On the way to watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi I took a detour past Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. (I mean this literally, I was curious if I could catch a Sunday matinee showing of Star Wars, it was sold out so I watched Three Billboards instead. Then I watched Star Wars on a late Monday night whim.)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is the third major film from writer/director Martin McDonagh. As a director, Mr. McDonagh draws the best, most nuanced performances of his career. As a writer, Mr. McDonagh almost nails the catastrophic farce build-up that the Coens have made a career out of, but yet it felt to me like the weakest of his three films (behind the fourth wall shenanigans of Seven Psychopaths and the cozy insanity of In Bruges), particularly due to its somewhat problematic choices in a 2017 screenplay. I enjoyed the film, but am not sure it would hold up to multiple viewings anywhere near as well as Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges do, and I wasn’t particularly convinced I wanted to see it a second time.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the fourth major film from writer/director Rian Johnson. I will admit that I’ve not been a fan of his films to date, and I especially loathed Looper, of which I spent most of the runtime wondering why I wasn’t just watching 12 Monkeys instead. I love schlocky time travel stories and managed to enjoy the entirety of Hulu’s Future Man, so this visceral reaction to Mr. Johnson’s previous work had me wondering if I would just wait until The Last Jedi was on Netflix, but I could not resist the porgs and vulptices.
On a scale from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi, I felt Star Wars: The Last Jedi was somewhere around a Revenge of the Sith. 1 I enjoyed the film for what it was, but wasn’t particularly convinced I’d have reason or interest to see it a second time. If I do watch a second time, I’ve got a feeling I will be making a cut of the film that’s pretty much nothing but scenes of porgs, vulptices, Chewbacca, and establishing shots (because many of those were gorgeous).
As I’ve let the films stew in my head, reflecting on both of them, I found some uncanny resemblances that don’t particularly work to The Last Jedi’s favor. I’m going to open with some relatively “minor” qualms, so spoilers for The Last Jedi start immediately, and then we’ll of course need to get into Three Billboards spoilers towards the end.
Side Qualm: Kylo Ren and the Force Are Terrible
Everything Kylo Ren says, regardless of whatever Mr. Johnson thinks is an “honest” statement, drips with abuse, and gaslighting. The Force (or at least the Dark Side) is a terrible liar across film canon, and I will not trust anything Kylo Ren says.
I also will not stand for Rey and Kylo joining forces and if the “Reylo” romance does happen I promise I will find a way to force lightning torch the entire franchise.
I’m not even upset that Rey’s parents might be “nobodies”; that actually is a good idea, but it should have been shown, not told in this creepy gaslighting fashion. More importantly, Rey deserves a bad ass last name. In a franchise where last names are important, and almost everyone is referred to by both names, constantly, it’s a sore thumb that Rey still doesn’t have a last name two movies in. It doesn’t have to be her “junker” parents’ last name (though I still think she has too much of a “Core Worlds” accent for me to accept her parents were just junkers), she could forge her own badass Jedi-ish last name if she wanted to (Junkweilder, for instance), but she deserves a last name.
Side Qualm: The Redemption of Darth Vader is Stupid
One of my oldest qualms with Star Wars as a franchise has always been that I don’t think Darth Vader’s actions can be redeemed. It’s one of the reasons I hugely burnt out on terrible EU (now “Legacy”) books in high school (before the prequels even came out).
Up to this point, the only film canon hint that Vader is “redeemed” in the eyes of the Force is the weird implication that only Light Side force weilders somehow qualify for force ghosts, and some old man pretending to be Vader shows up to get his Yub Nub on with all the ewoks. 2 Or sometimes there’s no Yub Nub and Anakin Skywalker’s third actor is there like Vader was just a bad dream, and now there’s a question of whether force ghosts make any sense at all because it’s still grumpy old Obi-Wan and not cool young Obi-Wan…
The Last Jedi is the first movie to explicitly mention (albeit in passing) the redemption of Darth Vader, which is dumb.
Because Star Wars echoes World War II movies (poorly), which is a subject I will return to, I can’t help but use a WWII analogy for how dumb the redemption of Darth Vader will always be.
Imagine for a second that Heinrich Himmler had fought a bit more actively in WWI in, say, Tunisia. Somehow he has a son, and for reasons that only vaguely make sense at the time a British RAF war buddy/drinking buddy retires to watch over Himmler’s son who stays with Himmler’s in-laws in Tunisia. Anyway, WWII rolls around, Himmler gets busy running the SS, Gestapo, oh and also fucking concentration camps, meanwhile his son is encouraged by his old war buddy to enlist in the British Royal Air Force.
Through a crazy set of last ditch efforts in 1945 a desperate British RAF, a rag tag gang of fighters, and I suppose a circus full of trained bear cubs, manage to get Himmler, Himmler’s hypothetical Tunisian-raised son, and Hitler all in the same bunker together. Hitler pulls a gun on the hypothetical son, so Himmler kills Hitler. Somehow this ends the war, because maybe that bunker also had a crazy laser system or something.
Anyway, even in this weird hypothetical analogy, I’d still be pissed if Himmler got a “Get Out of Nuremberg War Criminal Trials Free” card simply because he saved this hypothetical son that day. He still was a mass murderer many times over. One act of somewhat selfish love, to me, can’t possibly balance against genocide, I don’t care what some hazy blue glowing ghost from a Force that supposedly represents love thinks. Which is why Star Wars as a franchise will always be a problematic fave.
So yeah, The Last Jedi, thanks~ for reminding me I guess.
Echoes of World War II Movies
Star Wars is perhaps the most mythologized echoes of World War II movies in popular culture. The original trilogy might be seen as a baby boomer’s attempt to recreate the feelings of his parents’ view of World War II, minus a lot of the practical reality. The new movies seem to be the grandchildren doing the same, in a weird sort of telephone way. (The prequels? Who knows? A bad echo of World War I, movies?)
Rogue One uses this to considerable advantage. It feels fitting to the franchise history to reiterate one of its own glossed over details (opening crawls) as a clever homage to classic World War II tragedies. It’s the sort of film that opening crawl was exactly meant to invoke, and manages to also evoke the heart of those old war films: everyone dies, but the good guys can still win. You can somewhat feel that maybe enough of the producers and writers and directors bothered to watch a bunch of films like Bridge over the River Kwai, Das Boot, etc, and tried to build a film around those ideas and Star Wars.
The A-Plot by way of screen time and B-Plot by way of eponymous intent of The Last Jedi seems to me a relatively poorer echo of a war movie, to what I feel is its large detriment. If the movie is echoing war movies, it is trying to echo morally gray Vietnam-era pieces (and that, perhaps only through its own telephone game) While a sci-fi echo of a Vietnam-era war film is a good idea (see: the better parts of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, for instance), it’s not a good idea, I feel, for Star Wars.
Let’s keep in mind, in Star Wars the table stakes, for evil, are mass murder at a planetary scale. This is not a franchise for “but, evil on both sides” arguments, this is a franchise for Hitler and Himmler analogs in weird looking samurai masks to get defeated by a rag tag team with nothing but a lot of hope and at least a little bit of prayer to a mystic Force that may or may not be weird parasite bugs 3.
I mentioned, Kylo Ren already as a side qualm, so let’s skip past that to the real loser of the “both sides” problems in The Last Jedi: Poe Dameron.
In the vocabulary of World War II films especially, everything Poe Dameron does in the movie is wrong. In a Vietnam era film he might merely be a gross anti-hero, but in a World War II movie, he’s a villain.
Poe opens the film losing an entire bomber squadron destroying “a tank” in a fleet full of them that wasn’t an operational target. The operation was to delay as much as possible for a retreat. Instead, Poe’s actions delay the retreat itself, likely compromising the retreat, and murders a number of subordinates, to whom Poe seemingly has no regret expending on a useless target.
Upon learning that he may have indeed compromised the retreat, Poe refuses to take a demotion as warning, and expects full access to flag staff planning, despite never having the rank for that sort of access even before the demotion.
Admiral Holdo must assume the compromise was intentional, that the close following of First Order forces the result of some double agent, spy, or mole. Of course, she shouldn’t explain her plans to the most likely candidate just because he’s hot and whines about it. More importantly of course she’s not going to divulge any information she doesn’t have to on a packed bridge with no privacy.
Poe could have asked for a private conversation, but did not.
More importantly, the bit of information put together by Finn and Rose that the First Order had a capability for active hyperspace tracking was precisely the sort of information that might have made Admiral Holdo less reticent to explain things in light of a possible saboteur. Poe withholding that information from the chain of command, and then using continued lack of explanations as an excuse for mutiny is not just idiotic, it’s psychotic. It’s duplicitous and villainous.
The side quest that Poe hatches as a part of his mutiny 4 further endangers the Resistance retreat, by involving unnecessary civilians with unknown allegiances, and by causing unnecessary risk to rescue it’s Resistance troops.
I very much believe that Poe is accountable for millions of deaths by the end of the film, shows no remorse or regret from his actions, and is within this particular film the biggest villain.
What Do We Do With a General, When She Stops Being a General?
The Last Jedi has garnered a lot of remarks about how it is about toxic masculinity, but a problem I see with that is that it doesn’t have much to add to the topic. It exists entirely within the status quo, and it’s women left holding the weight of the entire resistance on their shoulders, and left with all of the emotional labor.
Here too, the film seems to suffer from echoing more recent war films instead of the franchise’s baseline of World War II, because World War II films had a lot to say about toxic masculinity, given the chance.
There are a lot of examples of World War II movies about men having to deal with emotional labor and toxic masculinity. A seasonal, easy example is the holiday classic White Christmas in which the entire plot is about that. The movie starts with the emotional pain of trying to keep some holiday spirit in the middle of an active, dangerous, war zone. The movie then proceeds to directly deal with trying to deal with the emotional weights of life after the war. Though the movie is full of the usual toxic masculine games of “I just got done chopping onions” or “It’s a bit dusty in here”, the point is not suppressing the emotions or covering them. The excuses are entirely flimsy on purpose.
As we fight toxic masculinity it’s easy to forget those were sometimes intentional games, like unto Regency social manners, and that they announced the emotion as much as they “suppressed” them.
Consider it petty, perhaps, but I wanted to see Poe Dameron cry. That would have actually said something about toxic masculinity.
The ending I wanted from The Last Jedi was for Poe to hug Finn, remorsefully apologize, and volunteer with tears in his eyes to protect the rear flank, to volunteer for the desperate sacrifice play given instead to Admiral Holdo 5. It would have made Rose’s saving Finn from a similar, but even more futile sacrifice in the ground combat resonate more, I feel. Poe was supposed to die in The Force Awakens but earned a reprieve in fan reactions; Poe worked hard to “earn” a deserved death in The Last Jedi but unpoetically failed to cash it in.
Poe Dameron versus Han Solo
The movie makes an implicit comparison between Poe Dameron and Han Solo in a line of dialogue between Admiral Holdo and General Organa. 6 Many of my friends have made explicit declarations that The Last Jedi couldn’t have let Poe sacrifice himself because he’s this generation’s Han Solo. If he is this generation’s Han Solo, then this generation is poorer for it. 7
Han Solo was never directly in the Rebel chain of command. He was a contractor, albeit largely one with a social contract more than a mercenary contract, whose full responsibilities were primarily, in order, A) the Millenium Falcon, B) Chewbacca, and C) his social contract with the Rebels. For what it is worth, Han Solo never violates those responsibilities and is entirely aware of them.
Han Solo’s biggest act of rebellion against the Rebels was attempting to runaway, which in the spirit of saving his responsibilities A and B at the possible expense of honoring the spirit of his social contract, though not in fact violating the letter of it.
Despite Han’s gruff interior, he shows a depth of emotion, including hints of regret at leaving his friends behind trying to save his own tail.
Poe Dameron is directly in the Resistance chain of command, and earned a lot of direct responsibilities to the chain of command and to at least one squadron under his command. In The Last Jedi he spectacularly fails all of those responsibilities. He should have known better. He might have been turned out better if he had simply tried to desert the cause like Han, and maybe then he might have actually had to face the court martial for dereliction of duty he deserved.
Arguably, as the only main character with a noteworthy rank in the Resistance, Poe is clearly “this generation’s Leia”, and there’s absolutely no comparison there. He’s far too terrible at his job.
Poe Dameron verson Jason Dixon
There were two movies I watched in two days that both had the explicit message that you should fight for what you love rather than against what you hate, and tried to take interesting nuanced paths to that conclusion, while also being somewhat problematic in how they do so.
The parallels between Three Billboards and Poe Dameron’s plot in The Last Jedi seem somewhat inescapable due to this accident of proximity. It’s probable a lot of my harshness towards the plot in The Last Jedi comes from me still trying to process my feelings about Three Billboards from the day before I saw it.
In comparison, I feel like it is The Last Jedi that pales, for obvious reasons in that I think Mr. McDonagh is hands down a far better writer and director than Mr. Johnson, but also especially in having room to offer nuance. Star Wars isn’t a franchise for nuance. Even if it were a franchise capable of nuance, there’s not much breathing room between the action sequences needed and the toy marketing opportunities. (As opposed to low budget, possibly low audience, screwball farce genre especially of late almost solely monopolized by the Coen brothers. That genre if anything is built on a lot of little nuance adding to big unsubtle things devolving into a lot more nuance.) I felt there was a lot more nuance in the performances of the porgs than almost any human actor who wasn’t Carrie Fisher, and I’ll assume that was a failure more of the writing/directing/franchise needs than any of the actors.
Some specific thoughts, still somewhat disorganized after all the time I’ve had to try to organize them:
- Jason Dixon’s biggest crimes (of racism) were mentioned (a lot), but entirely off screen. (Though a part of some bigger issues with “show don’t tell” in the script, it leaves some room for nuance, including leaving some question in the viewer’s mind how much of Jason’s crimes were bravado/exaggerated/narrative.) Poe Dameron’s biggest mistakes are almost entirely on screen.
- As a commanding officer, General Organa had more power to directly forgive Poe’s actions than Mildred had in forgiving Jason’s actions. Yet, both “head nod redemptions” felt wrong to me, and perhaps cynically, I felt Jason demonstrated more actual progress to earn it. In both cases, I felt the women were only idirectly capable of offering redemption. Jason still needed to redeem himself in the eyes of the people of color of Ebbing. Poe at the very least needed a strong apology to Finn and Rose, if no else under his command.
- Jason does cry with remorse in an interaction with the one on screen victim of his brutality.
- Jason also gets the shit kicked out of him as a part of his most heroic action. It’s petty, but Poe could maybe have used a visceral ass kicking, or at least some physical consequences for his actions.
Poe Dameron May Be Broken Beyond Repair
I have a hard time feeling like I would trust any of Poe Dameron’s actions in Episode IX. I think the only thing left to do with the character is discard it. If he continues to show such little remorse, he’s definitely psychotic, and where is there time to show remorse in a Star Wars episode? Remorse doesn’t drive action sequences or sell toys.
I place millions of deaths, mass murder, on his head, and in Star Wars, that should be a villain. I don’t think he earned any redemption, but then I also don’t believe that mass murdering villains can be redeemed (see Darth Vader, as per the side qualm), and I’m disgusted by Star Wars continuing to (badly) try.
As an action movie, The Last Jedi wasn’t bad and I mostly enjoyed it. As an attempt at maybe a nuanced redemption film, I’m not impressed with The Last Jedi at all, and I’m worried it sets up Episode IX for a fall. I’m actually somewhat hopeful about J. J. Abrams back at the helm. I’m not sure he can fix the mistakes here, but I am relatively convinced he’s not going to make them worse by doubling down on attempted and backfiring nuance.
That scale is I-VI in order. Return of the Jedi has the deaths of many evils in the galaxy, including Yoda, and both Jabba, and Boba Fett dying like chumps, and yes I will defend my love of ewoks if I must. For further reference, on the scale here: The Force Awakens is squarely a Rogue One, which itself fits comfortable in its spot in the opening crawl of Episode IV on the “would watch again” side of my III/IV divide. ↩
I stated I would defend the ewoks, but I still reserve the right to send them in as comic relief cannon fodder. That is a part of my defense, as they are very useful for that. ↩
Midichlorians will forever sound more like bleach products for keyboards. ↩
Some have argued that Finn and Rose may have attempted their side quest regardless of Poe’s actions here, but they tried to do the right thing: they went to their chain of command. It’s not their fault that their chain of command was broken. ↩
I feel like Admiral Holdo’s sacrifice in the film as it is, is very much unearned from a plot standpoint. She pays the ultimate price for Poe’s sins. It sends a very wrong message that she dies for intentionally keeping a hot headed kid in the dark about information he had no right by rank or responsibility. ↩
Aside: do the titles imply the Resistance separated ground and space forces at some point? This is a giant can of worms wondering about the difference between the titles. Presumably General outranks Admiral, but how and why? I’m very in the weeds with this command structure. ↩
It feels more to me that Finn is this generation’s Han Solo, but why couldn’t Rose be this generation’s Han Solo? More importantly, why do we even need “this generation’s Han Solo”? Let the characters be who they are. Star Wars continues to rhyme with itself, but that’s no excuse for self-plagiarism. ↩