By now, there have been plenty of takes pointing out the Death Star-sized plot holes and flaws in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” as well as the appalling character development. Though I agree with those points, for a film that fails on every level, it seems inadequate to just narrowly focus on the reasons why the movie is largely pointless and makes no sense. So given that I’m getting a late start, I’d want to add some thoughts on the movie’s failed attempt at some sort of pseudo-intellectual, postmodern, rumination on the Star Wars mythology.
In “The Last Jedi,” director Rian Johnson, while still borrowing a lot of the familiar tropes of Star Wars movies, also departs from the predictable fan service heavy approach of its predecessor “The Force Awakens.” By the end of its predecessor, which closely paralleled the first film in the original Star Wars trilogy, it seemed like the second one was set up to parallel the second in the original trilogy, with Rey training with Luke Skywalker in a remote location as Luke had trained with Yoda on Dagobah, and culminating with Rey figuring out her parentage in some way linked her to one of the other main characters. Instead, “The Last Jedi” veers off in multiple different directions, and Johnson basically toys with the audience and its expectations. It’s almost as if Johnson spent a few years reading a lot of Reddit threads and decided to play the role of the snarky commenter teasing fans and the innocence of the original movies.
Luke, reduced to the role of a brooding and cynical misanthrope, spits out dialogue that sounded regurgitated from some sort of contrarian hot take on a pop culture website. He mocks the idea that he’d be able to save the galaxy with his “laser sword” and laments the hubris of the Jedi and their legacy of failure for having enabled the rise of Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine. The movie also blurs the lines between good and evil. The Resistance and the First Order are both buying weapons from the same dealers and blowing each other up in a Sisyphean way. Kylo Ren shows us that the force isn’t a clear binary choice of light and dark, but more of a continuum when the same person could perform seemingly good and bad acts moments apart. He argues against the dated dichotomy of Jedi vs. Sith and instead implores Rey — and by extension, the audience — to “let the past die.” There’s even a thread involving sacred Jedi texts that pricks a fan theory that people in the Star Wars universe are illiterate. As a concept for a new kind of Star Wars movie, the idea of challenging our assumptions about the universe isn’t necessarily a de facto bad approach. The problem is that Johnson really didn’t pull it off.
Trying to come up with a way to explain my grievances with the “Last Jedi” made me think of one other genre movie that actually did pull off what Johnson was seemingly attempting to accomplish: “Unforgiven.” Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, which explored the gray area between good guys and bad guys, managed to simultaneously be a commentary on Westerns while also being a great Western.
The narrative thread of the movie is compelling enough. A group of prostitutes offer a reward for killing cowboys who slashed up one of their co-workers. Eastwood’s character, William Munny, plays a reformed bandit who gave up a life of drinking and killing after meeting his more pious wife, who died and left him to take care of a farm and two kids. He is convinced by a younger man to pursue the reward and links up with his old friend, played by Morgan Freeman.
But what makes the film more complex is that it delves into the toll that the old lifestyle took on Munny’s soul. Whereas in traditional Westerns, men are gunned down without much afterthought, “Unforgiven” establishes how much it takes to actually take somebody’s life. Freeman’s character realizes he doesn’t have it in him anymore, the young man who started out the movie as arrogant and boastful realizes it’s a lot more difficult than he thought, which leads to Eastwood’s most famous line in the movie, “It's a hell of a thing, killing a man.”
Meanwhile, one of the other characters, a biographer of the old West, eagerly consumes stories of famous killers and tries to chronicle and celebrate their careers, Eastwood’s way of critiquing both the glorification of violence in films as well as our own fascination with it. Gene Hackman plays the brutal local sheriff, a departure from the pure Gary Cooper type of old movies, who beats people up without due process. He sets the plot in motion by “punishing” the cowboys who cut up the prostitute merely by making the cowboys give horses to the saloon keeper who effectively keeps the victim as an indentured servant. So, who is the “good” guy in this equation? The deeply flawed sheriff who ostensibly is on the side of the law, or the cold-blooded assassin who has killed children in his lifetime but who is nonetheless going to deliver justice to exploited and assaulted women?
Toward the end of the movie, when Munny rides toward the saloon for a final showdown, and the whiskey bottle drops from his hand, the audience is conflicted. On the one hand, there’s the natural tendency to want to root for Eastwood to kick ass and mow everybody down, as they’ve seen him do in many iconic Westerns. But at the same time, the audience knows that he’s descending to a bad place, from which he had spent years trying to dig himself out.
Sure, there are differences between a Western and a Star Wars movie, and a stand-alone film and one that is burdened by needing to be integrated into a broader universe. But my point is, that there is a way to make a morally complex movie that challenges genre stereotypes and concepts of good and evil while still being a successful representative of that genre. But it just takes much better acting, writing, and subtlety than Johnson was able to deliver.
Adam Driver, as Kylo Ren, who perplexingly has gotten some good reviews, is not menacing in any way. His tantrums come across more like the bumbling Dark Helmet of "Spaceballs" than of somebody to be feared. It simply isn’t believable that he would present much of a challenge to Luke. This is the same Luke who abandoned his Jedi training to try and save his friends in trouble; who blew up the Death Star; who confronted Emperor Palpatine; who fought Darth Vader before turning him from decades of darkness to seeing the light. It is not believable that Kylo Ren drove Luke to a place at which he was close to killing his own nephew, where he would cut and run, and dawdle to the point of effectively abandoning his sister in a time of dire need.
Furthermore, if you’re going to make a movie that attempts to uproot expectations and take a more cynical approach to the Star Wars universe, then keep the tone consistent. Don’t then throw in cartoonish elements like the porgs or BB-8 taking down enemies with slot machine tokens, or sappiness like the release of the fathiers, or sentimentality like the stable boys being the future of the resistance. Don’t act like the moral of the movie is that you have to save what you love rather than destroy what you hate when in one of the film's previous nineteen climaxes, it’s portrayed as heroic when a character goes on a kamikaze mission to light speed ram an enemy ship to pieces. Don’t act like the story of the movie is about learning from failure when the protagonist, Rey, never fails at anything and seems to know everything about the force without any training even though the greatest Jedis in history took years, even decades, to learn about it. And speaking of Rey, if the virtue of the movie is that it’s supposed to inject moral ambiguity into the universe, then why does she never seem in moral conflict and why is she portrayed as always doing the right thing?
Throwing in some pseudo-intellectual nonsense has seemed to allow fans of the film to portray critics as somehow vested in the innocence of the original movies. In reality, a lot of us are open to challenging old assumptions, just not when it is done this poorly.