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The Last Jedi came thrillingly close to upending Star Wars — but lost its nerve

Director Rian Johnson raised questions, but shied from the answers.


The Last Jedi is one of the best movies in the Star Wars franchise, for much the same reason The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best. Where the first movie in a trilogy is a thrilling adventure — 2015’s The Force Awakens mirrors A New Hope almost beat-for-beat in that respect — the second complicates the saga by introducing doubt, failure, and sadness.

That often upsets fans. There is tension between the narrative demands of a second film and making a Star Wars movie that does big business, sells toys, and makes fans happy. But adding darkness infuses a well-done second film with depth that endures over the long term.

Fans are indeed upset with many of director Rian Johnson’s choices in The Last Jedi, as Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff has documented in detail. (Likewise, The Empire Strikes Back faced a backlash of its own.) And it is often the choices that complicate franchise canon and characters that have stirred up the most anger.

My criticism is different, though, and something I haven’t seen articulated in reviews of the film. In almost every case, I thought Johnson didn’t go far enough. He feints and flirts with deeper, darker themes, but again and again, loses his nerve before the tone and trajectory of the saga are seriously threatened.

Empire last shot
Empire Strikes Back dared to end sadly.
Lucasfilm Ltd.

The biggest chances he takes are the film’s high points. For example, Luke’s arc, which maddened so many fans, was easily my favorite part of the movie. (I went in with low expectations of Mark Hamill and his performance blew me away.)

But in the end, though there are provocations aplenty in its two-and-a-half-hour running time, The Last Jedi leaves Star Wars viewers in a very familiar place.

Admittedly, if Johnson had proposed the kind of movie I found myself wanting to see — “Hey, let’s alienate the fans even more!” — he probably would have swiftly joined Colin Trevorrow on the list of Star Wars directors past. The blowback might have been worse; the movie’s box office haul might have suffered. Disney might have been unhappy. It was probably never realistic to expect any Star Wars director to take serious chances.

But for some fans, myself included, it also might have also lifted The Last Jedi from good to great.

There are three themes in particular that Johnson pursues in the movie only to abandon them before they reach their logical, if frightening, conclusions: tragedy, feminism, and moral ambiguity. Had he held onto them a little longer, he might have blazed a genuinely new trail, shaken the franchise from its lingering sense of rote repetition, and seared a traumatic-but-awesome experience into the heads of a new generation of viewers, just as The Empire Strikes Back once did.

The Last Jedi is a tragedy

Johnson has a great sense of style and visual flair, so it’s easy to get caught up in the adventure. But a dispassionate examination of events as they unfold in the film reveals that, at its heart, The Last Jedi is a bleak and unremitting tragedy. Johnson just never quite musters the courage to let the audience feel it.

Here are just a few of the uplifting developments that befall General Leia’s Resistance:

  • Poe defies a direct order and gets the entire Resistance bombing fleet, half its fighter pilots, and the bulk of its military leadership wiped out. (We’ll talk more about Poe later. That f’ing guy.)
  • Finn and Rose rush off to disable the First Order tracker but fail because they are jailed for a parking violation, though they did free those horse things.
  • Luke tells Rey to buzz off and refuses to leave his island of self-exile.
  • Kylo chooses the dark side.
  • The last-ditch plan to save the Resistance by launching transporters to an abandoned base is leaked by Poe (who, by the way, led a mutiny, the f’ing guy), picked up by Finn and Rose’s random criminal companion, and in turn leaked to the First Order, leading to hundreds of deaths among the remaining Rebels.
  • The Resistance’s desperate call for help is ignored across the galaxy and a handful of Rebels barely escape through Luke sacrificing his life. The End.

I mean, that is some awful, awful stuff. Like I said: a tragedy.

But ... does it feel like that?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Rose briefly ponders whether their plan is ironclad.

Take the Finn-and-Rose casino storyline. Many people have criticized it for being a waste of time that had no effect on the larger plot. Technically, though, it had an enormous plot consequence: It tipped off the First Order to the existence of the transports and led to their wholesale destruction. It triggered the final blow that wiped out the Resistance. It was, in retrospect, a horrific and fateful miscalculation on every level.

It feels inessential, though, because it’s not played as a mistake or a tragedy. It’s played as a madcap romp. Even afterward, Finn and Rose do not seem particularly troubled that they played a direct role in the death of thousands of their fellow Rebels. Johnson never slows down and lets it sink in.

Still, the events of the story only make sense as tragedy. Literally nothing the Rebels try, right up to the doomed ground attack on Crait, works. It all fails. Almost everyone is killed.

But there is little sense of consequence, no tears, no crippling grief for the authors of the failure. In the penultimate shot of the film, everyone in the Resistance — all of whom now comfortably fit on the Millennium Falcon! — is standing around, grinning and gripping shoulders. “We have everything we need,” Leia assures Rey.

Oh yeah? Doesn’t look like it.

The Last Jedi
All you need is porgs.

The Last Jedi is filled with defeat and loss — crushing defeat, a brutal demonstration that courage and hope are not enough — but neither the characters nor the audience are given time to mourn.

Taking a minute or two to slow down, pull the lens back, and take in the scale of the loss would have made for a richer story.

Men screw everything up

Speaking of consequences, let’s talk about Poe. The guy is a 360-degree disaster — and more than that, a repudiation of one of the central archetypes of the Star Wars universe — precisely because of characteristics that, to put it gently, he shares with a great many other men. He is impulsive, short-sighted, hot-headed, and possessed of a confidence that wildly outstrips his knowledge or judgment.

Again and again, women try to set him straight, but he ignores or defies them. And he is not alone. Luke, Kylo, Finn — at one point or another, every major male character disregards the pleas of his far more sensible female counterpart, to disastrous effect.

For a while, it seems that Johnson is determined to teach gynophobic fanboys the scariest lesson of all: That they should listen to women.

But again, he stops short.

Theo Milonopoulos wrote a fascinating piece for War on the Rocks arguing that The Last Jedi takes the perspective of 19th-century theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who argued in his famous On War that, in war, political objectives must always guide and transcend tactical or strategic objectives — and that field commanders are prone to neglecting this truth, driving for tactical advantage at any cost.

That’s essentially what Poe does, by shooting at anything he doesn’t like. He can’t see past his next move. And so, between defying orders, mutinying, and leaking highly sensitive information, he almost single-handedly gets the entire Resistance wiped out.

He’s the devil-may-care Han Solo type, but more like the real-world version, i.e., a volatile f*ckup rather than a natural leader. (The women, Leia and Holdo, are the natural leaders, calm and focused.)

Poe loses his flying penis.

But as Donna Dickens has argued at Nerdist, Johnson can’t quite bear to let Poe face the consequences. After he repeatedly threatens the entire Resistance effort, only to finally be knocked out and restrained, we see Holdo and Leia ... regarding Poe fondly? Discussing how much they like him?

Please. Poe does not deserve credit for spunk. He’s a blight, a danger to himself and the entire crew. At best, he belongs in a brig; it would not be completely unwarranted to execute him for treason. Regardless, no one should be listening to him.

But still, he gets to lead. In the end, all the men get their Big Moment: Luke gets his heroic redemption, Kylo gets to be Supreme Leader, and Finn is saved (and kissed).

Meanwhile, Holdo sacrifices herself, Rose puts herself in the infirmary, poor Phasma gets smashed in the face and thrown into a fire, and Leia says, as Poe and their haggard band chase the crystal foxes, “What are you looking at me for? Follow him.” Blech.

Good and evil almost get complicated, but not quite

The predominant theme of The Last Jedi concerns letting go of the past. The film even toys with letting go of the neat division of good and evil, light and dark, by threatening to complicate and blur the moral binary that typically governs not only Star Wars but mass-market action-adventure movies everywhere.

There are numerous hints of this, but two stand out. The first and most explicit is in Luke’s lesson to Rey about the Force.

Luke Skywalker: What do you see?

Rey: The island. Life. Death and decay, that feeds new life. Warmth. Cold. Peace. Violence.

Luke Skywalker: And between it all?

Rey: Balance and energy. A Force.

Luke Skywalker: And inside you?

Rey: Inside me, that same Force.

Light and dark in balance, in everyone. No good people or bad people, just balance and imbalance.

“This is the lesson,” Luke says. “That Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity.”

It was the arrogance of the Jedi, thinking they had a monopoly on one side of the Force, that led to disaster — when they let Palpatine rise, Anakin turn, and the Republic fall; and when Luke himself (“a legend”) failed Ben Solo. As Snoke says, when light rises, dark rises to meet it. The universe seeks balance.

The Jedi, the old imperial way of thinking, must end, as Yoda acknowledges. “We are what they grow past,” he says. As Carli Velocci at Polygon summarizes: “the Jedi suck.”

The Jedi blow it again.

The second hint at moral ambiguity comes when DJ (the random criminal who Rose and Finn befriend in their search for the codebreaker) explains to Finn that the same people selling weapons to the First Order are also selling them to the Resistance. The war grinds on, young and poor people die, and the galactic 1 percent benefits either way. Light rises, and dark rises to meet it. One side wins, then the other. “It's all a machine, partner,” he says. “Live free, don't join.”

Both of these scenes serve to tantalize viewers with new and unsettling possibilities: that the neat good-and-evil binary sketched by the previous films is more complicated than we thought; that, in the immortal words of Obi Wan Kenobi, “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

Imagine if Johnson had followed through. It’s been established that Kylo feels the pull of the light and Rey the dark. It’s been established that the conventional mentor-mentee relationship is not going to work for either of them. (Rey’s mentor has rejected her; Kylo’s first mentor tried to kill him and the second only abused him).

The climax of The Last Jedi could have set up a central relationship that is not between a teacher and a pupil, but instead between two headstrong young people, powerful in the Force and hungry for new answers.

Like National Review’s David French, I wonder what might have happened if Rey had taken Kylo’s hand in the throne room, after he killed Snoke and she saved his life — if they had joined together to reject the war cults of light and dark and instead searched for peace.

Adam Driver in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
War. What is it good for?

I get that it would be easy to execute that poorly, and that it would stray pretty far from the spirit of the Star Wars franchise — not to mention that it would probably put Johnson on Disney’s bad side, at the very least. But it would be thrilling to see a Star Wars universe in which, at least for a while, it was genuinely unclear who the good guys and bad guys were, who was in the right, whether more fighting was the answer.

Or maybe that’s too much. The point is, the moral questions raised by Luke and DJ didn’t end up having any consequences. They didn’t reverberate or alter anyone’s perspective. By the time The Last Jedi’s credits roll, the ambivalence is neatly resolved and each side ends up in its corner again, light versus dark.

The Last Jedi tees up comfort food for Episode IX

In the end, the darkness that haunts The Last Jedi never takes center stage, and its most challenging themes are set aside rather than resolved. Kylo reverts to monomaniacal evil. Rey rejoins the Rebels, determined to become a Jedi. Finn does not question the war or his own fitness. Poe is not court-martialed or penalized in any way. Rose gets a boyfriend.

Our heroes do not close the film crushed, mourning, and without hope. Perhaps they didn’t see the same movie I did.

The Last Jedi surprised me several times, and took enough chances to be utterly absorbing. But it ultimately retreated to the Star Wars status quo: big monolithic bad guys and scrappy, outnumbered good guys, Sith (or Knights of Ren, or whatever Kylo’s team calls itself now) and Jedi. That sets up director J.J. Abrams for a pretty conventional Episode IX.

I wonder how big the Death Star will be.

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