The Last Jedi: Concept vs. Execution

Hey, do you guys know there’s a new Star Wars out?

Of course you do. In my last post, I spent a long paragraph bemoaning the current fan culture and how it squeals with glee at every morsel of Star Wars with an almost cult-like reverence and obedience, but for all my whining, you have to admit—the word for these movies sure gets out. The question is not if any of us have seen The Last Jedi, but when, and what do we think about it?

For myself, between undertaking a cross-country plane trip and waiting for friends to do the same, I ended up until the end of the weekend to watch it, by which point the entire internet had exploded in “IT’S THE GREATEST THING EVER” and “IT’S THE WORST THING EVER.” (What else is new?) What piqued my interest, however, was one recurring theme—“they do weird or unexpected things with Star Wars.” So which is it? Honestly—all of the above.

I’ll be upfront here—I’ve spent a good few minutes just staring into space wondering where the hell to start with this thing, despite having very clear opinions on it, and ones that are none too rosy at that. There’s just a whole clusterfuck to untangle here in terms of criticism—do I start with the difference between concept and execution, how The Last Jedi has some really great ideas (albeit lifted directly from Knights of the Old Republic 2) yet bungles them in practice? Or why half of us are yelling that it’s a mess and the other half says it’s plotted, set up, and paced perfectly? How some critics claim it liberates Star Wars to do new things while the rest say they can feel the tight, metallic, grip of Disney’s influence like a claustrophobic vise? They’re all worthwhile, but also all related.

Let’s begin by describing The Last Jedi in concept. By this I mean, describing an idealized, paraphrased summary of the story and themes—how the film might appear to the writer in their head before actually writing a single word down. This is (to borrow an overused term) “the dark second act.” Despite the victories won by Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Awakens, the First Order has the Republic/Rebellion on the run. The last of the Rebellion is being pursued by the First Order’s fleet, unable to escape, mere hours of fuel away from being destroyed completely. In the face of insurmountable odds, our characters all have to learn the importance of accepting and learning from failure. This is a story about rejecting the dogmatic belief in good and evil, the Light and Dark sides of the force, Jedi and Sith—leaving the past behind and starting something new. How the future of the Force is not in a Skywalker, but just—someone. And therefore, anyone.

Sounds pretty fucking awesome, right? Except these are the only the ideas and themes behind The Last Jedi, its aspirations, its potential. And this sizeable potential? It’s completely unrealized. Because these great ideas are only spoken of in dialogue, given lip service to. The actual story and character arcs do not reflect these ideas one bit. Here are the four main subplots driving the film. Feel free to skip this list if you just want to hear what I think it all amounts to:

1)    Rey starts as a perfect, gifted novice Jedi. She wants to learn from Luke, or at least enlist his help for the Rebellion. Luke, embittered by Kylo Ren’s turn to the dark side, has cut himself off from the Force and believes that the Jedi and Sith should stop existing altogether. (Sound familiar?) After several minutes of being awkwardly followed around, he decides she’s pretty cool, though, so he starts training her. In their first lesson, he is disturbed by how immediately she turns her attention to the dark side, and says he won’t train her anymore. Then Luke sees Rey swing a sword in a pretty cool way and completely changes his mind again. After a very long time, Rey finally asks how Kylo Ren turned to the dark side, and Luke lies, only for Ren to say that Luke tried to kill him, and Luke then admits that he thought about killing Ren for a moment, only for him to take it the wrong way and freak out. (Notice how Luke is let off the hook a bit here when it would have been far more interesting if he actually was capable of being that ruthless?) Rey decides to try to turn Kylo back to the light side. Kylo reveals that her parents, long teased at, are not special at all and there is nothing to be learned there. Rey decides that Kylo is being a dick and leaves to save her friends. Meanwhile, a ghost Yoda tells Luke that he had nothing to teach Rey because she already knew everything she needed to know. So, after a whole lot of screentime-burning scenes, Rey ends as a perfect, gifted novice Jedi, who only needed to learn that she didn’t need to learn anything. What?

2)    Kylo Ren starts as an incompetent crybaby. I don’t say that as an insult, mind you. His character was one of the most interesting parts of this and The Force Awakens; he’s meant to suck, you guys! Anyway, his evil-master-guy-thing-Palpatine-stand-in Snoke chews him out for sucking so much. In a space battle, he almost kills his mother Leia, but lets off the trigger only to have his allies blow her up anyway. He and Rey develop a connection through the force (sound familiar) and he tells her how Luke tried to kill him. When Rey comes to try to save him, he takes her to Snoke, who orders him to kill her. Instead, Kylo kills Snoke, and asks Rey to join him, claiming he’s leaving behind Jedi and Sith while sounding a whole lot like a Sith. Literally, these contradictory lines are right next to each other: “Leave behind the Jedi and the Sith! Join me and we could rule the galaxy together!” (Facepalm.) Then he tries to kill the Rebellion and fails. And tries to kill Luke and fails. After an entire movie, Kylo Ren ends as an incompetent crybaby who is now in charge.

3)    Poe starts as a hothead who takes too many risks. In the opening scene, he overcommits to an attack on the lead First Order ship, leading to its destruction, but also to most of his allies dying. Leia demotes him for this, claiming he doesn’t have what it takes to be a leader. Leia is then jettisoned out into space by the Kylo Ren’s allies attacking the bridge. She returns herself to the ship with never-before-used Force powers and is absolutely fine for the rest of the film. Meanwhile, Poe conflicts with his new superior officer, who I forget the name of, so let’s call her Officer Purple Hair. Officer Purple Hair refuses to tell him her plan for saving the fleet from certain doom, so he starts a mutiny. The mutiny fails. It turns out she had a plan. Yay? Later, Poe has now somehow learned his lesson. The Rebellion begins on the run and outgunned and ends on the run and outgunned. This is one of the most coherent character arcs in the entire film. Oh dear.

4)    Last, and least, Finn and a new character named Rose leave the fleet to try to find a hacker who will help them save their friends. They don’t find the hacker they were looking for, but they find a hacker, which they hope is good enough. They return, only to absolutely fail and have their new hacker friend betray them and put the Rebellion in even greater danger. Thankfully, they still escape (oh, and Finn super quickly kills Captain Phasma in an anti-climactic battle. Yay) and join their friends on the surface. Finn attempts to sacrifice himself to save his friends, but Rose stops him, saying that they “need to stop fighting what we hate and start saving what we love.” Oh, by the way, she loves him now. After a little fan-girl glee at first meeting him and no other development or hint at affection whatsoever. Finn and Rose have no arc, and their actions feel pointless, as they only ever negatively affect the story.

Sounds a whole lot messier, right? This is a film where entire subplots, entire character arcs begin and end in almost exactly the same place. And that’s fine, as long as the characters have learned something along the way—but Rey hasn’t. Kylo threatened to, but hasn’t. Finn hasn’t. Leia has learned to use the force, but no one reacted to it and she never used it again, so it feels like she hasn’t changed at all. The structure of the film moves in circles, making dramatic moments or changes and then going back on them and expecting you to praise it for being so clever. Leia is dead—now she’s not. Luke won’t train Rey—now he will—now he won’t—now he will—now he won’t—oh wait, he had nothing to teach her in the first place. Kylo will change—no he won’t. Snoke is important—no he’s not. We’re ditching the concepts of good and evil—but at the end we have a clear good and a clear evil. I have enjoyed Rian Johnson’s work in the past, but his writing and directing here is so busy subverting expectations that very little actually changes. I think the clearest example is Kylo Ren—the whole movie builds up to him changing, but then he doesn’t. And because this isn’t expected, some can call this “clever.” But it’s not—for it to be clever, the intention or groundwork would have to have been clearly communicated and built up in the first place. This whole film is the equivalent of saying, “I’m going to do something new and interesting—NO I’M NOT! GOTCHA!”

And because of this constant “GOTCHA” approach, or just a lack of character development in general, a lot of moments that sound awesome on paper, and should play like gangbusters, don’t. Rey realizing that Luke’s teachings are limited and that she has to strike out on her own? That should be a great moment. But because she and Luke have already gone back and forth so many times in their training with no real reason, instead of a big, important, character moment, her departure simply feels like that switch flipping again.

The concept of the Rebel fleet being hunted, constantly shot at by the First Order, and being on the verge of running out of fuel and dying is a really great one! As a lot of people have already said, it’s reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica’s second episode, “33,” where the fleet is under attack every 33 minutes without end. However, BSG took great pains to show us how this constant siege took its toll on the crew. Fighter pilots have to fight against fatigue, using drugs and stims to stay awake, crew members have unshaven, haggard faces. You can see the 33-minute mark on every clock marked with tape or a marker. It all culminates with them realizing the enemy is only tracking one ship in their fleet, and them making the hard decision to destroy it—killing the 1,000-something people aboard—to save the rest of the fleet. The Last Jedi, on the other hand, uses this rich setting only as a ticking clock for the other subplots, and the only conflict to come from it is the dry tension between Poe and Officer Purple Hair. The severity of the situation is also undermined by how easily Rey, Finn, and Rose enter and exit the fleet at will.

Also, the overabundance of plots and moving pieces make even The Last Jedi’s 2 hour and 30-minute runtime feel claustrophobic. Characters are almost exclusively defined by their profession or their role in the story. They have no inner life, no hobbies, no life outside of their role in this tiny story. We are now two films deep in new Star Wars, and we still have no idea what normal, regular life looks like outside of this narrow conflict. These characters feel like they are merely tools for the story—that might be because they are.

Honestly, at this point, even I’m tired of talking about Star Wars, so I’m going to leave it here, despite having lots of other nitpicks. I’ve read lots of positive responses to The Last Jedi after me (and all of my friends and family) feeling quite differently. And they’re articulate, and smart, and make a lot sense, especially the one by Film Crit Hulk. However, they all talk about how great the themes are, the ideas, or the craft and control displayed by Rian Johnson. And it’s true—there are some great ideas in The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson is a talented director. But in two and a half hours, I was rarely excited, I was rarely invested, I didn’t care about the proceedings. My reaction through most of it was lukewarm disinterest, despite coming into it with moderately positive hopes. One of my friends even went so far as to call it one of the worst movies he had ever seen (not that I agree).

When it appeared that Leia had died, my first reaction was “huh.” And when she came back, my reaction was also, “huh.”


I can think of no word more damning for a movie with such transparently great aspirations.