In the span of five short days, The Last Jedi has gone from the most anticipated film in the world to the source of this year’s biggest schism in fandom (Darren Aronofsky’s mother! being a very close second). There’s even a Change.org petition to have it removed from the canon, and it’s already got over 5,000 signatures as of this writing. Extreme much? In some ways, I can sympathize with what these fans are going though. Last month’s Coco didn’t hit me the way I expected it to, and the feeling left me shook. It seems almost unthinkable that one can have a neutral or, heaven forbid, negative reaction to a Disney-Pixar movie, especially one so universally beloved. Now it’s happening with The Last Jedi.
As soon as I learned about the dissension, I’ve been scouring message boards, comments, reviews and anything else I could get my eyes on to better understand just what it is about The Last Jedi that leaves so many people feeling bummed or downright angry. I enjoyed the film, so it perplexes me to hear the reactions were so split. From what I’ve gathered, a majority of the complaints seem to boil down to three categories:
- Poor acting
- Weak / ineffective storytelling
- Too jokey / too contemporary
Let’s tackle these one at a time (WARNING: INCOMING SPOILERS):
The Poor Acting
While I’ve seen frustrations voiced about the acting in The Last Jedi, it’s been a struggle to pinpoint who audiences consider the chief offender. The comments tend to use blanket statements like “the acting is horrible,” or “the acting was stilted” rather than call out any actor/character by name, which leads me to think the insult is being lobbied toward the ensemble. If there are any specific performances triggering that reaction, my guess would be one of the following:
- Benecio Del Toro (DJ): To paraphrase Kenneth Branagh, Del Toro’s performance bathes in the river of ham. Frankly I’m a fan of the double-crossing codebreaker, but I’m guessing others were less fond of his over-the-top mannerisms.
- Laura Dern (Vice Admiral Holdo): Dern’s a compelling actress, sure, but one who seems a little out of step with the film’s principal cast. The character is meant to act as an authoritative stand in for Leia following the general’s near death ordeal, but Holdo never quite reaches the gravitas of her legendary counterpart.
- John Boyega (Finn): Audiences seem frustrated with the (arguably) pointless subplot his character embarks on from the moment he wakes up in The Last Jedi. It’s been enough of a sticking point that I wouldn’t be surprised to find people conflating their frustration over that story with his actual performance. Moreover, Boyega’s Finn tends to have a very “deer in the headlights” quality about him. That sort of earnestness tends to register as boring or stilted acting to some people.
- Andy Serkis (Snoke): Not unlike Del Toro’s DJ, Serkis chews the scenery as Snoke. For a major villain, though, the character never truly lives up to the promise of his potential given what we were teased with in The Force Awakens.
- Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico): It’s easy to hate the new blood in any franchise so Tran’s Tico makes for an easy target. Not only is she one of the driving forces behind the film’s much argued over side quest with Finn, this is her first major film role. I think she carries herself well throughout the film, but her presence might irk those who expected to spend more time with Finn, Rey, Poe, or Luke instead.
- Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker): I honestly can’t believe this would be one people are fussing over, but with Luke cracking more than the occasional joke throughout the film (the “Okay, that is nowhere” comment about Jakku, the branch on the finger is the Force trick, the dirt off your shoulder moment, etc.), and Hamill recent vocal disagreements with Rian Johnson’s direction for the character, maybe it’s rubbing people the wrong way on Hamill’s overall portrayal.
Even if one of these actors—or someone I’ve missed—is the culprit, there’s one thing about this “bad acting” argument that makes no sense to me, and it’s called THE PREQUELS. Episodes I-III are renowned for many things. High among them is acting so wooden that Ewoks could build an entire fleet of treehouses from it on Endor. If the prequels represent one end of your acting spectrum and the worst it could possibly get, how can The Last Jedi not outrank those three at the very least? The Last Jedi might still rank below the original trilogy for those upset with the film, but let’s bring a little rationality to this discussion if you’re going to throw out claims like the acting being atrocious.
Weak / Ineffective Storytelling
The nuance is not strong with one. People could mean a few different things when they balk about the “catchall” of bad storytelling: character moments feeling unearned, plot holes running amok, character development/motivations failing to make sense, fan theories not playing out the way they hoped, or the narrative reading as too complex. It’s a lot to parse through so I’ll try to consider a few of these, at least.
First, the unearned character moments. That would be things like Rose’s profession of love to Finn in the third act. The movie wants us to see it as an “awwwwww” moment, but nowhere leading up to that moment have we as viewers been led to understand that Rose has an attraction to Finn, or vice versa, since his main motivation was protecting Rey. It’s a moment that truly comes out of nowhere, and while I can make peace with it, I can’t discount the complaints about this. That moment would’ve landed better if Rose expressed her feelings a little earlier on their mission.
Next, there’s the seemingly complex or convulted story structure. Critics and fans alike tend to hold the opinion that if you can’t succinctly explain a film’s plot in one or two sentences, then it must be too complicated and is therefore a sign of weak or ineffective storytelling. Lady Bird: A young girl living in Sacramento yearns to find a life outside of the town that’s helped build her identity. Get Out: A young African American man meets his white girlfriend’s parents and discovers something sinister in the process. The Last Jedi: …. is harder to boil down. The movie follows multiple characters, each of whom engages with their own narrative or overlaps with another’s.
- Rey hopes to learn the ways of the Jedi from her reluctant recluse of teacher who’s all but turned his back on the Jedi (sounds familiar).
- Finn just wants to keep Rey from returning to the Resistance, fearing their cause is doomed. He forms a plan with a new ally in the hopes of giving the Resistance a chance to escape almost certain destruction at the hands of the First Order.
- Poe will do whatever it takes to protect the Resistance fleet, even if it means defying his general and potentially putting himself in harm’s way.
Finn’s story appears to draw the most complaints here as moviegoers feel like their time was wasted on fruitless mission. After all, they didn’t find the codebreaker they set out to meet, the one they did find betrayed them, and they never deactivated the hyperspace tracking system on the First Order’s ship. It’s a story that takes up a good chunk of the movie that some will argue goes nowhere and ultimately serves no purpose. I think that’s too simplistic. This section of the film accomplished way more than these people are willing to give it credit. In no particular order: 1) It subverts audience expectations about journeying to what sounds like another Mos Eisley Cantina, but is really Space Vegas, 2) It introduces us to the slave children who may grow up to be the spark that lights the Resistance (and get their own trilogy in the process), 3) It puts Finn in a situation to have his cowardice challenged, helping set up two key third act moments where he finally overcomes that fear by battling Captain Phasma and nearly sacrificing himself to protect the Resistance stronghold, 4) It provides some much needed backstory to help us sympathize with Rose, 5) And it undoes the classic “Bring Help Back” trope by forcing our heroes to align with a character they weren’t looking for to begin with and ultimately betrays them in the end. Perhaps it’s all a little too much for some to digest; personally, I never felt thrown by any of this.
Another major gripe has been the film’s portrayal of The Force. For the first, and likely only time in history, we witness Leia’s onscreen use of active force powers beyond the psychic link she shares with Luke. We even get Luke stretching the limits of the Force to project a hologram of himself halfway across the galaxy. And then there’s that Yoda moment with the tree. Here’s how the reaction to all this plays out:
Why can’t the Force work in these ways because we haven’t seen it before? Take Leia’s use of the Force, for example. Many years separate the events of this trilogy and Return of the Jedi. Is it such a stretch to think she’s learned the telekinetic aspects of the Force as well just because we haven’t seen her do that before? Luke’s Force hologram seems just as logical. If I may pull a deep, somewhat tangential cut, the reason for Luke gaining this ability rings as similar to the way Prue Halliwell developed the ability for astral projection on Charmed. Her primary power was that of telekinesis, not unlike the Jedi’s primary means of manipulating the Force. As she grew stronger, her powers advanced to astral projection. The explanation: Prue already possessed the power to move objects with her mind, so the natural extension of that would be to move her essence as well. Luke’s new Force power could work the same way. As for that last one… there’s really no way to explain Yoda’s ghost lightning. Dude’s basically the movie equivalent of an NPC (non-playable character) and somehow he can still still impact the physical world. That opens up sooooo many questions, I can’t help but side with the dissenters here.
I think it’s fair to group frustrations with the oft mentioned “villain problem” that is Supreme Leader Snoke under this storytelling category as well. In the same way that acting can make or break one’s investment in a film, if the director and screenwriters tell the story well and the character motivations come across as justified onscreen, then it becomes easier to see past performances that are just “OK” rather than great. Circling back to my earlier point, even though I called out Serkis as a potential lightning rod for his performance, I truly doubt that anyone believes the role wasn’t well acted; ergo the problem must be with the story.
As far as Snoke being a poorly developed villain, well… I concede that these folks are 100% right. We don’t learn anything about Snoke after The Force Awakens set him up as the new BIG BAD of the galaxy. His death in The Last Jedi only leaves those questions glaringly open. I’m okay with this because I see more movies in a year than I care to mention, so any film that takes the gutsy step of subverting those expectations gets bonus points in my book.
What I don’t understand is the narrow dogmatic recollection of Star Wars history that this complaint seems to choose. Do you know what other BIG BAD was introduced and didn’t get an in-depth backstory: Emperor Palpatine. True, the prequels ultimately gave us the origin of Senator Sheev Palpatine’s (a.k.a. Darth Sidious’s) master plan to overthrow the galactic senate and eradicate the Jedi Order, but it took 22 years to get that complete story through the prequels. Prior to that, the Emperor was just a cryptic, over the top villain we knew nothing about, not unlike Snoke himself. None of this dismisses the way the film handles Snoke, of course; we’ve gotten much better at telling stories on film since the days of the original trilogy so they probably could have done a better job of handling his arrival and, perhaps, untimely exit. Rather, I point this out to say that if one is ready to lobby a complaint over Snoke’s treatment in The Last Jedi, then it would be somewhat hypocritical to not have those same frustrations with Return of the Jedi and the entire original trilogy as well.
Too jokey / Too Contemporary
Finally, there’s the joke problem. More than the first two categories, this one really comes down to personal tastes. All I can really say here is that jokes are not foreign to the Star Wars universe: Jar Jar was practically walking comedy button, Anakin cracked jokes at Obi-Wan’s expense in the Geonosian arena, C-3PO and R2-D2 have always been the Laurel and Hardy of a galaxy far, far away, and Han’s never not good for a solid wisecrack.
So why is The Last Jedi getting hate for its brand of humor? Because there happens to be more of it than anyone expected. To say there’s too much feels like a stretch, though. Those films, The Last Jedi included, always make a concerted effort to balance the light and dark elements so that it never steers too much into one category. Think of it this way, if Star Wars were nominated for a Best Picture Golden Globe, do you think they’d have it compete in the Drama category… or with those amazing comedies like Get Out and The Martian.
I rest my case.
I’ve already written way too much about this, so best I wrap it up.
If you’re one of the many who didn’t like The Last Jedi, feel free to chime in with your thoughts below. I really do want to better understand that point of view on the movie beyond something that’s just “THIS MOVIE SUCKED!”
Please just don’t be a Sith about it.