The Last Jedi
Thoughts on The Last Jedi coming up—violate the spoiler space at your peril (and don’t say I didn’t warn ya):
Two years back, when the franchise was rebooted with The Force Awakens, I reviewed the film and noted its weaknesses, which were many. Chief among them were the derivative nature of the plot (which was largely a paint-by-numbers rehash of the original Star Wars) and the near-nonexistent characterization. The best thing I could say about it was that they hadn’t screwed up anything too badly… yet. (Unless you were a Han Solo fan, I guess, which I was not.) Still, I resisted the temptation to savage the movie. I concluded the review with this: “the lack of depth of our three heroes was clearly the issue most in need of addressing. We’ll see how things improve (or not) with the next chapter.”
So let’s give these new characters the same consideration I just gave the original Star Wars characters and see where we end up.
Rey is an orphan/abandoned child with force powers. That’s it. This installment fails to add any details surrounding her life growing up. Given her prodigious use of the force, there was much speculation about her possibly being related to the Skywalkers or Kenobis (or even both), but if Kylo Ren is to be believed, her parents were just a couple of random nobodies.
In Force Awakens, Finn left his post as a stormtrooper because, apparently, he abhored violence and/or murder. This ain’t much, but at least it hinted at something about him. Did they expand on this or offer any further context for any of it in Jedi? Nope.
All we knew of Poe was that he was a hotshot pilot who held some affection for his droid, BB-8. In Jedi, we learn that he can also be a bit quick tempered (or possibly just stupid) at times.
Kylo Ren/Ben Solo has rage issues, as we saw in the first movie. Do we discover the roots of that rage here, in the follow-up film? No. Was it revealed how he came to be seduced by the Dark Side? Nuh-uh.
Two films and five hours later, this revived series has yet to give us anything of substance in the way of characterization. In some ways, it’s actually gone backward. I have to laugh when I think about how the original series was lambasted for its weak characters. What would all of those critics think of these new movies? They’d literally have to create new adjectives to capture just how bad the characters are. My God, the original series was Shakespeare compared to this dross.
But the Plot’s Good, Right? RIGHT??
In a word: no.
There are basically two parallel plots, one following Rey and Kylo, and another following Poe, Finn, and newcomer Rose.
The plot following Poe/Finn/Rose comes about when Poe thinks that Resistance leader Holdo (filling in for Leia, who’s injured) isn’t doing anything to save the Resistance fleet from the pursuing First Order. So he sends Finn and Rose on a wild quest to disable the tracking device that the Order has planted on them. Later, it’s revealed that Holdo actually had an evacuation plan but didn’t let Poe in on it because REASONS. So all of Finn and Rose’s efforts were a pointless waste of time. Now I’m sure there are new Star Wars fanatics out there who will rationalize some justification for this plotline while pointing out how stupid I am, but they’re just kidding themselves. This was Three’s Company levels of silliness, folks.
The other plotline centers on Rey finding Luke and receiving proper Jedi training. Of course, I’m not sure what she needs training for, since she displayed mastery over every Jedi power ever known to exist in the previous film with no kind of training at all, but whatever. As it turns out, Rey ends up getting very little training from Luke anyway before she splits… but not before kicking Luke’s ass with his own original lightsabre—y’know, the one that once belonged to Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader that Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi passed on to Luke early on in the very first movie? So this plotline was another waste of time, unless its purpose was to shit all over Luke Skywalker. If such was the case, then bravo, gentlemen—mission accomplished.
Honestly, my expectations for these new films weren’t great. Knowing that, I set the bar fairly low. Really, there was just one thing that I asked of these new films… just one thing that they needed to get right in order to please me… just one thing that they absolutely could NOT screw up, and that was Luke Skywalker.
Welp. So much for that.
Mark Hamill expressed creative differences with writer/director Rian Johnson when first doing press for the film. You can read his words here, or hear them for yourself below:
Hamill walked back these comments a bit (without denying or disavowing them, though), which I can’t blame him for doing, considering they paid him a whole lot of money to do the movie and he doesn’t want to figuratively bite the hand. But the fact remains that his initial criticism was spot on.
Sadly, these new films do have their apologists and defenders, many of whom were quick to jump on Hamill—some of them with mindless memes like this:
Obi-Wan and Yoda did not give up and run away. The Jedi had been wiped out and they were literally the last ones left. To stand and fight at that point would have been suicide. So they went into hiding with a much longer game plan in mind. That plan was to let Luke grow up in secret until he was of age, at which point he could blindside the Empire and kick their ass. He was, effectively, the Jedi secret weapon, and guess what? The plan worked.
As portrayed here, Luke gave up when he was still in a position of relative strength. After whipping the asses of Darth Vader and the Emperor, why would he sweat this Snoke punk and a still inexperienced Kylo Ren? Of course he’d go clean it up—he’s Luke friggin’ Skywalker! I mean, if you want him to retreat, you’re going to have to come up with a far, far more dire scenario than this. I can see no purpose in this portrayal of Luke other than a sad attempt to build up these new characters at the expense of the old ones.
Seriously now, this was literal character assassination, like they were purposely trying to tear the character down and make him look like crap. This purpose feels echoed in the scene where Yoda burns the Jedi scrolls, noting, “page turners they were not.” It’s fairly easy (if not unavoidable) to read that as the writers of the new films declaring that the old films were actually pretty shitty and that we, the audience, should realize that the movies we’re getting now are SO much better. This is a dangerous strategy, one that I can only pray comes back to bite them in the ass.
Because the appeal of these films is almost purely nostalgia. Honestly now, if you removed the Star Wars label and took out the original actors reprising their original roles, do you think these movies would have done anything close to the same business? People crave Star Wars and they particularly crave seeing the characters they know and love from the original films. Now some of us have critical standards that we’re not going to compromise, and/or we’re going to expect the original characters that laid the foundation for this monster franchise to be properly honored. Others, however, will take what they’re given like mindless sheep. They will lie to themselves to the point of madness, insisting that the new movies are actually great when they’re clearly not. Some will even claim that they’re somehow better than the original films—like the meme creators above, I imagine.
Before anyone brings up all of the standard straw man arguments, I’m not saying people don’t have the right to enjoy these new movies and I’m not saying you don’t have the right to a different opinion. These movies can still be entertaining and fun at points, and they’re certainly well shot with great effects. But if you want to debate me about their deeper artistic merits, particularly in terms of the writing, you’re going to lose. And if you’re so foolish as to claim these films hold up to—or are somehow BETTER—than the originals, then I’m afraid I’m going to rip you to shreds.
How Did We Get Here?
After the new Justice League film bombed this past November, I saw articles where some execs at Warners were asking how Zack Snyder was allowed to continue as overseer of the film after the extremely negative reaction to Batman v Superman. Hell, people were circulating petitions to get rid of him in the wake of that mess, yet off he went to do Justice League. My impression is that these movie execs really aren’t paying very much attention and/or just don’t care all that much.
It was the same way when Abrams got hired to helm these new Star Wars films. When Disney bought out Lucasfilm, a friend told me that he figured they’d get Abrams to take over Star Wars and I was incredulous. Why would they do that, I asked? Why would you hire the guy from Star Trek to do Star Wars? Wouldn’t you want Star Wars to have a unique identity of its own? Is J. J. Abrams the only director on Earth that’s capable of making a sci-fi blockbuster now? I mean, you can’t find ANYONE else? Plus the guy actually did a pretty bad job on Star Trek—which the execs at Disney would have known if they were paying any kind of attention.
Now I don’t mean to jump on Abrams too much. He’s not the hack that I find Snyder to be, but the guy’s track record is still extremely spotty, assuming one can be bothered to give it half a glance. While he’s capable of coming up with some good ideas, the problem is that he doesn’t seem to know where he’s going with them. Lost is the classic example, but previous TV series like Alias and even Felicity suffered from similar issues.
I think the root of the problem is that guys like Snyder and Abrams are simply not storytellers. You have to be able to make stories with beginnings, middles, and endings; you have to be able to construct a narrative; you have to have something to say and know how to say it. And most important of all—as I said earlier here, as well as in numerous other blogposts over the years—you have to have characters. Ask any writer what’s more important, plot or character, and if that writer is worth a damn, they’ll tell you without hesitation: character. Because there are only so many plots out there, it’s almost impossible to come up with an original plot, but you can create an original character, assuming you have the necessary talent and will. In fact, characters are the only unique things a writer can truly offer. There are only so many plots, but the number of characters one can create is theoretically infinite.
In order to do them right, characters need to have depth, which you give them largely through backstory and history. You don’t have to elaborate all of that history, necessarily, but you have to have it in your own mind when you’re writing and it has to reach us through the character’s emotions and the choices they make. As it is often said: SHOW, don’t TELL.
To be clear, I’m not saying that plot is unimportant. It’s not as important as the characters, no, but it still matters. And in plot terms, the most critical thing—particularly when you’re working on a serial like this—is that you have to have a plan. Even moreso when that serial is literally the most sacred and beloved film series in the history of mankind. You can’t write Star Wars movies on the fly, they’re simply too important to be made that way—yet all the evidence suggests that this is what they’re doing.
For example, Abrams’s original ending of Force Awakens had Luke telekinetically floating some rocks. This didn’t work with what Rian Johnson had in mind for Last Jedi, wherein Luke was supposed to have separated himself from the force, so the ending of Force had to be changed. The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was up to, almost literally.
If you’re hoping this was just a one-time miscommunication, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. Remember when Kylo Ren told Rey that her parents were nothing special? Well, it may have been Rian Johnson’s intent that this was the truth, but it may not matter in the next film, because Abrams may very well choose to ignore it. Again, this basically confirms that each writer is working in a vacuum, doing whatever they feel like doing and not serving any larger story plan.
Personally, I found the choice to make Rey’s parents nobodies a bold one, artistically, though a foolish one, commercially. I think I get where Johnson was going; he was trying to say you don’t have to have any special bloodline to access the force—which is admirable in its egalitarianism. (Then again, if one wants to be cynical about it, maybe what he’s really saying is that these new characters are so great we don’t need to connect them to the Skywalkers or Kenobis.) But if Rey isn’t related to the Skywalkers or Kenobis, do you really expect the fans to care about her as much? Again, this franchise is heavily nostalgia-driven, so I’d be careful about flushing away any potential connections back to its past.
Once more, I think the real blame here needs to be laid at the feet of the execs that hired Abrams and company in the first place. Had I been in the position of those execs, my first questions to any prospective writer/director/producer would have been: Where do you see yourself taking this franchise? What are your plans for these characters? What kind of story did you have in mind? But all the evidence would seem to suggest that they hired Abrams without any kind of a creative plan. It’s like he and Johnson are passing the scripts back and forth, filling in the action and dialogue purely at random like they were Mad Libs. They’re flying blind with the most valuable movie franchise of all time in their hands, which strikes me as sheer insanity.
And I’m sure at the moment the execs at Disney aren’t the least bit worried, as they’re making mountains of cash. But I’m equally certain that the Warner execs felt the same way when Snyder’s Man of Steel was doing great business. Even then, there were people like me warning them that he was ruining the franchise with his creative choices, but they didn’t listen. Then Batman v Superman did middling business (while getting absolutely destroyed by the critics), and Justice League bombed.
Pay attention, Disney. You could be looking at your own future unless you take radical action with your third installment of this new Star Wars. The sad truth, however, is that it is probably already too late.