I had an interesting experience with Attack of the Clones back in 2002. Being of the opinion that The Phantom Menace, George Lucas’ first Star Wars prequel, was not actually that great I saw Episode II and loved it. This, I thought was much more like it, this was the great return to Star Wars that I had hoped for. Then, one week later, I returned to the cinema and watched it again and I hated it. I couldn’t understand how I’d failed to see what a lacklustre, corny, poorly acted and dull movie it really was.
When it became clear then that a lot of fans had been really disappointed by The Last Jedi I wondered if my initial adoration for that film would quickly wane too. I went to see it again this week, curious to see if I’d change my mind on this one as well. I did have a few issues with it even on the first viewing and could see why people had taken against it so maybe with a little perspective I’d be able to judge it more realistically. Well, sure enough my position did shift; this time I came away with no reservations whatsoever and am actually now a little confused as what other people had a problem with. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is great, probably the third best Star Wars film of all after Episodes IV and V.
Yet still, it’s audience approval score on Rotten Tomatoes is just 50% so I ventured to find out what the issues were for so many hopeful and ultimately saddened cinema goers. Handily Rotten Tomatoes has audience reviews so I had a look. What is clear initially, as with the case with any website that hosts a lot of public opinion, is that a lot of of these people are posting first and thinking later. For a start several of them are accusing Rotten Tomatoes of fixing the score because not even half of the people who have seen the film could possibly have enjoyed it. It must be some kind of corporate conspiracy they claim. Disney have paid them off. Seriously?! You know the film has made a billion dollars right? You don’t make that kind of money without lots of repeat viewings so while you are all saying you’ll never watch another Star Wars movie again, plenty of fans are going straight back to this one. Avatar stands as clear evidence that big box office is no proof of quality but it does mean people liked it.
Then, of course there are the moronic comments about there being too many empowered women in the film and how this is just pathetically trying to be politically correct. Please, don’t embarrass yourself! One post I saw even said that the character of Rose was only in the movie because she’s Asian. Oh yes, that kind of attitude really demonstrates your critical abilities! It’s like Brexit. You absolutely don’t have to have been racist to vote leave but a lot of racists voted leave and similarly you don’t have to be a misogynistic, small minded bigot to hate The Last Jedi but a lot of misogynistic, small minded bigots hate The Last Jedi. This imbecility doesn’t account for most the dissent though. There are, I have discovered, less ignorant and prejudice objections and these are the ones I want to tackle here.
One of people’s frustrations is that writer/director Rian Johnson has disregarded much of what J.J Abrams set up with The Force Awakens and isn’t being true to the ongoing story. It is correct to say that The Last Jedi goes off in its own direction and I am sure that was part of the attraction for Johnson. However, the central theme of Episode VII; that the Force is gaining in strength and is giving great power to Rey, is fully explored in this film. Furthermore there is much made of how there needs to be balance between the light side and the dark side of the Force which ties this firmly to the prequel trilogy, creating a new thread which now runs right through all of the films. There have also been complaints that the resolution to the big mystery of Rey’s parentage was weak but the fact that she is not from a long line of Jedi and that the only important person is her is brilliant and wonderfully unexpected. From a feminist standpoint this is the best answer we could have been given. It is all about her, the power is her own and is not inherited from some father figure. Some seem upset that the ‘Who is Snoke?’ question has been ignored as well but that was a query posed by the fan forums not the films so they should get over themselves.
Johnson has been liberally accused of making stuff up as he goes along too. Do you know what? That’s called writing. Besides a lot of the most unStarWarsy things he has put in the movie; the astral projection, the long distance communication between Rey and Kylo, Leia’s powers, are entirely in line with what has come before. There are those for whom Leia’s little space walk is the worst moment of all but Luke said back in Return of the Jedi that his sister had Force powers and that in time she’d learn to use them so here we are. I have already written a whole post on this, read it here if you are interested.
As an extension of this quibble the dissenters have said that the classic characters have been mishandled. What more than making Darth Vader a little kid called Annie and having him as the creator of C3-PO? Let’s face it, George Lucas himself has committed worse crimes in this area. As it is Leia remains the epitome of wisdom and dignified leadership (she has Force powers but doesn’t use them to get what she wants, now that is real strength and the total opposite of her Daddy). Luke, on the other hand, has changed from being the impetuous optimist he always was. Don’t you see it people? It is exactly this characteristic that has lead him to where he is now. Blind faith, lack of forethought and great power became hubris which eventually blew up in his face and broke him. It’s not what we expected but it works. An old friend of mine, whose opinion I respect and value, took particular umbrage with Luke dusting off his shoulder after surviving the barrage of laser fire saying this is just not what he would do. This, he argued, is more the behaviour of a cocky, petulant teenager than a Jedi Master. The way I read this though was that he knew exactly what to do to wind up Kylo Ren (who does behave like a cocky petulant teenager) and the angrier he could make him the easier it was to pull his subterfuge. Again, it all makes perfect sense if you want it too.
What then of the overlong running time and the inconsequential subplots? For me the clear three act structure and parallels between Poe Dameron’s hopeless big battle with the First Order and Rey’s hopeless little one with the last Jedi worked beautifully and I was gripped by the whole thing. I can see that Finn’s excursion to the casino planet could have been cut without altering the story too much but then you’d have lost the fact that one of the heroes went on a mission and totally totally failed which is just superb and so bold in how it plays with genre expectations. For those that want Star Wars to grow up and to challenge Hollywood conventions in the way it once feverishly celebrated them, this is probably the best part of the film. Some have said The Last Jedi is directionless but the place where it has taken us is so exciting. The old guard has fallen and hope for the future now lies with the children who will grow up and bring the victory we need. (Which when you think about it is kind of a metaphor for Star Wars itself with Abrams taking over from Lucas ten years on.)
Much has also been said about the humour in the movie being out of place too. I don’t get this as Star Wars has always had humour and The Force Awakens was actually a lot funnier than this film. Poe’s little skit stalling Hux in the opening moments is completely in line with him talking to Kylo Ren when he had been captured at the start of the last instalment. It also echoes Han’s ‘boring conversation anyway’ conversation from A New Hope. It has been mooted that Hux himself has been reduced to little more than comedy relief but doesn’t the character work so much better this way? I have to admit that some of the gags with the Porgs felt a little bit laboured and that the inclusion of this race of cute creatures seems like it is partly there to sell toys but that is also a very Star Wars thing to do isn’t it? Remember the Ewoks?
Finally there has been a suggestion that Captain Phasma didn’t feature enough and this cool character was wasted but I would argue against this too. She is the Boba Fett of this trilogy; less is more.
In the end I have to conclude that in most cases the positive or negative reactions to The Last Jedi come down to two different attitudes to Star Wars. People have had one of two figurative discourses with Rian Johnson, Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm and Disney (who have actually kept their fingerprints off this just as they have with Marvel and Pixar). It’s either been a case of
“I’m a Star Wars fan, I’ve been a Star Wars fan all my life. Give me more of what I love about this thing I love.”
“Argh, your film is rubbish.”
or it’s been
“I love Star Wars, I love the Star Wars universe. Do something new and surprising with it.”
“Yay, your film is awesome.”
I know which camp I’m in and I urge the haters to rethink their stance and join me here. It’s a happier place.