Ian Harris: 'The Last Jedi' and the state of film criticism

Tuesday, January 9, 2018 - 5:06pm

NOSELL

Walt Disney Pictures

 

I hated “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I thought it was a terrible movie with a poor plot, weak character development and a total lack of understanding of what made the previous films great. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people over the past few weeks about why I believe that is. As I’ve watched discussion and debate about the film play out online, I’ve come to an even more important realization. I’ve been a “Star Wars” fan all of my life, which is why I don’t like the newest film. But what I take even more of an issue with than the film itself is the discussion surrounding it.

Almost as soon as “The Last Jedi” was released in theaters, it became clear that this was a divisive movie, maybe the most divisive ever for “Star Wars.” The originals are generally loved and the prequels generally loathed, with “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” both falling somewhere in the pretty-good-or-maybe-great-but-not-amazing range. Before it was released in theaters worldwide, “The Last Jedi” boasted a stellar 94 percent on the critical aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. That number has since gone down to a still impressive 90 percent. But for whatever reason, audiences didn’t take to the film in the same way. The audience score on the same website currently sits at a middling 49 percent, the worst ever for a “Star Wars” picture. Across the Internet, debate raged about whether the movie was the best one yet in the series or a disgrace to George Lucas’s legacy. But rather than a productive debate about the merits of the movie's themes, commentary on its characters or possibly what it was actually trying to say and whether or not it succeeded in it, much of the discussion that surrounds “The Last Jedi” resembles that of a political debate or a Twitter feud between celebrities. It’s a fight filled with ad hominem attacks rather than constructive criticism.

One of the prominent narratives that surrounds this film is that the people who don’t like “The Last Jedi” don’t like it for one of the following reasons: All of its main characters are either women or people of color, it doesn’t respect white males and makes all the male characters stupid and they can’t let go of the old “Star Wars” they remember from when they are kids. Now let me preface this by saying that by no means are these the only criticisms being leveled at the film’s detractors, but they are the ones making the loudest splash and the ones that are most dangerous for allowing us to have a meaningful discussion about the film itself.

One article that was making the rounds over this past weekend was titled “Why So Many Men Hate ‘The Last Jedi’ But Can’t Agree on Why.” The author’s argument essentially boils down to this: “Because there is no central criticism of this film that everyone agrees upon, the reason people don’t like it must be sexism.” She points to the prequel films as examples of films everyone agrees are bad for the same specific reasons and uses that to explain that if “The Last Jedi” were actually a bad movie, everyone would have the same criticisms of it. This line of reasoning is nonsense. Art is, by its very nature, subjective. The reasons I hate “The Last Jedi” may be the same reasons another person loves it. People who agree that something is bad are perfectly free to disagree with each other about why it’s bad. I loved the scene in which Carrie Fisher’s General Leia flew through space, and I hated the movie, but the majority of people I know who both liked and didn’t like the movie hated that scene. There isn’t a one size fits all for criticism, film or otherwise.

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I think that it is important that we as liberals not (to quote “Revenge of the Sith”) become the very thing we want to destroy. If we attack anyone who criticizes a movie that features a woman in the starring role simply because the movie features a woman in the starring role, we do ourselves a disservice. Do I think there are probably some crazy people out there who hate “The Last Jedi” because it’s about a female Jedi, a Black stormtrooper and a Resistance led by women and people of color? Yes, of course, there are those people. But those people probably also hated the similarly diverse “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” and neither of those movies created the kind of division that “The Last Jedi” did.

My issues with “The Last Jedi” involve basically every single part of the film, but what I do not have any issue with is the casting or the nature of the characters. Far from it, I believe these characters and these actors have been severely underserved by the story they were given. In my estimation, Daisy Ridley is far and away the most talented actor to ever lead a “Star Wars” film. She’s much better than Mark Hamill in the original trilogy and she is eons beyond Hayden Christensen. She is a gifted actress who had a great character in the first movie that I believe was wasted in “The Last Jedi.” Rey basically sits on the sidelines for the entire third act of the film, in which Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren take center stage. Her entire storyline revolves around needing a man to bring back to the fight (first Luke, then Kylo). I don’t believe that “The Last Jedi” is bad because it stars a woman. I believe that it is bad because it doesn’t feature its main character (who happens to be a woman) nearly enough. It makes Rey into an agent of Luke and Kylo’s storylines, rather than using them as supporting players in hers.  

“The Last Jedi” wants to be seen as the most progressive and forward-thinking “Star Wars” yet, but in the last act of the film, it gives up on all of that to fall back on everything it claims it wants to forget. The film purports to be about realizing your heroes were flawed and not looking for an old man to come and face down an entire evil army, and then at the end of the movie Luke Skywalker comes out of hiding to face down an entire evil army. Seemingly the entire point of Benicio Del Toro’s character was to show that this isn’t a conflict with straight lines of good and evil, but one filled with shades of grey. And yet at the end of the movie, we are left with good guys vs. bad guys, one side that blows up planets and one side that saves lives. Rey and Kylo Ren are supposedly conflicted characters grappling with the darkness and light inside of them, but at the end of the movie Rey is unquestionably good and Kylo is unquestionably evil. There is no moral ambiguity about the ending of “The Last Jedi.” Even the movie’s attempts to critique the Han Solo archetype Poe Dameron fell flat on its face. While he is chastised early on for having a dumb plan that gets a few people killed, he later initiates an even dumber plan that leads to all but 10 members of the Resistance getting killed and nobody seems to care.

You may agree or disagree with the last two paragraphs and my assessment of the movie. You make think I’m crazy and that I missed the genius thematic storylines that the film employed. You may think I just wanted to see “The Empire Strikes Back” again. Regardless, we should be able to have a conversation about a movie about space wizards who can make rocks move and fly through space without becoming mortal enemies in the process. Not everything is black and white. Not every movie is going to be universally loved or hated and not everyone is going to agree on why they love or hate it. That’s the nature of the beast. These things are complicated. Isn’t that what “The Last Jedi” is trying to tell us? I thought so. But then again, I hated the movie, and from what I understand that must mean I just didn’t get it. So be it then.