Hypocritical Criticism and the Last Jedi

The Last Jedi is not the worst Star Wars movie ever.

It’s also not the best Star Wars movie ever. But instead of taking some abstract moderate position which is both unsatisfying to read and to write, I’m going to present a really-late-to-the-party analysis which, I think, helps explain exactly why the over-criticism this film has faced touches on some really interesting cultural moods that I think are missed by the majority of folks thinking too much about this whole thing (I’m one of them).

What I mean to get at, here, is that while the actual criticism of The Last Jedi is interesting and the nuances and nitty gritty details are fun to debate, I find the more intriguing aspect that of the criticism itself, and more specifically the form it takes. This is all a bit wordy and we’re already rambling so buckle up; I can only hope my thought process is easy enough to follow because this is all a little brain-to-webpage.

At the heart of the debate is whether or not The Last Jedi is a good Star Wars movie. I specify this because, from what I’ve read and discussed, it doesn’t seem to be the case that the film’s detractors necessarily think it’s a bad movie in terms of the art form; in fact The Last Jedi gets pretty universal praise when it comes to the more mechanical, close-to-objective criteria like cinematography, production design, score, acting, etc. So the real issue, the fulcrum upon which all this discussion bends, is whether or not The Last Jedi is, specifically, good as an episode of the main series.

To begin to get on the same page, we need to break down the problem like any other kind and define our parameters. The parameters for this specific problem boils down, essentially, to:

What are The Last Jedi’s flaws?

What’s funny about this question is that it is, by its very nature, quite subjective. But there are a handful of common complaints that we can see echoed across the vast, hallowed halls of respectful discussion on the internet (/s). I’ll try to summarize them as best as I can, and I have no doubt that there will be some kind of comment after this essay explaining to me, in great detail, what I missed. Nevertheless, here is my very-strictly-researched list of common grievances:

The Last Jedi has bad characters or character arcs, particularly that of Luke Skywalker.

The Last Jedi has bad, misplaced humor.

The Last Jedi has poor or no worldbuilding regarding the surrounding political events ostensibly driving some of the characters’ motivations.

The Last Jedi breaks the greater lore of the series.

The Last Jedi throws away a certain supposedly-pivotal character for “shock value”.

Whew. Kind of a fat list when I read it out like that.

Now I might try to artificially-inflate this essay’s wordcount by going through each of these grievances individually (and, oh, I will!) but I’ll actually be able to keep it relatively concise. You see, there will be an obvious pattern to the holes I poke in these complaints very shortly. To be clear, I’m not about to go through these items and claim that the complaints themselves are wrong. Each of these are subjective decisions entirely up to the emotions of the filmgoer. What I will do is, instead, point out that these complaints are not only not unique to The Last Jedi but that they are ubiquitous in Every. Single. Star Wars film.

Even Empire.

Don’t believe me? Buckle up.

The Last Jedi has bad characters or character arcs.

Again, I want to stress that the actual answer to this claim is subjective. However, the claims against the characters in this film are so over-the-top in their search for character flaws that I have to speak out against it. I realize that this is essentially me just constructing a boogey-man fanboy to argue against, but these arguments I’m caricaturing are real, and happening on forums still, a year after the film came out!

Admiral Holdo is an easy target. She’s written (intentionally or not) as very flawed, and I happen to be on the side that thinks The Last Jedi’s B-plots received less attention than the A-plot and Holdo suffered for it. Her character comes across as selfish, unprofessional and arrogant. Her actions make zero sense if you step outside the movie and think about her actions too critically. But you know who suffers from a similar fate?

Obi-Wan Kenobi, who fails to tell Luke about his father (because… reasons?) and lies instead, kicking the proverbial can down the robe and damn the emotional consequences when Luke finds out the inevitable truth. He also fails to tell Luke that the “beautiful” princess he’s crushing on is his sister. Of course, out-of-universe, we know that this is because Papa Lucas didn’t come up with Leia’s parentage secret until making Return of the Jedi, but in-universe? Kenobi’s decision is weird, cruel and short-sighted.

Rey has a bad character arc? Again, subjective. But I want to point out, for instance… that Leia has no character arc at all. Princess Leia is celebrated as a “strong female character”… and she has no arc whatsoever, no character growth at all unless you count deciding to bang Harrison Ford as some kind of metamorphosis. Uh, that’s weird imagery.

Finn has a poor character arc? Han has no character arc in Return of the Jedi at all, and slouches around for the ride all the way up till Endor.

Again, and I really think some people will miss my point here, I’m not suggesting that anyone who thinks Rey had a bad arc is wrong. I am suggesting that this criticism is not unique to The Last Jedi.

I know, I know, what’s the point? I’m getting there. I enjoy over-explaining, but stick with it.

The Last Jedi has bad, misplaced humor.

I think this particular argument speaks for itself. Jar-Jar is an easy point to make, like bulls eyeing wamp-rats in your T-16 back home. Does anyone think that Ewok shenanigans are funny? In Empire Strikes Back, Threepio gets slapsticked around by ugnaughts (who comes up with these names? Does it mean… like… ugly gnomes? Ugly-naughts? Like astronauts of the ugly?). Does that break the tone of the movie, or ruin the pacing? I don’t know, subjective.

Again again, my only point is that Star Wars has campy, stupid humor in almost every episode. I’m not saying anyone is wrong for finding it bad this time, for some personal reason. That’s fine. That’s legitimate.

So long as you remember that they all have it…

The Last Jedi has poor or no worldbuilding regarding the surrounding political events ostensibly driving some of the characters’ motivations.

Critics of The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens love to point to the board room meeting in A New Hope, in which Grand Moff Tarkin (Moff. What a dumb word. I love it.) gives a little exposition about the Star Wars galaxy. We learn that there’s an Emperor, and a Senate which is gone now oops. (remember when Force Awakens critics cried about how we just learned about Hosnian Prime and then it got blown up oh wait) But you can’t point to the prequels, which came out decades later, and say that the original trilogy had good worldbuilding.

I’d like to point out that nowhere in the holy original three movies do we ever see a real planet of civilization, unless you count Cloud City… one city… which is odd considering that this war supposedly determines the fate of trillions of beings. Nowhere do you ever see any kind of information as to where the rebels get their weapons or ships, beyond token lines about worlds “joining”. It’s all very vague and simple, which is fine because the story is really about Luke and his angsty coming-of-age.

So I don’t think the original trilogy holds up as some kind of example for good worldbuilding. Or at least the kind that The Last Jedi detractors have in mind. I think, and so do many people, as the original movies have been popular ever since they came out, that the worldbuilding was fine for what it was. It was never meant to be very in depth, because the story isn’t about where the Rebel Alliance got Mon Calamari Star Cruisers (Mon Calamari, obviously, and just to flaunt my nerd cred a bit, after Admiral Ackbar escaped from servitude under our previously-mentioned Tarkin and led a bunch of his fellow fish folk to revolt) and it’s not about where Starkiller base really is (probably Ilum, ancient Jedi-world but I digress again).

My point is that asking The Last Jedi for more worldbuilding beyond token lines and background detail is asking for more than the original trilogy provided. You are absolutely allowed to ask for that. But you can’t say in good faith that the original trilogy had better worldbuilding.

Because they have the same worldbuilding. Probably in an overreaction to prequel criticism, but that’s another can of words entirely…

The Last Jedi breaks the greater lore of the series.

I know, I know, we’re about halfway through my meandering explanation.

Empire Strikes Back is the first time we see telekinesis as a Force Power. Kind of like how The Last Jedi is the first time we see Projection. Do I need to explain this point?

Holdo’s lightspeed jump is the tastier fish to fry. For what it’s worth, I also think it’s kinda dumb how she just rams through a bunch of ships because, yeah, it begs the question: why isn’t the Rebel Resistance Alliance of Friendship and Diversity a bunch of suicide bombers?

I present to you a counter question: why does the Empire only launch two dozen TIE fighters at the end of A New Hope, when that battle stations ought to have approximately two gagillion?

Another, just for fun: why doesn’t the Death Star just blow up the gas giant Yavin, which ought to take out Yavin IV, home of the Rebel Alliance Headquarters, as a side-effect? Would probably be quicker, no?

Okay, another: why does Darth Vader, uh, enter the Rebel base on Hoth when the whole point of the walker assault was to take out the shield generator to allow for orbital bombardment but then, by entering the base on foot, Vader necessarily prevents the Star Destroyers in orbit from bombarding said base like the original plan demanded?

The answer to all these question is very simple: the plot demanded it.

I hate that answer. I think it’s super annoying and because no plot difficulty can’t be solved with enough effort. But movies are on a timetable, you know? They’re flawed. Even Empire Strikes Back.

So Rian Johnson made a cool sequence and was like, “Yeah, metaphor for all the character plotlines coming together, whew, cool effects, nice”, and moved on to the stuff he cared about, like writing the rest of the movie.

Annoying, sure. Par for the course for Star Wars, films which are riddled with plot holes? Yeah. Darn.

The Last Jedi throws away a certain supposedly-pivotal character for “shock value”.

Aha, I love this one. Snoke dies and we know basically nothing about him. We can infer a few things, you know. He likes red. He has guards which are fanatic for one reason or another, which suggests brainwashing or cloning or something evil and science-fantasy-y. He’s scarred from a grilling accident when he was a babe and his papa tried to one-hand the burgers but he dropped poor Snokey…

Anyway, again. Taking issue with Snoke’s handling is not bad. Totally subjective. However, comma, EMPEROR PALPATINE WAS THE SAME WAY. And no, the prequels don’t count as they came out decades later. Yes, Star Wars is a bigger series now and has history that, one could argue, ought to be paid attention to. However, comma, when Return of the Jedi came out and the Emperor was a dark wizard for all of twenty minutes and then died, people had to deal with it. Common consensus of the Star Wars movies when they were “finished” according to Papa Lucas was that they were good, fun action/adventure flicks.

Hate how Snoke was treated if you like. I personally find it a little unsatisfying since now I’ll have to read what happened before Episode VIII in a novel. But Star Wars introduces villains and kills them off all the time. Expanded Universe stories don’t really count for the filmmakers, rightly. Boba Fett had no backstory until the prequels. Count Dooku has weird motivations that aren’t really explained well. Jabba, too, now that I think of it, was originally presented in Return of the Jedi and it was only in the special editions that we got the scene of him and Han in A New Hope, so Jabba was actually the first Snoke. Proto-Snoke.

Snoke Prime.

Okay I’m moving on.

The Point

So any reader paying half-attention to this can probably grasp what I’m getting at. The Last Jedi is a subjective experience but in all of the near-objective categories which get Oscar awards and professional nods and the film is a success. The internet’s dislike of the movie has to do with story-specific beats and perceived missteps.

And I think that it’s bananas that the film is being judged so harshly on these subjective points when, objectively, the other Star Wars films have similar campy parts and moments and that hasn’t stopped people from enjoying the movies before. It certainly hasn’t for me.

Can Canto Bight and it’s runaround plot with silly hijinks not be allowed, but we’re fine with Ewoks and Ootini Jawa misadventures and buzz droids? We’re fine with Emperor Palpatine not being explained for twenty years but Snoke needs to be explained… now? We’re fine with Luke Skywalker, a farm boy on a desert planet where nothing can be farmed, giving a throwaway explanation that he flies the equivalent of a Cessna sometimes so that makes him qualified to handle the equivalent of an F-16 Tomcat air superiority fighter, but we’re not okay that Rey, also with a throwaway line, has flown ships sometimes but never left the planet and so can fly the Falcon while bumping it into every obstacle she can?

This is all way wordier than it needs to be but I’m really trying to drive home the hypocrisy here. When did we start judging Star Wars by these standards that even the originals wouldn’t pass? Some are tempted to say that The Last Jedi is just more progressive in its cast and a bunch of alt-right trolls are coming out to play but I don’t think that’s it. I think there are a lot of otherwise-reasonable people who hate this movie for some of the reasons I described above, and I can’t figure out why given that they, according to themselves, love the others.

What I find really interesting about this whole debate within the Star Wars fandom, if you want to call it that, is not the actual arguments themselves so much as the apparent trend of hyper-criticism that does not check out when compared to earlier movies. I think there are ways to trace it to the MCU, maybe, and a desire for continuity between movies that has expanded to other franchises. Maybe it’s because we demand more from our movies now than we did, and that’s somewhat fair, but I haven’t really seen any of The Last Jedi’s detractors really make that argument, at least in that way.

More generally, I think it’s a really depressing trend we’re seeing, with the criticism for this movie. It’s like films of this pop-culture caliber can only be one of two ways: masterpiece or trash. When the reality, of course, is that most movies are somewhere in the middle, and Star Wars most of all. I love Star Wars and have devoured books, games, music, everything relating to the series for as long as I can remember.

But I know, truthfully, they’re just fun space operas and they are not meant, in any way shape or form, to be taken as seriously as some people take them. As I take them even.

I could tell you a million different stupid details from Star Wars’ old EU before the franchise was purchased by Disney. I memorized that stuff instead of calculus because we all know it’s more valuable than math. But I don’t think some of these hyper-critics recognize that most people don’t eat Star Wars like a lot of us do. Even Papa Lucas had a weaker grasp on lore (made up by other people mind you) than some of the authors of spin-off novels.

Star Wars movies are not meant for super-fans. They’re meant for everyone, and I think there’s something cool about that to be felt even if a part of me is a little bummed I’m not going to get a Revan movie ever. At least it means I get to share Star Wars with the wider world.

I think the logic I’ve pointed out here is sound. The Last Jedi has problems, but so do the other movies in the series. None of its transgressions, I think, are so egregious that it makes it worse than The Phantom Menace. So why is it so hated by such a loud proportion of the fanbase?

Maybe another article, another time.

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