“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has owned the box office in its first ten days in theaters, but it has already fallen far behind “The Force Awakens” in total revenues. While it has a surprisingly good 92% among critics on the Tomatometer, it’s getting bad reviews from fans, currently at just 52% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve seen the film twice. The first time with great anticipation; the second time with the faint hope that I’d be able to appreciate the movie more after having accepted its various shortcomings. Unfortunately, the second time I saw it, I felt even worse about it. When I went back and watched “Force Awakens,” the frustration with its sequel intensified. I’ve since gone on to read a bunch of fan reviews and found a lot of similar responses. Below’s a discussion of what I found to be the five most consistent and significant complaints from fans about director Rian Johnson’s epic misfire.
1. Burns It All Down
As Daily Wire editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro highlights, it becomes clear by the end of “The Last Jedi” that Kylo Ren’s call to kill the past is actually the theme of the Disney sequels. Not only does the film literally endorse book-burning—the destruction of the collective wisdom of our forebears—it also methodically tears down and then needlessly murders the characters “Star Wars” fans love.
Han’s murder at the hands of his own son in “Force Awakens” is a meaningless sacrifice, serving no purpose in helping the Resistance and having no positive impact on his son, whom Solo clearly did a terrible job raising. Like Han, Luke has retreated from the world, allowing the boy he badly trained run rampant murdering millions while he sulks in self-pity and deconstructs the “hope” his character once embodied. His bizarre life on the island with the fish-nuns and the alien sea cows comes off as pathetic and cowardly, not the austere life of a monk trying to attain further spiritual enlightenment. In fact, Luke has gone apostate, so what exactly is he doing hanging around the books he eventually tries to burn, other than being a coward? When he fights Rey, he loses to a novice in a way that diminishes him.
Luke’s final confrontation with Kylo Ren at first appears like true heroism, but Johnson burns that down too. We learn at the end of the showdown that Luke isn’t even there, only astrally projecting himself, thus facing no actual physical threat. Sure, Luke fades away at the end with a beautiful parallel to the powerful moment on Tatooine from Episode IV (still the best moment in the franchise), but that feels more like his fated time coming than having bravely sacrificed himself. Like Han, Luke’s portrayal (which Mark Hamill hated, by the way) feels mean-spirited, as if Disney wants to show its audience that these old, classic embodiments of heroism need to go the way of Old Ben.
2. Diminishes Old and New Characters
Not only are the old characters diminished—except perhaps for Leia (though her constant call for retreat isn’t exactly inspiring)—the new additions are less likable by the end of “The Last Jedi.” Poe gets abused the worst in this film. For some reason, Johnson decided to portray Poe as an even more two-dimensional version of Maverick who’s every action in the film until the final retreat proves to be rash and counter-productive. Johnson also seems to go out of his way to repeatedly emasculate Poe: he gets slapped by Leia, looks physically and intellectually small next to Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo, and then gets knocked unconscious by the “woke” general after his pointless mutiny.
Finn is a flawed character from the start. We’re told that for most of his life he was trained to be a soldier, yet he is always in a state of panic in battle and seems to know surprisingly little about being a soldier. He delivers one of the worst lines in the new film when he declares that it was “worth it” to make the rich people feel some pain when he and Rose free the horse-like alien creatures. No, it isn’t “worth it.” The #Resistance might be destroyed, and Rey with it, if he and Rose don’t succeed. Petty schadenfreude has no place in Star Wars.
Despite attempting to build Snoke up as the unbeatable bad guy, the all-digital villain is killed off rather easily and before the audience is given any background whatsoever on him. His treatment in “Force Awakens” suggests he will be the Emperor that haunted all six of the first films, but with a simple click of a light saber, he’s out of the series.
Kylo Ren is the most interesting new character, but both “Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” do grave damage to him as the bad guy. In the first film, he’s bested by someone who’s never picked up a light saber before. It’s a terrific fight scene, for sure, but it undermines his threat. In the second film, he easily falls for Luke’s delay tactic and thus is defeated again. The only time we see Darth Vader defeated in battle is in “Return of the Jedi”—and Luke has to nearly embrace the Dark Side to do it. Kylo Ren’s temper tantrums are also getting ridiculous. He can’t keep breaking his toys every time something goes wrong and still be respected by the audience.
Like Leia, Rey comes out of the second film okay. She is earnest, brave, and contains the “ray of hope” that her name is supposed to invoke. Building up to the revelation about her parents, however, feels like a cheap trick—though thematically it does work well with the democratization of the Force theme.
3. Breaks Cardinal Rule In Cinema
Director Rian Johnson breaks the most important rule in film: Never waste the viewers’ time. The unspoken agreement between an audience and a filmmaker is that every second of the film is there for a reason. “The Last Jedi” breaks this rule repeatedly by taking us on a number of missions that do not further the plot, and in so doing, undermine the sense of purpose in the plot and the audience’s trust in the lead characters’ judgment. Finn and Rose’s trip to the casino world (which is prequel-level silly) to get the “master code breaker”—whom they didn’t find, but did find sort of(?)—and their harrowing mission onto the command ship all ends up being pointless. So does Poe’s utterly unnecessary takeover of the Resistance ship. After being once again smacked down by Leia, Poe wakes up to learn in about 10 seconds what he should’ve been told by Holdo before the waste-of-time mutiny. The dominant motif of the film is “delay and retreat”; in many ways, the entire film feels like one big delay tactic.
4. Gets Political
This film feels political in a way that previous Star Wars films wisely avoid—and many fans have commented on this as one of the key distractions of the film. Many critics, on the other hand, clearly loved this aspect of it. The #Resistance is led entirely by women, who make a point of putting men in their place. Rey even bullies her elder and would-be father figure Luke, while he proves that he indeed is not a worthy mentor—except, in the film’s worldview, that he’s willing to burn down the past, just like Kylo Ren. The burning down of the past, particularly ancient spiritual texts, feels a whole lot like a direct slap in the face of religious viewers. The pointless sequence on the silly Casino planet could’ve been written by someone from the Occupy movement, particularly the gross schadenfreude moment from Finn and Rose. Rey, who is the most likable of the new characters, is set up by the end of the second film to be the perfect millennial social justice warrior, who we’re told doesn’t need to learn anything from her elders or any old ancient books because she knows it all already.
5. Doesn’t Understand Star Wars Humor
The opening sequence in which the daring and increasingly stupid Poe says he’ll “hold” for Commander Hux (played by chronic overactor Domhnal Gleeson) was jarring. I saw this movie twice with two totally different audiences, and each time there were uneasy laughs from fans. The reason is that the humor is simply not Star Wars humor, a comment that many fans made in their complaints. Same thing goes for Luke flippantly tossing the light saber over his shoulder, his “that is nowhere” line, and the insane sea cow scene where Luke glowers at Rey as he drinks his fresh-squeezed alien milk. Then there’s the fish-nuns, which were supposed to be comic relief at one point, but ended up spoiling the whole isolation feel of Luke’s monkish existence. Neither heavy sarcasm nor outright silliness work in this universe.
The movie is certainly not all bad. It is beautifully filmed. The action sequences are mostly terrific (except for the “gravity in space” bomb-dropping nonsense). The fight between the imperial guard and Rey and Kylo Ren is awesome. The connection between the two is also intriguing, and both actors probably have the capacity to carry the series. The balance of nostalgia and newness is difficult to manage. So far Disney has failed on the character and theme level, but has largely succeeded in the look and feel of the Star Wars universe, as well as the overall tone and pacing of the series. Has Disney left enough of the original spark to keep fans coming back? We’ll see, but a lot of longtime fans, including this one, suspect that the studio has fully embraced Kylo Ren’s mission to snuff it out.