The Last Jedi, or How to Take a Piss on a Great Story

I love to teach the Star Wars movies as structures. They’re like great great structures for teaching my students how drama can work, especially in a film… If you think about the original three movies. Think about the way they’re organized together. In any movie or book—not always, but traditionally—there’s a place where the character, the main protagonist, has to make an absolutely important choice, and that choice will set the consequences and the terms of the rest of the movie and sometimes even the rest of this character’s life… In the first movie Luke makes the choice that he’s going to go follow Ben Kenobi, to pursue a lifetime in the force, and become a Jedi… If Star Wars was just nonsense, if it was jibberish, it wouldn’t hang as tightly as it hangs. Star Wars has been around a really long time. There isn’t a young person who hasn’t felt the choice between “I’m going to stay and help my family,” or “I’m going to go and do something else that’s more personal, that’s more me.” What makes Star Wars so poignant is you have this character who is so desperate to leave. He desperately wants to leave this little farm. But you know what he decides when he’s given the choice? He’s like you know what, my aunt and uncle need me. It’s an ethical thing. Even though I desperately want to go and be a pilot, I’m going to stay here and help them. And that choice he makes follows him throughout the rest of the movies. He’s more loyal than he is ambitious. That loyalty is not always something, as kids, we’re encouraged to embody. So when you see someone being loyal, really loyal, making a hard choice. “I’m going to stay at home on the farm rather than be a star pilot.” Well, that seems like a real thing to me.

— Junot Diaz

According to box office numbers, many of you have probably seen The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga.

(If you haven’t seen it be warned that there are spoilers below.)

As a lifelong fan of Star Wars, here is my emotional personal reaction to The Last Jedi:

NO! No, no, no, no, NO, no, no!, NOOOO!

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OK, that’s out of the way.

The night I saw The Last Jedi I walked out of the theater no longer a Star Wars fan. For the rest of my life I guess I can pitifully cling to my precious original trilogy. I know it’s an old fart thing to do. But for those few of you interested in my puritanical originalist arguments, below are my reasons why The Last Jedi is a nothingburger movie.

#1 Rey’s story is boring

Rey is a perfectly good stock action movie character. And Daisy Ridley’s acting is incredible despite having little in the script or story to work with. But Rey, as a character, lacks the universal touch because her journey, so far, doesn’t embody anything. Paradoxically, fictional characters are made universal by their personal and particular struggles. Not from their blandness. Far from being a “Mary Sue”—a character who can do no wrong—which has been argued by many online critics, Rey is almost a totally passive character. It’s only superficially that she displays strength using the force, wielding a lightsaber, etc. Fundamentally her journey in this new trilogy doesn’t signify anything beyond itself.

The irony of Rey’s character is that, in trying to do a more interesting and updated version of Luke, she is actually made more generic. Like Luke, Rey is a straightforward orphan type. Done over and over again in literature. Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins… But unlike Luke, Rey doesn’t make any active decisions to begin her journey, nor does she risk anything personal to endear us to her struggle. She’s waiting for her parents. Okay. She’s been chilling on this desert planet all this time salvaging rusted metal and eating green muffins. Okay. Then she’s in the right place at the right time and gets swept up in an adventure. Okay. And ends up being randomly amazing at the force. Okay.

THIS MUST BE BUILDING UP TO SOMETHING.

But no.

By the end of The Last Jedi, who cares about what happens to Rey? Just like every other story-line she’s involved in, her meeting with Luke is basically a blind alley. She learns some things about the force. But nothing about her personal struggle for identity is furthered one way or the other. She tries finding identity in her meeting with Kylo, which makes no narrative sense, but that ends up being another blind alley as well. How many wild goose chases does Rey have to go on before we glean one single thing about her character?

Here’s what I think they’ll name Episode IX:

Star Wars: Chasing Pots of Gold to the Ends of the Galaxy for no Reason Whatsoever

#2 Of plot holes & story weaknesses

The plot holes in The Last Jedi are so flagrant there is really no excuse for it. But the plot holes are only the symptom of a poorly crafted story.

It’s clear to me Rian Johnson has confused creativity with subversiveness. Being subversive is easy. Any teenager or French philosopher can do that. But being really creative isn’t easy at all. Building something truly inspiring from the ground up requires an inconvenient amount of introspection and imagination.

If you pay close attention, every plot point in The Last Jedi is a cute little comment on Star Wars—an attempt to deconstruct a convention that went before it. Deconstruction is fine as long as you replace what you tear down with something better, but The Last Jedi has nothing to bring to the table to replace what it tears apart.

  1. A planet destroying super weapon plot is replaced by a more micro & local level slow motion battle ship chase plot
  2. The trigger happy space cowboy is put into his place by a “strong” self-sacrificing Christ figure
  3. The subplot to retrieve the hack for the enemy shield ends up amounting to saving space goats
  4. The Jedi are replaced by… well, nothing. Just these characters… I mean they’re fine but… C’mon, they’re not Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Han Solo.

Each plot hole directly correlates with one of these points of deconstruction. The slow spaceship chase doesn’t make sense, because an entire First Order fleet could easily take down one Resistance ship, even if that ship had a functioning shield and plenty of fuel. There is so much labored dialogue throughout these scenes about why this isn’t the case, about how they can be tracked through light speed, etc., to the point where, for me, the exposition was a dead giveaway. It was too far a stretch and I was taken out of the drama.

Poe Dameron the Whiny Space Cowboy responds to said dilemma impetuously, so much so that he invites the scorn of Vice Admiral Holdo, the new acting commander of the ship, with whom he develops something of a rivalry. This narrative piece depends on the premise going before it to work, which it doesn’t, so the drama built on top is even more flimsy: Poe wants to know the plan for escape, but Aldo won’t tell him. After all he’s being a real jerk! But beyond this it isn’t clear why Holda is leaving everyone in the dark as they float helplessly along in space without an apparent plan of action. This contention between Holda and Poe seems contrived, like it had to be written for the story to work in the way it eventually did, and when Holda goes all kamikaze, it becomes clear. This was an edifice to support Holda’s now famous hyperspace scene. A cool idea, but a forced one that produces holes in the story. To quote a recent article which put it more bluntly:

“More to the point, though, this didn’t have to be a suicide run. Hyperspace jumps are plotted by computers, and droid ships are already a Star Wars staple. There’s no reason navies couldn’t construct unmanned ships to take on this task.”

#3 It’s just a Marvel movie in space

This all may seem like a bunch of nit-picking. And it is. To be fair, as a standalone movie The Last Jedi is fine, passable, a piece of neatly crisped toast. But as an extension of a story that has meant a lot to serious fans, who see it as maybe just a little more than a movie, The Last Jedi represents a concession to mainstream low-grade movie writing. It would be impossible to overestimate the role Star Wars has historically played in shaping the art of the Hollywood blockbuster. Star Wars wrote the playbook for big epic movies and now, instead of paving the way for new territory, continuing to blaze new trails, it’s absorbed the worst of it’s own cheap imitators.

I want to be very clear (if you’ve made it this far in the article). There’s nothing wrong with enjoying this movie. If you liked The Last Jedi, that’s good by me. Honestly I, and other Star Wars fans like me, are really not out to score hipster points at this late stage in the game. That’s not what it’s about. It probably sounds very snooty to be all about the ‘originals.’ But the apparent anger we feel really has more to do with the life cycles of art, which can be brutal. Trends go up and down. Mediums go in and out of fashion. Sometimes a lot of creative energy is concentrated in one industry while another flounders and has to re-find its footing. People are inspired cross-culturally by different things at different times. And every so often a thing has enough longevity to cross over into a new generation or a new medium and is reinterpreted. Sometimes this goes over really well and other times it doesn’t.

Here are three great videos you can watch that do a better job explaining everything wrong with The Last Jedi.

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Is there a Glass Ceiling on Villainy in the Sequel Star Wars Trilogy?

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ONE OF THE MOST common criticisms of The Force Awakens (2015) was that it was essentially a redux of A New Hope (1977) with new characters and slightly different situations but with the same basic storyline:

Bad guys have superweapon. Unsuspecting hero who lives on desert planet gets caught in middle of plot to thwart superweapon. With struggle good guys destroy superweapon. Hero basks in glory and gets whiff of personal destiny.

(And there are even more specific similarities beyond the plot.)

This could be because The Force Awakens is a textbook ‘soft reboot,’ which sacrifices creative/risky storytelling for conventional, repeated ideas (probably in order protect investment). Much of Hollywood now relies on continually reasserting brands instead of writing new stories because people go out in droves to see their favorite stories reprised.

The Force Awakens though and the next two movies in the new Star Wars trilogy (The Last Jedi and the as of yet untitled Episode IX) are in a unique position following up one of the most groundbreaking movie franchises of all time.

IT’S NO SECRET that the original Star Wars trilogy was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell and particularly his book Hero with a Thousand Faces which is an account of ancient hero stories all around the world. A New Hope especially is structured like an ancient hero-myth. A regular farm boy goes on an adventure, gets magic sword from wizard, and goes to save the princess trapped in the castle.

It’s a simple tale of good and evil.

But then The Empire Strikes Back & Return of the Jedi went on to complicate things. Focus was shifted from the universal hero story of Luke to include more of Darth Vader. George Lucas famously decided last minute during the later drafts of Empire to rewrite Darth Vader as Luke’s father.

Whatever began to endear Darth Vader to George Lucas as a character, the prequels—however clumsy—placed Darth Vader squarely in the middle of the whole saga as ‘the chosen one.’

The villain turned out to be the one to bring balance to the force.

THEREFORE THE SEQUEL TRILOGY (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Episode IX) has a big job to do, especially in its treatment of evil.

And The Force Awakens already showed some weaknesses in this regard and was particularly bland in its handling of what is supposed to be the absolute threat to peace in the galaxy: the superweapon Starkiller Base, which is just a bigger Death Star. Han Solo even cracks jokes about it in the middle of the climactic action sequence:

Also, the only really distinguishing characteristic of Supreme Leader Snoke—the new Emperor Palpatine—is that he’s really big version of Gollum.

Making the new villains and superweapons so blatantly derivative of the past trilogy—basically the same but only bigger—shows a lack of creativity but it also shows how thoroughly the original Star Wars trilogy maximized dramatic PG-rated villainy, leaving little room for future installments to up the stakes.

The Death Star, a destroyer of entire planets, pretty much maxed out the villainous possibilities of the Empire:

The only way the First Order seemed to be able to distinguish itself by way of originality was to make Starkiller Base capable of destroying more than one planet at once:

But scale is not the only issue.

As was discussed earlier Darth Vader’s story as a villain is given depth and intrigue by his being the real hero of the story. That’s what makes him interesting. He is the last person we would expect to soften. Any villain character reversals in the new trilogy (from Dark to Light, Light to Dark) would feel too ripped off from Darth Vader’s story, even for a soft reboot. Kylo Ren is made somewhat interesting by being Han and Leia’s son but even this revelation felt reminiscent of the ‘I am your father’ reveal from The Empire Strikes Back, harkening back to and possibly re-instantiating familial betrayal and redemption as key themes for the sequel trilogy.

It will be interesting to see what The Last Jedi and Episode IX do to expand on the characters of Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren, and General Hux; what type of threat the First Order will present to the galaxy; and whether or not it will be very different from the old Empire. Will there be a new superweapon? If not, how will the First Order menace the Republic? If there is a new superweapon, how will it be different than the Death Star and Starkiller Base?

Is Snoke actually a very tiny evil Yoda?

In short, as a first step towards a new villainy The Force Awakens represents a safe reprisal, relying heavily on previously existing elements.

It was not bad but not great either.

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THE LAST JEDI comes out December 2017. Episode IX is tentatively slated for May 2019. If they are going to be as entertaining and lasting as the original trilogy (no easy task) they are going to have to know how to handle their antagonists, break new ground, and ultimately do better than The Force Awakens.


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