There is a meme on social media pointing out that critics complained that The Force Awakens was too derivative of the original Star Wars film and are now complaining that The Last Jedi was too different from the original Star Wars franchise. God only knows how many are the same people. I’m certainly not going to waste time figuring it out. I only note that to highlight that I both liked the derivativeness of The Force Awakens and the divergence in the Last Jedi. George Lucas has been clear that he sees the story as a cycle, endlessly repeating itself in different permutations. The Force Awakens captured the repetition of the cycle perfectly, while the Last Jedi captures the permutations perfectly while carrying for the idea of the cycle.
Was this a great Star Wars movie? No, but it was a good solid one. Could it have been a better movie? Sure, and it could have been a better movie with a different storyline even. But they all could have, and there is absolutely nothing in this movie that is as godawfully bad as Ewoks or Jar Jar Binks, and as unconvincing as Adam Driver is (in my opinion), he is vastly better than Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. Daisy Ridley is a better actor than Mark Hamill is even now, and John Boyega is excellent as well. My biggest criticism of the film is that writer/director Rian Johnson didn’t give his character any growth, unlike Ridley’s Rey and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. But most important, this is now the movie we have. We have it forever, so we should understand it as canon and make it work. And it does, as I’ll show.
Let’s dispense with some of the, to me, minor critiques. Princess Leia survives being blasted into space and flies back to the ship to survive. Sure, that pushes the boundaries of willing suspension of disbelief. But Star Wars is not just Space Opera; it’s Swords and Sorcery in Space. The best approach to a movie like that is to try to find an explanation that works. And here’s mine: Leia has a high amount of midichlorians in her blood, and they prevent the body from explosively decompressing in a vacuum. Don’t like it? Explain to me why it can’t be so.
New character Rose (who is rather offensive, caring more about saving captive racing animals than their slave children caretakers) is critiqued for stopping Finn from attacking the battering ram cannon. This critique assumes he was going to be able to successfully destroy it. But listen now, this weapon took out the massive steel door covering the rebel’s cavern, and Finn was flying straight into it. If it could take out that massive steel door, a sort of airplane-on-skis would have been obliterated. You wanted Finn to succeed because you needed that moment of fulfilled heroism. But Finn was going to die for no good purpose at all. Admire him for his commitment, and realize that’s why we want to keep him around.
As to the supposed reveal of Daisy’s low parentage, so what and why do you believe it? So what because why does every force sensitive person have to be descended from the equivalent of a Jedi royalty? If they were, the Jedi, or good guys using the force, could be completely wiped out. If force sensitive people can appear anywhere, from any station in life, the good guys are truly indestructible. The slave boy force grabbing the broom at the end is a satisfying hint at that. And isn’t that more satisfying than Anakin Skywalker’s ridiculous immaculate conception? But we don’t even know if Rey’s low birth is a true story. In the ‘70s we wondered if the evil Darth Vader was telling Luke the truth or manipulating him. In the ‘teens we just assume the evil Kylo Ren is telling her the truth? We’re sure he wasn’t trying to manipulate her by hiding any connection she had to Luke Skywalker, and even though killing the past is a main theme of the evil characters in this movie? Folks, the issue of Rey’s parentage is still wide open, and the next film could reveal that she is truly the child of indolent drunks, or that she is Luke’s child but he had reasons for not telling her, or it could leave it a mystery – Rey, the hero from literally nowhere. Not only is the question still wide open, but with Disney choosing different directors for each film, it’s impossible to guess what path the next director will take.
Dropping bombs in space and not suffocating in an open bomb bay in space? Well, some things you just have to let go. It wasn’t that important.
The major, and understandable, criticism, is about the film’s rejection of so much of what we think of as Star Wars truth, particularly about Luke Skywalker. Luke casually tossing the lightsaber over his shoulder; Luke running away to hide; Luke not wanting to help Rey. But all of this makes sense within the old Star Wars storyline. Luke knows the Jedi grew arrogant with power. He knows the dark side is seductive. He knows Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda both lied to him. He knows Obi Wan’s responsibility for the creation of Darth Vader. And he knows his own responsibility for the creation of Kylo Ren. Yes, Luke was the naïve farm kid who saw the flicker of good still there in Darth Vader, but Vader’s redemption did not reverse or even atone for the great evil he did. Luke has at last lost his naiveté.
And this is where this film underscores that great main theme underlying Star Wars: Luke understands that attempts to revive the Jedi will just make all that happen again, and again, and again. Luke was always a bit weak – and that cannot reasonably be denied, no matter how much Mark Hamill and some fans want him to be a now-flawless hero – and he has now succumbed to despair both because of his own weakness and because of this awful realization that he’s just part of this cycle, that he can do no lasting good, and that his attempts to do good will also bring about evil. So when he sees his old lightsaber, he faces a temptation to take it, then overcomes that temptation and contemptuously throws it away. The casualness of the toss is the very demonstration of the depth of his contempt. And of course he doesn’t want to train Rey. Maybe it’s a mistake, but it’s not a foolish mistake. He should not risk creating a new Darth Vader or a new Kylo Ren. The whole history of the franchise has set up that realization, and Luke’s choices in response make perfect sense. Repeat that a thousand times if necessary until it sinks in. The people who complain about this are the Mary Sue fanbois, who want to see themselves in Luke, who need a hero to feel satisfied with their lives.
Why, then, in the end does he come to help? Because it’s in his nature. If he cannot do any ultimate good, he can at least do good in this moment. But notice the form of his action, a passive defense as Kylo Ren attacks him. Not only has he learned the futility of directly attacking the dark side, it is his attempt at atoning for his earlier attack on him. This is Rian Johnson’s most significant choice in this film (and the non-physicality of Luke’s presence is beautifully set up by subtle cues noticed in hindsight, and by the visually beautiful salt-over-red-earth landscape).
Another criticism is the supposedly untimely end of Snoke. The Emperor, after all, lasted through three films, so how could they kill of Snoke so quickly? On a minor level, because the name Snoke is stupid and un-evil sounding, and because the character looked cartoonish rather than scarily evil like the Emperor. But also because the cycle plays out with variations, and just as the original trilogy was not about the Emperor but about Darth Vader, the central villain in this trilogy was not Snoke but Kylo Ren. Why didn’t Vader ever take on the Emperor? It was always mildly surprising that the main villain had a boss rather than being the boss. Kylo Ren has chosen evil, he lusts for power, so why not kill the boss and take over when he has the chance? Oh, you thought that for a moment he was struggling with his good side there? Hah, you’re as naïve as the young Luke Skywalker. Remember, it was Snoke who told Kylo Ren he had to kill the past, and Ren took the lesson to heart. Snoke, who in the past had moved him to evil, was now standing in his path to power, so he had to go.
The pointless side mission that didn’t work is another point of contention. Both because it didn’t work and in fact got a lot of people killed, when a brief explanation by the commander of her strategic plan would have avoided it. A tighter movie could have been made absent the side mission, and certainly a satisfying one. But the pointless mission was not a pointless filmmaking choice; It highlighted the tragedy of violent conflict. The commander didn’t tell everyone her plan? Welcome to the hierarchy of a military organization and the hubris of power. Where have we seen this hubris of power theme before? Oh, yes, it’s a major theme of the whole franchise. Going off half-cocked and doing something pointless? Sometimes you need to have a little faith in those in authority. Conflicting messages? No, they’re both true. It’s just that neither are the simple absolute story about power and authority. You want Star Wars without nuance? Then you forget that Obi wan and Yoda were good, but lied to Luke for what they mistakenly thought were good reasons, and that was in the original trilogy. For all the light vs. dark, good vs. evil, and shining heroics, nuance and internal conflict have been baked into this franchise from its origin.
Much of the criticism is about the movie’s disdain for heroism, but I don’t think that’s right. We’re not supposed to dislike Poe, Finn, or new character Rose for their acts of heroism. They are good people doing their best to do good things. And we admire Commander Holdo, wonderfully played by Laura Dern, for her self-sacrifice. What this movie has disdain for is the great man theory of history. It recognizes that great men who can do great things creates a terrible risk of great men doing horrible things. It focuses on the heroism of ordinary people, who make ordinary mistakes that undermine their good goals, but who in the end are still admirable because they tried to do good. This is, I think, the most humane of all the movies except for perhaps Rogue One.
And finally, the death, or “death,” of Luke Skywalker. This trilogy is about a new generation, and to a certain extent the presence of the old generation holds them back. The torch has to be passed. (Indeed, the biggest surprise in this film was that Leia is still alive at the end.) But we’ve seen the passing on of Jedi before, with Obi Wan and Yoda, Luke’s teachers, and we’ve seen that they’re not really gone, but are still there in non-physical form to provide guidance when needed.
Summed up, The Last Jedi defied expectations, even broke them pitilessly. But it did so while keeping true to the fundamental concepts of the Star Wars universe. This has happened before, and it will happen again, and all of the characters’ actions are reasonable according to their level of awareness of that, from the naïvely optimistic to the knowing cynic. And ultimately this film leaves good options for the creator of the final film in this trilogy.
So why do the critics hate it? It all seems to come down to their need for simple heroes, great men (and for most, it seems, specifically men, as Rey gets surprisingly little attention from them, given how strong she is), who do great things without error. But when in this franchise have great men done great things without error? These are Mary Sue critics, needing wish fulfillment so they can fantasize themselves in that hero role. And perhaps that’s why they don’t talk much about Rey. As the father of three daughters, I love Rey. As a moviegoer, I love Rey. And as a Star Wars fan, I love Rey. Daisy Ridley bring so much determination and faith to the character, while making it all seem a bit naïve, a bit desperate, stemming as much from a lost and lonely kid’s need for determination and faith as from actual certainty. Only Han Solo matches her for being an interesting character in this franchise. But Han, Han’s the guy we guys want to be, a bit of a bad boy, but always in the end doing good and getting the beautiful high-status woman. Or we want to be the prospective Luke, not the whiny one but the hero we assume he became when he left his whiny ways behind (and thanks in part to Mark Hamill’s apparent inability to not whine in reciting his lines, it appears that never happened). But this film firmly passes the torch to Rey, as uncertain and unprepared but fully committed as she is, and how is a guy supposed to relate to that?
But forget the Mary Sues. Forget the fanbois who are upset that the movie didn’t follow their imagined scripts. In all essential respects this movie was true to the Star Wars universe and the trilogy’s underlying theme.