While Rules of the Game is largely intended to reflect on the rules, regulations, and incentives that help influence our lives, occasionally something hits close enough to home that I feel compelled to write about it on this blog. This is one of those times.
Let’s get this out of the way first. The Last Jedi is a poor film (91% fresh!). As a Star Wars film, it’s even worse.
Before breaking down The Last Jedi, I feel it’s important to make some disclaimers. I have attended Star Wars Celebration. Multiple times. I have a robot BB-8 and a Millennium Falcon pillow. My wife dressed as Padme Amidala for the release of Episode II. My Internet handle has been (and apparently always will be) a major Star Wars character. From any angle in either my formal or home offices you can see something from Star Wars.
I am invested.
With that as context, I sat down last Thursday with hope in my heart ready to be taken on another journey to that galaxy far, far away. While The Force Awakens was not my favorite Star Wars film, it was a decent enough re-entry for the franchise, and I was excited to see what the series could do outside of the long shadow of A New Hope. I had no particular “theories” about where the story would go, or what Writer/Director Rian Johnson and Disney would do with some of the hooks that The Force Awakens had left to them. I simply wanted to be told a good story.
Roughly three hours later, my excitement was largely dashed, and more than anything I was surprised to find how negative my reaction was. I didn’t feel I had “over-hyped” the film in my own mind going in. I knew that it had received strong critical reviews, but I had not read them, and I had been relatively luke warm (no pun intended) towards the two trailers I had seen. But still, Last Jedi felt like a punch in the gut.
Only days later do I feel I’ve digested enough about the film to understand what I think went wrong.
Let’s dive in.
Last Jedi is a Rambling, Poorly Paced, Over-Long Film
The majority of the plot of Last Jedi can be summarized as follows: The Resistance “fleet” flees from its destroyed base in the world’s longest chase (18+ hours!) while various players from The Force Awakens seek to help. For Rey this takes the form of pounding on Luke Skywalker’s door for hours at a time, periodically pausing to cut rocks with her lightsaber. For Finn and Poe this means, to various degrees, organizing a casino heist, a mutiny, an infiltration mission, a meet-cute, and a suicide run (but not together, never together).
In between, our stars learn a little something about not believing in heroes, the importance of chain-of-command, the dangers of needless risk-taking, parentage, war profiteering, casino operations, horse racing, zero-G force bubbles, facetime, animal cruelty, unfettered capitalism, floor sweeping, and (very little about) each other.
Like Empire Strikes Back (to which Rian Johnson clearly turned for inspiration), Last Jedi does not feature a traditional three act structure. Unlike Empire, which leaned on the burgeoning romance of rogue pilot Han Solo with princess and leader of the rebellion Leia Organa, in Last Jedi our three main heroes are kept entirely apart for the bulk of the movie’s screentime.
This has two effects. First, it separates the various plotlines much more than one might expect, resulting in a movie that feels like an elaborate (and high budget) Netflix series binge watched all at once, rather than a cohesive narrative. Second, it prevents our three main leads from growing the bonds between one another that we would expect to find leading into the third and final movie of this “trilogy”. They are effectively unchanged (as between each other) from the end of The Force Awakens to the end of this one. As a result, it is very easy to become bored while watching Last Jedi, particularly if one (or more) of the disparate plotlines don’t work for you.
Making matters worse, Johnson clearly had a mission statement for Last Jedi which is framed by series favorite Yoda in a delightful scene with Luke Skywalker: “The best teacher, failure is”. So not only do the leads very rarely interact, they also generally fail at whatever they set out to do. This results in a very shaggy, meandering film in which, for the most part, nothing of note is accomplished.
Because of the acute separation of the various plotlines until the very end of the film, it is easy to imagine a version of The Last Jedi where, say, Finn’s casino adventure, or Poe’s fleet mutiny are cut for time. Given that Last Jedi is the longest Star Wars adventure by a fair amount, it seems that a tighter editing pass may well have resulted in a better, more effective movie.
So why then did critics like it as much as they did (93% Fresh!)?
Critics in general are asked to see a lot of movies (obviously, it’s their job). Because of that, they tend to enjoy big screen blockbusters, known for their explosions and broad characterizations, less than the average moviegoer. When a major blockbuster goes off the beaten path like Last Jedi inarguably does, they are more likely to treat it positively and to perhaps look past some of its shortcomings.
In other words, critics love a non-blockbuster blockbuster and generally always have.
Last Jedi is more interested in being Subversive than in telling a Coherent Story
One of the things that Last Jedi is getting a lot of credit for in some circles is the “risks” that it takes in telling this brand new Star Wars story. In particular, how it subverts the audience’s expectations at every turn.
Long lingering shot of Rey holding out Anakin’s lightsaber? Boom. Luke chucks it over his shoulder like he’s in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Rey wonders for two movies who her parents are? Boom. They’re nobody.
Supreme Leader Snoke, the strongest force wielder in the galaxy and seemingly older than most of the cast? Boom. Sliced in half.
Poe’s going to save the day (twice)? Boom. Everybody dies.
Finn’s going to save the day (twice)? Boom. Everybody dies.
Carrie Fisher’s gone (rest in peace) so surely she’ll die here (twice)? Nope. In fact, she’s the only original trilogy character to survive.
On and on, The Last Jedi goes, and because Rian Johnson is a more than competent director, at each given point there is a certain amount of entertainment value in the shock of it all. He plays it well. But at a cost.
Crafting a compelling narrative comes with certain rules (of the game), not out of some centuries old adherence to an ancient text, but because the arcs of characterization, growth, and plot matter to whether an audience can engage with the story that is being told. In Last Jedi it seems clear that Rian Johnson prioritized shock above all else, whether or not it made the story more compelling, better, or even coherent. One event simply happens after the next, and the characters react.
Part of the reason for this may well have come from Disney’s signing of multiple directors to handle the trilogy while apparently giving each free rein to mold their individual stories. One can hardly blame Rian Johnson for not being terribly interested in the hooks put forth by JJ Abrams and The Force Awakens. It wasn’t his movie. That said, there is a certain amount of glee with which Last Jedi dispatches with Force Awakens plot points, so much so that it can come across as a deliberate shot across the bow to some of Star Wars‘ biggest fans.
It’s worth noting as well, that despite what some Last Jedi proponents are saying about folks dismissive of the value of these shocks, the expectations for receiving real plot advancement and “answers” from the film did not come (entirely) from over-eager Star Wars fans.
It was The Force Awakens that ended on the lingering helicopter shot of Rey’s handoff to Luke. It was The Force Awakens that had the primary antagonists speaking to a 100 foot projection of a man with a caved in head that they referred to as Supreme Leader. And so on and so forth.
Regardless, the end result of this “shock for shock’s sake” approach is a movie that feels like a series of separate vignettes with “failure” as a theme, rambling slowly forward until the projector (and Resistance Fleet) runs out of gas.
Last Jedi is not a Star Wars Film
I framed my Star Wars bona fides up above as a disclaimer, because as more and more folks have spoken about Last Jedi online (positively or negatively) it has become the rallying cry for the film’s proponents to point to “hardcore fans” or “Star Wars nerds” and exclaim that such folks are simply unhappy with the film because they didn’t get what they wanted out of Star Wars.
I admit that this is true, in part, but not in the way that they imagine.
Last Jedi is a very modern (or post-modern) film. Where the original trilogy (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) is comprised of sweeping tales of heroism of almost mythological stature, Last Jedi is small, concerned primarily with establishing that there are no real heroes and that the actions taken in the original trilogy would more likely end up killing people than saving the galaxy for freedom and the force.
And I don’t think that Last Jedi is wrong…exactly.
There are no heroes in the real world, not as we know them in movies. It’s foolhardy to rely on “one shot in a million” or “the odds are three thousand seven hundred and twenty to one” to save the day, and if your leadership does so then people will most likely die.
Star Wars has always been about heroes accomplishing the impossible. Of believing in the smallest glimmer of hope to see light through the encroaching darkness. Last Jedi stands as a deconstruction of that, and as an essay, an academic whitepaper, one might even find it well-considered, nuanced.
But it is not Star Wars.
The backlash isn’t (entirely) about who Snoke is, or who Rey’s parents are, or even how Luke treats his father’s lightsaber after 30 years of separation, it’s about ordering a pizza and receiving a hamburger. The chef could explain to you that the hamburger is comprised of Wagyu beef on handmade rolls cooked to perfection over open flames crafted solely for this burger experience, and…it still wouldn’t be a pizza.
Sometimes people just want to believe in heroes.
In “Deconstructing” Luke Skywalker, Last Jedi does Lasting Harm to the Legacy of Star Wars
Here’s where things become a bit more important to a Star Wars fan (rather than a fan of cinema in general). Luke Skywalker.
To understand why Last Jedi is so destructive to the legacy of Star Wars one first has to understand what Luke Skywalker has represented for more than 30 years.
Luke is the kid growing up apart from it all who wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself. The kid we all wanted to be. In that quest, he found a mentor, he found his father, he found power (and the force), and he found a legacy of both good and evil that would define him and his story.
The most powerful scene in Star Wars, to me, has always been the “throne room” scene of 1983’s Return of the Jedi. In the scene, you may recall, the Emperor revealed to Luke that the Rebellion had been lured into a trap and is doomed, but that Luke can save them all if he would but “strike him down”. It is “The Last Temptation of Luke”, and when Luke succumbs for the period in which he and his father exchange lightsaber blows, the darkest music of the trilogy punctuates the steep fall we are witnessing. It is a transformative scene, and for my money, one of the best in cinema history.
It is after this fight, after Luke removes his father’s hand and reflects on his own, that he comes back to the light. He had originally surrendered himself, after all, because he knew there was “still good” in Vader. The man who had killed younglings, exterminated the Jedi, force-choked who knows how many officers, and stood guard on the dreaded Death Star. But he knew there was still good. He could “feel it”. And in that moment he throws away his lightsaber, sacrificing himself to the will of the Emperor.
“I am a Jedi. Like my father before me.”
And with that self-sacrifice, the Jedi are returned.
Fast forward 30 or so years, and Last Jedi does away with all of that. Completely.
As we learn over the course of the film, Luke Skywalker has hidden away on his island mountain solely to die.
He had been training young Ben Solo (the former name of series antagonist Kylo Ren) when he discovered that Snoke had “got to him”. Peering into young Ben’s mind while he slept, Luke saw unimaginable darkness, and in that moment ignited his lightsaber with murderous intent. It passed, but unfortunately, Ben awoke at such same moment, and Kylo Ren was born (as might be expected given that his mentor and uncle was set to murder him).
Faced with such grievous error, Luke could not face his sister, his best friend, or the force again, and chose to allow Kylo free reign over the galaxy, hiding out on Porg island to die. Or so Last Jedi tells us.
This is not Luke Skywalker.
To head off complaints at the pass, I am not beholden to treating Luke Skywalker as an untouchable paragon of saintly virtue. Bringing him back in the sequel trilogy was always going to require him to have some form of character arc, which was going to roll back at least some of his growth. That is the nature of revisiting otherwise completed stories. What I am beholden to is treating the characters we know and love, the very characters that gave Disney its multi-billon dollar prize in the first place, with respect for their previous characterization and what they accomplished in their previous films. Their “legacy” and the legacy of Star Wars itself.
I don’t envy the task that Rian Johnson was given by JJ Abrams. Coming up with a reason that the hero of the galaxy absconded to drink green milk direct from the source while the galaxy burned, his friends were killed, and his sister put in danger is a tough nut to crack for anyone (which is probably why JJ set it up and then skedaddled).
That said, if there is one thing we know about Luke Skywalker, arguably his defining characteristic, it is that he believes in the redemptive power of the good in everyone. Further, he had his entire belief system actually reinforced in his darkest hour. This is not someone who should be swayed by future premonitions of darkness, especially when even in the current timeline we can see how much light is left in Kylo. It’s Kylo’s entire arc that he is trying to snuff that light out.
If there is one thing that should not have been the cause of Luke’s exile it is overreaction to the darkness in someone or not believing in the power of the light.
Compounding this significant mischaracterization are Luke’s actions immediately following his error. In Last Jedi we are told that he flees the scene after causing the birth of Kylo Ren. This singular act of cowardice results in the submission of the galaxy to a new empire, the death of his friend, and who knows what other atrocities. All while Luke possesses the power to stop it (or at least fight the good fight).
As a Star Wars fan, Rian Johnson simply failed in every way one can fail (one hopes it was the “best teacher”) in determining how Luke arrived on that island, and in doing so he hurt the legacy of the entire series. I don’t know how it will affect how people see Star Wars in the future. I suspect, perhaps, significantly.
Last Jedi (like its predecessor) is uninterested in World Building
This criticism could just as easily be laid at the feet of JJ Abrams as Rian Johnson, but there is little question that none of Disney, Abrams, or Johnson have any deep and abiding interest in the actual nature of the conflict presented in Last Jedi (or Force Awakens), the size of the forces, the state of the galaxy, the nature of the First Order or where it gets its resources, or anything that the more “hardcore” Star Wars fan so often likes to dig his or her teeth into when considering the galaxy far, far away.
As a result (and compounded by Last Jedi‘s impulse to shock by “clearing the board” of players Johnson found uninteresting), it is very difficult to get a sense of the meaningfulness of what we are seeing in these films, and even harder to extrapolate any additional meaningfulness for the space between films. Of course this is undoubtedly covered, in part, by Disney’s new novel canon, visual encyclopedia, or Porg name tags (for all I know), but whatever context there is for this third galactic war, it is entirely missing from “the screen”.
This shallowness is not the death knell for a series like Star Wars, but it is a marked departure from the films that came before. Even the much maligned prequels often felt like a universe with rules and background elements living out their own lives beyond the borders of the screen. In Last Jedi, instead it can often feel like the inhabitants of Tatooine, Cato Bight, and every other Star Wars location are simply pointing and laughing as the one fleet with 10 ships chases after the one with 3 ships for 18 hours.
It’s a small difference, but a meaningful one, and Snoke’s death in Last Jedi highlights the fact that Disney is generally more interested in telling character stories than anything with actual “Wars” (despite what the name might otherwise suggest).
Last Jedi Undermines its Message at Every Turn
One could define comedy as words or actions which subvert the audience’s expectations for what is about to be said or happen next. In that context, the sheer amount of “humor” (or at least jokes) present in Last Jedi can be seen as a natural growth of Rian Johnson’s attempt to subvert absolutely anything and everything in the film.
But what happens when you subvert the subversion?
In Last Jedi, virtually every strong, emotional beat is punctuated by some kind of deflating joke, action, pratfall, or other attempt at humor. General Hux’s initial threat to the Resistance, that they will be destroyed (in a scenario in which the First Order seems eminently capable of doing so), is derailed by pilot Poe’s extended “Can You Hear Me Now?” and “Yo Momma” jokes.
Similarly, while Luke’s plot trajectory requires him decline Rey’s advance of Anakin’s lightsaber as something dangerous and to be avoided, having Luke throw it over his shoulder like a cartoon character is deflating an emotional moment solely for the sake of subverting the audience’s expectations.
This happens throughout Last Jedi and in instances too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say, the movie takes the Marvel approach to comedy, telling everyone who is watching that the film is in on the joke and understands that you can’t take space wizards fighting with colored sticks seriously.
But what if you could?
Star Wars is just a film series like any other, with some silly conceits and fantasy elements designed to provide “wow” moments. But at its best, it can use those silly conceits and fantasy elements as a vehicle for providing real emotional resonance, either in respect of heroism (as in the original trilogy) or as Rian Johnson wants here, to reflect on the nature of idolatry and failure. But either way, making fun of yourself at every turn deflates the ability of a movie to sell these messages.
At some point in the past couple of decades (maybe Shrek, maybe Iron Man, maybe earlier than both) Hollywood lost its confidence. Under the harsh light of the Internet, movie studios realized that there was a large (or at least vocal) segment of the fanbase that made fun of movies regardless of how well they were made. The “cool kids”, if you will, that elevated themselves by denigrating what others liked. So Hollywood tacked into the wind of this phenomenon, adding jokes of every kind to every serious moment, as if to get in front of the folks that would otherwise be mocking their efforts.
“We know this is stupid and you can’t take it seriously. See? We are making fun of it ourselves.”
But it doesn’t need to be that way. Earnestness has a place. Believing in the good in people has a place. Real evil (as far as stories go) has its place. And not every movie needs to be tongue in cheek about it.
Let the story breathe and believe in it, Hollywood. Regardless of how I feel about the messaging of Last Jedi, I have little doubt that it would have been better delivered if it wasn’t deflating itself at every turn.
Last Jedi (and Hollywood) has no “Hope” in the Age of Trump
I’m not really a political guy, but I am a guy who loves stories, whether in books, movies, television, video games, or anywhere else. As I’ve grown, I’ve seen those stories morph and change to reflect the world around them, most notably (from my perspective) after September 11, 2001, when the world of entertainment looked inwards to consider how people felt after the terrorist attacks of that day.
Now, after the so-called “loss of innocence” of 9/11 and the rise of political figures which many can’t stand for reasons both real and imagined, we appear to have come to a point in our culture where at least the media gatekeepers don’t have it in them to continue the “heroic monomyth”.
We don’t live in a world where paragons of virtue exist to defend the helpless, they say. We live in a fallen world where heroes are just people who haven’t lived long enough to become the villain (to paraphrase another very popular work from the 2000s). To believe in them is the height of folly and to make stories recommending such belief is wrong, they tell us. All is desperation and decay.
I believe that this is the environment in which Rian Johnson created Last Jedi, and I can hardly fault him entirely for following the movement of the day.
But for me, I find it tremendously sad.
Star Wars was, is, and should be a tale to inspire and to which we aspire. Luke Skywalker may be unrealistically noble in Return of the Jedi, but by God, who didn’t want to stare evil in the face and say “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” It disappoints me that my children will grow up in a media age where that hope (that real hope, not the “hope” tossed out as just a word in places like Last Jedi) appears entirely snuffed out in favor of “deconstruction” and “subversion”.
No matter how bad you believe the state of the world to be (or don’t believe it to be), there is always a place for heroes, for paragons, for knights.