Star Wars: The Last Jedi Has Been Out for a Month; I Have Thoughts

Star Wars: The Last Jedi theatrical poster.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi theatrical poster.

The Last Jedi came out out December 14, 2017. I saw it on December 16, then again on December 29. This continued my streak of seeing all of the new Star Wars movies in the theater twice, which I began with The Force Awakens and continued with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The Last Jedi is the best of the new Star Wars movies, and is maybe the best entry yet in this massively successful, 40-year-old franchise.

This is, of course, not an incontrovertible position. The White Male Resentment crowd has some problems with it, flooding the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes profile with negative reactions in an effort to artificially deflate its score. [Ed. Note: A long and forceful discussion of Rotten Tomatoes being a crappy metric has been removed. Nobody has time for that.] There are also good-faith reasons to dislike the movie, or at least have some problems with it. It is certainly not a perfect movie — no big-budget blockbuster will ever be a “perfect” movie — but some of those good-faith arguments against it are exactly why I liked it so much.

The following comes from an email I sent to a friend from high school, a doctor back in Baltimore, who emailed me with some of his concerns about the movie:

A huge part of this movie, I think, was sort of blowing up what we expect a Star Wars movie to be. In the same way that lots of people expected Snoke to be nouveau Palpatine but then he ended up dying in the Second Act of the second film in the trilogy, a huge secondary theme has to do with Poe’s recklessness. So much of sci-fi relies on the dashing, daring hero speaking truth to power and taking the necessary steps that the powers-that-be refuse to. We’re expected to dislike Holdo in favor of Poe — I actually expected Laura Dern to be a double agent when I watched the movie the first time — but as it turns out she knows that if she gives Poe an inch he’ll undermine her authority and mess things up. Which he, Finn, and Rose end up doing anyway!
My thinking is, the stakes are actually super high for the Canto Bight/Benicio del Toro sequences, it’s just that the stakes aren’t what we expect. The normal stakes would be: They succeed in their mission, the Resistance survives; they fail and everyone dies. But because Holdo has an actual plan — which she withholds from them because of Poe’s documented refusal to follow orders — the actual stakes are that they need to minimize the damage they do. They DO need to succeed, but not for the usual reason: when they fail, Benicio del Toro sells them out, and hundreds of Resistance fighters die.
Their failure to follow orders, and subsequent failure to minimize the damage for that, means that suddenly the entire Resistance can fit inside the Millennium Falcon. This sets up a crazy, holy-crap-how-do-they-eventually-win third installment.
The Last Jedi did not follow the template for a Star Wars movie; nor did it follow the formula for a big-budget sci fi picture. This is very similar to how Rogue One took the standard action movie formula — daring heroes make a dramatic stand in the third act, narrowly and dramatically escaping at the end (with perhaps one or two tragic casualties) — and just crushed our expectations by having everybody you’d come to love over the previous two hours die in various ways.

When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, I worried that they would do to Star Wars what they’ve done with superhero movies. I stopped watching superhero movies because, with at least one Marvel movie coming out a year, with bloated rosters of superheroes and endless tie-ins to the next several Marvel movies due up, the movies themselves are boring, repetitive, and unoriginal. So far, this has not been the case with Star Wars. There’s always a chance — perhaps even a probability — that the franchise will eventually become as stale as the Marvel and DC universes. But for now, Disney has shown a willingness to do exactly the opposite of what audiences expect, and the movies are better off for it.

Also, grizzled, old Luke is great. There’s so much more to unpack with his character, like how somebody with the optimism and pure potential he displayed at the end of Return of the Jedi could be so depressive by the end of his life. I’m fascinated by his reaction to failure: He tried to revive the Jedi Order and failed, his failure feeding directly into the force (pardon the pun) that would ultimately destroy The New Republic. The New Republic, of course, being the thing that he and Leia and the rest of the Rebel Alliance spent the entire original trilogy trying to create. His disappointment — his feeling of having wasted his life, his opportunity, his potential — is so fascinating to me. And Mark Hamill nailed the performance.

Because of Luke’s and Poe’s and everyone else’s failures, The Resistance is on the ropes by the end of The Last Jedi. This is a disappointment for everyone involved, but the final parting shots of the entire Resistance — the whole thing! — fitting inside the Millennium Falcon have me so incredibly jazzed for Episode IX. We only have to wait two years to see how they turn the thing around.

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