poignant and emotional. The reunion between Leia and Luke when he arrives on Crait really got to me, especially when John Williams, god love him, reprised Luke and Leia’s theme from Return of the Jedi behind the scene, transitioning into Han and Leia’s theme as their conversation turned to Han’s death. That was one moment when I couldn’t help but tear up. Now, more than ever, I think we’ll all always wish that Carrie could have been around to portray Leia one last time in Episode 9, especially since the plan had originally been to have that be Leia’s movie, the way The Last Jedi was Luke’s and The Force Awakens was Han’s. Sadly, we’re left to imagine how Carrie would have played the inevitable scene in which Leia finally confronted her son. The energy between Carrie and Adam Driver would undoubtedly have been powerful indeed.
Which brings us to Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. I don’t think I was necessarily alone in feeling that Kylo Ren was at times a strangely anemic villain in The Force Awakens, particularly in the second half of the film. Fortunately, he comes into his own in The Last Jedi, showing a great deal more strength and complexity. He has a moment near the beginning of the film (which was, unfortunately, essentially spoiled in the movie’s first full trailer, released back at the beginning of October) where he has the bridge of the Resistance flagship (and, by extension, his mother) in his sights, but finds that he cannot bring himself to fire his starfighter’s cannons. His story for the rest of the film revolves around his growing certainty that his only path forward is to destroy his past. All of it, and everyone in it. He is also compelled by an unexpected Force connection between himself and Rey, which ultimately brings the two together for a second confrontation, and which teeters precariously on the edge of turning into a full-blown partnership before he and Rey finally make their choices and realize once and for all that they must stand in opposition to one another.
There is, therefore, a lot of story here (or at least, attempts at story.) It’s all a lot to process and keep track of, and ultimately I feel like Rian Johnson just tried to pack far too much into this movie. As a result, some quite promising ideas ended up getting rather short shrift. I very much enjoyed the chemistry between Finn and Rose, for example. Finn needed somebody like Rose to give him a good swift kick in the ass so he’d finish his transition from reluctant hero to willing hero. And Rose is a really cool character in and of herself, with Kelly Marie Tran giving an exceptionally engaging performance here. But I just felt like there was an awful lot of the old Seinfeldian “show about nothing” to Finn and Rose’s subplot. Their quest to find the codebreaker and infiltrate the First Order flagship… it all ended up seeming like it was all just in service to giving Finn and Rose something to do. By that same token, I also felt like Poe’s mutiny subplot, though it fared a bit better, also fell rather short of what it might have done had there been more room within Johnson’s crowded story. As with Finn and Rose, Poe’s role in this film often seemed more about providing the character with a reason to be there than about moving the story forward.
The Rey/Kylo Ren plot thread was more consequential to the overall tale, and I for one was VERY glad to see the “shipping” fan theories put forth over the past couple of years shut down once and for all in terms of the way in which the apparent connection between Rey and Ben ended up being resolved. No, folks, Rey and Kylo Ren do not end up together, either as lovers or as a Force-using team. This possibility is hinted at repeatedly throughout the film, but in the end Rey refuses Kylo Ren’s entreaties to join him in ruling the galaxy, realizing perhaps that as complicated as life can be, the grey between light and darkness is still merely the result of one pushing the other aside, and not of an actual blending of the two. Rey’s choice still boils down to choosing between the light and the darkness, and… well, let’s just say that Rey isn’t looking to go off and build herself a red lightsaber.
This all takes place during and immediately following a confrontation with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) aboard his flagship, in a scene that is practically a straight lift from the Emperor’s throne room scene in Return of the Jedi. I have to admit, I’ve never been a huge proponent of the “rhyming” concept that Lucas used in his prequel films, not because it’s a bad idea (it’s actually an excellent storytelling tool when used judiciously) but because it can so easily be used as an excuse for simply copying classic scenes instead of creating new scenes that might grow to become classics. And indeed, the scene in Snoke’s command chamber does have something of that feel to it. However, while Rian Johnson may have stuck a wee bit too close to the dialogue from Return of the Jedi for my tastes, I actually felt like the scene between Snoke, Rey and Kylo Ren worked for what it needed to be. And while there wasn’t an elevator shaft handy for Ren to throw Snoke into, Ren did find a suitably satisfying way to dispatch Snoke at the appropriate moment.
It was perhaps fitting that Snoke died by lightsaber bisection, as Darth Maul did in The Phantom Menace (though director Johnson made sure to leave the audience with no doubt that, in this case, the vanquished foe would not be returning via even the ropiest of future LFL retcons.) While Snoke was featured in two of the three sequel films, he reminded me of Darth Maul in that both were treated, in my opinion, as disposable villains. As was the case with Maul, we never really learned what it was that drove them, and what it specifically was that they wanted. To destroy the Jedi, yes, but that’s the basic canvas wash behind virtually every Star Wars villain. What we didn’t get with Maul, or with Snoke, was enough specific context for their motivations before they were killed off. In the end, Snoke was just Snoke, whatever that is, and he was yet another rotten sonofabitch who wanted to destroy the Jedi and rule the galaxy.
That was one area of story resolution that felt somewhat lacking. And it led directly to another even more anticipated moment that threatened to fall similarly short. Once Snoke and his praetorian guard have been dealt with, and with the red drapery that Snoke had hung about his command center burning away behind them, Kylo Ren goads Rey into admitting what they both knew to be true through their Force-powered visions: Rey’s parents, whose identity she had sought for so long, were in fact just a couple of anonymous Jakku scavengers who had sold their young daughter for a quick profit (I assume that profit was probably the starship we saw blasting off of Jakku in Rey’s Force vision in The Force Awakens.)
In other words, as Rey admitted to both Kylo Ren and to herself, and in an echo of the way in which he had described herself to Maz Kanata in the previous film, her parents were… nobody.
This revelation has undoubtedly riled a great many Star Wars fans who walked into this movie chock full of theories, ranging from the impossibly convoluted to the incredibly simple, concerning Rey’s parentage. It’s what we do, after all, isn’t it? I admit to having had my own thoughts on this over the past two years. And it did indeed feel momentarily jarring to have those speculations brushed away like a zen koan at the snap of the master’s cane.
Ever since I saw The Force Awakens, I’ve gotten the impression that perhaps we were witnessing some sort of transfomation in the way the Force manifests itself. There were moments when it seemed as though the Force, rather than simply channeling through a select few as its always been shown to do, might have been beginning to surface in regular people as well. Now, it was probably just J.J. Abrams being cute without intending it to connect to the Force, but look at the battle on Takodana. In the space of a few minutes we see Han making an instinctive behind-the-back shot at a trooper he’s not even looking at, and then Poe taking out almost a dozen TIEs in about as many seconds. To me, things like that looked more than just a little “Force-ey”.
Regardless of whether or not that was intentional, it does seem like one of the themes of the sequel trilogy is a shift from Jedi superheroes saving the galaxy to ordinary people doing extraordinary things, thereby pushing the galaxy inch by inch away from the brink of darkness. And perhaps having the Force act through “nobodies” like Rey (or like the little stable boy on Canto Bight) is a key part of that shift.
In any case, Rian Johnson’s choice not to have Rey be related to any existing characters seems to be meeting with widely varied fan reactions. In fact the same can be said for the entire film. Some fans love it, some hate it, and I’ve talked with a few who openly despise it. As for those who aren’t particularly thrilled with The Last Jedi, I don’t think they can be dismissed as simply being unwilling to accept a Star Wars film that fails to stay safely within the bounds of their own expectations. This was an accusation that was often leveled at those of us who were less than enamored of the prequel films back when they were being released. It was facile nonsense then, and in my opinion it would be even further off the mark to slag critics of The Last Jedi with it now.
Because as much as I enjoy what works about it, I cannot pretend that The Last Jedi doesn’t have its problems. A lot of them.
As I mentioned before, it was probably inevitable that the sheer number of characters and subplots contained within The Last Jedi would result in an uneven movie. If that were the only flaw in Rian Johnson’s film, it would probably be in contention for the best of the series. However, the character and plot bloat are the least if the movie’s problems, at least in my opinion. The more glaring problem, and the one that repeatedly took me out of the film and set my eyes to rolling, is one of tone. Let me offer an example.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens with a cell phone joke.
Which leads me to the core of the problem here. Star Wars is supposed to have humorous banter – it’s not supposed to dish out gags. Those are two different things. Well-written banter tends to have staying power on repeated viewings. Jokey gags, like Poe’s cell phone bit, do not. I think that’s largely because banter tends to come from a real and human place that we can all relate to, whether we personally do banter well or not. Gags are just attention-getters that exist for their own sake. Some are better than others, but in the end they’re just a rimshot waiting to happen, with all the lasting appeal of a stick of Fruit Stripe gum.
Rian Johnson, for whatever reason, chose to load The Last Jedi down with joke after joke, gag after gag. And while there are occasional moments where this works (Poe’s foot punching through the floor of the rusty old skimmer that he pilots against the First Order walker assault on Crait, for example) there are far, far more gags that fall completely flat, in some cases derailing scenes that they were apparently meant to augment. It’s like being in a philosophical group discussion where there’s that one guy who is ONLY there to crack jokes, most of which don’t even fit in context with what’s being discussed. The discussion goes on, yes, but with everyone painfully aware of the fact that the same guy is going to chime in every minute or two with another pointless one-liner.
It almost felt as though somebody had tossed The Last Jedi into a crisper drawer with a bunch of Marvel Comics flicks (including about a dozen copies of Guardians of the Galaxy) and left it there to steep for a couple of weeks and absorb the Marvel franchise’s joke-a-minute approach to screenwriting. It’s not that I dislike the Marvel films. In fact, I’ve enjoyed most of the ones I’ve seen. I just don’t think it improves Star Wars to have their scripts made to more closely resemble Marvel’s joke-fests.
It occurs to me to wonder whether perhaps Johnson read the old story about George Lucas handing an early draft of his script for the original Star Wars to his friends Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck so that they could punch it up with some humorous dialogue, which Lucas’ script lacked at the time – but then Johnson neglected to read through to the end of the story, where Lucas trimmed about 80% of the humor out of the Katz/Huyck rewrite and left in what he felt was the best material.
Had Johnson simply gone through his script and thrown out the majority of the jokes (starting with that god-awful cell phone gag!) and just kept the comparatively few bits that actually worked, he would have ended up with a much stronger (and funnier) movie. Instead, he seems to have gone with quantity over quality, with little concern for context or timing. At times, it’s like watching a bad improv show (and I’ve seen plenty of them – hell, I’ve DONE plenty of them!) I can almost see the late Del Close growling at Johnson, “Are you here to play, or are you just here to screw around?”
So that’s a big part of what soured a lot of the film for me. What was almost as bad (and could really be considered an extension of the same problem) was Johnson’s insistance on weighing down scene after scene with cute little squeak toys. It wasn’t just the Furby-like porgs (though there was entirely too much of them throughout the movie, often at wildly inappropriate times.) The entire casino scene on Canto Bight seemed to revolve around squeaky little critters in tuxedos doing bad slapstick. What should have been the Las Vegas version of the Mos Eisley cantina ended up coming across more like a bad Fraggle Rock outtake. (And again, it’s like the Marvel thing I mentioned earlier. I like Fraggle Rock – but it’s not Star Wars.)
The third main area where I felt like The Last Jedi needed some help was in terms of pacing. There is a certain rhythm to a Star Wars movie, and I wasn’t feeling that rhythm at all in The Last Jedi. It seemed to me more like everything was just sort of crammed together so that it would all fit. I just don’t feel like Rian Johnson quite gets how to hit the beats of a Star Wars story all that well. Say what you will about J.J. Abrams and the degree to which he made The Force Awakens so closely derivative of the original 1977 film, but at the very least he gave his film the overall cadance of a Star Wars film.
And maybe in the end, this won’t be such a terrible thing. With J.J. back at the helm for the third act of this trilogy, perhaps when we look back at all three films as a piece of music, The Last Jedi will fit in as a jarringly dissonant “middle eight”, as it were, and J.J. can then bring it on home with that familiar Star Wars tone and rhythm in Episode 9. But for now, The Last Jedi definitely has an uncomfortable stutter-step to it in terms of its overall pacing.
Here’s the thing, though. The more I roll The Last Jedi over in my mind (both over the past two days since I saw it, and in the course of writing this review) the more it occurs to me that there may be another underlying theme to this movie that may help it to feel a bit less disjointed. And, fittingly it comes to me courtesy of a familiar old “little green friend.”
Late in the film, as Luke appears to hit rock bottom in the depths of his despair over what happened to his nephew, and what he fears will happen once Rey meets with Ren and Snoke, Yoda appears to him in spirit to impart one last lesson – that though we may naturally want to resist failure above all things, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”
Again, as of this writing I have only seen The Last Jedi once, and so at this point I have absolutely no idea of how exactly the film will crystallize and ossify itself in my mind once I’ve seen it a couple more times and once I’ve had sufficient time to process it all. However, perhaps – just perhaps – what I currently see as a disjointed story will seem a bit less so when viewed through the lens of Yoda’s statement to Luke about the importance of failure.
The Resistance’s evacuation from their base on D’Qar fails in the face of a massive First Order onslaught. Finn and Rose and their “show about nothing” mission to break the First Order codes and shut down the hyperspace tracker ends up failing when their supposed ally (Benicio del Toro) sells them out for somewhat more than thirty pieces of silver. Poe’s well-meant attempt to save what’s left of the Resistance from what he views as Vice Admiral Holdo’s inept leadership fails not just because Holdo breaks Poe’s mutiny, but because Poe misjudges Holdo who, as it turns out, has been operating according to Princess Leia’s plan all along.
All three of these plot threads, with the characters burdened by bad luck and some exceedingly bad choices on their part, have the tendency to feel rather pointless – in each instance our heroes end up being worse off than they were before. But bearing in mind what Yoda explains to Luke about how we can learn some of our most valuable lessons from failure, perhaps on subsequent viewings the maddening string of failures experienced by nearly every major character in The Last Jedi will actually make sense and begin to ring true.
As I said at the outset of this review, The Last Jedi is, to me, a beautiful mess. What remains to be seen is whether or not it the film is, on repeated viewings, actually more beauty than mess. For now, I’m hopeful that it will be.