Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a good film. It’s been extremely well received by critics, many of whom have asserted that it is one of the best – if not the best – Star Wars film in the entire franchise. What might surprise some is that audience reception hasn’t been as favourable. Of over 100,000 ‘user ratings’ on Rotten Tomatoes, only 55% of voters liked the film. This is by no means conclusive data in and of itself. Many other review aggregates report an overwhelmingly positive audience score and Polygon suggests the film is being review bombed. However, it does point at a chink in the armour. Do we give Star Wars films too much credit for simply being Star Wars?
I really wanted to like it. I booked tickets on opening night, avoided spoilers like I avoid social interactions with other humans, and stayed up late (for me) on a work night just so I could watch it as soon as possible. Yet by the end of the movie, when the credits rolled, the lights turned on, and everyone started leaving their seats, my subconscious let slip the passing thought: ‘Thank God that’s finally over.‘ I realised what I had just thought and tried to shrug it off. Did I not enjoy the film?
My friend and veteran Star Wars fan turns to me and says he thought the movie was great. I asked him what it was about the movie that he enjoyed and he mentioned (after noting his greatly disdain for The Force Awakens) that The Last Jedi solved all the problems of its predecessor and delivered more of what he loved – Star Wars. He was right – so what was it that I didn’t like?
I can recognise that it’s a good film. Director Rian Johnson absolutely outperformed my own (and many others‘) expectations by successfully creating a coherent continuation of an enormous and well-established cinematic universe. However, after giving it some thought, the dissonance of a number of aspects kept me from enjoying this latest instalment as much as I had enjoyed its predecessors. I’m getting this all out as it allows me to better understand why I didn’t enjoy about a movie I was absolutely convinced I would enjoy, and by extension, what I believe makes movies enjoyable. For the sake of not writing a thesis, I have significantly condensed (see: I wrote a very very long article and deleted half of it) my thoughts.
Though it goes without saying, spoilers ahead.
The inherent problem of heroes & villains
Snoke is a terrible villain. Actually, let me rephrase. Snoke is a terrible character. Many were skeptical about him in the first movie due to his infrequent and brief appearances, myself included. Who was this mysterious new villain? Why did he look like that? What was his backstory? Why does he dress like a cross between Hugh Hefner and Goldmember?
As it turns out, none of these questions were answered, because they had no answer. He was evil because they needed an evil villain. Maybe he blames the Jedi for failing to save a loved one. Maybe he’s evil because his face is messed up. Maybe Luke bullied him at school. Any one of these reasons could be valid, and might make for a compelling and interesting villain. But instead we are given no reason as to his motivations, and are forced to assume he’s evil ‘just because’. And in the time we could list every known fact about this character, he is already dead. It’s really just… anticlimactic.
Palpatine was evil for evil’s sake, in a similar vein. He believed himself above the concept of morality, and the living embodiment of the dark side of the force – yes, he was unequivocally evil. However, his portrayal was at a time when the trope of the ‘Big Bad‘ had not yet been established (it could even be argued that he actually pioneered this archetype in science fiction film). To replicate this 40 years later with a much less interesting character is an insult to the audience’s intelligence.
On the other hand, Kylo’s character development throughout the first 90% of the film was fantastic. He was painted as a significantly more complex character than in the previous movie, coming across less as a whiny teenager and more as a conflicted anti-hero. The ‘tantrum’ he threw after being berated by Snoke culminated in the destruction of his mask: both literally and figuratively. He begins to question his own emotions and motivations. His tragic backstory (if it is to be believed) comes out in one of his regular FaceTime sessions with his new BFF Rey. The audience believes there is some good in him, and we begin to see this internal conflict come to a head when he finally bisects his mentor.
And then all of this complexity is completely thrown out the window in the throne room when he returns to being an aggressive, whiny brat because Rey rejects his prom date proposal and vanishes into the night – and he subsequently blames her for Snoke’s death. Why throw all of his character development out the window at the last second? The likely answer was suggested by my friend from earlier in the article: with Snoke dead there was no clear ‘Big Bad’ anymore. In a story where a conflict between good and evil is a central theme, it therefore fell to Kylo to take his place. You can’t have conflict without an equivalent foil to the hero. His sudden regression to his previous personality felt entirely forced and was greatly disappointing.
Up until this point all the signs pointed to the emergence of the ‘Gray Jedi’ – a concept which appears in the Star Wars extended universe (most notably the Knights of the Old Republic RPGs). Jolee Bindo was a notable Gray Jedi: “[a Force-user] who walked the line between the light and dark sides of the Force without surrendering to the dark side”. This would have been an extremely interesting concept to explore in a cinematic universe where light and dark have always been presented as absolutes. Unfortunately, it seems, writers went for the ‘safer’ option: to keep the dynamic as it always has been.
This brings me to the inherent problem of Star Wars’ obsession with ‘heroes and villains’: the obsession itself. I believe the movie would have been significantly more compelling if instead of perpetuating our expectations, it subverted them. Imagine if by the end of the film, Rey had been taken by the dark side it was left to Kylo to bring balance to the force, becoming the protagonist of Episode IX and ultimately establishing an order of Gray Jedi with Rey by the end of the trilogy, in which the concepts of light and dark were abandoned in favour of a singular Force. I would watch the hell out of that. But I think, much to the detriment of the franchise as a whole, there’s significant pressure upon new creative directors to keep Star Wars as it is to avoid backlash from its fan base.
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
Russian short story writer Anton Chekhov, who lived and died over a century ago, iterated that irrelevant elements of a story should be removed – plot devices or objects should not be introduced that do not come into play later in the story. Essentially, don’t use red herrings without the specific intent of misdirection. This prevents unresolved plot holes from forming and the audience doesn’t feel like they’ve been cheated.
So now let’s discuss hyperspace tracking. You know, that extremely convenient and apparently impossible plot device which came out of nowhere that allowed the First Order to follow the Resistance through hyperspace. “Actually, Anthony,” you mansplain, sipping iced coffee from your BB-8 Sculpted Coffee Mug which you’ve pulled out of your Han Solo-In-Carbonite Refrigerator, scowled face illuminated only by your Death Star Table Light. “They alluded to hyperspace tracking once in Rogue One and again in The Last Jedi Visual Dictionary, so it’s hardly out of nowhere.”
— Pablo Hidalgo (@pablohidalgo) December 18, 2017
Confident in your verbal victory, you retire to your Millennium-Falcon bed and fall asleep surrounded by Plush Porgs. Sure, you’re right. They did allude to it before the movie came out. But without plausible explanation, it just doesn’t fly. If I were to say ‘watch out!’ and then immediately punch you in the face, it would still hurt – but I did warn you.
And what does this have to do with some Russian guy? Well, I assert that this (and another instance below) violates Chekhov’s principles. The hyperspace tracking, referencing Chekhov’s quote above, is the equivalent of a rifle going off in the first chapter, and in small print at the end of the story mentioning that actually, there was another short story which showed the rifle on the wall, and also stop asking so many questions. I actually spent the better part of the movie assuming that there was a traitor amongst the Resistance, transmitting the coordinates to the First Order. Was Finn actually indoctrinated, an unwilling double agent for the First Order? No, it’s just a previously-thought ‘impossible’ technology that was being researched decades earlier and finally perfected just in time for the events of the film. Thanks, Hux!
Secondly, let’s talk the Master Codebreaker. Finn and Rose embark on an entirely unnecessary sidequest sparked by Holdo’s baffling aversion to divulging her plan to Poe, despite it being a good plan and them being on the same side (she was exerting her authority over an insubordinate pilot, but honestly nobody would have died if she just explained it). They are told to find an individual known as the Master Codebreaker at Canto Casino, the only one who can help them. They spot him, identified by his distinguishing lapel, and then… He is never seen or spoken of again. Luckily, they are thrown into the same jail cell as DJ Hacksalot. And even more lucky is that he can do exactly all the same things that the Master Codebreaker could do; a man who, might I add, Maz claimed was the only person she knew of who could do it. Why bother introducing a seemingly extremely important character – the sole reason Finn and Rose were on Canto Bight – show him once, then replace him with a completely separate person? I made it a good hour past that point still wondering when the Master Codebreaker would show up again. Chekhov would be rolling in his grave.
You don’t have to be HBO to kill main characters
There’s a glaring problem with the characters in the last two Star Wars movies: there are too many. Not that there is a problem with a large number of main characters. Rather, there is a problem with a large number of underdeveloped and uninteresting main characters. The Last Jedi focuses on Rey, Kylo, Luke, Finn and Poe quite heavily. It also introduces Holdo, Snoke and DJ to a certain degree. In trying to develop these characters the film feels increasingly disjointed as it constantly jumps around. As a result, none of these characters feel like they get the development one would expect out of the penultimate movie in a trilogy. Now, there are a few solutions to this:
- Make the existing established characters more interesting. Improve character development. Have them interact with each other in ways which reveal things about them the audience may not have known before. Hint at complexities.
- If this is too difficult or can’t be done within the span of the movie, reduce the number of focal characters. Simply make it clear from the offset that one character may be reduced to the background. They may make a larger appearance in a subsequent film. The Force Awakens did this well with Poe, who gets a decent amount of character establishment (though little in the way of development) during The Last Jedi. When all else fails, though…
- Kill them. Killing main characters is seen by many as a cheap way of messing with an audience’s emotions, but when used skilfully can really add impact to the story. Game of Thrones’ earlier seasons did this in such a way that subverted our expectations – developed over decades of visual and literary media – and made it very clear that the overarching plot would always take precedent over the lives of established characters. This brings me to my next assertion.
Finn should have died.
The idea of a morally conflicted stormtrooper who defects from the bad guys was extremely promising and made for some interesting scenes in The Force Awakens, but once he’s in the Resistance, Finn ultimately contributes nothing which distinguishes himself from other Resistance characters, aside from the fact that he’s been marketed as a Main Character. For Finn to sacrifice himself on Crait would have given his character some purpose at the very least – especially after the whole Codebreaker debacle. He’s undergone almost no character development since the previous film and has no particularly endearing traits.
Neither of the films delve into his history as a stormtrooper despite the fact that all those years would influence the vast majority of his personality, values and beliefs. Especially since he was apparently officer material. Does Finn carry around a memento from his previous squad members? Is there a particular phrase said by his late friend Slip which influences the decisions he makes? Does he want to find his family, from whom he was forcefully taken? Two out of three movies and we seldom see a glimpse into the character or what his motivations are. Like Snoke being the Big Bad, Finn is just another Good Guy. Killing Finn would have emphasised the desperation of the Resistance in its (apparent) final hours, perhaps set up Rose to undergo a significant character development, and helped solve our aforementioned problem. But unfortunately (no offense to Boyega) Finn lives to fight another day.
Of midichlorians and men: final musings
I actually had much more to bitch about in this post (can you believe it?) but I figured by the time anyone even got to this point, they’d be sick of my complaining. I guess my point is that there are a large number of flaws which I perceive in the movie; enough to negatively impact my enjoyment. They’re apparent enough that I did not need to actively look for them.
That being said, there were a lot of amazing things about the movie. I’m sure I held my breath that entire Holdo sacrifice scene. Kylo could be the most interesting villain in the Star Wars cinematic universe, and I really hope they continue to develop him in the way they did in the majority of The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson also managed to make a largely entertaining Star Wars film with very few actual battle scenes. Puppet Yoda. No mention of midichlorians. The list goes on.
Now I can speculate on how things could be improved or how the movie might be better for me, but I’m not a professional writer, director or film-anything really; and ultimately, my opinions are my own. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the movie. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking it out. More than anything else, I really hope Episode IX fixes all of my gripes with The Last Jedi and makes me eat my words.