The Current State of the Fanbase
The most progressive concept in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a movie full of concepts, is the idea that battles between good and evil benefit only the rich, who perpetuate war in order to keep people engaged in a cause that profits the elite while distracting both sides from the real issues. But this isn’t the smartest thing about the film. The smartest thing about it is that Disney managed to concoct a film that recruited half of the Star Wars fanbase to attack the other half in order to make this aspect of the movie a reality. The nightmare I live in, being a Star Wars fan, is that there are now only two sides: those who believe that The Last Jedi is a subversive masterpiece and those who believe that it’s a destruction of a proud establishment. Disney’s entire strategy is evident in the fact that no other points of view have a steady voice; its success is evident in the fact that despite The Last Jedi being poorly received by half the fanbase, the Rise of Skywalker ticket presales were the highest in movie history. Both sides march out onto the frontlines of Twitter every single day, not to profit themselves, but to profit the elite that make money on the war, no matter who wins each skirmish. I am not going to regurgitate their battle hymns to you. This analysis is a view of this movie as a movie, with the goal of impressing no one, ingratiating no side, and making no profit. I don’t want to ask if it destroys an establishment or offends my childhood movies: it tries to do something new, and that’s admirable. I want to talk about how it does that thing: it’s in the how that the whole ambition crumbles.
Before he becomes a screaming Nazi (again), in his moment of surest clarity in the entire film, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) asks Rey (Daisy Ridley) to help him tear down the establishment and join him. In that moment, Kylo was me: in that moment, he wrote this review. Isn’t that the moment Star Wars could have become new again? I can’t be the only one who wished that Rey took his hand, and the film ended at that moment. But understand the truth of this situation, as I have learned to: there was never any way that they would tear down the establishment together, join forces and seek a more nuanced morality; there was never any chance that they would go beyond good versus evil. The Last Jedi proclaims many new things while circling back to its starting point: their conversation about tearing down the old ways ultimately results in a battle between the same good and evil. That is, and always will be, where the money is.
This ultimate betrayal of its own intentions makes The Last Jedi a frustrating exercise. I want to backtrack through each of its major ideas in order to explain how it gets to this ultimate reversal, the good things that it loses along the way, and the bad things that it never got right to begin with. To do so, I want to start at the end.
Starting from the End
The whole movie is about deconstruction, of what heroes and villains are, of what war means, of what Star Wars IS. In a moment of punishing clarity, in the robes Toshiro Mifune used to wear (and refused to wear: Mifune was Lucas’ vision of the original Obi-Wan), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) deflates Rey’s concept of the stalwart Jedi hero by saying, “You think what? I'm gonna walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order?” This is teaching us that a hero is not necessarily what we want him to be: it’s brilliant because it’s what Luke himself learned years ago, when he sought Master Yoda looking for a strapping Hercules and found a Muppet; it’s what writer/director Rian Johnson wants to teach the fans about their own hopes for the same thing. Let’s stop there: stopping there, fans of this movie are right. It’s a bold new direction.
But if we keep going, by the end of The Last Jedi, Luke does exactly what he said he should not do, just in a different way. He doesn’t destruct the idea of being an amazing hero; he just takes his own twist on it – instead of using his laser sword, he uses his Force powers. That’s the pitiful extent of the ingenuity here. He tells hero-hopeful Rey that the Force is not “magic powers … It’s not just about lifting rocks.” Of course, by the end, he saves the day with magic powers, and then she saves the day by literally moving rocks (she cocks her brow as if to say, “Of course,” as she does so – what’s the lesson there? That the Force is a power that she has, that it is about lifting rocks?). When Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) tells Finn (John Boyega) that the military industrial complex funds both sides of the war and fighting it only perpetuates their profit, he takes from this that dying for the Resistance is the best thing he can do. Clearly, he misunderstood her, and to the film’s credit, it knows it: Rose prevents him from sacrificing himself to destroy the First Order’s laser, telling him, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.” It’s a philosophy with no returns: the entire concept of war is that sometimes you have to destroy something to save something and indeed, many characters do so in this film (Rose’s sister sacrifices herself for the people she loves by destroying a First Order ship; so does Holdo). This quote is a radical departure from the concept of Star Wars, and that would be perfectly fine but only if The Last Jedi offered a compelling way to comprehend it instead of constantly contradicting it in the action. Instead we have a wide shot of the First Order laser, seemingly cut for comedy, that explodes behind their kiss as Rose says this on the Resistance base that contains everyone they love. What are we supposed to get from this?
The pattern here is noncommitment, easily the most frustrating aspect of The Last Jedi, and the aspect that divides its viewers between those who give it credit for what it says it’s doing, and those who want proof. It doesn’t follow through with a single deconstruction; not one of its bold statements sticks to the end without being contradicted. It is as purposeless as a cul-de-sac: it would be no exaggeration to say that other than the biggest good guy and bad guy dying, no one would have any trouble going straight from episodes VII to IX. Everything is approximately in the same condition, good and evil are exactly the way they used to be. How do I know this? Well after The Last Jedi supposedly critiqued the very foundations of war itself, The Rise of Skywalker still looks to be about nothing more enlightened than just … rallying the rebellion and winning the war, as though we learned nothing.
Choosing a Tone
But I don’t know what The Rise of Skywalker will bring. Let’s keep going backwards, past the story resolution and back through the confusing battle with tone that The Last Jedi can never seem to win. When she intervenes in the film’s finale, Rey whoops with excitement because she’s better at shooting a canon than anyone else in Star Wars history (“WHOO! I like this!”), and it’s probably the most jarring emotional transition I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster. This is the very next time we see her after she cries mercilessly for the deaths of her friends, and refuses to join Kylo in his quest to topple the kingdoms. There’s that lack of commitment again: Johnson’s direction and script can’t hold their attention on a feeling between any scenes, or even within them. If Rey were real, she might be angry and sad ten minutes later because hundreds of her friends died before her eyes and she was unable to reconcile her feelings for Kylo. But the tone of the next scene calls for a cheery adventurer’s smile so that’s what she has.
Many, many scenes in the movie could be used to describe this dissonance. The biggest bad guy in the galaxy tells Rey she’s foolish and weak; the scene is played completely straight ... until he abruptly bonks her on the head with a lightsaber and no one acts like it was funny. This tonal flimflamming is diabolical in how it divides the audience between those who have short enough attention spans to take each moment as its own tiny movie with its own tone (Rey is sad, and now Rey is happy!), and those who let everything sink in, who are capable of being disturbed by inconsistency. This movie can divide people based on nothing more complicated than patience.
Here’s one more example close to where we are in our backwards examination. Rey meets Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis) and he whispers, “Rey … welcome,” in the spookiest possible tone. The scene cuts immediately to a little floor droid bumping its head into a wall. What are we supposed to get from that clash of tones? In the language of cinema, cutting from a very dark moment to a very goofy one tells us not to take the dark moment seriously. You may be thinking that this makes sense because ultimately we will discover that Snoke is not that serious, but the problem is that this discovery cannot feel like an earned twist if even the supposedly serious moments are undercut by jokes. Ridley doesn’t act like she’s in a farce: her pain seems to be real. It’s like the movie doesn’t believe in the possibility of anything being taken seriously, and has to compensate for every emotion we might have at any given moment, one after another. I’d like to blame these moments solely on editing, but Johnson’s script constantly does this on a story level too: his idea of subverting situations is always to troll them first, the narrative version of a big dramatic moment getting the punchline of someone bonking their head. It’s what destroys this movie. We’ve come to the point where we have to talk about that touted, quoted, hash-tagged word surrounding this movie. We have to talk about subversion.
The Nature of Subversion
“Subversion” comes up a lot when discussing Johnson’s strategy, but it’s not a word that to my knowledge that he has ever used to describe his goal here. Of The Last Jedi, he said,
The object is not to subvert expectation, the object is not surprise. I think that would lead to some contrived places. The object is drama.
In the context of Snoke’s death, for instance, he’s saying that he wouldn’t kill him just to shock fans: he does so because Kylo’s arc needs room to grow beyond a master. This is a remedy for one symptom of J.J. Abrams’ nostalgia obsession, which inserted this Emperor/pupil dynamic in The Force Awakens without wondering if it would hinder the larger story from taking a new direction. It was in there because we were familiar with it and Johnson, to his credit, was brave enough to choose an idea of drama over relying on familiar tropes.
But the problem with Johnson’s ideas, and especially with trying to reconcile them with this quotation, is that the situations he sets up as drama first bait us with the situation we expect. I believe this is partly a result of The Force Awakens being such a by-the-numbers remake of Star Wars that its sequel was boxed into situations that it needed to “break out” of. But it ultimately makes the story seem focused on forced subversion, resulting in a movie that tonally and structurally feels like a con on the audience. This is the key concept required to understand what goes so wrong with The Last Jedi for so many people, and why Johnson’s stated intentions do not ultimately match his script.
Let me give you a couple examples. There’s so much verbal build-up to Kylo killing Snoke (“He ignites it … and kills his true enemy!”) that you almost believe he’s going to kill Rey because the writing is so forcefully telling you that he’s going to kill Snoke that it becomes too predictable for him to do so. When he does kill Snoke, it’s not a shock; Johnson was right to say that his goal isn’t surprise because we can easily see this betrayal coming. But why lead into it with such obvious cues to the contrary that you know it won’t be the contrary? I felt stupid for thinking even for a second that it would be subversive instead of obvious and since it was obvious after proclaiming to be subversive, that in itself feels like a subversion, but of the worst kind, the kind that makes you feel scammed. I know that sentence was confusing. But this relationship between what the audience is thinking and how the movie paces out new information is confusing, and also the most significant element in understanding why the whole thing feels like bait.
Here’s another example: it’s so mind-numbingly predictable that DJ (Benicio del Toro) is a secret bad guy that Johnson thinks it’s subversive to make him a secret bad guy. Despite saying in that interview that the goal wasn’t subversion, he also referred to DJ’s betrayal behind the scenes as being a play on “The whole thing of the scoundrel and the audience expects him to have a heart of gold.” That’s prioritizing subverting the audience over what makes sense or what might be dramatic in this specific situation: there’s no other way to interpret that. This way of thinking throughout The Last Jedi subverts the idea that things being obvious are predictable by forcing you to predict that the film will do something clever and then doing the obvious thing anyway. Do you see how teeth-grindingly hard it is to even describe that properly? I’ve never seen anything like it. Watching this movie is like being bullied on the playground. It’s like the film version of “stop hitting yourself.”
Let’s keep going back. Rose and Finn are on a secret mission to a gambling planet to find a codebreaker that they hope can disable the First Order’s tracking device so the Resistance fleet can escape them. Here they learn that bit about the wealthy profiting from war and also rescue some riding donkeys from slavers. Despite the fact that their entire army depends on this mission, Rose and Finn take these situations lightly, lightly enough to be considered negligent: Johnson needed them to be arrested at some point, so they park their ship conspicuously on a beach instead of anywhere else; the requirements of where the plot needed to go make the characters act without any attention to logic or sense. When they fail horribly, Finn says, “It was worth it though, to tear up that town, make ‘em hurt”; Rose replies, “Now it’s worth it,” after releasing their donkey into the wild.
I know this is a small part of the movie, but the context I’m trying to bring to even the smallest parts of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is that Johnson’s desire to be dramatic and unexpected is so strong that even something as reasonable as two people consistently taking a serious thing seriously doesn’t work for him. Why are Finn and Rose so nonchalant about everything? If this happened to me, I’d be retching tears: the galaxy was in my hands and I threw it away because I stupidly parked where the patrol guards could see me and now I’m telling myself it’s “Worth it” that all my friends died and the galaxy plunged into darkness because I saved a donkey. But they’re cool with it. When they get thrown in prison before finding their codebreaker, they meet another one conveniently in their cell (del Toro) and they just go with it. BB8 helps them escape by shooting gold coins at the guards and then they ride donkeys on a green screen through a casino, hooting like they’re at a rodeo. None of this has the tone of espionage, drama, suspense; there’s no feeling of stakes in any of it even though the stakes couldn’t be higher. The film opens with Rose’s sister dying in a reverent sacrifice to the cause of the Resistance; Rose wears half of her sister’s metal pendant around her neck as they fight for the life of every person they know, everything that sister fought for. Is there anything serious about this situation? No: at this moment, it’s a rodeo.
This disconnect between the context of the situation and how people react to it emotionally isn’t just a problem with these particular characters. During this time, Rey is on a Jedi temple planet with Luke Skywalker, who refuses to train her to use a power that he feels doesn’t belong to her, or to him (She describes the force as, “a power that Jedi have that lets them control people and … make things float.” Luke replies, “Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong”). When he says that the Resistance and the First Order are not all there is to life, that the Force is about more than light vs dark and moving rocks, it sounds true: it sounds like Yoda’s lessons from long ago. In that moment, I thought Johnson had written the sequel trilogy’s version of The Empire Strikes Back, the movie that would reverse all the nostalgia and create something nuanced and new.
But bafflingly, his script proves all of Luke’s teachings to be false: Rey proves to him that moving rocks and saving the Resistance is the most important thing and that the force is a superpower that he’s going to use to stand down the whole First Order. The result is a strange sense of backtracking over Luke’s lessons, which at the time of hearing them, I thought described the enlightenment that Star Wars has been craving. I thought The Last Jedi was saying something revolutionary, until it decided to default on what we thought to begin with. Do you see how the weird flip-flopping tone of even the smallest situation can be expanded to describe the story on the highest possible level? This is ultimately what I mean by calling its themes a “con.” Was that the final accidental subversion on top of the whole thing? This and not “ruining Luke Skywalker,” as fans sometimes say, is why this movie let me down.
The Series in Context
Even though Luke’s wisdom turns out to be something that the script intends to disprove by showing people use the force to fly through space and move rocks and save the galaxy (even Yoda explains to him that Rey has it figured out better than he does), these parts on this planet are the best in the film by far. Yedlin’s cinematography is sparkling; he catches the natural light off the real location, the shine off the water. The rain shimmers. Rey’s discovery that she’s not of some heroic lineage is a productive subversion. She’s a small part of a larger story, a nobody who’s a hero because of her actions, not her family. Hamill is tragic, numinous, and quirky as the bright-eyed hero turned by hurt into a lonely mage; he's the highlight of a movie full of good performances, and his part in the script has the highest IQ by far. He is very close to giving Star Wars the revolution it's been craving for a long time.
But the discoveries he makes and allows Rey to make, their context within the force and within this sequel trilogy, don't fit into their emotional journey, even enough to be meaningful as a departure from it. The problem is in Rey's relationship to her character's dramatic arc compared to our relationship with it: the difference is the key to understanding why Johnson's script doesn't stay true to his word that the first is more important than the second. Luke, as a man who was once a great hero, becomes more meaningful by departing from that standard. Through him the script's relationship to us has weight, because the play on our expectations leads to greater understanding, similar to the kind Luke himself discovered about the force in other movies. But this doesn't work for Rey. The discovery that she comes from a family of "nobodies" may be dramatic to us, but it doesn’t make sense in the context of her arc in the films. Johnson lets the outside world creep in, designing moments in the movie based not on characters’ arcs, but on the arcs of understanding in the fans; he calls it “drama,” but Rey’s arc is an instance of forced subversion through and through. He meta-writes parts of this movie, and makes it incongruous in its own series.
Let’s just take this example of Rey’s realization about her lineage, a contended topic of discussion between episodes VII and VIII. In The Force Awakens, Rey discovered that her parents left her on the desert planet and she had a moment with Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) of woeful clarity when she realized this: that was really the moment when she realized that she was small, and part of a story bigger than she was. It was a satisfying subversion of the idea of heroic lineage. But because fans outside of the film kept wondering if Rey was still part of some noble family, Johnson’s script trolls them, even if it means giving Rey an inconsistent reaction to her situation. When she finds out in The Last Jedi that she comes from a family of nobodies, she’s in tears, she’s crushed. But why? She never wanted a noble family; fans wanted that. Rey just wanted a family to come back to her. If they came back and they were junkers, would she have turned her nose up at them? Of course not. When Kylo tells her this, she cries because in that moment she’s not a character anymore: she’s standing in for Johnson’s idea of the fanbase, who wanted her to be a Kenobi or a Palpatine. It is dramatically incompatible with Rey’s character. So what else can I call that but a forced subversion?
The real subversion would have been if she didn’t care about lineage at all: Kylo would tell her this, expecting her to cry, but she wouldn’t. That’s his idea of the universe, not hers: she just wanted a family, even if Kylo became a part of it. She didn’t need them to be special. She could have defied his expectations of her by reinforcing her character; instead, she surrenders her arc in order to defy our expectations. The script’s intentions to be surprising are noble but the outside world obscures the execution: Johnson often couldn’t see past the meta-movie, not even to justify his own premise that drama is more important than surprise, and so the character reacts in a way she never would, and so her entire arc makes no sense.
Let me emphasize again that very few people, and certainly not Abrams, would have been as brave with this material as Johnson was. Luke being the badass hero a lot of fans wanted him to be, palling around with Han, destroying the First Order, would have been less interesting than seeing him reject his upbringing and learn something new. Snoke being some evil god with some dark lineage to Darth Plagueis, would have been even worse. The will to not give fans everything they think they want is an artist’s will and some of this is theoretically how daring blockbuster film-making should get done; I can commend Johnson for taking that stance. But creative or surprising situations should have stood by themselves, and gone off in creative new directions, rather than becoming bait for our expectations. Luke is an exception to this: by wallowing in his refusal to be what we want him to be, Luke relates a character-specific turn to the theme. And it really works, until the ending, to make Johnson’s strategy seem compelling. But when DJ wallows in a hero archetype just so he can predictably turn and make us feel duped about expecting the obvious and getting it anyway, or when Rey inaccurately obsesses over something the fans care about and she should not, Johnson forgets his own plea for drama over surprise. And then by forcing every situation (even just tiny jokes) to become an anti-climax based on fan desire, Johnson sacrifices The Last Jedi to those desires, even as he attempts to dispel them. His story beats falter to make room for trolling. They do it for practically the entire run-time.
Finishing the Plot
This movie is a toy shelf of plots; the one I haven’t even mentioned is Poe’s (Oscar Isaac) conflict with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) concerning the Resistance’s escape plan after Leia (Carrie Fisher) is rendered unconscious. Holdo refuses to tell Poe the plan, or that there even is a plan, and this frustrates him to the point that he sends Finn and Rose on that secret mission, which ends up betraying the Resistance’s plan by leaking information to the First Order. The information in question is that the Resistance would escape their freighters in landing craft and go to the hidden fortress down on the final planet. The intention in the script seems to be to communicate that heroic plans don’t always work because heroes aren’t always right; Poe learns to trust his superiors instead of always rebelling, but Holdo and Leia also express respect for Poe’s fighting spirit. They know that the existence of both forces allows the Resistance to be better than the First Order, that it’s not as easy as one being “right” or “wrong.” This is actually a really great idea for a lesson, in theory, and not just because it’s similar to what Luke was teaching Rey.
The problem with this whole idea is the problem with The Last Jedi’s entire script in miniature: in order to communicate the meaning that Johnson wants out of these events, he forces and finagles each plot moment past the realm of plausibility, to the point that the lesson is incredibly unclear without an in-depth analysis into its intentions. Even though this is where I’m worried about being accused of nitpicking, hopefully this example in context reveals that my problem is not that the plot is unbelievable but how unbelievability affects the outcome in its characters, their emotional arcs, and how they relate to the movie’s themes.
Here’s the example. DJ betrays the Resistance by telling the First Order to run a decloaking scan in the area. In any other Star Wars film, this is something that the tactical bad guys would have already done: they would have scanned for life forms on the Resistance fleet, and then run a decloaking scan. And then you have to wonder: why even need a scan? Won’t windows do? And then you have to wonder: why even need windows? Shouldn’t it be as mind-numbingly obvious to the First Order as it is to us that the Resistance is going to escape to that planet? There’s literally nothing else they can do, except what they did. The whole concept that Holdo doesn’t reveal the plan, so that the plan can be betrayed, so that Johnson can communicate his meaning, is betrayed by the fact that this plan is stark-raving stupid at every single step and relies on the stupidity of the opposition to even be viable in the first place. At no point does Johnson put himself in the mindset of a tactician and write this film with an attention to logic, or an order of events, or just the rational faculties that people should generally have. It’s all written backwards from his intentions. Credit for those intentions alone, is above all where the praise for the film comes from.
This lack of logic is a perfect smokescreen around the intended meaning of this plot, so much so that the most critical half of the audience probably didn’t even know what the movie meant. People fight over The Last Jedi as though everyone watched a different film and the lack of logic in Johnson’s script is the reason. No one understands why Holdo withheld the plan because Johnson wrote a plan that’s so dumb that the information which betrays it doesn’t seem necessary to begin with. When Holdo and Leia nod in admiration of Poe, most of the audience had no clue what was going on: did Poe do right? Was he supposed to blindly follow the dumb plan? If this kind of situation came up again, should he be the rebel they admire, or the troublemaker they scold? In the meantime, every scene, no matter how grave, has that constant stream of mistimed humor and disconnected emotions that obscures the intentions even more. At no point in The Last Jedi is a theme ever expressed with coherence: more likely it will play out as a spoken diatribe about saving our loved ones, followed by all the loved ones exploding behind a kiss we’re meant to think is romantic, or a sage telling us that the force is a power greater than moving rocks, followed by someone saving the entire plot by using the power of moving rocks.
The Final Word
This brings me to the very beginning of the film, which starts mistiming everything – theme, tone, character arcs – from the very start. The First Order blows up a Resistance base after they escape. A huge ship, a “fleet killer,” looms overhead; the plan is to destroy it. Johnson revels in Lucas’ WWII movie inspirations here, with reverent shots of bombers on approach, scenes of sacrifice and duty, and serenely rendered imagery of the surrounding space. Leia tells Poe to disengage from a plan that’s working so Johnson can prepare the audience for Rose's theme about war later in the film, though at this point the audience isn't clear on why the plan should be abandoned or what it entails. Even as we’re trying to make sense of it, the scene being serious becomes too obvious: it has to be bookended by phone-call sketch comedy straight out of Spaceballs, where General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is in one scene stripped of all his gravitas set up in The Force Awakens; Poe even finds time for a “yo mama” joke. But since we have now established the tone of a farce, that’s now too obvious in this moment too so in order to subvert that, it has to be treated with the reverence of a Veteran’s ceremony anyway. Troll the situation with the obvious, then subvert our expectations for subversion with the obvious and call that drama: that’s the moral and rhetorical pretzel I have to write to describe this movie with any degree of accuracy, or to decode what Johnson seems to mean by “drama” in the first place. It’s not just frustrating: it’s constant. This opening scene establishes the disconnection with the audience that’s written into every scene. It never stops sucker-punching you with purposeless asides, and it never stops making you feel like it’s your fault for wondering what they’re supposed to be asides to.
The performances, music, and visuals in this film have power, power matched only by the unprecedented amount of ambition Johnson has for this material. He was working within a tired mold, attempting to write a sequel to a movie that resuscitated a series with no plan for its future beyond its box office returns. But all his goals are degraded by the execution of his script. There’s no logic in it, no sense of order or causality; you don’t get that crucial feeling of drama, of having the floor fall beneath you in a tense situation, because all Johnson is really doing is trying to convince you to accept the obvious as genius after the film put it down first. Everyone knows DJ will betray them (Lando did it first); everyone knows that Rey will swoop in and save the day by being a hotshot pilot and a magic-powered space warrior. If it would be dramatic not to do those things, then Johnson might have done something new. But the only new thing on the table is doing the same situations, the same heroes and villains, but this time with the tempo of a snide gif reaction. It’s frustrating on a daily basis to talk with people about The Last Jedi because of this basic difference of opinion: whether it should be credited with its intentions alone, or its execution of them. Perhaps now if nothing else, you can see my place in the fandom: a person who craves subversion, who appreciates this movie's intentions, who longs for exciting ideas brought to a familiar universe, but whose creators turn away from my hand when I stretch it out to them, because no matter what these characters learn, they still have to go save the day like a superhero, fight battles of improbably under-prepared good vs improbably well-endowed evil, move rocks, and face down big bad guys with a laser sword. I’ve said this already, but make no mistake about it: this is always where the money will be. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself, after all that drama, all that new meaning, why we need Emperor Palpatine to come back for the finale.
Images are screenshots from the film: © Walt Disney