Sunday, December 17, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

A few days ago, I reread my review of The Force Awakens, and found myself in the odd position of being completely unable to recognize myself in it.  It's not that I disagree with anything I wrote.  But only two years after the film's opening, it lingers with me so little that the strong feelings I had about its plot, themes, and approach to the broader Star Wars universe feel positively alien.  What has stuck with me are the characters--Rey and Finn and Poe and Kylo Ren--but even that has more to do with the actors' charm and charisma than with the rather underwritten roles the film gives them.  When The Force Awakens came out, there was a lot of conversation about its essentially being a work of fanfic, a fun, well-made rehash of A New Hope without much personality of its own.  Two years later, we're seeing the outcome of that, with the film existing more as a launching pad for the revamped, Disney-owned Star Wars universe than its own entity.

The Last Jedi is very much not this.  Whatever else can be said about this film, it is so much its own thing that I half-wonder whether general audiences won't reject it for being neither the fun romp they associate with Star Wars, nor the grim but still conventionally-structured deviation from the norm that was The Empire Strikes Back.  It is the first Star Wars film to actually try to be about something[1], and what it's about is, well, Star Wars.  It's a film that is in direct conversation with the previous works in this series, most especially Return of the Jedi and the prequels.  It spends slightly more than half its running time fooling you into thinking that it's merely going to recapitulate these movies, only to pull the rug out from under you, along the way asking some pointed questions about the Star Wars's universe's core assumptions.  This doesn't entirely work, but the mere existence of the attempt, in a film universe as little given to self-reflection as this one, is shocking.  It's a Star Wars movie that is interesting.

The Last Jedi takes place very shortly after the events of The Force Awakens.  In its main storyline, Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracks down an embittered Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now a hermit hiding out in the ruins of the first Jedi temple, and tries to convince him to return to the world.  When Luke refuses to either come out of hiding or train Rey in the ways of the Jedi, she's left frustrated and open to the manipulation of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who appears to her in visions in which he tries to persuade her to turn to the dark side.  Elsewhere, the First Order's destruction of the central planets of the Republic has left it ascendant and the resistance on the run.[2]  The ragged remnants of the rebellion try to escape the First Order's pursuit, and after Leia (Carrie Fisher) is disabled the fleet is taken over by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).  Distrustful of Holdo's closely-kept plans, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) dispatches Finn (John Boyega) and resistance technician Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to disable the First Order's ability to track the rebel fleet.

That's already quite a lot of story, but The Last Jedi is, in addition, a very oddly structured movie.  It switches between its storylines much more frequently than you'd expect, often stopping in one merely to set a scene or deliver a visual.  Its middle segment is extremely talky and contemplative.  It's not afraid to be weird--A New Hope had blue milk; The Last Jedi has Luke milking a brontosaurus-like creature who gazes at Rey with a resigned expression.  And it's fascinated with the Force as something that can't be put into words, but only visuals.  Rey has a long interlude in which she experiences a vision (clearly a callback to Luke's cave vision from The Empire Strikes Back) that is all about the inscrutability of the Force, designed to make the audience tense, and even frustrated by the lack of answers.  Even concrete accomplishments, such as Rey clearing a pile of rocks blocking her friends' escape, are shot in such a way as to emphasize the wonder and strangeness of what's happening.  The Last Jedi isn't an art film, but it's the closest the Star Wars universe is probably going to get to one, and it's perfectly happy to downplay the straightforward plotting of the previous movies in favor of something more meditative.

The heart of the movie is the Rey-Kylo-Luke triangle.  When Rey first arrives on the planet of Ahch-To, she sees Kylo as an irredeemable villain.  Like so much else about the Star Wars movies, this conviction is driven by the personal.  Kylo had a father who loved him and risked his own life trying to offer him a second chance, and he responded with murder and betrayal.  Rey, who has spent her life longing for a family, can't comprehend that level of rejection.  But as Luke repeatedly refuses to train her and mocks her convictions, she's increasingly drawn to Kylo's insights into her inner turmoil.  She finally becomes convinced that, just as Luke sensed the "conflict" within his father and was able to bring him back to the light, she can do the same with Kylo.  That belief is spurred by her realization that Kylo's origin story is more complicated than she'd been led to believe.  That his descent to the dark side was kickstarted when Luke, realizing how dangerously powerful his nephew was, tried to kill him.[3]

I watched the first half of this storyline with a slowly-mounting feeling of distaste.  Director Rian Johnson, who also wrote the film, seemed to be diving head-on into the worst impulses of The Force Awakens's fandom, and of Hollywood's relentless determination to make excuses for handsome white men and give them second chances.  Some scenes felt as if they'd been lifted, unaltered, from a pro-Kylo tumblr post--"Did you create Kylo Ren?" Rey demands of Luke after finding out about his abortive assassination attempt.  More importantly, there is a sense in these scenes that The Last Jedi expects us to be interested in Kylo, to find him important, to a degree that is simply not earned by the self-absorbed, overgrown child showing up on screen. Aside from his skills with the force (in which he is repeatedly outclassed by Rey) Kylo seems to have no traits that might make him an engaging protagonist. Most of his screen-time is spent whining about his uncle's abuse or allowing himself to be browbeaten by his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  In the face of people like Rey, who raised herself out in the middle of nowhere, or Luke, who spent his life looking for adventure, the amount of investment that The Last Jedi expects us to have in Kylo Ren simply doesn't make sense.

It's enormously rewarding, therefore, when The Last Jedi reveals that yes, Kylo is a person of substance, but no, he isn't worth saving.  Rey's plan works to a T.  Like Luke before her, she presents herself to Kylo and Snoke, and allows herself to be tortured in the belief that her suffering and defiance will shake Kylo out of his passive acceptance of Snoke's power over him.  What follows is a genuinely exhilarating fight scene in which Kylo kills Snoke, frees Rey, and then side-by-side they lightsaber their way through an entire contingent of Snoke's guards.  And then Kylo Ren, finally his own man, freed of the control of the men who have been messing with his head for decades, clear-eyed and of his own free will... makes the decision to become the new Supreme Leader and take over the First Order so that he can rule the galaxy.  He'd like Rey at his side, because he does genuinely care for her, but what really matters to him is power, and that's what he ends up choosing when the choice is finally, truly his.

It's a rebuke, not only to some of the fannish reactions to The Force Awakens, but to the narrative spun by the previous Star Wars films, particularly Return of the Jedi and the prequels.  Rey's plan, after all, is exactly what Luke does to Vader.  But even though that ploy succeeded, when Luke hears what Rey means to do, his response is "this is not going to work out the way you think it will", as if to suggest that he's changed his mind over whether his father actually achieved redemption.  Like Luke in that earlier film, Rey clings to the fact that Kylo is in "conflict" with himself over his actions, but the conclusion the film reaches is that this is meaningless.  People who do bad things are often conflicted about their actions, but that doesn't make them secretly good.  So long as you continue to choose to do evil, you are evil, and the film ends with Rey literally closing the door in Kylo's face over his choice to do just this, in a direct contradiction to how previous Star Wars movies have wanted us to see their villains, both Kylo Ren and Anakin Skywalker.

The problem here is that as hard as The Last Jedi works to argue with some of the core assumptions of the Star Wars universe, it's still very much in thrall to others.  Like nearly every Star Wars movie before it, The Last Jedi is a film in which no one seems to have a firm understanding of what good and evil actually are.  In which the metaphor of the light and dark sides of the force has been allowed to so thoroughly dominate that the actual meaning of it--the idea that people are "on the dark side" when they do bad things to others--is treated almost as an afterthought.  The result is a film about a struggle for a man's soul in which the matter of morality never even comes up.  In which our heroes try to convince a villain to become good without ever articulating either what good is, or why being bad is undesirable.

Despite what The Last Jedi--and most of the previous Star Wars movies--claims, Kylo Ren is not a bad person because he chooses the dark side of the force.  He's a bad person because he is selfish, and thus able to decide that his own goals justify monstrous actions--massacring the villagers at the beginning of The Force Awakens, participating in the destruction of whole planets, or tolerating the enslavement of thousands of storm troopers like Finn.  This is so obvious once you think about it, and so completely short-circuits the film's project with Kylo, that it has to be ignored.  Luke and Rey, who are not selfish people, are therefore made to look monstrous when they behave as if the worst thing Kylo has done is kill his father, and never even try to make the point to him that his choices are causing real harm to real people.[4]  Choosing to become Supreme Leader is yet another in a string of selfish actions that will end up hurting people, and yet when Rey tries to talk Kylo out of it, she has nothing to say on this count, because in all her attempts to reach him, she has never tried to make any sort of moral argument.

It's a gap that makes The Last Jedi's handling of Finn look rather troubling.  Finn is, in many ways, Kylo's mirror image.  Abducted as a child and raised in dehumanizing conditions, he has a justification for being evil that Kylo could only dream of.  And yet at the first opportunity, Finn overcomes his abusive upbringing and chooses to run away from the First Order, because he does not want to hurt helpless strangers.[5]  It's not just that Finn is a better person than Kylo, but that his journey casts into sharp relief Kylo's complete self-absorption, the fact that the fate of other people has never even entered into his calculations.  In light of that fact, Rey's determination to save Kylo seems almost perverse.  One wonders whether it's for this reason that she and Finn are separated for most of The Last Jedi, that he never learns about her connection with Kylo, and that they're only reunited after Kylo chooses to remain evil.

Instead, Finn is relegated to a comedic subplot which largely repeats the beats of his character arc from The Force Awakens.  Initially driven by selfish cowardice, Finn tries to run away from the rebellion, only to be caught by Rose, who then travels with him to the glamorous den of thieves, Canto Bight, in order to find the help they need for their mission.  His experiences with her teach Finn to believe in something greater than himself, to declare his loyalty to the rebellion just as, in The Force Awakens, he declared his loyalty to Rey.  But the juxtaposition between his storyline and Rey's creates some odd resonances.  In one scene, Rose explains that she hates Canto Bight because the rich people who party there made their money by selling arms to both the First Order and the resistance.  The hacker that she and Finn recruit tries to convince him that he needs to look out only for himself, that ultimately there are no good guys or bad guys, only to turn around and betray Finn and Rose to the First Order.  Both experiences teach Finn the importance of standing for something.[6]

It's an important lesson, and establishes The Last Jedi as a coming of age story for all three of its young leads, a moment where they all choose where they stand and what for.  But it's awfully weird for the movie to hold back from calling bad people bad in the Rey-Kylo storyline, and yet go in so hard on people who refuse to pick a side in the Finn-Rose one.  Once again, the fact that in the Star Wars universe evil is so completely associated with the dark side, rather than with the effects of evil acts, ends up making a statement that I suspect Johnson didn't intend.  Rose can point to the concrete effects of the indifference and amorality that run rampant on Canto Bight--the poverty and exploitation experienced by the city's urchins, of whom she was once one.  But Rey can't show Kylo the monstrous effects of his actions, because to do so would force the film to admit that he wasn't worth engaging with in the first place, and that it's only the conventions of the Star Wars story that made us think that he was.

If The Force Awakens was fanfic, The Last Jedi is metacommentary, an attempt to grapple with the limitations of the Star Wars universe that ultimately falls short because the choice is either to do that, or tell a Star Wars story.  I might even go so far as to say that it ends up doing neither, but in a way that I found myself enjoying more than any other work in this universe--if only because there was so much more to argue with.  And, perhaps more importantly, it sets up its story so that going forward, there will be fewer limitations and expectations on people working within this universe.  It is no longer necessary for Kylo Ren to be won back to the light just because his grandfather was (and in fact we're led to wonder whether that earlier redemption was even worthy of the name).  It's similarly no longer necessary for every major player in this story to be related to previous ones.  When the answer to the great mystery of Rey's parentage finally arrives, it makes a powerful statement, not just about who gets to be a hero in this universe, but about what kind of story you can tell about it.  It frees future writers from the burden of having to follow the template of the previous movies--a new hope indeed.

[1] Or maybe the second if the reading of Revenge of the Sith as an anti-Bush movie is to be taken seriously. But I haven't watched that film since it was originally released and I'm not going back to check.

[2] Like much of The Force Awakens's worldbuilding, this is something that doesn't hold water.  To have gone from a functional space empire to a "rebellion" in the space of what appear to be only a few days, even in the wake of such massive destruction, doesn't make any sense.  But Star Wars is clearly more comfortable operating in the realm of a David-and-Goliath story, and this is one of the ways in which The Last Jedi doesn't buck the trend.

[3] Later when Luke tells his version of the story, he reveals that he only considered killing Kylo for a moment before recoiling in shame, but by that point it was already too late to take back his betrayal.  It's one of the fundamental differences between Luke and his father and nephew, however, that he doesn't treat this as an excuse.  He recognizes that the consequences of his actions are his fault even though he repents those actions, which is frankly far too rare in this fictional universe.

[4] Of course, this is a lacuna that exists in most Star Wars movies, with the possible exception of Rogue One.  The scenes with Leia on the rebel fleet don't have any more to say about the real people who have been, and will be, hurt by the First Order than the Rey-Kylo storyline does.  It's a fundamental flaw of the Star Wars universe, but one that The Last Jedi calls unusual attention to by focusing so much on the dark side as its own thing, separate from the actions of the people drawn to it.

[5] As I wrote in my Force Awakens review, this is a poorly-written character arc, and neither film does much with Finn's history of abuse and indoctrination.  Nevertheless, it is a part of him, one that both J.J. Abrams and Johnson chose to put in their stories.

[6] I haven't said much about Poe's storyline, which is my least favorite of the movie.  In it, Poe objects to Holdo's seeming inaction, and launches a mutiny against her only to learn that her plan, formulated with Leia, is to distract the fleet's pursuers long enough to allow the rebels to escape to a nearby base.  Not unlike the Kylo storyline, the purpose here seems to be to wrongfoot the audience, leading us to believe that Holdo is a pencil-pushing coward who must be outsmarted by the swashbuckling Poe, only to reveal that she's actually brave and self-sacrificing (and that the entire upper echelon of the resistance is run by badass middle aged ladies).  This works a lot less well than intended.  While there's no reason for Holdo not to reveal her plan to Poe, there's also no reason for her to confide in him--he's a captain and she's an admiral, and he should be ready to follow her orders.  The fact that he behaves as if she needs to earn his trust and respect feels deeply gendered in a way that the film doesn't seem aware of and can't defuse simply by revealing that Holdo actually is a good commander.  Also, Poe's actions end up derailing Leia and Holdo's plan--when Finn and Rose's hacker betrays them, he reveals the rebels' location to the First Order, and all of Holdo's bravery ends up being for nothing.  That the resistance ends the film decimated is thus Poe's fault, which goes completely unacknowledged.


Stephen McMurtry said...

"The fact that he behaves as if she needs to earn his trust and respect feels deeply gendered in a way that the film doesn't seem aware of and can't defuse simply by revealing that Holdo actually is a good commander." Thank you for saying this.

The Poe-Holdo plotline had been bothering me. It struck me as existing purposefully to subvert a cowardly-woman trope but was written so poorly that it seemed merely subversion for suversion's sake. Or a holdover from a different version of the script in which they were tracked by an informant (certainly a better choice than the technobabble-tracking-needs-MacGuffin plotline). But you are correct that us needing her justificaiton is gendered - both from the film's perspective and my own.

And as you say, Poe's inability to follow the orders of the women above him has dire consequences (suicided bombing wing, unarmed transports picked off one by one) to which the film responds by having Holdo say a maternal, "I like him," and no consequences for Poe.

I like the movie more having read your review of its attempts at politics, but I'm not in a hurry to see its meandering 2:30 runtime again.

Brett said...

This is why I like that Kylo Ren has a total lack of menace, and an almost palpable air of pathetic-ness throughout both these films (even Hux can barely treat him with deference despite Ren killing Snoke and choking him with the Force). It makes it possible for me to see why people like Han Solo and Rey - who feel a personal connection to him - would keep on holding hope that maybe there's still something there that can be salvaged. But there isn't, and he's too far gone.

Also, Poe's actions end up derailing Leia and Holdo's plan--when Finn and Rose's hacker betrays them, he reveals the rebels' location to the First Order, and all of Holdo's bravery ends up being for nothing. That the resistance ends the film decimated is thus Poe's fault, which goes completely unacknowledged.

Poe didn't make the decision to deviate from the plan and put their trust in a shady hacker they'd never heard of before - Finn and Rose did. Poe himself only delayed the evacuation, but it still got off successfully (and would have gotten off successfully without DJ's betrayal). And in any case the only people who know that Finn's plan is the reason why the secret evacuation was botched are Finn and Rose.

I don't blame them too much for it, though, because it's a plot hole. Finn and Rose don't know about the secret evacuation plan, so how did DJ find out about it and betray them over it?

As for Holdo, I saw it as Leia being rather fond of and indulgent of Poe, probably letting him operate on a longer leash than he deserves (it helps that he's our charming Han Solo analogue, making it easy to see while other characters like him so much). It's why he more or less throws a tantrum when he can't continue operating like that when Holdo takes over, and it's shown to be wrong on his part in the movie. I mean, Leia straight up stuns him right after she meets him on the bridge after waking up - it doesn't get more blunt than that in showing that he's in the wrong.

Like much of The Force Awakens's worldbuilding, this is something that doesn't hold water. To have gone from a functional space empire to a "rebellion" in the space of what appear to be only a few days, even in the wake of such massive destruction, doesn't make any sense.

You're right, and it kind of breaks the plot if you think about that world-building element of it too much. For that matter, if the First Order really does control most of the Galaxy at this point, how is that they only seem to have a handful of ships? The Resistance was fleeing in a straight line at sublight speeds because they could be tracked through hyperspace, so why not have another First Order fleet jump out of hyperspace ahead of them and pin them between two or more forces?

RE: Vader and Ren

Your point about Vader and Luke made me think of something interesting from ROTJ and the now-defunct old "Legends" EU. Nobody celebrates Vader as a hero after his sacrifice - Luke is alone at the burning of the armor. And the EU continued that, with everyone thinking that Luke killed both of them and saved the day.

Stephen said...

As always, I really benefit from your analyses. Thanks for the review.

Perhaps it is meant to be implicit in what you wrote, but just to spell it out: the Finn/Rose plot is *also* a rebuke to the earlier Star Wars movies, in their case a rebuke to the complex plots always coming off ("never tell me the odds"!). They go off on a complex, multi-stage plot... and it fails. Poe's begging to "give them more time" is precisely what Lando says in the last act of Return of the Jedi... but here it doesn't work. It's a lovely subversion.

For me, the Poe plot worked better, because I saw it as tied into that subversion: I thought it was a fairly effective undercutting of the crazy-flyboy, crazy-plans dynamic of earlier films. I see what you mean by the gender dynamic, although I thought the sacrifice of Holdo, due to a mistake (ultimately) of Poe, did more to undercut than you did. I agree that it would have been nice if the film had acknowledged the fact that Poe's breaking of chain of command ultimately got her (and a lot of other rebels) killed, although it's not clear to me that Poe ever *knew* this. (I also disagree with the earlier commentator, Brett, that it wasn't Poe's fault. Obviously Poe didn't make *that* decision... but he started the whole plan off in the first place; he's responsible when it goes haywire.)

Thanks again for the review.

Stephen said...

Oh and, by the by, it's not just Revenge of the Sith, but also Attack of the Clones, that is an anti-Bush allegory, at least according to a fairly convincing analysis by Huey of Boondocks:

Phillip Smith said...

I'm sure whether I liked this movie, but it's extremely interesting, for the reasons you enumerated above Abigail. As always your reviews are thought provoking.

The most interesting part of the movie was the dynamic between Rey and Kylo and how it grew throughout the film. From enmity on Rey's side to a more nuanced understanding and borderline sympathy, to disgust and finality. Kylo's advice to Rey of "Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to." seems to be as much a meta comment on the Star Wars lore as it was a comment to her about letting go of her obsession in finding replacement parents. And it's echoed by Yoda talking to Luke (which I loved) when he destroys the tree and presumably the books inside of it. "Page turners they were not" and "we are what they grow beyond". But then we see that Rey took the books with her and they're in the Falcon. I'm assuming Yoda knew this, so what purpose does his talk with Luke have about the Jedi being allowed to die? And why does Luke regain faith in the Jedi Order?

I'm of two minds about "The Last Jedi" questioning the value of redemption. On the one hand, I found Kylo extremely unsympathetic in TFA because of the lack of reason for turning to the dark side, especially when compared to the pressure Anakin was under, and I liked that TLJ acknowledged that Luke's mistake pushed Kylo over the edge, but still reaffirmed that Kylo CHOSE his path and continued to choose it. On the other hand, it's one of the main thrusts of Star Wars that family is important and that no one is truly beyond redemption. One of the greatest moments in the series is when Vader's love for his son overcomes his devotion to the dark side and he saves Luke's life and kills the Emperor, effectively cutting the head off the snake.

I really liked that Kylo killed Snoke, but I question whether that decision was good storytelling or not on Rian Johnson's part. The rise of the First Order is a complete mystery (if you're only watching the movies) and Snoke is presumably a large reason for why the First Order rose. Kylo's frustration with the current state of the Galaxy, while well acted, falls flat because neither JJ Abrams or Rian Johnson ever bother to show what the state of the Galaxy is. Is the New Republic a failure, do criminal organizations have a chokehold? What exactly is so bad about the Galaxy that makes Kylo want to burn all other institutions to the ground and start fresh?

When it comes to Holdo and Poe, I'm going to split the difference and say they're both at fault for what happened. It's true that if Poe, Rey, and Finn had followed Holdo's orders about fleeing into space from the First Order, fewer casualties would've occurred. On the other hand, neither Poe nor the audience is given any indication that Holdo has a concrete plan and as the Resistance starts loosing its medical and support ships, that's what spurs Poe to action. Imo, if half the ship mutinies against you because they think you're going to get them killed, that's a failure of leadership on your part because your actions and words should instill faith in your crew. And as we're not lead to believe that there's fear of a spy on board, it makes Holdo look like she's not telling her and Leia's plan just not to tell it, even though ships are lost and morale decreases. Input from anyone who's served in the military would be appreciated here. What do you do if based on the evidence you have, your superior officer is leading you and your peers into certain death?

sidleypkhermit said...

And as we're not lead to believe that there's fear of a spy on board,

--oh, this just gave me a way to actually make some kind of sense of that whole thing, and it wouldn't have taken any time at all for Rian Johnson to explain it and it would've added more suspense to that plot. There *would* be a reason to fear a spy on board! The First Order has a tracker on them that they can follow through hyperspace! And while Leia wouldn't have kept Poe out of the loop because she's known him since he was a baby, Holdo doesn't know him, and at the moment has no reason to think much of him. Her secrecy would make sense -- and so would his suspicion of her in turn.

But instead of having the tracker make everyone paranoid about how it got there, the movie quickly establishes that the FO can get one of these things on any of their ships anytime somehow and that's why they gotta go to the Star Destroyer, thus screwing up everybody's motivations in order to answer a logistical question nobody had. Sigh. This is why writers work in teams...

Abigail Nussbaum said...


My personal feeling has always been that the more severe a catastrophe is, the more rigid the definition of responsibility we should use when assigning blame for it. Which is why Vader and Kylo bear responsibility for the respective genocides they participate in even though they didn't personally push the button or give the order. If Poe had just sat on his hands for 24 hours, the entire resistance would have survive the movie, so I'm comfortable calling the fact that they didn't his fault even though there's an additional level of blame between him and that event. After all, Poe is an officer while Finn and Rose are, respectively, a guy who's been in the resistance for two days and a tech. He had no business entrusting them with information that was completely unnecessary for the success of their mission.

the EU continued that, with everyone thinking that Luke killed both of them and saved the day

That's something that TLJ thoroughly Josses, though. Even Rey has heard the story about how Luke Skywalker "saved" Darth Vader - it is, in fact, part of the heroic narrative that Luke recoils from and feels the need to destroy. Which, I suppose, is consistent with the film's project. If Rey believed that Vader died a villain, she wouldn't have gotten the idea that Kylo could be saved, and the film wouldn't be able to come out against both redemption narratives so strongly.


But then we see that Rey took the books with her and they're in the Falcon. I'm assuming Yoda knew this, so what purpose does his talk with Luke have about the Jedi being allowed to die? And why does Luke regain faith in the Jedi Order?

This, I think, gets at my criticism of the movie, which is being praised for being an anti-Star Wars story but isn't quite willing to make the leap (perhaps justifiably given that there really isn't that much give or depth in this fictional universe, so once you get away from its basic forms, there isn't really a direction to go in). You can criticize the Jedi, but you're not really going to leave them behind.

Snoke: I am perfectly fine with forgetting all about him and whatever alternate version of the Sith he represented. If the question of Rey's parentage at least offered some hint of an interesting story, "who is Snoke?" was easily the most boring "mystery" teased in TFA. The answer is, Abrams needed an analogue-Sith in the same way that he needed an analogue-Empire and analogue-rebellion. Discarding the ragged remnants of his shoddy worldbuilding strikes me as all to the good.

On the other hand, neither Poe nor the audience is given any indication that Holdo has a concrete plan

Given, however, that Poe's first act upon learning about this plan is to reveal it to two untested operatives with no field experience (one of them very recently an enemy combatant) without apparently even stressing that they should keep it to themselves, maybe keeping him out of the loop was the right call.

Retlawyen said...

I agree with a lot of what you posted, but took a sharp right turn at the end.

In particular, I think the missing 'this is why the First Order is EVIL and the New Republic is GOOD' is extremely clutch. Like, absent that fact, the 'Light Side' and 'Dark Side' are just uniforms. 2 sets of space wizards who fight forever while the rest of the world is collateral damage.

My disagreement is that I feel like the movie kind of gets this. Like, you remember the great bit in ASOIAF where someone is talking to a noble and is like "the common people are secretly making your banners", and it is just nonsense? I think they are reaching for that here.

The hacker tells them, to their face, that he sees no difference in any of the various groups that rampage through the galaxy. Later on he sells them out without compunction. The Resistance broadcasts an invitation to the galaxy at large to finally whip out those secret banners, even uses Prince Leia's personal literally no avail. Everyone declines to show up and die with them.

Luke has little beyond contempt for the Jedi order, giving a speech about their failings, and telling Rey that they don't own the force, that they aren't the light. Kylo thinks so little of the difference between the Dark and Light that he finds it plausible that Rey will switch sides. Like, he makes that offer, he doesn't have seem to see reason to suspect that Rey (desert orphan) will choose tan slacks over white armor. Shades of Ward insisting that SHIELD and HYDRA are morally equivalent.

I am hopeful that, in the third movie, the good guys grapple with this. I am doubtful that they will, because as you point out, the movie has always taken good and evil as read. But it has to be a wake up call, right? When you call out to the universe that if they don't come to your aid the First Order will replace the New Republic...and no one picks up? Nobody cares, at all? No one sees a difference? I hope they grapple with that a bit, it feels like this movie, at least, wants them to.

Brett said...

I'm still going to have to disagree with you there. The reason I blame Finn and Rose isn't just that it was their decision - it's that it was a decision they made in contradiction to Poe's orders. If they return home instead in failure after the plan goes awry, or even just end up spending another 6 hours in jail, most of the Resistance survives the film.

I don't think Poe told them about Holdo's plan to secretly evacuate the ship. He found out about it after they left on his orders. That's why I called it a plot hole that they know.

Snoke's like Tarkin. They don't really give us more than "he's an evil Force-user who is leading the new Empire restoration effort", and we probably don't need more than that anymore than we need back-story for Tarkin.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


The problem is that the movie floats this perspective, and then immediately rejects it so strongly that, as I write, you could almost get the impression that "a plague on both your houses" is a worse stance than being a space-Nazi. Yes, DJ tries to argue that to the common people, there's no difference between the First Order and the Republic, but then he betrays his allies for money. I don't see how else you can read that except the film saying that a person who refuses to choose between these two great powers must inevitably also have no personal integrity. It's that betrayal that galvanizes Finn to choose a side, because he's so disgusted by DJ that he'd rather die than be like him.

So really, I don't think we even need to wait for the next film to see a rejection of this attitude. As Philip pointed out, even the destruction of the Jedi is walked back by the end of the movie, and not even in subtle touches like Rey saving the ancient Jedi texts, but in explicit statements like Luke affirming that he is not the last Jedi. I'd love it if there was more exploration in these movies of the vast bulk of the galaxy who either don't care about the conflict between the dark and light side of the force, or just hope they'll be passed over by it. For that matter, I'd love more discussion of how the Republic, for example, tolerated the existence of places like Canto Bight, and how that might make the poor there and elsewhere less interested in its resurgence. But given how TLJ ends, that seems very unlikely.


Don't we see Finn and Rose communicating with Poe after they leave? I seem to recall it, but I could be wrong.

Chris said...

"The problem is that the movie floats this perspective, and then immediately rejects it so strongly that, as I write, you could almost get the impression that "a plague on both your houses" is a worse stance than being a space-Nazi. Yes, DJ tries to argue that to the common people, there's no difference between the First Order and the Republic, but then he betrays his allies for money. I don't see how else you can read that except the film saying that a person who refuses to choose between these two great powers must inevitably also have no personal integrity. It's that betrayal that galvanizes Finn to choose a side, because he's so disgusted by DJ that he'd rather die than be like him."

It's probably wrong of me to project my real-world political hangups onto a movie like this, but I'm so sick of "both sides do it" being treated as deep and insightful wisdom in real world politics that it's hard for me not to cheer at something like this.

Brett said...

I might be wrong on that too. If Poe did give them info on that, then he really did screw up big time.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I mean, honestly, isn't that what we have to assume happened? There's really no other way for DJ to know the information than for Finn and Rose to have gotten it from Poe and passed it on to him. It's a problem if the film doesn't show us that it happened, but it's still the only possible explanation for what follows.

Kate said...

When Kylo tells Rey to "leave the past behind" I was intrigued. Driver plays this very well -- good moment for him. He lays out one of the better excuses for evil actions. If you release all connection to the past you also release accountability and compassion. And he's right: Rey needs to stop chasing the mystery of her parents. But then he turns around and bungles the entire final battle because he can't let go of his hatred of Luke. Everything he just spouted to Rey is thrown out the window with no nod, no explanation (except resentment). I believed him. I wanted to see what a villain with the motto "no past" would do. I lost a lot of respect for the movie when the filmmakers tossed that character arc away.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, it's not as if being full of shit is out of character for Kylo :-)

And frankly, the one moment in the film where I found myself sympathizing with him was when he aimed all the guns at Luke and let go. That was when I could see him as someone still struggling with the legacy of abuse. It doesn't justify anything else he does, and obviously there's still quite a lot of selfishness and lust for power that go into his personality. But trying to kill Luke was something I was completely on his side on, even if I'm glad he didn't succeed.

To be honest, I think if Kylo was the sort of person who is genuinely capable of letting go of the past, he wouldn't be Kylo. What he means when he talks about letting the past go is letting go of guilt, but continuing to hold on to his resentments. Which is one of the things that makes him so toxic.

Retlawyen said...

@This: "The problem is that the movie floats this perspective, and then immediately rejects it so strongly that, as I write, you could almost get the impression that "a plague on both your houses" is a worse stance than being a space-Nazi."

I dunno. Like, they were only ever his allies for money. I'm not a hundred percent sure we are supposed to see what he does as 'betrayal'. We aren't supposed to read him leaving the weapon maker planet and joining up with the Rebellion as betrayal, and I don't think him flopping back the other way is any different. Dude will do stuff for money.

Finn definitely feels betrayed (Leia and Co. also feel betrayed when the galaxy ignores their calls), but that's because he looks at this guy and sees Han Solo. The dude isn't gloating, he leaves with one last admonition that believing in groups is dumb.

You are probably right. Like, the idea that Star Wars could ever seriously ground its light vs. dark morality in something as prosaic as 'how they treat other human beings' is likely just me wishful thinking. It would be awesome though.

@Kylo: Definitely agree on your read. Kylo is mostly made of past. The whole 'let the past die, kill it if you have to', is something he wants, not something he has.

mskennedy said...

Fresh from a second viewing today, I can confirm Poe did have a conversation with Finn and Rose while they were on their way back from Canto Bight and hacker guy was close enough he'd have no trouble overhearing. Poe mentions that Holdo is fueling up the transports and that's why they need to hurry.

Stuart Worthington said...

Wonderful analysis as always. This movie is a hot mess, but by god at least it's hot enough to stoke the fires of imagination.

I came out of the theater entertained and contemplative, and after running through everyone's opinion pieces and considerations I'm still entertained and contemplative. I've heard Rian Johnson has an extra half hour's worth of material cut for time, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. I'm always a sucker for extended cuts and director's cuts and the like, but especially if I feel like the theatrical product is malnourished or underdeveloped, like The Last Jedi.

I don't know if it's my favorite Star Wars movie or anything, but that's because I don't think it's trying to be. It's trying to be a different Star Wars film, and that's really refreshing to me.

Maybe I'll cool off on the whole thing by the time it's out on home release, but in the meantime I'm having a blast soaking in the film's aftermath. If nothing else, it's a really interesting time to be a Star Wars fan.

Marty said...


Thanks, I remember seeing that scene but I definitely missed Poe spilling the beans on the transports. I do still think it's a bit of an idiot-ball of a plot that undermines the intended point, but at least it's coherent on a basic level.

(Not to get too into the weeds, but as soon as the greater plan becomes sneaking off on transport ships, disabling the Order's tracking is at best unnecessary and at worst counterproductive.)

Mike said...

I don't have anything deep or meaningful to contribute to the discussion (at least, at this time), but I did want to say "Thank you!" for writing this.

Your reviews are thoughtful, insightful, and well-written on top of that. Thank you!!!

Ian said...

I disagree that the Canto Bight subplot is comic relief. Although it is an abject failure on the surface -- they not only fail to save the Resistance, but, indeed, lead to the destruction of half of it -- they also have the most important, perhaps the ONLY important, victory of the movie. They bring hope to the downtrodden. If every single member of the Resistance died in that cave, the Resistance wouldn't have, because of what Rose and Finn did.

Nothing that anybody else did in the movie was as consequential and important as Rose and Finn stampeding that herd of whatever-they-were-called through that casino.

instantapathy said...

So, a bit late to the party but I wanted to make a couple of observations.

Firstly, there wasn't a shift from Republic to Resistance. The Republic was the government that was trying to play nice and make things work and was ignoring the danger the First Order was to everything because they couldn't stand to stay at war. Leia pretty much states that in TFA. That's why she is out with a bunch of hodge podge resistance fighters being a general and not on a planet being a princess/senator. Some of the people in charge still liked her, or respected her, enough to help her out but she wasn't in any way officially part of the Republic. So when the FA took out the core worlds of the Republic, her resistance was /already/ in full swing. It just suddenly shifted from being a bunch of fringe hunters of the space-nazis, and went into being the main organized military force agaisnt he FA.

And Yoda's scene. God I lived this... his whole "Oh, you dumb farm boy I missed you" vibe just tickled me. but regardless of that. It seemed obvious to me that he burned down the tree and prevented Luke from realizing the books were gone because that was what /Luke/ needed to move on. He needed to feel there was a break, that he could let go of his past mistakes and move on to do something. But he let Rey get away with the books precisely because she is actively searching for a connection to the past. Even if her parents are nobodies (which I love) she needs something to base her growth on, and those old texts will provide that basis.

The movie never established that the command structure knew how they were being tracked. Yeah, some random tech figures it out and tells Finn (and the audience), but there is nothing up till that point that indicates anyone else knows. Holdo not telling Poe her plans made perfect sense to me at the time, because he's just some hot shot who got a bunch of people killed ignoring orders and then when confronted by a new commander he DEMANDS she tell him everything IN PUBLIC. Of course the commander isn't going to take that well and just blurt out their plans. Maybe if he's waited she would have told him anyways. Maybe if he has just approached her in private and voiced his concerns she would have said something, but him going off in public made it so that wasn't going to happen. He shut himself out of the conversation by being a hot head.

I don't think it was perfect, but I loved the movie.

mel char said...

What gets me is how NO ONE has commented on the huge McGuffin - not so much about who was tracking/how were they tracking - but about how that tracking was known already, only if people used 2 brain cells. Think: trackers that Rey & Leia have. They show up and are focused on repeatedly in the film. If some wristbands can keep track of 2 people widely separated, it's known tech on a huge scale.

Unknown said...

Ian- "If every single member of the Resistance died in that cave, the Resistance wouldn't have, because of what Rose and Finn did."

I think this a really important point, and a key scene for broadening the story beyond the Skywalker family tree. The last scene of the orphan kid dreaming about fighting in the Resistance points to this being a theme for the third movie.

Also- I love Luke admitting he never read those texts. He can't read. Neither can Rey. They're just talismans.

Jim Woodgett said...

Abigail Nussbaum in a reply said: "If Poe had just sat on his hands for 24 hours, the entire resistance would have survived the movie,".

While the raid was disastrous for the bomber personnel (all dead), the damage inflicted on the Dreadnaught by Rosie's sister on the one bomber that got through prevented it firing on the rebel fleet before it jumped to hyperspace. If Poe's mission to bomb the Dreadnaught hadn't been allowed, then the rebels would have died in the first 15 minutes.

So Poe was a necessary foil whose escapades led to survival of some and death to many.

But great review and comments Abigail!

Mike said...

That doesn't right, Jim. I think the Dreadnaught was recharging it's guns when the bombing raid happened. I think the choice was 'bomb the dreadnaught before it shoots us, or leave before it shoots us'
I'm going to see it again Thursday - I'll try to watch for this part when I do

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Either way, this isn't what I was talking about. My "24 hours" comment wasn't about the bombing attack, which I don't have a problem with*. My point was that if, after being rebuffed by Holdo, Poe had simply done nothing, the entire Resistance would have survived.

* Actually, this isn't entirely true. As this analysis and several others have pointed out, Poe's tactics in this scene are appalling. A frontal attack on a vastly superior enemy in the hopes that if you throw enough people at them, at least one will get through and save the day is a wasteful, short-sighted approach, and there were no doubt more savvy military options that could have achieved the same goal with a fraction of the cost in lives and ships. But the principle that something had to be done to cover the fleet's escape is sound, and I don't think that Poe should have done nothing in this case.

Jim Woodgett said...

That's an interesting commentary in Wired but somehow I don't think a series of tactical retreats would make such compelling movies (and what's left of the rebels is effectively making retreats - 3 times in TLJ alone - paralleling the one in Episode V). The Resistance has never approached the massive firepower or membership of the FO but it's major accomplishment (taking out the Planet Killer) revolved around the massive commitment to a singular weapon (I mean, hello FO, was the idea that 3rd time is the charm?). Maybe the FO have now realised the stupidity of putting a cherry on a plate, hence their focus on killing off 400 people using a much lower risk grouping of still overwhelming armaments (and yet still managing to lose out).

And, though Kylo Ren did the actual killing of Snoke, that was perhaps a significant Rebel win (in solar as toppling the head - OK, midriff - of the Supreme Wrinkled Leader should be some sort of progress...).

Understand what you meant about Poe's 24 hours now. Thanks for clarification (time tracking TLJ isn't easy).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't think a series of tactical retreats would make such compelling movies

Isn't that basically the Han/Leia/Chewie part of The Empire Strikes Back? As ever, it's about how you execute an idea more than whether the idea is good. It's very clear that the constant use of frontal attacks by some characters in The Last Jedi is intended to serve the larger message of the need to reject a romantic notion of heroism and commit to a communal, positive vision and plan of action. It's just that, as in the Rey/Kylo/Luke storyline, this requires us to accept characters who learn to reject ideas they should never have held in the first place - Rey's belief in Kylo's innate goodness, Poe's need to be the hero even if it undermines his commander. The only character this approach makes sense for is Finn, whose sense of self is so under-developed. But he's the character who gets the least time and space in the film.

The Resistance has never approached the massive firepower or membership of the FO but it's major accomplishment (taking out the Planet Killer) revolved around the massive commitment to a singular weapon (I mean, hello FO, was the idea that 3rd time is the charm?).

Have you read Leia Organa: A Critical Obituary? It's an interesting bit of fanfic/metafiction that attempts to recast Star Wars as a story with serious political heft, and one of the points it makes is just what you're saying, that the Death Star and its imitations are both a waste of resources and a big blazing target whose destruction gives the Resistance a honking great victory while costing the Empire huge amounts of resources.

Dotan Dimet said...

I saw the movie today and two thirds of the way through, I thought to myself "this is fanfic metacommentary". "The Force Awakens" is about two naifs who discover they live the the Star Wars universe (and one of my favorite things about that movie was Rey and Finn's wide-eyed enthusiasm as they barrelled through the set pieces). "The Last Jedi" is all about subverting and commenting on the expectations of people "in a Star Wars story", whether it is Rey trying to force meaning into her life by re-enacting the Luke Skywalker story, or the whole idea of who "the Heroes" are being undercut by the heroic sacrifices of Paige, Holdo, Rose and others.

Also, if you were troubled by the moral underpinnings of this Universe, the "logic" of space combat troubled me greatly, with Holdo's final gambit making the ridiculous bombers from the opening battle seem even more pointless.

Dubble G said...

Just stumbled across this blog while searching for Iain M Banks reviews ... Thoroughly enjoyed your take on TLJ, particularly the point that the dark/light debate often gets divorced from anything concrete the characters do. Agree with most of what you've written here (my own review:

Not sure whether I would classify the plot as "metacommentary," but certainly it feels like a reaction to The Force Awakens, in its deliberate abaondonment of the story threads that movie left hanging (frayed and recycled though they were). I wonder if this shows the danger inherent in hiring different directors for a "trilogy" with no clear story arc or direction. We're back with JJ for the next installment, so I can't help but wonder if he'll try to steer the ship back to its original course.

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