Warning: There be spoilers (duh).
Since watching "The Last Jedi", I have been absolutely dumbfounded by the criticisms this movie receives. It's not that I don't get some people not liking it - I actually have a pretty spirited discussion with Sean, since he disliked the movie and I didn't -, yet, so much of what I hear and read on the Internet is showing a lack of understanding what the movie is actually about. Finn's mission to the Casino doesn't change or achieve anything? No really? This is a) false and b) kind of the point, but more on that in a minute.
I don't even want to go in the gross misreadings that abound in the right-wing sphere, where Star Wars was "ruined" by the fact that an Asian-American actor has a major speaking role and women aren't told by men what to do (seriously, there's a host of criticism in that vein from the #Gamergate-scum around).
"The Last Jedi" is about several things, which makes it the most complicated and ambitious movie in the saga so far:
- It has a whole meta-narrative going on about Star Wars and its place in popculture.
- It has a major thematic exploration of the question of hope and inspiration for rebellion.
- It is a contemplation on failure.
- A major theme is how nostalgia can be a dead-end (which is also part of the meta-narrative).
- It provides complete character arcs for Rey, Luke, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren that tie back into the themes discussed above.
So buckle up, this is going to be a long ride.
The meta-narrative - when the movie knows its part 8 of a series
The whole movie is incredibly conscious about the fact that it's the eight part of a series, and the characters themselves are, too. This was true to some extent of "The Force Awakens" a well, but here, there is a whole lot of fourth-wall breaking going on. Just some examples:
- Luke telling R2 that showing him the old message by Leia ("help me Obi-Wan Kenobi") was "a cheap move". Of course it is, but a main criticism for "The Force Awakens" was that it relied too heavily on nostalgia, so Luke is indirectly taking on episode 7 here, because it's a cheap more in-universe AND out-universe.
- Snoke telling Kylo to get rid of this "ridiculous helmet", which is of course to be viewed in the light of Darth Vader's iconic headgear, which Kylo - being an emo Darth Vader fanboy per excellence - tries to emulate. We will come back to this in Kylo's arc, but the fact that many viewers see him (rightfully) as pathetic fully syncs with this sequence.
- When Rey lures the TIEs away from the secret base, we get the line that "they really hate that ship". This line doesn't make much sense based only on the new movies, since the First Order didn't actually interact with it except for the two TIEs in "The Force Awakens". But "they" of course means bad guys, and the line is fully conflating the First Order and the Empire, making a meta-joke about it.
- There is a very Anime/70s-Kung-Fu asthetic in the early scenes. From Snoke's guard and golden bathrobe and Rey's whole cloth and hair style (very Anime) to Luke's cloth and dialogue (very Kung-Fu-master-y), the asthetic is pervasive and is gradually put away during the movie (Rey gets rid of her hair knots for casual semi-open hair, and Luke switches his sensei-robes for some badass-stuff). Another thing deliberately calling back imagery from old-time movies is the bombing run on the Dreadnought, which could be directly taken from "Memphis Belle".
- The whole sequence in Snoke's throne room is an absolute riff on expectations (but we will come back to that in the nostalgia theme section). Suffice to say, Snoke perceives himself to be the Emperor 2.0, but he really isn't. So the plot armor he thinks he has does not protect him from Kylo.
- Rey's whole fantasy construct of her family being super-mysterious (see below) is grounded in the fact that for seven movies now, the Skywalkers have dominated everything and their bloodline is the single most driving factor in the universe.
- And then of course there's the whole meta-motive of "this is not going to end the way you think", in which director Rian Johnson repeatedly sets up a story development that's usual Star Wars fare, but then puts it on its head. Examples include Leia's miracuous rescue from her expected death, Snoke's sudden demise, the secret of Rey's parentage, Rose's thwarting of Finn's sacrifice, Poe's useless missions, Luke's not-sacrifice, Holdo knowing what she's doing and DJ's real betrayal, just to name the most important ones.
A lot of misunderstandings come from mistaking the character arcs for what they are. So let's look at them in turn.
Rey is starting the movie being very confused. She's feeling a strong and unique power in her, but doesn't know how to contain it. But, and that's her great hope, when she finds a mentor, she can be trained in the ways of the force.
The second setup of her character arc is her building a fantasy construct around her identity. That's why she HAS to believe that her parents are something special. They simply CAN'T just have abandoned her on Jakku, right? And so she could become the next Luke Skywalker.
However, Rey is disappointed in both cases. Ahch-To doesn't provide her the answer (but rather a mirror, because subtle this movie is not) to her parentage, but rather tells her to find strength and identity in herself. Luke, on the other hand, refuses to train her, and can't tell her much more beyond "don't believe the mumbo-jumbo about light side and dark side that everyone kept blabbering about for eight movies now". Both disappointments open her up to the temptation by Kylo Ren.
Kylo offers her not only the secret of her ancestry, but also someone who can share her experiences (being extremely powerful and frightened by it, disappointed by Luke). Being the hero of the saga, Rey of course turns him down, but the temptation IS incredibly strong. And since Kylo is in turn tempted by her, as he was by Han in "The Force Awakens", this dynamic is mutually reinforcing. More on that later.
Rey rejects Kylo's vision and finds her own identity. By doing that, she accidentally becomes the new beacon of hope for the newly founded rebellion as well as the newly-to-find Jedi. She is "The Last Jedi" only for a very short period of time. More on that later.
Finn starts the movie in basically the same place as he left "The Force Awakens" (he begins it in a stasis capsule, because again, subtle this movie is not): he wants to find his friend Rey, which is a fundamentally selfish motivation, and doesn't give a damn about the military aims of the Resistance, not ready to take responsibility for anything other than his close circle. Individuality in extremis, and no sense for the collective interest. Meeting Rose, he's detained as a deserter.
However, Rose is teaching him the virtue of engaging with someting bigger than yourself. So they start the mission to disable the tracking device on Snoke's command ship, wherein Finn takes great risks in order to save everyone in the Resistance. Granted, that's not a lot of people.
While he is conducting that mission, he fails spectacularily (the mission fails because of ILLEGAL PARKING THEIR SPACE SHIP, for christsakes), and the whole thing turns into splapstick territory really quickly, including riding through a casino on alien horses, a weird, drunk ally and a wild chase with an escape that blows enemy space ships around like leaves. All that's missing is the typical comedy music of a Twenty's silent movie.
However, during this mission, something important happens. Finn passes on the lessons he learned from Rose about the importance of their ideals and hopes to the next generation and helps them a bit (and gets helped in turn). Keep that in mind for later and remember that the movie is closing with these kids, so you can safely assume that this plot really, really is important and not a useless sideshow. It directly leads to him identifying as "Rebel" scum before Phasma. We'll talk more about it in the section on themes.
Finn is taking his cues from Poe now, though, and tries to heroically go boom during the final battle, sacrificing himself in a useless run on the big door opener cannon. Rose rescues him from this fate, telling him the last and most important message of his arc in the movie: "Fight for the things you love, not the things you hate." Believe me, we're coming back to this.
3) Poe Dameron
Over to Poe. He starts the movie, in Leia's words, as a "trigger-happy flyboy". His own and only strategy is, again Leia, "to jump in an X-Wing and blow stuff up". He constantly engages in improbable missions to achieve some sort of tactical victory, like when he rams the Resistance bombers into the Dreadnought. However, as Leia tries to teach him, this isn't a good idea.
Poe's missions have three consequences.
a) They have huge losses. The initial bombing run costs the Resistance all their bombers and over half their A-Wings.
b) Insignificant tactial victories. The bombing run gains the Reistance one dead Dreadnought, which cuts down their pursuing force from six Star Destroyers to five. This means exactly squat, because they're still outnumbered by a multifold.
c) Beyond inflicting heavy losses, Poe's missions also endanger the strategic situation of the Resistance. Had Poe not sent Finn and Rose to kill the tracking device, Admiral Holdo's plan would have worked, and all the remaining Resistance would have made it safely down to the planet without being detected. However, because of Poe, they lose almost everything.
His big lesson, therefore, is that actually leading (which he needs to do, given Holdo's demise and Leia's death between movies) requires more than "blowing stuff up". He needs to engage in politics, diplomacy, PR and underhand tactics. His understanding of this, and the completion of his arc, is shown when it's him who understands that Luke is only buying them time when he goes out engaging Kylo.
4) Luke Skywalker
Speaking of Luke, he starts the movie as a hermit in a hut (really the only retirement plan the Jedi seem to have), refusing to fill out the titular role of "The Last Jedi". He made a mistake with training Kylo, first not seeing his descent into the Dark Side and then overreacting and trying to kill him. He has some self-criticism, which is good, but said criticism is cranked up to eleven and leading to his hubris of thinking he's "The Last Jedi" in truth and that "it's time for the Jedi to end".
That's true in a way, but Luke is actually refusing to be a part of the story. That's his very own hubris, after the hubris of thinking he could make a new Jedi order where the old one failed. While he understands that the Jedi teachings of seperating light side and dark side failed, he is too freightened to actually make good on that concept.
In the end, even as he finally engages Kylo Ren and goes full Obi-Wan on him, he refuses to take part in the plot anymore than necessary - made clear by his refusal to actually leave Ahch-To. His projection doesn't earn him anything; he still dies. But he didn't actually go anyplace, and that's good enough for him as he leaves the narative forever, having given over the reins to a new generation of Jedi. And Rey, by "lifting rocks", shows that she's taken that to heart.
5) Kylo Ren / Ben Solo
Kylo has the by far most interesting arc, and since he's the most interesting new character of the franchise, that's only fitting. He started Episode VII as an emo Darth Vader fanboy, trying hard to be just as cool as his grandpa, which of course he wasn't. To achieve that, he betrayed the light side of his heritage in Episode VII, killing his father.
In Episode VIII, he therefore, humiliated by Snoke, starts searching for an identity of his own. That's why he destroys "that ridiculous mask". When he kills Snoke, he completes this part of hus journey by also betraying the dark side, positioning himself between both extremes, much like it was prophesized for Anakin Skywalker back in the day - "balance to the force", and all that. "The Last Jedi" achieved what the prequels couldn't and gave some meaning to that phrase.
Kylo Ren is, however, above all things alone. He feels a great emptiness, as he's feeling a strong force inside him he can't really place, and Snoke's teachings obviously failed to alleviate any of this. So Rey for him is a strong temptation. He needs her to join him, to fill up that hole inside him. He can be her big, evil brother, and a part of Rey wants just that. But Rey refuses him, and so needs something else.
He becomes the new Surpreme Leader, taking out all his frustration on his new punching-ball General Hux, trying to use the mechanism of war to get rid of his inner demons (as when Luke shows up: "MORE GUNS!"). Of course, nothing of this works, and Kylo ends the movie as alone as he started it, but now the overall ruler of the galaxy. I'd wager that episode IX will have something to say about an omnipotent man-child ruling the strongest military force there is.
As mentioned in the beginning, there's a lot of themes going on in this movie, and they all tie together more or less elegantly. We'll tackle them one by one.
1) Nostalgia as a dead end
Nostalgia in this movie is a dead end for the characters. On the meta-level, which we already talked about, this was a necessary development. Critics were right to notice after "The Force Awakens" that you can't run on recycled plots from the original forever. But in-universe, the characters are also suffering whenever they resort to nostalgia.
There's Kylo Ren, who can't succeed at anything as long as he wants to become "just as strong as Darth Vader", in Rey's words. He needs to find his own identity instead of trying to recreate an old one.
Then there's Snoke, who thinks he's the Emperor. It's the genre-savvyness of the whole movie again: Snoke KNOWS that the Emperor is only killed in the finale of the third movie, so he deems himself safe. In fact, maybe he can short-circuit the process by forcing the confrontation before Luke completes his Jedi-training! Rey, I mean, of course. But Snoke's in the wrong movie. He's not the arch-villain. He's a road block.
Then there's Luke, who thinks he has to copy Obi-Wan, living in a hut and hiding from the world and all. Nothing good comes off that. He needs to engage with Kylo, he needs to help put matters aright, but he refuses to do so out of a wrong sense of the past. It takes Yoda's lightning to snap him out of that.
There's Rey, who thinks she needs to become the next Luke Skywalker and can't think of any way to progress her story and her cause than by recreating his life story, including finding the hermit and training with him. Only when Luke lets her down and the mirror image on Ahch-To shows her that she needs to find a way herself does she break her own passiveness and actually go her own way.
And then we have Poe, who desperately, desperately wants to recreate the Trench Run, the Battle of Endor and even the Attack on Starkiller Base. He fails horribly, because that only works in a traditional Star Wars story, and this isn't a traditional Star Wars story.
2) Good and Evil
The movie is determined to muddle the borders between good and evil quite a bit, of course not without taking a firm step in the end. For example, the arms merchants supply both the First Order AND the Resistance with weapons and get rich, Kylo is deserting Jedi AND Sith, Rey is also refusing to become a traditional Jedi, and the Resistance has no problem using underhand tactics and deception to win the day.
The movie even explicitly states that you don't win just because you're th good guys, and that evil mostly succeeds because of the indifference of the universe at large.
However, there's not much doubt who's ultimately on the right side. Just follow the side without Nazi uniforms that is helped along by cute critters.
3) Going in circles
The story has two giant circle movements built within it, one for the rebellion, one for the Jedi.
The Resistance starts the movie dying, small and on the run. Every engagement is bringing them closer to the inevitable end. However, during their travails, they plant the seeds of a new rebellion, so that when the Resistance dies in the end (I mean, they all fit in the Millenium Falcon now, that's bascially "Game Over"). But the final shot tells us there will be a new rebellion against the whole damn system.
The Jedi also start the movie dying, small and hounded. But every engagement leaves them actually stronger, which is why Luke's nihilistic apathy is so damning. Luke fears his old hubris of thinking he can solve the galaxy's problems so much that he creates a new hubris of him being "The Last Jedi", which he really is not. As the closing shot makes clear: there will always be new Jedi, in whatever form.
4) War isn't the solution
The most important lesson of the whole movie, however, concerns war. The story goes out of its way to tell you that "jumping in an X-Wing and blowing stuff up" is not the solution. Consider:
The Resistance is losing whenever they turn around and engage in a fight (which is the essence of Poe's arc during the movie). They essentially are a band of fanatics conducting suicide attacks. Everyone of their attacks ends with the ones carrying them out dying (or near enough, in Poe's and Finn's case).
This is a problem, however, because Poe's tactical victories do not gain them anything. The reason: the Resistance gets no supplies. Since the movie is so subtle about its themes, the whole fleet IS RUNNING OUT OF FUEL with no possibility of resupply. Their resource losses are all permanent. The First Order's are not.
The final battle makes this clear visually. Every step on that doomed planet leaves bloody imprints. Just in case you missed that metaphor. Subtlety and all. It's only when the Resistance stops waging war that they actually achieve successes. Which leads us to...
5) Rebellions are built on hope
As Jyn Erso informed us, rebellions are built on hope. But the Resistance provides none. It's no coincedence that they're not called "the Rebellion" as of old. They are only resisting, without being clear of what they're actually for. The Republic is dead, after all.
This is why the galaxy is so indifferent to the struggle: the Resistance does not provide anything that would be enticing, and as the Casino shows, the First Order gives enough to enough people that everyone can arrage themselves with it. When Leia sends out the distress call, everyone expects The People(tm) to show up and save the day. Yet as it is unmistakenly made clear, everyone receives the signal, yet no one comes. And why would they? All the Resistance offers is yet another desperate last stand, yet another pyrrhic victory, yet another whole lot of sacrifice, just so the First Order (or whatever follows) can come back even stronger.
It's Poe and Rose on their mission that plant the seeds of an actual rebellion, because they show someting worth fighting for: not "blowing stuff up", which is the single thing Poe can offer, but rather to change the whole system and create a better galaxy, with all the hazyness in the details that you'd expect a Star Wars movie to have about these concepts , so that "Drain the Swamp" and "Occupy Wallstreet" can equally find themselves in the concept. Mirrors, after all.
As I hope to have shown, the movie is quite thick on themes, and that's why a lot of the stuff that seems pointless at first actually leads to something on a narrative level. Again, consider the final scene: it's given to the nameless child, telling the story of Luke and Vader, wearing the ring with the symbol of the rebellion and showing signs of the Force. If you think that a pointless diversion would be made the defining closing shot of an 180 minute movie, I can't really help you.