The Last Jedi is Smarter than You

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The Last Jedi is a movie that does not particularly care if you like it or not. While The Force Awakens trod on eggshells and avoided saying anything for fear of upsetting its viewer, giving them instead a fairly uninspired retread of all the Star Wars favorites, The Last Jedi is bold, artistic, and unpredictable.

So, of course, everyone hates it.

Except Jaden Kilmer and J.A. Prentice, who are here to provide a (very late) half-analysis, half-defense of what we felt was one of the best franchise films to come out of Hollywood in a long time.

The key to understanding this film is that it’s a deconstruction of Hollywood storytelling and clichés, tearing apart the somewhat unhealthy ideology that pervades many blockbuster films (a lot of which are very good and enjoyable despite this).

Poe Dameron is the primary example of this. People have complained that his plot is pointless because it doesn’t work.

But that is the point.

Poe Dameron thinks he lives in a Hollywood movie. He thinks he can jump into an X-Wing, blow some stuff up, and the day will be saved. The “bureaucracy” is red tape holding him back. If he could just be in charge and do something suitably heroic, the war would be over. It’s an attitude espoused by virtually every Hollywood action movie, especially the military ones, where Our Heroes disobey those pencil-pushers to punch the bad guy in the face in a million-to-one mission, it totally works, and they get medals and promotions because they’re so great.

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Poe isn’t in a traditional Hollywood movie. He’s a fighter pilot with no idea of why orders are being given, no concept of strategy, and no actual chance of success. Only at the end of the movie has he grown up enough to move past his movie morality and become a real hero and leader.

In another movie, DJ would have been the rogue with the heart of gold. He seems mercenary and rough, but actually he’s just a bit disillusioned and when the time is right, he’ll come through for you. The film pulls a fake-out here with him taking Rose’s necklace and then returning it – “Oh, we thought he was a bad guy, but he’s not,” the audience says.

Then he takes the money, talks, and gets defenseless ships blown out of the sky. That’s the last we see of him. No return run to save everyone, no last minute changes of heart. DJ is an untrustworthy criminal and that’s all there is to it.

The other brand of complaint I see lodged on The Last Jedi is one where people’s suspension of disbelief is set bizarrely low, or their expectations for soft sci-fi are suddenly changed. It’s that pervasive, incredibly annoying Cinemasins style “critique” of things that are, objectively, not issues. For example, there’s a prevailing comment on Holdo’s kamikaze attack, declaring it a plot hole that no one in Star Wars had thought to turn ships into weapons before.

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While there are plenty of logical in-universe answers for this, the reason this type of criticism is so infuriating is not because it’s easily refutable, but that it’s lazy. It’s not an issue at all. It’s like asking why no one ever thought of tripping AT-AT’s before Hoth. It’s a remark that should just be met with derision yet people are spinning it into a mortal flaw in the movie, when it’s not an issue to begin with.

On a similar note, I’ve seen multiple people insist that Poe’s failures are all on Holdo not sharing information. However, we can see she is discussing her plan with the bridge crew and all the hangar staff are fueling the ships on her orders, so clearly know what they’re doing. These people know because they have to know, whereas Poe doesn’t. And the part of the plan he hears, he blurts out to a mechanic, a First Order defector, and the criminal they just met. Because of this, said criminal betrays the plan to the First Order and many of the escape ships are destroyed. Poe’s problem wasn’t that he wasn’t given information. His problem was that he was certain his approach was right and refused to trust that other people might have a better idea of what was going on than he did.

And all that just bounces around the most inane “criticism” of the movie, the one primarily responsible for this post:

But it didn’t give us Snoke’s backstory or Rey’s parents! They set up two mysteries and didn’t follow through!

Did 7 really establish these things as bona fide mysteries destined for a big reveal later on? No. These mysteries were the result of fan theories and speculation gone wild. They do not appear in the actual movie. All Episode 7 gives us in regards to Rey’s parents is her clinging to the belief that they will return someday and that she didn’t really know them. The script does not use her parents as a vehicle for mystery, but as an opportunity to (weakly) construct a character flaw in Rey. Her obstacle to overcome in 7 is this sunk-cost fallacy of her life on Jakku, and the mistaken belief that if she only holds on a little bit longer, her parents will return and she will be happy. Nowhere in the actual content of the movie does it hint at Rey’s parents being anyone special, or a mystery the series will explore. If anything, 7 hints most strongly that her parents are, as Kylo tells her, nobodies. We are led to believe that Rey is wrong for clinging to this idea of her parents returning, that she has invested a degree of faith in them that they do not deserve, and will not be returned. This is her tragic backstory, not a mystery.

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As for Snoke, well, Snoke’s just there. The cynic will argue he was designed to be nothing more than the Palpatine of the new trilogy. There’s nothing new about a Star Wars villain having a disfigured appearance. What did people want out of him? To learn that he usurped the Galactic House of Representatives and became disfigured when his lightning bounced off a pink lightsaber wielded by Laurence Fishburne? Snoke is a distraction. The crux of the new trilogy’s drama is not around him and Rey. It’s Kylo and Rey, much like the OT being about Vader and Luke rather than Palpatine and Luke. It’s not like there was anything wrong with the OT not giving us a whole lot of backstory on its villain. Know you not the Prequels? We got two awful movies (III is okay) depicting the dull, boring backstory of a villain already. The lesson of the prequels was that it was telling us a bunch of hullabaloo no one really needed. Let’s not forget it so soon.

I’ve heard some say that this movie is just as much of a rip-off of Empire and Jedi as The Force Awakens is of A New Hope. I respectfully (and disrespectfully, if you catch me when I’m tired enough) disagree. When Abrams homages scenes and tropes – the planet-killing superweapon, the secret files, the new hero on the backwater world, the lightsaber-wielding former Jedi student, the death of the mentor, his entire script if we’re being brutally honest – he wasn’t saying anything about them except that he really, really likes Star Wars. So do we, but I like to think that if I were making a movie, I’d find a little more to say than that. When Johnson homages scenes, he’s making deliberate points. The throne room confrontation is inspired by Return of the Jedi, but it goes off in a completely different direction. It’s not Kylo’s redemption and it’s not a neat ending. It’s one villain taking the place of another, embracing his darkness instead of turning from it. It is, in fact, exactly what Vader wanted in Empire: to overthrow the emperor and rule the galaxy together. There are more choices than good and evil, black and white. In everything there is the grey, the other shades of darkness and light. The end battle evokes the trope of the doomsday weapon and the team of heroes rushing into certain danger to destroy it – as seen in the original Star Wars, in Return of the Jedi, and in The Force Awakens – but it’s used to highlight the movies themes by having Poe call off the suicide run and Rose shove Finn out of the way. “We win by saving the people we love, not destroying the things we hate,” she says.

The Last Jedi is filled with the struggle between love and hate, between destruction in the name of ‘heroism’ and protecting in the name of love. When Finn and Rose have completed their rampage through the city, Finn says it was worth it to hurt the rich people who live there. But Rose frees the creatures and says “Now it is” because she understands that the key to victory is saving others, not injuring the enemy. Every character’s failures spawn from being unable to grasp this. Poe gets his squadron obliterated because he judges destroying the dreadnaught more important than their lives. He commits a mutiny because he’s angry they aren’t fighting. Luke Skywalker created Kylo Ren because for one moment, one single moment of heroic delusion, he considered striking down evil instead of saving his nephew.

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Luke’s response to this is to retreat into inaction, unable to grow from his failures and not knowing how to act. When he does appear on Crait to battle the First Order, he doesn’t tear the First Order apart. He simply stands between the enemy and his friends, protecting without destroying. He saves the spark that will light the fire without taking a single life.

He understands again the lesson he learnt long ago, when he threw his lightsaber aside. Victory isn’t gained by destruction. Victory is gained by saving who you can, by keeping hope in the darkness, by continuing to love even when it seems impossible.

What makes The Last Jedi great, what elevates it beyond the vast pile of mediocrity and forgettableness that comprises most American blockbusters, is that it is a movie about things. That is, The Last Jedi is not simply interested in telling you what happens to a cast of characters, but to speak to something universal as well. It expounds on a theme of failure. What I find remarkable is that it’s not a very subtle theme of failure, Yoda spells it out for you midway through the movie, yet people miss it. Of course Luke screws up. Of course Poe Dameron’s daring, foolish plan fails. Of course Holdo’s passive plan fails. That’s. The. Point. The movie is about how people react to their failures, and follows this direction to moving, powerful moments like no Star Wars movie before. Kylo Ren sinks even deeper into his petulance after he fails to bring Rey on board with his plan to knock everything down. Holdo decides the time to run away is over, and gives herself up for the good of the Resistance. Poe learns that the time to fight is over and finds a way to escape the crystal cave instead of dogfighting his way out. Luke confronts his greatest failure. It drives me crazy seeing people comedically miss the point.

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The Last Jedi does not pretend that there is no darkness, that goodness will always prevail because it is good. The film knows that the galaxy is a cold and unforgiving place, that suffering and death are constants that cannot be escaped. There are consequences to everyone’s actions and no amount of pleading can pull Kylo Ren back from his darkness. The light does not always succeed and the darkness is always there. What matters is that its heroes keep trying. Even when the odds are insurmountable, they have to hold true to who they are. They have to keep being the light or it doesn’t matter if they win. Even in failure, there is victory.

Failure, as Yoda says, is a great teacher. We must learn from it, face our failures, and grow beyond them.

Or we can just decide that this movie sucks because Luke didn’t kill enough dudes with his lightsaber and Snoke didn’t turn out to be Porkins magically resurrected by Jar Jar Binks. That’s easier.

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