Yes, it is finally time for my hot take on this film. To be honest, after I watched The Force Awakens (and published possibly the first ever negative review of it) I didn’t think it would be worth revisiting the Star Wars series with reviews – that film was enough of a buzzkill to make any further criticism of Disney’s takeover of the franchise more or less pointless. But having seen the current episodes of Andor, it seems like Disney has been holding out – it turns out that it is actually possible for them to commission decent content for the Star Wars universe. So with that in mind (and wondering why they decided to let nearly a decade of profit slip through their fingers before reverting to something safer), let’s revisit the most controversial of their titles.
It’s probably worth starting off with my highest praise of the film: it was not an obvious cash grab. Rian Johnson does not appear to be a very good writer (although Looper was at least fun, so long as you didn’t think too hard about time paradoxes), but he at least seems to write from his heart. The good, the bad, and the ugly of this film feel like they were pulled from a writer’s heartstrings rather than written out of a cold desire to wring money out of every possible customer. It preached more than it pandered. I can respect (even if not appreciate) this kind of authorial honesty.
But now, to kick off the criticism, I’ll give my own most controversial take: The Last Jedi was bad, yes… even unforgivably so… but The Force Awakens was worse. I may be giving Johnson too much credit, but my view is that he was dealt a pretty bad hand and had no idea what to do with it. Any writer worth their salt could take that bad hand and make an effort to improve it, so I’m not saying he deserves much credit… but let’s go over a list of a few things people magically only noticed when watching Johnson’s film:
- Mary Sue – Rey was already solidified in an overpowered, underinformed role in the previous film. The ability to spontaneously mind-control stormtroopers when she didn’t even have any idea of the spiritual world she occupied already dug that grave – because of TFA, she could have been intentionally tossing lightning bolts in TLJ and it would not have been surprising in the slightest. She could already competently dogfight in a bulky freighter under the full pull of gravity at the very beginning of Abrams’ film – in space, this may have been a tiny bit more believable, but the surface piloting she pulled off – inside a very tight space, nonetheless – was complete nonsense.
- Cutting Finn’s story – again, TFA already did this. Finn was mowing down his fellow stormtroopers and previous colleagues with gleeful abandon in the previous film, which was an utter waste of the story Abrams himself had already offered us.
- Wax on/wax off Kylo Ren – another thing TFA had already done. Sure, it was only one film at the time, but Kylo had already proved himself to be unpredictable (only when the Abrams needed him to be, of course).
- Hyperspace – people think Johnson ruined hyperspace travel with A) fuel and B) the ramming maneuver. Fuel was already… although sparsely… established in The Phantom Menace – they only landed on Tattooine because the hyperdrive fuel was leaking. So minor credit where credit is due… Johnson remembered something from Lucas’s work. It doesn’t excuse the fact that (outside of hyperspace travel) you can pick a speed and then let inertia carry you rather than burning thrusters, but it’s still one less criticism that needs to lie on Johnson’s shoulders. The ramming maneuver, however, hardly did anything more damaging to the lore or continuity than Abrams’ own hyperspace jump with the Falcon at the end of TFA – the fact that they could jump through the planetary shield puts a complete questionmark on 80% of the plot of Return of the Jedi – and it also sets up a precedent for Johnson’s own addition (i.e. if you can jump even fractionally through a shield, you can certainly ram at great speed into something that was behind that shield).
- Luke Skywalker – my saddest prediction from day one of watching the prior film was that Luke had been dealt a really bad hand before Johnson was even adopted as the next writer. Luke’s position in the galaxy – leaving breadcrumbs of maps for people to find him – put his family, friends, and allies in serious danger. They were trying desperately to pick up cryptic clues of his whereabouts from under the nose of the First Order – who somehow also knew that Luke was leaving these hints around the galaxy. The idea in and of itself was that Luke was willing to risk the lives of all of his friends and family by leaving these around. Sure, Johnson made it worse by telling us that Luke didn’t actually want to be found, but it was bad enough already.
Again, I have plenty of criticism I could levy against The Last Jedi, but blame must be assigned correctly. Johnson was writing a continuation of Abrams’ story and characters, and the setup was garbage.
Humor is a tricky subject, because it is so subjective. The reason franchises like Marvel (at least, up intil a couple of years ago) tend to get away with their humor is because they throw in contemporary jokes with the idea that the heroes could just as easily keep up with modern trends and social interactions… because they live in our universe. The Star Wars universe had more generic, timeless humor in it; things that we don’t recognize as “popular humor” around us here in the Milky Way, but could be seen as amusing anywhere. Things like C-3PO being reluctant to (and confused about how to) act like a god when the ewoks mistake him for one. Things like Han complaining about the smell of a tauntaun when stuffing Luke inside it. Not “your mama” jokes. Not a mid-20s girl getting flustered when Kylo Ren has his shirt off (this one even confused me… do guys not take their shirts off in America anymore?). Not porgs pretending to look cute in an effort to recreate the modern trend of posting animal pictures with big eyes, where somehow this makes them friends with the Chewbacca, who has already at this stage killed and cooked one of their flock. The humor in TLJ is timestamped. In several years, those jokes will no longer be funny, except as “hah, remember that kind of humor?”.
The inclusion and subsequent deletion of Rose. I didn’t care much for Rose – her writing was shoddy, and her story was unfortunately meaningless. She could have been written as an interesting, useful (or even core) character, but no effort was made to try and make her actually fit into the story. She was simply added as flavor. She was a distraction for Finn that even Johnson discarded at the end of his own film (let alone the way Abrams dealt with her in the sequel). She was written to sabotage one of the most meaningful character moments Finn had been afforded, she spouted some completely meaningless lines (because sometimes saving what you love means you actually need to fight what you hate), and then she disappeared from the franchise. I feel sorry for the actress, because her inclusion and failure was entirely the fault of the writer(s) and director(s).
Vice-Admiral Holdo was a completely arbitrary foil to the protagonists of this film. Instead of being a believable part of the resistance’s command structure, she delayed action and directly prevented her most competent subordinates from doing anything useful, right up until she decided to send all of the survivors out into open space to get picked off by the First Order – and sacrificed their best form of travel and protection in an “I hope there’s anything functional or useful down on the planet for those of you who survive” gamble that barely even delays their enemies.
The end of Luke. Luke’s “incredible sacrifice” was to stand in front of a couple of AT-ATs for maybe five minutes while the resistance sat watching in a fortress with (according to all available sources at the time) had only a single entrance – however, it conveniently then was given a tiny exit out the back – although that could only be traversed if someone had found a bulldozer and spent a few days of labor moving rocks aside (or, alternatively, if someone managed to lift an enormous quantity of rocks within a couple of seconds in a move that put even Yoda from Attack of the Clones to shame).
For a gentle ending, let me put up another paper shield for Johnson – Abrams said on multiple occasions that he loved and even wished that he himself had written Johnson’s script for The Last Jedi. Kennedy, although to a lesser extent, voiced the same sentiment. Both of them retracted this support, but only after audience reviews started coming through. Johnson was led down a path of believing that he was doing incredible work by most of the people surrounding him (Mark Hamill seems to be one suppressed exception). That enthusiastic encouragement, combined with Johnson’s fairly average writing abilities, puts him at a disadvantage in the long run: the more people who tell you that you are completely amazing and that they wish they had come up with your ideas, the less you will bother putting in effort to improve or revise what you have done. What he (and every writer) needs is a room of editors who hone the strengths and workshop the weaknesses of his manuscripts.