I saw The Last Jedi a couple weeks ago, and like most of you, I hrmph’d out of the movie theater, feeling an immediate need to reflect upon what I’d just seen. For those first 24 hours, I experienced strong emotional waffling as seemingly warring factions in my brain attempted to win out. I expected this tension would continue to evolve, but it didn’t really. I think both of my minds are right.
I’ve decided The Last Jedi is a really good Star Wars film in its own right, but in context of the series and its surrounding culture, it’s mediocre and even harmful.
This is less a review and more a reaction. That said, I spoil the hell out of the film because I found it really unsatisfying to discuss my points in general terms, which leads me to my first point [final spoiler warning].
This is just a really unsatisfying story
The first time I saw The Force Awakens, I thought it was an okay film with obvious weaknesses in storytelling and execution, but above all, it was fun and immensely satisfying. More than other franchises, I argue Star Wars must be fun and satisfying. It has to be cool. It has to be alluring. Even last year’s Rogue One, that point dominated the conversation around the film. How were they going to execute a Star Wars film in which we know everyone dies, a film that is a bleak story, and give us a fun, satisfying experience that leads to a storyline about hope?
Rogue One delivered for many reasons, but ultimately, it worked because it didn’t have expectations it had to live up to. It was a standalone film.
The Last Jedi doesn’t have that luxury. In fact, this film has to carry one of the biggest burdens in modern filmmaking and pop culture history: It had to deliver the legend of Luke Skywalker.
Luke is a resounding disappointment
I can’t stress enough that Mark Hamill is a national treasure and that his performance in The Last Jedi was exquisite. However, with his legend a specter over the last 30 years of Star Wars development, he not only had a lot to live up to, but the film had a lot of promise to fulfill. And it just doesn’t.
In point of fact, that is expressly The Last Jedi’s main thematic narrative. Ben/Kylo Ren is speaking to us as much as Rey when he says we have to let the old things die. And you know what? That’s fine, and it’s powerful, and it’s a great thematic narrative in concept.
But you don’t deliver that message without a satisfying, fulfilling payoff for Luke Skywalker. Luke’s portrayal in The Last Jedi is as not only a reluctant Jedi master, but one whose promise, potential, and prophecy is never fulfilled. The Last Jedi closes the story of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars film franchise without giving fans something to cheer. If Luke is to perish, if we are to let the old things die, he needed to be given a hero’s exit.
The Last Jedi usher’s Luke into the sunset (almost literally, and in an admittedly beautiful callback) with a pitiful whimper, first as a spoiled brat who is more “A New Hope” Luke than “Return of the Jedi” Luke, and then as a cowardly trickster who can’t even face his nemesis and failure as Obi Wan Kenobi did.
Luke, now the supposed Jedi master, the once-prophesized boy who would bring balance to the Force and save the universe, can’t even live up to the expectations and precedents set by his former masters, who also failed.
The disappointment of Luke Skywalker is learning the most heroic version of him appears in Return of the Jedi, and his final chapter is undignified, unceremonious, and frankly inappropriate. It’s over, and we have to let it die, but it’s the wrong treatment of one of the greatest fictional heroes who spanned generations.
Were Mark Hamill playing another character, it would work, but since it’s Luke Skywalker, it doesn’t.
More character injustice
In terms of characters, The Last Jedi adds many more plates to spin, and it’s to the detriment of existing characters who really needed to bloom in this installment. Finn’s jaunt to the gambling planet and love story is superficial and pointless. Poe’s conflict with Holdo over his tendency for insubordination in the face of being denied information is a neat comment on heroism (for a Star Wars film, anyway) but ultimately forced. Rey’s internal struggle over the disappointment of Luke Skywalker and inexplicable urge to trust Kylo Ren is, well, inexplicable.
Also, and this has been really bugging me. We’ve now seen the most powerful Jedi who ever lived go through their training, and Rey’s powers seem to be developing at an alarmingly fast rate that’s almost cartoonish. At this point in Luke’s training, he was having trouble lifting rocks on Dagobah. Rey is clearing avalanches with ease. Are we to infer she is amazingly powerful? Beside that, what is her actual character arc in The Last Jedi?
Let’s consider that, even if what Kylo says about Luke trying to kill him is true (which it’s weird she’s going to take his word for it, but whatever), it still doesn’t excuse everything Kylo has done since, including murdering the other dozen Jedi in training. He just used Starkiller base to blow up five (I think it was five, but it doesn’t matter) planets and destroy the Republic, which exterminated likely billions of innocent lives in the most despicable genocide the galaxy has ever seen (probably).
At this point, who cares what Kylo Ren has to say? Rey, apparently. But y tho?
It has redeeming qualities
After all of this, it may seem like I don’t like The Last Jedi. I do. There’s a lot to like here. It’s absolutely the most visually stunning Star Wars film to date, and certain plot points or narrative movements are crushed out of the park. I particularly enjoyed the confrontation with Snoke, Ben’s assassination of him and how Snoke’s interpretation of Ben’s mind was blinded, as well as the showdown with the honor guard.
However, a Star Wars film needs to be satisfying above all else, and on this point, The Last Jedi fails. Worse than being indifferent to our expectations as fans, it quashes them and then meets those expectations with nihilism.
Some fans have pointed out that The Empire Strikes Back is a fairly bleak tale, but that doesn’t mean it’s unsatisfying. Han Solo is frozen and perhaps killed, but at least he and Leia’s love story reaches a point of fulfillment. Luke loses his hand to Darth Vader and we learn Vader is Anakin Skywalker, but at least Luke has the courage to face him. With its heroes turned, gone, imprisoned, or incapacitated, the outlook for the Rebels is grim, but they’ve all taken important steps in their growth toward reaching their potential.
The Last Jedi just doesn’t accomplish the same things. The Resistance’s losses just seem like losses, and there are no gains. It’s hard to see hope in the idea that what the Resistance has gained is a spreading hope throughout the galaxy when part of this film’s point is to demonstrate that hope is futile and legends are unfulfilling disappointments.
Not to mention, the Empire comparison just doesn’t work for me because The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t have the burden of delivering on legends. The Last Jedi did, and the fact that it failed here is not only significant, but for passionate fans, insulting. After all, if Star Wars can dishonor its own legends, what is the point in building them up in the first place? What is the point of entrusting Star Wars’ creators with our passion and imaginations?
This trilogy is about Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, and Poe, and that’s great. But if Star Wars can drop even the legend of Luke Skywalker, what’s going to happen when a future film steps all over these characters’ legacies in spite of our fandom?