Two years ago, after ten years of absence, Star Wars returned to the big screen and for the first time the space opera saga was in the hands of someone other than its creator George Lucas. The Force Awakens arrived in theaters around the world greeted with great excitement. Many early viewers heralded it as a resounding success. In contrast, I found myself initially quite disappointed with what I saw as a piece of entertaining, but lazy filmmaking that overly relied upon viewer nostalgia and recycled plot points to carry it across the finish line. Despite this first impression, I gave myself the opportunity to view the film on multiple occasions and the time to truly reflect upon it and process my feelings. Two weeks later, I posted a detailed look into what I saw as the film’s weaknesses and strengths: My Thoughts on The Force Awakens.
Despite having many criticisms of The Force Awakens, I made peace with the film and ended my post on a positive note:
The Force Awakens remains a mixed package for me. While it entertained me and allowed me some of the thrills of visiting a galaxy far far away, its reliance upon nostalgia and sloppy rehashing of a superior film left me disappointed and missing the fresh wonders, the creativity, and the substance that George Lucas always brought to each new Star Wars film. Still, I remain thankful for the parts that worked as well as for the promise of an Episode VIII from Rian Johnson that just might deliver a fully authentic Star Wars experience again. May the Force be with him!
My favorite parts of The Force Awakens all revolved around the new characters and the questions and hints surrounding their pasts and futures that the film set up for further exploration. I was very excited to see what the talented Rian Johnson would accomplish with these raw materials as I admired his earlier film Looper as well as his directing work on Breaking Bad.
Now, after two years of anticipation, The Last Jedi has arrived and despite my optimism going into the film, I once again found myself leaving the theater after my first viewing wondering what I had just watched and feeling as though I had been handed a mixed bag. While Johnson has avoided most of the mistakes of The Force Awakens and has delivered what is in many respects a beautiful film, The Last Jedi suffers greatly from a persistent tone deafness where many of its more interesting and strange choices when taken together in succession – especially on a first viewing – go beyond introducing fresh ideas and instead break the compositional constraints that identify something as Star Wars. Additionally, in striving to develop his themes and characters in the most dramatically exciting way that he can, Johnson finds himself in conflict with the constraints imposed by The Force Awakens and so commits the sin of violating legitimate expectations for the development of plot points set up in that film. What could have been among the strongest of Star Wars films is something of a mess filled with exciting action pieces, creative ideas, odd misfires and missed opportunities. It is a great film that shoots itself in the foot and that will turn off many non-casual viewers producing the intensely polarized response to the film currently seen on social media and around water coolers.
The unifying factor behind the chief problems with The Last Jedi is a failure to provide coherence between this film and what has come before it. Ben Burtt the innovative sound designer for the first seven Star Wars films and the editor for the prequel trilogy said on the Attack of the Clones blu-ray commentary:
Since these films are made over a period of many years, one’s artistic sensitivities are constantly in motion and sometimes when you look at the Star Wars films and you’re responsible for putting it together either as an editor or as a sound designer, you have a tendency to say “Well, let’s try something really new here”. Some things that in some way just reflect all the changes you visit as an artist and that you have a different sensitivity. Or maybe you want to imitate something else you’ve seen recently. Or your inspiration comes from a different spot ,and although some of that creeps into each film, there’s a much stronger force at work to keep things consistent stylistically so that ultimately when these films are seen as a chronicle of six films that they all will seem to be one continuous style. These films all belong together as chapters, really, in one big epic. One giant mega-serial. And therefore, they need to seem as though they all were produced and created at the same time by the same filmmaker who exercises the same authorship to them and so a lot of things we do are governed by what has happen previously in the Star Wars films.
When viewed in isolation from the rest of the Star Wars saga films, The Last Jedi is a deeply entertaining and well-executed film. I would expect your average movie goer to love it. But when viewed in the larger context of being a single chapter in a larger epic, for someone intimately familiar with characters such a Luke Skywalker or with the shared sensibilities that have bestowed this world with its verisimilitude, some of Johnson’s stylistic departures and character choices feel discordant in the same way that a familiar Mozart piano sonata would if the pianist decided to throw in some jazz chord progressions along with a few off-key notes at points where a measure was supposed to resolve.
The first example of tone deafness in the film appears shortly after the opening scroll with Poe Dameron’s prank “phone call” to General Hux. Johnson seems fond of modern quippy humor, and he peppers the film with it. While this scene might be amusing and certainly drew laughter from audience members, this kind of humor feels wrong in a Star Wars film in much the same way that the poop and fart jokes that Lucas introduced into The Phantom Menace felt out of place. When I first saw this scene on opening night, I felt like I was watching a Star Wars sketch from Robot Chicken instead of an actual Star Wars film. Johnson further compounds this problem by frequently inserting quippy humor into otherwise sincere and nicely dramatic scenes. What was once a highly moving moment at the end of The Force Awakens where Rey finally encounters the long missing Luke Skywalker is in this film reduced to the setup for a cheap gag where Luke flippantly tosses the light saber away. Or consider when Luke finally meets Leia towards the end of the film in a dramatic reunion that audiences have been greatly anticipating. Instead of playing it straight with the sincerity it deserves, Johnson has Leia make a joke about changing her hair. In the middle of a serious discussion between Luke and Rey about who she is and why she has traveled so far to find him, Johnson has Luke make a snarky joke about Jakku being truly nowhere. This last example not only makes use of the ill-fitting humor style, not only positions the joke in a place that handicaps the unfolding dramatic moment, but also serves as an introduction to another form of tone deafness in The Last Jedi: Luke Skywalker doesn’t talk like this. While at least Poe Dameron was established in The Force Awakens as someone who makes these kind of snarky quips, Luke Skywalker has never shown such a tendency, and I could never imagine the Luke Skywalker that we have known for three films acting this way.
This problem of Luke Skywalker frequently seeming like another character altogether than the one that we left in Return of the Jedi goes beyond having him occasionally crack one liners. The Last Jedi inherits from its predecessor the conundrum of why the mature, compassionate, and victorious Luke Skywalker from Return of the Jedi would ever abandon every person and every cause that he loves to go into hiding as a complete failure. While this scenario is not an entirely inconceivable state of affairs, it represents a huge character shift and something that demands to be shown on screen or at the very least justified through something other than a few lines of exposition. Nevertheless, that is exactly what The Force Awakens did, leaving it to Rian Johnson to explain how Luke came to such a state. Unfortunately, Johnson’s solution is to suggest that Luke momentarily considered the idea of killing his nephew in his sleep because he sensed the depths of darkness within the young man’s soul and that this brief temptation together with the resulting fight with Ben led Luke to go into hiding ashamed of his failure as a teacher and an uncle. While a surprising and dramatically interesting choice in the context of this single film, Luke considering such an action seems completely alien to the established character’s core traits of loyalty, compassion, and determination. How are we supposed to believe that a natural progression of the Luke Skywalker from Return of the Jedi would even think of killing his nephew in his sleep rather than doing everything in his power to bring him back from the influence of the dark side? It’s especially hard to swallow in a film that simultaneously has Rey deciding to try to redeem Ben Solo when only days before she watched in horror as Ben brutally murdered his father her new friend Han Solo. If Rey can so quickly develop enough compassion to consider it worth risking everything to try turning Ben Solo back to the light, then how are we to think that Ben’s own loyal and compassionate uncle Luke would have given up so easily on him?
In addition to odd humor choices and having well-established characters act in a manner contrary to their nature, Johnson wrote some scenes that struck me as bizarre or surreal on a first viewing. One such scene was the strange and yet beautiful “space ballet” sequence where Leia uses the Force to save herself from interstellar space. While I appreciated this scene’s visual aesthetics even on my first viewing, it is undeniably odd to see it in the middle of a Star Wars film and the notion that Leia could use the Force to prevent herself from quickly dying in the extreme conditions of open space strikes me as straining credibility. Some people try to dismiss this criticism with a lazy deflection: “It’s the Force! It’s magical!”. However, the Force was never presented as a piece of deus ex machina, but instead was governed by its own laws and limits even if they are never precisely defined. This consistency is one of the reasons why the Star Wars films always functioned as pieces of quasi-realism much like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Another tonal mismatch in The Last Jedi that really stood out for me and that continues to linger in subsequent viewings is the entire Canto Bight subplot. The events leading to this subplot and immediately following it are all extremely grim. Many people including Rose’s sister Paige have died, Finn is fearful for Rey’s life should she follow the homing beacon back to the Resistance fleet, and the agents of the First Order are whittling down the remaining Resistance forces at an alarming rate. And yet once they set foot on Canto Bight, the film takes on a light-hearted feeling where both Finn and Rose are running around smiling, laughing in delight, and frequently seeming to have the time of their lives running amok through the luxurious casinos of the Star Wars 1% while being aided by cute, scrappy children and cute creatures that look like they escaped from the NeverEnding Story. It feels like we have somehow stumbled into a different movie altogether. And that’s not even factoring in the heavy-handed weak commentary on the decidedly not light-hearted subjects of child labor and war profiteering thrown into the mix as monologues by Rose.
Besides these tonal difficulties, one thing in The Last Jedi that really bothered me during my first viewing of the film was the way that Johnson violates legitimate dramatic expectations that were set up by The Force Awakens. In that film, we are introduced to Rey and her past is presented as a mystery that demands answers and not only that but we are given several hints that she has some connections to both Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. The fact that Anakin and Luke’s lightsaber “calls” to her and unleashes a potent Force vision on her where we hear the sounds of Vader, Luke, Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Kylo together with glimpses of young Rey being left behind on Jakku by a mysterious ship all suggest the possibility that Rey might be a Skywalker – a revelation which would be entirely appropriate seeing as the Star Wars Saga is the generational story of the Skywalker family. Not only does the film deliberately point us at some past connection to Luke, it also hints at a connection to Kylo Ren. When Kylo first hears about Rey helping BB-8 escape from the First Order on Jakku, he angrily demands from the hapless messenger: “What girl?!” as though he knows of Rey or someone like her in the past. When Kylo captures Rey and interrogates her, he seems surprised by her opposition to him when he states in wonder: “You still want to kill me.” If we examine The Force Awakens novelization based upon earlier versions of the script, we find Kylo thinking “It IS you…” when Rey surprises him by Force summoning Anakin’s lightsaber past Kylo’s grasping hand into her own grip. Again, these are deliberate markers that The Force Awakens carefully places to foreshadow something that Abrams intended his successor to develop further. Instead, Johnson teases at some revelation about Rey’s past through much of the film only to throw away all the hints from The Force Awakens and reveal Rey to be a “nobody” who has “no place in this story”. This might be a surprising “twist” in the isolated context of this film, but it is bad storytelling to violate the legitimate expectation for dramatic payoff from previously established plot points.
A similar violation occurs with Snoke. The Force Awakens introduced us to the mysterious Snoke and left audiences wondering where this extremely powerful dark side user sprouted from to corrupt Ben Solo and forge a powerful First Order from the ashes of the Empire. One of the sins of The Force Awakens is that it simply thrusts us into a such a dramatically different state of affairs with virtually no explanation. Some counter-critics make the weak claim that Snoke needs no justification because we never needed one for the Emperor in the original trilogy, but that reasoning is a bad analogy. We didn’t need a justification for the Emperor because he was just an easily understood fact at the beginning of the story. The Force Awakens however is not the beginning of the story. When Snoke arrives, the story has been in progress for quite some time and his appearance from seemingly nowhere and his ability to take control of the remnants of the Empire demands answers as it is not plausible that such a powerful potential rival would be lurking and go unnoticed by Palpatine or Vader. Instead of providing some satisfying explanation for Snoke that ties together all three trilogies and makes Snoke seem less like a pale rehash of the Emperor and more like a logical outgrowth from the previous six films, Johnson simply kills the character off in yet another short-sighted “twist” that renders Snoke a pointless character.
At this point, one might be forgiven for thinking that I am not a fan of The Last Jedi as I have spent so much time zeroing in on things in the film that didn’t work for me. The opposite is true: I quite enjoyed The Last Jedi on many levels and think it is a marvelous piece of cinema that rewards multiple viewings. It is filled with beautifully composed shots, splendid action scenes that capture a grandeur appropriate for Star Wars, rich and fascinating character progressions, captivating performances, interesting thematic development that ties into almost every piece of the story, and a consistent ambition to subvert our natural expectations so as to propel the drama forward in exciting ways.
From the opening shot, Johnson gives us our first interesting visual piece while also effectively declaring the film’s mantra that he will later have Luke Skywalker utter: “This is not going to go the way you think”. The camera dives into the escaping Resistance fleet and seems to be zooming towards an opening on one of the large spacecraft where we see a tiny ship about to enter an open hangar bay only to have the camera throttle on towards the planet below rather than follow the ship inside for a cut to the interior. It’s a subtle reversal of expectations, but it is a nice taste of what is in store as well a fresh kinetic spin on the familiar Star Wars film opening of a ship in space. Moments later, we find ourselves thrust into a proper space battle befitting a film called Star Wars where we find one of my favorite moments: the shocking and riveting sight of the Resistance bomber ships crumbling like exploding dominos in a disastrous chain reaction after which the camera finally cuts to a close up on the doomed Paige Tico’s reaction as she helplessly watches all her comrades go up in flames. It is this interplay of small and big moments that work cinematic magic. Johnson serves up a full banquet of visual riches over the course of the film’s two and a half hours. Other favorite examples include Leia’s beautiful and graceful “space ballet” scene accompanied by a soaring rendition of her theme, the trance-like scene of infinite reflections as Rey seeks answers in the cave on Ach-To, the striking scenes in Snoke’s throne room with its rich red decor and the matching samurai-inspired elite praetorian guards poised like coiled snakes, the brilliant hyperspace bombing scene where the screen fills with a spectacular explosion of white cracks rippling across Snoke’s starship as it splits in half under the weight of a deafening total silence that elegantly conveys the enormity of the raw power being unleashed, and finally the battle on Crait with its dazzling eruptions of red salt sand in the wake of the Resistance fighters as they race to meet the First Order walkers. There are so many other striking images and beautifully arranged shots here, and it gives me joy to see that Rian Johnson like George Lucas or Denis Villeneuve truly seems to appreciate the unique visual characteristics that cinema possesses as a medium.
I love how Johnson single-mindedly pursues his vision of undermining our expectations in this film. In what other movie do we get to see a daring hotshot character like Poe Dameron utterly fail with every risky bet-it-all gamble that he takes? This sequence of deconstructed expectations provides the spine for a compelling story arc for Poe that neatly ties into one of Johnson’s central themes: failure as the greatest teacher. Oscar Isaac does such a great job with the role and his charisma is such that I still find myself liking the character despite the deadly consequences of his repeated failures.
Poe is not alone in having a nice character progression. Johnson takes care in composing his story threads so that all our main characters emerge from their experiences as changed individuals. Rey wrestles with her need for a sense of belonging and learns to accept that she is the author of her own destiny and that she cannot cling to the past for answers. Finn grows beyond his constant impulse to protect only himself and those dearest to him, eventually coming to identify with the Resistance group that he has joined and opening himself up to the possibility of self-sacrifice for a greater cause. Kylo Ren finally cuts himself loose from his chains under Snoke and fully embraces his philosophy of destroying the old to build the new, rising to become the new supreme leader of the First Order. Meanwhile, Luke must overcome his failures as a teacher to fashion something inspiring from the mantle of Luke Skywalker the Legend that he has only experienced as an albatross since his failure with Ben Solo. The actors all do a fine job of bringing these characters and their struggles to life. In particular, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley dominate the screen whenever they appear and have an excellent, compelling chemistry together. Their stellar performances manage to completely sell the attraction between Rey and Kylo Ren despite the difficulty in believing that Rey would find herself drawn towards a man whom she watched murder her friend.
The Last Jedi‘s many strengths ultimately make it an excellent addition to the Star Wars saga. For me, most of its flaws tend to vanish on second viewings as they are the sort of nuisances that are only really disruptive when one doesn’t know that they are coming. In contrast, the strengths multiply with each viewing as I am better able to appreciate the many layers that Rian Johnson has crafted with care while the thrilling high notes such as when Rey and Kylo Ren join forces to fight the praetorian guards continue to deliver a fresh rush of emotion. I look forward to seeing The Last Jedi again in the theater and am impatient to see what J.J. Abrams will do to hopefully give this trilogy and the entire nine film saga a fitting end with 2019’s Episode IX.