Given how lukewarm my own reception was towards The Force Awakens, I decided to base my decision about whether to watch the sequel on its reviews and word-of-mouth. Its high Rotten Tomatoes was a point in its favor but the rabid backlash from the fanbase only made it even more intriguing to me. The audience reaction was so harsh that it made me really curious to see it what’s up with it for myself.
Immediately following the events of the previous film, the Resistance flees the retaliatory force sent by the First Order. Poe Dameron succeeds in destroying the lead dreadnaught but is reprimanded by General Leia Organa for his recklessness and refusal to obey orders, resulting in heavy losses. The First Order is able to track down the Resistance fleet even after they jump to lightspeed however and they are forced to flee at sub-light speed, exhausting their fuel. Finn and a new character Rose Tico hatch a plan to recruit a hacker who is able to sneak them aboard the enemy flagship to disable their tracking device and Poe helps them carry it out. Meanwhile Rey, Chewbacca and R2-D2 find Luke Skywalker but she is unable to convince him to return to the fight. She also discovers that she is connected through the Force to Kylo Ren and learns about his fall to the Dark Side while until the tutelage of Luke.
My biggest criticism of the previous film was of course the fact that while technically perfect it was essentially a remake of A New Hope. The Last Jedi similarly mirrors The Empire Strikes Back and there are plenty of times when it gets annoyingly on the nose, such as when their holdout planet is suspiciously similar to Hoth. However in my book it mostly gets away with this because its copying is superficial. On a deeper level, it is actually subverting the basic themes of the Star Wars franchise and actively undermining everything that the previous film tried to establish. You can signs of this all over the place: Luke throwing away his lightsaber; the revelation about Rey’s parentage as being completely insignificant; Snoke mocking Kylo’s helmet and the latter’s subsequent temper tantrum; the casual manner that Snoke is dealt with; even Poe’s opening phone prank on General Hux can be read as a put-down against the serious tone that the franchise usually ascribes to its villains. The overall intent is to well and truly clear out all remaining traces of the old guard so it’s no wonder that the fanbase is hopping mad.
Any installment of a long running franchise like this one can attempt one of two things: they can try to be solid examples of more of the same, delivering entertainment and most importantly plenty of money or they can test the boundaries of what has been done and try to do more and be more. The Force Awakens makes for a prime example of the former and doesn’t aspire to be anything more. The Last Jedi does at least try for the latter and that makes it worthy of consideration as art. The scenes with Leia and Poe are a condemnation of old-fashioned valor without consideration for the costs and consequences. Leia falls but her replacement, contrary to Poe’s expectations, is perfectly competent as well. Luke’s lessons for Rey is a repudiation of the Old Jedi Code and possibly a personal knock against George Lucas. Finn and Rose’s side-quest in the casino city is a mess narratively but does serve to highlight what oppression feels like to the everyday lives of ordinary people. All of these are more or less new themes in Star Wars. One way to see it is that the old way represents an affirmation of the great men theory of history. Society is shaped by the doings of great heroes. This film however humanizes the heroes and asserts that they can come from nowhere and out of nothing. It represents an attempt to democratize Star Wars.
Focusing on what the Force is and the role of the Jedi, I find that as a videogamer, this film contains interesting parallels with the highly acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic II. George Lucas is on record for repeatedly claiming that to him balance means the Light side vanquishing the Dark side. This game that dates from 2005 instead advances the fan favorite theory that balance really is a tension between both Light and Dark and that the Jedi were wrong to try to completely scour the Dark side from existence. One character in the game called himself a Gray Jedi. It’s easy to see how well this fits with what Luke says here about the Force being all about the balance and how Rey should ignore the strict codes of the Old Jedi Order.
Unfortunately that game was also famous for its numerous technical issues and a rushed ending that felt incomplete. The Last Jedi similarly has laudable aspirations but isn’t quite up to the mark in terms of its production values. The film is too long and feels like it. There are pacing issues and too many problems with false climaxes that feel like they could be natural stopping points. Finn and Rose’s adventures don’t feel like an organic part of the story. The Joss Whedon-style humor kills the tension too often. J.J. Abrams may be creatively bankrupt but no one can question his technical skills as a director. Rian Johnson is not up to those standards and the visuals here are no match for those in The Force Awakens. This film simply lacks the wow factor that is so critical to Star Wars.
There’s a lot more that I could say about this film. The Broken Forum thread on it is more than a dozen pages already and still growing. This is a good sign that this is an interesting film that is worth talking about. I very much agree for example that it was very much made as an attack on toxic masculinity. Poe is a picture perfect example of the phenomenon of mansplaining as he thinks he can do better than the appointed female leader and the film punishes him by making him fail hard. It’s true that the new villains possess none of the gravitas of the old ones. Yet this too reflects contemporary reality. Kylo Ren is a ridiculously immature man-child, yet it is undeniable that he possesses raw power in spades. That makes him terrifying and it’s impossible not to see that this as a deliberate reference to Donald Trump. Still this post is too long already and I’ve spent enough time on it.
All said, I find The Last Jedi to be a film that is worthy of respect but I can’t say that I like it much due to its quality control issues and the fact that I know that it is never be able to fully commit to what it is trying to do. A direction that dares to fully deconstruct the Star Wars universe would indeed qualify as high art but it can’t end in any way other than the destruction of an immensely valuable franchise. It’s also evident now that there is no master plan for the series and each writer / director is free to choose to do almost anything subject to final approval by Disney executives. That does not bode well for the future and as Abrams is slated to return for the next film, it seems possible that he may attempt to reverse everything here in order to get everything back on its original track.