Oh, I am going to complain. A lot. Actually I’m starting to wonder if Rian Johnson’s real aim in writing Episode VIII was to give me an aneurysm. However, point taken, I am going to endeavour to throw out a “fix” for each of my complaints. I’ll let you, dear reader, be the judge of whether any of them are up to snuff.
Now let’s start cutting through those gnarly weeds…
Rey doesn’t drive her own story
The character of Rey was hands-down the best part of The Force Awakens. She is front and center throughout the film, events are seen through her eyes and she propels the story on at lightspeed. She discovers the Force by herself, frees herself from captivity and fights her enemies single-handedly. What I wanted most from The Last Jedi was more Rey.
So, what went wrong?
While Daisy Ridley is as wonderful as she was in the first film, she just doesn’t have enough to do. The Force Awakens was her film, whereas she’s just in Last Jedi. Heck, I would’ve been happy if Johnson had made the film a series of skits involving her antagonising the Ahch-To caretakers. Alas, we take far too many lengthy sojourns off to follow much less interesting characters — namely anyone who isn’t Rey or Ben Solo.
Unfortunately, while Johnson’s remake/reimagining/reboot/whatever of The Empire Strikes Back hits all the same story beats it also completely misses the point.
Empire isn’t special because it features a training sequence with a Jedi master, or because it has a thrilling spaceship chase, showcases a spectacular land battle with Imperial Walkers on snow, or because its themes are of failure and loss. Well, not just because of those things. While Rian brings all this stuff over to his version, what he misses is the why. Why did Empire approach Star Wars 2 the way it did?
Let’s take the character of Luke Skywalker, i.e. the character that was re-moulded in the form of Rey in the remake. In 1977’s Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was the golden-haired-blue-eyed-farm-boy-hero-messiah who could do everything:
Incredible pilot? Check.
Great shot with a blaster? Check.
Great shot with a gun turret? Check.
Saviour of the rebellion? Check.
Nascent lightsaber skills? Check.
Super-Force-sensitive Jedi prodigy? Check.
As many have pointed out, the Rey in The Force Awakens is similar to Luke in these respects, and I think it’s an entirely fair comparison to make. Also like Luke, Rey is a bit too competent, and could do with a challenge or twenty.
In 1977 Star Wars was the biggest blockbuster ever made - it was more than a movie, it was a phenomenon. How do you make a sequel to the biggest movie of all time? Play it safe, surely. The standard expected way to have made *Star Wars 2* - and kept those tills ringing - was to essentially do Star Wars over again. Indeed, that was what audiences were expecting. Something like:
Boy did The Empire Strikes Back confound expectations. Luke is physically, mentally and emotionally put through the wringer. He fails and flounders his way through events and ends up a bloody mess: shell-shocked, humiliated and defeated.
First he’s nearly killed by a monster and has to be rescued by Han; following this he crashes his snow-speeder, and then his X-Wing; next he’s shown to be dismissive of ‘lesser’ creatures; fails raise his X-Wing from a swamp; fails to control his temper during Jedi training; fails to rescue Han and Leia; is humbled in a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader - losing his hand in the process - and learns just how ignorant he is of a universe vastly more complex than he imagined. Most painful of all, he’s forced to put his friends in danger by begging Leia to rescue him.
It’s quite a journey for our farm-boy.
By contract, in The Last Jedi Rey has no such ordeal to contend with, and is in fact given little opportunity for her character to grow. She starts the film as we left her in The Force Awakens as a Jedi hopeful: like Luke she initially stumbles on a few of the Jedi challenges. However, she then shows her teacher the error of his ways, berates him for his past mistakes, goes on to defeat her enemies in combat (again) before successfully escaping the clutches of the First Order (again). And again - though she disappears from the narrative for a while - her story ends on a note of triumph: she lifts a pile rocks (yes, seriously) to save her friends.
When I hear people talk of The Last Jedi being the boldest, riskiest entry in the series so far my eyes have a tendency to roll in their sockets so fast I worry they may plop out and spin away like little BB-units. Remaking the best film in the series is the opposite of ‘risk-taking’.
Aggravatingly, Rey is also now strangely passive.
For example, when Rey finds that her mind is being invaded by the murderer of her father-figure from Force Awakens, rather than immediately demanding that “Master Skywalker” show her how to block the connection, she just engages in some ‘Force-Time’ small-talk.
When Snoke implants in her mind the idea that she can turn Ben back to the light side, she immediately rushes off to fall into the trap. Then, after she watches Ben kill his 'master' Supreme Leader Snoke (can Star Wars please get over the whole ‘master’ thing already?), he tells her that her parents are nobodies, which she accepts unquestioningly.
There's a lot of stuff going on in Rian's movie; it’s just a shame that Rey gets a bit lost in the mix.
Rey sorely needed a personal struggle, a personal failure and a moment of realisation. And the camera should have been pointing resolutely at her face for 95% of the running time. Allow me to offer an alternative vision of her journey:
After she hands Luke his father’s lightsaber he contemplates it for a moment, but then hands it back to her. [Mere Jedi Knights carry laser-swords, but Luke (like Yoda) no longer needs one.]
Initially rebuffing her, Luke relents and tries to teach Rey about the spiritual nature of the Force. [Johnson’s scene of Luke tickling Rey’s hand was actually rather good, if an obvious rehash of Yoda's lessons in The Empire Strikes Back.]
We learn that Rey has little patience for this mystical mumbo-jumbo. Indeed, we saw in Force Awakens that Rey is essentially practical by nature, while also handy with a staff. What she really wants is to learn how to fight like a Jedi - spiritual, ethereal stuff is a much bigger struggle for her. However, Luke tells her that being a Jedi has nothing to do with waving swords around. But, as Luke has permanently shut himself off from the Force [another great addition by Johnson], he cannot properly connect with her or demonstrate, and Rey is disbelieving and frustrated. Finally, Luke tries to get through to her by telling her that the word ‘Jedi’ literally means ‘open handed’ in the ancient language of the Whills [that one's mine].
Rey takes to training alone with the lightsaber hoping to impress Luke with her skills. Luke watches her and sighs, telling her she won’t find what she’s looking for with him.
Rey feels rejected by him, by the Jedi order - by the Force itself. She observes that his main obsession is translating the ancient Jedi texts by candle-light, but that it also brings him no solace. He endlessly dwells on the failure of his Jedi school and says perhaps it is time for the Jedi to end. He sinks ever further into despair, not able to understand how his school collapsed despite his best efforts, and why his nephew turned away from him. Luke eventually throws down the old books and cries out for Yoda and Obi-Wan, but they seem to have also abandoned him.
Seeing that the old Jedi texts are like anchors weighing him down, Rey goes to the temple in the dead of night intending to burn it. Luke realises what she’s about to do and chases after her. However, at the entrance Rey can’t bring herself to do it and drops the flaming torch. Then, in a sudden moment of realisation, Luke himself picks up the torch and hands it back to her. His mistake was failing to ever let go and trust his students. He tells her to burn it all.
Luke slumps to the ground, watching the flames, hopelessly lost. Rey finally sees Luke as he really is — a pathetic, frightened old man, and she knows she cannot stay. She departs on the Falcon with Chewie, following the signal of the cloaked transponder beacon, which leads her to Finn, who’s having an adventure of his own...