There is a pivotal moment in The Empire Strikes Back after Luke refuses Yoda and Obi Wan’s urging not to cut his training short and flies to save his friends on Cloud City. There’s some great dialogue here, a sense of foreboding about the cost of giving into impulsivity over preparation, human judgment over spiritual purpose, passion over restraint. As Yoda looks up at Luke’s retreating ship, he delivers a cryptic, haunting prophecy.
Obi-Wan: “That boy is our last hope”
Yoda: “No. There is another.”
For that one fleeting moment, it appeared that the plot of Star Wars was going to take a meaningful turn away from the carefree innocence of the first film and into more dramatic territory. It seemed that Luke’s choice to indulge his own immediate judgment over the higher purposes of the Force would have dire consequences, at least for him, or someone he loves or perhaps for the fate of the whole galaxy. But these never come to pass. By the third film the trail goes cold. Though its finale gets by on enough emotional exhaust left by the epic revelation of Luke’s parentage to support the final showdown, Leia as Luke’s sister ends up as a superfluous appendage to the series; a dramatic road not taken.
The Last Jedi takes this disappointing moment of Star Wars canon and recapitulates it, maddeningly, over the course of a 2.5 hour long film. The newest Star Wars installment’s story is a list of missed potential; it’s a film that seems to intentionally build audiences’ expectations toward groundbreaking moments for characters or the future of the canon, only to have them work out in the least consequential way possible.
Of course characters make choices and things happen, but they’re usually about how to manage various made-up sci fi gadgetry and their consequences never intrude on the central cadre of characters in whose fates we are all invested, nor upend the well established status quo of the Star Wars universe. When things go wrong only minor, just-introduced characters reap the whirlwind. Poe Dameron ignores orders and leads a suicide raid on an Imperial cruiser, and the no-name sister of a brand new side character dies. Rey attempts to lure Kylo Ren away from the Dark Side and Snoke–a CGI talking head with no backstory–ends up dead. Leia hatches a daring escape plan and a handful of no-name Rebel pilots and another entirely new side-character are killed.
The one exception to this is Luke Skywalker’s riveting turn as a failed Jedi Master, which leads to his friends’ son choosing the path of villainy as Kylo Ren. Luke’s gollum-like visage as he succumbs to the Dark Side’s purposes is a fantastic image that speaks to a complicated journey from heroic to craven. But of course, we don’t really get to see this happen. It’s all done either offscreen or in flashbacks. We don’t actually get to see anyone or anything change in real time. One wonders why these films did not decide to tell that story.
Most puzzlingly of all, the film’s thematic content seems to preach the exact opposite of what the film practices. Not a few critics have picked up on an underlying spirit of iconoclasm in Johnson’s script. There’s a lot (from both good guys and bad guys) about leaving the past behind and pushing onto the future and how failure teaches valuable lessons. But what the film says and what the film does are worlds apart. For all its blustering dialogue heralding reversals of fortunes and hard lessons (Luke growls “this isn’t going to go the way you think!”) nothing of the sort actually occurs, and the film seems to intentionally poke fun at you for taking it at its word. By the end of the film, we’re back to more or less where The Force Awakens left off: our heroes are all back together again like freshly purchased action figures in a Hasbro playset. Our villains still snarl and sweat at the controls of their big toys. (neither General Hux nor Kylo Ren are meant to be taken very seriously as antagonists. Like Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham from Disney’s Robin Hood, they more or less hatch plots to be foiled by our heroes and end up as the butt of the good guys’ jokes.)
The film’s writing seems painfully aware of the audience’s myriad expectations, but it is not aware of itself. Yoda pops up to knowingly lecture Luke (and us) about how the past should stay in the past and not dictate the course of the future. Moments like these might have been welcome if they had been deployed to put gloss on some big thing that might have actually steered the series away from its comfortable territory, but it ends up being a strange apologia for the sort of narrative cowardice we’ve come to expect from big tentpole films and their cosmic imperative to petrify characters in a safe, uncomplicated, (and therefore eminently marketable) state.
In the spirit of constructive criticism, here’s a list of things this film might have easily done to actually accomplish the big departure it signaled:
- Rey turns to the Dark Side
- Kylo turns to the Light side
- Luke turns to the Dark Side
- Finn dies saving the Rebels
- Rose dies saving Finn
- Finn gets disillusioned with the galactic war and runs off with Benicio Del Toro
- Rey discovers something new in the Force beyond the Light/Dark Side binary
- Poe gets court-martialed and kicked out of the Rebel fleet
Any or all of these things would have constituted a major change. But as it is, our heroes remain shallow and genial. Rey in particular remains a criminal bore despite Daisy Ridley’s winsomeness. The discovery that her parentage holds no cosmic significance for her leads to no real change in her outlook or goals. I’ve read a lot about how the gang learns things and grows as characters, but as far as I can tell, all of this seems to be emoted rather than shown. To see characters grow or change in a whiz-bang action movie like this, then things actually need to happen to them. To get the sense that they’ve loved and lost then they need to actually fall in love and lose things. Frustratingly, the tiniest flash of romance we do get actually comes as a result of preventing what might have been a significant dramatic turn. Rose saves Finn from sacrificing himself to save the Rebels and the brief kiss she gives him before falling unconscious can’t make up for the anticlimax of the scene. At just the moment the villains’ plot and the rebels’ helplessness seemed poised to actually cost somebody something, Disney’s deus ex machina machine kicks in and it all works out in an inoffensive, quotidian way. Luke dies doing some made-up Force thing but only willingly, and nobody seems to miss him. Everyone else remains in the awkwardly platonic friend zone established in the previous film.
Not everything is bad about The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson’s directorial skill gives us some of the most arresting images ever in a Star Wars movie. Leia uses her once-dormant force powers to fly through the fragments of a wrecked cruiser like some messianic space-angel. Rey’s spirit journey into a subterranean cave takes her to a magic mirror that telescopes herself into copies that move in tandem, but also seem to act on their own accord. A casino planet adds some much needed personality to the proceedings. But these moments of eye-catching weirdness seem to have been intentionally blocked from contributing anything new or significant to the story at hand. They just sort of sit there: cool images that make the director’s signature mark on the franchise, but they amount to nothing that meaningfully changes its overall direction.
Plus, for every newfangled thing, there is another painfully obvious homage to a sequence from a past film. This time it’s another Walker assault in which a deluge of visual callbacks to Irvin Kirschner’s the Empire Strikes Back seem contractually obligated to unfold. The nostalgia, thankfully, doesn’t constitute so obvious a retelling as it did in The Force Awakens, but reflecting for about five minutes on the film’s various set pieces and more correspondences comes into view: the side-trip to the casino planet mirrors the Cloud City. Benicio Del Toro’s character is essentially a Lando figure: first helping, then betraying our heroes. Both films’ longest-running plot line involves hopelessly outnumbered rebels running away from a fleet of Star Destroyers. The protagonist seeks wisdom and training from a wizened hermit on a rugged, lush planet and then runs off prematurely. Johnson is smarter about these scenes than Abrams. His muted style and off-hand jokes intentionally set them apart tonally, and they lead to somewhat different outcomes than in previous films, but not enough to count as genuine subversion.
Star Wars made a formative and lasting impression on my imagination as a kid, but I’m the kind of fan for whom nothing is sacred so long as it heightens dramatic stakes and moves ahead. Sadly, this new trilogy has not delivered. It deliberately eschews the most basic conventions of high concept drama–deaths, romances, betrayals–and instead plays out more like a costumed stunt show. I’ve read a lot of takes about how The Last Jedi seems to set up an exciting new direction for the series. But if if it hasn’t already taken us there, then it’s an empty promise.