I really disliked The Last Jedi, and felt it was by far the worst movie of the entire Star Wars saga and really ruined the rest of the trilogy. Here’s why.
- How to Destroy Your Own New Trilogy
How the main characters progress in the Last Jedi is incredibly puzzling to me. To use a perhaps unfair example, let’s consider how some major characters progress from A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back, why it’s interesting and why we care, then look at how similar characters progress in The Last Jedi.
Luke: begins to test the limits of his powers and talents. Becomes fully engaged in the rebel struggle, finds a great and mysterious master who teaches him things we all never knew, the importance of mind over matter, faith, facing his deepest fears. Gains perspective and power, but fails a big test badly. Learns the true implications of his lineage and family (both father and sister), making his final struggle even more difficult, uncertain, and meaningful.
Han Solo: is unsure of his place in the great galactic conflict. As his relationship with Leia grows, so does his connection to the cause. More of his past as a smuggler is revealed, as well as his resourcefulness. His nihilism and cynicism begins to change just like his assumptions (through Luke) and priorities (through Leia). He has to make peace with the world he came from in order to move on, but is ultimately unable to do so as the Empire has truly spread far and wide and always seems a step ahead, threatening everything he cares for. Frozen in carbonite as his past and enemies catch up to him, we don’t even know if he’ll survive to the last movie.
Vader: Still “on a leash” in A New Hope, the death star’s destruction in some ways proved him right about the force. He’s now more free to show the extent of his ruthlessness and intolerance for failure with other imperial officers. He is also shown to be strangely vulnerable, part man and part machine, but ultimately in service not just to the goals of the Empire but more to the Emperor’s plans to dominate the galaxy on the only tier and level that matters – monopoly over the force, in which he is deeply personally invested and perhaps even conflicted. No mere brute or henchman caricature, he’s also shown to be cunning and resourceful, manipulating others to do his dirty work, setting traps and dominating the conflict at every turn. A real coming out party for one of the greatest villains in movie history.
The Emperor: Only mentioned but as I recall never actually seen in A New Hope, he’s set up more as an ultimate villain of this series. His agenda, unknown motivations and origins and mysterious power (for who could command one as strong and ruthless as Vader?) and his grand plans and directive for Vader and Luke set him up as a great ‘final boss’ whose true strength can only be imagined.
Now, let’s look at how some of these same characters do in Last Jedi:
Rey: Wants to learn about the force and explore her own power and potential, while trying to bring one of the greatest of all time into the great galactic conflict (for which she actually doesn’t have much reason to care, but does anyway.) Luke teaches her only that the Jedi were arrogant assholes who caused a ton of problems for everyone, includes himself on the list, wants it all to go away. She trains and practices a bit, but wants to get back into things and turn Kylo ‘good’, still not really sure why or why she even thinks this is possible, having recently witnessed him murder his own father. She fails badly at this and discovers that she’s supposedly an abandoned child, removing yet another possibly very powerful connection to the story and universe. Also gets handled by Snoke, but gets bailed out, then decides she doesn’t want to be evil.
Kylo: Maybe the only interesting character left in the new trilogy, he’s still finding his place and coming to grips with failure and that he might never reach the lofty standards he’s set for himself. Keeps disappointing his masters, but gets sweet revenge this time by outwitting and killing his current one. Thinks Rey would make a great student / sidekick, but she disagrees. Is now himself the master and the guy in charge. Not sure if he considers his training complete or what his grand ambitions and goals are now that he’s in the driver’s seat.
Luke: Is a hermit in retirement when a nosy, troublesome child comes along wanting to learn more about the Force. He’s been through this before so he tries to shut her down, but is intrigued and perhaps re-energized by her youth, drive, and power. Admits he never actually read the books he was claiming to quote, is reunited and trolled once more by Yoda. Ultimately decides to help out friends and family who he’s shut out for many years and to show Kylo he’s still the master, but is so out of shape that he dies shortly afterwards.
Poe: The “good” version of Hux, but just like him, also now a hollow caricature of a person. No origins or background explored, no other ties or reason he believes in the Resistance cause, no conflict. He’s a talented, brash, bloodthirsty pilot who is so good at fighting his way out of everything that it’s the only solution he can ever think of.
Finn: He wakes up from his coma wanting to escape death and/or find Rey, remains more or less a coward who doesn’t know what he wants to do. Winds up going on a filler mission with Rose where he is directionless and uncertain, ends up betrayed and badly outwitted. Is bailed out by a tremendous stroke of luck, but at least he got to settle scores with his old boss (yet another overblown, overhyped, yet ultimately irrelevant and useless character, the unforgettable Captain Phasma) and got the girl (almost definitely not the one he wanted).
Snoke: The size, distortion, power, and mystery surrounding him unfolds to him being a modestly warped looking regular humanoid with tremendous mastery of the force (or so he claims). He’s stronger and more polished than Rey and Kylo, at least initially. His origins and motivations are not explored much at all, which I guess doesn’t matter because despite claiming to be a beast he dies to some basic human deception.
Hux: Anything that could have been interesting about this character is immediately thrown out the window. He’s a caricature, capable of shouting tritely oppressive phrases over the intercom in the general direction of his enemies but not of actually being any sort of threat to them or his main ‘rival’, Kylo. Where’s he from and why’s he here? Who cares?
The Force Awakens left us with a ton of questions, things to look forward to. Who is Rey? Who is Snoke? What direction will Kylo go? What is Luke’s role in all of this? How will he teach Rey and what will he do? What will happen to Finn? How will the stakes and conflict change? A good movie comes up with interesting answers to these questions, and makes us ask many more. The Last Jedi abruptly closed the book on many of these, and left us with very few questions going forward. What central conflict is there even left to resolve, except the one between Kylo and Rey (already built on shaky ground and largely explored)? Who’s the big, scary final boss that our hero must ultimately conquer? Do you even care what happens to everyone? Why are the characters set up and introduced through the Force Awakens either dead, cast aside, or not developed at all? Does it even matter who wins between the First Order and Resistance?
It’s easy to criticize without providing alternatives, so here’s two ways to develop these very same characters in an interesting way that leaves us with lots of questions, that leaves the imagination grasping and wondering:
A. Evil Luke: I thought we were going to have a really interesting twist when Kylo’s memory of Luke trying to kill him in his sleep seemed very different from Luke’s. What if the reason Luke wanted the Jedi to end was because of his own corruption? What if he became jealous, suspicious, or fearful of Kylo, which caused him to realize that, like father, like son, he was susceptible to the same thirst for power? What if he never wanted others to possess and learn what he had, once he realized they wouldn’t remain faithful and obedient forever? What if, after assessing if Rey was really a threat or not, he then chose to betray her for the same reason? There’s so much wiggle room here, even without turning the hero of the original trilogy into an outright villain, that makes his character and the grand story much more interesting and impactful.
B. Snoke: Leading up to this movie, there were of course lots of spoiler rumors. One of them was that Snoke would be some kind of force vampire, someone who feeds upon the souls and ghosts of the dead Jedi. This is just one example of a way to make Snoke a truly unique and more sinister villain; he wants the Jedi and Sith cycle to continue because it will continually feed his hunger; he is more ancient and has different aims that never required him to directly intervene in galactic politics or care about the ongoing war and its stakes. He would be the “there’s always a bigger fish”. Something like this could also blend with Luke leaving his hiding place to continue exploring and learning about the history of the Jedi, together with his apprentice and potential successor. Maybe Luke goes on a hunt for clues, and finds out he can no longer communicate with Obiwan and Yoda as he once had, discovering Snoke’s true nature in the process. Perhaps he must sacrifice himself in the end to stall Snoke or protect Rey. It adds more depth to the ancient Jedi temple, texts, and lore instead of dismissing them as pedantic nothings. This type of story just creates so much more breathing room for the stakes of the Jedi/Sith/Force user spiritual struggle, which is always supposed to happen on a more transcendent level than the wars over territory and politics. But instead, Snoke just dies, and what was set up to be the final boss of this new trilogy is gone just like that.
- Cheap Laughs, Cheap Villains, Lack of Vision
One of the earliest scenes in the Last Jedi is a continuation of the Force Awakens’ cliffhanger, Rey extending the lightsaber to Luke. Luke just tosses it aside, and the crowd laughs. This is the first and maybe most prominent example of one of this movie’s many cheap laughs. You have comic relief in the original trilogy too, but it’s mostly through unique characters like the droids and Chewbacca, and most importantly through the characters’ interactions and not merely cheap thrills or unexpected turns. That’s the difference between Chewbacca growling an unintelligible response to something and Han finding a witty retort that leaves you to figure out what he said, and characters like Jar Jar stepping in poop or scenes like this lightsaber toss. This scene might be super surprising and momentarily amusing in the theater, but I guarantee you something like this ages very poorly. And it really bothered me that the movie did this repeatedly, this cheapening of things that should be much more profound and important.
For example, one of the great things about the original trilogy is that no scene featuring a lightsaber or the force is ever thrown away for cheap laughs. Every scene with a lightsaber expands the mythology or story significantly, from the very beginning when Luke is fascinated (just as we are) with what it is and what it can do, to Obi Wan teaching him about what it means and the history of the Jedi, to each and every duel, which despite terrible choreography and other technological limitations, is filled with significance at the highest tier of power struggle (again, the spiritual / religious level that the Jedi mythology inhabits). The mere presence of a lightsaber tells you that something in the biggest of pictures is about to go down. The prequel trilogy cheapened this because everyone and everything had a lightsaber, and it stopped being special. It looked like the newest Disney trilogy was going to move towards correcting this in the proper direction, (Rey’s saber visions in TFA for example) but again, TLJ seemed to rebuke TFA by not seizing these opportunities to really develop and advance the mythology.
Put aside that in TFA Finn, untrained in the ways of the force, is able to use a lightsaber and hold his own for a bit against Kylo Ren; in this trilogy stormtroopers have a built-in energy bayonet they can use to fight it. What’s so special about having a lightsaber, then? One thing that was never explored in any of the films was how one crafted and built a lightsaber (considered a rite of passage in Empire Strikes back), which seems like a unique or potentially lost art given the scarcity of Jedi, and another great opportunity to expand the mythology or give Rey or other characters a unique quest leading to growth and character development. A lightsaber should feel much closer to an Excalibur type of uniquely powerful weapon.
A parallel to this lack of vision when it comes to lightsabers and force mythology is cheap villains. Though people might say the original trilogy was super simple on the morality scale between good and evil, the steps those movies took to reach that point are far more meaningful than this completely unrelatable and meaningless struggle between the Resistance and the First Order.
In the original trilogy, Luke is originally just a humble moisture farmer’s apprentice who yearns for adventure. He isn’t just immediately in the midst of this epic struggle for galactic power; infact he’s told by his uncle that he’ll need to stay on the farm for at least another season before he can apply for the IMPERIAL academy, so he really has no allegiance either way when things kick off. He wants something greater and more exciting, but doesn’t know what exactly that means. He isn’t some zealot with an unmoving compass on what’s good and evil. What turns it for him? Aside from the plans and the princess, which catch his fancy and curiosity and lead him to Obiwan, the Empire brutally murders his family when searching for the droid plans. This makes things personal for him, and demonstrates the oppression and ruthlessness of the Empire while actually giving him nothing to go back to. This arguably has a lot more weight for the purposes of showing the struggle than even the Death Star vaporizing an unknown planet, because you know and care about the people involved and how they relate to the main character.
Compare that with the raid on some random village at the start of TFA, where you don’t really know anyone (except the old guy who was supposed to be play an important part in the story but also, like many characters in this new trilogy, didn’t). Which raid means more to our main characters and allegiances? Which one makes us root for and care about our main characters, while showing the boundless evil they’re up against?
In the original trilogy, even a short-lived character like Tarkin is memorable and nuanced. He’s powerful and often commanding or ordering Vader around in spite of the supernatural gifts that the latter has. The Imperial officers in that board meeting scene actively argue and jockey for position, and while Vader can bully some of them, he still feels compelled to listen to Tarkin. Compare that with Hux, who is basically just a walking stereotype who goes from at least being a potentially interesting villain in TFA, to a complete caricature in TLJ. Are we supposed to be intimidated or intrigued by this person? Does it actually make the slightest bit of difference whether he’s alive or dead? Is he actually menacing or interesting in any way?
Another great parallel on this front is the Vegas plot in TLJ compared to the Cloud City plot in Empire. Space Vegas has actually little to nothing to do with the First Order or Resistance…it seems entirely like gambling and debauchery is operating usual, until you get at some point to stable servants (or was it their children), who mysteriously understand or care about the Resistance, or freedom and hope. Why? How do they even care or understand? Why is this even the First Order’s fault…shouldn’t the New Republic have ensured that these things don’t happen? Shouldn’t that be the focus of their anger? Contrast that with Cloud City, where you’re constantly intrigued and have a bad feeling that something is amiss, that Lando isn’t truly the great friend to Han he’s pretending to be. You come to learn through the story that the Empire through force and coercion turns locals minding their own business into grudging collaborators, then betrays or strongarms them too, at its own convenience. Lando is a former acquaintance of Han who would just like to run his mining operation, but he too is forced into the struggle through betrayal and manipulation. Again, which of these stories makes you fear, loathe, and respect the bad guys, while seeing firsthand how they operate and what they stand for? And which one of them makes little sense as cheap filler, introducing novelty and expansion for the quickie thrill of it, with no useful character or story development underneath?
Even Han Solo is just a smuggler trying to make his way in the galaxy. He’s not a hero and doesn’t want to be one, he doesn’t care about the struggle that’s going on except to try and avoid its inconveniences and entanglements, and up until the end of Empire he’s still torn on trying to find his way out and go back to his normal life. Compare that with Poe Dameron, whose character is so straightforward as to be bland and boring, whose undying allegiance to the cause of the Resistance is never explained and never wavers, whose motivations don’t progress beyond a desire to show off and kill. His character is a cheap play on the Top Gun hotshot pilot trope, a good excuse to legitimately show off some cool, daring fight sequences, and that’s about it.
And again, there were so many alternatives besides this cheap setup of good versus evil. It wasn’t too late before TLJ to explore them, but now we’re 2/3 of the way through the trilogy, and the main conflicts on both the galactic / political / everyday person level and the spiritual / jedi level both feel hollow and insignificant.
Need an example? The simplest question that could be explored entirely in this new trilogy is, simply, what happens when you win? What happens after the Rebellion is successful? Is everyone still aligned in their goals without a common enemy? What if, like in real life when there are spoils to be divvied up, the leadership fractures and goes their own separate ways, each with different agendas, unable to agree on much of anything without the leadership of a strong Jedi order as a moral and spiritual compass? Factions splinter left and right, some leaders become jaded or selfish, and Leia is struggling to hold it all together. Maybe she needs Luke to quickly train a new Jedi order for just this reason, a task for which he’s not prepared, and that’s why it backfires and leads to the Knights of Ren. Maybe the galaxy polarizes towards the Sith way, dictatorship and rule based on force, might, and fear, and the Jedi way, a legacy of acceptance, democracy, compromise, tolerance, and wisdom. And Luke and Leia are worn and ground down by years of struggle, and need a new generation to take up the fight for them. Old friends become enemies and rivals, old allegiances are torn apart, faith and family is tested. That doesn’t sound like it’s too complicated for a new generation of fans to understand, is in tune with the ‘grit’ that many new successful shows and stories have adopted, and leaves so much room to expand the universe and mythology in fresh ways while giving closure to the lives and struggles of our original heroes.
The Force Awakens was in many ways a ‘safe’ continuation of the original trilogy, but it still left lots of space for (or maybe before the forgettable Starkiller base at least) the Last Jedi to branch out on its own. This movie was so disappointing because it took that baton and just threw it over its shoulder. At least the prequel trilogy tried to ask some interesting questions and show us a different journey. How does the proud and strong Jedi order become corrupted and destroyed? How does the galaxy fall under the rule of an evil dictator? How does the chosen one go from being a prodigy to the pinnacle of evil? The only question I’ve got after TLJ is, what’s the point of even watching Episode 9?