First of all: If you haven’t already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, then for the love of God please stop reading right now. By necessity, the following piece is going to be completely laden with spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, come back and read afterward, won’t you?
Rian Johnson’s debut in the Star Wars galaxy is a film that alternatingly excited and confounded me as I sat watching it in the theater, and as audience reactions begin to crystalize, it’s clear that by no means was I alone. Unlike The Force Awakens, a film that I generally enjoyed in a modest sort of way, The Last Jedi was an experience of peaks and troughs, of thrilling highs and disappointing lows. I walked out afterward in turmoil, unsure of how to process the fractured, uneven filmmaking on display.
Make no mistake, the film has scored rave critical reviews on its initial release, but as always with these kinds of franchise staples, there’s an undercurrent of passionate dissatisfaction. Personally, I can’t help but expect that critical consensus will slowly even out on the film over time, as is the case with any film of this size. Early, rampant praise will slowly temper into a more realistic assessment of the film’s strengths and failings. That’s also what this piece intends to do. In the end, we have a frustratingly mixed bag.
The Last Jedi is a film with three plots—an A plot, a B plot, and a C plot. Coincidentally enough, that’s also fairly close to the grades that each should receive. Everything related to Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis): That’s the A plot, and it’s the area in which The Last Jedi shines most brightly. I loved the intensity and unexplained nature of the connection between Rey and Kylo, the way they couldn’t understand what was happening or why they could see each other, but were both simultaneously drawn toward one another as an extension of their desires to cement their place in the universe and within the Force.
The performances go a long way toward making these scenes the film’s highlight. As Rey, Ridley is still a charming, likable presence, although perhaps one lacking in relatable flaws. As Kylo Ren, Adam Driver is the reason to see the film, filled with intensity and confusion, but also resolve and determination. Rian Johnson’s mission with The Last Jedi seems to be in tune with the purpose that flows from Ren’s mouth—to “kill the past”—by far the most interesting motivation that any one of the characters in this new trilogy possesses. Likewise, the supporting players of this storyline (Luke and Snoke) are the film’s most interesting and highly anticipated. Whether they actually deliver on that anticipation…well, more on that shortly. But the heart of the A plot is the mental bond, temptation and battle of wills between Rey and Ren, and it works very well.
One of the things I most wanted from The Last Jedi, but never really expected to receive, was a reveal that Rey’s parents were no one of importance, really. From the moment Abrams introduced her as an orphan stranded on a desert planet (just like Luke) and implied that Kylo Ren might have some idea of who she is, the fan theory engine has been running at 100 percent capacity. Everyone had a theory to explain why Rey was obviously Luke’s child, or Han and Leia’s child, or Snoke’s child, or etc., etc., etc. I desperately wanted to avoid any of those scenarios for the simplest of possible reasons: There doesn’t exist a rationale to satisfyingly explain why any of them would have just left her to potentially die on Jakku, knowing how powerful she could become.
The reason why the exposure of Luke’s parentage, for an audience member who has never seen the film, works so well in The Empire Strikes Back is because there’s no reason for that viewer to suspect it in advance. Luke is told that his father is dead, and we have no reason to doubt the veracity of what Obi-Wan (Sir Alec Guinness) once told him any more than he does. The reveal is one of cinema’s greatest shocks, adding richness to the rest of Empire and Return of the Jedi because Luke must grapple with the fact that both Obi-Wan and Yoda never wanted him equipped with the full truth, and so may be using him.
To force a similar reveal onto Rey would have been truly slavish toward Star Wars formula. If Empire’s truth worked best because it wasn’t expected, this reveal operates similarly: So many people expected something similar to Empire. Of every subversion in The Last Jedi, this is the smartest: If you ever want the characters of this new trilogy to be able to stand on their own, it should not matter that Rey isn’t the daughter of some familiar face you already know and love.
There’s always a chance that Rey’s lineage gets retconned again in the future, but I pray this won’t be the case. And Rian Johnson is with me on this one; he said as much in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:
“The easiest thing for Rey and the audience to hear is, Oh yeah, you’re so-and-so’s daughter. That would be wish fulfillment and instantly hand her a place in this story on a silver platter. The hardest thing for her is to hear she’s not going to get that easy answer.”
I’m sure the fact that Supreme Leader Snoke was rather unceremoniously killed off was a hot button issue for a lot of fans, but it was also one of the most genuinely unexpected things I’ve ever seen happen in a Star Wars movie, or in just about any tentpole blockbuster for that matter. Here is a character who was positioned to be the Big Bad of this segment of the entire franchise, of all three movies in this trilogy and perhaps even beyond—and now he’s a cold hunk of flesh. Absolutely no one can claim to have seen this one coming.
With that said, I do have plenty of criticism about the handling of Snoke’s character outside of his death, which I’ll get into in the second half of this piece. But the death itself was thrilling: Snoke was an extremely powerful Force-user whose overconfidence and supreme belief in his abilities (and status as a puppet master) blinded him (in a crucial moment) to the dangerous ambitions of Kylo Ren. That’s all it takes: losing focus for a second.
More importantly, the death of Snoke beautifully serves the character of Kylo Ren, freeing him from the bondage of being a student and thrusting him into the unexpected position of the series’ true, ultimate antagonist—not because he was seduced by a pure evil (and, thus, one-dimensional) mastermind, but because he chose this path after considering the options before him. Kylo Ren’s logical philosophy make him by far the most fascinating character in this trilogy, and he’s shown to possess enough cunning to overcome obstacles that we would have thought narratively impossible in The Force Awakens. Is there any question that Snoke was far more powerful in the Force than Kylo? It hardly matters, because ultimately Snoke underestimated Kylo Ren’s intelligence. These are the types of interactions we’ve never seen in the Star Wars galaxy before, and of all Rian Johnson’s decisions to take things in unexpected directions, this dynamic is the one that will hopefully bear the most fruit.
In a word, this entire action sequence was gorgeous, Rian Johnson’s greatest moment as a Star Wars director, no doubt. As Kylo and Rey square off against Snoke’s elite guards, who appear to be donning some kind of lightsaber-resistant armor, we witness a fight with what is likely the best choreography of the entire Star Wars film series, one that demonstrates how far both of our Force-sensitive leads have progressed in their abilities. A hard, gritty fight that is beautifully lit with carnal splashes of crimson, it feels appropriately impactful. Johnson doesn’t shy away from the realities of hand-to-hand combat with weapons that can sever limbs and punch holes straight through people, making the sequence considerably more dire and overtly violent than almost any other Star Wars confrontation. And throughout it all, the uncertainty of Kylo and Rey’s relationship: Are they fighting this battle together out of necessity? A temporary truce? Or will they emerge from it united in the shared spilling of blood?
The scene eschews the falsely grandiose posturing of Anakin vs. Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith, instead reminding more closely of how a fight scene in The Raid or John Wick might unfold if there were lightsabers involved. It’s the high point of the entire film.
Remember when we called Rey/Kylo Ren the “A plot”? Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the Resistance flagship is the B plot. That leaves Finn (John Boyega) and new character Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) as the C plot—and, man, do these guys get the short end of the stick.
Finn has always annoyed me a bit due to Boyega’s overeager, frenzied, comedy-driven performance, but he’s no worse here than in Force Awakens. Rose, on the other hand, I actually found charming, sweetly sincere and surrounded by “Resistance heroes” to whom she fears she won’t be able to compare, a nice “average Jill” presence to have in the film. The trouble is that they embark on a rambling side quest which eventually proves to be narratively pointless.
Acting on a poorly conceived “sneak aboard and hack the enemy flagship so they can’t follow us through hyperspace” plan, Finn and Rose travel to a casino planet called Canto Bight, where the story immediately slows to a crawl. The lighthearted tone and creature work here is initially interesting, but the comedy clashes strangely with the gravity of the situation: They’re supposed to be in a desperate race against time to save their friends in the Resistance, but it they act as if they’re on some sort of holiday vacation. Things only get worse during the loathsome, CGI-driven chase sequence on the backs of the space horses known as fathiers, a silly set-piece that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones—and I mean that to be exactly as disparaging as it sounds.
But the worst thing about the entire Finn/Rose arc is how it ultimately has zero bearing or impact on the entire rest of the story. They’re sent to find a “master hacker” after talking to Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o in a pointless, wasted cameo), but instead find Benicio Del Toro’s “DJ,” in a performance that seems to be taking place in an entirely separate movie. He then exits the story almost immediately by selling them out to the First Order, and Finn/Rose end up back with the Resistance members they left behind after minimal interaction with any other character of note—and no, the reappearance and then immediate death of Captain Phasma can’t really said to be “of note.”
Despite failing at every aspect of their mission, events unfold exactly as they would have had Finn and Rose not even been there. The duo doesn’t learn anything of importance while on Canto Bight or aboard Snoke’s flagship, or gain some kind of important piece of plot information in the course of trying to pull off the failed plan. Even in the final battle on the planet of Crait, the pair don’t actually affect the outcome—it’s like both Finn and Rose aren’t allowed to physically touch or impact the plot of The Last Jedi in any way. Is this the reason for their half-bloomed quasi-romance as well?
It’s as if this entire half of the film only serves to introduce the Force-sensitive Dickensian street urchin we eventually return to, who lives on Canto Bight. But my god, what a long waste of time to get there.
No matter how you look at her, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo is an oddly presented character in The Last Jedi. Her characterization to the audience is so inconsistent that at times it’s not easy for a first-time viewer to even determine how they’re supposed to think of her, which is again a failure of Johnson as a screenwriter. She’s introduced immediately as an antagonist toward Poe Dameron—a character the audience already knows and is fond of—acting smug and haughty despite the gravity of the situation with the imperial pursuit in full affect. She refuses to share information with any of the other commanders on what the plan is for their survival, beyond “just keep going until we run out of fuel,” to the point that it’s almost natural for the audience to start suspecting that this vice admiral may somehow be a First Order spy or saboteur. Why else would a military commander purposely withhold such information from every one of her subordinates, and thus foment doubt and unrest in them? This negative portrayal of Holdo only continues when she’s taken prisoner by Poe Dameron and then starts a firefight on board the Resistance flagship.
And then…everything flip-flops as soon as Leia wakes up! As it turns out, Holdo is actually a really swell lady and bosom buddy of Leia’s, but the only way you’d know the depth of their relationship is if you’d read the 2017 YA novel Leia, Princess of Alderaan, which introduced her. It’s as if Rian Johnson was writing this screenplay with the assumption in mind that members of the audience had somehow read this book, and would thus have no reason to doubt Holdo’s intentions. Suddenly, she’s saying that she “really likes” Poe Dameron’s spirit, and signing up for a noble suicide mission. The intended effect is that it’s supposed to reinforce Poe’s arc in this film—the realization that he needs to move from “fighter” into “leader,” but the script and performance are so confusing in handling her character that this realization is likely lost on many audience members, because they’re just going to sympathize with Poe throughout, even when they’re supposed to be recognizing his faults.
With all that said, the lightspeed ramming sequence is truly awesome. That should go without saying.
This is a very wide, eclectic, nonspecific criticism, which I’ll try to sum up here in a single sentence: The Last Jedi continues some of the errors of The Force Awakens by often failing to provide context for what is happening in the Star Wars galaxy and making it clear to the audience why certain events on screen have occured. In a seeming effort to “streamline” and “simplify,” and perhaps to avoid the accusations of being mired in “boring politics” that people slung (somewhat unfairly) at the prequels, The Force Awakens skipped over a potential goldmine of universe building. We learned practically nothing of the structure or history of the New Republic formed after the death of the Emperor and collapse of the Empire, which inadvertently makes the events of Return of the Jedi seem less significant, especially after seeing apparently the entire New Republic destroyed in one blast from Starkiller Base.
We’re left with so many questions that The Last Jedi never even considers answering. What of the remnants of the Republic? Was the ENTIRE fleet of this galaxy-wide government clustered around a couple of planets? Are star systems in the Star Wars universe located like…100 yards from one another?
Then there are the Snoke questions: What exactly was he, anyway? Outside source material seems to call him a “humanoid alien,” but the films never even address that most basic of questions. Is the average audience member supposed to perceive him as a horrendously scarred human? What are his motivations, and what is his vision for the galaxy? Does he see himself as a successor to Palpatine, and is there any kind of connection between them? Did they know one another? Did he have a master in the Dark Side of the Force? How did he manage to seduce Kylo Ren, if Kylo was living at Luke’s Jedi academy at the time? How did these two even meet? Who were the other students at that Jedi academy? Who are the “Knights of Ren” repeatedly mentioned in The Force Awakens, implied to be a group of dark side users that Kylo leads? The words don’t even appear in The Last Jedi.
Thanks to things like this, and like The Force Awakens before it, this film has a curious way of making the Star Wars galaxy feel smaller and more limited, rather than larger and more fleshed out.
The Knights of Ren. Remember these guys?
Let me make one last point here in greater detail. I actually really enjoyed Luke’s climactic Force projection/appearance on Crait. It’s a neat power, and unlike many viewers I’ve spoken with since, I thought it was made clear to the audience if they were paying attention that this wasn’t the real Luke. He shows up in a place that is clearly said to have only one entrance, and he looks completely different, with short, dark brown hair rather than long, gray hair. He has obviously chosen to project himself as a vision of Luke that Kylo and Leia would recognize. No, my issue is with the events of his death afterward.
Put simply: Why does Luke physically die after the confrontation with Kylo Ren? It seems like it should be an easy, obvious question to answer, but it’s not. In fact, every person I speak with about this issue seems to have independently come up with their own answer to the question. There are three main possibilities:
1. Luke makes peace with his legacy and surrenders to the will of the Force, in effect choosing to die in that moment.
2. The strain of doing what he was doing is too much for the weathered old frame of Luke’s body, and he dies from the overexertion.
3. Despite not physically being there, the connection between Kylo Ren/the projection of Luke is still powerful enough that the lightsaber blade passing through his form causes Luke’s death, essentially creating psychic injuries. This theory would be deemed a little silly, except for the fact that the film shows us quite clearly how physical touch can be a part of these Force mind melds, as it is when Kylo Ren wipes away water from his face after conversing with Rey on Ahch-To, where it is raining. If you can get rainwater on your face from across the galaxy during a Force vision, then why not get injured by a lightsaber passing through your projection?
The problem is that Johnson doesn’t seem to care whether the audience knows which of these things has occurred—and it makes a big difference in how we perceive the final fate of Luke Skywalker that we understand this. Did Luke choose his end? Or was he cruelly cut down in a tragic way before being able to impart everything he could have to future generations? The fact that we’re having this conversation means that Johnson didn’t make the (very important) answer clear. We’re left with a desperate claw for meaning by fans who want to enjoy every aspect of the film, whether or not it earns their enjoyment.
Unlike previous criticism, this one doesn’t need a lot of extrapolation and explanation. It’s just this: This film features several creatures that seem created solely for the manufacture of toys, and that’s it. The vulptices (they’re those crystal foxes on Crait) at least can be loosely said to have impacted the plot, because following them down a tunnel led to a potential escape path for the Resistance members. But the porgs?
For all the noise made about them, both positive and negative, the porgs are nothing more than window dressing. They’re certainly no Jar Jar Binks, but they’re also not of any narrative value. No character even interacts with one, outside of a few little jokes with Chewbacca. Why do they get taken along on the Millennium Falcon, anyway? It feels like a whole subplot is missing, wherein Rey or Chewie forms a bond with one that’s special, named Porg, who then brings his extended family along on the adventure. Please note: I am beyond glad that the just-described subplot does not exist, for the record.
As is, porgs functionally exist to slap on every conceivable toy or piece of apparel that Disney could sell to completionist Star Wars fans. When I look at them, it’s impossible to not be reminded that this series exists first and foremost to put money in the coffers of the Disney oligarchy. And it’s safe to say that’s the last thing I want to be thinking about while watching Star Wars.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident Star Wars geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.