In the keeping of good internet traditions, I fairly warn all readers, this review contains spoilers. If you have not seen the film, stop reading now. If you have seen the films, then you surely hold strong opinions one way or another, and I encourage you to read on.
There has been a lot of controversy swirling around the latest Star Wars installment, brought to us from Rian Johnson, and people’s feelings are split mostly down the middle, with half of fans loving it, and the other half loathing it with the white hot passion of a super nova. I fall firmly into the “loved it” category, and am quite unapologetic about this analysis. I have already engaged in sparring matches repeatedly with friends and acquaintances on social media, but rather than continue to do this, I am instead putting an essay out here, and will simply point people to it in the future, rather than rehash the same arguments online. For the sake of clarity, I will be breaking my points into sections, so without further delay, my first argument:
J.J. Abrams is a Hack and Rian Johnson Had to Clean up His Mess
What does the director of The Force Awakens have to do with everyone’s feelings regarding The Last Jedi, you ask? Well, in my opinion, quite a lot.
The Force Awakens was one of the most awful bits of karaoke theater ever hoisted onto audiences. It blatantly pandered, and cashed in on nostalgia, simply for nostalgia’s sake, without even bothering to create an original, or halfway decent plot. It was, scene for scene, act for act, lifted from A New Hope, and was completely shameless about doing so. This is because J.J. Abrams doesn’t have an original bone in his body. His whole “art-form”, is to slap a new coat of paint on a story someone else already told, and roll it out to audiences as a “reboot” (fuck you for ruining Star Trek, Abrams, you took the most intellectually and morally challenging science fiction property in history, and turned it into the Beastie Boys in space). The only redeeming thing about The Force Awakens was that it introduced us to the new characters in the universe, but that was about all it did, and it did so in the most intellectually lazy way possible. It didn’t challenge audiences, it didn’t challenge conventions, hell, it didn’t even give us a new adventure. It was just a warm blanket of nostalgia chucked at audiences, with a few clever one liners, and worse, insinuation of things to come.
Doing what he does best, J.J. Abrams got fans riled up over phantoms that he either A.) had no intention of following through on, or B.) lacked the creative control to follow through on. In Lost he had audiences speculating for years, about a literal specter; it was literally a shadow phantom on the island. What ever came of that? Oh, that’s right, that question was never answered and they were all already dead and in some kind of weird purgatory. I want you to just let that sink in for a minute, until you realize that you have been pillorying Rian Johnson for bullshit that J.J. Abrams planted in your mind. It was one of the reasons/excuses that fans made for TFA, “but Snoke!”, “but Rey!“, “So much mystery, and so many unanswered questions!”. Yes, so much insinuated mystery, and so many insinuated questions, that audiences glazed right over the fact that the entire movie was insultingly stupid: The Death Star 3.0? Really? Destroying half a dozen planets across hyperspace simultaneously without about as much emotional gravity as pouring a bowl of cereal? (billions or trillions of people were wiped out in an instant, and the movie doesn’t even give it a shoulder shrug). A two dimensional, parricidal emo villain that looks like he listens to My Chemical Romance in between throwing lightsaber powered tantrums? Han Solo never used Chewie’s bowcaster before, and abandoned Leia after the loss of their son to go running around the galaxy being an unscrupulous dick that swindles everyone he comes into contact with? (side note, whether you realize it or not, Abrams took the most beloved character in the Star Wars franchise, and turned him into Donald Trump in space, that fucking happened)
Don’t get me wrong, TFA is a lot of fun to watch, if you completely turn off any part of your brain that critically analyzes a film, and forget about A New Hope, or the fact that you give a damn about Han Solo’s legacy from a character perspective.
In the end, J.J. Abrams most commonly used party trick is what set The Last Jedi up to be inevitably disappointing to many fans. All of the insinuated expectations he planted in people’s minds, became someone else’s problem. And he planted those seeds to get the internet buzzing with theories regarding those insinuations, and not about what a hack job his version of a galaxy far, far away, actually was. It was up to Johnson to finish out the trilogy with depth and meaning, and that was not an easy task, considering the way Abrams kicked it off. He did a spectacular job, but it was not his responsibility to answer questions that Abrams irresponsibly planted in the minds of viewers.
The Star Wars Film Franchise Has Always Been Light On Substance and TLJ Broke This Tradition
I have seen the original trilogy more than a hundred times (I stopped counting at 100 somewhere around 20 yrs old), it is still my happy place that I go to when I am not feeling well, depressed, or just bored. I never don’t enjoy watching the original Star Wars movies. I can still remember, as a kid, running around and pretending my flashlight was a lightsaber. Star Wars is a core part of my creative identity and imagination. So I want you to know that it is okay to absolutely love a thing, and to be critical of it as well, and I am going to be objectively critical of something you love.
The plot of Star Wars is the oldest, and most classic story telling device in history; good vs. evil, light vs. dark, “Black” vs “White”. In A New Hope, Vader is a visually intimidating avatar of “evil”, ensconced in a suit of ebony armor; Luke is a starry eyed, innocent farm boy, literally draped in white. The “bad guys”(the Empire), look a lot like Nazis, blow up defenseless planets just to test out their weapon of mass destruction, and are completely devoid of anything resembling human remorse, or emotions for that matter. The “good guys” (the Rebellion), are the underdogs, a group of freedom fighters, trying to rid the galaxy of the tyranny and oppression of the “bad guys”. This was great in the 70s and early 80s, and is still fun to watch, because it requires almost no intellectual engagement whatsoever. Again, the original trilogy will be my favorite 3 movies until I die, period. They hold a special place in my heart, and there is nothing on the planet that can ever replace them cinematically. But you cannot, with a straight face, analyze a new Star Wars film, while giving the entire franchise history a pass. Yes, it not only broke barriers and ushered in a new age of special effects and cinematography, but its soundtrack and editing were light years ahead of its time, and the editors rightly won Academy Awards for their (frankly) heroic editing work in post production (if you have never seen “How Star Wars was Saved in Editing“, then check it out). The film franchise was so far ahead of its time, that an entire VFX studio would be spawned from it, and other movies would still not catch up visually, for years. All of that being said, it doesn’t change the fact that the story and plot were simplistic, the characters lacking in depth, and the narrative played it safe with moral absolutes.
In the 1970s, and early 1980s, it was already asking a lot for an audience to be transported to a galaxy far, far, away, to give up two hours for space wizards, and laser swords, and to use their imaginations like they had never been asked to before. So, it is understandable that Star Wars kept the content as simple as possible, as it was pushing the limits with audiences at the time. That was then, it is the 21st century now, and we can, and should expect more. In that way, The Last Jedi demolished all other Star Wars films before it (with a possible exception to Rogue One, which dared to tackle the moral ambiguity of an insurgent underdog that was the Rebellion, while depicting the ultimate sacrifice). While The Force Awakens re-told the exact same, safe, two dimensional story, The Last Jedi dared to challenge audiences, to the point it obviously made some people downright uncomfortable. The movies that preceded it did not tell us that there were inherent dangers in the hubris of bravery and heroism, that the people we canonize are humans capable of tragic mistakes, or that, no matter how hard you try, being on the side of right just isn’t enough. This is quite a departure from every other Star Wars film out there “Good guys win, bad guys lose, and as always, ENGLAND PREVAILS!” (couldn’t help myself, I just hear Louis Plethora as I write this).
This dovetails nicely into my final point:
If You Thought The Last Jedi Was Lazy Writing, Short on Character Development, and Poor Plot Points, You Really Weren’t Paying Attention
Admittedly, the above is a bit long winded for a header, but I digress. I have repeatedly heard accusations that I listed above, and the same individuals will say that TFA was a better film. This is where I lose my composure and want to smash a bunch of expensive looking consoles with a poorly constructed lightsaber. There is so much wrong with these accusations, but I will tackle them one at a time.
Poor writing and plot mechanics: Compared to what?! As I just mentioned in the last section, certainly not compared to any of the preceeding Star Wars films in the franchise, that is for damn sure, and nowhere near approaching the god damn malpractice that was The Force Awakens. Instead of being charmingly predictable, we are constantly caught off guard by events, until it reaches the point that we truly do not know what will happen next. Many people have been whinging about the Finn plot narrative, claiming it is a waste and totally pointless. Take another look, because it contained one of the most painful and important lessons the movie tried to convey. Sometimes you do your best, and you lose anyway; and, sometimes, that is because you recklessly decided everyone else was wrong, and you were right, and that recklessness gets other people killed.
This plot narrative was less about Finn and Tran (though they both evolved as characters in this journey) than it was about Poe Dameron, and his dangerous habit of blatantly ignoring the chain of command, direct orders, and doing whatever the fuck he wants to, because he thinks he knows better than everyone else (turns out, he doesn’t). It was about Poe learning that there is a lot more to being a leader than just being brave and and hot shit in an X-Wing. It is about thinking things through, and considering the consequences of your actions outside of yourself. To quote Zoe from Firefly, “You know what the definition of a hero is? Someone who gets other people killed.” That moment when the whole plan not only falls apart, but results in the catastrophic collapse of the much more intelligent, and well measured plan, nearly resulting in the last vestiges of the Resistance getting wiped out , yeah, that moment is supposed to suck. It very much was supposed to feel like a kick to the gut, you were supposed to feel like Finn and Tran’s efforts were wasted, because they absolutely were, and that was the whole god damn point. Lose cannons don’t save the day, they get people killed.
If the prequel trilogy was our childhood, and the original trilogy our adolescence, then The Last Jedi is a collection of the brutal lessons we learned as adults. Oh, and that character development (or lack thereof) everyone is bitching about? Poe Dameron was just a hot shot, bad ass pilot in the Force Awakens, completely bereft of character flaws, or any depth at all. He was all charming Colgate smiles and ridiculously amazeballs piloting. But, in The Last Jedi, Poe becomes a truly great character. Not because he is perfect, but precisely because he is so dangerously flawed. You don’t learn anything from the perfect hero who never fucks up, that is an unrealistic standard and expectation to have as an adult. Flawed individuals, who fumble, who make tragic errors with the best of intentions, those are the best teachers.
Hey, speaking of the worst consequences from the best of intentions, let’s talk about how everyone is all butt-hurt over their favorite white knight, Luke Skywalker! While everyone was having a meltdown over his knee-jerk reaction to kill his nephew in his sleep (which he immediately realized was an awful decision, and was overcome with “shame and remorse”), I would like to point out, again, that part of growing up, is learning that the people we look up to fuck up to a spectacular degree, just like the rest of us lowly humans. Do you remember that moment? That moment when your parent or parents, whom you had just days before seen as gods, stopped being infallible super heroes, and suddenly became real people that screw up and make stupid mistakes? It happens for some sooner, and some later, but it happens to all of us, just the same, and it is one of the hardest parts of becoming an adult. It shatters the world beneath your feet, and you don’t know who or what to trust, and it takes time to regain your bearings. Well, tip your hat to Rian Johnson and his incredible genius, because he just recreated that moment for all of us on film. Instead of burning effigies of him, maybe you should send him a fruit basket, or some of that blue milk. Showing our heroes to be human beings that make mistakes, make their triumphs that much more meaningful when they are triumphant, and not at all pointless.
And villains? Well, villains are better when they are not evil at all, but again, humans who have suffered great tragedy and emotional trauma, and are playing that out through their actions. “Villains” that feel entirely justified in what they are doing, and believe that what they are doing is the right thing, make the absolutely best, and most entertaining villains to watch on screen. So, I was glad to see that Rian Johnson took J.J. Abrams lazy ass, two dimensional, villain, that was Kylo Ren (Ben Solo), and turn him from a whiny emo fuck throwing a tantrum, to a boy who was betrayed and traumatized by his family, and split in two with internal conflict. “No character development“, my happy brown ass. If you can’t see the fact that woefully underdeveloped and shallow characters from The Force Awakens were properly fleshed out, and and made whole in The Last Jedi, it is because you don’t want to see it.
I could go on about the many more layers of nuance contained in the film. The brilliant use of Benicio Deltoro, and his subtle jab at the military industrial complex (or how he actually was far more representative of an extreme take on Han Solo than anyone is comfortable admitting). How Luke used the Force to project an idea from the other side of the galaxy, and Johnson reminded us that while people can die, you cannot kill an idea. We learned through Poe and Holdo that communication is important, but more important, is trust, because open communication cannot happen without it, and trust must be earned. We learned the bad guys are not all bad, and the good guys, are not all good, and that those are just words used to define pre-conceived perceptions. We learned that growing up hurts, and that the ones we love the most, generally hurt us the most, and that actions come with consequences.
In Conclusion . . .
I don’t have a problem with legitimate arguments, I do take umbrage with disingenuous attacks. Stating that The Last Jedi, was poorly written, lacking in character development, and substance, is patently false, and doing so while holding TFA and previous films in the franchise to a different standard, is deeply disingenuous. Being upset with the lack of closure or elaboration on Snoke and Rey, is perfectly understandable, but recognize who you actually have a problem with. It’s not Rian Johnson, it is J.J. Abrams that deserves your ire. Abrams condescended to us with kiddie table bullshit, spoon feeding us hi-fructose nostalgia, as if we were children. Johnson treated us like adults, and gave us a complex movie, with difficult and complex themes, meant for the adult audience that grew up with the original trilogy. Rian Johnson literally made that movie for us. For the ones who held up a flashlight when they were toddlers, and saw a lightsaber, for the ones who sat in cardboard boxes and pretended it was the Millenium Falcon. Rian Johnson made this film for the ones who grew up, but never stopped believing in a galaxy far, far away. He made it for us, the adults who grew up with Star Wars, and still love it to this day. The least we could do to repay him for treating us like grown ups, is to act like it, and see this film for what it is, an homage to us, the true fans of the franchise.