Cultural Doggie Bag: Star Wars – The Last Jedi

Hugely polarizing movies are always interesting to me—whether I love it or hate it, there’s always something interesting to think about with respect to films that sharply divide audiences. The new Star Wars movie certainly falls into this category, what with its lofty 92% critics rating and dismal 54% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I finally saw The Last Jedi the other night, and I went into the theater with high hopes. The trailers sold it very well and The Force Awakens had set up a number of mysteries that I was looking forward to exploring.

Unfortunately, though I started out enjoying myself, I found myself landing squarely on the hate side of the division by the time the credits were rolling. If you want to know why, keep reading, but there are MASSIVE SPOILERS from here on out, so be warned.

  1. The film is internally incoherent

    You can think of The Last Jedi as a bad movie wearing the skin of good movies—Buffalo Bill style. There is definitely a lot of awesome stuff in there: cool moments, some great action set pieces, legitimate drama and so forth. But all these pieces are just loosely stitched together and they just don’t make sense in what is supposed to be a larger tapestry.

    Half the movie concerns the last remnants of the rebellion that are on the run from the First Order. (You might have thought that the good guys won at the end of The Force Awakens, but you would be mistaken. The Republic was apparently inconsequential enough that it could not survive the loss of a a few planets, the First Order basically controls the entire galaxy, and the resistance has become a rebellion that’s down to a handful of ships and the people on board.) The First Order is mysteriously tracking the Rebels through light speed, and the Rebels are forced to barely stay ahead at sub-light speeds because they only have about 18 hours of fuel left. The odd strategic bread from The Force Awakens aside, it’s a setup that could create some good tension—if the movie weren’t so sloppy about it.

    Take the intriguing mystery of how they’re being tracked. Tracking ships at light speed is apparently thought to be impossible by most people. Leia treats it as a mystery. Snoke is impressed enough that he refrains from killing the space Nazi general in charge of his fleet. How are they doing it? Did they get a homing beacon aboard the ship? Is there a traitor in the ranks? No. The First Order just has a scanner than can track a ship at light speed. The movie sets it up as significant and curious, but it’s ultimately nothing more than “they just can, I guess.” Apparently Snoke didn’t read the memo about inventing that and installing it on his own ship.

    It was awesome when Leia got blown up and blasted from her ship into the vacuum of space, only to use the Force to fly back on board like freaking Superman. Except that it’s literally the only time she ever does anything at all like that in any of the movies. Yeah, Return of the Jedi set her up as a Skywalker who has the same kind of potential with the Force as Luke, but there is no other indication anywhere in The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi that she ever developed that potential. There’s not even any throwaway line like “oh, it’s just something my brother taught me” to hang a lantern on it or a comment from other rebels about her doing stuff like that on occasion to set it up. It just comes out of nowhere to the point that it almost becomes comical.

    It was totally awesome towards the end when—after having to abandon their last big ship in order to escape—the last remaining rebel on board (who momentarily forgot about the existence of auto-pilot) points the ship at the enemy fleet and takes it to light speed, obliterating a bunch of star destroyers and causing massive damage to even the huge capital ships of the First Order. It was expertly animated and extremely satisfying. At least it was until you remember that they had to ditch several other big ships earlier in the film and just let them get blown up instead of using them in exactly the same super-effective way that would have let the rest escape. It was so awesomely effective that it makes me wonder why this isn’t a normal tactic in the Star Wars universe—building giant torpedoes with hyper-drives and launching them at enemy ships.

    And I was already filled with this same kind of “wonder” in other respects. Why is it that fully fueled First Order ships capable of light speed can’t catch up with ships forced to go slower? Why they can’t send half the ships ahead of them to stop them from staying outside of effective weapons range? Why they can’t call in other ships to come out of hyperspace ahead of them—they control the whole galaxy, they must have more ships. And they had plenty of time. After all, Finn & Rose were able to go off and have an ultimately pointless mini adventure on the Evil Rich Person Planet, get knocked out and thrown in prison, free some animals, find a code-breaker, give the 1% their comeuppance and then come back while this slow chase was going on.
    Everything cool about the movie is there simply for the sake of being cool—but very little of it is an organic part of the setting and circumstances. It’s as if every scene came from a different writer thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if ______ happened?”

  2. Most of the mysteries from The Force Awakens are just written off.
    I left The Force Awakens wanting more. For example, who is this supreme leader Snoke fellow? Where did he come from? He is a mysterious and powerful figure who was never hinted at in the other six movies, so what’s his deal? Well, I still don’t know and since he died like a chump 2/3 of the way through the movie, I doubt I’ll be finding out any time soon. He was set up as so mysterious and powerful and conniving and so forth by J.J. Abrams, but there was absolutely no payoff. He came out of nowhere and went right back where he came from when his narrative role was finished.

    What about Rey’s parents? Is she a Skywalker? A Kenobi? A Palpatine? Fans were abuzz with theories about this one, but nobody could have guessed the real answer: Nobody important. Just some lazy junkies who sold their daughter for drugs. After the last movie, a lot of people pointed out that Rey was a Mary Sue—a stand-in character for female viewers who was inexplicably good at everything and loved by everyone except the villains. She could immediately pilot and repair the Millennium Falcon better than Han and Chewie. She could use the Force to great effect and dominate Kylo Ren with a lightsaber—all without any of the training from Jedi Masters, hard work, and sacrifice that Luke needed in the original trilogy. Unlike Luke, Leia, or…. anyone, gruff old Han Solo took an immediate shine to Rey. And when Han died, Leia walks right past her old friend Chewbacca to embrace Rey, who had known Han for all of a day or two. I was skeptical of the assessment because I assumed that her mysterious backstory would give a reasonable explanation for all of this. It did not. She has no real backstory, and there was no reason to make it appear mysterious. There’s no reason for skepticism any longer. Rey is the most blatant and shameless Mary Sue character I’ve ever seen outside of fan fiction—which basically means that Last Jedi retroactively ruins Force Awakens.

    And there’s a thousand other tiny plot threads from Force Awakens that are just abandoned. What kind of training was Snoke going to give Kylo? Who are the Knights of Ren? We left off with Finn seriously injured and unconscious, but he immediately wakes up fine. It really reminds me of the first season or two of Lost—setting up mysteries that seemed cool but had no real payoff. Only I don’t think it’s J.J. Abrams fault this time. The impression I get is more that Rian Johnson found episodes 1-7 to be a burden rather than a foundation and was simply eager to get away from it all and do his own thing.

    But what about the mystery surrounding Luke? Why did he disappear to find the first Jedi Temple? Why did he abandon his friends in their fight for freedom? Why did he leave behind a map to find him in a mysteriously deactivated R2D2? Well, that leads us to…

  3. The character of Luke is crapped on.

    There was a lot of potential here. After Luke’s falling out with Kylo, did he want to explore ancient Jedi writings to find out where he went wrong? Why did he think the Jedi needed to end? Because he found a deep flaw in their philosophy or uncover some dark secret?

    Well, here’s the actual explanation: As indicated in Force Awakens, Luke was trying to start a new Jedi Order and was training a number of students, including his nephew, Kylo Ren. He sensed the dark side growing in young Kylo (apparently because of Snoke… somehow.) So Luke visited him at night and scans his soul for the dark side. Astonished at how deeply Kylo was into it, Luke impulsively decided to straight up murder his nephew—the only son of his twin sister and best friend. But Kylo woke up scared and angry, and knocked Luke out, destroyed his training temple, and ran off to join Snoke. Luke, knowing he had failed Kylo, ran off for the sole purpose of dying alone in despair.

    What does that have to do with R2, the map, and the first Jedi temple? Not a damn thing, apparently. Yet more teases with no payoff.

    But more importantly, how is this the same Luke Skywalker we know from the original trilogy? I seem to remember his hero’s journey reaching a climax when he went on a suicide mission to the Death Star because he refused to give up on the idea that there was good inside his evil mass-murdering space tyrant father. He even refused to kill him in their last duel. But his nephew—who is still conflicted about the whole light/dark thing—was just beginning to fall to the dark side, and his knee-jerk reaction is to immediately give up on him and kill him? I seem to remember Luke refusing to abandon his friends even when Obi Wan and Yoda were both begging him not to. I seem to remember Luke never giving up despite his failures and persevering till the end. What happened to him? Was what happened with Kylo a tragedy? Sure, but he’s already overcome bigger things than that. It trashes Luke’s legacy and obliterates his entire character arc from the original trilogy.
    And the same is true for Luke’s death.

    After a pep talk from Yoda, Luke decides to join the fray after all—or so it seems. He shows up when the rebels are making their last stand, and he goes out alone to face the First Order’s army. He takes all sorts of fire from their walkers and just shrugs it off—goading Kylo Ren to come down and face him. They sort of duel, but Luke is only dodging and their light sabers never make contact. Eventaully Kylo Ren cuts him down… only to find that Luke was just doing some kind of force astral projection thing the whole time—he wasn’t really there, just projecting an image of himself from his temple. So he basically tricked the First Order into focusing on him while the rebels escaped all from the safety of being light-years away. But then Luke dies anyway—I guess from over-exerting himself. So Luke Skywalker, who once took down the Empire dies alone from doing an elaborate Jedi mind trick. And the point of doing it all remotely was…. what exactly? The movie made a point of showing Luke’s ship on his planet. There is absolutely no reason he couldn’t have been there in person and had a heroic send-off that was actually real. It’s just one more injustice done to the character.

    Mark Hamill is on the record as fundamentally disagreeing with everything they chose to do with his character, and I cannot blame him one bit. We all wanted to see Luke at the height of his powers, but all the creators did was inexplicably take him down a dozen notches just so that the new characters have a shot at being interesting in comparison. It’s lazy, disrespectful writing and there’s no excuse for it. And that brings us to #4

  4. The new characters are largely uninteresting

    I do like Finn. He has enough dimensions to be interesting and John Boyega brings enough charm to the role that he’s likable. And apart from all the SJW posturing in his story arc regarding the evil slave-owning animal-abusing weapon-selling rich people, I thought his side story was fun enough (even though it turned out to be worse than meaningless to the movie as a whole; more on that in a minute.)

    I still don’t know why the movies want me to think Poe is important. He’s a hot-shot pilot whose also impulsive and hot-headed (yawn.) But he’s still hanging around Leia all the time so he can seem central to the rebellion. I like the fact that he actually has something of a character arc in this one where he learns that being hot-headed isn’t always the best approach to challenges. However, the lesson is learned at a truly awful cost that is just glossed over. Once Leia is unconscious after her superman episode, Poe distrusts the rebel leadership because they’re seemingly not doing anything to save the fleet and the rebellion—and to be fair to Poe, they give every impression of this being the case. That’s why he sends Finn off on his side-quest and ultimately mutinies against the Rebel leadership. But they did have a plan that they kept secret for no discernible reason (and this was a really easy mistake to avoid; they established this mysterious tracking of their ships and they could have easily used that to create distrust among the rebels because they’re afraid of a traitor.) Poe’s mutiny ends up turning their secret plan into a disaster resulting in the deaths of roughly 75% of the remaining rebels. He learns his lesson, but the gravity of this monumental screw-up is never really acknowledged.

    Kylo Ren is still an angsty putz who can’t really be taken seriously as a villain. Except now we’re stuck with him as the sole main villain because Snoke is dead.

    Rey, as we already mentioned, is just a zero-personality Mary Sue. Her interactions with Kylo in this movie are genuinely interesting, but other than that, her only real struggle is trying to find her role in everything—which in her case, just comes off as “what am I supposed to do with all this incredible awesomeness I have?” And I wholly expect that Episode 9 is just going to tell us she should just be following her heart and creating her own role—making her hero’s journey nothing more than coming to realize how incredibly awesome she always was.

In some ways, this is the worst of the Star Wars movies. As a self-contained film, it’s certainly not the dumpster fire that Attack of the Clones was, and sufficient suspension of disbelief might cover up enough of the plot holes to make it a good, fun movie. But none of these films are self-contained—they’re part of a whole whether we like it or not. And in that respect, its casual disregard for the entire canon whilst being part of that canon does a whole lot of damage to the Star Wars mythos. I don’t think it’s impossible for Episode 9 to make a comeback if handled properly. Time heals a whole lot of wounds, and I would actually suggest a 10-year time skip as a way of creating a better starting point than we were left with (Kylo can grow up, Rey can train, the rebellion can be rebuilt, etc.) Nevertheless, The Last Jedi creates a whole lot of disappointments—a lot of which cannot be erased from the Star Wars saga.

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