Well, it’s that time again, where I have an apparently boundless appetite for talking about STAR WARS. Last time I was musing about the failures of Rogue One and talking about why Star Wars is more than the sum of its parts. This time, obviously, I’ve just seen The Last Jedi, and I figured I would wrap my opinions up in a blog post rather than on Twitter because it’s easier to warn for spoilers.
SO! Spoiler warning for The Last Jedi. And another kind of warning, too. I’ve seen a few arguments play out along the theme of “don’t crap all over people’s joy for liking something”, which is a sentiment I 100% agree with. Unfortunately, the line between “engaging something critically” and “crapping on it” can be somewhat difficult to walk, and where precisely it is varies from person to person. So, while I basically liked this move (spoiler alert!) I’m going to also talk about the parts of it I didn’t like. Please don’t take that to mean you shouldn’t like those parts! (And/or, just don’t read on.)
Right! So. Last Jedi. Where were we?
I think, basically, I liked the movie, because I like (most of) the characters and their relationships. That said, there were some issues that really distracted me and probably kept me from loving it. I have to try really hard to keep myself from going all Comic Book Guy and Worst. Empire. Ever. because I’m kind of a worldbuilding nerd first and foremost, and that’s where the failings are. So I’m going to try real hard to restrict my critique to things that actually matter, and not stupid stuff like “why do they use gravity bombs in space?”
So what were the good bits? Rey is great in this movie, visibly more confident in the role and with some really good stuff to do. Her stuff with Luke is great, her stuff with Kylo Ren is wonderful. The scene with the two of them and Snoke in the throne room was by far my favorite part of the movie; the fight that follows against the Praetorian Guard is probably the best fight scene in all of Star Wars to date, threading the line between the awkward non-choreography of the original trilogy and the hyper-choreographed “endlessly hitting each other with glowsticks” of the prequels. (While also avoiding the “heroes effortlessly disposing of CGI mooks” from both the prequels and the Marvel universe.)
Finn and Rose both work for me as characters, but I was honestly left a little cold by their role in the plot. Some of that is logistical (see below) but some of it just that retrieving the codebreaker from one very particular planet felt like a video-game-y arbitrary obstacle. A fetch quest, essentially. It doesn’t help that a) BB8 essentially completes every mission for them (seriously they should literally just send BB8 out alone) and b) it turns out to be not only pointless but counterproductive. (Since they don’t disable the tracker, but do provide the information the First Order uses to blow away dozens of rebels transports full of people. This could arguably be blamed on Poe. Pro tip, Poe: compartmentalize information. If you have a secret plan to get away, maybe don’t talk about it over an open mic to Finn?) Finn’s arc, the progress from self-sacrifice to needing to look beyond that, mostly works, but it has some logistical problems. (Again, more later!)
Poe — dunno, I think I’m in the minority on Poe, but I’ve never been fond of him. His snarkiness has always felt kind of off to me, something that would be more at home in the Marvel universe with Tony Stark. I like his arc in this movie, though, his natural assumption that he should be the hero and at the center of all events thwarted over and over until he finally gets that not everyone is about his personal story. Dan Olson mentioned something I thought was a good point — the introduction of Holdo is basically a gag, and I think it does her kind of a disservice. Like they’re announcing the new commander, and Poe is getting ready to stand up, and then ha it’s Admiral Rando! Except it turns out she’s not just some rando nothing character, she’s important, but we’re already primed against her.
Kylo Ren — again, I might be in the minority, but I liked him a lot in the first movie and I loved him in this one. His arrogant insecurity makes him totally believable as both a villain who does awful things in an effort to be a badass and someone who’s genuinely conflicted about it. He, more than anyone else, is directly tied to the themes of the movie, and it’s great.
There’s more (Luke and Leia are both great, loved the moment with Yoda, etc) but you get the idea. Good characters, good relationships, strong themes!
So, why do I feel the urge to nitpick?
Well, I’ve thought about it a bit. There’s two basic issues that stand out to me. First, the movie sacrifices plot mechanics and logistics in favor of hitting its themes in ways that strain my suspension of disbelief, and second, the First Order completely sucks and fail as villains. The first one is probably more important, but the second one is more straightforward, so let’s take that first.
Kylo Ren is a fine villain. Whatever you think of his character, he’s at least initially intimidating — in The Force Awakens, his ability to stop a blaster bolt in mid-air is cool and new, his saber is weird and janky, he gets the information he needs from Poe. But the rest of the First Order, while they have the same blocky, brutalist design and color scheme as the old Empire, are completely undermined by being utter failures at everything they try to do. By the end of The Last Jedi they’ve become utterly toothless and comical, and it constantly undermines the tension of what are supposed to be exciting scenes.
So, I’m not saying we need to have the bad guys win in the end, and I’m not begrudging our heroes defeating stormtroopers with ease, not getting killed, etc, etc. That’s just normal dramatic logic, I’m fine with that. But what’s missing from these two movies so far is the scene where the bad guys get to do their thing, and establish that they are in fact a force to be reckoned with and not a clown patrol.
Think back to the originals. The opening scene of A New Hope is flat-out brilliant symbology, with the tiny rebel ship literally swallowed by the huge Star Destroyer. Then you have the hallway shootout, with the stormtroopers mowing down the rebels, and then in comes Vader, lifting and choking people. It’s enough to give you the general sense that the Empire basically knows what they’re doing; in turn, this means when our heroes triumph, it feels like a heroic victory against incredible odds instead of showboating against losers. Empire Strikes Back starts with Hoth, and once again we get the awesome might of Empire in action — Luke goes out, and does some damage with luck and the Force, but the rebels still get trashed and barely escape, the AT-ATs effortlessly brushing aside their defenses in spite of all their efforts. Same deal — if we want the heroes to be heroic, the bad guys have to be at least basically competent.
These are the scenes that are absent from the new movies. We start The Force Awakens with the First Order massacring a random village, which feels more like a war crime than a battle. After that there’s never a scene where they successfully accomplish their goals, aside from the unopposed initial firing of Starkiller base. They fail to catch the Falcon, fail to catch it again at Maz’s, fail to protect the base, and so on. (In A New Hope, remember, the Falcon gets captured by the Death Star, then their escape is deliberate!)
Now, in The Last Jedi, it felt like we were going to see a little bit of that, since we start out with the First Order chasing the rebels away from their base. But no — the first sequence is a ship bigger than even the Star Destroyers warping in, and Poe destroying it with a handful of fighters and bombers. By the time Snoke’s even bigger ship appears later on, it’s not intimidating at all, since apparently the damn things are useless. The best they accomplish is blowing up a few abandoned support ships.
Now, you can (maybe) come up with in-universe justifications for everything. The First Order is new and relatively incompetent, not the military machine of the old Empire, whatever. My point is that in the story we’re clearly supposed to think of them as intimidating, and they’re just not. Their leader is a joke, their ships are useless, and they can’t win even against mooks. It’s disappointing.
Okay, second nitpick. The strength of this movie is in characters and theme. I talked about the former, but the latter is great too, and it’s very clear. Whereas The Force Awakens was about a new generation trying to deal with having to live up to their legendary predecessors (much as the movie itself had to live up, this is not accidental) The Last Jedi is about the idea of whether being linked to the past is being bound to it. Rey finds Luke, in an effort to tie herself in to past glories — to become the apprentice of the great Skywalker, heir to the Jedi, etc, in the same way that Kylo thinks of himself as the heir to Vader and is descended from the Skywalker bloodline. But things don’t work out the way Rey wants — Luke won’t teach her, and the big reveal about her parents is that there is no reveal. She’s not the heir to anything. But that means she’s free; whereas the past wraps around Kylo like a chain. It’s why they can’t join up, in the throne room — they kill Snoke, and Rey is ready to leave the past behind, and Kylo can’t. It sets up their next confrontation, with Rey being the new, the unencumbered, and Kylo representing the old hatred and Skywalker family drama that has laid waste to the galaxy.
Whew! It’s great, I love it. (It’s partially why I think Finn’s arc didn’t work as well for me — it’s only tenuously tied to this theme.) The movie nails this part so perfectly, but it feels like they sacrificed something in the writing for it, because the rest of the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense.
(You can read the rest of this in Comic Book Guy voice if you want.)
Obviously it’s stupid to quibble about how fictional technology works. So when they tell us that the rebel cruiser can outrun the Star Destroyers in realspace, fine, I’ll go with it. But what’s less easy to suspend disbelief is why the First Order doesn’t, you know, try anything else to do something about it. They have TIE fighters, for example. Literally hundreds of them! Kylo Ren and a whopping two seemed to be able to do some serious damage, and Kylo already blew up the rebel hanger, so … maybe send ’em out? Isn’t that what they’re for?
Finn and Rose sneaking away from the cruiser with no real difficulty, and knowing that it will be there when they return, once again drains all the tension from the situation. The First Order has a huge fleet of super-scary ships, but it’s fine, nothing will happen until we run out of fuel. (Can they not like call in some other ships to get ahead of the rebels? Something!)
Similarly, the ease with which a single bomber manages to destroy the First Order dreadnaught raises serious questions about why you bother to have capital ships in the first place. The things are supposed to be tough — the fact that Death Star II was able to take them out in a single shot was a big deal! Now they explode like firecrackers. (The First Order vs. rebel casualty ratio is literally tens of thousands to one, not even counting however many people were on Starkiller Base!)
Similarly, Holdo’s lightspeed kamikaze run — a great visual and climactic moment — raises some kind of terrifying worldbuilding questions. If ships can decimate entire fleets that way, why don’t they do that more often? Why not ram the Death Star with a frigate? For that matter, why doesn’t the ruthless First Order use that move to take out the rebels?
Again, while these are nitpicks … they bug me. I don’t need like detailed technical-manual specifications for things, no one cares. But basic consistency with the rest of the movies — so that TIE fighters do the same things, and Star Destroyers are always Star Destroyers — make it easier to suspend my disbelief in a fantastical world.
I have less issues with the Force stuff, because the Force should be mysterious and weird. So Luke uses a new power — he’s had twenty years to figure that out. Doesn’t bother me. There is, though, a seriously philosophical question that bears examining, concerning the nature of training people to use the Force.
So, Luke blames himself for screwing up Kylo Ren’s training — he’s super powerful with the Force, and ends up falling to the Dark Side. Luke says he never should have trained Kylo, and refuses to train Rey. But … does this make any sense? The key question is what happens if a Force-sensitive person gets no training? Do they figure it out on their own? Or do they just not ever get any powers? Probably it matters how strong they are, which implies that people like Ben Solo and Rey are going to get something Force-related.
Crucially, this affects the question of what the galaxy looks like without the Jedi, which is what Luke is initially advocating. Does it mean just no more Force-users? Or does it mean that no one is training ascetic warrior-monks, but anyone strong enough in the Force and super-angry still falls to the Dark Side, so there’s tons of unstoppable evil guys around and no one to fight them? We don’t know this but I feel like Luke probably should.
One last point on the down-side. There has always been this question of whether Snoke “was someone”, was a character coming back in disguise or something like that. The answer seems to be, no, probably not, since he gets summarily dispatched in this movie. While I like that answer (it fits the theme) it leaves him kind of underdeveloped. We really get no answers about what his deal is, how he got to Ren, whether he’s a Sith or just powerful with the Dark Side or what. Kind of disappointing. Maybe they’ll get to it later? Who knows.
Whew. Okay. Those are my thoughts, for those who wanted to read them. Like I said — basically a good movie, basically liked it, with some world-design stuff that rose above the level of nitpicks and actually impacted my enjoyment. But that’s just me! As always, these things are personal.
When does the next one come out? Like, next week? Right?