The Last Jedi: Spoiler-Lite Initial Thoughts

Spoiler Free: It’s a very good movie. It avoids a lot of cliché while remaining “Star Wars” and having a number of subtler call-backs to previous themes and arcs. All the major characters are developed pretty well, including nice doses of humor. Plotwise, the film reminds me a bit of the second X-Men movie, that is, very good but so complex that it loses a certain clarity and, well, force of narrative movement.

Despite some gripping action bits and good light saber fights, overall, the action lost impact for me by being too big, crowded, and defined by implausible escapes. True, Star Wars action has never been realistic: storm troopers’ aim is a meme in itself. But I don’t think it’s just nostalgia goggles saying I can better suspend my belief for people dodging blaster fire than surviving giant explosions unscathed (and I’m not talking about intervention by the Force).

On the whole, it’s a strong contributor to the Star Wars universe that makes me want to see it again and see the next one.

Spoiler-Lite Initial Thoughts

Leia, Luke, and the Family Dynamic

I’m going to start with the “bad” and end on the “good.” I suppose my greatest niggle, with both this film and The Force Awakens, is that Leia and, in this film, Luke have lost some of their roundness as characters. Han escaped that; he was written very well. (Caveat: obviously my view is biased. As a fan who has been creating backstory for these characters since the 1980s, my Luke and Leia are just different from what is now canon, and as much as I enjoy both, my head canon inevitably gets in the way.)

That said, Leia, in both films, is written as staid and exhausted, smart but not very forceful (with a small “f”), and forceful (“f”) is something Leia always was; it’s one of her signal traits. Now Carrie Fisher, referring to The Force Awakens, said she thought Leia was tired, which makes sense, yet I feel I’m being “told and not shown” that she’s the rebels’ great general. This is less true in this film than in The Force Awakens. She’s written better here, but it still needles me, especially knowing this is her final performance. As martial leadership goes, she seems to have gone from being briefed by general Madine to standing around on her command deck, staring while other people make the decisions. That’s not totally true: she does make important command decisions in this film—and it’s a good, explicit narrative decision that she makes them quietly and without fanfare. But I still feel like I’ve never actually seen her be the inspired general I’m told she is. She also didn’t get enough humor. She got some, not enough.

Last Jedi: Luke and Leia Hug

Wish this had made it into the movie!

Luke didn’t get enough humor either (some, not enough). He’s depressed in this movie, and given the story’s plot, that makes sense. It just seemed a bit… unrelieved. Nonetheless, there was a lot to like. He proved a very interesting mix of disillusioned, defeated, powerful, wise, and still good.

My overall feeling about Luke and Leia (especially Leia) can be summed up by their eventual meeting. It’s nice that it happened. It had a little bit of nice humor and a little bit of nice emotion, but it was underplayed, low impact, and didn’t have enough of either humor or emotion.

More broadly, I think Luke’s arc falls a bit flat for me because we haven’t really seen the backstory, and this is a hard problem to address. I really like Kylo Ren, and I like the extension of the Skywalker family drama they’ve done with him. But it also means that this new series is based on a family background we don’t see. Leia, Han, Luke, and Kylo all know their relationships with each other, but we, the audience, have a thirty-year gap. This film provides a tiny bit of narrative to fill in a plot point that explains Kylo’s break from his family, but it’s a plot point rather than a family dynamic.

What could have been done differently? I scarcely know. It might have been worthwhile to take out a little space battling and sub-plotting to add five minutes of serious flashback, but that might have broken the flow and added to the plot complications. I do think the script could have and should have contrived to give the family members more face-to-face time. I give full points to Adam Driver, however, for absolutely selling that he’s embedded in these family relationships that we don’t actually see exist. Mark Hamill sells Luke’s angst well, but I still don’t get much of a sense of what his relationship with his nephew actually was. (A script issue.)

The Force

As to the Force, I have more a curiosity than a quibble: I was expecting to get a clearer sense of what I’m meant to think of the Force/the Jedi. Maybe they’re saving that for the next movie? I’d generally expected a sense that using the Force should be viewed as a balance between light and dark, and force wielders can be successfully be gray. I was surprised to get quite a bit of more traditional discussion of who is going to turn whom to the light or dark side. Absent, however, were the traditional admonitions about fear, anger, etc. Instead, the light side pretty seemed identified with just decent behavior: you know, not wantonly killing people who just want a working Republic. I’m not entirely sure where this Force discussion is going. It will be interesting to see.

I did enjoy Luke shamelessly saying he wasn’t “scared” enough of Ben Solo’s power. I don’t see this as really contradicting the old “fear leads to…” adage as much as it seems a nice awareness of the importance of not being fanatical. There is no need to pretend that fear cannot be useful or normal in its place.

Nifty Stuff

Now, onto some of the nifty stuff. The dynamic between Luke and Rey is really different than any master-apprentice dynamic we’ve seen, and it works. It is, among other things, a weird inversion of the training adventures of Anakin (someone worthy of training gets pushed away vs. someone very problematic being taken on, a good example of overcorrection). This works well. It follows an interesting theme that right instinct may be a more powerful teacher than ancient teachings. The dynamic between Rey and Kylo, however, is the heart of the film, and this is riveting, and occasionally very funny, all in very human ways.

Nice handling of the issue of Rey’s family: a good point and a good inversion of Empire.

All the younger guard are well developed and very vibrant as characters, and as much as I’m griping about Luke and Leia and wanted more vibrancy from them, I do think the film worked to show the difference between old and young rebels, the young eager to spring headlong into action to save the galaxy, the old more cautious, apprehensive, worn out, and sometimes just more strategically sound.

Kylo Ren continues to be a fascinating character and is better served here than in The Force Awakens. In that film, he suffered a weird Borgification, going from badass to rather bizarrely beaten by a novice. The Last Jedi gives a lip-servicey explanation of why (probably about the best way to handle it), and then makes him badass throughout the film. It’s always rare and interesting to find a character who is quite narrowly dedicated to being bad and yet manages to be compelling. I think what makes it work here is a combination of small humanizing details, including a sense of humor and a relatively high degree of self-awareness, and big, conflicted emotions, basically the family drama. It works well, much better than prequel Anakin did, and I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

I also liked the cynical character of DJ. He’s been likened to Lando, but I also think he’s rather like Han stripped of the heroism and gives the story an interesting grounding in realism, a perspective outside the “good guys” vs. “bad guys” that defines the traditional Star Wars mythos.

For a story that has a number of scenes that echo Return of the Jedi, I very much enjoyed one particular echo from Empire: the theme of our youthful heroes going off to save the day against their elders’ judgment—and failing. Unlike in Empire, this isn’t the main plot arc, and that’s good and bad, bad because it’s less powerful than Empire, but good because it’s not an Empire clone, and it’s nicely subtle, you know, by Star Wars standards.

On the whole, the plot threads, which felt a little scattered at first, came together well at the end. The movie is heavy on themes, so heavy that I want to see it again before really commenting on them. It’s more complex than the average Star Wars movie, which robs the film of some mythic power but adds some psychological weight. (It would have been great if The Phantom Menace could have navigated this; it tried.)

A Couple of Political Notes

This is the first Star Wars film in which being (very) rich is bad, i.e. explicitly linked with the arms trade and abuse of other people and animals. Leia was raised rich but the only arguably “bad” thing it did to her was make her awesomely authoritative and bossy. Padmé appears even richer, if her wardrobe is any indication, but she is always a paragon, if sometimes mixed with overly romantic stupidity. There’s no real critique in the prequels of the high society on Coruscant per se. But here we’re clearly told that extreme wealth is built on the back of other people. I am both happy and sad to say this is a necessary message for our times. It’s always been true, but it’s becoming increasingly inescapable, and I’m glad Star Wars is owning it.

On a similar note, I feel like the last couple of Star Wars films have had a love affair with Les Misérables. In Rogue One, our crew went bravely off to the barricade. The Last Jedi is a lengthy discursus on the nature of revolutionary hope even in the absence of practical reason to hope. I wonder if Hugo’s text has actually been in people’s minds, or if this is simply the age we live in, an age where we’re waiting for our last Lamarque to die so that we too can man the barricades in the hope that tomorrow will come.


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