I finally did it.
It took me a few more weeks than most people, but on Saturday, January 6, I finally saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
And this was quite remarkable for me, since I was not certain I was ever going to watch the film. I had heard bad things, from some voices that I respect, and from some I do not. Still, in my case, the idea of shelling out money to see a movie I was not sure I would enjoy is always going to be a long shot.
But I am glad I did. I found things in this movie that other people did not find, and I have things to say about it that other people are not saying. Which, when you think about it, is the perfect excuse to make a blog post.
First Things First
I must start by saying that The Last Jedi in no way redeems, excuses, or justifies the abject failure that was The Force Awakens. There is no version of Star Wars Episode VIII that could make up for the cancer that was the previous movie. In every conceivable reality where The Force Awakens was made, it cannot be walked back.
And that is tragedy. But it is also something we now have to live with.
But my approach to movie criticism is rather simple. After watching any movie, I ask myself one question: “Could I have written it better?”
And often the answer is no.
Yet I have also encountered a number of films where, with only a little bit of effort, I am able to conjure up a better narrative in my head. But you will notice that in either of these cases, my primary concern is with the writing of the movie, as, in my estimation, little else is a factor when deciding if a film is good or bad.
And there can be no question that—strictly from a writing perspective—The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars film ever made.
How I Came to this Conclusion
For a long time, I intended to write a blog post about how much I hated The Force Awakens, where I would point out all the things wrong with that movie.
But almost every point I wanted to make had already been made by others. Eventually, I realized I had nothing unique to add, and gave up.
But suffice it to say that I consider The Force Awakens to be a complete waste—an ugly thing that gave no regard to structure, character development, or expansion of the franchise.
And if, after that dud of a movie had been made, someone had run up to me and said, “Now you write the next one,” I would have laughed in their face. On my most optimistic day, I would have said it was impossible. Take all the problems created by he-who-shall-not-be-named (but whose name is “Jar Jar Abrams”) and try to excavate a workable plot from it? That’s just lunacy right there.
But Rian Johnson apparently saw what I could not. And whether or not he knows how he did it, he somehow managed to take the ashes of the franchise and make something from the wreckage—something that, if not beautiful in its own right, was still a reminder of the beauty that once had been there, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Ye Shall Have Good Writing, and Good Writing shall Set You Free
Perhaps the biggest failure of The Force Awakens was that it was written as a bulleted list of plot points, and it played out exactly the same way.
The Last Jedi, on the other hand, was written as a series of character moments. And that is the key to excellent storytelling. I came into theater expecting to hate at least most of the movie, yet I came away having felt not a single moment of disgust. And it was entirely because each character moment hit that sweet spot of being emotionally significant without becoming syrupy or sentimental.
And that is more important than any other consideration. Certainly more important than, say, continuity with previous films (as if I care whether they contradicted anything that came out of the prequel trilogy). And also more important than trying to please the die hard fans who have read every book in the expanded universe and watched all the TV shows and spinoff movies.
It reminds me of what William Goldman (author of The Princess Bride and screenwriting guru) once said:
I believe it was the late Rosalind Russell who gave this wisdom to a young actor: “Do you know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theater happy.” I think she was right.
And The Last Jedi has more of these “moments” than any previous Star Wars film. Even in the original trilogy, character moments would often get broken up by long swaths of villain grandstanding or blocks of exposition dumped on us by that exposition-dumping machine, Obi Wan Kenobi.
But of course, it was the highest quality exposition, and also the highest quality of villainous grandstanding, but it got in the way of the franchise’s powerful character moments. Though, thankfully, those character moments were strong enough to handle being watered down a little. The original trilogy is still an excellent series.
But The Last Jedi opted instead to concentrate its character moments into a hard-hitting flurry, hardly ever letting up. It was, perhaps, an extreme approach, but considering the shaky foundation they were building on, I can see why they had to try something so desperate.
And it paid off. They made the best possible movie, considering what they had to work with.
But perhaps it would be helpful to be more specific. To give a better understanding of the power of character moments, I should point out how they worked for the actual characters.
What Happened to Our Heroes?
As The Last Jedi made the wise decision to be an ensemble movie, and gave equal attention to many different characters, we ended up with nice bouquet of character arcs. These are a few of the most important ones, and also the most controversial.
You may not agree with my assessments, but I will do my best to justify my positions.
Warning: The remainder of this post will contain spoilers.
A lot of people complained about the way Luke’s character was handled in this movie. Mark Hamill himself decried the depiction, claiming that the character presented here was not his Luke Skywalker.
But unfortunately for all these objectors, there was pretty much no other path for Luke’s character to take. That he has become a depressed recluse was pretty much written in stone by The Force Awakens. And, honestly, who wouldn’t be depressed after having all their beloved students murdered by a family member?
A lot of people were also upset that Luke had turned his back on the Jedi order—an order he had spent the entirety of the original trilogy trying to enter.
But this, once again, is a natural progression of his character, and it goes even further back than The Force Awakens. Astute watchers of the original trilogy will recognize that Luke was used and abused by the remaining Jedi. They filled his young head with ideas about avenging his father, telling him his destiny was to kill his murderer.
Oh, but what’s this? The man they want him to kill actually is his father. The Jedi lied to him, in an attempt to trick him into killing his own dad. After that, they try to write off their deception by saying that they told the truth “from a certain point of view” (which has to be the lamest excuse any character has ever given in the entire history of storytelling).
It comes as no shock to me that Luke would grow disillusioned with the Jedi order. I was also disillusioned by the end of Return of the Jedi. I knew that any new Jedi order founded by Luke would have different rules and take a different path than what had been laid down by Yoda and the others.
And when that new order failed, it’s only natural that Luke would see the wisdom in allowing the Jedi to go extinct.
Rey was stronger in this movie…because she was weaker.
They added just a drop of vulnerability to her in The Last Jedi. And that small contribution was enough to make me start admiring her as a character, and to realize that she really is an awesome heroine.
Perhaps the most powerful moment in the movie comes when she is facing down Kylo Ren, and he finally lets the cat out of the bag as to who her parents were.
“They were nobody. They sold you for drink money.”
How absolutely crushing that moment was, but it humanized a character that, in a much worse movie, was depicted as inexplicably superhuman.
Rey’s attempts to connect with Luke were also more powerful because she failed to reach him. He only got his act together once she walked away from him. That kind of character tension is worth its weight in gold.
He had a much smaller role in this movie, and that was probably for the best.
So much of the previous movie had just been Kylo Ren grandstanding, trying to look tough and trying too hard.
Perhaps the best moment of this movie was when Supreme Leader Snoke says to him, “Take that ridiculous thing off.”
Whereupon we see the last of the “knockoff Vader” helmet.
If I had gotten around to writing a The Force Awakens review, I would have dedicated an entire section to why the character of Finn did not work.
It was my biggest gripe about that movie. Here they went through all the trouble of establishing this character, and then they did nothing interesting with him.
All the contributions he made could have been done better by Rey or Poe, and often were, as he would scarcely try anything without Rey eventually butting in and doing it better. He was, frankly, a superfluous character.
What a delight, then, to have him actually do something on his own for once. Even better, he was given a foil in the form of Rose, who completes him as a character. Their romantic tension and espionage subplot is what finally brought Finn to life as a character.
And this one was strangely the most controversial of all.
Poe Dameron faces a tremendous challenge in The Last Jedi. He’s probably the most skilled fighter pilot alive, but that operates against him when he encounters an obstacle he can’t simply blast to bits.
And that obstacle takes the form of this character:
Vice Admiral Holdo is military officer overseeing an unwinnable operation. As such, she has no use for hotshot pilots who want to take huge risks and jump the gun.
She in an unlikable character, but that is not accidental. A good comparison, from other fiction, would be the character of Severus Snape from the Harry Potter franchise. Snape is ultimately working for the good guys, but throughout the story he keeps making questionable choices, leaving doubt as to where his loyalties really lie.
Holdo is much the same. When she’s mean to Poe, and that makes you (the audience) hate her, rest assured that what you’re feeling was tactically pre-planned by the writers (for more about using hate as a writing tool, see this post).
Holdo mistreats Poe, yes, but her inability to reconcile with him is understandable, considering that she is in the middle of an unwinnable war, at the tail end of what may be the last battle. She singles him out because he is the leader of the faction that is currently opposing her choices—a faction that includes both men and women. The idea that she is singling out Poe only because he is a man is, to me, a bit far fetched.
It is also worth noting that both Holdo and Poe end up being wrong. Holdo’s belief that the enemy fleet won’t pursue the smaller ships is incorrect, and Poe’s idea of enlisting a code breaker leads to the betrayal that allows said enemy fleet to keep pursuing.
Carrie Fisher is dead.
That’s probably not the best sentence to start on, but it’s part of a larger point.
Carrie Fisher is dead. And in The Last Jedi, there came a moment that would have been the perfect time to kill her character, Leia Organa, off.
I came to that moment, and I knew what was going to happen. It saddened me to think that Leia’s death would be so unremarkable, her time in the movie cut short in such a flippant manner.
And then a miracle occurred.
I had equated Leia’s and Carrie’s deaths with such finality, that I could not comprehend what I was seeing. When Leia came back to life, it was as if Carrie Fisher’s ashes came out of their Prozac-shaped urn, reformed themselves into human shape, and screamed at the sky, “Not today!”
I don’t think a more magical moment has ever occurred in cinema. That event, alone, would have been worth the price of admission.
But all is not well in the land of Star Wars.
The Befouler Returneth
Viewing The Last Jedi almost rekindled my hope for the Star Wars franchise.
Because I knew, even as I was walking out of the theater, that all the good things about The Last Jedi would eventually be undone.
If, somehow, you do not already know, then it falls to me to announce that Jar Jar Abrams is returning to direct Episode IX. I lay most of the responsibility for Episode VII’s mediocrity at his feet, mostly because the mistakes made in that film are much like the mistakes made in all things that J.J. Abrams touches.
So it is with a heavy heart that I finish my examination of The Last Jedi. It was, unfortunately, too good to last.
What I Found in The Last Jedi
I found a movie that belongs alongside the original trilogy.
There is a petition, on Change.org, to actually have The Last Jedi stricken from Star Wars canon. I think it would be more appropriate to instead strike The Force Awakens, then give Rian Johnson the responsibility of creating a new Episode VII, with the same actors, that ends in a way that would still fit The Last Jedi.
But that’s a pipe dream, and I know it. I can at least take comfort in the fact that, for one small moment, we had Star Wars again.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…from a galaxy far, far away.”]