If you’re a long-time reader of The Pop Culture Studio, you probably noticed that I didn’t review The Last Jedi, unlike the other recent instalments in the Star Wars saga. There’s a reason for this: my initial reaction to Rian Johnson’s film was negative – really negative.
And despite the tone of some of my recent “work for hire” posts, being negative isn’t what The Studio is about. On the contrary, this site is supposed to be about being constructive – even when it comes to movies, TV shows or comics that I don’t like – and I genuinely wasn’t sure that I could do that when it came to The Last Jedi, that’s how unimpressed I was.
However, in the weeks since the movie was released, I’ve subsequently reconsidered my opinion of it – or looked at it from a different point of view, as Obi-Wan Kenobi might have put it – and I’ve come to the realisation that I do like it after all.
Don’t get me wrong: I still have issues with the film – major issues, in fact. But ultimately, I’ve decided that these imperfections are insignificant compared to The Last Jedi’s many good points, and what the film means for the future of the franchise and its fans.
So Just What Was It I Didn’t I Like?
Up front, let me say that I’ve been broadly supportive of everything that Disney has done with Star Wars since the House of Mouse acquired the franchise (along with the rest of Lucasfilm) in 2012. I’m hugely in favour of the series placing a greater emphasis on female protagonists and featuring racially and gender-diverse supporting casts.
I’m also totally onboard with attempts to take the saga in a new, nostalgia-free direction – indeed, until now, my biggest criticism of The Force Awakens was that it felt like “Star Wars Greatest Hits”, and brought precious few fresh ideas to the table.
This, by the way, explains my overall indifference to Disney/Lucasfilm making the logical decision to jettison almost all of the pre-existing expanded universe tie-in materials from the official canon – again, because it freed them up to potentially break new ground, not retread the old.
So not only was I going in to The Last Jedi wanting and – thanks to the overwhelmingly positive pre-release reviews – expecting to like it, but the reasons why I didn’t appear to be largely at odds with those expressed by fans at the centre of the current online backlash towards the film.
See, my objections to the movie stem less from me being a Star Wars geek (although I am) and more from me being a film nerd. Simply put, The Last Jedi suffers from a bunch of fairly serious storytelling problems.
For starters, there’s the sheer number of superfluous characters crammed into the film – most notably, returning villains Supreme Leader Snoke and Captain Phasma, alongside newcomers Vice Admiral Valdo and codebreaker DJ. Although I never expected Snoke’s identity to be the big deal many fans did, his abrupt demise – an admittedly subversive twist – still felt underwhelming, whereas Phasma’s exit saw the much-hyped female baddie depart without ever making her mark. In the case of Valdo and DJ, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they were included simply to give Poe Dameron, Rose Ticoand Finn something to do.
This contributes to The Last Jedi’s next critical fault: its meandering narrative. Whether it’s Poe’s conflict with Valdo (incidentally, one of the worst people managers ever) or Finn and Rose’s excursion to casino-city Canto Bight – basically, anytime the focus shifts away from key players Luke, Rey and Kylo Ren – things begin to feel aimless and start to drag.
But maybe the most disappointing aspect of The Last Jedi is just how many concepts it leaves undeveloped. Aside from ignoring tantalising elements introduced in the previous film – anyone else wondering not only who The Knights of Ren are, but we’re they’ve gotten to? – Johnson’s script at first promises to delve deeper into the nature of the Force itself, only to leave things virtually untouched, leaving the Light Side versus Dark Side dynamic effectively unchanged.
So yeah: I was disappointed with The Last Jedi, and briefly toyed with the idea of expressing this in the form of a scathing review. However, given the initial jubilant response to the film that I encountered – both in person and online – I decided not to be a kill-joy, and like Master Skywalker himself prior to The Force Awakens, I retreated from the world (or social media, at least) to lick my wounds in bitter solitude.
Was There Anything I Did Like?
I’m glad I made the decision not to post straight away, as it gave me more time to reflect on the things in The Last Jedi that I did like, a list which steadily grew the more I thought about it.
Virtually everything that happens between Luke, Rey and Kylo Ren on Ahch-To – slightly clumsy Yoda cameo aside – is pretty darn compelling, from the trippy throwback to the Cave of Evil scene in The Empire Strikes Back through to the Roshomon-like explanation/s for Luke’s exile and Ren’s fall to the Dark Side. Likewise, Luke’s character arc – although controversial – worked for me, as it vilified, then humanised, and ultimately, canonised the Jedi Master in spectacular fashion.
And speaking of spectacle, it’s hard to argue against The Last Jedi containing some of the greatest space action ever seen on screen. Beautifully captured by DP Steve Yedlin, every skirmish big (the opening evacuation battle) and small (the Samurai cinema-inspired showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren) looks amazing. I even loved the more ostensibly goofy epic moments, like when Leia implausibly cheats death in the vacuum of space – after all, it’s just not Star Wars without a bit of cheese!
Then there’s the more human side of things, and it’s fair to say that the cast largely acquits themselves well. Finally given a decent-sized role to play, Mark Hamill puts in a career-best turn as Luke, while Adam Driver continues to be the unsung MVP of the new trilogy as volatile, conflicted Kylo Ren. Rounding out the other key returning players, John Boyega brings the same amount of likeable charm and humour to Finn, Oscar Isaac remains perfectly cast as hotshot flyboy Poe and the late Carrie Fisher does fine work as Leia in her final performance, although Daisy Ridley is less captivating as Rey this time around.
The new additions to the acting roster also fare well. Kelly Marie Tran makes a good impression as brave Resistance fighter Rose, striking up a believable chemistry with Boyega, as well. Then there’s Laura Dern as Valdo and Benicio Del Toro as DJ, both of whom bring a lot to thinly sketched – and, as mentioned before, arguably redundant – parts.
But what’s grown on me the most about The Last Jedi is just how hard it works to invert or otherwise circumvent many of the tropes associated with the Star Wars saga. I’ve already touched upon Snoke being treated largely as a “bait-and-switch” big bad, but there are other examples too.
Chief among these has to be the revelation that Rey’s true parents were “nobodies”, which breaks with the tradition of the franchise’s heroes possessing a secret, “special” heritage. Even though this reveal seems likely to be a fake out set to be reversed in Episode IX, I actually think it’s pretty neat that Rey isn’t a child of the Force, or the offspring of the Chosen One – because it makes her more relatable.
After all, part of what makes Star Wars so popular is how identifiable the characters are despite their fantastic environment, and there’s nothing more recognisable than having an unremarkable background and having to make it in the galaxy on your own steam.
All this means that there’s a lot to like about The Last Jedi, but like I said earlier, until recently, I didn’t feel it was enough to outweigh the storytelling deficiencies listed previously. Until, that is, I saw the vitriolic online response to the film by other naysayers within Star Wars fandom.
You Can Dislike The Movie And Not Be A Jerk
Forgive me for seeming to go on a tangent here (trust me, I’m going somewhere with this), but I want to stop for a moment to make a couple of points.
Firstly: just because you didn’t like The Last Jedi, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re a jerk. Secondly: at the same time, just because you didn’t like it, that doesn’t mean you get to act like one, either.
On the first point: I’ve seen people who expressed dissatisfaction with the film dismissed as being angry, non-progressive fanboys who hated it because it didn’t align with their pre-existing theories, it featured too many non-male, non-white characters, or because it takes the franchise in a direction they’re not comfortable with.
And the truth is, as I’ve shown above, plenty of fans like myself weren’t happy with The Last Jedi for entirely separate reasons. What’s more, we can not only rationally express why we didn’t like the movie – beyond simply “it wasn’t what I wanted / was expecting” – but engage in a positive discussion with those who did like it, too.
That’s not to say I’m by any means perfect: I’ve ranted to friends and colleagues about my issues with The Last Jedi on and off since the very second my midnight screening ended. But that’s nothing compared to how other fans have behaved, which brings me neatly to me second point.
The actions of these dissatisified Star Wars diehards have ranged from the childishly petulant – starting a petition to have The Last Jedi struck off from the official canon (not gonna happen, guys) – to the downright, well, asshole-ish (directly attacking and insulting Johnson online).
There’s such an entitled mindset on display here, it’s hard to know where to begin. Convinced that they somehow own Star Wars (they don’t, either literally or metaphorically), this vocal minority are adamant about their right to be outraged because – for reasons both rational and irrational – The Last Jedi isn’t the film they wanted it to be.
Seeing this reaction (and being disgusted by it) reminded me of an article I wrote about Suicide Squad last year, where I argued that it’s important to accept that not every movie is made for you – even those based around characters you love dearly.
This in turn got me thinking: “If The Last Jedi isn’t for me, than who is it for?” And after a quick “investigation” (read: five minutes spent on social media), the answer hit me like a blow on the head from Master Yoda’s cane.
It’s for casual moviegoers who don’t obsess over boring things like narrative structure, and ardent cinema buffs who know stuff like that isn’t the only thing that makes a good movie. It’s also for people of colour thrilled to finally see non-white heroes step into the spotlight, and – most importantly of all – it’s for kids getting their first taste of Star Wars.
And it’s largely because of that latter group – the young boys and girls who love the movie – that I’ve finally come around to The Last Jedi.
“Many Of The Truths We Cling To Depend Greatly On Our Point Of View”
See, if there’s one thing The Last Jedi succeeds at doing, it’s wiping the slate clean and moving on from the past – something so embedded in the film, it’s literally Kylo Ren’s entire character motivation! By the time the credits roll, Johnson has kept enough of what we love (Ragtag good guys versus nigh-omnipotent bad guys! The Force! Lightsabres!) to ensure things stay recognisable, but allows the series to move forward in an exciting new direction.
Sure, the status quo is in many ways the same. The Light and Dark Sides are pretty much what they’ve always been; ditto the overall Resistance / First Order conflict is nothing we haven’t seen before. But many of the familiar faces have been killed off or taken a backseat, whilst several of the saga’s well-worn archetypes and tropes have been dramatically re-imagined – all for the benefit of future audiences.
For me, that’s what it all boils down to in the end: the next generation of fans eager to explore this galaxy far, far away. That Force-sensitive tyke who magically calls a broom to his hand during the finale? He isn’t just a symbol of the future of the Jedi Order, he’s the embodiment of the future of Star Wars itself.
More than that, he’s a stand-in for every kid who’s going to be enjoying the revitalised franchise long after 30-something fans like me have made like Master Skywalker and become one with the Force (or at the very least, died and left behind our dirty laundry).
Viewed from this point of view, it turns out The Last Jedi really is for me, too. I’ve watched it again, and I loved it – warts and all, I really did! – and once more, I find myself eager to find out where the Star Wars story is headed next, which is a pretty great feeling indeed.