How Star Wars: The Last Jedi fumbles its potential

AKA it isn’t that good. Also, spoilers

(Editors Note: We’ve had two pretty glowing takes on The Last Jedi, found here and here, so Drew offered to provide a counterpoint to those.)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a puzzling movie. Not because it’s mysterious, or full of shocking twists, but rather because it quite literally feels puzzling. The pieces that make up this film are partly formed – there are excellent themes and moments here and there that are the glimmer of what this film should have been – but not all pieces are created equal. Giant portions of this puzzle don’t seem to fit into the greater picture, and almost seem unnecessary to the end goal. There are pieces that you’ll think will make sense in context, but turn out to be from a different box. And while there are small pieces here and there that do form an excellent image, it is far from making a coherent vision.

So, setting metaphors aside, I don’t think The Last Jedi is a bad film. It has good moments, great sequences, and excellent ideas for how to shake up the Star Wars formula without ditching the elements that make Star Wars, well, Star Wars. But it is a deeply flawed, messy, and hazy movie. Problems flare up in multiple areas, but it all comes back to two key elements that The Last Jedi doesn’t nail: execution and characterization. Like I said before, the film has so many great ideas, themes, and moments, but so many of them are poorly explained and implemented that the magic is snuffed out in the theatrical release. The point of this piece then, is to try to explain why so much about The Last Jedi doesn’t work, and by doing so, explain why audience’s reactions have been mixed.

Let me first get this out of the way: these problems are not exclusive to fanboys, and these are not just nitpicks. These are glaring issues that threaten to blind the audience, and chocking the mixed audience reaction up to “fanboys not liking anything new,” is a lazy assertion to make. Despite the high CinemaScore audience grade you can easily find split opinions on this film everywhere. That can happen with cult movies, but not with one of the most profitable film franchises ever. Audience reaction is mixed because this film does a lot of things right, and a lot of things wrong.

Okay, as I mentioned before, The Last Jedi fails in both execution and characterization in a lot of key ways that are necessary to sell a goofy space-adventure series to millions of people. One way this film falters is in the way it stretches Star Wars logic. When dealing with elements that are foreign, the audience needs to be eased into the possibility of weird stuff happening. This applies directly to The Force. In A New Hope, the Force is used pretty sparingly. Obi Wan uses Jedi mind-tricks on some people, and Luke uses it to guide his instincts and succeed in blowing up the Death Star, while Vader chokes people. Its use gradually ramps up over time, and we feel like this weird alien superpower makes sense within the movies internal logic.

Even Rey and Kylo’s force phone-calls feel alright. We’ve seen characters communicate and feel each other’s presence through the force since the very first Star Wars. Why shouldn’t they be able to talk to each other? Again, it makes perfect sense inside the internal logic.

You know what I’m going to talk about now. In an early sequence in The Last Jedi, Leia pulls herself back to the Resistance ship by using the force. Leia has been established as force-sensitive before this, but we’ve never seen her actually use the force. It’s a weird, and awkward, and so close to working. The reason this doesn’t work is twofold: her fake-out death distracts from what’s about to happen, and her ability to use the force in this capacity isn’t communicated clearly to the audience. The fake-out surprises the audience, and then…she just flies back to the ship. Her use of the Force completely makes sense – especially in a desperate situation like that – but the pace at which she opens her eyes and immediately flies back to the ship is so quick. There’s no build up to it, no communication to the audience that it will happen, and for this reason, it doesn’t feel like a fair use of the Force.

Another Force-related scene happens later on in the film that feels poorly executed. Luke uses the Force to project an image of himself across the galaxy. Again, the Force is ambiguous, and as long as we are communicated to that it can do some crazy shit, this is okay. In this instance, it is. Attentive viewers will know it isn’t the real Luke from his haircut and his old lightsaber, and his confrontation with Kylo hints that it isn’t the real Luke at several points. However, Kylo poking this projection with his lightsaber is not funny, nor graceful. It gives us the explicit reveal, but in an almost comedic way that falls flat. It feels like Luke didn’t take the encounter seriously at all, which doesn’t gel well with him immediately dying after he releases his projection. I also have to wonder – why even send a projection at all? Luke could have just gone to the resistance and sacrificed himself on the planet, creating a more emotional moment, while still buying the Resistance time to escape. Again, the projection idea is cool, but is it the best way to send off Luke? I’m not convinced it is.

There’s a lot of missed opportunities in The Last Jedi, but the biggest has to be how Rey was given quite literally no development as her own character throughout the entire film. We learn things about Rey; how her parents are really just some unremarkable junkers, and that she, like Luke and Vader before him, is tempted by the Dark Side of the Force. These are important details, sure, but details nonetheless. Rey doesn’t actually develop into anything. There’s a line at the beginning of the film where she says she doesn’t know her place in all of this. Well, neither does Rian Johnson apparently. She might be the protagonist, but she played more the role of a vessel for the audience in The Last Jedi than being an independent and realized character in her own right. It’s kind of sad – we’re two movies into a three movie trilogy, and we know next to nothing about Rey’s character other than she wants to protect her friends. She is hardly the focus of any scene that she’s in, and does little to change as a character over the course of the film. There are several flaws in The Last Jedi, but this is the one that really took this film down a peg for me. Something needs to happen to Rey, other than receiving a few lessons in a very short amount of time from Luke. Who the hell is she going to learn the force from now? YouTube tutorials?

While Rey rode the backseat in The Last Jedi, Kylo’s backstory was fleshed out in certain ways that are great, and left untouched in other ways that are terrible. For starters, knowing that what made him definitely jump to the Dark Side was Luke’s fear getting the best of him is fantastic. It makes perfect sense that his entire world would be shattered by this, and lends Kylo a more sympathetic side. However, the film continues to mention that Kylo was seduced by Snoke. The question I ask is, “Uh okay, how?” It’s made clear that Kylo, Luke, and a handful of force sensitive students were training at a new Jedi Temple. Where does Snoke fit into all of this? How exactly was he bringing Kylo to the Dark Side of the Force? Is he on the planet? Is he some creepy dude that hangs out at the 7/11 just outside the Temple? Seriously, how is some creepy Sith Lord seducing Kylo when any sane Jedi would cut him down on sight, or by sensing his feelings alone? I am at a loss for understanding where this Snoke guy was in all of this.

The fact that Snoke dies, or that we don’t know his origin, doesn’t matter to me. The Emperor has little context inside the original trilogy, and didn’t need any either. He’s an evil, powerful Sith Lord. Who cares! What does matter though, is learning how in the hell he found Kylo, and turned him to the Dark Side. Darth Vader didn’t have that amount of characterization, but then again, Darth Vader was treated far differently in the original films than Kylo Ren is treated in this current trilogy. Darth Vader was a big scary bad guy in a cool costume that turned out to be Luke’s father, and was turned back to the Light in the end. Kylo Ren, for all intents and purposes, is treated as a main character, second only to Rey, and even then I’m not entirely sure. He has received strong characterization since the beginning of the trilogy, and is by far the most interesting new character. The fact that we don’t see where Snoke actually fits into all of this is an obstacle that the movie tries to ignore, despite mentioning Snoke’s role in Ren’s downfall several times.

Speaking of obstacles, the problems with characterization don’t end there. One of the central plots revolves around Admiral Holdo and Poe Dameron, and is incredibly face-palmy due to how little time it devotes to Holdo’s character. Holdo is given control of the Resistance ships after Leia and the rest of the commanders are either killed or incapacitated by an Empire attack on their ship. Holdo acts in a very authoritative manner, and operates on a need-to-know basis with her crew. This inevitably creates problems where there should be none. Holdo appears to be exhausting the Resistances fuel supply to merely outrun the Empire for a few hours longer, yet in reality she is getting the fleet in range of the planet Crait to flee unnoticed on transport ships into an abandoned base on the planet. Yet she decides to share this information with absolutely no one. She outright refuses to tell Poe what is going on, even though she knows that, to someone not in-the-know, she looks to be leading the Resistance to their deaths. How do you not tell anyone? And if you’re not going to tell anyone, how are there not at least more scenes dedicated to fleshing out why she would act this way? This is one of the biggest plot contrivances in the film, and I absolutely hate that they didn’t care to explain her actions in further detail, because it leads into the worst part of the entire movie: Canto Blight.

The Canto Blight sequence is dumb and bad and dumb for a lot of reasons, but I’ll focus on a few: there is no character development or interaction of any meaningful consequence, there are no clever themes that tie back to the main plot, and absolutely nothing of importance happens. Finn and Rose hardly interact here aside from communicating plot details and one story about Rose’s hatred of the planet for its luxurious exterior that hides the cruel treatment of the lower-class and the native animals of the planet. It’s an okay moment that doesn’t do much besides communicate that, yeah, Rose doesn’t like this place. Great. I suppose it begins Rose’s transition from wanting to destroy what she hates to wanting to save the one’s she loves, which is fine, but again, the way her arc is executed, especially at its conclusion (you know, where she almost kills herself and Finn in order to ‘save’ Finn from sacrificing himself for the greater good) is atrocious. It’s implemented with the grace of an awkward newborn deer and bogs down The Last Jedi so much that it started to feel for a moment that I was watching a Prequel. Echh.

So we’ve talked about the poor execution of ideas and themes, as well as plot points. We’ve talked about the lack of characterization given to Rey, to some of Kylo’s backstory, and to Admiral Holdo. Hopefully I’ve made some points that made you think a little bit. But, to close out this write-up, I have to talk about the awful humor that seems to infest The Last Jedi at every corner. That might seem like a nitpick. Trust me, it is not.

The humor in The Last Jedi is some of the most lazily thought up writing I’ve seen since The Force Awakens decided to crank up the amount of jokes in Star Wars to the millionth degree. Now don’t get me wrong, humor has always been a part of Star Wars. There’s been elements of slapstick comedy in every film, and character driven humor was a huge part of the original films. Most of the jokes, if you could call them that, were generated from a characters personality, motivations, or contrasts with other characters. In A New Hope when Han says “What do you think, a princess and a guy like me-“and Luke interrupts with, “No,” we laugh. We know Han is a scoundrel and a womanizer, and we already know that Luke thinks Leia is beautiful, so when Luke tries to shut down Hans line of thinking in a reactionary, defensive way, it’s funny!

Luke tossing his light saber, the light saber that Obi Wan gave him that belonged to his father, isn’t funny. It’s basically just a slapstick gag that comes out of nowhere. And if you’re looking at it from a more character-driven viewpoint, it doesn’t work either. Luke may have shut himself off from the Force, and may hate the Jedi order, but he clearly still has a lot of respect from where he comes from. Later in the film, he thinks about burning down the ancient Jedi texts, yet cannot bring himself to do it. He hates the Jedi, but clearly still respects them. For better or worse, it’s all he’s had besides his friends. Luke throwing the lightsaber makes little sense, isn’t funny, and makes this feel far more like a Marvel movie than it should.

This is just a microcosm of the lazy humor in The Last Jedi. Poe Dameron prank calling the First Order makes no sense and isn’t a good joke. Rey telling Kylo to put something on isn’t well-constructed or funny. BB-8 piloting an AT-ST makes quite literally no sense and isn’t funny. Great, now our cute little droid is a murderer. Happy now? There was one joke I thought was funny, when a drunk little gremlin on Canto Blight mistakenly puts coins into BB-8 thinking it was a slot machine. I laughed. And then I was thrust back into this strange movie.

Look, I like this movie. I swear to god, I do. There are great moments here and there; the entire Throne Room sequence, Poe disabling the Dreadnought, Luke’s speech about being a legend, Holdo decimating Snoke’s flagship, and so much more. This is a good movie, but with some seriously jarring flaws that makes this one of the most inconsistent movies I’ve seen all year. Not as a Star Wars movie, just on its own. There’s a lot to love in The Last Jedi. And that’s why I’ve been criticizing it so much. It’s one of the most middling, dizzying movies I’ve seen all year, and I sincerely hope the next film in the series is given more time in the oven so that it hits the mark in all of the ways that Star Wars: The Last Jedi doesn’t.

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Drew Stuart
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