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The Last Jedi Betrays the Original Trilogy and its Heroes
Through sheer storytelling laziness, it tells us that nothing that came before mattered.
The Last Jedi is the most disappointing Star Wars movie since Attack of the Clones. I don’t believe I’m overstating that. It’s a movie that, through its plot developments and characterization, makes the whole of the Star Wars saga less interesting and less compelling.
Its plotting undermined the characters. What was accomplished by Luke, Leia, and Han in the Original Trilogy? In light of The Last Jedi, they basically failed. The ending of Return of the Jedi is moot. We don’t know why it’s moot. We don’t know why the Rebellion’s victory turned out to be, well, nothing at all. Episode VIII doesn’t bother to tell us, because it just doesn’t care.
Instead, The Last Jedi says, “Return of the Jedi never happened. Our characters failed. The Empire still lives, somehow, though we’ve changed the names. Everything’s as dire as it was after Empire Strikes Back, without explanation, and without earning it. We simply couldn’t come up with a new story, so we inexplicably reset the universe to repeat the same story we’ve already done, with a handful of new characters.”
Why did the Rebellion fail?
Why did any of the Original Trilogy matter?
That the Rebellion failed could be an interesting story. That our characters ultimately failed could be an interesting story. But Episodes VII and VIII don’t concern themselves with that. They just want to have another Empire and another Rebellion, because that’s as ambitious as they want to be. And in doing so, without telling the story of how we got there, they’ve sapped the Original Trilogy of its meaning, and made the fight our heroes fought through three movies pointless.
Luke’s a loser. Han’s a loser. Leia’s a loser. There’s your characterization. But, hey, we got some porgs, Luke can make a hologram across planets, and Snoke’s is a generic bad guy in a bathrobe.
Let’s talk about Snoke. Here’s a guy who somehow built a war machine that toppled the New Republic, and built it out of at best a fragment of a bit of ships remaining from the Empire, which could be a great story and a great villain. But The Last Jedi doesn’t care about that. Snoke’s just, well, a plot point.
One might object that Episodes VII and VIII neededn’t answer all such questions. Except that these questions are central to what these movies are about. They’re the why that gives purpose to what we’re seeing, and that give purpose to the sacrifices the characters make.
For instance, they play up the conflict in Kylo Ren. Great. That’s important, and very Star Wars. But then they reduce his fall to Luke saying, “Snoke got to him,” and then a single scene of Luke trying to kill him. But not knowing anything about Snoke, we have no appreciation for what it means that Snoke got to him, or why Ren turned from Han and Leia’s son to someone who would murder both. He’s just bad because — handwave — some random dude made him bad?
In other words, our characters lack motivations for their actions, and so the actions are without much emotional weight.
The Force Awakens skirted this, because it was setup. We assumed we’d then learn why they were doing the things they were doing. The Last Jedi said, “Nope, we’re not going to bother with that.”
That’s why this movie was nothing like Empire, even though so many of the inexplicably glowing reviews want you to think it is. Empire was about building characters. It was about the “I am your father” realization that gave Vader so much more weight, and made everything matter in a much deeper way. That drove the characterization, making it all richer.
The Last Jedi just had characters fight. It had Luke be sad because he screwed up, somehow, but we don’t know how, because we don’t know who or what Snoke was and why he was so powerful. It had Leia lead a dwindling Resistance, but we don’t know why she’s doing that, because we don’t know why it matters what the First Order’s up to, because the universe is suddenly reset to a pre-Return of the Jedi order so there’s something to do? We’re just told the Resistance is the last line of defense, and so it matters, but we’re not shown that. The movie is all tell, not show.
The Last Jedi fakes its “emotional” weight because it has characters we love pop up, and it has characters we love in danger or dying. But why they’re doing any of that is just ignored.
It’s a remarkably lazy movie, and arguably the worst of the whole saga. The Prequels were bad, yes, but they left the Original Trilogy intact. The Last Jedi betrays the legacy of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. It cheapens the most inspiring rebellion in film history, and turns its heroes into failures. For shame.
This essay, originally published on Medium, got the most traffic of anything I’ve ever published. And that meant a lot of criticism. So at the time I wrote the following responses to some of the most common rebuttals.
“All your questions are answered in the novels and comics.”
Yes, I am familiar with the supplemental material in the novels and comics. But far from lessening the problems with the The Last Jedi, knowing that backstory only highlights those problems.
What the novels tell us about the state of the universe in the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens just doesn’t fit with what we see in The Last Jedi. It does fit with what we see in The Force Awakens. Episode 8 deviates not just from TFA, but from the novels, too. I’m not going to dig into the details, but what the novels tell us about the New Republic and what The Force Awakens establishes about the location of the First Order, the role of the Resistance, and damage done to the Republic by Starkiller Base, don’t support the utterly dire situation our heroes find themselves in throughout The Last Jedi.
“You’re just mad that the universe took a dark turn.”
No, I’m not upset that things are bad in the universe compared to the happy place Return of the Jedi left us, nor am I upset that, in the end, our Original Trilogy heroes didn’t win out entirely over the Empire.
That things turned dark in the decades since the Battle of Endor is just fine, and conflict’s needed for a good story. But TLJ doesn’t earn that dark turn, because the way the darker universe is presented to us doesn’t make much sense.
We’re given no real inkling of how things turned bad. They’re just bad. And they appear to be bad just so we can have another set of Rebels fight another Empire, rather than as part of a meaningful narrative that builds on what came before.
“You’re just opposed to change.”
Likewise, my objection to The Last Jedi isn’t that I think Star Wars movies should slavishly be about old characters and old themes. I’m not against change in Star Wars. I love it and want more of it.
But that change needs to be interesting, it needs to feel like Star Wars, and it needs to build on what we’ve established over eight prior movies — not to mention two TV shows, a dozen plus novels, and countless comics. Star Wars needs change, but The Last Jedi isn’t interesting change.
In fact, it’s not really change at all. That’s what so frustrating about this particular response. The Last Jedi begins with the Rebellion (sorry, Resistance) fleeing its last base as the Empire (sorry, First Order) closes in. It ends with the Resistance in tatters, the Empire ascendant, and with a young Jedi just learning the way as the galaxy’s last, best hope. Along the way we get a Jedi master in isolation teaching a young force users from a backwater desert world about the ways of the Force, and we get a trench battle against Imperial (sorry, First Order) walkers.
The Last Jedi is change in the sense that it ignores the state of the universe it was handed by The Force Awakens and the novels, particularly the Aftermath trilogy and Bloodline. But it’s not nearly enough change because it ignores the state of the universe in order to unthinkingly return us to exactly what we’ve already seen, and without rhyme or reason.
“Aren’t these really problems with The Force Awakens?”
No, they’re not. Here’s why. The Force Awakens is a movie about setup. It’s the start of something new, and so its job is to introduce us to the world and its characters, not to explain everything and resolve all mysteries. TFA does a good job with that.
Yes, its opening crawl is confusing. We don’t quite understand who the First Order are, or how Leia’s Resistance is related to the Republic. The crawl should’ve been revised, because the answers are both simple and make for a pretty cool setup. In short, the First Order is an Imperial remnant, way out in the fringes of the galaxy. The Republic knows about them, but doesn’t consider them a threat, which is why they’re not sending their military to interfere. Leia’s convinced the First Order does pose a significant threat, so she’s setup the Resistance to keep an eye on them. (In the novels and comics, we learn that there’s actually a non-aggression treaty between the two sides.)
That all works. It makes sense that there’d be Imperial remnants. It makes sense that Leia, given what she went through in the Original Trilogy, would consider them a threat. It makes sense that the Republic, tired of war, would want to believe they can safely be ignored.
The Force Awakens has, in other words, good and interesting world-building. And the mysteries it sets up are themselves good and interesting. The Last Jedi discards all that without earning it from a narrative standpoint. The Republic was rocked, yes, by the loss of its capital and senate at Hosnian Prime in the Starkiller attack. But it beggars belief that such an attack would mean the galaxy is now without any military force capable of fighting back against what looks to be a not-too-large First Order fleet. We’re told in TLJ that the Resistance is all that’s left. Why? How? Rian Johnson doesn’t care.