The Last Jedi: A Movie Without Heart

I told myself I wasn’t going to write about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Enough blood and ink and emotion has already been spilled by histrionic reviewers and fans who either loved or despised the movie.

And honestly, it ranks pretty high on the “Things That Don’t Matter All That Much” list, alongside the Cleveland Browns, Hootie and the Blowfish, and the fact that U2 is hugely overrated.

But as a lifelong Star Wars fan who knows an unhealthy amount of Star Wars trivia, it does matter to me. And after seeing the movie for a second time last night, I really wanted to write something, even if it’s only for myself. Lest you forget, I’m a millennial blogger with an opinion, which means I’m contractually obligated to share it.

So here I am, a 35 year-old man writing about laser swords and Wookies. My mom would be proud.

If you would rather receive a roundhouse kick in the throat than read about Star Wars, I get it. This isn’t the post you’re looking for. Move along. But for the rest of you, you’re welcome/I’m sorry.

At The Heart Are Characters With Heart

Ultimately, Star Wars has always been about the characters. Yes, it’s about the Rebellion and Jedi and good versus evil. But it’s more than that. It’s about the people who make up the Rebels and the Sith and the bluish, hovering, semi-dead Jedi.

At the outset, all the characters had heart. Even when Luke was a young whippersnapper complaining about not being able to go to Toshi Station to get power converters, he deeply cared about the Rebellion. There wasn’t much question that he was a good guy, and when his aunt and uncle were killed, he was all in on being a Jedi and fighting the Empire.

He had heart.

Han Solo was initially a heartless mercenary who only cared about money. But when it mattered, he came back and rescued Luke on the final Death Star trench run. From that point on, he was all good. Heck, he was frozen in carbonite because of his dedication to the Rebellion.

Obi-Wan, though regretting his choices regarding how he trained Vader, was not in hiding out of self-pity. He was running for his life from Vader. When he met Luke, it was game on. He confronted Vader head on and sacrificed himself so that Luke and his companions could escape the Death Star.

The good guys always risked their lives for each other. They had each other’s backs. They answered the call when danger arose and didn’t shrink back in the face of overwhelming odds. And C3PO always reminded us that the odds were terrible.

The Empire was always clearly evil. Vader was menacing and frightening. The Emperor was a sadistic monster. Stormtroopers marched in formation like Nazis and delighted in wiping out innocent planets like Alderaan.

We never had any doubt about who was good and who was evil. We never watched Star Wars movies to see finely nuanced characters battle their inner demons. Yes, there was the whole good in Vader thing in The Return of the Jedi, but that was about it.

Star Wars has always been about characters who we cared about. Characters who cared deeply, did hard things, and had a real impact on the story. They all had heart.

Characters Without Heart

My biggest disappointment with The Last Jedi (and I had a lot), was that the characters lacked heart. It was as if director/writer Rian Johnson went out of his way to say, “Everything you thought about these people is wrong. They’re not so great. They’re flawed, messed up people who happen to be fighting for the Rebellion.”

In most cases, I would be thrilled with that directing choice. Normally, I hate two-dimensional characters. I like nuanced characters who have great flaws and weaknesses. I know that life is messy and I like movies that depict those blurred lines.

But not in Star Wars. I want clearly defined characters who know what they’re about and who I can get behind 100%. I want good and evil. I want people who know what they really care about. I don’t want wishy-washy flip-floppers.

That’s what was missing in The Last Jedi. Characters with heart.

The line, “Let the past die,” is repeated numerous times by a variety of characters, and in some senses, it felt like that was Johnson’s guiding principle. It was as if he wanted to take characters who had an established past and strip that from them. To transform the good guys into sort-of-good guys who have all sorts of problems. To show us that even the greatest aren’t that great.

The last we knew of Luke Skywalker, he was a triumphant Jedi who had vanquished Vader and the Emperor, defeated the Empire, and was a firm believer in all things good.

We encounter a very different Luke in The Last Jedi. He’s a shriveled, simpering, bitter, whining, dry alcoholic-ish figure who cares about nothing except letting himself and the Jedi order die. He’s not interested in helping the Rebellion or his sister or anyone else. He cares about himself and that’s about it. His character was completely gutted and we’re only given a few minutes of backstory as an explanation. It was a massive character shift in a miniscule amount of time.

When recounting the history of the Jedi, Luke calls it a history of failure. A history consisting of myths and legends rather than real people. This isn’t the Jedi or the Luke we were given in the previous movies. This is something altogether heartless and apathetic. It’s hard to care about this version of Luke.

Poe Dameron, the ace X-Wing pilot who thrives on ripping Tie Fighters to shreds, is revealed to be a cocky hot head who doesn’t know how to follow orders.

Fin, one of the heroes of The Force Awakens, reveals his mixed colors when he tries to sneak off the ship at the beginning of the movie.

Yes, these characters had moments of redemption in the movie, but even those moments were tempered by the fact that their actions didn’t matter at all. Poe and Fin’s elaborate plot to board a Star Destroyer resulted in everyone getting captured. It did nothing to contribute to the rescue of the Rebels and ended up being nothing more than a strange, distracting plot point that added nothing to the overall story.

Fin also could have redeemed himself by plunging headlong into the battering ram cannon but that was cut short when Rose knocked him off course (presumably making her some sort of hero and setting up some sort of romance between the two).

Luke’s “battle” with Kylo Ren at the end of the movie was nothing more than a diversion. He never left his island and never actually fought Ren. He just projected some sort of weird Jedi hologram, which I don’t understand but I’m willing to suspend disbelief on that one. His sacrifice wasn’t much of a sacrifice. He died/vanished, just like he wanted to from the outset.

Even Admiral Holden, the woman who took charge after Leia was injured, wasn’t much of a hero, at least in the traditional sense. She did sacrifice herself (which is heroic and admirable) in an effort to save her people, but that sacrifice accomplished nothing. It didn’t actually save the Rebels in the end. It was yet another strange plot device that didn’t really contribute to the movie (other than the cool shot of one ship ramming another as it jumped to hyperspace).

In the end, I came away feeling very “meh” about everyone except Rey and Kylo Ren. I’m all in on them. They know what they’re about. They are the new Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.

But the rest? It’s hard for me to be all in on them. They all became much less likable.

I don’t want that kind of Star Wars.

Let The Past Die

Rian Johnson was all about letting the past die, and in many ways, he let the past of Star Wars die. The characters I loved are less lovable. The things I thought I knew about the Jedi are less certain. And with the departure of Han Solo, Luke, and presumably Leia, there’s not much left of the past.

I realize I’m in the minority on this. Most of the people I’ve talked to about the movie loved it.

And as I said at the beginning, I’m a 35 year-old guy writing about Star Destroyers, which is pretty lame.

Will I watch the movie again? Sure. I’m a Star Wars fan. But it doesn’t have the magic the others do, and I miss that.

I miss the heart.

12 thoughts on “The Last Jedi: A Movie Without Heart”

  1. “In the end, I came away feeling very “meh” about everyone except Rey and Kylo Ren. I’m all in on them. They know what they’re about. They are the new Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.”

    The first time I watched the movie, I came away with some of that same “meh” feeling. The second time I watched it, I liked it more. Your comment about being “all in” on Rey & Kylo Ren – perhaps that was Rian Johnson’s plan all along. Make you care less about the other characters in order to help you care more about those two who will clearly be central in the final installment of this trilogy.

    Just my two cents. I’m not one who gets too deep into the nuances of character development. I just like a movie that entertains me for a while with a plot that is at least somewhat coherent. And take what I say with a grain of salt because I thought the first of the 2 new TMNT movies wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be.

  2. I didn’t realize as we interacted on twitter that you had written an article. I’m glad you summed up your incorrect opinion so nicely, so that I could explain why it is wrong.

    I think your opinion is wrong because it is based on an internal contradiction. You want heart, but you want two dimensional characters. This leads to wave away major plot points that give the characters in original trilogy depth (Solo’s transition from selfish and greedy to caring and heroic, Vader’s transition from purely evil scary man in a suit with a cool voice to conflicted father who is ultimately redeemed) while being unduly bothered by similar plot devices in the most recent movie.

    Let’s take Luke as an example. Rian took the reigns from Abrams with the basic facts from the end of Return of the Jedi to the end of the Force Awakens being:
    (a) everything they sacrificed to accomplish the defeat the Empire did nothing more than buy a temporary reprieve in the ongoing battle, which they were now losing badly, again.
    (b) Luke had taken Han and Leia’s son and other young people to train in the ways of the force, and the result had been that his nephew turned to the dark side, and most (all?) of his pupils had been murdered.

    It’s not really a big leap to go ‘You know, I don’t think, in this scenario, a hopeful and determined Luke is hiding on a distant planet with a plan for defeating Snoke.’ It makes much more sense, and is more compatible with the scenario he was given and the previously established character of Luke, for him to be shaken, bitter and lost. Yoda considered him impetuous, filled with fear, and doubted he would finish what he began, so it was inconsistent with Luke’s character or anything. Given how things played out with parts of the story he had no control over, it was a great decision to go the direction Johnson went (which also allowed for an arc toward redemption…which a straight up Luke is fine narrative wouldn’t have allowed for…and it allowed for Rey to grow in a way just a straight up training montage wouldn’t have done.)

    I don’t want to go through all the grievances you listed (I am being too nerdy already) and I agree with some of them (the Finn casino thing didn’t work for me either, for instance). But overall I don’t think you can ask for two dimensional characters and then also want heart. Believing someone has heart means believing they have depth. A Luke who is impervious to mountain of tragedy he has endured doesn’t have heart. A Luke who was unable to withstand the onslaught of that tragedy, but is able, with the help of others, to stand up and fight again…I think that shows heart. A Poe who is a Han clone and winks his way to victory for 3 straight movies doesn’t have heart…a Poe who is taught that sometimes bravery is just arrogance, and who learns to appreciate what leadership entails…now he can have some heart. A Finn who is seen by others as a hero but in actuality wants nothing more than to run away from everything with the one person he cares about learning courage from a simple mechanic who idolized him, that’s a good thought if executed poorly. Etc. Anyways give me 3 dimensional heart every day of the week. Give me Benicio Del Toro explaining his playing of both sides with weak excuses about war being both sides fault, and the juxtaposition of that with the resolve of Holdo. And give me a Princess who was always stronger than her brother anyway, and let her fly. May she rest in peace.

    • First, you make some great points. Seriously. Second, clearly we’ve got problems if both of us have thought this deeply about this movie.

      Finally, I think maybe you have a different idea of “heart”. When I say that, I actually mean characters who are brave, always true to their character, etc. Everyone knows that even the bravest people aren’t like this in real life. We’re all a mix of motives, fears, baggage, etc. And normally, that’s what I want in a movie. But not in Star Wars. I basically want 2D heroes rather than tortured souls.

      But I def get what you’re saying and appreciate that you make good points without shouting about it.

      • “Second, clearly we’ve got problems if both of us have thought this deeply about this movie.” Truer words have never been written.

  3. I resonate with a lot of what you said, Steve. Yet, I still have hope. A ‘new, new hope’, if you will.

    The mixing of character and motives will actually lead to a deepening of what you, and all Star Wars fans, really love.

    The Empire / New Order has regularly seen itself as the ‘good’ guys, not simply power hungry planet destroyers. The appeal of the power (and the dark-side) is to establish order and peace (albeit of the enslaving sort). That bewitched Anakin. And, Kylo Ren followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. The bad guys have (sort of) admirable goals (peace) but very bad methods (heartless authoritarian rule of force). The real good guys seek a peace of liberty.

    Enter Rey. And the reason for my hope that the characters of the Star Wars universe can be salvaged from the seeming trash-compactor of heartless-ness. As you noted, Rey and Kylo’s mixture / depth of character is a shining beacon in The Last Jedi. Episode IX will not disappoint. Plot twists will be straightened. Snokes’ mysterious past will revealed. And the main characters will be full. Full of heart for the cause of unequivocal good.

    Do you see a similar hope awakening? Or has nostalgia made me naively optimistic?

    • Kyle, Kyle, Kyle,

      The Kylo and Rey connections were very much highlights of the film. However, the rest of it (apart from incredible visuals) really belonged in that trash compactor. With sloppy character development and writing, we have no reason to care much about anything. Kylo betrays his master, who cares, we know nothing about him or why this betrayal is a significant power move. 90% of the resistance is blown up, kinda like the last movie, we know nothing about the resistance or the republic for that matter. This lack of info makes it hard to care about anything. “Oh the first order is so big!” We know nothing about them. Do they own planets and patrol them like the empire? Does anyone else in the galaxy care? And why does Hux get so angry?!?!?!

      All of these plus the worn out lefty propaganda made this a sad effort despite the cool direction they tried to take.

  4. I haven’t seen TLJ yet, but I’ll comment anyway…
    As many, including myself, thought, The Force Awakens was just A New Hope reheated, I am detecting some disturbing similarities with TLJ and The Empire Strikes Back: multiple story lines, a young enthusiast seeking the guidance of a hermited old master, a blossoming romance….
    Am I wrong? Is that anyone else’s observation?

  5. I totally agree Stephen.

    In fact – on “heart” – I really miss the personal friendship focus at the core of the OT and that even JJ started in TFA.

    I was watching ESB and RoTJ this week and i was struck at how much Han, Leia and Luke care about each other and keep sacrificing to save each other over all these movies. They are always coming back to help one another or save one another (or at least trying). Even Darth’s redemption is personal: Luke still believes there is good “in his father”. These passions for relational loyalty and sacrificial caring drive everything.

    A perfect example is how Luke leaves his training with Yoda abruptly in Empire. He doesn’t do it because he is rejected by Yoda (like Luke rejects Rey), nor because he needs to fight for the rebellion, (Yoda even warns him he will sacrifice the work they’ve given to save the rebellion if he leaves), but he leaves because he is simply worried about his friends. To heck with the rebellion and the Jedi; he needs to rescue Leia, Han, and Chewie.

    So I think even deeper than the clear right and wrong of the rebellion and the Empire and the ideologies of the dark and light, the OT were at the core very much about friends who loved each other and kept that love at their center of motivations.

    I loved that even in TFA, JJ started that with Rey and Finn and then kept it going with Leia & Han and their concern for their son.

    That core of deep friendship and personal sacrificial love for each other is really pushed far far back into the background in TLJ and it’s really much poorer and colder for it. Relationships seem to be there more as a means to highlight ideologies or politics or ideas about class or even personal fulfillment. It’s too bad, because Rian could have had a much bolder and more explicit reason for “forgetting the past” than the democratizing the force. It could have been about love. I think there is something of that in Rey’s rejection of Kylo’s offer, but the relationships are so underdeveloped that you never really experience that through Rey even if it’s latent.

    As it is, nothing moved me deeply in TLJ very much, except of course the scene between brother and sister, Luke and Leia, loving each other and reuniting in the last scenes. I was a blubbering basket case.

    So I think after all is said and done for me, the relational depth may be at the heart of what makes the OT Star Wars movies so good (in the context of amazing filmmaking, amazing effects, and classic mythology all set in space, of course). And I think in that relational sacrificial depth there is a hidden but powerful Imago Dei glory being magnified right under our noses. Beams of Gospel “Good Dreams” as CS Lewis called them. That is what makes it so powerful. It’s pretty darn Trinitarian if you ask me.

  6. I find that I agree with much of what you said, although I liked the Flick, I too was frustrated with Luke’s desertion from his former vitality for ‘Good’… Even so, these last three ‘Star War’ Movies were so much better than the mid trilogy, they were pure crap…! However, being a SW Fan, I don’t believe the original Plot and Cast of the first Trilogy can be duplicated or equaled… “You Got’ta Have Heart… Miles and Miles of Heart…”

  7. Hated, absolutely hated “the Farce awakens” or force awakens or rather watch how JJ Abrams ruins yet another film franchise. His shtick is to send out internet “leaks” hype a movie to it’s zenith and when you see it all that’s interesting we saw in a trailer. Overrated is a huge understatement. His other shtick is to take a successful franchise and in order to get his grubby hands over it and redo it he must eliminate all the past story lines. Did it to Star Trek and so he does it again with Star Wars.
    Not a huge fan of the prequels but sorry phantom menace was infinite times better than force wakes up. I get it this is the social justice warrior third wave feminism age. But, if I wanted a illustrated sermon of “woke” feminism and social awareness I’ll go watch a rally in DC. Why throw all that in to create a trilogy? Farce awakens creates the Mary Sue to end all Mary Sues. She can fly, out maneuvering trained pilots, she can fix the Falcon better than Han, she needs no man to save her, she saves the man, training? Jedi training? Her female power is all she needs, she wields a light saber and defeats a trained sith lord dispatching him with great ease. Use of the force, simple to a mary sue.
    After the butchering of my beloved childhood trilogy I swore off this “trilogy”. I sat in a theater as a boy in 1977 filled with wonder and awe. In 2015 I sat with anger and disappointment. JJ is a no talent hack piggybacking off the success of others.
    The new film looks terrible. I think its really a metaphor for this “woke” generation. It makes the past heroes look terrible, hinting that the past in America wasn’t “woke” and therefore worthy of ruin. Star Wars is dead to me. Thank God I still have Bruce Lee and my favorite Gojira film series!

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