As a long-time fan of Star Wars I had to, of course, see The Last Jedi. Like every other fan, I smile whenever that explosive song starts, and the opening credits fly upwards in a format that every 80s kid chose for their PowerPoint presentations in school. But this time round, my smile didn’t last very long.
Before I talk about how disappointing Episode 8 was though, I want to explain where I’m coming from. It all started with The Force Awakens and John Boyega as Finn. As a black nerd, or blerd if ya funky, I’ve always associated myself with Lando Calrissian, and felt that he got a raw deal in the fandom, where most people interpret him as a traitor that may or may not have redeemed himself.
Let’s not forget also that the Millennium Falcon — basically the most famous and awesome ship in the Star Wars universe — belonged to Lando before Han may or may have not cheated him out of it in a game. Then, in the rightly admonished prequels, we have Mace Windu, who would have defeated the Sith and Supreme Chancellor Palpatine if not for the betrayal of Anakin Skywalker. And, you know, taking so goddamn long to strike him down.
Star Wars has a long history of sidelining its token black characters, and this was the state of mind I was in when I went to see The Force Awakens. But Finn, presented as one of the core three characters of the new trilogy, gave me a new hope that this time it would be different.
Let’s be clear, the problem isn’t with any of the actors. The problem with Star Wars: The Last Jedi is with the director and writer, Rian Johnson and, umm, Rian Johnson. I admit that I’ve never been much of a Rian Johnson fan. I didn’t care for Looper, or the Brother’s Bloom, or Brick. None of them were particularly “bad”. They were structurally adequate, but in the end boring, with flat characters whose fates I didn’t care about one bit. So you can imagine that I wasn’t really happy when Johnson picked up the directorship after JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens.
But, you know, the trailers looked good, and man did the posters look incredible. I think it needs to be said that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is shot fantastically. It’s a beautiful, beautiful mess. In fact, the whole Last Jedi marketing campaign has just been a beautifully orchestrated bamboozle. And while there was much in the window, there was little in the room.
Several reviewers I follow, particularly Gavia Baker-Whitelaw and RobertErbet.com, focused on how Rian Johnson broke convention and brought something new to the Star Wars canon. I don’t disagree with most of the points they make about Johnson killing Snoke, Kylo being an obnoxious fanboy, or not giving a crap about Rey’s lineage. It’s going to sound like a broken record at some point, but there is nothing really wrong story-wise with the philosophical objective of The Last Jedi.
Baker-Whitelaw writes “The Last Jedi has a healthy disrespect for nostalgia”, and that Johnson’s film is largely a criticism of the the Star Wars mythos. She states:
“It’s surprising to see how many viewers missed the point. With his Darth Vader memorabilia and his drive to selectively erase the past, Kylo Ren is a living critique of thoughtlessly rehashing what came before. So is the entire First Order, to be honest. They’re parasites who flourished in the decaying shell of the Empire, succeeding only because the infrastructure remained. Palpatine spent decades building the perfect war machine, while Snoke just fills the void left behind. Hux and Kylo Ren are portrayed as deeply flawed commanders, partly because they’re not trying to do anything new. The Supreme Leader is dead; long live the Supreme Leader.”
I agree. But I disagree that Rose and Finn’s subplot “encourages us to think about the moral background of the war”. Thinking about the moral background of the war is not a bad idea or a bad plot, but this film is far too rushed to get that across. It’s most likely that she’s referring to Rose and Finn learning that the person who sells the Rebel Alliance (good side) its X-Wings also sells the First Order (bad side) its Tie-Fighters.
To be honest, I completely ignored this point for two reasons:
1) It needs a much more in-depth examination, and not the few seconds we get in The Last Jedi. This information adds new information to how the capitalism-esque system within the Star Wars universe functions, and it deserve more than just a passing comment; and more importantly
2) The emotional core of the Rose and Finn subplot is the two being on the floor of the First Order’s battler cruiser, surrounded by stormtroopers, about to get executed. That moment of utter helplessness and devastation as Finn is about to be killed by the same people he escaped in The Force Awaken haunts me. And the fact that their survival was happenstance made their helplessness even more glaring.
RogerEbert.com writer Matt Zoller Seitz also applauds Johnson’s ability to break Star Wars conventions, and give the audience “what it wants and what it didn’t know it wanted”. He also states “the damned thing moves“, which I think is one of the main problems. It moves too damned much.
I want to make it clear that my problem with The Last Jedi isn’t plot holes or “the character should have done xyz” kind of things. The problem with The Last Jedi is not the actors or Johnson’s destruction of nostalgia, or even the film’s ideological concepts. No, the problem with The Last Jedi is that it is a structurally incomprehensible, meaningless, nostalgic, feel-good puddle of corporate (re)hash.
The problem with the film lies at its core. From the beginning, Johnson chooses to separate the main cast — Rey, Poe, and Finn — into three separate subplots. Well, four actually but I’ll get to that. Separating the main cast is not necessarily a bad idea for a story. It’s often done in shonen animé like One Piece to great effect.
But part of the reason why it works for shows like One Piece is that it allows them to stretch out time. Animé is a much faster and more digestible medium for these kinds of separations, especially because dividing your characters up slows down the story (hence why some animés are extremely long). It takes time to tell 3 or 4 or 5 etc. separate stories with the audience’s attention switching back and forth. This was a bad choice for The Last Jedi, not because it couldn’t have worked, but because it didn’t work. There was no reason story wise to break up the main cast.
Let’s start with the Finn and Rose subplot. Poe, Finn, Rose, General Leia and the Rebel Alliance are being tracked by the First Order through hyperspace, and their ships are running out of fuel. While General Leia and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo have a plan to escape to a nearby planet — where they have a base — Poe, Rose, and Finn have their own plan to destroy the device that the First Order is using to track them through hyperspace. But they need a codebreaker to do it.
They reach out to Maz Kanata to help them get on the First Order cruiser. And before I continue, what a disappointment Maz’s appearance was. She didn’t even physically appear. We only see her as hologram, damn it! Anyway, Maz sends them to a hive of scum and villainy called Canto Bight to find the best codebreaker. This is without a doubt the worst subplot in the entire movie. Johnson completely wastes Finn and Rose’s time, and more importantly the audience’s.
Their entire subplot has absolutely no payoff. They don’t find the codebreaker; they release some imprisoned, horse-like creatures that will most likely get recaptured; the little slave children that are used as jockeys for the horse-type creatures still remain slaves; Finn and Rose get caught before they can destroy the mechanism; the codebreaker they do find betrays them, and ultimately they are saved not by their own competence as characters, but by sheer plot convenience and luck. I repeat again: this subplot absolutely wasted my time, along with my goodwill! Finn and Rose deserved better.
I know Johnson understands proper or classical story structure though, because he follows it through with Poe Dameron (and to some extent Luke). You set up a theme, issue, or problem — this is known as foreshadowing or promising. You then refer back to it later on, reminding the audience, and then you fulfil your promise by resolving the issue/s or following the theme to its logical conclusion. At the end, Poe learns an important lesson from Leia and Holdo about leadership and following orders. He is the only character that has an arc (as well as Luke to some extent). Poe’s story arc is emotional and meaningful, and still ends up surprising us.
But speaking of absolute wastes of time, let’s talk about the Kylo Ren and Rey subplot. To condense it, this subplot involved Rey and Ren having vivid ‘hallucinations’ prompted by some mysterious Force connection, which allows them to communicate with each other. Through these connections, which we later learn were formed by Supreme Leader Snoke, Rey gets the bright idea that she can “turn” Kylo away from the dark side.
Look, the redemption for Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi was absurd and just plain wrong. There is no way on god’s sand-covered Tattooine that Kylo Ren “deserves” redemption, after having murdered his father and all his Jedi padawan compatriots. I’ll remind you again that the First Order kidnaps little children, brainwashes them, and turns them into storm-trooping child soldiers. If there was any justice in the Star Wars universe, Anakin Skywalker and Kylo Ren should have been stabbed in the heart by a thousand light sabers.
Anyway, Rey thinks she can turn Kylo good, so abandons her lessons with Luke, just like Luke abandoned his lessons with Yoda all those years ago to save his friends. Johnson said to the audience — intertextually — I’m clever! Johnson does this same, cheap, nostalgic trick once again toward the end. Both times them were egregious, but both of them were applauded by the old Star Wars fans who revere the holy text of the originals.
Rey does get Kylo to betray Snoke, but instead he arrives ironically at the same conclusion that Luke Skywalker did: the Jedi and Sith must die, that was a good twist. Snoke’s dying was an interesting idea, because the apprentice taking over in this way is different, but it was a joke how he died. This is Star Wars, this is opera! Everyone must die dramatically. Okay, they don’t have to, but Snoke is the Supreme Leader of the First Order. Even his title is dramatic. But in The Last Jedi, he gets snuffed out with the Star Wars equivalent of falling on your own sword.
We do finally learn something about Rey: her parents were nobodies. I swear to god the least interesting thing about Star Wars is bloodlines. This isn’t Lord of the Rings; we don’t need a hundred pages of who begat what with who. The result of Rey’s overall subplot is that she gets Luke to return. But he just ends up killing himself, and Rey doesn’t finish her lessons. Not to mention that she fails miserably in getting Kylo to turn good (still the stupidest idea ever). She too survives mainly for plot convenience — just like Finn and Rose — or at least appears to. We never see how she escapes the First Order.
The Rey and Luke Skywalker subplot is alright. I’ve been a long time proponent that the Jedi order needed to die. In this way, I’m very much in Skywalker’s state of mind. Which is why it was a disappointment when it appeared that Skywalker had decided to save the Jedi in the end. Or maybe he just decided to save Rey and his sister Leia. In the process, however, Luke Skywalker dies. Now, Luke Skywalker dying is fine, but the manner in which he died was, well…it was literally ripped straight from Kenobi’s death in A New Hope. But that’s a minor point. Skywalker is dead. Whatever.
Finally, we need to ask ourselves where this story is going. Han is dead, Leia is (basically) dead, Luke is dead, Admiral Ackbar is dead, Kenobi and Senator Organa are very dead — EVERYONE is dead. Disney has killed our heroes, so where is the new leadership? I’m rooting for Chewbacca to be honest. The brother deserves more respect, and he did a Castro on us and survived all his friends (and most of his enemies).
At this point, there is nobody set up by the plot to take over to build the old republic. Some have suggested that Poe’s subplot was a set up for him to take over from Leia. I’m not against that. Honestly though, I think what the franchise really needs is for Chewbacca to take the Millennium Falcon, and find Lando Calrissian so they can cruise around the galaxy having adventures and pretending that all their friends aren’t dead.
We just need more Chewbacca and Lando.