From fan reaction around the world, you’d think that Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is either the greatest film ever made or the worst affront to this fine and storied franchise since Jar-Jar Binks. It is neither, but when has reality ever stopped hyperbole?
As of this writing, IMDB.com users’ average rating is 7.6/10. The film rates a “Certified Fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com with a 91% critics’ average, though the same site reflects fan polarization, with a current (as of 12/29/17) rating of 51%. Metacritic.com rates it 86/100.
All this seems to suggest that people who know movies and watch them for a living overwhelmingly like the film, while everyone else is split nearly down the middle.
Count me in the pro-TLJ camp. While the film is imperfect, I enjoyed it as a viewer, as a critic, and as a Class of ’77 member.
I was seven years old when Star Wars IV: A New Hope burst into theaters—or, in my case, onto a southeast Arkansas drive-in screen. I can honestly say, without exaggeration or irony, that sitting in a car with my parents, listening to a tinny speaker gargle out James Earl Jones’s stentorian Darth Vader voice and watching Luke and Leia swing from platform to platform in the Death Star, changed my life. For the first time, I realized that I, too, could see more and do more than my immediate environment provided. Life could be an adventure, not just a series of days in which you took one more sequential step toward some far-off goal—getting through this year’s grade, waiting for baseball season, becoming a teenager. It was also the first time I realized that I was drawn to tweeners and scoundrels, because I identified much more with Han Solo than white-bread goody-two-shoes Luke Skywalker.
And so, while some have argued that any Star Wars film is ultimately for kids and not to be taken seriously, I reject that notion. As artist, academic, critic, and fan, I find the distinction between so-called “high” and “pop” art dubious, but even if we accept that distinction, I believe this series of films adds up to far more than popcorn entertainment for the twelve-and-under crowd.
When I say, then, that TLJ is a good movie and one of my favorites in the series, know that I ain’t playin’.
My current, and extremely mutable, ranking of the films looks like this:
- The Empire Strikes Back
- A New Hope
- Rogue One
- The Last Jedi
- Return of the Jedi
- The Force Awakens
- Revenge of the Sith
- Attack of the Clones
- The Phantom Menace
Don’t bother giving me shit for putting Rogue One at #3. I really liked it, other than the strained cameos by R2D2 and C-3PO, and it’s just my opinion. Plus, admittedly, #s 3-6 are likely to change with more reflection and my mood. For instance, I admit that it is as much sentimentality and nostalgia as good critical arguments that led me to list RotJ ahead of TFA. Still, at least for the moment, TLJ is a top-four film in the canon.
[SPOILER ALERT: if you have not yet seen the film but still intend to, stop now and come back later. I’ll wait.]
Much of the ire aimed at the film seems to have centered on fanperson theories that turned out not to be true—Snoke as Mace Windu, Han and Leia as Rey’s parents, and so on. Look, folks, it’s not the movie’s fault that you’re wrong. Get over it.
Other people’s issues seem to stem from TLJ’s left turn from plot beats and characterizations that we all recognize.
Of course, some of these same folks lambasted TFA because it hewed too close to ANH’s bones—young orphan stuck on a desert world (swap out Jakku for Tatooine) and eking out a fairly miserable existence; the arrival of a visitor from the stars and a droid or two (swap out Poe Dameron and BB8 for R2 and 3PO) as inciting incident; mysterious Sith Lord and his dark-clad, enormously powerful apprentice, who opens the movie by slaughtering rebels; old freedom fighter who imparts wisdom and sets our new heroes on their course before he is struck down by the Dark Side (swap out Han for Obi-Wan Kenobi); yet another Death Star, more properly called a Death Planet; the usual plan for destroying a Death Star (even Han says, “Let’s blow it up. There’s always a way to blow it up.”); a visit to a wretched hive of scum and villainy; and on and on.
I chose to view TFA as a love letter to the original trilogy and its fans, not a thinly veiled copy churned out by creators with no new ideas. But the death of Han Solo—my all-time favorite Star Wars character, the one with whom I have always most closely identified, played by an actor I adore—and the way that Kylo Ren, badass Sith apprentice meant to take Darth Vader’s place, got his ass kicked by someone who had never used the Force before, and our first view of an individual Stormtrooper who had different ideas about how his life should be lived, also demonstrated that the series would be taking us in new directions.
I had no problem with that. In fact, though I hated seeing Han Solo die (and no, I don’t care that Harrison Ford wanted to kill him off in RotJ), the possibilities excited me. Can Rey possibly become the new Luke AND the new Han? Can Luke be Rey’s Yoda? When Finn wakes up, what will he do? Should we care about Poe? How will Leia survive without her long-time love?
TLJ gave us some answers. Can Rey fill Han’s place as outside-the-box rebel and Millennium Falcon pilot AND Luke’s role as the Jedi’s best hope?
She doesn’t really have to. Rey and Poe Dameron share Han’s tendency to go off-script and spout off whatever’s on his mind and generally drive the rebel authorities nuts, even as he proves himself indispensable to the cause. Because she must toe the Padawan line, Rey cannot be pure hero-against-her-better-judgment, I’m-my-own-best-boss role that Han played, which partially necessitates Poe’s existence. On the other hand, the I-know-what’s-best-goddammit Poe, as a commander in the rebel fleet and General Leia devotee, cannot be pure Han, either; he follows orders well, as long as they come from Leia, and he’s no smuggling scoundrel. He’s just a hardheaded mansplainer and the best pilot since some guy named Skywalker—the part of the Luke role that Rey cannot fill because a) she pilots the Falcon and b) she must spend too much time on the ground, fighting lightsaber duels and trying to save Kylo Ren from himself.
In short, Rey and Poe replace Han and Luke by each taking on parts of the original characters’ duties and characteristics. It’s not a one-for-one trade. This strategy allows us old Star Wars fans to recognize the characterizations while moving on from the films, and the characters, and the actors that we grew up loving so much. That’s not just good storytelling. It’s also good marketing, since the franchise is trying to reach new audiences who have not aged with the originals and lack the same kind of emotional investment you can only feel when you have loved something for forty years.
There are many indications that this film signals a watershed moment in the Star Wars universe. Certainly, the death of Han Solo was the first, and perhaps the most painful, transition. Outside of the films, Carrie Fisher’s untimely death sent all of us into the theaters with the knowledge that we would be seeing Leia for the last time, no matter what happened in the movie, and that lent my particular viewing a deep sense of melancholy that existed side-by-side with my forty-year-old excitement upon hearing that theme music cue up again and seeing those opening text crawls.
In TLJ, one major moment of change comes when Luke contemplates burning down the Jedi Temple, their Tree of Life, their original sacred texts. He cannot do it, of course, because deep down, regardless of Ben Solo’s betrayal and Luke’s disenchantment with what he calls Jedi vanity, he is still a Master at his core.
So Afterlife Yoda shows up and does it for him, calling down a lightning strike that would make Thor proud, forcing Luke to realize that change, evolution itself, often begins with letting go of the past. This, in fact, is one of the major themes of the film. Kylo Ren speaks it aloud several times, including in the wake of the battle in Snoke’s throne room. He pleads with Rey to join him in leaving behind the Jedi, the Sith, the darkness-and-light binary of the galaxy’s entire belief system. Though I cannot believe that the next film will eschew uses of and discussions about the Force, the Light Side and the Dark Side, searching and using one’s feelings, Empire vs. Rebels, lightsaber duels and Tie Fighters vs. X-Wings, the idea that a major Star Wars character might want to think and exist in some Third Space suggests a desire to point Star Wars and its tropes in fresher, newer directions.
Of course, another of my questions above is whether Luke can fill the proverbial shoes of his great teachers, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. The short answer? No. When he sees a growing darkness in Ben Solo, he faces a test of character not unlike his Journey into the Cave in TESB. We see two versions of this story play out—one from Ben/Kylo’s perspective, in which Luke betrays him, tries to murder him in his sleep, and sends him further down his dark path; and one from Luke, in which he admits to considering the murder, snuffing out his nephew/apprentice for the galaxy’s greater good, before realizing that he cannot, will not, do it.
What this suggests to me is that, despite the committed and confident Jedi Knight we see in RotJ, Luke has continued the struggle with his faith that make up some of TESB’s most poignant and quotable moments. In ANH, Luke is the wide-eyed and idealistic Padawan; in TESB, he roils in a crisis of faith, both in himself and his mission; and in RotJ, he seems to have come out of his crisis and into the Force’s light for good. TLJ reveals that the naïve young man-turned Knight-turned Master, through hard experience and personal failure, has evolved into a cynic who would rather burn down the Jedi religion than lead any more young people to their deaths or into the hell that is the Dark Side. His self-doubt leads to fear, which, as we know, leads to anger, which leads to hate. Fear of what Ben Solo might become leads Luke to inward-pointed anger, which leads to self-hate, which leads, mercifully, not to the Dark Side but to self-exile.
That Luke has changed so much over the years; that he never becomes the pure hero he always wanted to be because he is, ultimately, all too human; that his self-loathing and other-directed empathy bring him to that lonely island; that Rey, R2, and Chewie are able to reach him through all that and coax him back to the fight, all contribute to a deepening of Luke’s character and a stronger, more powerful film than we would have gotten if Luke had become Yoda without the weird syntax.
Yet his example—his knowledge of the Force, his clear-eyed view of what it truly means to be a Jedi Knight, his final heroic act of self-sacrifice and his understated yet heart-wrenching goodbye to his sister and 3PO—demonstrates to Kylo Ren, to Rey, to Poe, and to the scattered but unbowed rebellion that hope still lives. Taken together, Rey, Finn, and Poe are supposed to be our new New Hope, and Kylo Ren is supposed to be our new Emperor/Vader combo. If they seem less archetypal and legendary than Luke and Leia and Han and Vader, I would like to believe that it is a purposeful complicating, a strategic humanizing, of the new characters. Let’s face it; it’s doubtful that they could ever operate on the level of the original trilogy’s beloved figures. And so the legends leave us like legends do, while those still finding their way stumble over obstacles and screw things up and fail.
What will happen to Finn? Well, as we see, he wakes up and still sees the small picture—save Rey and get the hell away from the First Order! That he is immediately caught, tasered, and thrust back into the fight recalls the series’ complicated exploration of destiny vs. free will. When he realizes that running is not an option and that the Rebels face extinction, Finn steps up, and by the end of TLJ, he refers to himself as “Rebel scum” (emphasis Finn’s). Much like Han at the end of ANH, Finn wants nothing to do with the war until personal ties outweigh his political and social neutrality. These parts of Han’s and Finn’s arcs follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey pattern and echo other moments in cinema history, such as when Rick in Casablanca does, in fact, stick his neck out for somebody. It also suggests a strategy for our current times and troubles—that when we cannot persuade someone to act for Great Political Causes or Social Issues, appealing to their love of family and friends might work.
Plus, Finn’s better at close-quarters fighting now, so there’s that.
Should we care about Poe? Well, the jury’s still out. Oscar Isaac, a chameleonic actor who seems to star in every other movie released these days, does his best with a crucial yet underwritten role. Who, exactly, is Poe Dameron? Is he the hotshot pilot and good Rebel soldier we see in TFA? Is he the smartass X-Wing jockey who takes on an entire Star Destroyer by himself in TLJ, only to buck orders and sacrifice the entire Rebel bombing contingent? Is he the Leia loyalist who will follow her anywhere, or the rebel amongst Rebels who incites mutiny when Leia is injured and his mansplaining to Vice Admiral Holdo doesn’t work? Is he, in his own way, a Padawan, and if so, whom will be his Master when the next film must go forward without our Princess?
I’m interested to see where the series takes Poe, but at this point, he is the least interesting of the new characters.
As for how Leia will survive without Han, well, she survives by being the same badass, take-charge woman we first met in 1977. Though older and wiser, a general instead of a Princess, or both at the same time, Leia remains the consummate leader, the sun around which all the other characters orbit. This is a woman used to loss. Remember that a Death Star obliterated her entire home planet. Her biological mother and father both died without her ever really knowing them. Her brother disappears. She loses countless friends and colleagues to the Empire and First Order. Her son betrays her and everything she stands for.
Of course she can thrive without Han. She has never needed a man to complete her. The bigger question is what the franchise, and the characters, will do without her.
Yet we also see new wrinkles in Leia. TLJ, in a much-maligned scene, shows that Leia understands and wields the Force in ways that we have never seen before, such that she can survive an explosion and the vacuum of space. Though overt demonstrations of Force mastery have obviously never been Leia’s way, I was pleasantly surprised with that scene. Why? First, Kylo Ren’s inability to blow up the bridge himself shows, rather than tells through didactic dialogue, that he is, indeed, still conflicted—that Rey might still save him from himself. Second, the scene pays off the conversation between Yoda and Obi-Wan we saw way back in TESB—the “Luke is our last hope” and “No. There is another” talk on Dagobah. That always suggested that Leia could be what Rey is becoming—a female New Hope that could stand against the Dark Side—yet the films never really showed any evidence that she had real truck with the Force.
Now we know. She could have taken over for Luke, but the Rebels needed more than one kind of leader. She chose another path, but Yoda was right; she could have been the Chosen One, had Luke fallen.
We also know, thanks to scenes between her and Rey in TFA and her and Poe in TLJ, that Leia has remained a loving, caring, nurturing mother who can still kick your ass. Whether Ben Solo was seduced to the Dark Side because Luke failed him, or because Han did, or because of his own character flaws, or some combination of all three, we can be pretty sure that Leia did nothing to drive her son away. Yet, just as she is willing to stun Poe and end his mutiny, she is also practical enough to realize that her son may well be gone and cannot, in any case, be allowed to run roughshod over the galaxy.
Leia is probably the strongest character George Lucas has ever created, and if TFA was a final showcase for Han Solo’s brand of heroism, TLJ is, in many ways, a curtain call for Leia’s unbreakable spirit and love.
More praise for the film—whereas TFA took us back to the good old days of blowing up Death Stars, TLJ teases us with stratagems similar to those used in earlier films: the infiltration team sent into the First Order ship to disable its tracking mechanism, similar to ANH’s mission to shut off the Death Star’s tractor beam; a Walker march on a Rebel base, such as we saw on Hoth in TESB; an attempt to destroy something with one pilot’s near-suicide run and precise shooting, referring to Finn’s attach on the battering ram and Luke’s one-in-a-million shot in ANH; and more.
Yet, unlike in ANH and Rogue-One, the infiltration party is betrayed and fails; the Rebels escape the base before it is overrun, as in TESB, yet it takes a major character’s sacrifice to do it; and Finn is stopped before he can martyr himself, which leads to his own once-in-a-lifetime shot missing. In these and many other ways, TLJ echoes past movies while changing outcomes and attitudes. The lack of patience and the general failure of Poe Dameron’s brand of heroism—in-your-face fighting against incredible odds, unnecessary risk, self-belief that borders on hubris, et cetera—leads me to wonder what kind of heroics the next film will model for a new generation.
Luke’s final battle with Ren also echoes yet alters previous films’ beats. It’s TLJ’s version of ANH’s Kenobi-Vader throwdown, complete with its own version of “Strike me down, and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” and the turning off of a lightsaber. Yet its twists on that scene—Ren’s team’s all-out assault on Luke, leading to Luke’s “Bitch, please” shoulder-brush; Luke’s outright admission that he failed Ben Solo; and the revelation that the entire battle was not just an Obi-Wan-style distraction but a complete swerve, with Luke projecting his image and voice across untold distances so that Ren is, in effect, fighting a hologram; Luke’s “see you around, kid” line that portends his continued influence on Ren’s conflicted soul—freshen the familiar and provide a true “Oh my God, Luke really IS the man” moment that I never once felt, even in the original trilogy.
As usual with this series, the visual effects and sound editing are top-notch. The fight choreography is often excellent, particularly in the Rey/Kylo team-up in Snoke’s throne room. The acting is strong, with the Most Improved Player award going to Adam Driver, who shakes off TFA’s “Emo Ren” characterization and brings Ben Solo into his own as a vicious, determined, capable fighter who misses his mother.
And no, I have no issue with the Vulptex crystal-wolf creatures, who provide both a key plot point and a spectacular visual, or the Fathiers Finn and Rose ride, or the Porg. The latter have come under particular fire as a cynical source of potential merchandise cash from little kids. Perhaps they are, but they’re so damned cute, and so much like puffins, and such good comedy relief in a film that mostly ignores older sources like R2 and 3PO, that I don’t care. I’m really intrigued to see how the stowaway Porg gets on with Chewbacca, who thus far has mostly used it as a football. Better a cutesy mascot than an Ewok or a Jar-Jar.
I am, of course, cognizant of the film’s problems. As a friend recently pointed out, this movie and TFA talk a lot about Ben’s seduction to the Dark Side without really showing how it happened or what, indeed, is so seductive. For all we know, the “growing darkness” Luke senses in Ben Solo might have been hormones.
Though the visuals and emotional payoff of Vice Admiral Holdo’s self-sacrifice are powerful, one wonders why the plan had to be kept secret from the rest of the crew, including Poe, other than that the script wanted to surprise the viewer. It just seems like poor strategy.
R2 and 3PO have been written as largely irrelevant.
Kylo Ren cannot pull the trigger and kill his own mother, but he can order others to do so, as his “no prisoners” directive in the assault on the rebel base makes clear. This seems like a contradiction in characterization. Kid, you either protect your Mom or you don’t. Causing her death by proxy isn’t better than killing her yourself.
Rey’s characterization as a Jedi deepens as her skills and control increase, but her characterization as a person doesn’t really progress much. That’s disappointing.
Worse is Poe’s haphazard development, especially since off-screen issues—our Princess’s death—may well lead to the character’s ascension to Rebel leader. He seems ill-suited to that role. He’s a better pilot than a strategist. In fact, none of the surviving characters seems particularly ready to lead the whole rebellion, and this film undermines the concept of the individual zooming off to take down an empire alone. Will the Rebellion lose, allowing darkness truly to rise, simply because they’ve run out of military brainpower? In short, have the creative powers-that-be written themselves into a corner? Or will a new leader arise? Could that leader be Finn, who at least received military training? If so, will we buy it, considering he’s only now wholeheartedly getting on board with the Rebellion? Or will Rey have to shoulder that burden, too? Must she be part Han, part Luke, and part Leia, and if so, will it keep her from every truly being herself?
TLJ has made me long to know the answers to those questions. It works well for me as the second act of this new chapter in Star Wars. In fact, it works for me, in part, because of its difference from previous pacing. The Big Bad Emperor dies in this film, not the third act, and Ren gets the chance to do what even Vader never did—rise to the throne. Rey must step up without her Jedi Master one full film earlier than Luke did. The head of the rebellion has been cut off.
What happens next? What new ground will be broken? Who will survive, and who will turn, and why?
I can’t wait to find out.