I am a huge Star Wars fan. I was born after A New Hope was released, but was at the sweet spot for Star Wars toys when Empire and Jedi spawned merchandise like only an 80’s franchise could. In high school, I boasted that I read over 30 expanded universe novels (which I now realize was not the kind of boast that I should have made in high school). To this day, my office at home is literally wall-to-wall Star Wars books, toys, posters and no fewer than 8 lightsabers.
If you read past the break there are, most definitely spoilers.
When the Special Edition movies were released, I conned my way into the SciFi club just to get opening night seats. I nearly lost it when I saw a remaster of the opening scene from ANH on an IMAX SuperMax screen at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. The prequels remain a blur, but I was there for every one. I was fortunate enough to know the owner of a movie theater when The Force Awakens released, and spent a day watching ANH to Jedi back-to-back before screening Episode VII. I thoroughly enjoyed that day, and did not regret the popcorn hangover when I woke up in the morning.
My wife and I flew to Chicago to see The Last Jedi with her brother and some friends (and to see our niece and nephew for Christmas). We chartered a party bus to the theater and on the way I remember saying I was nervous. In retrospect I should have said “I have a bad feeling about this” but I blew the line. Everyone said I was nuts and was really excited that we were seeing another Star Wars movie on opening night. Sad to say, the Force was strong with me and we left shocked and saddened by what we saw. Unlike Rogue One, which has taken position in the top three in the franchise, repeated watchings did not make this better.
Now I know what you’re thinking: I’m just another nostalgic fanboy who was wishing for the Empire remake we all expected and have unfairly high standards. To some extent, you’re right. I do have some built up expectations from literally thousands of hours of content consumption. Love or hate his direction, but George Lucas maintained some level of continuity and consistency, at least within each trilogy, and that familiar feeling was broken by this film. But more than that, it seem to go out of its way to break with the previous movie, in many cases to its detriment.
Taken in isolation, The Last Jedi was a pretty good Rian Johnson movie. It had some pretty good moments, interesting characters, a consistent message, and followed the anti-formula that it set out to follow. The throne room fight was a beautiful samurai fight sequence, the opening a classic WWII bombing run, and the Crait battle a visual masterpiece. Yoda’s appearance literally brought a tear to my eye, and the final scene between Mark Hamill and Carrie Fischer was beautifully hard to take. But wedged in between was a completely unnecessary run to a casino world seemingly just to make the point that rich people are bad, using a shuttle that could somehow escape the First Order, and may have been better put to use taking the Resistance out of harms way. The idea that crazy plans don’t always work was un-subtlely pounded into us. Luke Skywalker’s self-imposed exile was as inexplicable as Yoda’s but at least had precedent in the series. Mark Hamill delivered and it’s unfortunate that he did not have more screen time.
Taken as a part of the Star Wars saga, it was an unmitigated disaster. The fun part of Star Wars is that crazy plans do work. Strange and surprising relationships are the big plot twists. Rogues and scoundrels do the right thing in the end, and the Rebellion wins even if they are losing. The big battle has 3 parts and the good guys always go from winning to losing to an impossible victory. This formula works, it’s entertaining, it still leaves room for surprise, and keeps a cohesive theme and story.
In its zeal to break the mold and “let old things die”, there were many flaws but I want to focus on three things that really bother me. Perhaps surprisingly, I am not bothered by not having a Snoke back story – we had no back story about the Emperor until the prequels and even then it’s pretty shallow. I am also not bothered by the new Force experiences including the mental link between Rey and Ben Solo. The Force is mysterious and manifests in enough new and different ways that I can appreciate the new angle.
First, I have a hard time believing in Kylo Ren as the big bad. When Vader first appears, he follows a brigade of stormtroopers who have just slaughtered defending Rebels. He immediately starts interrogating prisoners, lifting the first one off the ground with one hand and tossing him against the wall, before ordering the ship destroyed and his attack covered up. He is an unquestionably bad guy, and when he bows to the Emperor we are clear that he is an even badder guy that we should all be afraid of. But both of them are, in the end, trying to bring order to the galaxy. Kylo Ren literally complains that he feels compelled to be a good guy but wants to be a bad guy. He has no real motivation, no conviction, and ends up a milquetoast villain who is neither feared by his subordinates, enemies, nor his audience. He has a vast infrastructure but it’s not really clear what he wants to accomplish other than, for some unexplained reason, be a bad guy.
Second, Finn should have died to stop the giant laser battering ram. His character had completed a hero’s journey and reached the point where he should have been allowed to sacrifice himself for the cause. He spent two movies selfishly trying to get away and protect himself. At his moment of clarity he is inexplicably saved by Rose, who sacrifices herself to stop him from sacrificing himself to save everybody else. Everyone loses in this equation and it adds little value other than introducing a Finn-Rose-Rey-maybe Poe love polygon.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, there was no reason that Luke was not physically present on Crait. Earlier in the movie they show his X-Wing submerged near the island on Ahch-To. This is clearly a “Checkov’s Gun” that should have become relevant later but does not. After all I’ve read and seen and played, I really wanted to see Master Luke Skywalker in a final battle against the First Order. I wanted to see him face down the army alone. Survive the initial barrage. Fight back with a Force blast the destroys the walkers. Face Kylo Ren alone. Decisively win the dual. Then give himself to the Force, allowing Kylo to take his body, freeing him to become the ethereal mentor that the new Rebellion needs. They could have even kept the shoulder brush and “see ya around kid” lines. But now I have to live my life knowing that I will never see that and it was completely unnecessary.
Hard as it tried, The Last Jedi did not extinguish my hope. The series can redeem itself with Episode IX, and I believe that Joss Whedon can do it if anyone can. I honestly even look forward to Rian Johnson’s upcoming trilogy. He is talented and competent and given three movies to build a story I believe he can do it. He was the wrong choice for this film, to its detriment. Disney would be wise to take a page from the MCU book – a single vision executed by independent teams weaves a narrative that keeps people coming back. Star Wars has stumbled before and recovered (I’m looking at you Jar Jar) and will again.
Until it does may the Force be with us all.