There was a time in December of last year when I considered having an opinion about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But Star Wars has never really been my thing. It is my third favorite among the ‘Star’ science fiction franchises (behind Star Trek and Stargate). And though a generally entertaining movie, one that was not spectacular yet not completely undercut by its many flaws, it didn’t seem to merit more attention than I had already given it merely by viewing. But as I continued to notice the buzz around the film, the conflicting opinions of film critics and fans, the expanding presence of Star Wars as a cultural touchstone (something it had always been), a tendency in social media to dismiss legitimate criticisms of the film, and the recent suggestions by some that the film should be remade, I decided that examining The Last Jedi in context of these developments might be worthwhile after all.
There is an element of criticism directed at The Last Jedi that is totally lacking in any redemptive qualities, and this is the white, male fanboy determination that the latest round of Star Wars movies (The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi) represent some sort of cultural apocalypse due to the inclusion of protagonists who are other than white males. They aren’t even bright enough to say “we want to make our own Star Wars movie” as they prattle on about remaking The Last Jedi, a movie they apparently hated. We can dismiss these whiners without any consideration, and judge the adventures of Rey, Finn, Poe and Rose strictly on their own merits. Are these characters compelling on their own? Have the writers, directors and actors done them justice? It’s a mixed bag, as one would expect, but none of the flaws are inherently tied to the ethnic, gender or racial identities of the characters.
Still, it is an actual problem with the film that the characters lack much in the way of either development or consistency. But as I pointed out here, Star Wars really doesn’t do that. Rey, as the heart of the new trilogy, fares better than most in The Last Jedi, but seems to have lost some of her agency, ping-ponging between her relationship with Luke, and her attempts to get him to train her/help the resistance, and her relationship with Kylo Ren, first as a hated adversary, then as a possible redemption project, and finally as an adversary again. She’s either stuck on the island at the mercy of Luke’s obstinacy, or stuck on the Supremacy as a pawn of the conflict between Snoke and Kylo Ren, but she seems to have lost much of the initiative she had in The Force Awakens. She wraps strong, I guess, utilizing Jedi powers she hadn’t really been trained in to save the Resistance, but her character arc lacks impact.
When Finn awakens from his coma, his big character motivation is his obsession with Rey, finding her, protecting her, whatever. He meets Rose, another questionably motivated character, when he tries to desert a cause he only marginally ever joined. Do they need him? Why do they care? But because someone had to write something for Finn and Rose to do during this movie we get that abysmal journey to Canto Bight. Rose is partially motivated by the death of her sister (which we see in the film’s opening), but I’m not sure why she needed that extra incentive, given she was already part of the Resistance. Is refrigerating a female character more acceptable if it is done to motivate another female character? And apparently the only lesson she learned from her sister’s sacrifice was that making a sacrifice for the greater good is pointless, so she wrecks Finn’s moment at the end by knocking him off his suicide run at the mini Death Star.
Of the new characters, Poe fares the worst. He’s been part of the military structure of the Republic and the Resistance for years, but for some reason has no respect for the chain of command. So, he runs his little side op that eventually undermines Vice Admiral Holdo’s escape plan and gets some significant fraction of the remaining Resistance forces killed. Maybe that was the point of his character arc, don’t be a self-righteous douchebag. But once you make him that, you really can’t redeem him, can you? The opening scene of Episode IX should be the execution of Poe Dameron for treason. General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo do a poor job of managing Dameron, and apparently enough other Resistance members that he is able to recruit them into his mutiny. Was this really the dumb story they wanted to tell? The actors do a fine job with the material that they are given, but much of that material is so poorly developed and downright stupid that no performance can make it good.
Luke Skywalker, of course, is another problem entirely. This is the character that accepted what Joseph Campbell referred to as The Call to Adventure way back before Star Wars movies had episode numbers. He joined Obi Wan on the journey to Alderaan. He initiated the rescue of Princess Leia. He blew up the Death Star. He followed Obi Wan’s instructions and sought out Yoda, who trained him in the ways of the Force. Then, upon learning that his friends were in jeopardy, abandoned that training to launch a one-man rescue mission. He joined with them again to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt and volunteered to join the critical mission to Endor. He left that mission to protect his friends from Vader, and then facing the Emperor, invested his whole self into the belief that Darth Vader could be redeemed. Luke Skywalker was the ultimate optimist. Until The Last Jedi, when he just sort of gave up. And I might have bought that, if they had shown me why, but a few flashbacks to a burning temple and attempted murder don’t cut it. You have to earn such a drastic alteration of a character’s wants and motivations, and the producers of The Last Jedi come nowhere close to doing that. And even then, while you might have convinced me that he would abandon the Jedi Order, or the Republic, or the galaxy as a whole, I will never believe that Luke would not run to help the princess the moment that she called.
I don’t come to a property like Star Wars (or even Star Trek, Discovery producers) wanting my expectations subverted. I come wanting to watch a damn Star Wars movie. If you are going to subvert my expectations, you need to do a hell of a better job giving me something worthwhile. If you are going to have characters make uncharacteristic choices, you need to lay a foundation that explains the change. And don’t hide the competence of new characters to force me to identify with ‘heroes’ that turn out to be wrong. Vice Admiral Holdo driving that cruiser down the Supremacy’s throat was a spectacular display, but it didn’t make up for the missteps with her character made along the way.
If the producers of the new Star Wars films had really wanted to do something different they wouldn’t have fallen back on that old light-side/dark-side Republic/Empire dichotomy in the first place. Renaming the Empire the 1st Order and calling the Rebel Alliance the Resistance doesn’t really change the nature of the conflict. It doesn’t matter whether or not the discount Emperor calls himself a Sith or the Emperor or the Supreme Leader, he’s essentially the same guy, creepy old dude tempting force adept youngsters into joining the dark side. The fact that they are essentially just recasting the old conflict, the endless Star War of light against dark, proves that this is the only thing Star Wars can be about. So, trying to nuance some kind of Grey Jedi idea wouldn’t work anyway. Once the tension between light and dark, Jedi and Sith disappears, Star Wars doesn’t have anything to be about. If it did they could have left the Republic intact and have these new heroes face some other challenge. This is why Star Trek is the superior product. It can be about science, exploration, conflict, culture, communication and a myriad of other topics. Star Wars is and always has been just a cartoon about Good vs. Evil.