Upon leaving the theater from The Last Jedi, I was immediately struck by two questions – 1.) Did Star Wars change or did I change? And 2.) Did people feel the same way about The Empire Strikes Back in 1980?
I’ll admit, my expectations for this movie were enormous, especially after 2016’s masterful Rogue One. The epic title, the crimson-hewn poster art, the badass trailers– all implied a sense of hugeness and gravity. Given the events of Episode IX have yet to occur, my opinion of this movie could completely change; and I wholeheartedly commend Rian Johnson for attempting to sate our desire for a “unique” movie. However The Last Jedi underwhelms because it fails to capture the tonally mature, carefully-paced elegance of the originals – which I contend is the subconscious reason people, including children, fell in love with Star Wars in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of things I liked about the movie; however The Last Jedi is ultimately a double letdown of both story and storytelling. The film is marred by too many awkward moments of humor and goofy plot beats, while severely lacking in exposition, character development and artful dialogue – the latter two being the hallmarks of a great second act. It was alike and different from the classics in all the wrong ways. The fundamental reason why so many sequels fail (which is a whole new discussion) is because the new creators fail to understand what made the originals so great. Disney appears to be no different.
Before touching on aesthetics, let’s first discuss some structural problems with the plot. First, the story feels fundamentally hollow due to a lack of exposition for the good guys (The Force Awakens is partially to blame). We’ve seen Return of the Jedi, and are owed some explanation. Without it, the good guys feel like weightless carbon copies from the original trilogy (and no, the originals owed us nothing because no prior canon existed to Star Wars in 1977). We can’t empathize with the Rebellion “Resistance” because we still have no explanation (literally zero) of their origin or motive. Why was a resistance even necessary after, just 30 years prior, pulling off the most kick-ass guerilla military operation in the galaxy? What was the New Republic government even like and why is it worth fighting for? Where the hell were the mighty fleets of the New Republic and why were they concentrated so finely that they could be wholly destroyed by a few superlasers from The Deathstar Starkiller Base? The easy answer is that the New Republic was a pacifist government that dismantled its weapons and only kept a token fleet for defense (and apparently a worthless intelligence agency). Such naïve rationale would make even the peace-loving Captain Picard facepalm himself in dismay. Disney could have at least honored the legacy of Return of the Jedi by giving us a simple 5-minute flashback (Lord of the Rings style) on the post-war events after Episode VI. This could of been easily accomplished by a short dialogue between Rey and Han/Luke/Leia. Doing so would have provided the critical weight in helping us believe in that “spark” to ignite this new rebellion (or is it resistance?).
Problem Number Two – There is basically zero relationship between Luke and Rey, and zero training accomplished. She shows up, Mark Hamill plays a cynical version of himself (which is sort of entertaining for a while but awkward for the movie), she swings a lightsaber at a rock, force-skypes with Kylo and leaves. This feels more like reality TV than epic storytelling. Most criminal of all, the movie completely omits any semblance of the “hero’s journey” for young Rey. After ditching Luke, she cordially meets bad-guy Kylo with whom she teams up to defeat a Sith master with little more than a scratch (although the lightsaber battle is really cool and the movie’s highlight). This narrative would have been far, far more satisfying had they been brother and sister, but I digress. She then heroically flies the Millennium Falcon into battle and rescues the surviving Resistance fighters by effortlessly force-lifting a ton of rocks (a feat even Luke would have struggled with as a trained apprentice).
Wow. Disney, I get you’re trying to be “different”, but there is nothing epic about telling a story of a kid who, unchallenged, “figures it out on their own”. It is neither inspiring nor relatable, and does a disservice to young viewers. And while I vehemently maintain that “relatability” is not a prerequisite for good art, it is a very powerful storytelling element whose omission is painfully absent in Rey’s development. Aside from an apparently painful mind-meld with Snoke and receiving some bad parental news (which she already knew), Rey achieves success without any suffering, failure, or catharsis (could this be Disney’s cruel play to the “entitled millennial” stereotype?). She better be the second-coming of Yoda or Jesus Christ to be this adept in The Force without a teacher. In fact, doesn’t Yoda even say that “failure is the greatest teacher” in the movie?! While Rey’s competence with a lightsaber is conceivable given her skill with a staff, her self-mastery of the Force is uninspired, unrelatable and ultimately detracts from the beauty of the story. Daisy Ridley is a dynamite actress and her portrayal of Rey is fantastic. Her character deserves far more complexity from the script.
Supporters of the movie will likely celebrate its “punk” sensibility– how it seems to push the confines of epic storytelling (the three act structure, the hero’s journey, etc). However I would argue that these inspirational elements are hardly a “limitations” at all, but fundamental ingredients like sugar and salt, from which thousands of recipes can be made. It is still possible to craft a unique story without sacrificing these classic themes, and to think otherwise just seems intellectually lazy. Yes the story was different, but not in a satisfying way. Disney promised us Rocky. What we got was a super-hero movie reboot. Looks like they’re saving the heavy-lifting for Episode IX!
Even despite these annoying plot issues, I would argue The Last Jedi still could have been a great movie had Disney simply been more respectful of the tone of the classics. While lighthearted at times, the originals were fundamentally serious movies about suffering, faith, warfare and heroism. Perhaps a product of the post-Vietnam milieu, Lucas masterfully blended dark and adult themes with tasteful moments of humor (a skill he apparently lost for the prequels). The solemnity of The Last Jedi is beleaguered by far too many awkward, ill-timed moments of slapstick that rob the film of any sense of tonal majesty. For example, the scene on the cliff where Rey is practicing her hot lightsaber moves started swelling up as this gorgeous scene of badassery and focus…and then stalls when she accidentally cuts the stone in half, nearly hitting two of those goofy bipedal bird aliens. *facepalm*. Let’s not forget that classy montage (soon to be a meme) where “Jeremiah Johnson” Luke awkwardly milks the teat of a dopey-looking sea cow with Rey watching in confusion. And of course the scene where Mark Hamill (playing himself) tickles Rey’s hand as she “reaches out to The Force” – which is actually really funny but robs the scene of the dignity it deserves. What should be a movie rich with meaty, elegant dialogue discussing the complexity of The Force, is reduced to a classless litany of hipster rants and lame jokes. Granted, as a young child watching The Empire Strikes Back I remember getting bored with all the Yoda training scenes on Dagobah. However as I grew up, those scenes quickly became my favorite part of the entire trilogy. Those philosophical exchanges between Hamill and Oz in the misty Dagobah jungle reign as some of the most artful and transcendent lines of dialogue I’ve ever witnessed from science fiction.
And it wasn’t just the Luke and Rey scenes, but countless more off-color distractions such as the General Hux phone prank scene, gravity-falling bombs (in space), Finn dumbly walking around in a leaking suit, Rey scolding a shirtless Kylo, and the cringe-worthy horse-alien rescue on Canto Bight (a scene that felt more befitting the disastrous Episode I). And of course the watered-down battle of Hoth Krayt that seemed more concerned with promoting the weird narrative of Finn and Rose than depicting the realities of combat.
However I will grant that the final Luke Skywalker scenes were pretty cool and befitting the grandeur of his character. The lightspeed kamikaze was wicked cool too. Also, the Snoke and Kylo scenes were fantastic, and I loved how Snoke (brilliantly voiced) immediately addresses the “elephant in the room” by rightfully eschewing Kylo for being defeated by an untrained girl, not to mention mocking his Vader-wannabe mask. The Leia resurrection scene was also masterfully done, and a heartbreaking ode to Carrie Fisher’s famous request to “die in the moonlight strangled by my own bra.” (I held back tears on all three viewings).
Chuck Klosterman, in his book of “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs”, fascinatingly deconstructs the symbolic importance of The Empire Strikes Back as the cultural moment that marked the ascendance of Generation X. The rebellion is in retreat, the fate of the galaxy uncertain, and our hero forced to cope with a major identity crisis (sound familiar?). Emotionally heavy, cynical and bleak, Empire masterfully tells a coming-of-age tale that mirrors the Gen-X aesthetic with chilling accuracy. However there’s a frustrating irony in that the Gen X-ers helming the New Star Wars seem incapable of replicating the weightier tone of the classics they grew up with, Rogue One’s Gareth Edwards notwithstanding – but maybe they deliberately don’t want to? As a millennial myself (who identifies as Boomer), I can’t help but wonder if The Last Jedi is serving the same cultural purpose for my generation as Empire did for Gen-X? A movie coddled by cutesy jokes, emo entitlement (Kylo) and unearned success (Rey), could The Last Jedi be Disney’s cruel affirmation (or mockery) of the millennial stereotype? Its nihilistic motif of “letting the past die” also seems eerily reminiscent of our “post-truth” Trump moment and its crusade against old institutions of media, politics and government.
But maybe the haters just don’t understand The Last Jedi? Maybe it’s just too artsy, too intellectual? Or maybe our adult-centric view of Star Wars is wrong and that it really is meant to be nothing more than lightweight children’s fare? Who are we to demand more substance from the new stories? Maybe it will be us millennials who will triumphantly bring Star Wars back to its roots? But seeing as we’ve nearly killed rock ‘n roll, I wouldn’t hold my breath.