I saw The Last Jedi. As a friend put it on Twitter, this is, to date, the best Star Wars film of the twenty-first century. (Look at my excitement!) Like with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, my review is going to be a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the movie, a format shamelessly adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. My usual caveats apply: I have read few reviews, almost none of the background on making of the film and it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. These are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had.
While still in graduate school I took a class on the Latin author Seneca, who lived in the first century CE. We dedicated one unit to his plays, during which we read the Phaedra, a play about Theseus’ wife Phaedra’s consuming lust for her step-son Hippolytus who has no interest in her. Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of raping her and Theseus uses a boon to summon a monstrous beast from the sea to kill his son. Seneca infuses the play with contemporary themes, but the play is functionally just Euripides’ Hippolytus, with some new bits. No where is this more notable than in his description of the the sea monster, which more terrifyingly monstrous in his version. In short, this is what is happening in the new Star Wars movies.
One review that floated by me on Twitter argued that the success of The Last Jedi is in its willingness to discard The Star Wars you know. I disagree. This is an Empire supercut, with dedicated homages to episodes IV, VI, and VII. The new movies are doing some things differently in terms of what story elements are driving plot, which I found problematic for other reasons, but the pieces are basically the same. When I pointed this out for the first movie, I was told to be patient because JJ Abrams was on board to reestablish Star Wars as a franchise and thus his agenda was to do exactly that. Wait for the next installment, they said. The good news, having seen the next installment, is that they are (probably) out of source material to work with now; the bad news is that this movie did basically the same thing.
- I have written before about the issue of Rebellion in this sort of space opera and found the political setup for The Force Awakens convoluted. The Last Jedipicks up somewhat after the events of the previous movie, with the opening crawl declaring that The First Order has overthrown the Republic and is on the brink of total victory in the galaxy. This does a good job at setting the stakes for the movie that follows and yet it annoyed me for several reasons. First, as a device, it undermines all of the successes from The Force Awakens. This is not a problem in the original series because defeating one star station in the galactic empire still means that the rebel alliance is on the run. Here, though, the success in destroying a large outlay of resources on the part of The First Order leads to…the rise of The First Order. It is tempting to see this as a commentary about political climates, but I think it is more likely to be the result of the eternal need for rebellion to drive these stories.
- It is well-established that the original series were direct iterations of Campbellian monomyth. The new movies are trying to break that archetype, driving the plot through character interaction rather than a hero’s quest. Sometimes this works well, such as in the relationship between Poe and Finn and the addition of Rose Tico in this movie. When it things click, the dialogue pops, and the plot is infused with drama. At the same time, Star Wars remains a series of action films with competing demands that pose a challenge for developing these characters properly. As a result, this choice underscores the general shallowness of the characters.
- Kylo Ren, in particular, is boring. There is a creepiness factor to his character, but not in any way that I find interesting. (The same goes for General Hux, but he is not the one who the movie is based around.) I would probably say the same thing about Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine if the original trilogy had tried to explore their internal motivations. They are interesting as villains, not for their rich internal lives.
- In contrast to my issue with Kylo Ren, The Last Jedi resolved my beef with Rogue One‘s deployment of starfighter combat. In Rogue One, there is fighter combat where pilots we don’t know are fighting and dying, muting the overall effect. Here we are immediately placed in the cockpit with Poe, so when the other pilots join the fray as his team we care. Putting aside the issue of dropping bombs in zero-gravity, this open sequence had stakes, it had humor, it had drama, it had killer action sequences. I loved it.
- I am shamelessly #TeamEwok, so it should come as no surprise that I am also #TeamPorg. (I nevertheless find this article deeply amusing.) Porgs added a sense of whimsy to the Star Wars movie and after the brief introductory scene, they were easily integrated into the rest of the film much in the same way that the little forest spirits worked in Princess Mononoke. Much the same could be said about the exotic animals throughout The Last Jedi where even the glittery salt wolves, my least favorite of them, served a legitimate purpose to the plot. Star Wars is full of creatures like these, so populating the movie with cute additions like this adds to the wonder of the experience and builds in an audience for the film without making them so central or allowing them to speak in a way that drives away everyone else. *cough* Jar Jar *cough* Just as long as they don’t go for a Porg-centric Holiday Special.
- Ultimately the point of The Last Jedi wasn’t Rey or Luke of Kylo or any of the rest. It was the boy in the final scene who is telling stories about his heroes and looking up to the sky while wearing a ring with the crest of the Rebel Alliance. For all of the talk about religion and scenes of action and adventure, it was this moment of inspiring the next generation to create a better future that was the point. The buildup to this was a little heavy-handed, with talk of heroes and hope and oppression, and these movies are painfully dependent on something to rebel against, but the moment landed for me.
The Last Jedi committed a cardinal sin: it left me bored. Not totally and not all the time, but it did. I am glad that other people are enjoying the evolution of the Star Wars franchise and wish them all the enjoyment of the films, I’m just not having the same reaction to the new films and should spend my time elsewhere. I may still see the next installment, but probably not in the theater.