A Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Lots of spoilers)
Disclaimer: I don’t mean to be a cynic, only a skeptic. If you enjoyed this movie, I’m happy for you and certainly don’t want to diminish your experience by criticising it. I also want to make clear that feigning seriousness is part of the fun of Star Wars, perhaps an adult version of a childhood passion. But the seriousness is only feigned and nothing more.
This review is based on a review-preview coauthored with Gregory Meghani that can be found here (and pasted below for convenience). In that preview, we laid what we were looking for in this episode so that our assessment could be based on the film’s merits, not clouded by the circumstances of the movie-going mood that evening. We established two classes for our criteria, those for a good movie in general, and those for a Star Wars movie in particular.
I- Good Movie
The Last Jedi was a decent movie- I didn’t find myself wishing it would be over and felt it was worth the ticket price — but it was certainly not spectacular. If this wasn’t a Star Wars movie, I would not bother taking the time to review it.
If The Force Awakens was a reboot of the original Star Wars, The Last Jedi was a reboot of Empire Strikes Back. We open with the Empire’s attack on the rebel base, a pitched battle and subsequent space pursuit run in parallel with an encounter between a Jedi master in hiding reluctantly training a powerful and naive student, culminating in an inconclusive face off with the dark side and a setback for the rebels. Unfortunately, the parallels with the masterwork of Empire Strikes Back only highlight this movie’s failures where the original succeeded.
The basics of a strong narrative must be present
Grade: Passable. Yes, there was a conflict, rising action, climax. But then another climax. And another. At least three times the movie seems to be ending, but by some predictable, albeit fun to watch, miracle, the good guys get away. There was almost too much narrative, leaving me with ending fatigue before the movie was over. Plus, there was an entire subplot with Finn and a new character Rose that could be cut completely, and the movie would only be tighter and more believable because of it.
Garde: Passable. Rey imploring Luke to train her, and uncovering the lure of the dark side within herself, and within Luke, as well as the good side within Kylo Ren, were spirited attempts to develop these characters, making them a bit personal and believable. But it was a bit flat. On Luke’s island, an attempt to recreate the magical encounter between young Luke and Yoda fails as Mark Hamil fizzles. I recently rewatched Empire Strikes Back, and was again struck by the presence created by a muppet in a swamp, and how he drew out Luke’s character. The struggles between Kylo Ren, Rey and Snoke were another solid try, but cannot surmount the fact that the evil Supreme Leader Snoke is a cartoon monster with a harsh voice. It’s impossible to take the other character’s reactions seriously. When will this franchise recognize that cartoons do not create presence or gravitas? Nonetheless, attempts at complexity were made, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver carried them adequately, and there were times where I was truly wondering what choices the characters would make, but no goosebumps were raised.
The same can not be said of the supporting cast. Princess Leia was uninteresting as the wise and resolute elder, Poe uninteresting as the leader-on-the-make, and BB-8 uninteresting as the designated getaway driver. Finn is a great character in need of a role, instead relegated to a lame subplot of trashing a casino version of Cloud City.
Grade: Strong. Here was probably the movie’s strongest point- it was beautiful to look at, and there were several long shots that let you take it in. I really enjoyed the island, the images of the ships arranged in space, and the red of the salt planet.
II- Star Wars-y-ness
Grade: Strongish. The movie worked hard at creating mystery, and succeeded in several instances. I enjoyed all the talk of what the force actually is and why it’s special. I enjoyed exploring the cave and seeing visions. Unfortunately, the dark side is poorly represented with a confused Kylo Ren and a cartoon emperor-type-guy (Supreme Leader? Can’t we stick with emperor?). I wouldn’t have minded more actual training, perhaps an awesome demonstration for the unbelievers, like lifting an X wing out of a swamp. Most of all, it would have been great to add some nuggets of wisdom to sprinkle into our conversations — will a Star Wars movie ever again give us something like “Do, or do not. There is no try.” But overall I felt like the people who made the movie had some interest in the idea of a force and the mysteries of mastering it and tried to include it.
Move the Saga Forward
Grade: Passable. In the end, Luke is dead, Rey and Kylo Ren are the two big players in the galaxy. These are big steps. However, I still don’t get how Rey became so powerful and I have no idea what drives her. Kylo Ren’s backstory is clearer, but he just seems angry, without a desire to RULE THE GALAXY. And, it’s hard to accept that the entire rebellion fits on board the Millenium Falcon. They didn’t even get anyone to show up for their last stand, some rebellion. I find myself very uninterested in the setup for Episode IX.
Make the Dark Side Dark Again
Grade: Failure. The more I say it, the more I start to think that the worst problem with the movie was the cartoon bad guy. Not as omnipresently annoying as Jar Jar Binks, but as pointlessly With a conflicted Kylo Ren and a not-believable Supreme Leader, what is the dark side? What makes it so bad? Kylo Ren’s conflict would be much more compelling if we could see the pull exerted by Snoke, or at least imagine it. It’s interesting how effective Emperor Palpatine was in anchoring Darth Vader to evil in Episode IV when all you could see was the hooded hologram. In this movie, the bad guys are reduced to a bunch of fascistic soldiers lead by a powerful but directionless and emotionally unstable child, a scenario better suited to the chaos of Batman’s Joker (or today’s politics), rather than THE POWER OF THE DARK SIDE.
Planets and Worlds
Grade: Strong. Most Star Wars movies do a decent job here, and this one is not an exception, though not a stand out either. Luke’s island and the salt planet were interesting. But the cartoonish casino city Canto Bight was not. The space conflicts were artful, and otherwise the movie didn’t overwhelm us with superficial world hopping.
Grade: Failure. BB-8 had no role other than to show up out of the blue in one escape ship after another. C-3PO existed only to give characters an excuse to should Shut up! I loved R2-D2’s projection of Leia as hologram, but that was as humanizing as it got. In comparison to the amount that C-3PO and R2-D2 carried the original movies, Episode 8 sidelines droids almost entirely. Is a Star Wars movie without a personable droid really a Star Wars movie? If no droid presence, you need to make up for it somewhere else. Was that what those weird island birds were for?
Relationship with Technology
Grade: Failure. In the grand scheme of things, this may be a minor point for the typical fan, but I think the seat-of-your-pants relationship with spaceships, desert cruisers, blasters, lightsabers and droids accounted for much of the excitement of the original movies. It established an arena to develop the characters. “This bucket of bolts is never going to get us past that blockade!” “Someday you’re gonna be wrong. I just hope I’m there to see it.” This simultaneously creates the dynamic of a hero flyboy trusting his wits, and the tension between him and Leia, not to mention the love/hate intimacy with the Millenium Falcon. Relationships with technology highlight the hero’s cleverness, reinforces the guerilla-style scrappiness of the underdog, and supports the mystique of the force with the elegance of the lightsaber (below). Force Awakens revived this element, and it effectively served to shape Rey’s character when she pilots a decrepit Millenium Falcon or bypasses the compressor. We only had one taste — the ski speeders on the salt planet were fun, but brief and inconsequential. Otherwise, the technology basically behaved as intended.
Grade: Failure. By some accounts, lightsabers ARE Star Wars. If someone doesn’t do something cool with a lightsaber, why am I here? But in Last Jedi, the lightsaber had no real special role. Luke teaches Rey nothing about this weapon, its significance, why it’s worth mastering as opposed to her spear. The few moments when she was sparing with a rock felt like they were going somewhere, and then notably didn’t. The lightsaber fight with Rey and Kylo Ren against Snoke’s guards was inconsequential (was there any dazzle, or even flicker of doubt about the outcome?) The final showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren is interesting, but also brief and ultimately adds little — the stakes are low when Luke isn’t even there. At least the prequels tried to impress with lightsabers. Why not Force Awakens or Last Jedi?
I think The Last Jedi does not rank with the originals, though it is far better than the prequels. I think it is a little better than The Force Awakens, mainly because it had more mystique and tried to do more traditional Star Wars stuff. And because I didn’t get tired of it. As far as a movie goes, it wasn’t as good as Rogue One- there the narrative was tighter, it wasn’t cute, and the ending was incredible. However, Rogue One simply filled in a story, thereby bypassing the obligation to touch on the daring parts of the saga. Nonetheless, I think Rogue One was better because it effectively used some old magic, from young Princess Leia to the force-aligned warrior monk Chirrut Imwe, to Darth Vader’s ending rampage.
Extra Bits, in no particular order
-The little birds on Luke’s island seemed like stand ins for The Minions from Despicable Me. I was particularly annoyed at how the feet of the bird that Chewy was about to eat looked like plastic toy feet.
-The caretakers on Luke’s island were mercilessly ancillary.
-Unlike The Force Awakens, the humor was unfunny.
-Princess Leia floating frozen in space was weird.
-Finn fighting with the female storm trooper added nothing.
-I appreciate the diverse casting and the centrality of female characters, but doing the topic justice would require a separate post.
Criteria for a good Star Wars Episode VIII
By Aaron Stupple and Gregory Meghani 12/14/17
I- Good Movie
The basics of a strong narrative must be present.
Conflict. Rising action. Climax. Falling action. These are simply non-negotiable, and even a slight departure from total success in this area will be catastrophic. Such a basic feature would seem not to require mention, but anyone who endured Episode I would see the need.
This too is an essential element that can afford no compromise. Fortunately, and this is the single greatest achievement of Episode VII, we have a set of excellent and interesting characters, at least on the rebel side. On the dark side, we’re looking for more baddies. Kylo Ren is a good start, and the female storm trooper was interesting during her brief appearances, but we’re looking for something more. Snoke and Hux don’t compare to the original Emperor Palpatine or Grand Moff Tarkin, to say nothing of Jabba the Hutt or Boba Fett.
And, we will be looking to see these characters make the conflict their conflict, to engage us with their struggles, feel their joy and their pain. When we’re driving our car home from work, we want to occasionally imagine we’re Han Solo. When a kid approaches us with a light saber on Halloween, we want the reflexive urge to grab a broom and start parrying. Granted, it’s harder to feel this pull past the age of 30, but we doubt it’s impossible.
II- Star Wars-y-ness
We determined mystique, a sense of mystery and wonder, to be the essential ingredient that has been lost since 1983 when Return of The Jedi ended. It’s hard to think of another movie of this genre that tapped into a pool of wonder like Star Wars did. You could almost substitute mystique for the force, its what binds the movies together. Mystique is what enables a character like Yoda, a muppet straight out of Sesame Street, to steal the show. Mystique enthralls us with the otherwise weak character and even weaker acting of Mark Hamil. Since the end of Return of the Jedi, there has been powerfully little mystique. We saw glimmers in Episode VII, but they were fleeting. Rogue One had a few characters and moments that aroused mystery, especially Chirrut Imwe and Saw Gerrera, but we never learned anything about where they came from or what motivated them.
Move the Saga Forward
The original movies all took the saga into another phase. Even episodes I-III did this, though very poorly. However clumsy and boring, we at least saw Anakin Skywaker become Darth Vader, and the Empire and the Rebels establish their opposition. Episode VII really didn’t move the storyline. We have some new characters, and a bunch of questions, but no real movement. You could argue that Episode VII set the ground, which it did, but for 2 hours and 15 minutes, I think we deserve a little progress. Rogue One similarly filled in a gap in the storyline, but didn’t add anything. Instead, battle scene after battle scene started to have the hollowness of another installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Is all of this going anywhere that’s really worth my attention? Episode VIII really needs to pick up where episode VII punted.
Make the Dark Side Dark Again
Battling the dark side is more than just fighting the bad guys, it’s an inner struggle against giving in to the simple but powerful impulses of fear and hatred. What a concept for a science fiction movie, and yet we haven’t seen this element credibly developed since 1983. Episodes II and III tried, but the thin story, weak acting and weaker dialogue instilled none of the intensity of Darth Vader’s first appearance in Episode IV. And even the originals started to go soft on Vader, making the dark side a bit more complex but less fearsome. As for Episode VII, Kylo Ren couldn’t even beat Rey in a lightsaber fight, let alone mind control.
We need to be transported somewhere, and inhabit that place with the characters. I get cold watching Han Solo cut open his tauntaun on Hoth. I get bored watching Anakin Skywalker flip around on a computer generated lava flow.
Droids/Relationship with technology
One of the amazing things about the originals is that C3PO, an anxious robot, actually carries most of the narrative while simultaneously humanizing the action. C3PO squealing about the odds of navigating an asteroid field connects us with the scene in a way that simply watching involved battle sequences never does. R2D2’s beeps and moans heighten the effect, and their banter tells the story without bludgeoning us with it. Taken together, it’s magic, contributing heavily to the movie’s mystique.
Lightsabers contribute enormously to mystique. Batman has a fancy gadget for every situation, but with all the of technological marvels in Star Wars, the central tool is basically a sword. The original movies infused the prop with heredity and ancestry, establishing the idea that there is a long history to this struggle, and that the bearer has a responsibility to settle an ancient score and carry on a noble tradition. And then in Episode VII Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber is stumbled on in the basement of a bar. It’s just sitting there.