It’s strange that it’s taken me over two years to write about The Last Jedi. After all, I bashed out a review of The Force Awakens within hours of its midnight screening; I’d had good intentions of doing the same for its follow-up. And yet Rian Johnson’s contribution to the distant Star Wars galaxy proved thornier than I’d expected, so I found myself hemming and hawing about what exactly to write. Then, just before I could sit down to collect my thoughts…the discourse turned toxic.
If you’ve been on the internet at all in the intervening two years, you know what I’m talking about. Legions of unhappy, unwashed fans lamenting the film’s refusal to play with their action figures in quite the way they’d imagined. Their complaints – and, spoilers from here on out, I suppose – stemmed from Rey’s Force powers in the first film (how dare a girl be a Jedi!), but soon extended to Leia’s powers, to Luke’s crankiness, to various other grievances that were occasionally merited but mostly related to women getting to do things that men used to do.
You might have expected things to settle down since, but – as a cursory glance at replies to Rian Johnson’s Twitter posts will tell you – it never quite did. There’s still a vocal minority of aggrieved ‘fans’ grousing at every mention of the film or anything related to it. There’re also equally vocal – if nowhere near as toxic – devotees, a coterie of critics praising The Last Jedi as the best, most complete, or even the only good Star Wars film. Perhaps the discourse will finally expire with the imminent release of the ninth episode, The Rise of Skywalker, but I’m not holding my breath.
Which leaves someone like myself in an awkward position, since my position towards The Last Jedi is neither vitriolic nor enthusiastic. It’s …fine. Certainly, I’d contend it’s the most interesting and ambitious Star Wars film, at least from our current vantage point. But all of Johnson’s admirable intentions – to interrogate the solipsism of heroism, to examine failure in a genre unfamiliar with it – are muddied or marred by structural and tonal problems that, three viewings later, I still can’t entirely forgive.
Structurally, of course, the film is emulating The Empire Strikes Back in much the same way The Force Awakens mirrored A New Hope. A Rebel – sorry, Resistance – base is discovered by the Empire – sorry, the First Order – and forced to flee at the outset, and soon the story is split between an apprentice learning magic from a cantankerous coot while the battle rages on at the other side of the galaxy. But while that bifurcated narrative works in Empire, Jedi struggles to balance its two storylines in the same fashion.
I think I credit that to the film’s biggest failing: its over-emphasis on intensity. The timeline for Empire isn’t entirely clear, but it unambiguously takes place over a few days at least. The non-Rey parts of Jedi occur almost in real time: the Resistance forces escape D’Qar, they’re tracked through hyperspace, and a slow-motion space chase ensues. We’re given a time limit of 18 hours for them to escape, during which time Poe leads a mutiny against Holdo while Finn and new friend Rose Tico abscond to a casino planet.
That last sentence contains a lot of the worst elements of the film. The casino planet sequence is bad in all kinds of ways, first and foremost its garish production design – which is maybe designed as a swipe at Lucas or Disney or whatever, but is ugly regardless. You can also gripe about del Toro’s overbearing performance, Finn’s inexplicable fascination at the casino glamour (while your fucking friends are in grave peril, snap out of it mate!) or its hilariously undercooked anti-capitalist commentary. Sure, it’s theoretically interesting that the same manufacturers making TIE fighters also produce X-Wings, but I’m not really convinced that a space opera can shoulder the weight of ethical economies in the arms industry (see also: the taxation stuff in the prequel trilogy).
The real problem comes with the aforementioned timeline. As goofy as the slow motion space chase is (very), this sequence primarily suffers from being placed up against Rey’s training with Luke and subsequent showdown with Kylo Ren. Sure, it’s possible that Rey’s interactions with Luke are occurring over a much longer period of time, but editing conventions suggest they’re occurring simultaneously. This is both unsatisfying tonally – the storylines are so markedly different in intensity that it’s never satisfying when we cut between them – and narratively incoherent. Does it make any sense that Rey only spent a handful of hours with Luke before disappearing off to meet Kylo?
What all of this does build to is an incredible climax – the highlight of the film and, honestly, perhaps the entirety of Star Wars. Holdo launches into the Imperial fleet, Snoke is betrayed by Kylo, and Finn and Rose are able to escape from certain death – all in the one, staggeringly effective instant. It’s a scene that wouldn’t have had the same power had it not come from the conflux of three distinct but related storylines …and yet, the narrative contortions required to achieve this payoff undermines so much of what comes before.
Thing is, in isolation, I like most of the stuff preceding the payoff – emphasising the in isolation bit. I have no complaints about Rey’s arc up until this point; her conflicted feelings regarded her identity and destiny are great, the Rashomon stuff with Luke and Kylo is great, the weird bond between Rey and Kylo is great. Unlike many, I have no issue with Luke retreating from the Force given the circumstances …though I do have some gripes with the arbitrary nature of his eventual death, which seems like it was mandated by Disney bigwigs rather than satisfying any kind of emotional or narrative need. It just suffers having characterisation that needs to breath and grow placed alongside a tense, ticking-clock storyline.
Similarly, I’m really impressed by the execution of Poe’s ill-advised mutiny. In Star Wars, confidence – hell, cockiness – tends to be rewarded (though Anakin might disagree, I suppose), so it’s refreshing to see the instincts of Poe’s Han Solo archetype proved false. But I don’t feel like the film grapples with the consequences with this as successfully as its proponents might argue. Specifically, it’s Poe fuck up – mentioning Leia and Holdo’s secret escape plan over the radio – that dooms hundreds, if not thousands, of Resistance fighters to their deaths as they attempt to escape to Crait. Of course, none of the named characters are amongst their number – though Johnson does a good job of really making you feel the deaths of these unnamed extras – and the film seemingly ends with Poe unpunished for his flaws. Maybe that’s okay if you expect to grapple with such consequences in the sequel, but I’m hardly confident that J.J. Abrams will pick that mantle up – meaning that Poe essentially killed countless allies through an ill-considered comment and the films are just going to let it fly.
That said, the film really feels like it earns the fragile hope of its conclusion. Much like Empire, our heroes and heroines are bruised and battered – but not beaten. It’s incomplete, though. Not just in the way it sidesteps the consequences of failure, but that its central message is muddied. Luke’s final stand is important. As others have explained, far better than I, it represents the ideal of Jedi ideology, where sympathy, love and intelligence are used to defeat anger, hatred and violence. But it hinges on Luke’s last stand being retold throughout the universe, and given it occurs in front of a handful of Resistance ‘traitors’ and a small platoon of First Order forces, the logic doesn’t entirely check out. I’m trying to avoid griping about plot holes here; it’s more than it’s narratively unsatisfactory than it’s logistically impossible.
And really, that sums up The Last Jedi for me. Ambitious, interesting, thoughtful and frequently exciting – but never quite as satisfying as it should be. As an unabashed fan of The Force Awakens, I’m excited to see whether Abrams can bring balance to the Force with his conclusion.