Timely Movie Review: The Last Jedi

I’m proud to say that I made it to The Last Jedi spoiler-free.

But I did collect one bit of relevant information prior to seeing it.  I saw that the Rotten Tomatoes score was a strong 93%, with a robust sample size of over 300 reviews.  It was an even more impressive 96% with top critics.  What gave me pause, though, was that the audience score tracked 40 points below the critics’ score.  I had never heard of that kind of spread in that direction.

Once I saw Episode VIII, the deficit made perfect sense.

The Last Jedi feels at once too much and too little.  Laid out on paper, the number of elements Rian Johnson attempted to cram into this film seems excessive.  Episode VIII is the longest Star Wars film ever at a whopping two hours and 33 minutes, yet, at the same time, it also doesn’t seem long enough to flesh out all of the necessary components.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like.  The battle sequences are good, although there was probably one too many (again, note that runtime).  The score, as always, was phenomenal.  I thought Luke’s story had the correct conclusion.  Mark Hamill played him with the right amount of cheekiness, mixed properly with the cynicism he’s acquired since we last knew him in Episode VI.  Luke has always been my favorite character, and I thought Hamill’s performance was pitch-perfect, despite the fact that Luke is excessively jaded at the outset, a curious choice with which Hamill himself sharply disagreed.

And maybe that’s the first red flag.  This doesn’t seem like the same Luke anymore.  There were also other curiosities.  I think it’s wise not to gaze too deeply at a film that includes giant animals running through a space casino or people fighting with laser swords.  Having said that, I was puzzled by a few of Episode VIII’s numerous details.[1]

[I shouldn’t even have to say this, but there are SPOILERS ahead.  Fair warning.]

There were some plot holes, which wouldn’t bother me too much, except that they seemed to be the result of cutting little bits of scenes for the sake of time.  For instance, I’m not sure how Finn and Rose suddenly survive their executions when everybody around them gets killed, and Captain Phasma goes from standing right next to them to being on the other side of the hangar.  Again, the film is TWO-AND-A-HALF HOURS LONG. You should have enough time to explain everything.  If you don’t, have fewer things to explain.

Then there are the “rules” that seemingly went out the window.  Look, I’m a big proponent suspension of disbelief and world-building.  You can lay down whatever rules you like, and I’ll follow.  But, once you lay them down, you need to honor the parameters of the world you created.  Or, at least, not dispense with them too casually.

In Episode VIII, we see a lot of new Force-related powers that come out of nowhere.  Astral projection?  Being able to survive the vacuum of space (and recover in time for the final act)?  Some kind of mental connection across the galaxy?  Force ghosts being able to interact with the physical world, up to and including summoning weather and starting fires?!?

Ok, I guess.  But mostly unnecessary.  My problem with them is different than that of the super-nerds.  I don’t mind, per se, that this space magic can now do things we never saw before.  Remember that the Emperor suddenly shoots lightning out of his hands in the final minutes of Return of the Jedi, and everyone thought that was awesome.

No, instead, I mind them when they feel like “cheating” to access shortcuts, or to resolve problems with the narrative, rather than to add to it.  We get some of that here.

Also on the Jedi front, points that both of the previous trilogies drilled home included that you have to start training Jedi as soon as possible, that you have to weed out pupils who are prone to negative emotions, and that the process is long and arduous.

Here, Luke reluctantly agrees to train Rey, in a manner of speaking, despite her self-admitted fear, her anger / resentment toward her parents, her relatively advanced age, and the fact that she’s trying to leave ASAP.

And then there’s the humor.  Some of it was in-line with Star Wars sensibilities.  Other examples were definitely not.  Confession: I actually enjoyed the bit at the beginning with Poe and Hux.  Probably did one lap too many, but the premise was fine.

Some of the other bits seemed out-of-place.  Things like Rey asking Ren to “put a towel on.”  Or giving a couple of comedic moments to a villain (Hux) during the final battle sequence.  They didn’t bother me too much, but, as with the new Jedi powers, I remember thinking, “hardcore fans will not like this at all” when I was watching.

We also had the Laura Dern problem, where an important character with a strange casting choice gets introduced out of nowhere only to serve as a self-sacrificial deus ex machina to . . . I don’t know . . . teach Poe a hard lesson about leadership?  And why is Dern’s Holdo’s sacrifice heroic, but, minutes later, Finn’s attempted sacrifice (thwarted by Rose) is folly?

Going back to Poe’s arc for a moment, there, again, we had another problem.  It felt like we were spending way too much time over the course of what is basically a single, extended battle to give Poe a crash course in how to be a leader.

That may not have been such an issue if there hadn’t also been that out-of-place hacking / tech detour crammed in as well.  Plot-wise, that might have been my biggest complaint.  Wayyyyyyy too many moving parts.

“Ok, the First Order is pursuing us.  Let’s come up with a nutty plan, then gratuitously bring back Maz from Episode VII for a phone call, then go to another planet to find this special person, only to wind up meeting and bringing back a different person, who then winds up going through with 95% of a plan only to betray us.  Oh, and, somehow, all of this happens within the confines of an 18-hour timeframe.”

Enough complaints.  On the positive side of the ledger, the movie really picked up toward the end.  Once Rey is aboard Snoke’s ship, there’s a 30-minute segment that’s extremely strong.  And I thought the twist of killing Snoke was maybe the highlight of the entire film.  It was also a hugely important plot point in order to rehabilitate Ren as a major threat after a film in which he wound up being bested by a complete novice (albeit after suffering a severe injury).  The reveal (I think?) that Rey’s parents were just nobodies is also very good.

That brings me to my last observation.  I’m not sure if these are even Star Wars films anymore, and I know exactly why.

Creatively speaking, these movies are now being pulled in three very distinct directions.  First, there’s fan service.  Bringing back old characters.  Throwing in some in-jokes.  Creating some parallels to IV-V-VI.

The problem is that going too far in that direction is a magnet for criticism.  Some attacked Episode VII for being far too much like Episode IV.  It was apparent in Episode VIII that they were, at some points, overcompensating because of that fear of looking like a rehash.

The most glaring example was the soldier who reaches down to the white, granular substance just before the final battle, tastes it(?!?), and then says, “Salt!”, as if to let the audience know that “HEY, THIS ISN’T SNOW LIKE HOTH!  SEE?!?  I KNOW WE GOT SOME AT-ATS OVER THERE AND STUFF, BUT, TRUST ME, THIS IS DIFFERENT!”

But the pull to move away from IV-V-VI can also lead to neat twists like the head bad guy suddenly getting killed in the second film of the trilogy, or Rey’s parents being junk traders.

That’s connected to the second direction: Forging a new path.

If there’s any meta message to be gleaned from Episode VIII, it’s that the old needs to be washed away.  Hell, Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker explicitly agree on some version of this point!  Ren says to forget about the Jedi and the Sith and the Empire and the Rebellion.  Clean slate.  Luke says that the Jedi’s mixed record proves that they were pretty bad at this noble pursuit they attempted (not to mention hypocritical), and that they gotta end.  Only in the last half of the last act of, uh, The Last Jedi does he revise his position that maybe the galaxy is better off with Jedi than without them.

But, hell, even Yoda shows up and literally burns the sacred tree at the original Jedi temple.  This is not particularly subtle, but it’s important.  Luke and Ren aren’t just talking to Rey when they say the old ways need to die.

They’re talking to the audience.

There are other little hints, too.  Luke literally throws away his lightsaber when Rey presents it to him.  Kylo Ren smashes his Vaderesque mask.  The creators of the current trilogy want us to let go of much of our nostalgia—nostalgia that was so crucial to Episode VII.

If anything, this is the “message” of Episode VIII.  We’re moving in a new direction.  This series is continuing on, and it won’t necessarily be defined by “Jedi mythology” anymore.  And it definitely won’t be defined by Han (killed), Luke (dead), and Leia (sadly, Carrie Fisher also deceased).

Make no mistake.  Aside from a scene or two with the inevitable Luke ghost cameo, Episode IX will purely be the story of the fate of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren.

But there’s one more “pull” to discuss.  It’s the one by the cinematic landscape in which Star Wars now finds itself.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has created a new standard for film franchises, just as Star Wars created a new standard for blockbusters back in 1977.  Understandably, there have been elements of the MCU that have influenced other films.  What’s novel here is that Star Wars has shifted from “innovator” to “follower.”

The increasing number of important characters.  The added (arguably unnecessary) plot minutiae.  The more frequent use of humor, almost to the point of being tongue-in-cheek.

These are all hallmarks of the MCU.

Star Wars’ creative team may feel the need to borrow some of the stylistic choices of the MCU in an effort not to look passe or stodgy or outdated.  I also mentioned back during my review of Episode VII that:

I do worry about oversaturation.  As much as I enjoyed Episode VII, I’m concerned that the litany of Star Wars films we’re about to get will fatigue casual fans, as has happened with me and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Hell, I’ve still never seen Avengers 2 or Iron Man 3.  By the time we get through Rogue One and the Han Solo and Boba Fett films (along with Episode VIII), will the appetite for even more films be as strong as it is now?  Maybe, maybe not.

Just as the franchise’s business model is starting to resemble the MCU more closely, so, too, have some of the pieces of the MCU “formula” permeated the Star Wars creative process.

This is a fairly profound development.  Remember that George Lucas’ primary inspiration were serials like Flash Gordon.  Simple. Straightforward.  From as far back as the 1930s.  Designed to a great extent with kids in mind.

He elevated that style into the elegant simplicity of the storytelling found in the Original Trilogy.  The latest trilogy, obviously not concocted by Lucas, feels different—particularly Episode VIII.

Whereas Lucas introduced scores of very minor characters for the purposes of creating action figures, Episode VIII followed the MCU playbook of seeing how many pivotal (or at least memorable) characters they could get into one 2.5-hour movie.

All of which brings me full circle: The reason why the movie is so long, yet also feels like it’s running in place at times, is because the creators are trying to serve the three masters of which I just spoke.  That’s what makes it so difficult to get everything you need into the movie, despite its substantial runtime.

And that sends me to my very last point: I haven’t decided whether (or how much) I enjoyed this movie.

I understand the need to shake off nostalgia.  I appreciate the meaning of letting old characters meet meaningful ends.  However, if we completely shake the Etch-a-Sketch and turn this into just another franchise with superpowered beings, or just another good vs. evil fantasy movie for (mostly) kids, doesn’t that make it less special?  George Lucas had his faults (DIALOGUE!), but he also had a nearly perfect handle on big-picture storytelling that emanated from a place of wonder and magic and primal mythology.

After Episode VIII, does the current trilogy maintain that connection?  Does it want to?  Is it still a film series grounded in the simple and pure adventure of a 1930s serial and the philosophy of Joseph Campbell?  Or, cinematically speaking, does it come from the same place as the MCU, or Hunger Games, or Harry Potter, or X-Men?

In short, is this still truly Star Wars?

More importantly, does that matter?

The MCU has a lot of fun movies in it.  Even if Star Wars isn’t “Star Wars” anymore, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.  The question is whether the loss of that old essence means that the series is now just one of several options in an almost-impossibly-crowded landscape—a landscape that didn’t exist even during the Prequel Trilogy era.

If the series has “evolved” to forge a new path, and, in the process, has become more like its contemporaries, does that make it less enjoyable or less impressive as a cinematic experience?  And, if it is diminished somehow, does that matter at all to folks who aren’t old enough to remember seeing at least some of I-VI in a theater?

I’m not sure.  And I probably won’t be until I purchase the blu-ray version and watch it at least two more times.  I am sure about this much: The Force Awakens didn’t leave me feeling ambivalent.  It was fun, I liked it, and it was definitely a Star Wars movie.  I knew all of those things by the time the end credits rolled.

With The Last Jedi, I simply don’t.

____

[1] Honestly, as is my wont, my fiercest complaint is about something dumb and inconsequential: Why doesn’t Chewbacca eat the roasted porg?  The thing is already cooked!  It’s not like it’s going to suddenly regrow its head and jump off the spit if Chewie is pressured into having a change of heart by the other porgs!
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One Response to Timely Movie Review: The Last Jedi

  1. Pingback: Best of 2017 | The Axis of Ego

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