“The greatest teacher, failure is.”
Sean’s Rating: A noble attempt with some series highs, maligned by the masses.
Sean’s Review: Ahhhh… it’s nice to get back into the ol’ reviewing gig. Justin’s resurrection of the Mutants gives us all a nice chance to stretch older writing muscles, try new things, and also look back at how we used to write… about twenty years ago. Oh. Dear.
“Would it not make sense to know WHY there’s a crazy man made of melty wax building planet-sized guns and shooting people with purple lightning?”
- Me, looking back at the Prequel Trilogy in my Phantom Menace review
Ahem. Still, such a retrospecticus can be useful! Looking back at my old reviews, I’m especially amused at how much I seem to like everything, even on stuff I’ve never watched again. I’m aware that a lot of my old writing was basically me trying to convince myself I’d enjoyed my two hours, regardless of what I’d spent it on, and then trying to convince you of the same. Now, that’s not to say I was being insincere. I just happen to be easy to please. Perhaps this is not the best quality in a movie critic, but there it is. I’m pretty easygoing, and unless something is complete garbage, I tend to raise it on up. But occasionally I find myself coming to the defense of a film that shouldn’t need it in the first place, but plainly does. Which brings us, at long and meandering last, to The Last Jedi.
And the exciting conclusion of “Joe Vs The Volcano”.
The Star Wars films as a whole really are an interesting phenomenon. Just a scant few months younger than I am, Star Wars came bursting onto the scene in the late 70’s as a take on “science fiction” (a term which doesn’t really actually apply here, as these are just fantasy movies set in space), and pretty much every single release after the original movie has been met with some measure of pushback and criticism. Even now-vaunted classics like The Empire Strikes Back were met with a stern eye back in their day for being too dark compared to the original. The Phantom Menace was assaulted for its overuse of CGI (ironic that it was the last of the mainstream SW movies that used real, physical models for its spaceships). Solo: A Star Wars Story was raked over the coals for its disjointed production and inconsistent tone… the list goes on.
But man, nothing in the Star Wars pantheon has gotten the third degree like The Last Jedi. Except maybe The Holiday Special. Woof. TLJ is divisive: You can read my review here, and think “that middle aged Canadian is right!” just as easily as you can think “well, someone certainly has COVID-related cabin fever!”. Most likely, I’ll inspire both results in equal measure. Because there are two types of TLJ fans who have emerged.
- People who recognize that Rian Johnson was trying to create a Star Wars film that actively worked against the series’ tropes.
- People who get very, very upset that Luke Skywalker isn’t still the hero, and worse, doesn’t do exactly what he did in previous movies.
This is reductive and simplistic, and yet still seems to be the core of online vitriol unleashed at this movie. Either you see what Johnson was going for, or you’re pretty dang cheesed off that a character that started off young and bitter, got old and bitter.
Not that he didn’t have good reason.
If it isn’t clear already, I’m in the happier camp. The Last Jedi is Johnson’s genuine attempt at creating an SW film that both ties into the very fun The Force Awakens while trying to do something very different with its hotshot heroes. See, TLJ is very nearly the only Star Wars movie that examines failure (the other major example being the also-excellent Rogue One). From its opening frames, where trigger happy pilot Poe loses an armada of pilots, fighter craft, and crucial bombers in an attack on a massive “fleet killer” Dreadnought. I’ve written entire pieces on just this scene and its after effects, and I won’t go into such lengths here, but the “Poe got the bombers killed” opening of TLJ is exemplary of the rest of this film. If you don’t buy the idea that Poe was in the wrong here, you’re going to hate the rest of the movie, because this is what the entire rest of the move is about: what happens when the hero fails?
I’ve got a *good* feeling about this!
Whether you’re talking about Luke rejecting his calling to be a mentor to Rey, or Rose and Finn going to Canto Bight to look for a hacker good enough to get past FO security protocols and instead hiring a traitor, TLJ is all about a simple idea: What if a Star Wars movie had the guts to show its protagonists lose? And let’s be honest, the only other movie in the main saga that asked this question is The Empire Strikes Back. Coincidentally, that’s my favourite SW movie by a country mile.
The thrill for me here is what happens when heroes make poor choices, and lose because of them. Poe goes after a rarely available target, and loses his fleet and command. Rey puts all her faith in a man who doesn’t have any left. Finn rolls big on a risky plan to find a hacker, and winds up losing big time. Meanwhile, the villain is the one making sly, quiet plans, also taking risks, but finding himself in a much better position. Kylo Ren becomes Supreme Leader by engineering the takedown of Snoke and using a hopeful Rey to essentially assassinate him. By the end of the film, Ren is embarrassed and slowed down by Luke’s sacrificial play on Krait, but in all other respects he’s won the biggest hand available – control of the suspiciously familiar
Galactic Empire First Order.
Pictured above: Political discourse.
There are definitely weak spots to this movie. The entire Canto Bight casino sequence is of literally no consequence whatsoever. Admiral Holdo’s reluctance to tell anyone at all that they are not in fact marching to their certain doom is baffling. Rose’s last minute proclamation of love for Finn after preventing him from at least attempting to save his friends would be comical if it weren’t so clumsy. But this is also a movie that managed to shoehorn in one of my favourite lightsaber combat scenes in the whole saga, a genuine attempt to show us how confusing Force visions can be (via Rey’s vision in the Dark Side cave), and Laura Dern actually going “pew” with her mouth while firing a laser gun.
It was in every take, people. And it’s adorable.
It also includes a beautiful, stirring cameo by Yoda, who comes back to Luke just long enough to whack him on the head with a stick and chastise him for not realizing that sometimes failure is the best teacher of all, before (as far as Luke knows) setting fire to the original Jedi texts. There’s a lot of subtext here to unpack in The Last Jedi, and I feel the people who have the strongest negative reactions to this movie are the ones who spent the last amount of time trying to look deeper than surface level. Granted, that hasn’t been what Star Wars has traditionally been about, but I’d rather someone try this big and fail than just keep cranking out copied material and calling that “good enough”.
Luke “failing up”.
Of all the so-called “Sequel Trilogy”, only The Last Jedi really puts a toe too far out of line with respect to what came before. Unless you want to watch adaptations of A New Hope forever, maybe we should be applauding this approach, instead of condemning it. It’s not a perfect picture, and it isn’t even my favourite of the Sequel Trilogy, but it went big and tried for exciting new ideas, stretching its characters in brave, uncomfortable directions. If you respect that kind of effort, this is one for you. If not, well, I’m afraid it doesn’t get any better with the next one…
Justin’s rating: Taking the last escape pod out of this one
Justin’s review: It will be very, very interesting to see how The Last Jedi ages and how public opinion of it might shift in, say, the next 10 years. My gut says that we’ll probably be in about the same place we are now, where most people will either absolutely love it and elevate it to cult status or still be bad-mouthing it as we do now to Phantom Menace.
The eighth entry in the main Star Wars film series instantly became one of the most divisive entries ever, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much ground to stand on in the middle. It got dragged into geek arguments and political arguments so much that it became all but impossible to view without dealing with all of the baggage the internet is trying to heap on your head. Be warned: It’s a battleground that have claimed the souls of stronger people than you, so turn back now! Run back to your carefree lives where you could just take a movie at its face value without being labeled something or another if you liked or hated it!
Anyway, after the enjoyable if somewhat formulaic Force Awakens, The Last Jedi picks up the baton from the previous movie and attempts to “Empire Strikes Back” the Resistance. You know what I mean: Even though the good guys just won a major victory, they’re going to start here on the verge of defeat — in this case, in a handful of ships on the run from a mighty Fifth Order armada. Low on space fuel (I guess that’s a thing in this franchise now?), the Resistance can’t jump to light speed, nor can they fight back, nor can they outpace their pursuers. It’s a really, really convoluted setup to create a tense atmosphere of impending doom, but there are so many logical holes in it that I think another story writing pass was needed in this regard.
Meanwhile, Rey is getting trained (sorta) by a dismally grumpy Luke Skywalker, Finn makes best friends with a girl named Rose and takes her to a casino planet for some reason, Leia gets to show off some Force powers (yay!) before falling into a coma (boo!), Kylo Ren becomes ever more conflicted about his role with the bad guys, and Chewie eats a delicious mascot.
So here’s the thing: In a movie that’s thematically about failure, it’s especially ironic that The Last Jedi fails at what it’s attempting. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t hate this movie. I just don’t think it’s particularly very good. Oh, it’s flat-out gorgeous and has the best visuals of the new trilogy, and I definitely appreciate that the director and story writers are attempting to subvert fan expectations and going in a different direction.
The problem isn’t that they’re trying something different; the problem is that they chicken out in the third act and try so very hard to steer the movie back on the course that most fans would expect. The end result is, very much, a failure. It leaves people unsatisfied whether they wanted more of the same or something experimental and daring, because it works in half-measures.
Luke says he wants to end the Jedi order, because he and so many before him have failed at it, but he still teaches Rey and passes on enough knowledge to keep the whole ball rolling, so it’s just talk in the end. That’s just one example. Another is the dynamic between Rey and Kylo. They seem like they’re influencing each other in interesting directions — Kylo pulling Rey to a more rebellious, dark side, while Rey is pulling him away from the First Order to the light — but just when the movie seems like it really might subvert everything and have both characters flip orientations or together reject the light/dark side and forge a new path… nah, they just plop right back into their expected roles.
It especially irks me what they did to Luke. After a whole film of build up to finding the galaxy’s last Jedi Master, Luke ends up being this super-gruff slob (seriously, have you ever drunk blue milk before without spilling it all over your beard?) who oh-so-reluctantly takes Rey under his tortured wing. Why is Luke grumpy and isolated? The whole reason is relegated to a flashback moment where he’s shown nearly killing Kylo as a kid because he sensed the dark side in him. So he ran away but left a treasure map to find him and… yeah, it’s so dumb. So, so dumb.
Like many plot moments in this film, it’s out of character, doesn’t make sense, and could’ve been handled in much better ways. You don’t abruptly change a character’s motives and personality by explaining it away in a confusing flashback. This took one of the heroes of my childhood and tore him to pieces for no good reason that I could see.
As I said, I don’t hate The Last Jedi. It’s good eye candy, if nothing else, and it serves enough storytelling purpose to hold together the threads of this new trilogy. But it’s a lot more bare and rickety than proponents of this film would like you to believe.