The Last Jedi Lets the Past Die

Christopher Maher: Of all the movies we discuss Star Wars feels the most ridiculous for me to try to form a concrete opinion about because it’s, you know, Star Wars. The original movies, the prequels (which I loved earnestly for a long time), and the now non-canon EU were the first stories that electrified me. So going into The Last Jedi I knew almost no matter what I’d be walking out of the movie theater and saying: yep, that’s some more Star Wars!

Of course that swings both ways. The Last Jedi feels even less to me like Star Wars than Rogue One did, which is silly to say given how much we advocate a more artistically diverse approach in the Marvel flicks. But maybe it’s impossible to “feel like Star Wars”. Even those original films, when I rewatch them, don’t exactly “feel like Star Wars” to me because Star Wars is this big ethereal thing that no one chapter, no matter how good, can capture.

The Last Jedi follows our three heroes as they split up across the galaxy. Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to get grumpy old man Luke (Mark Hamill) to come back and help the Resistance or at least train her, but he’s not interested in either. Meanwhile Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) deals with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who is slowly burning the fuel in the remaining Resistance ships as they barely outpace New Order Star Destroyers. Lacking any formal plan Finn (John Bodeya) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) set off on a covert ops mission to try to dismantle the New Order’s tracking device.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, Sam?

Sam Russell: I think you’re onto something, with the idea that no single film captures the “feeling” of Star Wars. I think it speaks to something we’ve touched on in reviews in the past: expectations. Expectations have huge influence over how we receive a given film, and it’s something totally outside the film itself. It’s the context we approach a film with, it’s what we bring to the film, rather than what the film gives us. It sometimes feels unfair to taint our opinions of something with our prior expectations, but nothing exists in a vacuum. It is unavoidable. And while much of Star Wars takes place in the vacuum of space, the films exist within the context of a massive multimedia pop culture… thing. It’s the films, but it’s also the toys, the t-shirts, the cartoons, the comics. More importantly it’s also the culture, the memories and associations we have with Star Wars.

I’m never sure how much to trust the experience of seeing a movie like this on opening night. The excitement in a crowded theater full of fellow adoring fans creates a very specific environment, and experience. Sometimes the buzz wears off weeks, months, or years after that opening night experience, and I realize the film isn’t so great. But I’ve learned to appreciate the experience, regardless of how my opinion of the movie changes with clearer eyes.

All that said, let’s talk about Star Wars: The Last Jedi as we understand it now, the day after we saw it for the very first time. I absolutely loved it.

CM: I have a bad track record with the recent Star Wars, having loved The Force Awakens in theaters but not feeling the need to rewatch it since (until seeing TLJ) and then really disliking Rogue One, only to discover the more I sat on it the more I enjoyed it. But initial reaction regarding The Last Jedi: yeah, a whole lot of fun, and some interesting commentary on Star Wars mythos as a whole. Star Wars has a lot of interesting elements (space warfare, the force, and the cyclic styles of the movies which Lucas famously claimed are “like poetry”) and Rian pushes them in new and unexpected directions.

Before plot, let’s talk visuals. Star Wars started with scale, with the apparently large Blockade Runner passing over the viewer, only to be followed by the truly massive Star Destroyer. “That’s no moon,” Obi-Wan tells us later, but it could be. Abrams continued the tradition with a number of arresting images (Rey scavengers in a cavernous crashed Star Destroyer that later hosts a dog fight, a planet-gun eradicates an entire solar system), and Edwards keeps it up (the Death Star’s laser dish is so enormous it blots out the surface of the Death Star behind the Star Destroyers in that first trailer, and the Death Star in turn blots out the sun before destroying Jedha City). Rian, while blowing up other conventions, continues this tradition. When the Resistance fleet, only three ships, jumps out of hyperspace we are treated to a massive wide shot where they are mere specks on a screen filled with stars. It’s visually stunning and reminds us how alone and small they are in all this space. Which is to say nothing of one of the films crowning moments, in which a blade of light cuts across the screen and space in dead silence, rending a fleet in half (that’s as specific as I’ll get).

The movie also borrows, as Abrams did, from the original trilogy, but while I felt The Force Awakens was a near beat for beat remake of A New Hope, I felt The Last Jedi only mirrors Empire in the broadest strokes. What’d you think?

SR: As far as visuals go, I thought The Last Jedi had some of my favorite character, creature, and set design of any Star Wars. All the new animals were really wonderful and well incorporated. The Porg’s were featured a tasteful amount, I thought. The crystal foxes were a really trippy, out-there idea, and the horse-like creatures from the casino planet felt like something that could be a real animal. Both felt tangible and uniquely textured. Snoke’s throne room used color really inventively. The massive red wall breaks up the grey/black/chrome space ship interior look that we see a lot of in these films. Rian Johnson continued the Star Wars tradition of being boldly stylish. Not surprising, considering he’s such a boldly stylish director.

I agree that this film doesn’t mimic its original trilogy counterpart too closely. The parallels are certainly there, but it is truly its own film. The main flaw I took issue with was actually one that has more in common with Return of the Jedi than Empire Strikes Back. It spreads its characters out across the galaxy. It would have been valuable to develop the relationships between this new stable of characters introduced in The Force Awakens, but they hardly spend time together. As someone who was rooting for a Finn/Poe romance, I was disappointed how little screen time they shared. (Though in their scenes together they still had more chemistry than the actual romantic pairing that unfolds.) I think some of these threads could have been streamlined and centralized, which would have also helped reduce the movies extended running time.

But hey, I’m not the professional Star War maker! These gripes are minor in the scheme of things. Rey’s journey with a bitter and defeated Luke Skywalker, and her force-linked conversations with Kylo Ren were some wonderfully written and acted storytelling. This kind of relationship between hero and villain is unlike what we saw in the original trilogy. Luke “sensed” there was still good in Darth Vader, but they never actually spent time getting to know one another. This relationship, almost a friendship, sets up some really interesting stakes for the next film.

Chris, what did you think of the story, and these relationships? Did the bouncing around to different characters in different locations bother you?

CM: It did. Upon leaving I explicitly thought to Empire and how it developed Han and Leia’s relationship. Rey, like Luke in Empire, is split off to train, but TLJ splits up Poe and Finn as well even though they remain in contact the whole time and are more or less serving the same “plot”. But, as I believe we discussed in person, the only individual plot that actually bothered me was Finn going to learn that actually, rich people aren’t good. It’s thinly written and doesn’t really draw on anything set up about him in the first movie. Was that really a lesson he had to learn? It doesn’t seem to relate to anything he does in the back half of the movie. There’s also one MAJOR example of plot driving character, where Holdo inexplicably withholds information for no reason what so ever. But other than that, I thought this was actually a well plotted movie, and deconstructed a lot of the things we know about Star Wars. It’s a story of legends, heroes, and one particular family, but also about a cycle and balance. All those things were challenged a little here.

SR: Yeah, when I said things could have been simplified and centralized, I was thinking specifically of Finn and Rose’s plot on the casino planet. That adventure is driven by the thing adventure movies often do, where they need to do A, just for the sake of getting to B, just for the sake of getting to C. They could have kept Finn and Rose on the resistance ship with Poe, figuring out how to break into the villain’s ship from there. I agree there should have been a better justification for Holdo withholding her plan from Poe. It would have been an easy fix too- they were being tracked through hyperspace, wouldn’t it more make sense for the Resistance to suspect they have a rat leaking their location to the First Order? Then I would understand Holdo not wanting anyone to know the plan. But again, I am not a Star wars maker!

The theme that resonated most with me was the idea of looking to the future rather than the past. Or as it is dramatically stated a few times, destroying the past, saying fuck it to ancient traditions. Take the piece that work for you, and burndown what’s no longer relevant. It’s a bold statement for a franchise that runs on nostalgia.

CM: Agreed. Rian Johnson made a Star Wars movie that tore apart other Star Wars movies. I think that’s where my feeling of being unsettled a little comes from, but overall I think it’s good. I’d rather a franchise that feels original and tries out new things (thinking here of the flashback that keeps changing details, Rey’s weird mirror room experience, and even the meditation sequence, which editing wise was new to Star Wars). Even if sometimes I hate it (which wasn’t the case here, but well could have been), I’d rather risk that than see movies I constantly feel “eh” about because I’ve already seen a near carbon copy of that movie 17 times in the last 9 years. I’ll be seeing Last Jedi again tomorrow, and am interested to see how I feel with new expectations. And I’m excited, again, for the next J. J. Abrams film – Johnson has torn things up enough that I feel it’ll move into even more unexpected territory.

Also, I can’t end this review without mentioning how superb Carrie Fisher is, and how much I will genuinely miss her.

I give this movie 9 stuttering Benicio Del Toros out of 10 decaying Snokes.

SR: I give this movie 8 lactating alien nipples out of 10 roasted porgs.

6 thoughts on “The Last Jedi Lets the Past Die

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