“The Last Jedi” is full of — and, in fact, depends on — plot contrivances, some of which merely test the forbearance of the audience, others of which actively waste its time.
The central pursuit between the forces of the First Order and the fleeing remnants of the Resistance relies on the idea that the ships of both parties can travel only at an identical maximum speed, meaning that for much of the movie, they’re moving through space at a constant distance from each other. The “Star Wars” universe has multiple models of ships with obviously different capacities, so there’s something genuinely bizarre about seeing a movie play for time in this fashion, even if it does pay off in the form of Vice Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) spectacular act of self-sacrifice.
Far more egregious is literally everything about Finn’s (John Boyega) experience in the movie. “The Last Jedi” could have simply stashed him in a coma, after all; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) spent most of “The Force Awakens” in captivity. Instead, it sends him on a red herring of an adventure with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, who, like nearly everyone in this movie, deserved better writing than she was given).
It’s really worth taking a moment to see just how spectacularly this plot goes wrong, from a simple storytelling perspective. In order to thwart a tracking device the First Order has used to trace the Resistance ships, the pair call up Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), who suggests that they go to the casino world of Canto Bight to enlist the services of a singularly talented hacker who can be identified by the plum lapel blossom he always wears. The whole thing is a little “Murder on the Orient Express” for a “Star Wars” movie, but sure, fine. Of course, once they get there, Finn and Rose spot the Slicer (Justin Theroux) for approximately five seconds, then after they are locked up for — I truly wish I was making this up — a parking violation, they don’t bother to find him again and accept an offer of services from a completely random person with whom they have been imprisoned (Benicio Del Toro) because he says he can do it. The Resistance really needs to work on its operational security. After breaking out of jail, sneaking their way onto Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) flag ship, and preparing to disarm the beacon, said completely random person sells Finn and Rose out. This renders the entire plot we’ve seen pointless, but it does give Finn an opportunity to bash his former Imperial commander, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, criminally underused), in the face, because clearly this could not have been accomplished in any other way.
Not only does this diversion literally end up having no impact on the plot at all, but it also becomes an excuse for Rose to monologue about the immorality of weapons dealers and inequality, and for “The Last Jedi” to suggest that the future of the Resistance lies in some scrappy stable kids (to which I’ll return in a moment). “The Empire Strikes Back” conveyed the immorality of apolitical space capitalism in approximately eight lines delivered with Lando Calrissian’s (Billy Dee Williams) panache, a special effect infinitely more powerful than anything “The Last Jedi” spent in millions of dollars, Del Toro’s mumbling and a half-hour of this over-long movie to get across. The whole thing is just a disgracefully bad bit of storytelling.
Finn’s storyline is probably the most purely wasteful odd decision that director Rian Johnson makes in “The Last Jedi,” but even the more efficient strange decisions are still confounding.
Upsetting your viewers’ expectations can be a good thing, as is the case with Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) revelation that Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents were not important figures, nor were they coming back for her. That storytelling move, in addition to producing a highly poignant scene, undercuts the assumption that Rey must be heir to some sterling Jedi legacy, simultaneously democratizing the Jedi tradition and refusing, for once, to insist that the new trilogy follow exactly in the tradition of the old.
But there’s a difference between doing something surprising and fresh like that* and undermining your own big reveals and emotional choices, which “The Last Jedi” does all too often.
Take what at first appears to be General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) death scene. Her ship is hit by First Order forces and she’s sucked out into the vacuum of space, where the cold has simultaneously destroyed her spark and frozen her into a sort of timeless perfection. If the scene had ended there, it would have been devastating, underscoring just how desperate and vulnerable the Resistance had become and leaving the warmest, most charismatic character to appear on screen in “Star Wars” forever silenced by the void.
Instead, Leia pulls herself back from the brink of death with the Force and manages to fly herself to the safety of one of the few remaining resistance ships. “Star Wars” is one of those franchises where there is both technology that is seemingly indistinguishable from magic and the Force, which feels a lot like magic. But even so, this seems like the wrong kind of magic for “Star Wars,” which has always acknowledged the limitations of the Force and even suggested that they drove Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to the Dark Side. Maybe it’s just that this choice looks worse since Fisher’s untimely death means that Leia’s resurrection creates one heck of a narrative problem for the next installment in this series. But it also indicates a kind of cowardice in what’s supposed to be one of the darkest “Star Wars” movies.
To a lesser extent, the same is true of Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) actual death, which comes after the reveal that his exciting faceoff with Kylo Ren wasn’t in person, but rather the result of the most intense meditation session in movie history. There’s a good potential explanation for this choice: that Luke wants to face down and apologize to his former pupil without putting Kylo Ren in a situation where he could kill another person, and further, that Luke wants to die on his own terms instead. Unfortunately, this isn’t a rational move that appears in the text of the movie, which instead makes it look as if Luke pulled off this jazzy astral projection for no particular reason. If the new trilogy was committed to killing off one of its own triumvirate per movie, they picked the wrong Skywalker, for reasons of both real-world logistics and thematic coherence.
Beyond these mystifying choices, there’s also the matter of how “The Last Jedi” handles the central political conflict that is supposed to be animating this trilogy.
The original sin of the reconstituted “Star Wars” live-action movies was the choice to replicate the conflict between the scrappy, democratic Rebellion (now the Resistance) and the fascist Empire (now the First Order), rather than to actually move the world forward and explore the problems that would inevitably flow from the New Republic’s attempts to reunify the galaxy and mop up the fragments of the Empire. That decision has been compounded by Lucasfilm’s highly conservative need to replicate the aesthetics of both movements, and the action beats of the original trilogy, sapping our sense that this is supposed to be at least a new phase of an ongoing conflict.
And “The Last Jedi” takes this bad impulse to a place that I’m not sure the franchise can recover from in a plausible way. Though the movie’s opening sequence is admirably clear-eyed about what happens when an organization gambles on a spectacular gambit and largely fails, almost everything that follows in “The Last Jedi” represents a failure of political nerve.
By any reasonable lights, this is a movie that decimates the Resistance as a viable political movement and as a meaningful military power. By the end of the film, so many Resistance leaders have been killed, and they’re so low on material and equipment, that what’s left of them literally flee in the Millennium Falcon. The most concrete sign “The Last Jedi” has given us that the fight against the First Order can plausibly continue is a trio of small children working in the stables on Canto Bight who respond to Rose’s secret Resistance emblem decoder ring. It’s one thing to suggest that the spirit of hope persists if “The Last Jedi” is where the story ends. But if Episode IX is going to come along in two years and insist that the Resistance is still a going concern without doing any of the work to explore how that could possibly be the case, it’ll be an argument that J.J. Abrams and the Lucasfilm brass expect “Star Wars” audiences to be more anesthetized than engaged.**
And look, maybe they do! Little in the overwhelmingly positive critical reviews for “The Last Jedi” gives Disney any incentive to try to turn the “Star Wars” movies into anything smarter or more coherent than a series of attractive setpieces. Little in the box office likely will, either.
I understand why, as novelist John Scalzi wrote with regard to “The Last Jedi,” some viewers regard “Star Wars” as “mythology, i.e., stories presented through such a deep filter of time and oral tradition that to expect logic is almost aside the point.”
But it’s not quite true, as Scalzi suggests, that “You don’t expect logic from ‘Star Wars’ any more than you expect it out of, say, ‘Jason and the Argonauts.’ ” Part of what makes an epic like the “Iliad” continually compelling both as a specific story and as an enduring form that other artists use as the basis for their own stories is the stuff that happens in between the big battles and that make it clear why a conflict unfolds, and ultimately ends, the way it does. You have to understand why the Trojans would accept the mysterious gift of a big wooden horse, even if it means a little divine intervention to tip the scales on their decision-making.
You might not have seen every creature in the galaxy in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but you could see in Princess Leia’s networks, the effects of Imperial repression on individuals, and even in the Ewoks’ asymmetrical warfare how and why the Empire might eventually fall. The strength of “The Last Jedi” is that it manages to make the personal journeys of Rey, Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker feel as hugely consequential as the galaxy itself. Its fatal flaw is in lacking the thought or ambition to give that same thought to the galaxy itself.
*Or like having Kylo Ren kill Supreme Leader Snoke but then not be redeemed to the light. Adam Driver is great in these movies, and he feels like one of the few characters the franchise genuinely has figured out.
**Because this piece is talking about storytelling mechanics, I’m not going to get into how annoying it is that after being hugely wrong and unstrategic about everything for the entire movie, as well as acting like a massive jerk, Poe Dameron somehow gets promoted to be head of the entire Resistance, ending the long tradition of female leadership of this movement. But let me tell you, I noticed.