A Measured Criticism of ‘STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI’

They often say that the one thing a critic enjoys talking about more than something they love is something they hate.

I’m hardly a critic, but I’d tweak that to say that the only thing a critic enjoys talking about more than something they hate is something they want to love, but can’t figure out.

So enter Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’ve been talking incessantly about this movie since I saw it last Thursday, both on Twitter (sorry), and on this very site (sorry). I think I’m already developing a reputation as someone who hates the movie, and I wanted to take a bit to talk about why I don’t. I kind of love it, actually. I just can’t get wrap my head around why so much of this movie is the way that it is.

Without generalizing, I’d probably say I like Star Wars more than just about anyone reading this, and I have for most of the last twenty years, but I promise I’m not just a nerd complaining about how the bad man made Luke different and how it’s not like how it used to be. So before I get too negative, let me just list some of the things I absolutely loved about this movie. SPOILERS ABOUND.

  • The core of this film is undoubtedly the Rey/Kylo/Luke relationship, which is executed wonderfully. The Rashomon-style accounts of the death of Luke’s Jedi Academy are great, and reconcile in a way that paints both characters as flawed and sympathetic, giving a lot of weight to their confrontation. This idea of two mentor figures fighting for Rey’s attention, but the bad guy isn’t all that bad and the good guy is kind of an asshole, is the sort of nuance the movies have needed for decades.
  • The Rey/Kylo psychic back-and-forth is a cool idea, fully realized for the first time in a proper Star Wars movie.
  • Rey’s training, specifically the bit where she goes into the dark side well. It’s surreal enough to be legitimately disturbing, and has a lot of interesting implications for the nature of the Force. It’s my favorite scene of the movie.
  • Killing Snoke. Let’s be honest, he sucked. He was supposed to be mysterious and strange, but since no one really cared about where he came from, he just felt like a poor imitation of the Emperor. Positioning Kylo as the main antagonist going forward is a great move, since he’s the most interesting and dynamic character in this movie.
  • Laura Dern. Just, everything about her. Great little role for her, which she knocked all the way out of the park. 2017 has been a wonderful year for Laura Dern having weird colored hair in classic sci-fi properties.
  • Really, all the performances. I don’t really think there was much point to anything John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran or Benecio Del Toro did in this movie, but they were all really good regardless. This was definitely the best performance of Mark Hamill’s Star Wars career, and was a fitting final performance for the late Carrie Fisher.
  • The two stars here were Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, however. They were both just fantastic, building off their weird chemistry in The Force Awakens and deepening both of their characters.
  • It looked great. Some of the shots, specifically some of the more grandiose, operatic ones (the First Order fleet being rent asunder for one) are as good looking as anything in The Empire Strikes Back.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ve got some takes.

  • Why would you go through all the trouble of allegedly re-writing your movie to feature Poe Dameron more and then have him stand around like a dipshit who is consistently wrong? I’m not the first person to compare this movie to Empire, but look at what Poe does to what Han Solo does there, where he’s the primary driver of the plot for 85% of the movie.
  • Speaking of wasted character arcs, the Finn/Rose/DJ thing just doesn’t really end up adding anything to the movie. If anything, it makes the third act even more cluttered, and really fucks up the pacing. With most of this movie, I like the ideas and even the sequences individually, but they don’t come together in a way I found satisfying or coherent at all.
  • This is hardly the production’s fault, but the whole thing might have worked better if Laura Dern and Carrie Fisher switched plotlines. I’m not really sure what they’re going to do with Fisher’s passing for Episode IX other than just open with Leia’s unexplained funeral.
  • Speaking of, let’s think for a second about the logistics of that entire Admiral Holdo plotline. People come and go from a ship currently being chased and are somehow able to escape via hyperspace. It feels like they kept this section of the movie on the Resistance fleet instead of just putting it on Crait and giving the third act time to breathe. It also feels like the ending (Admiral Holdo sacrificing herself to destroy the fleet) was thought of before it was worked out how to get there. It’s not a big a continuity thing as people somehow being able to see a giant laser in another star system from the surface of several different planets, but it’s still pretty dumb and avoidable.
  • That’s probably my biggest problem with the movie as a whole. I’m really into the idea of subverting Star Wars‘ tropes and re-purposing them into something new, but this movie feels like it only exists as an excuse to do that. It feels like it’s more concerned with tricking people than it is actually doing anything with the tricks. Deconstructing the Monomyth is great, but what do you do with what’s left over after you finish? I guess part of me is worried that J.J. Abrams is going to re-retcon half of this stuff and just make Episode IX a boring slog, as is his wont.
  • Think of the Kylo/Luke showdown, which was great. But Luke astral projecting himself to Crait kind of doesn’t make any sense? Why is his lightsaber blue? Did he project it that way as a way of lowering himself to what he was before he was a Jedi? Why couldn’t someone explain that to us? It seems like this movie wanted that showdown but also wanted that shot of Luke dying in front of two suns, which is a great image.

  • This movie drastically needs better editing. The entire last 45 minutes is just climax after climax, and the way it’s cut together, just back to back with nothing in between, starts to make everything feel meaningless, until Luke dies and it barely seems to register.
  • This is a problem with all Star Wars media lately: an over-reliance on Proper Nouns (THE Resistance, THE First Order, THE Starkiller Base). I get that it’s an attempt to re-mystify the lore after the Prequels’ misguided attempts at weird political nuance, but I think it’s an over-correction. Star Wars doesn’t have to be either dense operatic nonsense or a bad kid’s movie’s idea of ethics. It can be more than this.
  • Speaking of this being a kid’s movie (which it is): what’s up with that fight scene after Snoke’s death being filled to an almost comical degree with sprays of blood and gore? That was weird, right? There’s a lot of tonal issues in this movie, but I think that’s the one that’ll confuse me. It almost took me out of what was supposed to be a big, rousing fight scene. Just decide what kind of tone you’re trying to have, movie.
  • I promise I won’t mention Empire again, but part of why I’m confused about this movie is that I’m already seeing it favorably compared to it’s predecessor. That it’s somehow “more nuanced” and “more well-structured” than Empire, which is a masterpiece of non-chirality and non-traditional act structure.
  • The last thing I’ll say about this movie’s alleged “re-imagining” of the canon is that, aside from those few character deaths, what exactly has been changed? Breaking the cycle of the Star Wars universe is a wonderful idea, one that drove the plot of one of my very favorite games, Knights of the Old Republic, but it’s one that would probably work best at the end of a trilogy. Going forward, we’re still going to see plucky rebels fighting off a bunch of guys in stormtrooper armor. This is where The Force Awakens opting to not use all the same iconography would’ve really helped.
  • Anything else from this point would just be minor quibbles, but why did Yoda look like that? I love the idea of him being the one to agree with Luke that the Jedi need to be destroyed (another thing that I loved was someone finally realizing how culpable and dogmatic the Jedi are in all of this), but the execution was distractingly bad. When we were writing the roundtable for this, I mistakenly thought he was bad CGI, but apparently they used a re-colored puppet from Return of the Jedi. Maybe it was the ghostly blue aura around him, but he just looked awful to me.

Anyway, there are some spoilery reasons why The Last Jedi is maybe the most schizophrenic and confusing Star Wars movie to date. It’s frustrating, because the things wrong with it are more structural and clinical than the prequels, which were misguided from the start (mainly by not making Obi-Wan the main character).

Like Revenge of the Sith, it has the concepts of a great film inside of it, let down by some shoddy execution. Unlike Sith, it’s visually dynamic, philosophically interesting, and leaves the franchise in a very exciting place going forward. I think that’s why I can’t stop thinking about it. It is exciting in a way that the vaguely  familiar The Force Awakens and the vaguely dull Rogue One couldn’t ever really be. I really do think it might be the best movie in this franchise since 1983.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been better.

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