At the risk of annoying all of you, I’m going to join the minority in criticizing “The Last Jedi.” While I found the movie entertaining (although a bit long) and some of the scenes were really cool, I ultimately found the movie unsatisfying. Other critics have focused on the fact that the story echos previous episodes too closely, the weakness of Luke, or the oddity of Carrie Fisher starring in a role well after her death.
While I agree with these points, I was struck by something quite different — the lack of any sense of what the Resistance (the good guys, led by Princess Leia and Rey) or the First Order (the bad guys, led by Kylo Ren and Snoke) actually stand for. Yes, the Resistance is for the Republic, and they are fighting the oppression of the First Order, and that’s good as far it goes. But, there isn’t any sense of an idea or nation that the Resistance is fighting to save. As for the First Order, they are one-dimensional cut-out fascists. Thin gruel.
Another related flaw in The Last Jedi is lack of reference to any land, culture or people that any of the protagonists are from. There is no homeland that any one longs for, nor memory of a culture worth saving. Therefore, the story lacks the emotional heft that a more grounded work can bring.
Compare this to the first Star Wars movie, “A New Hope.” Two of the lead heroes are Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. We first meet them on a remote planet, where we see them (especially Luke) in their daily life. We get to know Luke’s family, and learn about the Luke’s longing for purpose and significance. After Luke’s family is murdered by the Empire, his decision to join Obi-wan and fight them makes perfect sense.
A scene from the last Lord of the Rings book (“Return of the King”) is also a useful contrast. Frodo and Sam are on the road to Mt. Doom in their final attempt to destroy the evil Ring. They are exhausted, nearly out of food and water, and in danger of losing their lives at any moment. In his moment of desperation, Sam’s thoughts travel back to his father, friends, and sweetheart back in the Shire. He remembers the joys of the journey, a warm sunny day on a hill, and a tasty meal shared with his companions. These memories inspire him to press on and battle the forces of evil.
The Last Jedi fails, in large part, because their is no similar sense of place, belonging, or reason for fighting. Instead, we see people divorced from family, their own history, or a land worth saving. There just isn’t much to care about. Hopefully, Episode IX grounds itself better, and we have a reason to root for something.