Four Reasons The Last Jedi Fails Despite Awesome Ambitions


I got around to seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi (C+) tonight and walked away with mixed feelings. First and foremost, I greatly admire the ambition of the film. As much as The Force Awakens plays it safe, this movie decides to strike out its own path. In that regard, I have a lot of love for this film. The production values are second to none, there are some great laughs, and a few thrilling and beautiful moments that are worth the money alone.

The core creative decision to paint the Jedi legacy as not just mixed, but something that needed to be learned from and moved on was a very bold and risky choice for Disney. Allowing the beloved Luke Skywalker to turn into a grizzled old man filled with regret and bitterness from his past failures could have been disastrous. The shocking death of Snoke (with an awesome light saber battle to boot) and the new "force connection" between Rey and Kylo are fascinating decisions that had the power to upset many core fans (and apparently has).

Unfortunately, all of these bold creative decisions are eventually undermined by fatal flaws, creating a disjointed and conflicting film experience. Here are four reasons The Last Jedi ultimately fails despite it's great production and awesome creative ambitions.

1. These creative choices come a movie too late. The Force Awakens, as the first entry in the new trilogy, had the task of setting fan expectations. The film laid out the landscape, setup our main characters, central themes, and key questions. TFA made clear to Star Wars fans that the lore and character backstories would be key to the plot going forward: What's Snoke's background? How did Luke let down Kylo? Why and how is Rey so powerful? Who are her parents? Why does the lightsaber call out to her? Why did Luke leave a map to find him? What role will Captain Phasma play in the future? Who is Maz Kanata? I remember asking these questions of fans only to be told, "Don't worry, they will answer it."

Although the entire new trilogy hit the reset button (destroying the ending of Return of the Jedi IMO) bringing back the rebellion vs empire structure of the originals, it was clear the movie existed in the same universe, with the same rules regarding the force. Rian Johnson's decision to just ignore those above questions or answer them briefly and unceremoniously is less an intentional swerve to the audience and more of a severely disappointing lack of payoff. The audience would never have cared oh so much about Rey and Snoke's backstory if TFA hadn't made such a big deal of it. Hadn't been promised that the goods were eventually coming. This is a continual problem for Abrams backed properties BTW.

Essentially, this film feels like the reboot and reset that TFA should have been if they wanted to go in this direction. I applaud the decision to be bold, but doing it after TFA makes the story disjointed and threatens to alienate an audience you just primed for a particular expectation. This tone and direction would make more sense as the initial entry.

2. The new direction feels more like the arbitrary choice of a writer and not the organic development of a progressing series: The way that TLJ pays off the hanging questions from TFA don't feel natural, as if this was the story all along. Instead, it feels like JJ Abrams was going in one direction and Rian Johnson decided to take it in a different way. On one hand, it's a positive that a director was allowed to imbue his creative vision into the story, but on the other hand, it undercuts the entire narrative thrust of the trilogy. Why should I trust that the next film won't ignore the themes and questions this one was supposed to leave me with?

It feels to me that the filmmakers are hoping the audience will credit them for whatever way they decide to answer characters background.
For example:
Rey in The Force Awakens: Her background is mysteriously connected to the force somehow, don't worry, we'll answer it soon and her power will all make sense.
Audience: Oooh, let's debate for two years on what makes most sense!

Rey in The Last Jedi: Her background is that her parents were nobodies. Don't you get it, the Star Wars universe is democratic now! Force powerful people can come from anywhere!
Audience: Oooh, that's bold. What a great progressive statement!

Rey in the next installment: Kylo was lying to her - he was an untrustworthy narrator - she's actually Han and Leia's daughter!
Audience: Oooh, that's bold, you tricked us! It all makes sense now!

A nice example of a natural progression is shown in Snoke who introduces new force powers to the universe, but we accept it because he was introduced as a more powerful villain than we've ever seen before. That new idea is a natural progression.

The bold new directions this film takes feel less like the natural progression of the story and more like a rewrite that can ultimately get re-written again. In other words, it's arbitrary to whatever they want to do in order to tell the next story. If it's arbitrary, why should I get that involved?

3. The new directions, retroactively diminishes previous characters and movies. I get their desire to make Luke a character in need of redemption; it's basic dramatic writing. I get that Luke's failure with Kylo, his exile, and his ultimate sacrifice provides a nice redemption arc for him in the story. The problem is: it ultimately ruins a core element of his character from the original trilogy - his purity. The core of Luke's character in Return of the Jedi is his absolute unwillingness to strike down Vader in anger and his hope to ultimately redeem him from the dark side. This is Vader he has hope for, the killer of millions!

In order to provide the new trilogy with it's new bad guy and send Luke off in need of redemption, they have Luke betray his core integrity: he considers killing Kylo because he glimpses the possibility of the evil in his future. I'm no Star Wars purist, but this just feels completely off to me. It backtracks the core element of Luke that makes him a hero. He wasn't the best with a light saber, but his essential goodness kept him grounded and a more powerful force to redeem Vader. In fact, there's problems throughout this movie with people "glimpsing" things in the force that always turn out to be wrong - why does ANYONE trust this ability (Snope, Luke, Rey, and Kylo all get this ability wrong)?

Additionally, the desire to move past the Jedi legacy is done with such broad strokes that it doesn't leave us with any clear idea of what exactly about the Jedi legacy was wrong. Was the whole training idea bad? Were all their basic core ideas wrong-headed? Should no one be trained? What exactly did they get wrong? What is the lesson we are too learn? I don't know how I am to walk away from this movie admiring anything about "The Jedi Way" in previous films. How is Rey getting it right where the Jedi way was getting it wrong?

4. There’s so many little problems that add up – there’s eventually a feeling of death by a thousand paper cuts. Nothing major that doesn't plague most modern blockbusters, but little things like this add up so much that it's hard to enjoy the things the film does right:
  • Each film seems to kinda refresh the situation as they please. This film starts with the entire rebellion down to a handful of ships and like 400 people. After the last film they just had a major victory, but now it feels like the writers just hit the reset button again.
  • The bad guys continue to design ships with a critical one flaw. The opening action scene, overall very good, features another major enemy ship taken down by hitting one key spot. This is the fifth movie to do this.
  • How are we supposed to take Hux seriously if a rebel X-wing sits in front of his main ship for minutes and they never fire on him? Then the one ship proceeds to destroy every surface cannon they have? ONE SHIP?
  • The "don't rush into battle, but think and lead" theme for Poe and Finn never really makes a ton of great sense. Often, central conflicts between the leaders and Poe/Finn can be resolved with just a bit of dialogue.
  • Leia using the force in space isn't necessarily bad, but her never doing anything like that with the force before makes it jarring and feeling gimmicky.
  • Yoda being able to actually cause lightning as a force ghost creates tons of questions about why force ghosts haven't been more active in previous installments.
  • There's no clue that Luke has discovered how to force project himself. I'm not against the use of it, but even a clue "I have abilities you've never seen" would make it feel less arbitrary and gimmicky.
  • The entire side plot to the Casino planet is one deus ex machina after another. The social commentary was really groan worthy to me.
  • Why would Maz Kanata recommend as the only one trustworthy a hacker that's so obviously someone who isn't trustworthy? (**Update, a student helped me a bit. I forgot the one Kanata recommended is someone they didn't end up using. Still, running into ANOTHER expert code breaker in jail is perhaps a worse dues ex machina offense**)
  • Why waste Phasma so quickly and unceremoniously?
  • Why was Snoke so powerful? 
  • How did Snoke get to Kylo when Kylo was at the training academy?
  • How did the First Order get so big so quick?
  • How did the rebellion get so small so quick?
  • How is Finn equal to Phasma?
  • Why make such an epic film that is essentially taking place in, what, just a handful of places - 3 of them being inside ships? Hard to remember such an epic modern film feeling so small setting wise.
  • The plot conveniences to setup the "got them on a string" chase are nearly unbearable: they are lighter and faster, our fighters are out of range, they will run out of gas, their little transports are cloaked.
  • Can BB8 be any more convenient?
  • Why make Ren so tactically challenged in the last battle? They have this amazing cannon and all those walkers and they slowly, slowly, slowly, walk up, rarely firing on obvious targets.
  • I get Ren's motivation for killing off the "old" - but what is his motivation for dominating the galaxy? I don't get that.
  • Rose's "saving" of Finn with her line about saving things might be the cheesiest and most groan worthy line of the year. Especially coming right before LUKE SACRIFICES HIMSELF FOR OTHERS!
Any ways, that's just a taste of my experience. It's a shame because I kinda enjoyed a lot of the other stuff going on and I'm now more interested in where the films go from here. If none of these issues bothered you, awesome. This certainly isn't meant to rain on anyone's parade - it's hard to find movies we respond well to. I'm glad you found one.

I, however, really wish they had been this bold starting with the first movie - but now we are left with a Star Wars universe that has become a mix of continuation with the past and a rejection of the past that is more confusing and disjointed than I believe they intended and this casual fan wanted.