“But I like Star Wars!” That’s fine. They still didn’t make this movie for you. This is a movie with contempt for you, the audience, contempt for the characters, and contempt for Star Wars itself.
The movie LOOKS great. Ships go fast, things blow up, people shoot blasters: it looks appropriately Star Warsian. The director has spectacle down pat, maybe even better than JJ Abrams did. But that’s all the movie has going for it: spectacle. That can entertaining by itself, but once you notice the underlying problems (so many I can only touch on a few here), you realize that, despite it looking like Star Wars, it’s just not Star Wars.
Star Wars is supposed to be a Science Fiction Space Opera, an epic story about the struggle between good and evil. Good is noble, honorable, and virtuous. Half of Team Evil, in the form of the Galactic Empire, is clear and unambiguous: it is a cruel and murderous despotism who maintains power through terror and force. The other half of Team Up To No Good—The Force and the Dark Side thereof—is amorphous, seductive, and corrupting. As the Rebels fight the Empire in starships to defeat its evil, so, too, must Luke Skywalker fight against the whispers of the Dark Side in his heart, fight to embrace the harder but more rewarding path of the Light Side, in order to defeat Lord Vader and ultimately the Emperor. That is Star Wars, and a movie without that dichotomy at its core is not Star Warsian.
The Last Jedi evinces no such dichotomy. Though its metaphysics are murky, as is its morality, and though it pays lip service to the notion of the Dark Side, when Rey confronts a place strong in the Dark Side (as Luke did in the tree on Dagobah), the Dark Side appears as just an infinite mirror, reflecting Rey back at herself. It’s a magical trap, straight out of a Sword and Sorcery tale, and unlike the Dark Side tree on Dagobah the infinite mirror pit is neither ominous nor disturbing. The Dark tree revealed to Luke the danger of him becoming his father, in a memorable and jarring vision; the Hall of Infinite Mirrors reveals precisely nothing about Rey. She makes no meaningful choices, gains no insights, and the entire event is pointless. There is nothing at all to indicate why this part of the island is Dark, nor does that imputed quality affect the movie in the slightest.
Moreover, the movie explicitly embraces the notion that the Force itself is Balance (Luke says this over and over again when teaching Rey). Not split between Light and Dark, but Balance. Added to this, the only coherent moral thesis advanced by any character is explicitly nihilistic and relativistic: Benicio Del Toro’s character says there is no difference between the Republic and the First Order, that cruel and wealthy arms merchants arm both sides and profit from the war, no matter who wins. Taken to its logical extent, making war against the First Order is meaningless, as both sides are (in effect) the same and whether one or the other wins, nothing changes.
Star Wars is about heroics and heroism. From the raid on the Death Star to rescue the princess, to the doomed last-ditch battle on Hoth, buying time for the transports to escape, to the intricate plot to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hut, characters risk their lives to save the lives of others or just to fight evil, many times at great cost to themselves. Courage, especially physical courage, is central to the entire trilogy (and is the chief reason the series is so beloved).
The Last Jedi mocks courage, heroics, and heroism. Poe Dameron, the cocky fighter pilot, risks his life and the lives of his teammates to destroy the most formidable ship hunting the Resistance, and for this is upbraided and demoted. Later, faced with a no-win scenario, he concocts a desperate plan to disable the First Order’s tracking, allowing the remnants of the Resistance to escape and live to fight another day. Not only does the plan fail, it results in the deaths of some 2/3rds of what few members of the Resistance were left. And when Finn, a non-entity through most of the film, is about to sacrifice his own life to save even that pitiful remnant, he is knocked off course by a fellow rebel, and the First Order’s weapon is allowed to fire. His self-sacrifice, the intervening character says, is stupid and pointless because that’s just the way it is.
The only time anyone is allowed to sacrifice themselves heroically, is when Vice Admiral Tumblr Hair (played by Laura Dern) gets to blow up the entire First Order fleet whilst dying heroically, but even this sacrifice is meaningless: Kylo Ren and General Hux survive, and are able to mount an assault on the planetary base the Rebels fled to, an assault that is more than twice as large as the one Vader launched against Hoth. Tumblr Hair dies for nothing. In this movie, all heroics are meaningless, and that is just not Star Wars.
The total lack of heroism is one reason, but the other is this: This movie is just not epic. And Star Wars is epic.
I don’t mean epic as in a series of ten 300,000 word novels, I mean epic as in a weighty and significant struggle which matters. A struggle that means something. Tolkien, now Tolkien was epic. Even the Jackson “Lord of the Rings” movies managed to feel epic. (“The Hobbit” movies, not so much.)
The original Star Wars trilogy, from the Death Star to… well, the other Death Star was epic. It was a galactic struggle for freedom, with momentous consequences for the galaxy, and the movies let you feel that. Hell, even the PREQUEL TRILOGY was epic (in comparison). Get past the first film, and the struggle against the robot armies and the loss of freedom for the galaxy had moments of epicness. Star Wars is supposed to be epic.
The Last Jedi is not epic.
The very first scene is Poe pranking General Hux (primary combat leader of the First Order), just like Bart Simpson used to prank Moe the Bartender. No, Hux didn’t ask around for an “I. C. Weiner? Is there an I. C. Weiner on the bridge?” but he did say, over and over, “Can he hear me now?” after Poe placed him on hold.
That’s right. The head of the main bad guys—who MUST be competent and terrifying for the film to feel epic—is reduced to a stammering doof parodying a VERIZON WIRELESS AD.
(You know, I didn’t think you could HAVE product placement in a Star Wars film. Well played, Disney. Well played, indeed.)
The inapt and distracting humor (Content Warning: actual humor not included) continued throughout the movie. The film never had the chance to feel epic because every moment of sincerity was spoiled by a joke. It was so bad, I kept expecting Vice Admiral Tumblr Hair to stroll onto the bridge shouting “Wassup bitches!” It would not have been out of place.
“Epic” is a matter of artistic execution, not in-world scale. You can threaten to blow up two ferries with a couple of hundred people aboard or actually blow up five planets with billions of inhabitants, and the first scene might very well feel more epic than the second, if the director makes it so.
Epic and moving stories—epic in spirit, not epic in length, stories of great deeds being done by great men—require a sense of grandeur, of majesty, of awe. That is, the writer must have, within their breast, an understanding of the might and power of great men and great deeds. They must FEEL it.
A small man cannot.
Small men—not short men, but men with shriveled souls—have no notion of greatness nor daring. They cannot comprehend nor depict a struggle against insuperable odds, self-sacrifice in the face of near-certain doom. Their own paucity of courage and manliness dooms their every effort. Art reveals the artist, inevitably.
Even if they depict events that might, in other hands, feel epic, in their hands such events appear quotidian and even boring. Explosions, practical effects, and sound design can give the appearance of an epic struggle, and can distract the audience from a work’s fundamental flaws, but if at its center there is naught but a hollow emptiness, a nihilistic meaningless, this will render all the struggles pointless, no matter how many people are supposedly fighting or supposedly dying.
Epic stories like Star Wars do not have weak and incompetent enemies, nor do they mock heroism and heroes. The Last Jedi never does anything but.
Epic deeds are never pointless. They ALWAYS impact the world. They matter. No deed in TLJ matters. In the end, the good guys are utterly defeated. The Rebellion is destroyed, reduced to the paltry few who can ride aboard the Millennium Falcon, and the entire Galaxy has abandoned them, choosing despotism over the animating struggle for freedom. The movie is a Shoot the Shaggy Dog story, made up of many smaller Shoot the Shaggy Dog stories. It’s a fractal diagram of suck, and the closer you look, the more abhorrent elements you discover. TLJ is suck all the way down.
The Prequels were bad Star Wars movies. The Last Jedi is a bad not-a-Star–Wars movie. TLJ is the anti-Star Wars, the un-Star Wars, a cheap and hollow counterfeit of a far greater work, identical in appearance, but lacking any substance.
I’ve noticed that the more exposure people have to Pulp stories—you know, the GOOD stuff—the more they tend to dislike The Last Jedi. People who read Pulp regularly have become attuned to the flaws of modern F&SF, so the deficiencies in TLJ are readily apparent to them. To fans of the more modern stuff, this probably seems like more of the same entertainment they get every day. Which is most of the problem, and not just with this movie, but post-modern culture as a whole.
Audiences WANT stories of heroism and heroics. They meet a deep need in us to admire the brave and self-sacrificing, and to be inspired by them.
The Last Jedi is not such a tale. It is entertaining, because of spectacle, but that spectacle hides the movie’s poisonous core of nihilism. Time will not be kind.
After all, a movie that includes this scene will never attain the status of an intergenerationally beloved classic:
That right there is the ultimate moment of contempt for Luke Skywalker, and the ultimate moment of contempt for the audience.
I rest my case.