Let’s first get something out of the way. In my opinion, Disney ruined Star Wars. They ruined it when they threw away the EU of books and games and replaced it with a new continuity with none of the old EU’s accreted texture and socio-political verisimilitude. They ruined it when they let J.J. Abrams make a movie that was basically just a carbon copy of A New Hope, except with little of its charm and packed to the brim with absurd plotholes.
As it stands, the post-ROTJ continuity of Star Wars is fundamentally broken, because Abrams locked in a storyline that basically involved a galaxy’s worth of individuals making idiotically absurd decisions that allowed the First Order to rise and history to repeat itself.
For these reasons, I consider the post-ROTJ Disney continuity to be a kind of high-budget fan fiction, the kind that seems predicated on the sort of hubris that leads one to confuse imitation with mastery. In doing so, I refused it a place in my personal Star Wars headcanon, which, chronologically speaking, starts from the dim pre-hyperspace days of Xim the Despot and ends right around the conclusion of Timothy Zahn’s Vision of the Future.
I watched The Last Jedi with the sort of detachment that came from my having denied it true headcanon status. Through that, less subjectively biased lens, I actually found TLJ to be fairly good, but massively flawed, attempt to transmute the themes of the original into something new. But like TFA before it, it is hobbled by its place in this new and malformed Star Wars continuity, perpetuating plotholes that were created by the absurdities introduced by the post-ROTJ timeline’s lack of political realism.
So, with that frame in mind, I will, without further ado, discuss about what was good, bad and sad (because, despite everything, the film was pretty emotionally wrought for me) about TLJ.
There will, of course, be spoilers.
TLJ is thematically and structurally quite brilliant. In terms of the quality of its story beats, TLJ is probably up there with ESB in its ability to confound with its many shocking plot twists and narrative developments – Snoke’s death, Luke’s heart-wrenching final act of sacrifice, the truth behind Rey’s parentage, the catastrophic failure of Finn and Rose’s admittedly ridiculous quest to save the Resistance.
These story beats were so effective not just because they were unexpected in a Star Wars film, but also because they played important parts in developing the key themes of this movie, which is about transcending the usual themes of Star Wars and alchemising them into something new. Ren’s killing of Snoke subverted expectations that he could be redeemed. Luke’s story arc made him out to be a flawed hero whose last act redeemed him and turned him into a timeless legend, a beacon of hope for the galaxy; an emotionally-charged act of passing the torch to a new generation of heroes.
The revelation that Rey was a nobody subverted the longstanding notion that the mantle of the chosen one could be passed down through lineage. Kylo Ren, of the Skywalker lineage, failed the test of redemption, while Rey, a nobody, could become a hero in her own right.
And finally, the whole Poe Dameron sub-plot demonstrated that plucky heroic antics, long a mainstay of the films, could actually go wrong, upending the well-worn trope of heroes going against the palsied hand of authority to save the day. The film led us to think that Admiral Holdo as a cowardly villain and Poe as the hero (complete with Poe smugly trying to mansplain the tactical situation to Holdo), only to suddenly subvert that trope by showing up Poe’s actions as ill-conceived and ultimately disastrous, and Holdo’s actions as prudent and well-thought out.
Even the Canto Bight adventure by itself, seen by some as a superfluous accessory to the plot (since it didn’t Save the Day), did allow for Johnson to make mention of the notion that there are a superclass of individuals who profit off the endless cycle of war in the galaxy, and bring our attention to the systematic structures of oppression that undergird society – a timely commentary of the neoliberal takeover of the world, adding dimensionality to an otherwise simple parable of good versus evil.
That the film subverts these Star Wars tropes is not a bad thing – and is in fact good, because it means that the film is trying to be its own thing, to be both entertaining and thematically resonant at the same time, to critically examine the tropes that make up the franchise and do something different, while still staying somewhat true to the spirit of Star Wars‘ elemental nature.
In a way, the film also tries to address some of the elements of the previous films. Luke sees the Force as bigger than the Jedi or the Sith, and thinks that it is hubris to view the Jedi as exclusive guardians of the Force. He critiques the Jedi of the prequel eras as hypocrites, ineffectual monks in ivory towers that abetted the conditions that allowed Sidious to rise, custodians of a reductionist view of the Force that assesses one’s potential for training through one’s midi-chlorian count (kind of like how kids are streamed to secondary schools via their PSLE score). The Last Jedi makes the bold thesis that the Jedi as a concept are unnecessary and even inimical to an understanding of the living Force. And while it doesn’t technically conclude with the Jedi dying out (since Rey is the new last Jedi), it opens up the question in our minds on what it means to be a Jedi and whether or not we’ve been unduly deifying them.
The big trio (Rey, Finn, Poe) are much better written and developed than in TFA. There are also a few genuinely great new characters (Rose Tico among them – I hope she survived the crash). Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher were resplendent in their roles. Luke was an exquisitely tragic character study; Leia the very definition of dignity and inner strength.
Rian Johnson also mercifully downplayed some of Abram’s less inspired additions to the universe, the ineffectual Captain Phasma being one of them, and the whole awful macguffin plot of searching for Luke Skywalker – finding out where he was wasn’t really of importance to the plot of TLJ, in the end.
As I said, TLJ is massively flawed, and mostly because of the many ridiculous plotholes that pepper it, both as a result of Abram’s lack of coherence and Johnson’s own carelessly loose script. Much of it arises from treating the galaxy, a collection of a hundred billion or more stars, like it just consists of a few random planets in space.
Let’s just rattle them off:
- How come the First Order dreadnought didn’t have deflector shields? How could a lone starfighter just have blown up the laser batteries and allowed bombers to get through?
- This is one of the central mysteries of the entire chronology – sure, a portion of the New Republic fleet was pulverized by Starkiller base – but surely there are other fleets elsewhere? Who keeps their entire arsenal only at the capital? There’s a galaxy to defend! Where are the rest of the good guys?
- Surely the Resistance is not the only conceivable hope out there, or even that important of a symbol – it’s a big galaxy, surely other people want to be free. And doesn’t the defense of individual systems fall to individual fleets? Why should the First Order, with its limited resources (and yet crazy enough to send its most powerful ships chasing after a hundreds-strong splinter group) be able to conquer the galaxy, and its teeming multitudes? Why did the New Republic demilitarise to such an extent, flying in the face of realist geopolitical logic amidst a sea of potential threats and revanchist factions floating around?
- Why couldn’t the First Order just end things quickly by sending a few ships through hyperspace to intercept the fleeing Resistance fleet to blow them to smithereens? (This is, by far, my biggest pet peeve).
- Also, a planet’s pretty big – why didn’t anybody know the Resistance was heading straight to Crait, and by virtue of that, figure out that maybe they had something up their sleeves? Sure, the movie tells us Holdo’s plan was an inspired one, but it just doesn’t hold up upon closer inspection.
- Just how long does it take to travel across the galaxy, anyway? The film seems to suggest that jumping to any given random planet in a galaxy, bringing back a codebreaker, breaking into a ship, disabling its hyperspace tracker, and escaping doesn’t take more than eighteen hours. This is a continuation of the Abramesque tendency to “compress” the vastness of the galaxy into something that will fit in his tiny imagination.
- The whole Canto Bight thing is just a ridiculous macguffinesque plot – scour an entire planet for one guy who happens to be the only person in the galaxy who can help. Admittedly, the movie does acknowledge that it was a dumb idea – but apparently not too dumb for people to actually act on.
- Speaking of which, why didn’t Holdo just tell people what was going on and avoided the entire debacle?
- How come people can talk to each other through hyperspace on commlinks, but you need to go to a planet to send out a distress signal? And why just the Outer Rim?
- How did Rey get so good at a lightsaber so fast (continuing the Abramesque fallacy). By my reckoning they only spent a few days at Ahch-To. Months-long training at Dagobah, this was not.
- Raddus destroying the First Order fleet, while satisfying (and beautiful), was a total deus ex machina.
Essentially, the premise of the new films derives from a conception of the galaxy as small, simplistic, and strangely homogeneous – a place where a single star system’s destruction can change the fates of thousands of planets, where the conceit is that the survival of a ragtag band that’s lost everything is the only thing that can save the galaxy, where geopolitical realities, rules of logic and reasonable conduct have been warped in order to give rise to a specific set of circumstances to contrive yet another war between an evil empire and a rebellion – to pander to the imagined desires of a fanbase that is seen just as an enormous source of profits to be milked, just like Luke does to that alien.
The Last Jedi doesn’t, and can’t, escape those starting conditions, and has a few real stinkers of plotholes entirely of its own doing. And because of that, it makes what could have been a creditable and thematically strong work of “fan fiction” lose a few brownie points with me.
Luke meets Leia for a last, bittersweet farewell, recaptures some element of his younger days, fights Kylo Ren to a standstill, and disappears, before dying. By far the single most emotively jarring part of the film is the scene where, old and grey and exhausted, he stares into the twin suns and disappears, his cloak floating off into the breeze.
Admiral Ackbar dies. WUT.
The Resistance is whittled down to a bare skeleton in this film, methodically, with clinical savagery, as hope dies, is reborn, dies again – with only the barest thread of it surviving – an emotional rollercoaster of a movie (one that, to be sure, is still fan fiction and the darkest timeline of the SW multiverse, but still, disbelief is sufficiently suspended). This is the most sobering Star Wars film ever made. (But again, it really hangs on this notion that the Resistance is the only resistance left that has the ability to organise – that is decidedly not true, and should not be true. Otherwise, we accept that the galaxy is essentially a hopeless place, without non-movie characters able to rise to the challenge and lead).
Seeing Carrie Fisher in the film was also emotionally ravaging. There is an irony in how she survives the movie – we know we will never see her again, and we don’t know how Episode 9 can do without her, given the big role she played. But now, two of the big three have passed in the film, and the only survivor in the film has passed in real life. People conflate actors and the people they play, until they are one and the same. While the deaths of Han and Luke were devastating in the context of the plot, Carrie Fisher’s death was the thing that really signaled that the old guard, and the era of the original films, is really fading into the background, to make way for new characters that don’t have half of the OT heroes’ charm and chemistry. It is a sad reminder of the inexorable end of a period of my life, and of the lives of millions of Star Wars fans. RIP, Carrie Fisher.
Lastly, seeing the reactions to TLJ just underscores how stressful it is to be a SW fan – many hate it, for different reasons than what is stated above, many love it – especially professional critics. But whenever a critic crows about how the movie subverts tired SW tropes, I want to grab them and say that the EU did all that stuff – explored the nature of the Force (and the existence of many different Force-using traditions, including the Dathomiri witches), introduced new non-lineage heroes with humble origins that rose to prominence (Corran Horn), imbued SW with political realism and intrigue – way before the sequel trilogy was a twinkle in Disney’s eye.
Yes, SW fans are impossible to please.
P.S. Rian Johnson: I noticed your unsubtle homage to Wings – the dolly shot through a sea of tables to reveal the suave gambler at the end.
P.P.S Porgs are…okay. I didn’t hate them, but I wouldn’t buy merch of it.
I give this (fan fiction SW film): 3.5 out of 5 phantom dice