Since I wrote Part One of my analysis of The Last Jedi, I have done two things. First, I saw the film a second time. Second, I re-watched Rashomon (1950). This has sharpened my view of the movie. While I initially lauded it as a masterpiece, I’ve dialed that back some. It is still a very, very good movie, probably the third best Star Wars movie. But it is an imperfect film, so calling it an unequivocal masterpiece is misleading.
None of The Last Jedi’s flaws particularly bother me, but that does not mean they aren’t present. Most feel nit-picky to me. One example is how the film hand-waves away several of the science fiction elements. Star Wars has never been science fiction – its proper genre is fantasy. Still, it made some viewers wonder why, for example, a hyper-drive collision hadn’t been used more frequently if it could destroy several ships at once.
The one problem that’s hard to explain away has to do with the characterization of Luke Skywalker. The film doesn’t do a great job of explaining why Luke wouldn’t have tried to deal with Kylo Ren before going into exile. The closest to a reason that we get from him is when he tells Rey, “What do you expect me to do? Grab a laser sword and take on the entire First Order by myself?” Luke has concluded that trying to deal with his nephew would lead to nothing but certain doom. But why?
I didn’t need to know exactly what happened that made him so jaded – the failure of everything he had fought for was enough of a reason for me. I also can excuse a lack of exposition in an already jam-packed film. The counter-argument is that this isn’t Snoke we’re talking about – a character who we didn’t really need a backstory beyond “stock dark-side villain.” Luke Skywalker is the central character in the Star Wars saga and a film should describe his motivations clearly enough that everyone understands them. If The Last Jedi did not universally accomplish this clarity, that is a flaw. But how serious of a flaw is it?
Compare, if you will, The Last Jedi to a nearly flawless film, Rashomon. Rashomon may be known for its unforgettable images and non-linear storytelling, but at its base it is an extremely well constructed film. Akira Kurosawa gives us just enough plot and characterization to accomplish his storytelling goals, nothing more. This limits distraction and allows the audience to be fully immersed in four different versions of the same story. For example, the audience doesn’t even suspend its disbelief to question why everyone in the story takes a medium speaking for a dead samurai seriously.
The Last Jedi is a well made film, but it is not economical in the same way that Rashomon is. One could argue that The Last Jedi needed to walk a tightrope between viewer reactions ranging from “this is like the boring, blah, blah, blah from the prequels,” and “we demand more world-building.” That equates the amount of backstory with economy, but less backstory doesn’t cause a movie to be economical in the same way that Rashomon is. You need enough backstory to keep the audience from questioning the movie in the middle of the experience, and The Last Jedi does not do this for a good chunk of its audience.
Kathleen Kennedy and her team at Disney are terrified of the prequels, and with good reason. The first two are bad movies, full stop. The third is okay, but still disappointing, and not a good enough film in its own right to overcome the problems of the Episodes I and II. I can understand erring towards annoying the “we demand more world-building” people by cutting exposition, but sometimes you need backstory to make sure that your story is universally understood enough to keep its audience immersed in it. A more economical movie would understand this – and to some extent this is a problem in the Force Awakens too. We shouldn’t need to read a tie-in book to know what the difference between the New Republic and the Resistance, for example.
That brings me to why the lack of backstory in The Last Jedi isn’t a fatal flaw in the same way that the flaws of Episode I and II destroy those movies. The information that The Force Awakens leaves out is available in tie-in books. If we didn’t know about that information then, we know it now. The Last Jedi will get its share of tie-ins too, which will fill in some of the missing worldbuilding and potentially clarify Luke’s characterization to viewers who wanted more information.
If this is Disney’s scheme to sell more books, comics, and video games, so be it – film has always been a commercial artform. But this isn’t a problem in the Original Trilogy and that made plenty of tie-in loot. If it is going to be Disney’s strategy going forward to play loose with economical storytelling in order to sell side-content, this will prevent its films from being great movies like Rashomon.
(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe