Let's talk about the Last Jedi
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi has certainly become one of the most polarizing films in recent years. When big Blockbuster movies are concerned, we have seen a lot of disconnect between professional film reviewers and the movie going public lately, but in those cases it were usually the critics who panned a film while the audiences liked it. Or at least didn't hate it as much, like Batman v Superman.
This time around, The Last Jedi is beloved by critics (and of course a lot of fans, judging by the fact that it will probably end up in the top 10 of highest grossing films of all time. And still in the Top 50 if you account for inflation), but it has clearly disappointed a large portion of the traditional Star Wars Fan base. Put into numbers, currently the film sits at a very good 90% positive reviews from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, while the audience score is only at 49%. It should be noted that these two numbers are calculated very differently, but the trend is very clear.
This took me completely by surprise, because I enjoyed the film quite a lot and had expected it to become the most beloved entry in the series since the original trilogy. In the last couple of weeks, I have seen the film a few more times, and spent a lot of time digging through the long lists of criticisms directed at it, and at writer/director Rian Johnson, as well as the large number of very positive reactions people had. It becomes clear that the film is so divisive because it are exactly those things that some people really love about the movie that others can't stand.
Now, of course everyone is allowed to dislike a film, and I am mostly sad that not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. But a lot of the criticism has become very hysterical, proclaiming that Rian Johnson, Kathleen Kennedy and Disney in general have ruined Star Wars forever and the end is nigh. This very extreme reaction keeps me still thinking about the film which I had otherwise probably long left behind. After all, it still is just one of many mega blockbusters that Hollywood pushed out last year, and Back Panther is already coming out next month and the next Star Wars is only 4 months away.
But in these circumstances I still feel compelled to discuss my feeling about this film in more detail. While these are my thoughts, they are informed by a lot a great pieces written or recorded by some of my favourite voices on the internet, and I will try to give as much credit as I can.
Needless to say: Full spoilers ahead! Also, I will just ignore all the criticisms that are clearly just sexist or racist. I don't think they are worth discussing here, as I am trying to understand those people who I know to be decent and just not like the movie.
For me, the Last Jedi worked on a lot of levels. Because it will not get much attention later on, I quickly want to mention that design, costumes, score, sound, CGI and practical effects are all top notch. Quality work, as expected. I also really liked all of the performances, especially Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Which is really just to single out these very exceptional performances and not to detract from the achievements of all the other great people on screen in this movie.
But I really want to go deeper than this for this film. Because while I have some things to criticise on the plot level, it's in the characters and on a thematic level that The Last Jedi really shines. I think Rian Johnson really decided to tackle a topic that is really hard to turn into a satisfying viewing experience, because it is ultimately a film about failure. Literally everyone in the films fails at some of their biggest aspirations at some point during this film.
This topic is of course not new in Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back is ultimately also a series of failures for everyone involved and leaves Luke missing one hand and Han frozen in Carbonite. And the Prequel trilogy is entirely devoted to showing the failure and ultimate destruction of the Jedi order. Both also struggled with very mixed reactions, and while Empire became regarded as the best of the Star Wars movies, especially for its more serious tone and higher emotional stakes, the Prequels never recovered from their initial impression. So being poorly received is certainly not a guarantee of later reverence, but it also means that opinions do shift with time. I am very interested to see how the perceptions of this movie will evolve in the next years. Will I change my mind and become disenchanted with it? Will other people come around to liking it more? Will this divide become eternal?
So, after much beating around the bush, lets get into the meat of it:
The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance evacuating their base after having been found by the First Order. While the transports make their escape, Poe Dameron approaches the First Order ships in a lone X-Wing, and I guess for many people, the film immediately stumbles. To stall for time for the transports to make it from the planet surface to the small fleet of Resistance cruisers in orbit, Poe hails the First Order ships and bogs General Hux down in a lengthy call where he pretends not be able to hear him. The whole things escalates to the point where it basically ends in a "Yo Momma" joke. The style of humor is in line with Poes introduction in The Force Awakens, where he is brought before Kylo Ren as a prisoner, and people who didn't like it back then will not like it here. And I suspect there will be many people who were still fine with it two years ago, but feel that it crossed a line into pure silliness here. For my part, I'm not extremely keen on some of the humor in this film, but I'm also not very bothered by it.
The rest of the opening sequence of the movie starts when General Hux finally has enough and order his largest ship, a "dreadnought", to destroy the resistance base with a shot from its massive laser cannon. Luckily, because of Poe's stalling, all resistance fighters have been evacuated. Poe proceeds to take out the laser turrets defending the dreadnoughts and orders in his bomber fleet. Despite giving explicit orders from Leia to abort this attack because the resistance is ready to make their escape, Poe goes through with the bombing run, which manages to destroy the dreadnought, taking out one of the most dangerous ships in the first order fleet at the cost of all of the resistance bombers and a good deal of their fighters.
Back on the resistance ships, which jump to lightspeed and escape, Leia demotes Poe for his insubordination. He is adamant that he made the right call and took out a valuable asset of the First Order's, but Leia is equally convinced that the tiny resistance can't afford the losses brought on by these kind of suicide attempts and that the costs by far outweigh the gains.
This sets up Poe's arc for this movie, where he has to come to terms with his problems with authority and his tendencies to always choose a bold attack over more careful options.
From here on out, the movie splits into two major parts, the resistance storyline and the Rey-Lue-Kylo story line. While the former takes up more of the screentime, the latter is by far the more interesting and were the Last Jedi really shines, in my opinion. I will not recap the movie any further. This text will be useful for anyone who hasn't seen it anyway. So let's examine things more closely:
1. The Jedi suck - Long live the Jedi: On Luke, Rey, and Kylo
One major complaint concerning the Last Jedi is it's treatment of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi in general. We have three main characters connected to the Force and the Jedi: Rey, our would-be apprentice, Jedi fangirl in awe of the legends he has heard about Luke Skywalker, and in for a very rude awakening. Kylo Ren, the ex-apprentice turned Dark Lord in training, full of hate for the Jedi and what they represent, set on burning down the old world order that failed him so miserably. And Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master in hiding, full of grief and shame, who has decided that his personal failings are a symptom of the failings of the Jedi order as a whole, who wants to let the whole thing die quietly with his own death.
Not a very good look for the Jedi camp. And Rian Johnson does not hold back and starts his deconstruction of the Jedi mythos in the very first scence with Luke and Rey. The Force Awakens ended on the image of Rey reaching out towards Luke, handing his old lightsaber towards him, and for two years people have be imagining how the old master will react to seeing this yound woman bringing him the lightsaber he lost together with his hand to Darth Vader in Cloud City so many years ago. But here, he takes the weapon and immediately throws it down a cliff behind him. Many people seem to view this as both a giant middle finger towards JJ Abrams and The Force Awakens, and the Star Wars mythos in general, as well as an example of forced humor in this film. I can get the latter complaint, but again I am fine with the way humor is employed in The Last Jedi. What I can not get behind is the first reading.
In fact, I find the Last Jedi to be very faithful to what Star Wars has telling us about the Jedi over the last seven movies, and takes Luke down the only way that can reconcile the Luke Skywalker of the Original Trilogy with the one of TFA.
1.1 Luke Skywalker: The Last Jedi
The main accusation against The Last Jedi is that it destroyed Luke Skywalker as a characterand that the Luke from the OT would never do what the one we meet here did. This is to some degree fueled by remarks by Mark Hamill himself, who famously disagreed with Rian Johnson very much when it came to direction Luke was taken in the script. He has backpaddled that a bit by now, but in any case this speaks to his amazing professionalism because he delivered an amazing performance based on material he evidently didn't like, at least at first.
But I think while we did not get the Luke we all imagined after The Return of the Jedi, and which was presented in the plethora of Star Wars novels that are not canon any more, the shining hero and wise Jedi Master who rebuilds the Jedi order, we got a Luke that is very much in line with the movies.
Luke in the Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back is always a bit of a whiny bitch. Everything is too hard and he is always ready to give up without trying. Obiwan and Yoda have to kick his ass hard to get him to get over that. And as shown to him by his vision in the cave on Dagobah, failing and turning to the dark side is his biggest fear. The Return of the Jedi, after his traumatic encounter with Vader at the end of Empire, shows us a Luke that has changed considerable. He is more assertive, more confident in his powers as a Jedi, and not afraid to use them for his purposes. But he also still kind of sucks at it, which is what almost gets him killed by the Rancor. He is willing to offer Jabba a peaceful way out of the situation and let Han go, but he also has no problem killing him and his whole entourage when he refuses. Even though the honor of actually killing Jabba goes to Leia of course.
Luke's biggest moment in Return of the Jedi is of course the throne room confrontation with the Emperor and Vader. As a kid it never really occurred to me, but it is striking how close Luke comes here to turning to the Dark Side. The whole movie he is dressed in black (except the brief period he wears camouflage on Endor), and from the ominous way the enters Jabba's palace, using the Force to push guards out of his way to the moments he looses control during this fight with Vader, it is always implied that he might fail and turn. When the Emperor threatens Leia, he comes so very very close, hacking at Vader with all his rage and cutting his hand off, just like Vader did to him. Still, he is able to pull back, clearly horrified at what he has done, and refuses to fight further. He knows there are only three options. If he fights on, with all his rage and anger, he will kill Vader, and maybe even the Emperor, but the price will be his soul, his turning to the Dark side. So he decides to stop defending himself, accepting death but hoping for the slight possibility that he can turn Vader back into Anakin and end the whole thing for good.
In The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi we learn that Luke had established a new Jedi temple to train a new generation of Jedi. But we also learn that this went horribly wrong when his nephew Ben Solo turned to the Dark Side. In The Last Jedi we see three different versions of the final confrontation between Luke and Ben before Ben finally turned and became Kylo Ren. The first is told to Luke to Rey and is clearly the version that Luke is comfortable telling: That he went to Ben's sleeping quarters at night to see how far the Dark Side had taking hold of him already, and that Ben then collapsed the temple onto him, killed some students and left with the others. In Ben's version of the same story, Luke does not come to just observe, but to kill, and Ben tried to kill Luke in self defence. Pressed by Rey, Luke later tells a story that is probably close to the truth. That Luke was shocked by the extend of how much Ben had already turned to the Dark Side and in an impulse to end the threat there and then ignited his lightsaber, which woke up and scared Ben, who sought was about to murder him.
Many people say, that this last version is fully out of character for Luke, that he would never act like this. I say, that we has seen in Empire Strikes Back that Luke will always spring to action to protect the people he loves, and we know from Return of the Jedi that he reacts strongly to these kind of threats and can have impulses of violence. The pull of the Dark Side is constant and that Luke did not fall in Return of the Jedi does not mean that he will never have these impulses ever again. In the Emperor's throne room it took him to cut of his farther's hand, here it took him a split second. But this split second was still enough to cement Ben Solo's turn to the Dark Side and to make Luke's failing as a mentor complete.
So Luke decides that the Jedi have to die. Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, all have been created by failures of the Jedi order. The whole Empire was created directly under the nose of the Jedi, who failed to identify the threat posed by Palpatine. The Jedi had monopolized the use of the Force, teaching only those who they could get their hands on so young they would not remember any other life. The Jedi were so afraid of emotions that they were totally unequipped to help Anakin deal with his. And Obiwan and Yoda did not learn too much from their failures. Yoda tries to refuse to train Luke, and Luke has to go against all advise he got from both of them to turn Vader back to the Light Side. In Luke's view, the teachings of the Jedi order themselves create their Dark Side opponents, and removing the Jedi from the Universe will also remove the threat from the Dark Side. The danger of training new Jedi who might become Vaders and Kylo Ren is just too high.
This is why I think that Luke's arc in this story is not in conflict with the previous movies. And there is one more puzzle piece that makes it almost inevitable. Luke Skywalker having vanished in The Force Awakens and him not showing up at the end to help his sister and best friend, there must be a very good reason for that. So having him cut off from the force and living in self-imposed exile was basically the only why to present him in The Last Jedi. It was not the only way to go after the first six movies, but it was definitively the only way to go after the seventh one. So I refuse to see these decisions as a fuck you to JJ Abrams and TFA. In fact, Luke willingly training Rey and accepting his lightsaber and his responsibilities back would have been much more in conflict with it.
1.2 Kylo Ren: The Fallen Jedi
Kylo Ren is one of my all time favorite characters in Star Wars. When he turned up in the first trailers, I wasn't really impressed because I was kind of tired of evil dudes in black robes with masks on. But Kylo turned out to be so much more. As Han's and Leia's son he of course has a very close connection to characters we love, raising our stakes in his ultimate fate. He is very different than the other villains the Star Wars movies have presented so far. Vader and the Emperor were always an abstract sort of evil, they did bad things because they enjoyed it or didn't care about the consequences. The Prequels gave us a bit more variety in villains, but still they was never much too them. Darth Maul looked very cool, but I was bored by him even when I was thirteen. Count Dooku had a bit more background as someone who had seen the errors of the Jedi order but drew the wrong conclusions. And General Grevious was just a joke of a character. What the Prequels did better was to flesh out Anakin and his turn to the Dark Side, but that didn't retroactively make Vader in the OT more interesting. Vader's thing has always been "cool" and "terrifying" but never "interesting".
Kylo Ren is the first villain in Star Wars who really works as a protagonist of the story. He is a very conflicted character, and where in Return of the Jedi we had to believe Luke when he proclaimed to feel conflict in Vader, in Kylo Ren we see it from the beginning. He feels mistreated by the people he once valued the most, his parents and his uncle. He feels betrayed by his mentor and uncle. He reveres his grandfather and strives to be as awesome and menacing as he once was. But at the same time he is deeply insecure about his choices. He wants to be able to cut his parents out of his life completely, but just can't. We see how hard it is to fully go through with this when he kills Han, and he still can't bring himself to kill his mother. He uses his mask to hide all this, but even his evil overlord thinks that's stupid. He is immensely powerful, but somehow always fails at his goals.
And all that makes him very very angry and dangerous. There is great conflict in him, but we are not sure how that will go. He has killed his own father, placing him squarely in the Dark Side camp. But he has a strong connection with Rey, who he is clearly fascinated with. Is he really beyond all hope? Rey thinks no, Snoke thinks yes. This is why Rey thinks she can save him as Luke saved Vader, and why Snoke thinks he has Kylo in his pocket and can treat him like shit.
Both a wrong. In the end, Kylo Ren kills Snoke, in a brilliant scene full of suspense and drama, one of the best I've seen in a long time. Not only because of that move, or the awesome fight right after that, but because of what comes next. Kylo Ren has not turned to the Light Side. He has not stayed in the traditional Dark Side. He has very clearly turned to his own side. He doesn't care any more about the Sith or the Jedi, he case about himself, about finally coming into his own, taking control of his own life, coming out of the shadow of both Luke and Snoke and taking his own place. He becomes much more assertive, but he still can't tame his demons. The past will always hunt him. That's why he reacts so strongly when Luke turns up, and his hatred for Luke distracts him so much that the remainder of the resistance can get away. I'm really looking forward to seeing more of Kylo in two years, and I think Adam Driver is just fantastic in this role.
1.3 Rey: The First Jedi
With Rey, JJ Abrams created a wonderful protagonist for this new trilogy. She is just so likeable, making the best of a shit life on a shit planet, and she is basically a Star Wars fan, growing up among the legends of the Rebels and the Empire, living in an old ATAT. But Rey has issues, deep issues. Abandoned in a hostile place, he grew up to develop remarkable resilience against hardship coming from the outside, but inside she is lost, lonely, and very unsure about her place in the world. She has been waiting for her parents to return for her whole life, fantasizing about who they might be and why they had to hide her.
In the Force Awakens she was content on waiting for the answers to come to her. But now she has discovered her connection to the Force and all the powers that had been hiding inside her, and she is now actively seeking for those answers herself. That is ultimately what she wants out of her encounter with Luke. In that sense, she is very much the audience stand-in, because like her we were wondering if she might be another Skywalker, a Kenobi, or somehow else connected to the core mythology of Star Wars.
But (and I really really really hope JJ Abrams does not retcon this in Ep. IX), there is now answer except for what Rey has always known: There is no mystery. Her parents where just shitty people who abandoned her. No one was coming for her, there is no deep reason for her Force powers. She is just Rey, and there will be no wise master telling her her place in all of this. She has to forge her own. Accepting this will ultimately free her from her demons and will allow her to become the hero of the Resistance and the first new Jedi after the demise of the old order.
There is temptation for her in this movie. Kylo Ren offers here everything she has always wanted: A place in the world, a purpose and the feeling that she matters. But Rey is more insightful than both Kylo Ren and Luke, and she chooses a different path than both of them, because she is not bound to the old perceptions about the Jedi. What she knows is the legend of the Jedi. Their ideals, their promise to protect freedom and democracy. She doesn't know about age limits, about rules against emotions and love, and that is why she can rebuild the Jedi.
1.4 The Promise of a New Jedi Order
The Last Jedi has been criticized for demolishing the Star Wars mythos. But that mythos has been demolished by Star Wars itself all the time, especially in the prequels. One of the main message of the Prequels was: The Jedi Order sucks. It failed at its main mission, and not because the Dark Side was so clever, but because the Jedi where so blind. For all their power and their wisdom, their order had calcified and strict rules where more important than people and their struggles. It starts with Qui-Gon Jinn's refusal to free the slaves of Tattooine, except for them one he finds to be useful, even though slavery is illegal in the Republic. Separating Anakin from his mother is the root cause for his fall. The total refusal of the Jedi to help a young boy and later man to deal with his emotional issues is why they all end up dead.
Obiwan and Yoda never really learn that lesson. Obiwan lies to Luke about his father when he recruits him into the Rebellion to not let complicated emotions get in the way. Yoda acts similarly, and both try to hide from Luke that Leia is his sister. They still see emotions as weakness and Luke is only able to win after embracing them and using them to turn Vader back into Anakin.
Luke is therefore very accurate in his assessment that the old Jedi order was as much of a problem as it was a force for good. His main error is to conclude that because the Jedi order has failed the galaxy and he has personally failed as a teacher, the whole thing has to die.
Kylo Ren similarly has been failed by the Jedi and he therefore wants to burn everything down and replace it with something new, centred around his ideas for a new order. The Last Jedi has been criticized because it allegedly embraces this view of "burn it all down. Let the Past die". But the film clearly frames that as wrong. Kylo Ren is a unhinged villain, and just because he is a much more believable character than all Star Wars villains before him doesn't mean the film embraces his views.
The right answer is clearly embodied by Rey. Over the course of the movie she learns that the Jedi, and especially her idol Luke Skywalker are not what she needed them to be. But she refuses to give up on the ideals of the Jedi. That is why she steals the old Jedi manuscripts when she leaves Luke behind. That is why she is unwilling to join Kylo Ren. That is why she will continue a fight that seems all but lost. She is the first of a new Jedi Order, a promise for a brighter future without Skywalker-Jedi-Royalty, without strict rules of an inflexible order of old men.
Luke realizes this in the end and fulfils his arc. In his conversation with Yoda he realizes that he has been wrong. He can't bring himself to burn the old Jedi temple, which Yoda has so hesitation to do. It seems in death Yoda has finally learned his lesson and he now knows that old temples and rules don't matter. Learn from your mistakes, path them on together with what has worked, and evolve. The big ideas and ideals are what matters and what will survive.
And that is when Luke realizes that the legend of Luke Skywalker that he so desperately wanted to kill has value. It can inspire people far beyond what the ugly truth can do. And so he decides to go out with a bang. To become the Jedi who faced the laser fire of 30 ATATs and survive without a scratch. Who could not be harmed by Kylo Ren. Who saved the resistance just by showing up and antagonizing the leaders of the First Order.
And having done that, having inspired the next generation of Jedi in a new order, having expanded all his energy on an incredible use of the Force, he dies, at peace, staring into a twin sunset that reminds him of how it all began so long ago on Tattooine.
I really really like the dynamic of these three characters in The Last Jedi, and what the film has to say about the Jedi. Was it unexpected? Clearly. But does it work for me? Oh yes. I think Rian Johnson has moved Star Wars in a bold new direction and I am willing to follow wherever this goes.
2. The First Order and The Resistance
The other half of the film is concerned with the fight between the First Order and the Resistance. In my opinion, this is the weaker half of the movie, but I still liked most of it.
I think this part is less easy to like because it takes so long to realize how much this film is about failure, and how much of the things done by our heroes over the course of this film is ultimately pointless or even extremely damaging to their own course.
The main plot for this half of the film then gets started when the resistance leaves hyperspace after having escaped in the beginning and is shocked to be immediately attacked again by the First Order, who have somehow managed tracked them through hyperspace. (Interestingly, the research of this technology by the empire has been neatly introduced in Rouge One, where it is among the projects found by Jyn Erso when she is searching for the Death Star plans in the Empire's archives.) In the ensuing battle, the remaining fighters of the Resistance are destroyed before they can be launched and the First Order ships deal significant damage to the Resistance. Here we have a scene where I find the controversy around it just stupid. When Leia is thrown into space as the bridge of her ship is hit, she manages to pull herself back into the ship using the Force. While this looks kind of weird in the way how it is filmed, a lot of people seem to have a problem with that because we have never seen Leia use the Force in that way before. But that she is Force sensitive is established since the Return of the Jedi I find is fully plausible that the would be able to save herself in such a situation, especially as it seems to happen almost on a subconscious level.
On of my biggest gripes with the film is the main setup of the remaining plot for the Resistance/First Order plot. The resistance ships lack fuel and can only make one more jump to hyperspace. As the First Order would probably be able to just follow them again, they decide to try to outrun the First Order ships with conventional propulsion. The bigger and heavier first order ship don't accelerate as fast, so the first order cruiser can keep a safe distance. The acceleration differential however is not large enough to significantly increase the distance between the two fleets. The main question of the movie is therefore if the Resistance can figure out a way of escape before their fuel reserve run out and they can no longer accelerate and are caught by the First Order.
But while I can buy that the First Order can not catch up using conventional propulsion, there should be nothing to prevent them to just make a hyperspace jump to get in front of the Resistance cruisers and surround them. I really think they kind of botched the setup for this whole situation.
But for me, this film works very well on the level of themes and characters, so lets continue our discussion of those
2.1 Fin and Rose
I think that this subplot is probably the most derided by critics, and I can kind of see why. First of all, Fin's arc in this film felt a bit unexpected, because to some degree I expected this part of this development to be kind of done after The Force Awakens, where is overcame his fear of the first order and was very heroic by the end. But it makes sense, everything he did in that movie was specifically for Rey, and after waking up from his coma now, he immediately tries to get away with the beacon that Rey will be searching for to make sure she doesn't run into a hopeless situation. So he still just wants to get away from the fight and his arc across the film is to learn that there are things worth fighting for apart from your direct personal friends.
He does that with the help of Rose, who first prevents him from deserting and then forms a plan to deactivate the hyperspace tracker on the first order flagship together with Fin and Poe. This leads to the probably most hated part of the film, the expedition to the casino planet to get a master code breaker that can hack them into the First Order ship. They fail to get to the code breaker they want and come back with someone else, who gets them into the ship alright, but sells them out as soon as it is convenient to him.
This whole casino sequence can feel a bit tedious, but fulfils some important functions for the overall movie. It is there to show us why the resistance is fighting in the first place. We see the people getting rich off the civil war while oppressing people and animals alike. We see that Rose was driven into the resistance against the First Order by this Military-Industrial complex and that she really believes in the ideals that the resistance is built on. This teaches Fin a valuable lesson who begins to appreciate why the fight is worthwhile.
Where it gets kind of confusing is that the film also has a message against useless self-sacrifice, so when Fin in the end decides to sacrifice himself to destroy the cannon of the first order, Rose stops him in a wild move in exactly the one spot of the movie were most people agree that selfless self-sacrifice would have actually been a pretty good idea. This leads over into the discussion of the resistance leadership.
2.2 Poe, Leia, and Admiral Holdo
Poe Dameron's arc in The Last Jedi has certainly gotten a lot of flak online. Because one the one hand it goes against basically all the tropes we are used to be seeing about action hero characters. And also because the film doesn't follow through on it enough.
So, Poe has a problem with authority. His preferred solution is to go on the offensive, come up with a plan of action quickly, take the fight to the enemy. But The Last Jedi wants us to understand, that this is not always the right thing to do. From thousands of movies that came before, we are trained to empathize with the hands-on guy that is held back by his superiors. The cop who doesn't stick to the rules to "get things done", the soldier who goes against the chain of command because he knows how things are on the ground. The Last Jedi instead tells us that the chain of command is there for a reason. That the leader for the fighter squadron doesn't know better than the admiral of the fleet.
That is why Poe gets demoted after the initial bombing run. That is why he is not put in command after Leia gets injured, even though he fully expects it. That is why he is distrustful of Admiral Holdo and mutinies when he thinks her inaction is dooming the fleet. And there is a lot of backlash against Holdo's character for not telling Poe what she is up to. But there are extremely good reason for her not to. First of all, she by far outranks him, and he is not involved in the execution of the plan. So she just doesn't have to. Also, given that it is unclear how the fleet has actually been tracked, information security would be a very high priority, and the plan has to be kept secret as long as possible.
My problem here is more that yes, Poe learns his lesson, and calls off the attack run on the cannon in the end. But again, that is the one situation in the film where there really is not good alternative because nobody knows that Luke will show up or that Rey will open a second exit out of the base.
Also, for mutiny and insubordination, as well as secretly setting a plan in motion that leads to the discovery of the escape pods that gets almost everyone killed should have real consequences. Instead, Leia seems satisfied that Poe has learned his lesson and continues to put trust in him. That is just a bit weird.
So overall I like the ideas and themes laid out in this part of the movies, but I think that Rian Johnson fails to stick the landing on those two because he doesn't manage to find a fully satisfying conclusion to both Fin's and Poe's storylines.
But then again, this plot as THAT scene, where Admiral Holdo slices through Snoke's flagship at lightspeed. It has been years since I was so blown away by any visual in a movie!
3. Rian Johnson VS Star Wars
After discussing the characters and themes in some detail, I want to spent some time talking about the controversy around the movie. There seems to be some feeling of betrayal going around parts of the fanbase which I really can not understand. As evident from especially the previous section there is plenty to criticize about the film, and I can to some degree understand when someone dislikes aspects that I liked.
But what I really don't get is the feeling that Rian Johnson owed us answers to some of the questions that we thought The Force Awakens had raised, especially those two:
- Who are Rey's parents:
This is a question that had been raised, and it got answered. I think in the most meaningful way possible because it is an answer that informs Rey as a character, and doesn't inform us as Star Wars fans. We had so many stupid moments in films lately where people revealed to be someone (For example Khan in Star Trek into Darkness) in a dramatic fashion which did not have any meaning for the characters in the movie but only for the fans. Connecting Rey to some other Star Wars character would potentially have some meaning, but it was just unnecessary and would have raised more questions that it answered.
- Who is Snoke:
Apparently, nobody too important. I do like that he got killed off quickly and unceremoniously. He was an empty character in The Force Awakens and there wouldn't have been a good way to give him a back story anyway. Could he have been Darth Plagueis? Sure, but would that have matter to anyone in The Last Jedi? No. It would have mattered only to some fans, and that just isn't a good reason to waste time. Killing him off opens much more possibilities for Kylo Ren to become his own thing. So Rian Johnson just focussed on the more interesting character and used to Snoke's death to further Kylo's arc.
Some people have interpreted Rian Johnson's choices here as a fuck you to a) the fans or b) JJ Abrams. Or both. I think that is silly. Rian Johnson has built on The Force Awakens in a very interesting way. He certainly did unexpected things that make us recontextualize the older movies and examine our feelings about Luke, the Jedi, etc. But finding answers to the mysteries left by JJ Abrams that are no big twists is just good story telling.
Other questions certainly included how the New Republic fell so quickly and what the First Order actually is and wants. The first questions is certainly valid and I'm not a huge fan of the choice of JJ Abrams and Co to press the big reset button and killing the New Republic basically off-screen in the Force Awakens so our heroes were the underdogs again. But I don't think that this is a valid criticism of the The Last Jedi, because it had to built on what had been established before. Maybe Rian Johnson could have found time to flesh this out more, but I don't think it would have contributed much to his story.
Concerning the First Order, I think it is very clear what it is. It's a bunch of kids playing facism. Those are the kids of the officers and leaders of the Empire who lost their place when the Empire fell and want to reclaim what they perceive as their birthright. That's why their military leader is pretty young, and pretty bad at his job. Snoke has clearly been using those people for his purposes. But they are like todays resurgent Neo-Nazis marching through the streets. Very dangerous, but ultimately also very pathetic. Loosers that have a future only if we let them. People have been complaining that they can't take the First Order seriously when they are made fun of so much in the movies. You're not supposed to. You're supposed to fear their power and influence. But you're not supposed to see them as serious for a second.
There have also been complaints that this new Star Wars is too political. Which I don't get, because it always has been. The Rebels have been fighting space Nazis back in the 70s and 80s. The prequels are about the fall of a democracy to just those space Nazis. And now a resistance more divers than ever is fighting the kids of those space Nazis. But blowing up space Nazis has always been the core of Star Wars.
4. In Conclusion
This article has gotten a bit out of hand, so I want to conclude it quickly. In summary, I do like The Last Jedi a lot. It is a bold movie that tries new things with Star Wars. Not everything worked, but I'm happy with most of it. A very solid entry into the Star Wars saga. The only I am a bit worried about is that fact that JJ Abrams is doing the next one. There are a few things I will be very upset about if he fucks them up.
It's hard to reference specific ideas after many weeks of thinking about a film, and luckily this is not an scientific paper where I would have too. Nevertheless, I invite everyone to give these a look:
This one is very interesting, but I must mention that I disagree with the notion that all this stuff is not intended by Lucas. I think it pretty much was, and it is very much there not by accident.