After watching the Solo teaser trailers back at the start of February my wife asked me a simple question. Having seen The Last Jedi, was I happier now that new Star Wars films were being made?
I thought about it for a few moments before answering honestly – no. As great as Rogue One is, its existence is not worth the damage that the other films have made to the franchise.
This, I realised, is why I was wrong about The Last Jedi.
So what was I wrong about? The arguments have been heard across the internet since December, and it’s not my intention to revisit them all in my own words. What this article has always been intended to do, both as it originally existed and through the revisions I’ve made since, is to attempt to draw a line from George Lucas’ saga of Episodes I-VI to the latest instalments to try and understand if there’s any kind of craftsmanship at play in the Sequel Trilogy at all – or at the very least any basic respect for what went before.
As a primer I recommend you read We Need to Talk About Han, an article I wrote in March 2016 that set out the issues of The Force Awakens and the responsibilities inherent in creating a sequel.
Are y’all caught up? Great stuff. Let’s push on.
Self-Delusions of Grandeur
My original review for The Last Jedi, written immediately after my second viewing praised Rian Johnson’s film primarily for doing something different within the established framework of Star Wars.
I attribute my early reaction to two factors:
- I was so desperate for something exciting that I briefly put the ‘change is good’ mantra ahead of my love for the series and the established lore.
- I hunted down every spoiler I could find (ultimately knowing the entire plot before going in) to avoid a repeat of the soul-crushing disappointment of The Force Awakens.
And believe me – as anyone who knows me would attest, I was emotionally distraught after The Force Awakens hit.
I know how sad it sounds, in a pathetic sense, but the work of George Lucas is all but literally a part of my DNA. His creativity and stories have inspired and shaped my entire life. To see how casually The Force Awakens ripped that glorious legacy apart while being feted far and wide as the saviour of the franchise burned like acid. Spending a year being told by strangers online that I was sexist, bigoted or just wrong only compounded that misery. I try my best to be the fairest person I can to all. And I also wrote a dissertation on the work of Lucas that helped me to earn a First Class Honours degree in narrative filmmaking, so I have a pretty fucking good grounding in what we’re all talking about here.
Rogue One aside, 2016 was horrific.
Anyway. More than anything I needed to avoid a repeat of that disappointment. I needed The Last Jedi to deliver something, anything, to not feel left out of something that was so much a part of me.
I devoured every leak, tidbit and picture I could. By spoiling The Last Jedi I defaulted my expectations to match exactly what the film would deliver. Having the best part of a day to digest the plot and discard my hopes about what the ST could be, I went into the midnight screening prepared to love the film regardless. The film’s thematic tenet of letting the past die was at the very least a step forward from The Force Awakens, no matter the cost, and I obliged myself to accept it.
I desperately wanted to love The Last Jedi. But, much like the mirage of Luke Skywalker’s character redemption, there’s simply nothing there to love.
By my third viewing, I had niggling doubts about the film. On my fourth and final viewing something happened that had never happened to me before in the cinema – midway through the battle of Crait, the fire alarm went off.
As my wife and I stood outside the cinema, unsure if we’d get to pick up where we’d left off or have to attend another screening, I realised that I didn’t want to sit through the film again just to get to the good Luke Skywalker scene. I didn’t care for the new characters the way I had in The Force Awakens. I didn’t care for the space chase, or especially for Canto Bight. For all the supposed ‘new’ and ‘different’, there was disconcertingly little ‘excitement’.
We resumed the film from where we’d left off, but the genie was out of the bottle.
Rather than confront my doubts, or share them with a fractured online community that was toxic even by Star Wars standards, I instead retreated from thinking about Star Wars at all. I had passively enjoyed the film, nailed my flag to a socially acceptable mast and then, much like Luke Skywalker, ran away from the fight.
It’s taken my re-engagement with Solo to understand that the reason I didn’t want to think about The Last Jedi. It’s because, well – as far as Star Wars goes, Episode VIII is an absolute mess.
Intention is Not Enough
To clarify, The Last Jedi is an OK movie. It holds absolutely no legitimate claim to being a great movie, but it is visually impressive. John Williams, meanwhile, delivers a richer score than the story deserves.
Yet that’s as far as the praise can go. The ill-placed comedy throws the tone all over the place, whilst the sledgehammer political points-scoring is an unwelcome addition to the saga. The plot, which forces almost every single action by every active character, forces a drag of a middle act that gets more ridiculous with the passing of time.
The problems with the middle act are encapsulated by the course of events on the Raddus, the fleeing Resistance cruiser. The message of Admiral Holdo’s story is essentially to blindly trust command and follow orders, no matter how opaque the command or desperate the situation. The message is essentially to be more like a Stormtrooper, something Jyn Erso would recognise.
Besides the obviously problematic nature of this theme (underlined by Yoda hitting Luke on the head and treating him as a student rather than an equal), the execution doesn’t even make sense. Poe Dameron unquestionably saves the Resistance fleet by destroying the Dreadnought. Yes, it cost lives, but it’s a war. The Dreadnought would have killed many more had Dameron not acted, an obvious fact that no-one acknowledges. It’s a classic case of plot overriding character.
Yes, Dameron learns the value of defence as well as attack – but via a forced message that contradicted established characterisations and created plot holes in order to work.
Not good writing.
And it’s impossible to pretend it’s not a problem with the film, however hard you try. I recently read a roundtable discussion that looked at the Holdo/Dameron conflict from a military perspective. It’s an interesting idea, but executed with so much bias that it becomes farcical.
The fans in question defend the plot was by allowing the idea that there was a First Order spy aboard the Raddus to form the main plank of Holdo’s defence. With that key piece of info, entirely absent from the film, Holdo could be exonerated – and, the inference is, critics of the film can shut up.
At this point we need an interjection.
It’s fair to like any text for whatever reason holds true to you. But rejecting criticism of that text based solely on a reading that you made up is delusional. For context, I love Revenge of the Sith. Because I love it, I really wish that Palpatine was explicitly shown using the Force to hijack Padme and Anakin’s connection to transfer Padme’s life to Darth Vader. It’s a powerful idea and so much better than Padme simply ‘losing the will to live’.
Yet it’s also 100% made up and not a part of the Star Wars films. We got what we’ve got, and Padme lack of will’d herself to death.
For a detailed examination of the problems with the film, both small and huge, check out YouTuber Mauler’s series of video essays. These are blow-by-blow accounts of how badly The Last Jedi sits alongside the other films, from pertinent examples of why the humour doesn’t work to pointing out the insane story oversights (for example, how exactly did Finn learn to pilot a ship while he was in a coma?).
They’re long watches but well worth your time.
The Curious Case of Jake Skywalker
In my original review there is one point that, upon reflection, I have to apologise for. My biggest single disappointment with The Force Awakens was the treatment of Luke Skywalker. Being told that the hero we left at the end of Return of the Jedi had become a coward and ran away when his family needed him was always a bad choice, and I remain surprised that so many fans gave it a pass.
The Last Jedi had the opportunity to make this choice work. It failed hard.
As Johnson continues to protest that his version of Luke Skywalker is accurate, it’s become increasingly apparent that his film was based on a fundamental misreading of the story that went before.
While the Prequel Trilogy re-contextualises the Original Trilogy through the story of Darth Vader, it also illuminates and strengthens the overarching theme of the entire six film saga. Luke is a Jedi who follows the will of the living Force like his father before him, rather than the political will of the galaxy like the deposed Jedi Order. It’s his compassion – something that Kenobi and Yoda wanted him to ignore – that ultimately saves the day.
Luke believing the Jedi of old to be wrong is literally the point of the OT. It goes without saying that his own teachings would evolve the Jedi Order in a new, more compassionate way. And with the character of Luke Skywalker as established by Episodes IV-VI, there is no believable way that he would blame his own failings on an archaic order that he knows better than to follow word-by-word.
In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker forgot every lesson that we’d already seen him learn.
The only way that The Last Jedi could work alongside the Lucas saga is if, in an inversion of the OT, Luke wanted to kill Vader before training with Yoda and Kenobi, who teach him that a pacifistic Jedi way is better.
Let’s follow this hypothetical scenario.
In the instant that Luke discovers Ben’s fall he is now in character to react violently, as we see in the film. Vengeance is his core motivator and if he had not followed the Jedi way for so long, he would not have been too late to intervene with Ben.
Following the temple massacre, this version of Luke is fully within himself to give up the Jedi. He cuts himself off from the Force to clear the way for a pure light side user to rise uninhibited by Jedi teachings; enter Rey. Much as we see in the film, it is her arc that brings Luke back to the way of compassion, of the living Force.
How much cleaner is that? Sadly, it’s based on a complete fiction and just another example of head canon. Johnson’s version of Luke Skywalker makes no sense.
The Luke Skywalker who strode out to confront the First Order was exactly what so many of us wanted to see – but it was explicitly a mirage. The character dies on the rocks of Ahch-To as the same coward that we were first told about in The Force Awakens. It was underwhelming then, and expanding on it now has only made it worse.
Mark Hamill clearly understood these issues yet he still acted the hell out of the role. A combination of his performance, spoilers and the lingering disappointment of The Force Awakens insulated me to the shock over the first few days. On reflection, his excellent performance is a sad glimpse of what the sequels could have been.
The flaws in the execution of both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi can be attributed to the compressed production time frames enforced by Disney. Yet the big decisions, such as the abandonment of any cohesive continuity and the lack of an overarching narrative, lay solely at the feet of Lucasfilm.
Reports on Colin Trevorrow’s departure from Episode IX appear to show that the powers at Lucasfilm do not really ‘get’ Star Wars. Yet watching Rogue One again shows that it is possible to make a good modern Star Wars film. The Mandalorian looks intriguing, while the reports of Episode IX serving as a “course correction” indicate that perhaps Disney is starting to listen to the genuine disappointment of large swathes of the fan base.
Will I see Episode IX? Of course. But thanks to The Last Jedi, Abrams’ project has its work cut out for it to finish the ST satisfactorily – let alone to re-complete the already-finished Lucas saga.
It’s time to accept that as a continuation of the original Star Wars saga this sequel trilogy does not work at all.