Spoiler Warning: This post contains major spoilers for The Last Jedi. Don’t read it if you haven’t seen it yet (but do go see it – it’s good)
I’ve never been a die-hard Star Wars fan, but I have always enjoyed the movies. Even the poorly written and acted prequels offer a glimpse into a cool world with interesting characters and lore. So when I started to see claims that the new movie was the worst in the series and almost ruined the franchise I couldn’t imagine how that was possible. A series that survived “I’ll try spinning, that’s a good trick” and “I don’t like sand” would really need to do something awful to get these reactions. Was Supreme Leader Snoke secretly Jar Jar Binks? Did Luke break out in song halfway through the movie?
After watching the movie, I can’t say I fully understand any of the extreme criticism. The Last Jedi ranks among the best of the Star Wars movies. It tells a fast paced story centered around the strength of its two main leads, Kylo Ren and Rey. It subverts expectations when it makes sense while still offering fans plenty of the moments implicitly promised by the setup in Episode 7. Most importantly, it goes beyond the simple light vs dark conflict that drives much of the Star Wars story by adding some much needed nuance to characters on both sides of the conflict.
That’s not to say everything about the movie was perfect. Leia floating back to the ship was unnecessary and goofy. There was no reason why Poe had to be kept in the dark about the plan to have the escape pods flee to the nearby planet. Some plot points seemed a bit too convenient (How did the codebreaker make a deal with the First Order so quickly? Why does it take so long to shoot down the rebel escape pods? Why did they wait to close the blast door just long enough for Finn and Rose to get through? Why can a ship entering hyperspace destroy another ship and why has nobody ever done that before?). But these are minor complaints that have little effect on the broader story and themes of the movie. Deeper criticism of the plot and characters misses the mark in my opinion.
Luke’s Character: One major complaint about The Last Jedi was its treatment of the last Jedi himself (including a statement from Hamill himself saying he disagreed with the direction). Luke’s motivations seemed perfectly clear to me. He tried to train the next generation of Jedi, but instead he saw history repeat itself. The dark side lured away one of the strongest students and destroyed everything he had built. Is it that hard to believe he wouldn’t immediately want to try again? Perhaps a more fitting criticism comes from Luke’s fleeting desire to kill Kylo Ren in his sleep. Would the Luke we know from the original trilogy ever do something like that? Some say no. But rather than see this as a rejection of Luke’s character, I think of it more as an evolution. Nobody is entirely free from darkness. Doing bad in the interest of the greater good is a temptation everybody faces and I didn’t find it unreasonable that Luke would briefly consider going down that path. A perfectly benevolent Luke is also a boring one.
Kylo Ren Killing Snoke: Based on the setup in the Force Awakens, some people assumed that Supreme Leader Snoke would have a major part to play in the trilogy. It is understandable, then, that his quick end would be disappointing. Wouldn’t it have been better to see more of Snoke’s origin, how he lured Kylo to the dark side, and how he became the most powerful man in the universe? I’m not so sure. We already saw that story with Palpatine and receiving more of his backstory in the prequels arguably diminished his character from the original trilogy. Why retread the same ground? Killing off Snoke so early in the trilogy allows the focus to be on the more interesting Kylo Ren. I think that’s the right choice. Not every question raised by episode 7 needs to be answered.
Kylo Ren’s Motivation: But why did Kylo Ren even want to kill Snoke? Does it make sense that he would turn so quickly on his master? I think it does. It’s clear that Kylo has always been ambitious and confident in his abilities. He sees himself as better than others and therefore well-suited to lead the world to what he views as a better, more orderly, place. Just like Anakin, the light side didn’t offer enough power on its own and so he looked for alternatives. Initially, Snoke offered him that alternative. But it’s also clear that he has a connection with Rey. He sees in Rey many of the same features he sees in himself. Power, ambition, drive. He thinks he needs to only show Rey the error of her ways, that the light side is weak and that by using the dark they can lead together. And so when faced with a choice between Rey and Snoke, his choice is simple. Snoke will only constrain him. Rey could work alongside him. When she rejects him, he does not turn to light, but rather occupies some gray area in the middle, taking the steps he feels are necessary to create (what he views as) a better world even when it requires destroying what came before. I’m definitely interested in seeing how his character progresses in the next movie.
Rey’s Parents: Did anyone really want any of the fan theories about Rey’s parents to be true? Did we need some convoluted explanation of Luke or Han and Leia somehow having a daughter that they abandoned and forgot? Would it really add anything to the story if Obi-Wan secretly had a granddaughter? Would it be better if she was created by midichlorians? There just aren’t that many important characters left who could feasibly be Rey’s parents. Having Rey come from nobody was the best choice. The mistake was building it up as a question to be answered in the first place, but compounding that error and shoehorning in some forced connection to existing characters would have been much worse.
Finn and Rose’s Story: It’s true that Finn and Rose’s excursion to the casino planet ends up being essentially meaningless for the rest of the story. But, as my 12th grade english teacher liked to tell us (every class), “if it doesn’t contribute to plot, it contributes to theme.” Maybe it’s hard for some people to believe that Star Wars actually has a theme beyond good vs evil, but Finn and Rose’s storyline demonstrates what the rebels are fighting for. Why should we see the rebels as something other than terrorists fighting against what could very well be a benevolent dictatorship? Finn and Rose show the oppression caused by the First Order and why a resistance is needed at all. It also develops Finn’s character from somebody ready to abandon the resistance at the beginning to one who is willing to sacrifice himself for it at the end and provides context for Rose’s line at the end that the good guys need to differentiate from the bad by focusing on saving what they love.
Other criticisms make even less sense to me. The porgs added humor and had very little effect on the plot. Compared to Jar-Jar becoming a senator they are completely inoffensive. Some jokes might not have hit the mark for everyone, but has Star Wars ever been a series that took itself completely seriously? Has anyone watched the Yoda scenes or the Ewok scenes from the original trilogy lately? Humor has always been a part of the series. And I won’t even get into the people claiming the movie is full of left-wing propaganda. Come on guys.
Overall I felt that the movie added some complexity to the standard Star Wars formula. The original trilogy was a relatively simple story of good vs evil. The Last Jedi makes you think a little bit about what those words mean. That it opened such a fierce controversy about Luke’s character or Kylo Ren’s motivations shows me that it succeeded in doing that. And, for me at least, taking some risks with Star Wars was a welcome change.