SWSC The Last Jedi Retrospective: Initial Reactions

In observation of the one year release of The Last Jedi, the members of the Star Wars Shadow Council recall our reactions to the movie and how our views have changed over the past year. In part II, we look remember our first reactions to seeing the movie.

Part I: Pre-TLJ

Since Quad’s post for part I was a nice teaser for this section, we’ll reproduce it as the intro to this section:

Quad Harrington:

Well, pre-TLJ I was so afraid of spoilers that I literally isolated myself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean without my phone so I could avoid the Internet for the whole week before release (In other words I was on a cruise. Fun time.) I saw TLJ a day before the US release and…I really loved it. I still love it. Sure it has problems, but what movie doesn’t? It wasn’t what I was expecting, so what? If I had predicted everything that happened in the movie before seeing it, then what would be the point of seeing it? The next day, I saw it again, twice. Then two days later I saw it again. Now by this time I was back home and started talking with the other people in the Shadow Council. “Man wasn’t TLJ great?”. Hooooo boy I was not ready for my fellow fans’ thoughts on this movie that, in my mind at least, was going to be considered the modern Empire Strikes Back. Over the course of the holidays and for a bit of time after, I saw TLJ in theaters multiple times, always trying to find little things that we might’ve missed. This duty fell to me because, well, no one else on the Council wanted to see it again.

Conn8d:

Not going to lie, my initial impression of Star Wars after watching The Last Jedi was not positive. By any stretch of the imagination. I honestly considered giving up on the series and on fandom. After all, unlike many, I was not much of a Star Wars fan prior to viewing The Force Awakens. My investment was lower. I’d seen a couple of the prequels and the Original Trilogy over the years. But going into the Sequel Trilogy, I was more familiar with the series musically (hello, John Williams!) than I was with the story. It felt like it would be easy to walk away. I certainly wasn’t in the fandom long. I was coaxed into watching TFA, but I ended up loving it so much I rewatched all the films (and some of the Clone Wars), bought merchandise, dived into fandom, saw Rogue One, and excitedly awaited the release of the next installment.

From a business perspective, I fit the profile of novel customer acquisition, a brand new fan, enticed by the 7th film, which then converted into monetary engagement with the franchise. I saw the new film, got excited, and engaged with Lucasfilm Products.  In creating a Sequel Trilogy and bringing back films as part of the franchise, the ‘new fan’ segment of the viewing audience is super important for the continued growth and profitability of the property. I’m one of the profiles Disney actively worked to engage and I am sure they hoped and imagined I would love The Last Jedi.

But looking back, my experience watching the film just was not fun, despite how much it objectively should have been. I went with a new friend I’d met through fandom; it was our first in-person meeting and we had a great dinner. We were both very excited to see the journey continue. We went to a movie that felt long, like it was mocking us, and like nothing happened to progress the story. The humor didn’t work for me, the pacing felt off and the characters I fell in love with (new trio and what was left of the old) just felt off to me. Some depictions even made me feel genuinely uncomfortable.

It felt less like a follow up to TFA to my eyes, straddling a weird story place of evoking feelings of the beginning of something and the end of something. A middle film is neither.

Had I really waited for 2 years for this?

I was not a member of the Star Wars Shadow Council at that time, nor were they too much on my radar. By the end of our viewing, my friend and I both were glad to be finished, but also completely unsettled by the experience. I kept going back to see The Force Awakens in theaters but as soon as I stepped out after The Last Jedi, I honestly just felt like I didn’t need to pay money to see that again.

And I didn’t.

HanSpinel:

*Sigh*

No, no, I’ll start with something positive.

Fun fact: I saw The Last Jedi opening night in one of only 5 domed OMNIMAX® theaters in the U.S., full IMAX 70mm film. Crazy right? We even met R2-D2 and everything! They had original Lightsaber props used by Ewan McGregor, Ray Park, and Liam Neeson on display from The Phantom Menace (my favorite Prequel Trilogy film) – it was amazing. We had a blast waiting in anticipation for the movie to start with all the other fans in line. It was one of the best movie experiences I’ve ever had!

In the end, it didn’t help me like the movie, but I so appreciate all the people involved in setting up the entire experience and the guys running the droid control for R2-D2. What a night.

I tried. I honestly tried. We saw it again over Christmas break, and I actually denied and I buried my unhappiness deep down inside for at least a couple of months. Until one day, I realized that I didn’t care to own it or watch it ever again. I wasn’t excited for Episode IX. I wasn’t excited about Star Wars – Rant incoming 3 – 2 – 1….

I’ve heard some argue that Luke played the Obi-Wan-role in The Last Jedi, and while that may be true to a certain extent, we the audience knew absolutely everything there was to know about Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, a Legend, contrary to the introduction of Old Ben in ANH, for example. Luke was a timeless, young and hopeful hero, and when he was toe-to-toe with, and tempted by, the Ultimate Darkness in the Galaxy, he stood in defiance for his friends, for his father before him, for his twin sister, for all of us because:

Luke. Skywalker. Is. Incorruptible.

Anything outside of this would be contrary and orthogonal to the very fabric of Luke Skywalker.

It’s not like I didn’t see the previews; I knew that he was going to be closed off, and I knew that he had become jaded – suggesting it was time for the Jedi to end. I knew that he had wanted to lock himself away because of some terrible event associated with the fall of Ben Solo, some terrible pain that would only begin to crystallize by Rey visiting him face-to-face. I literally anticipated that this was not going to go the way that I thought….

And there he stood, staring at the saber he himself was gifted from his father before him, now returned to him by an unlikely hero just as he once was. I began imagining the pain that Luke had gone through losing his nephew, his sister’s only son; and the struggle that Rey went through to bring him this saber, almost losing her first ever best friend in the process, and witnessing the death of the only man that she could remember being fatherly to her. And as I held my breath waiting for Luke’s first words, for the plot that I had been waiting two years for: the music cuts out, and he tosses his family history, the Skywalker legacy, and the saber that saved his own life on Hoth, over his shoulder like a re-gifted and used pair of gym socks because:

Luke. Skywalker. Is. Blasé.

What!? Just, no. If this was meant as a joke, it was ill-timed and undermines all the pain, suffering, and torture endured by Rey in TFA, along with Finn’s sacrifice defending Rey with the very same saber, and Han’s attempt to bring his son back to the light, and reduces it to an annoyance for Luke Skywalker? No! I’m not humorless. I laughed out loud at Poe vs. Hux in the opening sequence, and BB-8 fixing Poe’s X-Wing; I thought it was a great ice-breaker to the film (though some may disagree with me). But considering everything Rey had gone through to get to Luke, and everything we are meant to believe that had happened to Luke in isolating himself on the island, I cannot, for the life of me, understand how or why this was the time or place for slapstick humor, nor why it was invoked by Luke Skywalker. I’m still going….

If it was meant to be taken as a serious gesture, well then it was irrefutably out of character in my understanding of Luke Skywalker. Luke literally cares to the point of whining about everything. He could have gotten angry, he could have given it back or just dropped it on the ground, anything but throw it over his shoulder. I’m honestly fine if everyone disagrees with me, and this one scene in particular, to this day, does not work for me on any level of storytelling or comedic relief, and it instantly takes me out of the movie – a critical mistake for any film. I’m still going….

And please, I am begging you as I’ve heard others genuinely argue this – do not compare this saber toss to the one that occurred on the second Death Star following Luke Skywalker’s walk to the edge of darkness, and his turning back just in time to face an Ultimate Evil, throwing his saber away as the only option to open the door to redemption for his father – the only hope his father had at redeeming himself. No, that saber toss was nothing like the one on Ahch-To…. /r

So, where was I? Ah yes,

*Sigh*

It wasn’t that I thought the entire movie was terrible, and there were some great parts, and funny moments. It was just that Luke’s introduction with the saber toss took me out of the film, so much so that I couldn’t properly appreciate his acts toward the end of the film.

This further compounded onto my impressions of the storylines written for Finn and Poe, which to me, Luke Skywalker notwithstanding, seemed tertiary compared to Rey, Kylo, and Luke’s journey. It felt like Holdo had more attention than Finn and Poe. And no offense to Holdo’s character, but even with the introduction of Lando in The Empire Strikes Back, the leads were still Luke, Han, and Leia. What happened to Finn and Poe? I absolutely adored Finn’s character in TFA, and Poe was introduced as a caring and considerate ace pilot; now, he doesn’t believe Holdo is of military legend because of the way she looks? What?

I wasn’t mad; I was genuinely unhappy, uninterested, and I felt alone. Sure, there were loads of people that also didn’t like the movie, but they were outwardly bashing and hating on it – not my style at all, and I just wanted to talk about it, figure out exactly why I didn’t like it, or uncover meaning that I wasn’t readily seeing; I wanted to be excited about the future of Star Wars, I just couldn’t. And trying to discuss this within the fandom was next to impossible – people labeled me a hater for bringing up critiques to the film – TLJ was pure cinematic genius to them, how dare I find one fault with it? Or, in condescending fashion it was because I simply didn’t understand the film like they could, as if what I felt or thought wasn’t worth considering because it was objectively wrong next to the genius of TLJ. People complain all the time about stopping the “hate” within our fandom, but I can tell you that combating this with incessant praise hurt me personally, and made me feel like an outcast to the fandom that I love. I think our fandom, and the world, in general, would be a lot better off if people actually listened more, and took the time to really understand what someone is trying to say. We ourselves should individually strive to become better communicators as well.

Anyhow, everything started to change once I got involved with the Star Wars Shadow Council….

HypersonicHarpist:

Prior to The Last Jedi coming out I had avoided spoilers completely by staying away from places on the internet where I knew spoilers were likely to be. Instead, I spent the week leading up to the film’s release reading the Legends of Luke Skywalker.  The book made me very optimistic for the film because it portrayed Luke in a way that was very consistent with how he was portrayed in the original trilogy and because I found some clues in it that lined up with my speculations about what had happened between Return of the Jedi and the Force Awakens.

I went into The Last Jedi expecting to love it as much as The Force Awakens and Rogue One.  I’m glad that I went in without any spoilers because it allowed me to enjoy certain aspects of the film for what they were rather than going in thinking that I would dislike everything about it.  The movie broke down for me when Luke went to reconnect with the Force because the movie didn’t really give him a motivation to do so. By the time it got to the fight between Luke and Rey my reaction was “well, this is happening now…” Rey’s motivations there didn’t make any sense to me at all.  (Of course now we know the reason why is that the Caretakers scene was removed and crucial context along with it.) I left the theater feeling shell shocked and with many of the same criticisms that so many others in the fandom have stated. I puzzled through it trying to make sense of what I had just seen.  The only conclusion I could come to was that the film was being deliberately misleading.

I had written a piece before on how I felt that the mystery of Rey’s identity would be structured like a magic trick. I realized that that analogy went beyond just Rey, but that was in fact how the whole trilogy was being structured.  I shared this with the rest of the Council the day after I saw the movie:

“In The Prestige (awesome movie if you haven’t seen it) every magic trick is defined as requiring 3 components: The Pledge, The Turn, and the Prestige.

The Pledge presents the audience with an object or a situation and asks that the audience trust the magician. It is honest but creates an air of mystery by not telling the audience everything.  TFA is the Pledge. It is presented to us as “This is Star Wars.  You know what Star Wars is all about: family drama, good overcoming evil both externally and internally, the Force and the Jedi, and a rollicking good time with lots of pew pew pew.

The Turn takes the object or situation that was presented in the pledge and does something unexpected with it.  It is about misdirection, breaking things, and creating impossible scenarios. TLJ is the Turn. It undermines every expectation we had coming out of TFA every chance it gets and as such it just feel off.  It’s the equivalent of JJ showing us a beautiful gold pocket watch and then RJ took it, put it under a handkerchief and smashed it with a sledge hammer. The audience is now shocked and glaring at Rian because we liked that pocket watch, why would he do that?! But if you watch very carefully and don’t get fooled by the misdirection you can see what the magician is really setting up.  

The misdirection says that Kylo can’t be redeemed because we’ve seen underlings redeemed but never a big bad.  But watch closely. Kylo still can’t bring himself to kill his mom or Rey and the magicians tip their hand just a bit when Rey tells Luke “he can still come back to the light, that’s how we could win!”  The misdirection says that Snoke was solely responsible for the connection between Rey and Kylo and that Rey really is a nobody. But Kylo still wants her on his side after Snoke is dead so there’s still a bond there but he doesn’t make any romantic overtures to her that they rule the galaxy as King and Queen.  Rey never thought her parents were anything other than nobodies and Kylo is trying to get her to join him so he wants her to give up on her family, so he’s trying to convince her that she was never loved. Even if he knew that she was his cousin he would never tell her that because that would send her running right back to Luke.  TLJ makes it seem impossible that the Jedi could come back because it doesn’t seem like Luke can come back, but he himself says “I will not be the last Jedi.” The trick isn’t over yet.

The Prestige is where the trick actually happens.  It is about revelations, fixing what was broken, and making you believe in magic. IX is the Prestige, its where everything gets made right and comes to a happy ending.  Rey finds her identity and her family, Kylo is redeemed, and the Jedi are restored in the Galaxy.

The reason they made the turn in TLJ such a sharp one is that they didn’t want the ST to be a repeat of the OT and they wanted to get to the same place that TFA promised we would get to but they didn’t want it to be predictable.”

Josey:

              When TLJ premiered, the spoiler reports shocked me. Had the plot simply gone differently than I had anticipated (and, ironically, I had indeed correctly predicted a few things), I would merely have been disappointed. But what I heard – and, soon after, saw – was *confusing.* And for me, something not making sense is usually worse than it being merely not what I expected. I wanted to understand the creative choices made with the movie, and what the ultimate intent was. Unfortunately, perhaps, my dislike of the movie went beyond its depiction of Luke Skywalker, my favorite character. I found the Canto Bite and Ach’to sequences to be surprisingly dull; the latter, particularly, disappointed me, as I had been eagerly anticipating scenes with rockbottom!Luke to be dramatic, engaging, and interesting.

I found Rey’s role to be more “audience surrogate” than a fleshed-out protagonist and was disappointed in Poe’s and Finn’s depictions. Most shocking, however, was how Kylo was developed. His arc roughly followed the trajectory I had anticipated, but it felt extremely “milquetoast” and inadequate to the redemption I had been certain he was slated for.

Mandalorianwolf:

I didn’t go into TLJ with high expectations, in fact, I was bloody worried about the film because of the trailers not installing must confidence, and my overall skepticism that Rian Johnson could handle a movie of that size and surprisingly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, in fact, it was worse! When I first saw The Last Jedi…it was like watching a friend destroy their life with the most objectively stupid decisions, then murder one of my childhood friends, smacking me in the face, and then setting the house we were all living in on fire and yeeting himself out the window to escape blame…that’s what watching The Last Jedi for the first time felt like.

A part of me wanted to give an award to Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm because I thought “Wow! You actually have to try to screw up this bad.” It honestly felt like Johnson didn’t care about what happened to the franchise, the trilogy, or even the characters of TLJ. In fact, it seemed like the only thing Johnson cared about, was leaving his mark behind on the franchise, for better or worse. Rey went from an interesting reactive protagonist to a slave of Johnson’s god awful plot, losing all urgency as a character and merely becoming a great value clone of Luke. Finn lost his status as an active protagonist and became an afterthought with an all too familiar, yet worse character arc from TFA. It was almost as if Johnson had gone out of his way to make a fool out of a character that many seemed to enjoy and care about.  Luke’s arc was a mess of jarring tone that flipped from milk chugging comedy to out of character nonsense, and worse of all, we didn’t even get the proper context to why Luke was the way he was. The audience is left with 3 out of context flashbacks and some clunky narration as to why Luke Skywalker had turned into an empty shell of a man. Poe’s arc seemed forced and like a complete waste of time, the new characters adding nothing interesting to the story, and the older characters came off as empty springboards to make sure TLJ sold tickets. The script itself for The Last Jedi didn’t make any sense to me. It seemed to contradict itself at the best of times and made no sense at the worst of times.

I tried watching TLJ a couple more times after the first time I watched it, yet I couldn’t bring myself to like the movie. I couldn’t even bring myself to ignore it either. The Last Jedi was the first Star Wars movie I hated, and I dedicated a lot of my time to rip into the movie. I just kept wondering how Lucasfilm and Rian Johnson could have taken the blank chank that JJ Abrams had written them, and set fire to it. The biggest question I remember having as I thought about TLJ  was if Rian Johnson really did care about Star Wars and he just couldn’t live up to the expectations that JJ left behind, or did he just want to see the franchise burn and revel in the divisive reactions the world had to his movie? I eventually came to the conclusion that maybe Star Wars just wasn’t for me anymore. Maybe it was time for my love of Star Wars to end.

Ravenclawmind:

I read the TLJ leaks shortly after the premiere, and believed them to be false at first. I thought the notion of Luke dying, Rey’s parents being junk trader alcoholics, Leia’s coma, Finn and Rose’s kiss, and Snoke being killed so unceremoniously were all preposterous. However, as the days went by and all of the leaks seemed to corroborate the original one, I was forced to accept that this was, for better or for worse, the movie we were getting. I was heartbroken. I had spent two years theorizing, imagining, and putting so much of my heart into talking about and loving Star Wars, and we were getting a movie that sounded like it was mocking our love for the franchise. It seemed almost specially calculated to upset everyone. I didn’t want to leave the fandom, but in those first few weeks I was seriously considering it. I didn’t want to invest any more of my time and money into a franchise that seemed like it was purposely giving the middle finger to both the audience and its own beloved characters.

Regardless, I still went to see the movie opening night, hoping I could find something salvageable in it. While I by no means enjoyed the experience, I realized that I didn’t loathe it as much as I thought I would. It was a low bar, but I left the theatre even more confused than I had been going in. It felt like something wasn’t adding up. On the surface, TLJ seemed to be a parody of itself, and that frustrated me enough to try to dig deeper into the film rather than just giving up in disgust. I knew I might never love or even like it, but I wanted to understand why things had happened the way they did. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized the film wasn’t all it appeared to be.   

Robotical712:

The night of the premier was spent frantically refreshing Star Wars Leaks and watching for reactions on Twitter. The initial reactions were positive, if a bit confusing, and I went to bed fairly happy. The next day was one of the most surreal in my life. Someone claiming to have seen the movie was describing things that couldn’t possibly be true. Leia flew like superman, Luke teleported to death, Snoke died mid-movie, Chewie ate a Porg, Rey was the child of boozers and the movie ended with a random stable boy. Literally no one on our discord believed it and we all waited for the real leaks to come. It was so ridiculous I posted it outside the spoiler channel because of how hilarious it was.

Oops. (Sorry Marvel!)

As the week wore on, the bad news piled up and more and more people reported the same things. The final nail in the coffin came when the blog’s New Zealander saw it and confirmed our worst fears. To say the mood on the Discord was depressed would be putting it mildly. It seemed like LFL and Rian had just burned down the entire franchise. Luke had one bad night and gave up, the future of the Skywalker family was a complete asshat, Snoke appeared and disappeared just as quickly, Poe got the Resistance wiped out and Finn was a clown.

It felt like LFL had thrown out everything from TFA, the Canon it had built up and the past forty years and I wanted no part of it. I was prepared to leave the franchise and fandom behind, but first I resolved to see the movie*. So, the day after the movie opening I grudgingly went to see the movie. What I saw left me baffled and with a strong feeling of dissonance.

From the opening scene, the movie felt like a parody or satire. Worse, the plot between Rey, Luke and Kylo seemed to be at war with itself. I remember sitting the theater and wondering if I had somehow missed part of the movie just before the shirtless Forceback because the story and characters stopped making any sense. Rey went from resolved to succeed where Ben had failed and was suddenly upset for no apparent reason in the very next scene. Luke reconnected with the Force despite there being no obvious catalyst to do so. Then Rey apparently decided Luke being a jerk was more of a flaw than committing patricide and turned on him. (As I learned later, I really had missed part of the movie because the scene that made sense of it had been cut.)

Rey herself was awash in Skywalker symbolism, yet seemed to have no discernable impact on Luke. Indeed, every significant character development that took place was attributable to other characters. Why did Luke help Rey? Artoo reminded him of when he first saw Leia. What led him to get over years of self-recriminations and despair? A quick pep-talk from Yoda about failure.

Then there was backstory and explanations or rather their conspicuous absence. No reason was given for why Luke went through the trouble of finding the First Jedi Temple if his goal was to exile himself, nor did we learn anything about it despite spending more than half the movie there. Luke’s reasons for ending the Jedi didn’t have much to do with him contemplating killing Ben. Besides, one of his defining characteristics was his compassion and connections to his friends and family, since when was he a champion of Jedi dogma?

Ben was apparently so traumatized by Luke that he immediately decided to burn the temple and kill many of the students. Worse, multiple students had apparently turned to the dark side and apparently Luke never noticed. Yoda lectured him about the importance of failure and how they must not lose Rey. That was evidently enough to inspire Luke to project himself to Crait, but not enough to talk to Rey (I might add their last physical interaction in the entire film involved her physically assaulting him).

Above all, the aforementioned dissonance reigned (which resulted in me mentally checking out by the Praetorian fight scene). The movie seemed to have resulted in the worst possible outcome – it seemed to say I had been wrong about everything, but refused to do so definitively or tell me why I was wrong. It was as though the movie had taken the franchise for a joyride and then returned it with a fresh coat of pain and a meter from the left of where it started. Yet, there was something that really bothered me – the movie seemed very self-aware and seemed to heavily lean on the fourth wall at times. While all Star Wars movies have used symbolism and a degree of meta-commentary. TLJ used it to an extent I had never seen before and it felt like it was at war with the actual plot.

Several other members of the blog mentioned the same experiences and they felt as though the movie was hiding something. Hypersonic even related her example of the Prestige (explained in her retrospective) the first time she talked about the movie. Various members of the Discord kept pointing out oddities and symbolism in the film. It was rapidly becoming apparent from our discussions that the movie wasn’t what it seemed. Over the course of the week after the film, it became apparent the film had told us one thing and showed us something very different.

* While the people who constantly attack the movie and the people involved get all of the attention, there are a large number of people who simply dropped out of the online fandom. There are so many people who were active before TLJ that have simply vanished (we’ve seen some coming back in recent months). Speculation on the trilogy, once a vibrant and popular subject, dried up overnight and still hasn’t recovered.

Sprinkles:

I tried to go into TLJ spoiler-free. But a few days past the premiere date, I couldn’t resist checking in on the rest of the Council and seeing how they were doing. I messaged Josey, asking if she had any updates she could share without spoiling anything. Her response was something along the lines of “Well…..there are some things out there, but they’re mostly ridiculous obviously fake leaks.”

Boy, was she right. Princess Leia could fly? Rey was the child of dead drunks? Luke Skywalker teleported to death? I couldn’t believe people were this gullible. But then, of course, these rumors began popping up in more and more places, and pretty soon, I was faced with the dawning realization that “Holy shit, this is what the movie is about.”

At first I refused to go see the film. I was furious and dismayed at what they had done, especially at a time when I felt so desperate for something reliable, uplifting, and empowering. Instead, it seemed Lucasfilm had thrown the soul of their franchise out the window and replaced it with some sort of grimdark perversion of what Star Wars had always been. But my best friend–also a huge Star Wars fan–insisted I give it a chance. “It’s really not like what you think,” he told me. “You need to see it for yourself.” And, he added, “Kylo Ren is a LIAR.”

So, reluctantly, I sulked my way into the theatre with a notebook and pen, ready to take notes and report back to the Council like the nerd that I am. At first, my notes were mostly neutral observations, but gradually I found myself getting caught up in the story. Lines that had been quoted to me took on different meanings in context, scenes that seemed to indicate one thing ended up indicating another. And, although I found the writing abysmal at points, and most of the plotlines inconsistent, by the end of the movie I was furiously jotting notes with copious exclamation points, speculating wildly, and finally feeling that same sort of excitement I’d felt two years before, albeit tempered with skepticism.

I continued to grapple with my feelings on the movie for several weeks afterwards, and eventually settled on my current position: I thought it was ultimately a pretty bad film, but I was also so, so excited for what was going to come next.

Part 3: One Year Later


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