Updated: Feb 13, 2019
This was originally posted on my "Geek Dad" blog on 12/18/2017
The following is filled with spoilers. Like, every last good spoiler... So, read at your own risk.
I have been a Star Wars fan since the summer of 1977. I remember sitting in the back of my parents’ station wagon after experiencing the movie – then it was just “Star Wars” – and pretending I was gunning down TIE Fighters that passed. It consumed my life and became a major part of who I am. No, I am not into costumes. No, I don’t have a shrine in my basement. No, I haven’t named my children Luke and Leia. But, I have worked as a freelance writer for Lucasfilm in the late ‘90s. I did contribute several hundred Star Wars questions to a science fiction trivia board game. I have toured Skywalker Ranch as the guest of a relatively well-known LFL employee. I can answer Star Wars trivia questions like you are asking me questions about my family. I am an admitted Star Wars Fanboy. And I loved Episode VIII, The Last Jedi.
To be fair, when the credits rolled on Thursday night after the early screening fan-premier I was torn. I walked out of the theater with my friend – a fan, but not a fanboy – in stunned silence. I wasn’t sure what I had just seen. The way I quickly described it was “simultaneously the best Star Wars movie and the worst.” And, I will readily admit and talk about some of the major flaws in the movie (like, what was the point of Canto Bight and why didn’t Laura Dern trust Oscar Isaac enough to tell him what the plan was?). But, after the second viewing (the very next day), I turned to that same friend (who also came with me the next day … maybe he’s trying to earn his fanboy card) and said, “much better the second time.” He agreed.
If you are among the 45% of Rotten Tomatoes viewers who hated – viscerally hated – The Last Jedi, I have to say, as a fellow fanboy, get over yourself. This was exactly the movie that was needed. Perhaps even more so than The Force Awakens.
TFA, as I’ve said two years ago, was the best possible way to reboot a franchise. Unlike JJ’s Star Trek where the same characters appeared with different actors, in Episode VII he retold the same exact story of 1977’s masterpiece, but with different faces in the same roles or archetypes. I won’t rehash it here, but TFA is A New Hope at so many beats that I still refer to it as a reboot and not a sequel. That said, now that the story was reborn, Rian Johnson had to choose if he made The Empire Strikes Back or something else entirely. He chose to go somewhere else, and I am glad he took us with him.
Let’s face it, no Star Wars movie will ever be good enough. If you grew up on the original trilogy, you were burned so bad by the Prequels that you feel like a scorned lover. Your expectations of wide eyed amazement are virtually unattainable. And every time you go back you are looking for reasons to not be happy with what you see. It’s human nature. The same people who hate what Rian Johnson did for Episode VIII are the same people who hate that JJ Abrams is back for Episode IX. (You need to just deal with it.) If you grew up on the Prequels, well, I’m not even going to pretend to be able to associate with you as I am in the scorned lover department. But I will say, through my under-10 years of age children, I have seen their love of Anakin, clones and droid armies. So, I understand that the Prequels do reach an audience and do so pretty effectively. I just brought my Original Trilogy preconceptions to them – as all “existing” Star Wars fanboys bring to the new Trilogy.
Johnson took risks. He was given the keys to a 1977 Chevy Corvette and instead of driving the speed limit through the neighborhood, he stepped on the gas and flew onto the highway without telling anyone where he was going. Those of us in the passenger seat are either terrified by this or elated by it. I was terrified the first time and elated the second (and third) time.
To keep with that analogy, he left the neighborhood doing the speed limit by showing us an expected and fun space battle. New bad guy commanders with British accents and a slightly new objective, but the same thing we’ve seen in every Star Wars movie. Tons of enemy ships, crappy odds and an exhilarating victory in space. Then … he had a choice: make a turn onto the highway or turn back to the old familiar neighborhood. Rey hands Luke the lightsaber and we waited, literally holding our breath to see where this was going to go and Rian, who was just a little past the onramp, slammed a hard left and took us into the fast lane. Luke tossed the lightsaber over his shoulder and with that “lazer sword” went everything hardcore fans were expecting and, in some cases, demanding. It took guts. It left some people in the theater laughing. Some people audibly gasped. Some people were just pissed. And from that moment on, Rian was driving the sports car with reckless abandon and you were either laughing while your hair blew in the wind or screaming “you better get us back home before you get us in trouble!”
I was one of the people who thought I knew where this ride was going to go. We would get some intense training montage, the story behind the Knights of Ren and an answer to who Snoke was. We’d probably be strung along a little bit on the "who are Rey’s parents" question and introduce Admiral Holdo as a political foil for Poe and she would inherit the Resistance after Leia dies heroically. I expected Luke to maybe survive this film and go out like Yoda in ROTJ in Episode IX and I was hoping for big things from Finn and Rose. Probably sounds a lot like what you, those who gave the film a thumbs down expected.
Um… we got NONE of that. I believe that’s why your first viewing was a letdown. When I came back to the film understanding what they were doing, I totally embraced it and was riveted. Because, like a good Game of Thrones episode, stuff went down that I was not ready for. Rian Johnson nailed it.
Let’s go into some of the details that were glazed over, opportunities missed and things that felt uncomfortable and I will tell you why they work. Not all of it works. I mean, let’s be honest, even those of us that like TLJ are still having a tough time understanding the casino stuff. Coulda been a taut two hour movie if they pulled that out.
Let’s start with my personal biggest shock: Snoke going out as unceremoniously as a Red Shirt on the Enterprise. My initial response was, “nope, he’s gonna come back together even more disfigured and evil.” Followed by “wait. What?!?” Snoke, we hardly knew ye. But, that’s ok. I think Rian Johnson’s choice was that it just didn’t matter to this story who he was and where he came from. The throne room scene is all about Kylo Ren. Yes, there’s a lot of Rey stuff, but that scene belongs completely to Ben Solo and his choice. Much like in Return of the Jedi none of us cared that the Emperor was a former Naboo Senator and disguised phantom menace to the Republic who really another Darth named Sidious; none of us needed to care – at that moment – what his backstory was. All that mattered was that (a) Kylo Ren is so strong in the Force that he was able to disguise his killing stroke from this clearly powerful mentor and (b) he saw his chance and was making his move to become the ultimate power in the galaxy. One of the few times his gambit paid off. Will we get more information on him in Episode IX? Maybe – only if it’s material to the story. Will we get a book about him? Inevitably. (For the record, I usually don't read any of those expanded universe novels. So, I’ll have to live without knowing if that’s the route they take.)
Next, shocker number two: Rey’s parents are nobodies. I readily accepted that. I was surprised, but I was ok with it. Especially because of the Force sensitive stable boy scene at the end of the movie. It seems that was Johnson’s way of saying, “See? Anyone can be the next Jedi. Rey is just another ‘anyone’ who got mixed up in things that were way bigger than her.” This shocker, however, I won’t be surprised to see revisited. If Kylo was aware of a hidden truth and was hiding real info to play on Rey’s desire to know that would be in character and very well played. If he truly knew her parents were low life scum who sold their daughter "for drinking money," that works too. Either way, it is another way of Rian Johnson taking the saga into his own hands. He literally took the question everyone wanted answers to and said, “doesn’t matter. They are nobody. Let’s move on.” I know it angered a lot of fanboys who wanted her to be a Skywalker, a Solo, a Kenobi, a Palpatine, an Amidala, but like Snoke’s history, it clearly didn’t matter to the story he was telling. But, like I said, I still think it comes back in the next film.
Who were the Knights of Ren? What happened to that part of Rey’s vision from TFA? Don’t know. Doesn’t seem to matter to what we saw in VIII. Part of me thinks they were the Praetorian guards – which I could totally live with. But a bigger possibility is that we just haven’t seen that part of the Rey vision. We’ve seen just about all of it now other than the part the Knights of Ren are in. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuY50ZUjg6w ) If you watch it, Rey is in the rain, on the ground and vulnerable. Kylo Ren kills a fellow knight advancing on her. We may have already been shown Ren’s redemption. In fact, Rey did say that she saw his future and when the time comes he will turn. (I know she was referencing when they connected at that moment, but, it can all be related). It’s my guess that Kylo will reassemble the Knights of Ren before Episode IX and somehow, yada yada, Rey is about to be killed by them and he makes the decision to save her … again. But, in keeping with my theme here, the Knights of Ren didn’t play a part in this film.
Think about it, this is a very small film with a finite story. The Resistance/Rebels are doing only one thing for 80% of the movie: inching away from the First Order fleet trying to get away. And Rey is giving up on being trained and decides to go save Kylo herself and fails. That’s the movie. All of it. Well, most of it.
There is that little thing where Luke astral projects himself across the galaxy to harass Kylo Ren long enough let his sister and her friends escape. Oh, and the effort kills him. Now we’re really talking about what pissed off the fanboys. And, to a degree, I am with them. But only a little. I am not really all that upset about the way it went down.
Let’s break it down. It's not the BS many fans are calling. Kylo told us all that it takes a lot out of a Force wielder to do the whole “across the universe” thing. At one point he says to Rey, “how are you doing this? The effort would kill you!” Which is (a) a piece of evidence that Snoke was connecting them and (b) a setup that if Luke went all in on that, he would be drained and would die. For those that thought it was a wimpy way for him to go, I don’t completely disagree. If Rian had consulted me, which I’m still not sure why I never got his call, I would’ve done it this way:
After the Rey/Ren battle royale, Luke feels a great disturbance in the Force. His two most powerful students have just been in the fight of their life and people in the Resistance are dying. Every time a transport is destroyed, he falls a step back. Leia reaches out to him through the force, desperately needing his help. Maybe here a Force ghost of Anakin would work telling him, “Son: your sister. She needs you. You are her only hope.” After visibly struggling with the decision, he runs down to the water where his X-Wing lies underwater. Remember, we saw it? He finally achieves what he didn’t in Empire: he uses the Force to raise it from the water. We all cheer.
When all hope seems lost during the assault on Crait, Luke arrives and lands his X-wing in the middle of the battlefield. He gets out of his fighter and shouts: “Ben! The Force is with you, but you are not a master yet.” This infuriates the boy. He commands the First Order to open fire and he uses the old Jedi speed trick we saw from Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in Episode I. Kylo gets as angry as he did in the film and now, feeling full of himself as the new Supreme Leader, goes down to face him. “I must face him alone.”
They have an epic light saber duel and the Resistance does what they did to follow the crystal foxes. Rey does the rock thing (which I thought was so cool) and Ren and Luke are at an impasse. In reverence to George Lucas’ “everything rhymes and repeats,” Luke, realizing his work is done both at this moment and as the last Jedi master, he senses that Rey has taken her “first step into a larger world.” He smiles and holds up his saber a la Obi Wan in A New Hope and lets Kylo defeat him so that he can become “more powerful than he can possibly imagine.”
After they escape, on the Falcon, when Rey says “how can we do this?” to Leia, Luke appears as a Force ghost, viewable only by Rey … and then by Leia.
Come on, you must admit, that would’ve been ok. Maybe even pretty cool. Sure, fanboys would’ve said, “see? Just like A New Hope.” Well, yes. Keeping the circle complete.
And, that’s about all I would change. Did I mention I’d kill the whole casino planet thing? I get it, they needed to give Finn and Poe something to do, but why not have them fly fighters ahead to Crait and do something down there together. Work that bromance a little more.
I guess what I am driving at is that all the things you, the fanboy, felt you were owed were not needed to make a solid movie. And that is why the critics loved it. They weren’t mired by long monologues that are out of place but reserved for foolish villains intent on sharing their vile plans so that you could get answers to theories you’ve been working on for two years (I was one of you). The viewer didn’t have to know the history of Darth Plagueis the Wise to understand where this Snoke guy came from. You didn’t need exhaustive backstory on what you can and can’t do with the Force – you just said, “hey, that’s pretty cool magic stuff.” The movie moved along at a decent clip and was full of surprises and twists (that fanboys hated but casual, non-novel reading, not quite obsessed movie goers ate up). I dare say that as much as JJ Abrams remade Star Wars to win back the hardcore fans, Rian Johnson made a movie that reopened Star Wars to everybody else.