If you are one of the three people on earth who hasn’t yet seen or heard about the plot of The Last Jedi…well, you probably are herding anteaters in a remote part of Siberia and therefore likely do not need this next spoiler alert. But in spirit of the sudden and touching new sensitivity that has swept the world for avoiding Star Wars spoilers, I will nonetheless say:
This review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If you care about seeing the movie without knowing anything about it – well, why are you reading movie reviews anyway? But you definitely should not read this one. So there.
(Let’s be honest: I’m not sure I got the “sensitive” part of the “touching new sensitivity” quite right).
As you’ve probably heard by now, the new Star Wars movie is controversial. Critics love it; the people, well, the people are divided. It is by most accounts the least liked Star Wars movie of all time, and its Rotten Tomatoes fan score gets lower by the second. I’ve read hundreds and perhaps thousands of reviews, and the most common comment I’ve seen about the movie from Jane or Joe Citizen is this:
“Rian Johnson ruined my childhood!”
Yet clearly, quite a few fans loved the movie, too – and I actually know more people personally who loved it than hated it.
What are we to make of this mess? As someone who grew up a Star Wars fan (I had an Episode IV landspeeder toy when I was 5 years old), currently owns no less than 11 different lightsaber replicas (lightsaber battles are quite common in our household), still actually plays with my eight Star Wars dolls (I prefer the term “action figures,” for the record), and has a youtube channel with my daughter that specializes in Star Wars parodies (check it out!), I feel I have earned a bit of George Lucas street cred to effectively comment on this new movie.
Further, I also feel like the movie review industry is lacking in a specifically Christian perspective – and as the nation (unlike Hollywood) is still overwhelming Christian (not to mention that I presume if you are reading a blog devoted to Christian themes you have at least some small interest in that perspective), I thought I’d also give my take on the religious aspects of the movie.
For the sake of organizing, I’m going to divide my comments into two separate posts. In this post, I’m going to rate the movie on its entertainment value. In my next post, I’m going to rate it on its moral and spiritual value.
Entertainment Value: 3 Stars (out of 5)
Is this an entertaining movie? I’m actually going to say something that it appears no one will like on either side of the debate – I think this movie is simply average. Because these days research suggests people basically only want to read stuff that validates what they already believe, I’ll tell you straight out that I’m starting with the bad stuff. So if you don’t want to hear about that, then skip to the next section. Or even better, learn to dialectically appreciate perspectives that aren’t your own!
What I didn’t like about the movie
I’ve seen it twice now, and I can’t escape the following evaluation. The movie was entertaining in parts and had many redeeming virtues, but overall I think it suffered from a let’s surprise them inferiority complex. Rian Johnson seemed more interested in trying to shock the audience than he was in creating a truly compelling narrative that worked. It’s harder and harder these days to find something a Star Wars fan hasn’t thought of – and in many ways, this movie seemed to me like a largely-failed attempt to respond to criticisms that The Force Awakens was too predictable and as a result, Rian Johnson tried too hard to find whatever those things-fans-haven’t-thought-of were.
What will Luke finally do when Rey holds out his lightsaber? Hey, let’s have him toss it over his shoulder and act like a pouty two-year old who refuses to come to dinner. Bet no one thought of that.
Who will Rey’s parents turn out to be? How about junkers from Jakku who apparently never left the planet, because hey, after we showed Rey watching them leave the planet in Episode VII, bet no one will think of that.
Who will Snoke turn out to be? Hey, let’s just kill him off without talking about it at all, because no one will have imagined we’d do something like that.
In a sense, it felt to me like Rian Johnson might as well have had Luke use the lightsaber to cut out Chewbacca’s spleen and eat it, or have Rey’s parents turn out to be Ewoks, or for Snoke’s long-awaited backstory to involve him being the ill-begotten offspring of a porcupine and a wombat. Those sound absurd, but that’s a bit how this movie played out to me. Because, hey, no one would have thought that Luke would go all Wookie-spleen-hangry or that Snoke would be Darth Porcubatius, so it’s all good.
The Last Jedi may be shocking in places, but it isn’t the right kind of shocking. And that rarely makes for truly compelling theater. Let’s compare for a second. The shocking moment in Episode V – the quintessential movie bomb that defines all movie bombs – was when we learn that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. That moment was indeed surprising, but it wasn’t randomly surprising; it actually made sense in the larger narrative and served a profound purpose in the movie. There were a hundred reasons why we should have seen that coming. Vader was clearly in a very tiny minority of people who were powerful with the force, and yet so was Luke; we knew Luke’s father and mother were gone; Obi Wan actually seemed a bit (just a bit) sheepish when he discussed Luke’s father’s “death.”
And yet in The Last Jedi, when we learned that Luke wasn’t on any great mission to do anything but literally just abandoned his friends (and the whole galaxy) to evil to die a selfish death on a remote planet, it doesn’t seem to fit at all. Quite the opposite. Consider just two of many possible issues:
1. In Episode VII, Luke apparently cared enough about being found that he left a complicated, secret, and hard-to-put-together map of where he was going, for the smart and clever person to find. Everyone on all sides seems to think it is so important to find him that this is literally what the entire plot of the movie is about. And yet: When we finally do find him, nothing about that moment resonates in any way with the entire plotline of the preceding movie. He actually says that he went to the most unfindable place in the galaxy to be left alone to die. If that’s true, then why did he leave a map? (And if he didn’t leave the map, who did, and why was this made to be the most important part of Episode VII and then left completely unresolved in Episode VIII? Did Rian Johnson even watch the prior movie? Goodness, J.J. Abrams has got a lot of work to do in IX).
2. Probably the most troubling part of the movie to me was how inconsistent Luke’s character was from all of the preceding movies – including the way he was depicted in Episode VII. This isn’t about being a Star Wars purist, people – it’s about good or bad script-writing. You create a world, you need to stick to its parameters. And yes, sure, people change, I get that. Personally I never really even liked Luke in Episodes IV-VI; no one that I know particularly did. This isn’t about being overly attached to the “Luke I knew.” But to imagine that he would abandon the galaxy because one of his students started to go bad? It’s frankly absurd. I mean, it’s not like Luke didn’t have experience with that sort of thing – that’s what happened to his father. And you are seriously trying to tell me that the same person who was willing to believe in the good in Darth Vader, the Darth Vader who had murdered millions of people and had tortured and tried to kill Luke’s own best friends – you are telling me that the same person who gave himself up in the hopes of saving that guy, was going to freak out and abandon all sense of duty because he saw some darkness in one teenage student? I’m sorry, but if you are going to make the most optimistic and good (morally speaking) character in the galaxy into an immoral and pathetic cynic, I’ll listen – but you have to do way, way, way better than that.
Well, a lot of The Last Jedi moments are like that, both small and big. One of my personal biggest disappointments about this movie’s predecessor (Episode VII) was that Leia was not a Jedi (which was her implied path in Episodes V and VI). At the least, I would have hoped that she would develop her force powers to some degree. (Yes, Star Wars geeks, I am aware that her reasons for this are fleshed out a bit in some of the non-canonical writings; but still). But she didn’t, so if you want to show her using those powers, you need to prep us for that. And instead, we get a fairly bizarre scene where she is basically dead, and then suddenly she is able to use the force to not only pull herself a great distance while in an almost-dead state, navigate a debris field, and open an air lock; but also to somehow survive a spectacularly long time in the unlivable cold of space. Thus, while I personally thought it was cool that Leia was shown as a powerful force-wielder and had long been wanting Star Wars to develop that side of her, the random way it was done in The Last Jedi seemed less than satisfying.
The whole movie seemed a bit hodge-podge like that. In Episode V we have a cave where Luke sees himself and learns a lesson that actually pertains to the movie; in The Last Jedi we have a cave where Rey sees herself but doesn’t learn anything in particular (even by her own admission). In Episode V we have a side trip from non-Jedi characters that at first seems pointless (ending with the characters being incarcerated), but then it is directly tied to the Jedi/Sith-based plot in a clever way; in The Last Jedi we have a side trip from non-Jedi characters that at first seems pointless (ending with the characters being incarcerated), and then…well, it still seems pointless. (Hey, guys, maybe instead of trying to find some magical codebreaker in the vain hope of disabling the tracker without the First Order knowing, why didn’t you just…buy some extra fuel while you were out? They do sell space fuel on Canto Bight, right? Or, since obviously the First Order was curiously oblivious to small ships coming and going, maybe just sneak the people off the main Resistance ship to Crait, say four at a time, as soon as you decide on that course of action?)
And that sums up how I felt about quite a bit of The Last Jedi. As a movie, it had a hard time really going anywhere or developing anything.
What I liked about the movie
Now, if you’ve read this far, you may wonder why on earth I gave this movie as high a rating as three stars? Well, here’s the truth: It’s still quite a fun spectacle. As entertainment, it delivers in many key areas and was definitely worth the seven bucks I paid for it (both times). While The Last Jedi has more issues than most Star Wars movies, all flicks (including all the other Star Wars movies) have plot problems, and this one is still worth watching in spite of those problems. It’s fun, it has some heart. It replaces stupid ewoks with over-the-top awesome porgs. It has no Jar Jar. So let me end this post with a larger dip into the things I liked about the movie.
First and foremost, I liked sharing the movie with my daughter Autumn. She’s a huge Star Wars fan and she loved the movie more than I did – and it was incredible to experience the wonder of the Star Wars universe together in the theater with her by my side.
OK, even I can see that “reason” is more of a caveat – in truth I really enjoyed the experience of seeing this movie in spite of its flaws, and I think maybe my own enjoyment is in part filtered through her eyes. But that said, this movie really does have quite a few redeeming features that don’t depend on sharing it with your beloved daughter. So here goes for real:
1. The best-developed part of the movie was the way the battle between good and evil played out in Rey and Kylo Ren’s relationship. I don’t think it was done perfectly (and of course, Rey’s turning herself over to the bad guys to try and save Ren is a bit of a cheap knock-off of Episode VI), but especially the second time I watched it, I really began to appreciate the subtlety and heart with which this was handled. One of the best moments in the movie is when Kylo Ren tries to convince Rey to join her on the dark side and tells her that although she didn’t matter to her parents, she “matters to him.” And her subsequent response – refusing, even then, to turn her back on what was right and instead trying to save her friends – was terrific. It was a beautiful parable of all our struggles: Sometimes when we feel we don’t matter, there is a temptation to turn to evil to satisfy it. Ren struggled with this, too, and tried to find a kind of middle path by killing Snoke and turning Rey to “his” side – a path that Rey ultimately (and rightly) rejected.
2. Every movie needs a compelling bad guy, and Kylo Ren completely fits the bill here (I have mixed feelings about Snoke, but as he plays comparatively little role in the film, I’ll restrain myself there). Ren’s character is especially well-developed in this movie and he finally became the intriguing bad guy we hoped for, with moments of genuine moral tension (e.g., refusing to fire on his mom after considering it) and of real audience empathy (e.g., learning he thought his master tried to kill him); and yet, for all that, he was clearly depicted as the dangerous-but-cool bad guy he largely still was at the end of the movie.
3. Ren and Rey are both great; but the very best scene in the movie is when Luke Skywalker appears on Crait as a Force-projection. I don’t care a whole lot about the apparently-raging Force-projection debate (I have an opinion on that, but it isn’t that strong) – what I like is the drama and tension surrounding the moment. I love how the scene builds up to my very favorite line in the movie, when Luke says to Ren: “Amazing – every word of what you just said was wrong” and then proceeds to give him an absolutely incredible speech about why it was wrong. That was top-notch script-writing, right there. A good friend said something like this about that moment: “I felt then like I was finally in a Star Wars movie.” That’s how I felt, too – that was totally awesome.
4. There was some really good acting. Adam Driver is particularly brilliant, and while Mark Hamill never was an especially accomplished actor on his best day, I think the critics were right who said he turned in his best performance ever here. Daisy Ridley is terrific – although I will say that the first time I saw the movie, I thought Rian Johnson mostly wasted her talent. I warmed up to her performance the second time I saw it.
5. BB-8! A lot of people thought BB-8 wasn’t particularly good in this movie – but I personally thought he almost stole the show. He’s officially now my second favorite Star Wars droid ever, behind only K-2SO. (My favorite droid ever, Data from Star Trek, isn’t even in Star Wars…shhhhhh).
6. Porgs! The second time I saw the movie, I was with a group of five respectably ewok-hating manly-men in-laws. At the end of the movie we all discussed our favorite scenes. In the midst of this group of guys who went together to watch a movie about gripping battles in space, my father-in-law stated that his favorite scene was not a light saber battle or blaster fight, but…the moment an especially extra-cute porg looked pouty when Chewbacca was about to eat some roast porg for dinner.
And here’s everything you need to know about porgs: Rather than mocking him, this group of guys (myself included) all honestly said “that’s a solid choice.” Because it was. One of my best sensibly ewok-hating friends (like me, also 45 years old) already has a porg doll; instead of making fun of him, I’m jealous.
7. Crait! I think Crait is one of the coolest visual worlds ever created for Star Wars, and the whole battle on Crait and everything that happened there was (for me) the best part of the movie. I loved the red-on-white explosions when the red soil underneath the white salt would rise into vast crimson plumes, I loved the crystal foxes and crystal caves, I pretty much loved everything about the vast Utah-like beauty of the whole place.
8. You’ll note that up until this point I haven’t said much about the generally whimsical humor in the movie. That’s mostly because it’s a touchy subject amongst Star Wars fans and I don’t want any of you to hate me. But I’ll venture this: I personally did not like the slapstick-like approach Johnson took to the movie and often found it very off-putting (as my daughter said, much of the humor felt like it belonged in a Lego Star Wars parody of the movie, not in the actual movie itself), but overall the movie was entertaining and certainly there were some super-funny parts that I could not help but laugh at. There – you can’t get more vague and diplomatic than that! I’d also like to use this moment to announce my campaign to run for Star Wars president, and if you vote for me, I promise to continue to play to both sides of this humor debate in an unconvincing manner.
I could go on – I like talking about Star Wars a lot and I’m just getting warmed up. Next post, we’ll give the first-ever “moral/spiritual” one-to-five star rating for a movie on this blog. And we’ll make that rating by asking the question: If Christianity could speak, what would it say about Star Wars: The Last Jedi? So stay tuned.