I’m not a hardcore Star Wars fan. I saw (and enjoyed) the original films when they came out, and had the trilogy on both DVD (ask your parents) and video (ask your grandparents). I watched Phantom Menace when that came out, but haven’t watched any others.
Until now. Kids are a great excuse sometimes, and as they both wanted to watch the new film (at different times), I’ve been to see The Last Jedi twice. And I really wanted to enjoy it.
But I was underwhelmed. First time, it just felt like it didn’t deliver on its promises, so I paid closer attention when I saw it again, trying to work out why the film didn’t totally work for me.
Not being immersed in the whole Star Wars universe, I can’t comment on how it fits in with the other films, or the extended stories in books. I’m not qualified to comment on how it treated the mythology, or how it complemented or contradicted other stuff. Instead, I want to focus on the film as its own thing, especially the story (or stories) it contained.
I should state a couple of things before I go into details. First, these are my thoughts. You may disagree, and I’m fine with that—and my thoughts may well change over time (in fact, I found the film more enjoyable second time round, but maybe that was because I wasn’t approaching it with the same sense of expectation). And secondly, what I write below will contain spoilers. If you haven’t watched the film, and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now (although please come back when you have watched it).
I’ll start with the largest story problem.
The story-line that doesn’t go anywhere
In well-structured, satisfying stories, everything has a place. Apparent digressions ultimately serve a purpose, either filling in details of the story or providing a better understanding of the characters and their particular arcs.
In The Last Jedi, I felt that there was a whole sub-plot that didn’t do either of these things. It was a diversion that went nowhere, and it took up a great deal of the middle of the film. The part I’m on about? Finn and Rose’s attempt to disable the First Order’s tracker.
This storyline starts off well. Rose and Finn figure out how the First Order is able to track the rebels through hyper-space, and they bring Poe in on their plan. They need to disable the power to the tracker by breaking in to a particular part of the First Order’s lead craft, and for that they need a master code breaker. Apparently, only one person is capable of such a feat.
Finn and Rose head down to Canto Bight, where they spot this person in a casino, but they are arrested and imprisoned before they can approach him. So far so good storywise—plans going awry adds tension, after all.
And they wind up in a cell with DJ, who might be another master code breaker. Bit of a handy coincidence, but I’ll let that go for the moment. (I’ll also ignore the fairly heavy-handed stuff about people profiting from war). Of course, Finn and Rose escape, with help from DJ (so he appears to be a good guy), and they get on board the First Order’s vessel.
They get to the power supply, but are stopped. Meanwhile, Poe has taken over command of the Rebel fleet, preparing to jump to light-speed when the tracker is disabled, when he is stopped by Leia.
The plan is in ruins. It’s a good middle-build crisis moment. How are the Rebels going to escape now?
Turns out, Leia and the others in charge of the Rebels already had a plan, which they were working on all along. They didn’t need to jump to light-speed again, because they were aiming for an old base where they could hide out. So there was no need for Finn and Rose to disappear off to the casino, and Poe’s mutiny was also pointless.
So they failed, but it had no impact on the story. The whole episode was of no consequence. It might have given the viewer some action scenes (Finn’s fight with Phasma—more on that later—and the faither stampede through the city), and introduced one of the more interesting characters in the film in DJ (or maybe I think that because I enjoy watching morally ambiguous characters), but as far as the story was concerned, it was nothing.
Yes, DJ saves himself by exposing the Rebels’ plan, but surely there could have been another way to weave this into the story (like, maybe, the First Order plot the possible path of the Rebel fleet and see that they are heading to an apparently abandoned planet). And yes, there were character moments, especially between Finn and Rose, but these could have been included elsewhere.
This was, for me, the biggest problem with the story, because it added too much wasted time to the film. But it wasn’t the only issue.
Kill the minions, then the big boss — not the other way round
In stories, battles and problems have to increase. The enemy has to grow harder to defeat in each conflict. It works the same in video games—kill the little guys and work your way up to the big boss. It keeps the tension high. And when the final bad guy is defeated, that’s a major resolution, maybe the ending payoff of the whole film or game (at least, until the next round).
But The Last Jedi kind of does away with this. We have the Supreme Leader, Snoke, who is this film’s equivalent of the Emperor in the original films. About half-way through the film, Kylo Ren takes the captured Rey to Snoke. Yes, we know that Ren is conflicted, with light and dark battling within, but this feels like a moment when dark wins.
Yet it doesn’t. He kills Snoke with a cheap trick (and for someone who seems to be inside both Ren and Rey’s heads, it’s surprising that Snoke doesn’t see this coming). The Supreme Leader is dead, killed by his protege. It should be a high-point of the film, a major resolution.
But then, Snoke’s guards attack, and we have the fight scene where the heroes battle through increasing odds. Only, the final battle is already behind them.
Yes, we get to see Rey and Ren battling side-by-side (although, personally, much of the fight choreography felt like it was trying too hard to please the audience, rather than showing us the characters’ true selves), and it sets the scene for their conflict afterwards, but it all feels a bit anticlimactic.
So, the big fight scene at the end wasn’t real?
And on the subject of big fight scenes, I have to comment on the one at the end, between Luke and Ren. This has been building throughout the film, seeded by the memories of what happened when Luke was training Ren as well as being the supposed Last Jedi’s final stand, and this film’s true battle between good and evil.
Yet there are major problems with this encounter. I could forgive the slowing down of the pace when Luke appears, as we have been waiting for him and Leia to have their moment together on screen—it doesn’t particularly work with the story’s flow, but it’s an audience-pleaser. And the shot where Luke heads out to face the First Order single-handed is visually arresting.
It’s after that things go awry. First, we have Luke being bombarded by everything the First Order has, and surviving.
But that’s cool, right? He’s stronger than ever. He’s what the Rebels have been waiting for. He’s going to save the day. How can this be a problem?
Heroes, to work effectively in a story, need to be flawed. The perfect character is ultimately boring, and we soon lose sympathy. If a hero has a flaw, an Achilles Heel, nothing is set in stone. Even though we know the hero will win the day (because, especially with films like Star Wars, that’s what we’ve come to see), we still need that slight uncertainty, because it keeps the tension high. If the hero is invincible, the big fight becomes little more than a formality.
By giving us an invincible Luke, The Last Jedi’s final scenes become routine.
And what of the fight between Luke and Ren itself? It’s been building, and we expect something jaw-dropping. We want a classic battle, with twists and turns as two masters go head-to-head. We want that moment when it looks like evil has triumphed, just before good rallies its strength and tears evil apart.
So what do we get in The Last Jedi? A bit of posturing, some verbal sparring, and a couple of parries.
Then Ren cuts through Luke with his light sabre.
This could have been fantastic. It has echoes of the fight between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original film, where Obi-Wan basically sacrifices himself because he knows this will strengthen Luke. This could have been a glorious death, where good triumphs even as evil seems to have won.
Instead, the impervious Luke survives. Even when Ren sticks the light sabre through his chest, Luke is unaffected.
Because he’s not there. It’s some kind of projection, or ghost-self. In reality, he’s back on his island.
That might have been a cool concept to play with, but it left me feeling cheated. Not only is Luke invincible, but he’s also not really there. The whole fight, at that moment, became a sham. It wasn’t the big battle the film had promised. If Luke was facing the First Order to distract them from the Rebels’ escape, it also served to cheapen the story.
And a few other things
There were other things that didn’t sit right with me from a story-telling standpoint:
- In Finn’s fight with Phasma, we see Finn fall off an edge. But what we don’t see is the moving platform just beneath him, until he reappears and kills Phasma. This felt like a bit of a deus-ex-machina, with luck saving the hero rather than the hero saving himself. Yet this problem could have been rectified so easily. If we’d seen, for example, Finn and Rose being brought up on the platform as prisoners, we would have the foreshadowing that would have made Finn’s reappearance after falling a cool ‘of course!’ moment.
- Holdo’s sacrifice, when she sets a light-speed path through the First Order craft. Yes, it’s a good moment (and the lack of sound works well), but we haven’t had enough time with Holdo to care about her. She starts off as an antagonist to Poe, getting in the way of him saving the Rebels, and her sacrifice is consistent with a redemption plot. But as a small part of the larger story, it isn’t enough. It feels like a handy way to get rid of an unsympathetic character. I can’t help feeling that having someone like Leia making this sacrifice would have made a far greater impact (and, if Luke had physically died in his battle with Ren, while the Rebels escaped, Leia’s sacrifice would have provided foreshadowing for this, as well as being a great passing-the-baton moment, from the old characters to the new).
- Poe gets chewed out (and demoted) for going against orders and leading the attack that resulted in the destruction of a First Order destroyer along with all the Rebel bombers. But whose orders were the bombers following? If they all went against Leia, isn’t that poor leadership on her part? And if (as seems to be hinted at) the plan was to bomb the destroyer anyway (otherwise why would the fighters and bombers be ready), surely Poe was simply following pre-arranged instructions. Why did the Rebels plan the mission if they weren’t prepared to follow it through?
Things it got right
It’s easy to be critical, and to focus on the problems. But that’s never the whole story, and there were many things in The Last Jedi that worked on a story level. They kept the tension high with a ‘ticking time bomb’ (the First Order chasing the Rebels as their fuel depleted, and the understanding that destruction is only a matter of time). And as messy as the whole Rose and Finn storyline was, the mentor/trainer storyline with Luke and Rey was well done.
Having a reluctant mentor is a classic trope, and The Last Jedi uses this effectively, giving us enough to understand and sympathise with Luke’s bitter attitude. It also shows Rey’s persistence, although maybe some failure from her along the way might have helped (but it would also have added time to an already long film). And Rey saving the Jedi writings was a nice touch, including Yoda’s line about there being nothing in the tree that Rey did not already have access to—foreshadowing that only becomes apparent in hindsight.
I also enjoyed how the story worked in Kylo Ren’s conflicted inner being, and this brought back memories of Darth Vader, and his eventual turning against the Emperor (maybe hinted at by Snoke’s line about seeing a new Vader in Ren.) I know I said I would only comment on this film, but his conflict does set things up well for Episode IX. This is also mirrored in Rey’s apparent willingness to look into the dark side (although she’s a bit of a cipher for ultimate good, so I’m doubtful that this will be developed.)
There’s also potential in DJ, even if the storyline he surfaced in was a mess. He reminds me in many ways of Han Solo—out for himself, and willing to bend what morals he has to look after number one, but with the potential to be one of the good guys.
So, what do I think of the film overall? It has its problems, and I think there were many missed opportunities to make something far stronger, but it isn’t a bad film. And maybe it was never meant to be a clear story. The main Star Wars films work in trilogies, so maybe it is better to view The Last Jedi not as a complete film, but as the middle build of a larger story. Maybe the problems in the story will, in the larger scheme of things, turn out to be important building-blocks, foreshadowing events in Episode IX.
Although that doesn’t make The Last Jedi a better film as its own thing.
Feel free to disagree with me. As I said earlier, these are my own thoughts, nothing more. If you think I’m way off the mark with any of this, let me know—I’ll listen to other points of view, and I’m willing to change my mind if your arguments convince me.
And I suppose that’s one way in which The Last Jedi has worked well. It’s got people talking about Star Wars again (just like The Force Awakens did). It’s once more increased the visibility of the brand. And it’s built more anticipation for Episode IX, for those who want to see an improvement and for those who want more of the same.
I just hope they come up with a good story.