Warning, Major Star Wars The Last Jedi Spoilers
I think I'm one of the few people who neither loved nor hated The Last Jedi. I felt it was good not great although the more I think about it the more I appreciate the story's many layers. Most of my complaints have nothing to do with some of the main decisions that upset a great number of fans. I’m more critical of problems with pacing.
This film really should have been edited down substantially. The extra half hour is not necessary. A lot of it is spent on action scenes that just drag on too long. The escape from Canto Bight in particular was over indulgent and got a little ridiculous. There was also a bit too much comic relief. It never reached the insufferable, cringe-worthy level of the prequels but there were many serious moments robbed of their severity by a cutaway to something unnecessarily silly.
As for the main plot points and character decisions I’m mostly satisfied. I loved what they did with Luke. I think they fleshed out Kylo Ren. He's now truly menacing and growing beyond the simple Vader wannabe he started as. Rey’s is better rounded as The Last Jedi explores her character flaws in a more tangible way with more significant consequences then she faced in the previous film. Poe, Finn and Rose's storyline though not without its problems serves the over all message of overcoming failure. Finally the story does an excellent job of playing off of the audience’s expectations by employing throwbacks to the original trilogy as a sort of cinematic misdirection.
The choice to characterize Luke as cynical, broken down, and hopeless with the intent to let the Jedi Order die upset a lot of fans. Even Mark Hamill expressed misgivings about this story element (though he has since gone back on these statements). I understand these sentiments, they didn’t want to see their hero like this, but there was nowhere else for the story to go.
In order for there to be a new trilogy there needed to be a new conflict with stakes on par with the previous one. This conflict would have to include the forces of the Dark Side. Snoke simply showing up with a nameless acolyte to menace our heroes would have been bereft of any real stakes or drama. The new champion of the Dark Side had to have a personal connection to the heroes of the original trilogy. Luke had to have failed one of his students and what could be more tragic then for that student to be the son of Leia and Han.
What’s more this failure needed to have a serious negative impact on Luke. For him to become a kindly old hermit like Obi-Wan would have been an anti-climactic and repetitive characterization in a series which people already criticized for following the major plot points of the original trilogy too closely.
I found the new, broken down version of Luke to be a compelling new direction for the character; what’s more it resonated with me on a personal level. At times the shear weight of all the pain, suffering and injustice in this world can really bring me down and I find myself feeling that there’s nothing I can do to make a positive difference. At times like these I want to simply withdraw from the world, stop thinking or caring about all of its problems and just live for myself. This feeling is antithetical to who I am, as it is to who Luke used to be, and who he chooses to be at the end of the film. So for me Luke’s character development makes for a positive and uplifting story and the arc he follows in The Last Jedi makes him the true main character of this particular chapter. Though Rey appears to be the hero of the trilogy in this film she primarily provides a motivation for Luke to take one last spiritual hero’s journey.
One of the most divisive aspects of the new Star Wars films is Rey’s ability to use the force without prior training. When she first performed that Jedi mind-trick on Starkiller base my initial reaction was disbelief, then intrigue. Clearly she was some sort of prodigy. The series had yet to feature such a naturally gifted force prodigy before, but there was nothing to explicitly rule out that one could exist.
When viewed in the context of the rest of the Star Wars series Rey’s powers are revealed to be consistent with a longstanding but barely noticed tradition. Throughout Star Wars the nature of the force has been revealed to us in a way that constantly reveals new possibilities the audience never considered. This tradition played off of our expectations and assumptions to inspire surprise and wonder.
In Star Wars all we see from Obi Wan and Luke are mind tricks and ways of enhancing one’s piloting and shooting ability. Vader has the ability to choke people with a mere hand gesture, but a skeptic might suggest this is some form of hypnosis. These are the sort of things Han would dismiss as “simple tricks and nonsense”. It’s only the mysterious disappearance of Obi Wan’s body upon his death that proves there is more to it then that.
In The Empire Strikes Back we reveal much more. Luke masters telekinesis and learns to sense things across time and space. Vader effortlessly absorbs Han’s blaster bolts. Most incredible of all Yoda manages to raise Luke's X-Wing from the bottom of the Dagobah swamp.
“I don’t believe it,” Luke says.
“That is why you fail,” Yoda replies.
Until that moment, the audience didn’t believe it either, and that is what made it such an awe-inspiring moment that captured the imagination.
Return of the Jedi takes things even further. The Emperor channels the force into a sort of lightning, something never before seen which instantly reveals how much more powerful he is than Luke. Once again we discovered a new rendering of the force this time not wondrous but terrifying.
There seems to now be a persistent belief among some audience members that the Force is meant to be static and unchanging with specific narrow limitations on how it can be used. Clearly this has no basis in the original trilogy, so I place primary blame on the prequels, which exclusively featured previously seen force powers creating the impression that these were the limits of what the force could accomplish.
Still even in the prequels new possibilities are explored. We learn that the force can create human life of its own volition for the sake of accomplishing certain goals. Through Anakin the Force brought about the end of the Sith. The Light Side could not stop Darth Sidious’s machinations but it could ensure his eventual downfall and keep the Jedi order from being extinguished.
Rey’s powers renew the original trilogy’s tradition of constantly expanding on our understanding of the force. We now know that force powers can manifest under certain circumstances without training or study. Really this isn’t even a major leap from what we’d already seen on screen. Luke learned telekinesis with no real training at all beyond a few minutes sparing with a training remote and some words of wisdom from old Ben Kenobi. Rey just advanced faster with less prior exposure to Jedi lore.
The Last Jedi provides many of the answers we seek and managed to show that Rey is still a deeply flawed person and her powers are not enough to save her from desperate situations.
I have always suspected that Kylo Ren’s attempt to probe Rey’s mind in The Force Awakens was a catalyst for her powers. The Last Jedi does not directly confirm this but it does reveal a deeper link between them. First Luke claims he encountered Rey’s same “raw power” once before, in Ben Solo. One is left to wonder if Ben had a similar meteoric rise. Supreme Leader Snoke claims that Rey is the Force’s reaction to Ren that they are a duo meant to balance each other out.
In keeping with the theme of the film all of the main characters have failures to overcome. Rey is no exception. She first of all failed Luke’s test and was immediately tempted by the Dark-Side.
Interactions between Rey and Ren through a linking of minds are a particularly compelling element of the story, which show Ren’s growth as a villain and help to round Rey’s character by delving into her personal weaknesses. When linked Rey immediately lashes out at Ren screaming and cursing at him. She is not in control of her rage, and as we should all know, anger is part of the path to the Dark Side. Ren on the other hand remains cold and calculating, more concerned with understanding the nature of their link then expressing rage. As we ultimately find out Ren does harbor plenty of hatred and resentment for Rey, but he channels it in a more devious manner.
Rey’s parental neglect remained an emotional pressure point, which made her vulnerable to manipulation by Ren. One wonders if his claim, that they were junk dealers who traded her for drinking money and later died on Jakku is a lie. Whatever the case it does not rule out the possibility that Rey was conceived in a manner similar to Anakin and just like him has a purpose to fulfill. However this possibility is the furthest thing from Rey’s mind. Instead she is heartbroken at the implication that the people she’d yearned for and loved since childhood were nobodies who casually cast her aside.
The way the film delves further into Ben’s backstory adds a new dimension to his character. Luke and Kylo’s differing accounts of their final fateful encounter are both as Obi-Wan might say . Sensing the darkness within Ben, Luke contemplated killing his nephew. This one moment of weakness was his greatest failure, which set in motion all the other calamities of the new trilogy. I don’t believe the subsequent clash was a mere misunderstanding. Surely Ben sensed that Luke had stopped himself that he wouldn’t have gone through with it, but that didn’t matter from Kylo Ren’s point of view. As far as he was concerned Luke still tried to kill him but was too weak to follow through on his intentions. For that Luke became his enemy, and Kylo Ren swore revenge. Kylo of course used this information to devastating effect against Rey, convincing her to abandon Luke.
Rey’s fallibility becomes most apparent during the throne room scene. Snoke throws her around like a helpless rag doll. Though her advancement up to that point was impressive she’s clearly no match for the powers of the Dark Side.
Here there was a missed opportunity as there is much curiosity about the nature of Snoke and though he boasts about his power and cunning in using Ren to deceive Rey into this trap, he doesn’t boast at all about his past. Some might claim that since the Emperor had no real explanation in the original trilogy Snoke didn’t need one either, but this isn’t a fair comparison. We’ve subsequently learned all about Darth Sidious and the Galaxy has been fleshed out. In a world where even background characters in Mos Eisley Cantina have backstories a few simple lines would have been nice, something along the lines of:
"You thought you could kill me? Ha! The Sith and the Jedi tried for centuries and I outlived them all!"
Such a line would have made Ren’s betrayal and assassination of Supreme Leader Snoke all the more impressive. The scene was a prime example of a villain undone by his own hubris. Though Snoke could not possibly be overpowered, he could be outsmarted. In order to aim Anakin’s lightsaber at Snoke unnoticed Ren had to hold his master’s attention and mask his own thoughts hiding his true intent until it was too late. Surprisingly this is the first time on screen that we’ve seen a Dark Side apprentice kill his master for the sake of usurping his power.
The aftermath of this assassination and the spectacular defeat of Snoke’s bodyguards is also one of the best examples of the film playing off of audience expectations. It is highly reminiscent of the throne room scene at the end of The Return of the Jedi, but the outcome is completely different. In her most momentous failure of the series Rey fails to convince Kylo Ren to redeem himself.
What’s more when he offers for her to join him in ruling the First Order I think she’s genuinely tempted. Had Rey joined him they would have formed an unprecedented alliance, two champions of the Dark Side, neither one apprentice nor master, both equals in power and in evil.
In spite of all these failures Rey succeeds in accomplishing one thing of great importance, she convinces Luke the galaxy is still worth fighting for. She of course has help in this matter from none other then Yoda, who appears as an apparition once again to share his wisdom with Luke and the audience,
“The greatest teacher, failure is,” Yoda explains.
That sage advice is on par with “Do or do not there is no try” in fact in this day and age I’d say the former is the more important lesson for people to learn. As much as I appreciate the scene, I must complain that the choice to make Yoda's apparition nearly opaque with an otherworldly glow was a mistake, it just didn't read as well as the more translucent version from Return of the Jedi.
At the climax of the film Luke’s feat of projecting himself across the galaxy was a brilliant way of showing both his power and wisdom. A less creative writer might have simply had him show up in person and throw the First Order walkers around with the Force, or duke it out with Kylo Ren, instead we were treated to something wholly new that at the same time perfectly fit the story. Rey and Kylo’s mind link established a much simpler version of this projection, not enough to make Luke’s feat obvious but enough that it seems completely justified as a new potential manifestation of the Force.
The strain of pulling off this projection kills Luke and thus the scene is not robbed of the drama of Luke sacrificing himself to keep hope alive in the galaxy. There is some tragedy in that moment, and yet we should all know by now that a Jedi is never truly dead.
The mere fact that I’ve been able to analyze Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren’s story arcs without directly mentioning Poe, Finn, Rose or even Leia is proof enough that their storylines weren’t as well intertwined with the main plot as they could have been.
Leia’s role in the film makes Carrie Fisher’s death all the more tragic. When she’s thrown into the vacuum of space it seemed this was a convenient way to write her out of the story, however what follows is a moment both triumphant and heartbreaking. Many fans of the EU were no doubt elated that they decided to make Leia’s force training a part of this continuity. At the same time we know that this was an intended story element for the ninth film, which sadly will not get to play out.
Canto Bight was an excellent setting. A casino city fits perfectly in the Star Wars universe and yet had never been seen before. The fact that the denizens have amassed their grotesque wealth through arms dealing was an effective bit of commentary that managed to avoid being too heavy handed.
I’m on the fence about Rose as a character. She’s certainly endearing and it was interesting to see a person from the lower decks, so to speak, but her presence meant that the natural comrade for Finn’s subplot, Poe, was once again denied screen time and the chance to flesh out his character. Had Rose not existed Poe would have been the one to take them to Canto Bight, he would have been the one to explain the ugly truth behind that beautiful city, and Rose’s backstory of coming from a poor mining world, ravaged by the First Order then exploited by these oligarchs would have been Poe’s. What’s more when DJ reveals, through hologram records that the patrons of Canto Bight deal not just to the First Order but also the Resistance, he would have unveiled that hologram of an X-wing not to a deserter and a mechanic but to the Resistance’s best X-wing pilot.
Poe, Finn and Rose’s quest to find a master code breaker in order to disrupt the First Order’s hyperspace tracking and escape is ultimately the greatest disaster of the story. DJ’s amoral nature made his betrayal completely logically justified, yet there’s still a sense of shock and anger when he turns-coat.
Poe, Finn and Rose ultimately succeed only in cluing the First Order in to the hidden transports fleeing from the Raddus. Thanks to them only a handful survive. It’s in keeping with the moral of the story, but at the same time they don’t seem to feel the sting of the Resistance deaths they’re partially responsible for.
I also didn't care for the kiss scene with Finn and Rose. It felt rather lazily thrown in, there'd been little prior to establish any sort of romance between them. Finally her dialogue line,
"That's how we're gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love,"
was cheesy and poorly delivered even by Star Wars standards.
It’s perhaps fitting that a film about overcoming failure has many shortcomings of its own and equally apropos that at least for me the story managed to overcome its failures to deliver some emotionally powerful moments, intriguing developments, and a few genuine thrills.