This contains spoilers, so please don’t read it unless you’ve watched the film.
You know what’s tiresome? Being disregarded as a “super geek” when you critique something from a property you love. It’s a discourse I’ve seen with worrying regularity on numerous forums and comment sections in the hours since watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’m sick of it and I’m sure you are too.
‘Critics’ and ‘reviewers’ are quick to expound, by using a litany of condescending synonyms, just how incorrect anyone who disagrees with them is. Geek. Nerd. Fanboy. It’s frustrating. Being a ‘fan’ is looked upon with the derision and disdain with which Darth Vader sees the ‘Rebel scum’. Although, if the original films were made today, Vader would more likely be force-choking on his own tears over blowing up Alderaan than tormenting rebellion soldiers.
But what would I know, I’m just a meagre *hushed whisper* fan.
And critics will say:
- Let go of your prejudice, Rian Johnson is challenging what a Star Wars film is — don’t you get it?
- Humour and jokes and gags, oh my! It doesn’t take itself too seriously, neither should you.
- Abandoning previously established traits of beloved characters isn’t wrong, it’s maturing the series.
- Rian Johnson and his band of merry Disney executives subverted fan theories and resolved elements from The Force Awakens in unexpected ways that provided thrilling twists.
- Fans are holding on to the past. Disney is all about Tomorrowland, propelling relentlessly forward like Princess Leia flying through outer space in her best Mary Poppins impression.
- Anyway, you don’t even dislike it, you just don’t understand it.
Themes and Politics, A Star Wars Story
Before I go any further, let’s first discard this pretentious myth of Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s depth, underlying themes and, the favourite buzzword of faceless avatars on Twitter, politics.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a mass-produced, popular film that is a part of the most popular franchise in history. It is the definition of mainstream. There are no gold medals for critics spouting that we don’t “get it”. Its themes, metaphors, and allegories are explored with the subtlety of Kylo Ren’s tantrums. I get it, I really do. I just don’t like it — and since when are films judged on what they’re trying to say, they’re judged on how well they bloody say it.
Force Awakens, Force Ashmakens
One of the early scenes sees the continuation of The Force Awakens’ fantastic final shot, where Rey travels to Ahch-To and offers exiled Jedi master Luke Skywalker his lightsaber. A relic of his past. And Obi-Wan’s. And Anakin’s. A grand moment that spouted two-years of rumour and fan theories — all discarded as Luke inspects the lightsaber for a few seconds, before casually tossing it over his shoulder. It felt like a Saturday Night Live sketch. Where’s Matt, the radar Technician? If you listen close enough you can hear the canned laughter.
The message is clear: toss away your preconceptions. Discard everything you thought you knew. This speeder is going in a new direction. Buckle up. I mean, why satisfy fans that have waited for a two-year payoff? Why not dispose of the entire climax of Episode VII with a lazy flick of the wrist.
Out with the old, in with the new
Luke Skywalker, one of the most iconic characters in pop culture history. A bastion of reckless optimism, the farm boy who rose to Jedi Knight and saved the galaxy, is now more Scrooge than Skywalker. He’s a curmudgeon who has lost all faith in the galaxy, in the Jedi, in himself. And lost his memory too.
He’s an old man in self-imposed exile, approached by a wannabe hero who pleads with him to join the rebellion against an evil empire led by Luke’s former pupil.
You would be forgiven for thinking that ol’ Lukey boy might notice some parallels between his current predicament and that of Obi-Wan thirty years earlier. You‘d be wrong. Maybe his time training with Yoda on Dagobah is fresher? Nope. Apparently Luke isn’t one to learn from the past. He’s too haunted by his failure that gave rise to Kylo Ren, and boy does he let you know it. Through at least three flashbacks, and a performance made up of brooding close-ups and whining — the later being the only trait remotely close to the Luke we all know and love.
Eventually, he relents. He will train Rey. We only see one such session, where he trains her in ‘reaching out’ with the force. It just so happens that she reaches out and latches on to the ‘Dark Side’ of the force. Luke’s only seen this happen once before. With Kylo Ren. He “wasn’t scared enough then”, and is now. Eery — and never again explored.
On the island is an ancient tree containing the biblical texts of the Jedi religion. Luke decides to destroy said tree and books. Giggling force ghost Yoda, who resembles the wise, deceptively senile muppet from The Empire Strikes Back, pops in to assist Luke via a strike of lightning. The tree goes up in flames. The archaic ways of the Jedi are destroyed. The way is paved for a new generation of the Jedi Order to be built. (Except its not, it’s later revealed that Rey had the books all along, which undermines the precious theme).
It is no mistake this destruction takes place in flames. Again, we see this theme of the passing of the torch. The old generation is burnt, and the new shall be forged from the ashes. Johnson uses Yoda to suit his agenda. If Luke burns down what remains of the Jedi religion, it is the action of a bitter old man, but Yoda is the wisest being in Star Wars. If he approves, then it must be right.
This is what Johnson sees himself as doing — burning what we know aboutStar Wars to the ground, in order to build it anew from the ashes. He sees fans as those who grip desperately to the old ways of the Jedi, and himself as the Yoda figure, who must destroy what we previously knew to allow something new to rise from the smouldering embers.
Unfortunately, it’s not a fierce, beautiful phoenix that rises from the smouldering flames; it’s a Porg. A walking plush toy mandated by the powers-that-be at Disney to hit sales targets and sell toys. Signifying a future of films cooked up with one eye on the camera, another on the boardroom. Films that are full of danger that, like a mirage, is never quite realised. Inhabited by cute and cuddly characters with a veneer of substance that shatters like Captain Phasma’s helmet at the slightest glancing blow.
A Failure of a Film About Failing Heroes
This movie is a movie about failure. Hopes are dashed, plans foiled, allies fail to answer the call and our heroes constantly disappoint. Poe’s hare-brained bombing run results in thousands of casualties. A side-quest involving Finn and newcomer Rose not only plays out like a filler episode of Star Wars Rebelsbut actively works against the overall plan of Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), whose scheme is like if the English Army evacuating Dunkirk only returned to shore with a boatful of soldiers. Rey doesn’t turn Kylo to the light side. Snoke can’t control his pupil. Heck, even the rebellion gas tanks fail, in a plot point that makes one crave the comparatively enthralling taxation levies and Trade Federation blockade of the prequels. There’s no hope of the rebellion defeating the First Order in The Last Jedi — they’re doing all they can to get out alive.
Jacob Hall has an explanation, via SlashFilm:
Maybe it’s dangerous to worship our heroes to the point of idolatry, to convince ourselves that they can never do wrong, never make mistakes, and never let their hubris create monsters that threaten a new generation.
I agree. Blindly following heroes in the real world can be dangerous. Often you set yourself up for disappointment when it’s inevitably revealed that your favourite writer, actor, sports star or cosmologist isn’t perfect. They make mistakes. They’re human. But — is Star Wars, an epic fantasy space-opera full of silly creatures and Buddhist space samurai really the right vessel to explore that message? I don’t think so.
On Rian Johnson’s new Disneyland ride — oops I mean film — there is no room for heroes. Legends. Good vs. Evil. It’s a politically correct campus safe space where there is no ‘bad guy’. He’s just misunderstood. A place where there is a horrendous twenty-minute segway to a casino for a brisque critique of unregulated capitalism. A place full of creatures stolen from Pokemon concept art, of Marvel-esque one-liners and quips which break the modicum of tension built, where the protagonist is saved at the last second in the clutches of certain death. In other words — a Marvel movie with a Star Wars coat of paint.
There is a visually stunning moment where Laura Dern’s lavender-haired Admiral, the worst Star Wars character of all time, stays behind and sacrifices herself in a kamikaze hyper-speed jump into the First Order command ship. It was a moment that could have held real gravitas — wasn’t it that no one gives a shit about Admiral Holdo. Meanwhile, off-screen, goddamn Admiral Ackbar is killed with barely a cursory mention in a line of dialogue. If that doesn’t sum up the entire mindset of the film then I don’t know what does.
Playing with expectations? No, sabotaging them
The Last Jedi knows our expectations. It was made with full awareness of the questions circulating around the internet: Who are Rey’s parents? Who’s Snoke? Who the hell are the Knights of Ren? What will Luke do when he receives his lightsaber? Will he train Rey? Can Kylo be redeemed? And a trillion others. People who act like fandom invented these questions are ridiculous — ‘they’ JJ Abrams and co., set the expectations, then proceeded to shatter them.
Johnson had no responsibility to answer ALL these questions, but he did have to answer some, if not most. And of course, potential answers have been theorised and debated for two-years since the release of The Force Awakens — from Rey being a clone of Jar Jar Binks to Luke using his lightsaber as a flute. What no-one, no-one, expected, was for Rian Johnson to write down all the unresolved questions on a napkin, stand from his exclusive table in a Hollywood restaurant, walk to the toilet, napkin in hand, and proceed to wipe his arse with the question-covered napkin. But that’s what he did, and masqueraded the resolutions as ‘twists’. It’s a tad easier to craft a twist when you know what everyone is waiting for and intentionally take a complete right turn.
Supreme Leader Joke
Supreme Leader Snoke is a somewhat Marvel-esque figure of ominous power, who rules with seemingly limitless power and is shrouded in mystery. Signs were promising early in The Last Jedi. He sat in his blood-red throne room straight out of Dario Argento’s wet dream, surrounded by guards in lobster-style armour inspired by The Imperial Guard. He’s powerful enough to force-drag General Hux from within a hologram, create a mental bridge between Kylo and Rey, and when his plan comes to fruition and Rey is brought to his chambers, control her with the flick of a decayed, sinewy finger.
But, as Luke Skywalker says early in the film, “This isn’t going to go the way you think.” One assumes that Snoke will be the big bad guy until the third film where he is eventually overthrown. Ol’ trickster Rian has other plans. Instead of executing Rey, Kylo uses the force to operate the lightsaber laying on the arm of Snoke’s chair and cuts him in half. Dun. Dun. Dun! Then proceeds the only real lightsaber battle of the film which plays out like a piece of fan fiction or a multiplayer match in Star Wars Battlefront II. Kylo and Rey fight side by side and slaughter Snoke’s guard, in an action-scene that would make the Arrow choreographers wince in dismay. Snoke becomes an insignificant, minor distraction. A joke.
Which ties into the theme of unceremonious failure. All-powerful Snoke is killed by his inconsistent, morally torn and endlessly angsty protege. Bla, bla, bla, death doesn’t care who you are, what your story is, it comes upon you with the same might whether you are a king or a pauper etc. Boring. How about this: They spent one-and-a-half films setting up an Emperor-like, omnipotent, supreme villain — who was killed with the ease of a protocol droid. Oh — except that would be harder — BB8 has proven to be the most overpowered character in Star Wars history.
A Rogue Squadron of Other Issues
In the interest of not overstaying my welcome, allow me to breeze over some other major issues.
- a bumbling General Hux who goes from delivering one of the most menacing speeches of the series to being a bumbling buffoon and the victim of a ‘your mumma’ joke courtesy of Poe Dameron.
- Finn facing certain death and a worthy sacrifice (one I was cheering for), only to be saved at the last moment. Then, in the most on-the-nose scene since Anakin and Padmé discussing sand, being kissed by his saviour.
- Captain Phasma returning in an encore performance of equal parts disappointment and shiny armour. Oh, and she’s called “chrome dome” by Finn. Someone, please take the pen away from Mr Johnson.
- Or what about DJ, the Lando stand-in, who chops and changes between being good and bad so many times that even Rian Johnson loses track. When an AT-ST shoots at a band of stormtroopers to save Finn, I was certain that it would be the stuttering Codebreaker back to save the day. But it’s BB8. Again. And you thought Rey was a Mary Sue.
- And how could anyone ever forget the ultimate twist, from our Lord and Saviour Rian Johnson, when Princess Leia seems to be dead in space after being blown from the cockpit of her ship, before returning to life and flying back into the hold like a force-wielding Mary Poppins. It’s the most unintentionally funny scene in the history of cinema. It’s the moment in a normal movie where you walk out of the theatre. I can’t believe a group of people sat down to watch the dailies, and actually gave that the nod of approval. “Yep, you nailed that one out of the park, Rian.”
- Or that the entire plot revolves around Admiral Holdo intentionally withholding her strategy from the rebellion. If she simply tells Poe her plan, not only is Finn’s quest obsolete, thousands of lives are saved.
- An oddly inconsistent tone. Characters constantly face death and make inappropriate jokes which drain scenes of any tension. Not to mention the litany of nonsensical decisions characters make — mainly, why the hell does Luke invent the hardest possible way to fish???
- It’s the longest Star Wars movie and doesn’t it feel like it. God. It makes attacks of the Clones feel like a YouTube short.
- I can forgive Rey’s rapid rise to power in The Force Awakens. But in The Last Jedi, Rey wields both a lightsaber and the force with prowess that makes a joke of, y’know, the training and hard work required to be a Jedi. She continues to be a character of limitless power who can do no wrong.Did anyone else find it weird when she knocked that creatures wheelbarrow over, destroying his days work, and didn’t apologise?The climax of the film sees her displace a mountain of debris with the force to open an escape route for the rebellion — it took weeks, if not months of training with Yoda for Luke to be able to lift a rock.
- The plot doesn’t advance. Characters and factions are the exact same place they were in after The Force Awakens, and the rebellion is somehow WORSE OFF after destroying Starkiller Base in the previous instalment.
- Argh! And I almost forgot. That cringe-inducing Maz Kanata hologram, who apparently travels with a camera crew while she fights. And I’m fairly certain she doesn’t actually know Poe. Another integral character reduced to a cardboard cutout to deliver a quest and a quip — the Marvel formula.
- I really like Adam Driver (watch Patterson), and try really hard to like Kylo Ren, but he feels like Peter Parker corrupted by the symbiote in Spiderman-3. A petulant, emo child who listens to Good Charlotte and Green Day on the Walkman his mum bought him.
If it’s so bad, what’s with the critical reception?
I… I… I don’t know. I really don’t think that Disney pays off critics, as people love to declare on social media. I do, however, believe that critics and reviewers being given early access to the film and being understandably excited to watch it plays a part. They attend a premiere full of realistic cosplay, surrounded by peers and stars and alcohol and with the knowledge of how exclusive the event is. Few would be able to resist the pomp and ceremony.
I just can’t see how plot holes, poor writing, and jokes more suited to the Big Bang Theory than Star Wars has largely avoided the critical gaze. Criticism is met with cries of misunderstanding and condescension. Rian Johnson is a decent filmmaker — Looper was okay, Brick less so — and I can’t imagine how difficult it is making a film with the scope of The Last Jedi. But it’s not my job, it’s his. And through egotism and, attempts to subvert expectations rather than entertain, he failed in every way to make a compelling Star Wars movie.
But what would I know, I’m just a meagre *hushed whisper* fan.