This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Bully.
I feel like I need to clear the air a little before I start. I knew I’d want to write about The Last Jedi for this series pretty much immediately after watching it. It had parts I found breathtakingly beautiful, among the best things in the entire Star Wars franchise. It also had parts so bad I sincerely entertained the notion my screening was shown a joke version of the film for a prank show (the Yoda scene, mostly). I don’t know what an interesting cinematic failure is if it isn’t The Last Jedi. In accordance with our ethos of cold takes, I waited to start writing until (1) I’d given myself adequate time to sit with my thoughts, move beyond my initial impressions and hopefully deepen my analysis, and (2) there was no ongoing cultural discourse of significant scope or fervour around the film. I didn’t want my take on the film to be hot in either the sense it came too quickly after I watched the film or the sense it was too pegged to any particularly heated discussion unfolding when I wrote it. The former to ensure I developed my ideas well and the latter to ensure I wasn’t overly invested in responding to specific takes on the film that might be personally infuriating, but weren’t actually that interesting or relevant. So I waited.
It took the most devastating global pandemic since the Spanish flu to get people to shut up about this movie for five minutes.
The Last Jedi might not be the most controversial film of all time, but I can’t think of another that has continuously generated such a consistently high volume of discussion and debate for so long. People may have committed acts of terrorism over The Last Temptation of Christ, but they didn’t keep doing it for three years after release. The film came out, people saw it, the controversy abated, the world moved on. Not so with The Last Jedi. Obviously, a major part of that is the existence of social media as a permanent global forum with no space limits. Even with a 24-hour news cycle, only so much can fit in a newspaper or in a broadcast at a given time. News websites don’t have space limits, but they have the practical constraints of a human workforce that can’t pump out endless coverage of infinite topics (at time of writing). Social media knows no such limits. If thousands of people decide to spend their time arguing about whether a film is good or not, the only limit is their own patience.
But the changing nature of how we communicate only explains how The Last Jedi discourse lasted so long, not why. The 2016 remake of Ghostbusters also generated lots of controversy and discussion, months of it, but it was a dead topic within a year of its release. Not The Last Jedi. Until just a couple of months ago, it was still an active battlefield of culture war nonsense. Tens of thousands of words in op-eds and essays, thousands of hours of video on YouTube, and that’s not even touching on the tweets. People have written books about it. And I guess I needed to give all this context just so I could be clear about one thing before I dive into my own thoughts on the film.
I do not care about any of this.
I will not, in so far as I can avoid it, deal with any of this shite. I will not be talking about any of the dumb things that far-right grifters have said in YouTube videos designed to be gateway drugs into their ideology. I will not be talking about any of the dumb things that liberal and leftist critics (or just YouTubers who think being able to debunk factually incorrect right-wing propaganda qualifies them to do media criticism) have said in response to those far-right grifters. I will not be making a call as to whether The Last Jedi is progressive or not. I don’t care. I used to kind of care. I thought it was weird that they introduced a new character, Rose, to be Finn’s love interest, almost as if she exists only to ensure Finn, a black man, doesn’t kiss either Rey, a white woman, or Poe, a man, the two characters he was most commonly shipped with by fans in the lead-up to the movie. Like, it kind of seemed like Rose was just an out for a film franchise that didn’t want to alienate any racists or homophobes. But then people talked about seemingly anything but the actual content of the film for three years. The film itself was just a proxy for their political commitments, not a work of art worth talking about just because it’s art. When they did talk about the film itself, it was always in the most extreme ways, as if The Last Jedi could only be a masterpiece or total dogshit, and the side you took implied something about your moral character. It was exhausting. And the thing is, even then, I might have felt obliged to talk about it all the same if it mattered. But it doesn’t matter. The most important film ever made couldn’t possibly matter enough to warrant this much discourse. But The Last Jedi? A Star Wars film? Made by Disney? In the 2010s? I can’t even begin to understand how anyone could think it was this culturally important. It’s just one of the dozens of blockbusters based on popular IP Disney churned out over the last few years. Why would we talk about this any more than Mary Poppins Returns or the awful live-action Dumbo? I guess they made less money than The Last Jedi, but the CGI remake of The Lion King made more and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone say anything about it except how ugly it is and how fucked-up it was of Disney to market it as a live-action remake when it’s animated.
I’ve waited a long time to talk about The Last Jedi and I’m not getting bogged down in other people’s insane commentary on it.
Here we fucking go:
- The Last Jedi is a very mixed film for me. I think a lot of the time when people say “mixed”, other people hear “middling” or “mediocre”, but that’s not what I mean. The highest highs of The Last Jedi are so beautiful and moving I can get choked up just thinking about them. The lowest lows are so bad I can give myself a headache just thinking about them. I guess sometimes when you look at a film, the black and white of it kind of adds up to an overall grey, like it averages out at meh. But not when the highs and lows are as sharp and extreme as this film. The Last Jedi is not grey, it’s alternating stripes of dark black and bright white. It’s not a donkey, it’s a zebra.
- The highs and lows of the film are strongly correlated with, if not perfectly matched by, the two storylines that make up its narrative. In the A-plot, our would-be Jedi hero Rey seeks the training of original trilogy protagonist Luke Skywalker, who has gone into self-imposed exile on a distant world, and explores a growing connection with her nemesis, and Luke’s former pupil, Kylo Ren. In the B-plot, former stormtrooper Finn and newly-introduced mechanic (?) Rose attempt to save the Resistance by going on a circuitous quest for help in breaking into the First Order flagship while hotshot pilot Poe is off-screen for a really long time and seems to just kind of be sitting in a room on his own until he suddenly emerges to do a mutiny. It is unfortunate for my purposes that I think the storyline with all the white characters is good and the storyline with all the characters of colour is bad, but it’s more unfortunate that Rian Johnson made the film like that.
- That motivating predicament is very clever and smartly assembled. The Resistance escape an assault by the First Order on a small handful of ships by jumping through hyperspace, only for the First Order ships to immediately appear behind them. It turns out they’ve developed the technology to track ships through hyperspace, previously thought impossible. The Resistance are able to stay just out of the range of the First Order’s weapons, but they have a limited supply of fuel. They can’t use it to jump again, since the First Order will just follow them again, but Kylo Ren leads a sneak attack to blow up their fleet of fighter craft, so they have no way of fighting back. It seems like there’s no escape. It’s a brilliant, unique setup for the characters to spend the film in, or it would be if the tension wasn’t immediately deflated a couple of scenes later.
- Of course, Kylo was only able to blow up their fighters so easily because most of the fleet was already lost in the film’s opening scene. I love the opening of The Last Jedi. Poe flies up to a huge First Order ship helmed by General Hux and hails it, ostensibly to negotiate, then pretends he can’t hear him, makes fun of him and ends it all with a “yo mama” joke. Poe takes out the guns on the surface of the ship he’s attacking, leaving it vulnerable to an assault from above. His distraction of Hux gives the Resistance enough time to get airborne and Leia urges him to retreat so they can all escape together, but Poe insists on finishing the assault on the ship so they can weaken the First Order. Most of the ships, including a bunch of slow-moving bombers, are destroyed when the First Order deploys TIE fighters to respond, but one – with Rose’s sister as its gunner – manages to drop its payload and take down the ship just before it explodes. This opening sets up so much of the initial stakes of the film in a very economic way. It’s a visual spectacle that manages to get a surprising amount of emotion out of a character we’ve never seen before desperately kicking a ladder to knock a remote control off the top of it. I have basically no notes except I wish the rest of the film was this good.
- Other people, however, have taken issue with the humour in The Last Jedi and the sequel trilogy more generally, the “yo mama” joke being a prime example. I think it’s great. Not every joke lands, obviously, but overall it’s one of the only ways the new films really establish a distinct stylistic identity from the previous trilogies that justifies them as an artistic endeavour beyond the simple lust for profit. The first scene of the A-plot, where Rey hands an elderly Luke his lightsaber and he just wordlessly throws it over his shoulder and off a cliff? I was gobsmacked in the cinema when I first saw The Last Jedi, and it took me a while to figure out how I felt about it, but on rewatching it, I was so impressed with how it simply and effectively establishes where Luke is at in his life since we last saw him as a young man, while also being very funny. It strikes a very specific balance between good storytelling and an irreverence toward the sacred cows of the series that promises so much for the rest of the film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really deliver in the end.
- Even more pedantic people criticise the bombers and their ability to drop bombs at all, given they’re in space, because there’s no gravity in space. I disagree. It would be easy to disagree just because the complaint is pedantic in a space fantasy world with different rules to ours, but I also think the complaint is wrong. Space is actually the only place where there is gravity. Everything with mass has gravity and everything with mass exists in space. Obviously not all things with mass have enough independent gravity to attract a payload of bombs while otherwise floating in space, but you know what probably does have enough mass? The giant fuck-off spaceship the Resistance are attacking at the start of The Last Jedi. I’m sure there’s an official figure on its length in secondary material, but I don’t care about nerd shit like that and I’ll burn in hell before I let Disney tell me what is and isn’t true. The point is it’s huge. Miles long and miles wide. It makes perfect sense to me that it would be massive enough to attract unobstructed bombs from a ship flying just metres above it. This is less a commentary on the film itself than the quality of science education worldwide, but I’ve seen so many people defend this scene without one of them ever just going “ship big, probably has gravity”. I didn’t even consider anyone might find it implausible until after I watched it. Ship big! Probably has gravity!
- While I’m digressing anyway, I just want to say, independent of some larger criticism of the creature design in this film that I’ll get to later, the Porgs are awful creatures, horrible ugly little beasts that I wish I could obliterate both from the film and our collective memory. I’m pretty sure it would be very easy to remove them from the film without affecting the story – they rarely appear in the same shot as other characters and never in story-critical scenes – so I hope one day Rian Johnson redeems himself a little in my eyes by releasing a director’s cut without any Porgs. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, they appear so little in the film and their appearances are so disconnected from anything going on, I’m wondering did Rian Johnson even make those shots. The Porgs were originally designed to be digitally inserted over the native puffins of Skellig Michael, but they’re given such a prominent role in the film – like a scene where Chewbacca eats one while a bunch of others look on in horror – without actually being part of the story that it seems more than plausible it was a decision made in post at the executive level. It doesn’t really matter either way, but, like, in the bit with two Porgs playing with Luke’s discarded lightsaber in the grass before Rey picks it up, I don’t think she interacts with, reacts to or acknowledges the Porgs, they just fly away as she picks it up. That doesn’t seem like a shot that had inconvenient puffins in it, it seems like a throwaway insert of the lightsaber that got stretched out for some Porg content. And then there’s a shot of a Porg on the dashboard of the Millennium Falcon during the final act and it gives this big battle cry, like the Porg is on our side, but it’s just a dumb, horrible bird thing? Wow, yeah. They really are in there just to be toys. Even those dumb fox things at the end have a (contrived) narrative purpose. Porgs are just to make money off kids. Fuck them.
- Although, at the same time, at least the Porgs aren’t shoehorned into the plot in a way that actively undermines the film, unlike BB-8. I thought BB-8 was a cute, fun little addition to the world of Star Wars in The Force Awakens, but he may actually be the worst part of The Last Jedi. The film seems to bend around BB-8’s existence, with basically every moment that features him in any significant way past the opening battle making the film worse. The sneak attack where Kylo and his goons destroy the remains of the Resistance’s fighter fleet? It’s a super dramatic moment, with Poe thrown out the hangar doors by the explosion, landing on the floor where he stares in horror at the destruction the First Order have wrought. So many of his comrades are already dead and now he’s just watched the rest incinerated. But before the moment can really sink in and provide any emotional gravity, BB-8 flies into frame, also tossed by the explosion. Only BB-8 screams “wheeow!” and bounces across the floor like the ball from Luxo Jr. The search for the codebreaker on Canto Bight wastes additional runtime (in a film that’s already so bloody long) on an awful drunk CGI alien trying to use BB-8 as a slot machine, and then inexplicably pays off this dumb gag by having BB-8 assault the prison guards holding Finn and Rose by shooting them with the coins the drunk alien put him in. He also somehow ties them up and gags them, but at that point in the film, I’d been exposed to so much dumb nonsense, it barely registered. I don’t really believe in suspension of disbelief – I like movies because they’re movies, not because I forget they’re movies – but there’s a limit on how many times a story can “playfully” violate the internal logic of its own world before that logic breaks down and it becomes hard to parse basic information about the story, like whether characters are endangered. This is one of the big problems with The Last Jedi’s addiction to twists and “subverting expectations”. Apart from the fact that it just gets super tedious and exhausting after a while, a film can’t subvert my expectations if it’s doing so many twists and turns and red herrings and reveals that I don’t have time to develop any expectations that can be subverted. It’s one of the reasons the A-plot works so well and the B-plot doesn’t. In addition to building on what’s been established about them in previous movies, The Last Jedi takes the time to tell me a lot about where Rey, Kylo and Luke are at before the A-plot puts their relationships with each other at the centre of its story. Not only does it do very little similar setup for Finn, Rose and Poe, but much of the setup is strained, contradictory and dropped almost immediately for seemingly no reason as the film goes on. Rey, Kylo and Luke go through arcs in The Last Jedi. Finn, Rose and Poe just go through the motions.
- But the worst BB-8 moment in the film is undoubtedly when he saves Finn and Rose by hijacking a First Order AT-ST walker and using it to open fire on Phasma and her troops. The scene is awful in itself, especially the way the top of the AT-ST rips off to dramatically reveal BB-8 piloting it, followed by Finn and Rose doing a lame comedy reaction bit. But its position in the story makes it feel almost contemptuous of the film itself. It’s one of three climaxes in the storylines of the main characters that happen one after another, in what should be a series of cascading emotional highpoints. First, Rey rejects Kylo’s offer to rule by his side, and they rip Luke’s lightsaber into pieces trying to pull it away from each other. Then, in the best scene of the film, and one of the best in Star Wars ever, Vice Admiral Holdo jumps into hyperspace through the First Order fleet, vaporising huge sections of all their spaceships in a moment of gorgeous, shocking silence and light. How will the third climax live up to these emotional peaks? Finn and Rose were set to be executed by the First Order, but everyone on the ship is thrown away from each other by the Holdo manoeuvre, so they get a momentary reprieve. But Phasma and her troops emerge from the smoke and shadow, guns raised. Then BB-8 attacks them with a fucking AT-ST. Cue immediate vomiting. Now, look, Star Wars is, or at least should be, for children. I think it’s nice that they made a cute new robot for children to love like kids in the past loved R2-D2 and C-3PO. But the lesson of R2-D2 and C-3PO is that you actually don’t need to shove kid-friendly characters into gratuitous scenes for kids to like them! They just like them because they look nice and they’re children! Just let BB-8 be, man. And if you must put a gratuitous scene of him doing some bullshit in there, maybe not at the emotional climax of the story, and arguably the entire sequel trilogy? Probably a bad idea.
- The film really starts to go off the rails once Leia is in a coma. I thought her Mary Poppinsing back into the Resistance cruiser with the Force was kind of silly-looking when I first saw The Last Jedi, but on rewatch I was like, nah this is fine, actually. The real problem was putting her in a coma for the whole film to introduce Vice Admiral Holdo. There is obviously an odd real-world problem with this decision in that Carrie Fisher died before The Last Jedi came out and that makes her very conspicuously surviving the film despite two separate places where it makes sense for her to die kinda weird. But even if Carrie Fisher hadn’t died, well, there are two separate places where it makes sense for Leia to die and the fact she doesn’t seemingly just so Holdo can be in the film – or, rather, Holdo is in the film just so Leia doesn’t die – is a bit of an issue. First because Holdo is a really dull character that even Laura Dern can barely get anything out of (except the shot of her coming out of the steam, blaster firing, when she fights back against Poe’s mutiny, that’s cool as hell). The Holdo manoeuvre is one of the best things in Star Wars, but it would have been even better if a character I’d had an opportunity to become emotionally attached to had done it. It didn’t have to be Leia necessarily, though it would have been nice if Leia had got to do literally anything in the entire sequel trilogy. It could have been Poe, since it eventually emerged that neither JJ Abrams nor Rian Johnson had any ideas about what to do with him. Poe and Rey don’t meet til the end of this film as is, so why not have her meet Rose instead and just make Rey, Finn and Rose the core three characters. I mean, I don’t think Rose is a good character, but it’s not like Poe is either. You could have had Poe lose faith in and mutiny Leia instead of Holdo, and then the manoeuvre could have been his redemption moment. Or have Billie Lourd’s character do it, to make up for her role in the mutiny, if killing Poe is too much. At least we’ve followed her loss of faith a little bit over the course of the movie. Holdo is a non-entity whose only role in the story before she does the coolest thing anyone has ever done in Star Wars is to harangue Poe and then tell Leia she’s great. Oh, and to provide a paper-thin pretext for the entire B-plot.
- Here’s how the B-plot kicks off, and I want to stress that this is so needlessly complicated I filled an entire A4 page in my actual physical notes on The Last Jedi just trying to get this straight. After a meet cute where Finn and Rose realise it’s possible to stop the First Order tracking the Resistance through hyperspace if they can break into Snoke’s flagship, they find Poe to pitch the plan to him. Why they take it to Poe rather than to Holdo immediately is not explained. Then, once they’ve explained the plan, C-3PO just asserts Holdo will never agree to the plan, even though we’ve been given literally zero reason to explain why that would be true (nor are we ever given such a reason). Luckily, the screenplay has a clever trick to dodge that little wrinkle, which is to have Poe just agree and move right on to declaring the mission “need to know – and she doesn’t need to know”. Even though one of the only things we’ve been told about Rose at this point is that she’s fiercely loyal to the Resistance – she’s willing to turn in Finn for desertion despite fanning out over him just moments before – she doesn’t object whatsoever to this course of action.
- But then Finn reveals a new complication that he didn’t include in his initial outline for some reason. The First Order has a nigh-impenetrable security system that “no one” can possibly break, raising the question of why they thought the plan was worth bringing to Poe in the first place. But whatever. It’s fine, because right after Finn insists “no one” can possibly break into it, they do one of those shots where a possible solution to the problem dawns on one of the characters. Now, the way a scene like that usually goes is one of two ways. First, there’s actually a really obvious answer that both the characters and the audience are liable to immediately think of, and then it smash cuts to them approaching that character. Second, there’s a less obvious answer nonetheless based on established information that both the characters and audience have access to, which the film makes explicit by having the characters say it out loud. I can only speak for myself, but I thought there was an obvious answer: C-3PO. He’s standing behind Finn when he says no one can do it, and when Poe has his realisation, he goes from looking at Finn to looking over his shoulder and pointing at… C-3PO, presumably. Right? The visual queue suggests it, he’s the only character in Poe’s line of sight. And it makes sense from what we know about him. He can speak billions of languages, so he could probably “talk” to the ship’s computer and get past security that way. But if it’s not C-3PO, and it wasn’t, then it seems like it should be someone whose characterisation to this point in the film follows from the line “no one can”. The obvious reading is a character who’s been established as being able to do impossible things, but you could also do something mildly clever, by having the exact term “no one” remind them of someone. They should also probably be someone connected to C-3PO or who C-3PO is necessary to contact, given the way the shot is set up. None of those things happen. They just call Maz from The Force Awakens. Remember Maz? The alien lady with the butthole eyes? They call her for some reason. No explanation why. No implication why. Just a smash cut from Poe seemingly about to say C-3PO could do it to them already on the phone with Maz. Maybe they just had a contractual obligation with Lupita Nyong’o and decided to meet it by having Maz be the person they call. I don’t know. Anyway, Maz can do it, but she’s too busy with a “union dispute” to save the only hope for peace and freedom in the galaxy. The only people standing between the First Order and galactic domination are hours away from being massacred and she’s too busy. So she tells them they need to go to the casino on Canto Bight and find the Master Codebreaker. Got all that? What began as a simple, compelling heist plot – break into the First Order flagship, shut down the tracker, escape in time to flee with the rest of the Resistance – has become “leave the Resistance cruiser under the nose of both Holdo and the First Order, go to a casino on a distant planet, find some guy, bring him back to break into the First Order flagship, etc.”. I don’t worship at the altar of screenplay efficiency or anything. Not every script needs to be lean. Fat is what makes meat tasty. But when Finn and Rose first explain the plan to Poe, I was like, wow, what a genius move. Use the predicament they’re in as a setup for a heist. It even has two ticking clocks, because there’s the ticking clock of pulling it off before the cruiser runs out of fuel and then once the tracker is disabled, they only have six minutes before the tracker reactivates. It’s something the Star Wars films had never done before, at least in anything I’ve seen, because I will only watch Rogue One if someone literally pays me. But then the rest of the scene unfolded, and I was like, oh. I guess we’re not doing that.
- I mean, I still had hope we’d get around to the heist after they got the Master Codebreaker on Canto Bight, wherever that was. But the fact they’re going to Canto Bight at all is the first hole poked in the predicament the script had put together so well. If small craft can escape the cruiser without the First Order noticing – it’s only Holdo’s notice that Finn and Rose need to avoid – then why doesn’t the entire Resistance just escape on small craft over the course of a few hours? Holdo’s ultimate plan is basically that, but in her version all the craft escape at the same time, making them way more conspicuous, because while they may be too small to show up on the First Order’s radar, the First Order also have this powerful futuristic tech called windows and it’s easy to tell it’s a fleet of ships, rather than just some rocks in space or whatever, when there’s loads of them and they’re all going in the same direction. Look, I don’t enjoy being the plot logic guy. I spit in the face of plot logic guys most of the time. But when a film just heaps one absurdity on top of another without having the decency to just be an absurd film, it starts to feel like it’s taking me for a ride. It’s like it’s just spoon-feeding me actual dogshit and daring me to complain. At its best, The Last Jedi is great cinema, but at its worst, it’s like a feature-length adaptation of Stop Hitting Yourself. And, unfortunately, it follows its worse instincts far more often than its best.
- Its best instincts are very good though. I’ve done a lot of shitting on it to this point, so let’s switch gears and talk about some of the fantastic filmmaking going on in the A-plot. The portrayal of the psychic connection between Rey and Kylo is so brilliant in its simplicity that I wish I could make a movie about psychics just to steal it. Their conversations are always shot in a basic shot-reverse shot with each in their own environment, rather than having them in some liminal space like a black void or an astral plane, or showing them in each other’s environments (except for when they touch hands and Kylo is momentarily visible on the island with Rey before Luke kicks him out). What connects the shots is their interaction, and specifically their eyeline. The edit emphasises their seeing each other, both literally and figuratively, because their connection isn’t just a plot device, it genuinely develops their relationship. They understand each other in ways no one else does, because they don’t just see each other physically, they see each other’s minds, their souls. It’s the unspeakable intimacy of two people simply knowing each other expressed with the basic visual grammar of cinema and it’s so, so, so good. It’s so tense, but it’s not narratively tense, it’s emotionally and even sexually tense, one of the few instances of palpable romance or eroticism in the otherwise weirdly sexless sequel trilogy. I know these are movies for children, but it’s really weird how these films almost entirely substitute attraction for affection. Han and Leia were in love, but they also wanted to kiss each other, for God’s sake. The only other moment of sexual tension in the trilogy was Poe and Finn’s reunion in The Force Awakens, and that was because Oscar Isaac managed to sneak it into the film without JJ Abrams or Disney noticing. I commend The Last Jedi for giving at least one pair of characters in the entire sequel trilogy literally any chemistry whatsoever.
- The first lesson that Luke teaches Rey about why the Jedi must end – when he has her feel the true presence of the Force on the cliff – is probably the peak of the Luke-Rey dynamic that fills out the other half of the A-plot. Their relationship is mostly done really well, with Luke constantly refusing to explain himself in a way that flows from his character, rather than in what seems to be a strained conceit to conceal information from the audience (more on that later). It’s this mix of shame and fear that’s so rewarding to watch unfold. On some level, he really is just trying to keep her in the dark because he doesn’t want to give her any information that could lead her further down the path of the Jedi, for her own sake and for the galaxy’s, but also he’s still traumatically guilty over his own role in creating Kylo Ren. He fears how Rey will look at him if he admits what he did, and it ultimately becomes clear that what he fears isn’t even that she will be disgusted with him, but that she’ll still believe in him. When he finally confesses and she still wants his help, he recoils from her lack of judgement, from her willingness to yet hope. What scares him most of all is the possibility that he hasn’t already failed, that he can still try to fix things, because then he might fail again. He has to convince Rey he’s right so he can convince himself he’s right. So he takes her to the cliff and tells her to reach out with the Force. (She first tries to reach out with her hand and he tickles it with a leaf, then slaps her. Another good comedy moment.) It’s a great scene because it reasserts the mysticism of the Force from the original trilogy in a way that both undoes the damage done to its conceptual richness by the prequel trilogy and makes Luke actually convincing. She sees “The island. Life. Death and decay, that feeds new life. Warmth. Cold. Peace. Violence.” Between them a Force, and the same Force within her. “And this is the lesson,” Luke says. “That Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity. Can you feel that?” It’s a good argument! And then Rey feels the pull of a cave beneath the island, full of darkness. Luke’s fear of her power is validated, it puts him one up in their conflict. The cave also looks cool as shit, with the strands of alien seaweed giving the hole an unsettling organic look, like it’s alive and it shouldn’t be. A great scene done well.
- The scene is also clever because in reemphasising the mysticism of the Force, it makes the seemingly spontaneous connection between Rey and Kylo come off like the Force moving in mysterious ways. The Last Jedi has too many twists and most of them suck, but Snoke’s reveal that he bridged their minds to manipulate them both is a neat little trick the script more than earns and gracefully declines to belabour. Snoke is great in general, honestly, I am so glad that Rian Johnson made the 100% correct choice to have him just be some evil guy who likes doing evil, no big backstory. Like the Emperor in the original trilogy, he’s just there to be the more evil thing in contrast to which Kylo, like Vader before him, can still be redeemed. I know lots of people were disappointed the film didn’t reveal more about him and then just had him die. I felt a little like that at the time, but I mostly just thought a quick throwaway line about him being an ancient sorcerer from somewhere beyond the galaxy would have been enough just to give a general sense of his place in the grander scheme of things. On rewatch, I didn’t even feel like that was necessary. It’s dumb that the pop culture speculation industrial complex – wherein clickbait sites pump out dozens upon dozens of identical listicles or slideshows of theories about movies and TV shows – has created all this expectation around fan theory. It’s obviously something that companies like Disney actively promote and cultivate, because it keeps their movies and shows in the public consciousness and makes people feel like they have to watch their stuff to see if their pet theories pan out. But who gives a fuck who Snoke is? He’s just the guy who tempted Ben Solo to the dark side and the grand high shitheel of the evil faction. He’s the devil, basically, so why give him a backstory or complex motivations unless the filmmakers have a particularly interesting idea for what to do with him (which The Rise of Skywalker proved they did not). Apart from how well he’s written – with the exception of his final words – Andy Serkis is also clearly having a ball playing him, which is really what you want. The only good thing about the prequels was Ian McDiarmid going hogwild as Palpatine and I salute Andy Serkis for living up to his legacy.
- Snoke is actually a good contrast with Holdo in this regard. The plot is no less difficult to understand because nothing of Snoke’s character or backstory are revealed, but the absence of literally any information about Holdo makes her relationship to Poe hard to parse. Why am I supposed to just accept she’d never consider Finn and Rose’s plan? All we’ve seen of Holdo to this point is her introduction, where she gives a fairly generic “let’s keep the hope alive” speech, then tells Poe to go fuck himself when he tries to insert himself into planning the Resistance’s strategy to escape the First Order. Everything she says to Poe is about him, and all we can infer from her withering disdain for “flyboys” is that she thinks Poe is one of them. No more is suggested, no matter how many times people try to make it a feminist thing of Poe not respecting Holdo because she’s a woman with purple hair. His commanding officer is Leia, and while he does disobey her orders in the opening battle, it’s pretty clearly not because Leia is a woman, it’s because he’s arrogant, glory-seeking and kind of stupid. It’s genuinely insane how little effort is put into fleshing out Holdo as a character enough for her to work as a plot device. Snoke is a plot device, but he’s just part of the film’s status quo, the backstory of other characters and the setting itself. If I understand the setting, I understand everything I need to know about him. Holdo is a new character, thrust into this setting for no clear narrative reason and then spends the whole film as this problem the other characters need to work around or overcome, without any characterisation given to explain why she is a problem. It’s one of the most egregious examples of The Last Jedi failing to give the viewer enough information to care about or even understand much of the plot, especially its twists.
- Another character who seriously suffers from this disinterest in developing new characters is Rose. She’s beloved among a certain segment of The Last Jedi fans and I can kind of get why. Kelly Marie Tran is very good and mostly quite charming as Rose and she really shines in the B-plot compared to John Boyega, not because John Boyega is bad, but because Finn is never more confused a character than in The Last Jedi. Boyega has nothing to work with but what he brought from The Force Awakens, and while neither Finn nor Boyega are quite as bad in The Last Jedi as they are in The Rise of Skywalker, he’s still a supporting character in his own half of the movie.
- Rose is difficult to pin down as a character, because almost everything we learn about her is immediately abandoned or contradicted in a later scene. She’s introduced as essentially a Resistance fangirl, losing her shit over getting to meet the Finn, before she sees he’s trying to desert the cruiser, knocks him out and starts taking him to be court martialled. The fangirl thing never comes up again, but it at least doesn’t actively contradict anything else we learn about her. Her introductory scene establishes a few things about Rose, or lays ground for us to learn things later. She’s an engineer, good with both ships and machines more generally. She lost her sister during the bomber assault at the start of the film (the unnamed rebel we saw drop the last payload of bombs) and she’s captured several people trying to desert the cruiser before Finn. She can’t believe anyone would dare to run, not when her sister died to save them, and she despises cowards. This sets up the closest thing to a consistent character trait that Rose ever gets: she’s about saving people, not hurting them. The important thing her sister did isn’t that she struck a blow against the First Order, it’s that she saved everyone on the cruiser. She’s fiercely loyal to the Resistance, but, as I already mentioned, it does not represent an obstacle to Poe’s insistence they pull of their plan behind Holdo’s back. Then, on Canto Bight, we find out some new things about Rose. She hates the First Order and the rich who profit from selling them weapons and ships. She tells Finn her planet was mined to death by the First Order to finance their expansion. Finn is weirdly into Canto Bight, but Rose wishes she “could put [her] fist through this whole lousy, beautiful town”. Later, when they have indeed put a fist through Canto Bight with a stampede of horse aliens and are about to be captured, Finn says it was worth it, “to tear up that town, make ‘em hurt”. Rose frees the horse alien they were riding so it can be with its herd. “Now it’s worth it,” she says. This kind of makes sense based on what we know about her character, but it’s the opposite of the last thing we learned about her character. It’s not an impossible switcheroo to pull off, but it just doesn’t ring true in The Last Jedi because we’ve spent hardly any time with Rose and what little we have has mostly been very functional, just scenes to keep the plot humming along. It’s not like there’s a scene of Rose struggling between warring instincts for vengeance and mercy. She doesn’t seem to regret destroying Canto Bight. I don’t see how her flipping back and forth on this theme develops her character or deepens the story or does anything at all. It’s just reversal for the sake of reversal, and because Rose is characterised almost entirely through her relationship with Finn, there’s a more than fair reading of this film where their relationship is mostly just Rose telling Finn something about herself and then, when he does or says something because of it, she throws it back in his face. If she told him she liked carrot cake, he’d bake her one, and she’d just be like “nah, I don’t like carrot cake anymore, I’m all about that dacquoise life now”. The problem isn’t unique to Rose, but as one of two new characters with a major role in the story, the constant swerves inevitably affect her more than anyone else. The swerves are all we know about her.
- There’s a view of The Last Jedi where it’s not a film that subverts expectations gratuitously, to the point the film becomes exhausting, but a film about subverting expectations. Where the whole point of the thing is to thumb its nose at previous Star Wars films to spite toxic male fans or something. It’s supposed to be a film so anti-nostalgia that it’s anti-nostalgia in its writing, in its very form. I honestly don’t think that’s necessarily an unreasonable way to read The Last Jedi. But it’s a position that cannot coexist with the position that anyone should like or enjoy it. Respect it? Sure, I can respect the commitment to this one gimmick way past the point of it actually being funny or interesting. Admire it? Yeah, I do think it’s pretty daring to deliberately make watching a blockbuster feel like a punishment to its audience, and not just to its audience, but for its audience. Like, the film is itself the punishment for seeing the film and expecting it to be a certain way, or even for having your expectations subverted, adjusting them and daring to think for just one solitary second that a simpleton like you could get on the same page as this film, let alone ahead of it. But like it? Enjoy it? Think it’s good? No. You can disagree that it’s tiresome or you can say it’s tiresome by design, but don’t kick me in the ass and call it a handshake. The only way out of that philosophical bind is to argue that people should enjoy having the rug pulled out from under them every three minutes for two and a half hours and anyone who doesn’t just has the wrong attitude toward the film, or maybe some deeper flaw. I think it’s insane to make inferences about someone’s character based on their feelings about a particular work of art when I can safely assume the main reason most people don’t like most movies is that they just weren’t their thing. But I guess that’s an avenue of thought you could pursue.
- But even if you read the subverting expectations as a deliberate anti-nostalgic turn, what are we to make of moments that just do the same thing as every other Star Wars film? During the final battle, Rey leads a bunch of First Order ships on a merry chase through a twisting canyon in the Millennium Falcon, something that happens like five or six times in the sequel trilogy alone. The Last Jedi doesn’t buck the trend of going back to the long-dry well of the Death Star for its last act superweapon. The Force Awakens had Starkiller Base and The Rise of Skywalker would go on to load Death Star lasers onto a whole fleet of Star Destroyers. The Last Jedi gives us the battering ram. Even in this meta reading, The Last Jedi is hopelessly incoherent, just throwing stuff at the wall and flipping tables and praying the final mess is at least palatable. And on a moment-to-moment level, it kind of is, but as entire story, it’s full of these clashing flavours. What about all the swerves that just seem to subvert expectations for the sake of it? The rebel fighter who tastes the dust on Crait’s surface and says it’s salt, almost to the camera, like, that’s only for the audience’s benefit, it doesn’t have any implications for the story, no one’s adapting their tactics for a salt planet instead of a snow planet or a sand planet. Like, I don’t necessarily have a problem with art that’s contemptuous of its audience, but is its hate pure? Is its contempt as well-earned as Dawn of the Dead, a movie that just fucking despises all the people watching it, because they’re a bunch of shallow, materialistic, obedient consumers? I don’t really understand what The Last Jedi’s contempt is aimed at, so it just kind of feels like malice for its own sake.
- Luke’s second lesson is quite shite compared to his first. The lesson about the Force teaches Rey lots of important things about the world, then uses those things to explain why the Jedi must die. Great stuff. The second lesson is just Luke telling her the Jedi are bad because they let Sidious take over and created Darth Vader. Rey points out it was also a Jedi who turned Darth Vader back to the light, then Luke is like “yeah, and I became a legend, and then I got arrogant and fucked up and made Kylo Ren”. His point is supposed to be something like the Jedi are romanticised, but if you look at their history, it’s one of hubris. And then he says he was romanticised, but he was also hubristic. But the way he says it, it’s like he was hubristic because he was treated as a legend in his own time. Is that what he’s saying about the Jedi? And what is Rey supposed to take from it? Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall? I mean, I guess, but it’s not a persuasive or interesting point, so it’s not a huge achievement for Rey that she kind of wins that argument.
- Rey’s descent into the cave of dark side energy is another bum note of the A-plot. Visually, it is neat to look at. Rey touches a mirror, then she’s inside the mirror with her reflections and they do matching motions and then she gets to the end of the line of her reflections, and the mirror is there again and she asks to see her parents, but she just sees her own face. It’s an obvious reference to the cave on Dagobah from The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke fights a vision of Darth Vader, but when he cuts off his mask, it’s his own face underneath. I get the callback, but I don’t get why it’s there. And this is one of the things that really makes all the “subverting expectations” nonsense in The Last Jedi so tiresome. It doesn’t seem motivated by anything other than subverting expectations for its own sake and, at certain points, leads to questions like “Why is this a Star Wars film?” and “Has Rian Johnson even seen Empire?”. I don’t give a shite about fidelity to the source material, let alone the brand, but even when you’re just using an existing story as raw material for a new one, you need to understand what you’re working with as much as if you were building new furniture out of reclaimed wood. You need to get how the pieces work together in their original configuration before you can use them to do something else. The film’s portrayal of Luke is very well done in this regard, because it looks past his actions and even his arcs from the original trilogy and builds on his personality. Luke smiles and laughs a lot and has a boy’s strong feelings of friendship. He isn’t a super serious guy until Return of the Jedi and then it feels way more situational than a permanent shift in his personality (e.g. he can’t stop himself from laughing when he first sees an Ewok and has to cover his mouth with his hand). He’s condescending and cracks wise, but he’s not that good at it, so everyone else always gets the better of him. He’s got a bit of an ego. It’s easy to see how his portrayal in The Last Jedi developed by imagining that specific man going through what he went through. His sense of humour is still there, but it’s curdled into something bitter. He has this Socratic kind of humility: he may know nothing, but at least he knows he knows nothing, so that makes him the wisest man in the galaxy and everyone else a dumbass. Still condescending, but better at cracking wise. The seriousness stuck this time. His ego is now his wound. But the dark side cave in The Last Jedi doesn’t do anything with the dark side cave from The Empire Strikes Back except reference it. The scene doesn’t tell us anything about Rey, it doesn’t alter her trajectory as a character, it’s not even a plot device, because nothing comes of it. It’s just a neat effects shot and a reference. The Last Jedi does look a lot better than either The Force Awakens or The Rise of Skywalker. It’s the only film in the sequel trilogy with an iota of visual inventiveness, but not all of it goes much beyond beauty for its own sake. And if you’re gonna do something beautiful for its own sake, it had better be beautiful as hell to work as pure spectacle. The Holdo manoeuvre is a beautiful effects shot that marks the film’s climax, but even if it was just a throwaway event in the plot, it would be more than breathtaking on the level of visual composition alone. Not so the dark side cave. Every attempt at a particularly beautiful, striking or complex image in The Last Jedi lies somewhere on a spectrum between those two shots.
- Canto Bight is the setting for the worst effects sequence in The Last Jedi, the stampede of alien horses. But before we even get to the stampede, we have to go through three whole layers of bad visual decision-making. I’m totally into the idea of Canto Bight as a mirror image of Mos Eisley. Mos Eisley is a run-down, dirty western town full of criminals and other shady characters from the lowest rung of Tatooine society. Obi-Wan tells Luke he’d never find “a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” than Mos Eisley, but Rose tells Finn that Canto Bight “is a terrible place filled with the worst people in the galaxy”. Smash cut to a bunch of rich aliens toasting with champagne. It’s a good premise, on a basic level. But Canto Bight looks horrible. It’s one of the more CGI-heavy settings in the film and it looks downright cartoonish whenever scenes in Canto Bight cut directly into scenes from Luke’s island, which were filmed on a real island with real ancient monastic huts. (The worst is when BB-8 getting thrown out of the casino cuts right into Rey training with her stick weapon. It’s a terrible cut anyway, jarring, with no connective tissue between the two shots, but the sharpest jump is between the unnatural motion of BB-8 bouncing off the ground and the perfectly natural motion of Rey striking with her real stick weapon. Hideous.) Canto Bight has a bit more of a personality than most similarly CGI-heavy locations in the prequel trilogy, but it also has a bit more of their terrible design instincts. Canto Bight doesn’t look as good as Mos Eisley, nor as good as most other locations in The Last Jedi. It would be easy to say it just doesn’t fit with the established design aesthetic of Star Wars. It would even be true. But it’s more than that.
- On the one hand, I think it’s fair to find something discordant in relation to the established aesthetic, provided it doesn’t come from a dogmatic fealty to canon. There should obviously be room for stuff that’s new and different, but it should build on the fundamentals of the established design aesthetic, either by expanding on them or subverting them. Otherwise, it won’t just look different, it will look wrong, like it’s from a totally different film. Canto Bight seems like it was made with a complete disregard for the established design aesthetic of Star Wars. It lacks texture, for one. One of the wonderful things about the original trilogy is how lived-in and used the world feels. Even discounting the advantage of practical sets, costumes, effects, etc. it seems more real because it looks like life had already been lived in it before the cameras showed up. The locations don’t look like brand new sets that actors are walking onto for the first time, they look like bars that have been in full swing all day, factories in use, spaceships with all the wear and tear and clutter of the inside of a real car. The galaxy far, far away is a dingy kind of futuristic, full of dirt and shadows. The best futures in film, from Alien, Blade Runner and Robocop to Demolition Man, Starship Troopers and The Matrix, all grasp how important this tactile sense of history in visual worldbuilding is to a good sci-fi setting. Red Dwarf understands it. The Last Jedi doesn’t. Canto Bight looks too neat, too plastic, too fresh out of the box. It’s one thing for everyone’s clothes to look like they’re fresh from the dry cleaners, but the whole town is oppressively spotless. And it’s not in a “places for rich people are better maintained” way. Canto Bight is obviously inspired by Monte Carlo (hence, the casino), but if you look at photos of Monte Carlo online, it has wear and tear on it. Markings on the road are chipped. Walls have stains from leaks and grime around the bottom from the general dust and dirt of life. Curb stones shine where they’ve been scuffed over and over by people’s shoes. Canto Bight is pristine. No fingerprints on the vinyl of the card tables, no scratches on the droid waiters, no stains on the carpet. Even the jail that Finn and Rose are thrown in and the stables where they find the horse aliens are so bloody clean. The whole town is sterile. It’s off-putting and weird within the context of The Last Jedi, but in the context of the series? It’s almost as uncanny as anything in the prequels.
- On the other hand, even the choices that aren’t inherently discordant with the established design aesthetic are bad. The colour palette of Canto Bight is monotonous and boring. Pretty much everyone except Finn and Rose wear black or white, with a few daring individuals even choosing black and white. The tables are lined with red velvet, so now we have all the casino colours, and accented with gold, because money. The slot machines and bar are also black with gold accents. The tiles are black. The carpet is red. The internal steps are black, edged with gold. The ceiling is a pale golden brown. With some black arches. And white lights. Now and then a daring dash of silver, because also money, from a few of the coins or the waiter droids. The windows are stained glass, but the colours are pale, lest they detract from the overall vibe of black, white, red and gold with special guest star silver. It’s not just that it’s not Star Wars, it’s not anything. It’s so bland and anonymous, just a generic casino with a thin glaze of contemporary sci-fi aesthetics basted on. It has neither the ambition to try out something visually daring nor the common sense to stick with the formula. It just looks ugly.
- Similar issues of aesthetic logic plague the creature design of the sequel trilogy in general and The Last Jedi in particular. I’ve already railed against the Porgs, but they’re only the most hateful example of shite alien concepts in this film. There’s the horrible little drunk gremlin that puts coins in BB-8 because he thinks he’s a slot machine. The weirdly smooth-looking (even for CGI) horse aliens. The background alien that’s just a turkey with a walking stick. It’s not a Canto Bight-specific problem, but it is a mainly Canto Bight problem since it’s the only location in the film with more than like twenty people around. But at least the vast majority of creature designs on Canto Bight are fleeting glimpses of extras, most of whom are merely boring and repetitive (so many of them have the same burnt orange skin tone, it’s bizarre). Some of them look downright insane. The “crystal critters”, as Finn describes them, from the Battle of Crait? The foxes with silver crystal fur and tall spiky ears that jingle when they run? They’re insane. They look like fucking Pokémon. They look like realistic Pokémon fanart of a Glaceon. They’re probably the only creature design so totally out of whack with the design aesthetics of the film around it that I got annoyed about the characters not reacting to how fucking weird they look. Almost every other creature in the Star Wars universe is just meat of one hue and density or another. Then you’ve got foxes with crystal fur. Other less terrible creature designs in the film are made worse by janky CGI that’s so embarrassing when you compare it to the hybrid physical-digital effects of Starship Troopers, a film released before the prequel trilogy. I’m thinking particularly of the sea cow creatures that Luke milks. They look fine when he’s milking them, but then you see a shot of one turning to look at Rey and the CGI is hideous. The Last Jedi is full of hideous CGI. It makes you wonder what the effects budget was spent on.
- The only consistently good new creature or alien in The Last Jedi – and maybe the entire sequel trilogy – is the fish nuns from Luke’s island. They’re just great. They have heft, they have texture, they feel like an extension of their environment. I assume there’s some limited CGI augmentation, but they’re mostly practical and look fantastic. They have the ugly, heavy, graceless appearance of all the best Star Wars creatures. I don’t have anything else to say, I just think they’re neat.
- Finally, then, the stampede. You’ve got ugly CGI horse aliens running through this horrible, sterile world now rendered almost completely in CGI. It looks like vomit. But is the action at least good? No. It’s bad. It’s a totally generic modern effects-driven blockbuster chase scene, it could have been plucked out of any old piece of mid-tier Disney trash. There’s an awful CGI fish alien who sings like she’s in an opera when she gets scared. There’s no interesting shots or tableaus, the camera just drifts listlessly along with the chase for the most part. The horse aliens stomp on some generic CGI hovercars. Finn and Rose just look like they’re riding a mechanical bull in every closeup. It’s ghastly to an extent that puts the stampede squarely at prequel levels of bad digital effects. Honestly? Worse than at least one effects sequence in the prequels, the pod race from The Phantom Menace. At least in the pod race, Anakin and Sebulba are active participants in the scene, they take actions and make decisions that alter the stakes so there’s shifting levels of tension. Sometimes Anakin pulls ahead, but then he falls behind just as quick. The insides of the pods (?) are a physical effect, so Anakin doesn’t just look like he’s on a mechanical bull against a green screen, he actually looks like he’s in the pod. He interacts with the pod, pushes buttons and steers. Finn and Rose just buck on a bronco. Stuff happens in the pod race. Anakin gets diverted up a pitstop ramp and shoots up into the air. He and Sebulba smash their pods into each other and get bits of them tangled with each other. The horse aliens just run. Sometimes they turn, but mostly they just run straight through environments. The CGI might look better – or at least more expensive – than Count Dooku and his shit bike from Attack of the Clones, but the chases are both just as visually undynamic.
- Any defense of the stampede sounds exactly like the bullshit spouted by prequel revisionists in defense of that trilogy’s horrible action sequences, because it’s the same logic, based on the same faulty premise. It’s the thing that makes prequel revisionism such a pernicious force within cultural criticism: a complete disdain for filmmaking as an art form. That’s not hyperbole either. The prequel films are so bad on just the level of basic film language that you can’t actually care about whether a film is well-made and also think the prequels are good. It’s a pure contradiction. The prequels are ugly, acted without almost any emotion by everyone except Ian MacDiarmid, chocked full of insanely boring conversations between characters walking very slowly because the green screen platform the actors were walking on during filming wasn’t long enough for them to spew all their exposition in time if they walked like normal human beings. They have some of the jankiest, most poorly-aged CGI of any effects-driven film ever made. People love to talk about their themes, as if just being about something interesting is enough to make a film good, like there aren’t bad films about interesting things. Or they’ll talk about the “fun” of the bad effects and action scenes, and, like, I guess if you enjoy them, that’s fine. We all enjoy lots of bad art. But to insist they aren’t just enjoyable if you watch them with a certain level of ironic detachment or brain-off sincerity, that they’re actually good? You’ve long broken free of the shackles of any kind of analytical rigour as a critic. You’re just free-floating in a void of your own masturbatory and narcissistic obsession with your own immediate pleasure. I feel the same way when people defend the stampede from The Last Jedi, and not just because The Last Jedi defenders, much like prequel revisionists, love to harp on how good the themes are at the expense of ever talking about the quality of its filmmaking. It’s because the stampede is comfortably one of the worst scenes in the entire movie and you can be a critic and like it, but if you’re a critic and you think it’s good filmmaking, you’re no longer in contact with the medium, you’re just wanking in space.
- Canto Bight is the main setpiece of the B-plot, and therefore the main place that Finn has literally no arc for the entire film. Finn is, at least conceptually, far and away the most interesting protagonist in Star Wars. He’s a fucking ex-stormtrooper. He grew up inside the First Order and The Force Awakens may have begun with his first day as a soldier, but he still lived the previous however many decades of his life inside a fascist regime, since he was a child. It is not uniquely to The Last Jedi’s utter shame and disgrace that it doesn’t do a single thing to explore this aspect of his character or the implications it might have for how we should feel about other stormtroopers. None of the sequel films ever digs down into that rich thematic ground, even when Finn meets another group of deserters from the First Order in The Rise of Skywalker. Even the fact Finn has no arc isn’t unique to The Last Jedi, but at least no one insists I’m supposed to think The Rise of Skywalker is a progressive movie. But The Last Jedi did give Finn no arc, and it did completely ignore the opportunity to explore the implications of his desertion for stormtroopers, even when its own plot and themes pushed it in that direction. And then it gave him one moment of meaningful agency and action as a character and snatched it right back. However badly The Last Jedi characterised Holdo and Rose, at least they were new characters, maybe Rian Johnson just didn’t have the ideas. But he inherited Finn, with his established characterisation and rich thematic complexities, and just dumped him in a make-work plot for most of the film.
- Finn starts the film monomaniacally obsessed with Rey, possibly the only trait of his that will carry over from The Last Jedi to The Rise of Skywalker. His whole motivation for escaping the cruiser is to get Leia’s beacon as far away from there as possible so Rey doesn’t come back to a trap. But then an opportunity for heroism arises, so he and Rose go to Canto Bight to try and do plot stuff. Now, this opportunity for heroism doesn’t conflict with his desire to save Rey, at least here. But these two things, which are the only things the film really sets up with Finn, could easily clash down the line. If The Force Awakens was about Finn learning to be a hero instead of just running away, maybe The Last Jedi could be about Finn learning to be a hero for people instead of just a hero for Rey. He could be put in a position where he has to choose between them and he chooses saving people. That would be something, right? Well, it doesn’t happen. Nor does anything. When they arrive at Canto Bight, his new thing is that he thinks it’s a beautiful town. I guess because he’s never seen luxury before. But then Rose immediately disabuses him of that notion by exposing the violence that keeps Canto Bight running and how the rich assholes hanging out there all profit from selling weapons to the First Order. His next thing is when he says it was worth getting caught to smash up Canto Bight and Rose says it was only worth it once she freed the horse alien. It seems we’ve just dropped the Rey / Resistance dichotomy set up in the first act altogether, and moved on to this path of vengeance / path of mercy thing. But then, during their escape, Benicio del Toro introduces a new wrinkle. The rich people on Canto Bight also sell weapons and ships to the Resistance. The only way this is even kind of brought up again is when Benicio del Toro has betrayed them and he says “They blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow. It’s just business.” and Finn says “You’re wrong.” Is that him being tempted by moral complexity in one scene and then rejecting it a couple later? Is that what we’re calling arcs these days? To be like “hmmm, I thought I was fighting on the right side, but do sides even matter if the rich and powerful win either way?” and then nothing and then just “nah” a few minutes later. It’s so weird because this brief moment of anti-war sentiment could easily set Finn up to make certain decisions in certain ways in the rest of the movie, but it seems to be dropped entirely.
- Much like the fish nuns, I must briefly pause here to praise the evil BB-8 with the cool black and silver chassis and the flat head and glowing red eye. He truly is the opposite of BB-8 in that where the film regularly stops in its tracks or fucks up otherwise good scenes just to put more BB-8 in the film, the evil BB-8 shows up as more than a gag. He serves a role in the plot by spotting BB-8 and getting Finn and Rose captured. And the film doesn’t belabour him. He disappears from the movie as soon as he’s done imperilling the good guys. God bless you, you little ball of evil.
- Evil BB-8 captures Finn and Rose. Benicio del Toro cuts a deal and leaves. Finn is suddenly face-to-face with Captain Phasma, his former commander and tormenter. How will this big confrontation with his archenemy bring a conclusion to his arc? Well, it won’t, because he doesn’t have an arc. But he might get a good scene out of it, right? Like, during the fight, he cracks open her helmet and you can see just one of her eyes through it. You see her fear. For one second, you think Finn might remember that one day not so long ago, he was in one of those masks. But someone gave him a chance to turn. Poe trusted him and because of that trust, Finn became a hero. Maybe Phasma would accept the offer of mercy. Maybe she’d use it to get the upper hand again and Finn would be forced to put her down. Either way, it’d be a great scene for Finn, and for John Boyega, who spends most of the film working with sweet fuck all. But there’s no scene. Finn is too busy dropping action one-liners. When they start fighting, he says “let’s go chrome-dome”, and when she’s lying on the ground staring at him through the hole in her helmet, she says “you were always scum” and he says “rebel scum”, and then she falls through the hole and dies. I had misremembered that Finn just kills her in cold blood, but on rewatch, no, he just watches her impassively as she dies. Another kind of cold-blooded altogether. Once again, Finn doesn’t make choices, events just occur around and/or occasionally to him. It would have been something if he’d, like, punched her through the ground with his electric weapon. He could have felt bad about it afterward, realise he’d chosen the path of vengeance over the path of mercy, and that could motivate his attempt at self-sacrifice on Crait. But no. Too much effort, I guess.
- Concurrently with the escapades on Snoke’s flagship, we have Poe’s mutiny of Holdo. People who think Holdo represents women in leadership or SJWs, in a pejorative sense or not, like to say Poe’s arc is about learning to follow orders. Sometimes they’ll dress it up a bit more, like it’s about him learning to not assume he knows better than women or something. But I don’t think his subplot with Holdo makes enough sense to even be as sinister as a film about why you should blindly trust authority and do what it tells you unquestioningly. Because, I mean, that’s kind of the upshot of the story if you try to track it as if it has a thematic point. The first time Poe and Holdo speak, he is genuinely insubordinate and presumptuous, and she’s not unreasonable in telling him to fuck off when he tries to insert himself into planning right after he was demoted for getting a bunch of people killed. But Holdo doesn’t just keep Poe in the dark, she apparently keeps her plan from everyone in the Resistance. Because if she did explain her plan, then lots of scenes wouldn’t make sense. Billie Lourd’s character is on the bridge throughout the film, working directly for Holdo, and she helps Poe sneak Finn and Rose off the ship, so she doesn’t know. When Poe confronts her on the bridge a second time, he notices she’s fuelling up the transport ships and when he says they’ll all get blown up trying to abandon the cruiser, she doesn’t correct him and everyone else on the bridge looks concerned, so it doesn’t seem like they know she has scouted out a nearby planet for them to land on either. Then, once the evacuation has begun, Poe is able to get quite a few other people to mutiny with him, so none of them can have been told. I do think the pieces to tell a story about Poe learning to trust women or authority or whatever are there, but not in the right places. Because Poe isn’t portrayed as sexist in the film, we’re given no reason to assume he distrusts Holdo because of her gender. Like, people have claimed Holdo as an avatar of social justice because she has pink hair, similar to common right-wing stereotypes of the social justice left. But her actions in the film aren’t driven by social justice. She keeps her crew in the dark about her plan for no reason. Well, except there is a reason, which is that she keeps her crew in the dark because the audience is supposed to side with Poe for most of the film, and then feel dumb for siding with him when he finds out her actually quite good plan. And the only way to do that is to keep all relevant information from the audience, which can only be achieved by keeping it from Poe, I guess. But the problem with that is that in the absence of any reason for Holdo to keep her plans secret, I still think she’s a horrible person who keeps secrets for no reason. Poe was right. Anyone who wouldn’t mutiny her is a bootlicking coward. It wouldn’t have been that hard to come up with a reason for her to keep secrets from the crew. Just put a First Order spy on the ship, and then she has to do really tight information security to stop them finding out her plan. And then, not only would it be a story more about paranoia than about blindly trusting authority, but her distrust of Poe would be validated somewhat when he tells Finn what Holdo is planning and Benicio del Toro overhears, which is the information he trades to the First Order for clemency. It’d go way more toward the film’s ideas about failure and stuff, because then everyone would have failed in a basically reasonable way instead of Holdo keeping secrets for no reason and Poe making the obviously correct decision to mutiny her. Justice for Poe.
- Finn’s non-arc ends with him trying to stop the battering ram by crashing his speeder into it before it can fire on the rebels. It’s the best scene in the film for both Finn and John Boyega until it’s suddenly not. Rose and Poe’s pleas for him to turn back. The way the sound fades out and he closes his eyes in acceptance. It’s beautiful. It’d be better if it was the end of an arc, like if it was the vengeance vs mercy thing, or his disillusionment with war itself, or if his choice was thematically linked to Rose’s sister’s sacrifice and Holdo’s. But it doesn’t matter because Rose smashes her speeder into his, and when he asks her why she did it, she says “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” and kisses him. It somehow manages to be both completely meaningless and totally scramble what little meaning has managed to accidentally adhere to Finn throughout his inconsequential movement in the plot. Like, if “saving what we love” is right and “fighting what we hate” is wrong, what’s the takeaway supposed to be from Finn killing Phasma? Is Finn wrong for choosing the path of vengeance over the path of mercy? Are we back at that shit? I mean, I guess that’s a fine way to feel as a viewer, but is that how the film feels? I can’t think of any scene where Finn makes the choice either way though. I don’t know if he makes any choices in the whole film except to sacrifice himself to destroy the battering ram, and that seems like a “saving what we love” moment. But Rose stops him and tells him she’s saving what she loves, so like? I think it’s probably the most confusing scene in the whole film. Rose says that, then she kisses him and the battering ram laser fires in the background and you watch it blow a hole in the last line of defense between the First Order and literally every single person in Finn’s life. And Rose’s, for that matter. How the hell is that “saving what we love”? What’s going on here? Nothing else in The Last Jedi makes me just hold my head and say “why is this happening” to myself in a pained voice quite like this moment.
- One of the most common refrains from defenders of The Last Jedi is that its complicated overbooking of its plot is all in service of the theme of failure. The characters fail over and over until the film ends with a colossal failure and it’s about living with failure or letting go of failure or something. Failure is a certainly a theme of the film, but it has lots of themes. Why do people come back to this one theme and frame it as the core idea of the film? I suppose some of it is how much of the ending is about failure. I can see how it might give the false impression of a thematic throughline. Some of the other themes are bound up in the idea of failure. Rey and Luke’s competing ideas about whether to try to turn Kylo Ren back to the light simultaneously build on Luke’s guilt for creating Kylo and toward Rey’s eventual failure to turn him. But although Finn and Rose and Poe all fail too, nothing about the themes of war profiteering, vengeance vs mercy or distrust of authority ever dovetail with the theme of failure writ large. The characters are certainly present for the Resistance’s last colossal failure, but the thematic meat of that scene is about Kylo and Luke, the rest of the cast is just kind of there. Not only is the theme of failure absent from the end of the slim arcs that everyone but Rey, Kylo and Luke have in this story, trying to read the end of their arcs as being about failure is strained at best and actively confusing at worst. Finn fails to sacrifice himself and stop the battering ram, but only because Rose stopped him. Which of them is failing there? Rose says her “saving what we love” line, but that’s what he was trying to do, so who failed who here? Finn might have stopped the battering ram, but Rose guaranteed it fired on the base. Poe also fails to stop the battering ram, but he recovers from that failure by leading the other rebels in abandoning the base. I guess he’s learned to accept failure like Holdo and live to fight another day. But Holdo’s plan resulted in the deaths of many rebels: is the message supposed to be “no matter how catastrophically you fail, try, try again, even the specific thing you tried that didn’t work?” I’ve genuinely tried to understand this reading of the film. I’ve read essays and watched videos and I just don’t get where The Last Jedi fans are coming from. Especially when we look at the end of the film, it’s hard to parse what it’s trying to say about failure, or even just what it’s trying to gesture at. I like ambiguity. I love when art leaves you feeling uncertain about something, then makes you just with that uncertainty and the discomfort of it, and refuses to resolve it for you. But I like ambiguity with content. I like ambiguity with substance. The Last Jedi ends on an ambiguous note because it spends virtually its entire runtime pointing at passing notions and going “Hey, what do you think about? Pretty interesting, huh? Makes you think”, while rarely pursuing any of those notions long enough to say or do anything worthwhile with them.
- The Last Jedi has two natural places it could end, in the throne room with Kylo and Rey, or on the Millennium Falcon as the characters escape to fight another day. It blows past one to get to the other, then blows past that one to get to what might be the worst ending in the entire franchise. A cascading series of failures at the climax of the film leads up to the first ending, when Kylo asks Rey to join him so they can rule the galaxy together. The failure of Finn and Rose has caused the failure of Holdo’s escape plan. The First Order are firing on the Resistance, killing them indiscriminately. Kylo and Rey kill Snoke and his guards. Now it’s Rey’s turn to fail. Or it should be. Rey tells him to order the ship to stop firing on the rebels, but Kylo doesn’t react. He says it’s time to let old things die: “Snoke, Skywalker. The Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels…. let it all die.” Rey’s only attempt to persuade him to stop blowing up all her friends is “Don’t do this, Ben. Please don’t go this way.” She doesn’t try to convince him that the only way to truly let them go emotionally is to let them escape. She doesn’t offer to join him in exchange for letting the Resistance go. I try not to do “here’s how I think it should be done” shit, but if you’re not going to end with her saying “okay” and a smash cut to black, the obviously correct way to end the film, surely Rey should at least put more elbow grease into turning him. “Please don’t go this way” is the entirety of her attempt to change his mind while the lives of almost everyone she knows are on the line. I can’t tell what the failure is. Is it that she believed he could be turned when he couldn’t? Or is it that she made almost zero effort to turn him at the most important moment she should have? He doubles down on the First Order after Rey rejects him and launches the ground attack on Crait to wipe the rebels out once and for all. Are we supposed to read Rey as responsible for that in some way? Is that her failure?
- Once Finn has either failed to stop the battering ram or been failed by Rose, still unclear, we get the setup for the second ending. It unfolds kind of strangely, even if the core idea of Luke projecting an illusion of himself to stall Kylo and the First Order while the Resistance flees is pretty good. First, for some reason, Luke lets Leia know he’s not really there by touching her hand, but Leia does not communicate this information to anyone else around her. Luke does not tell Leia to escape while he holds off the First Order, or if he does tell her with the Force, she doesn’t tell the rest of the Resistance to start looking for an escape route. Instead, Poe and Finn have to figure it out in the dumbest way possible. Poe just says “He’s doing this for a reason. He’s stalling so we can escape.” His previously established talent for just inferring people’s motives didn’t do so well with Holdo, but it works out this time. He says there has to be a way out of the cave, since Luke was able to get in. We find out Luke didn’t get into the cave, but he must know there’s a way out since his whole plan is based on there being one. Luke doesn’t tell them, or provide any information about how to find it, but luckily for the Resistance, Poe and Finn just happen to notice the crystal critters are gone and there’s still one visible for them to follow. They escape. Rey has to lift some rocks out of the way, as a call back to Luke teaching her the Force is about more than just lifting rocks. Haha, get it? The Resistance survives to fight another day. Rey expresses doubt about how they’ll build a proper rebellion from how little they have left. Leia says “We have everything we need.” A wide shot of the rebels. It’d be a perfectly fine ending. Kylo is set up as the trilogy’s ultimate villain. There’s not a lot of hanging threads, but that just leaves the next director with a lot of open canvas to paint with. Well, too bad, because instead we’re gonna keep going and toss aside what little neatness we’ve managed to achieve with this ending in favour of the worst shit you’ve ever seen.
- The film cuts back to Canto Bight, where we see a group of the slave children who tend the horse aliens playing with toy figures of the rebels. Their brutal slave master scares them off, where we see the main slave child, the one who helped Finn and Rose free the horse aliens, pick up his broom with the Force, look at the rebel insignia on the ring that Finn and Rose gave him and hold up his broom like a lightsaber. You can look at this scene on three levels. First, on a narrative level, as the conclusion to the story. No one seems to read it that way, admittedly, but it’s surely a good place to start. Much of the film has been spent on how important the Resistance is as a beacon of hope in the galaxy that will inspire people to one day stand up to injustice. “We are the spark that’ll light the fire that will burn the First Order down,” Poe tells Finn in the salt cave. If that’s what the broom boy’s scene is about, how long am I supposed to expect it will take to beat the First Order? Like, unless they’re gonna start using child soldiers, the point of the scene is presumably that one day broom boy will grow up to join the Resistance and beat the First Order. I actually really like that as an ending, but not for the second film in a trilogy. What would have been actually kind of bold and daring would be to make that the ending of the third film. How’s that for a story about failure? Actually have the heroes fail. Make us wait another decade or more to see the First Order defeated. Putting it in the middle of the trilogy doesn’t really serve the theme of failure it seems to follow on from.
- But some people look at it on a second level, a more meta level of self-commentary and self-critique. On this reading, it’s an affirmation that the Force is not some dynastic bauble of a few powerful families, it’s something that anyone can have, that everyone does have. Not everyone can be a Jedi, but a Jedi can come from anywhere, to paraphrase Ratatouille. I guess that’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not a rejection of the Star Wars orthodoxy or anything. I can’t think of anything in any of the previous Star Wars films that says any different. Even the prequels, with their midichlorian shite, still showed the Jedi recruit children from otherwise non-Force-sensitive families and take them to the Temple to train. The original trilogy barely says anything about the Force except that it’s a life force running through all things and binding them together and all the mystical stuff The Last Jedi seems to reassert earlier in the movie. And that’s the weird thing, because I suspect it’s a redundant statement in the Star Wars franchise overall (only The Rise of Skywalker seems to contradict it), but it’s definitely a redundant statement in The Last Jedi. We already know a Jedi can come from anywhere, because we had the absolute 100% best swerve in the movie, the trilogy and maybe the entire franchise confirm it already: Rey’s parents are nobody. That already made the statement louder and more effectively than broom boy ever could.
- Which is why, with time, only one reading of this scene makes any sense to me: marketing. It’s literally just an unnecessary stinger on an otherwise adequately concluded film to shoot propaganda beams directly into the eyes of little kids and say “OBSERVE, CHILDREN. EVEN ONE SUCH AS YOU CAN BE A JEDI. YOU TOO CAN SAVE THE GALAXY. DON’T YOU WANT TO BE A JEDI? PERHAPS YOU CAN ASK YOUR MOMMY AND DADDY TO BUY YOU SOME JEDI EQUIPMENT. WE HOPE YOU ENJOY A LONG AND FRUITFUL EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT TO OUR BRAND.” And that’s the one and only reason that scene exists. It’s the only explanation that satisfies any sort of logic.
- I hope I’ve been fair and even-handed enough throughout this stream of consciousness that you’ll believe me when I say I don’t hate The Last Jedi. I think as far as the kind of film it is, it really is one of the more original, creative and thoughtful. I like a lot of things about it and I wish other blockbusters were a bit more like it, even if I ultimately found it frustrating and a failure. But it’s still the kind of film it is, what Martin Scorsese called “worldwide audiovisual entertainment” in an op-ed for the New York Times. “They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way,” he wrote. “That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.” Films like The Last Jedi aren’t capable of the strident political messages so many people have attributed to it, because everything is sanctioned, everything is approved. The days when you could sneak a genuinely provocative or subversive political message into a popular blockbuster are long gone. We’re far from the time an unknown Dutch director could sign onto a fairly generic sci-fi action film and shape it into an iconic satire of American consumer culture, corporate oligarchy and the inherent fascism of the police state. None of today’s blockbusters could ever turn as withering an eye on today’s cultural sicknesses as High Noon or Spartacus turned on the Red Scare. I know I said I didn’t care about the culture war stuff, but I kind of do. Not because I think any of it matters for society at large or anything or because I think who wins the culture war over Star Wars or which side Star Wars decides to join makes a difference. I care because I care about cultural criticism and I care about films and even because I care about The Last Jedi. I don’t know why this feels like a controversial thing to say, but being correct matters. Being accurate matters. Being right matters. Not seeming right, or appearing right, or being seen to be right. Being right. The cultural critic’s job is not to advance their side in a broader political culture war through their writing. The cultural critic’s job is to do cultural criticism and do it well. If you want to change the world, do it through organised political action with other people who share your interests. Don’t do it through film reviews or podcasts or hour-long YouTube videos about why a movie you like expresses your political values and a movie you dislike expresses the political values of your enemies. Just focus on being fair, accurate and thoughtful in your criticism. You don’t have to ignore political themes or anything, just make sure there’s actually something there and describe it correctly. Don’t exaggerate or underplay it. Don’t give it any more or less credit than it deserves. Whether you think The Last Jedi is SJW propaganda trying to shove the new PC world order down your throat or a boldly queer anticapitalist masterpiece fart in the face of the toxic fanboys, you’re wrong. The Last Jedi isn’t even a real film. It’s just advertising for the next Star Wars, and through brand integrity, the next similarly expensive Disney product.
- And I think that’s what makes culture war stuff around The Last Jedi so frustrating to me. I don’t think almost any work of art should be a staging ground for political playfighting, but at least have the self-respect to pick a better film. Or even a bad film that actually has anything to do with what you’re fighting about. Like, the discourse around the Ghostbusters remake was insane, but at least it actually was a shitty superficial rah-rah girl power corporate feminist film. The conditions necessary for an argument, however dumb, about whether it was a bad film because feminazis or a good film because feminism existed in the film. The Last Jedi is not about what you want it to be about. It’s not about anything. All that makes it different from the rest of Disney’s slick turds is a few jagged edges.
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