Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Films of 2017: The Last Jedi


[Warning: This is the most super-spoiler-y review of The Last Jedi ever. Do not read it if you haven’t seen the film, or want to be surprised by it.]

[Second warning: Please re-read first warning. This review is chock full of spoilers on a level never before seen on this blog, or on any blog, in the history of the Internet.]


The Last Jedi (2017) has arrived, and divided fans and critics fiercely. Some fans feel it is the greatest Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back (1980), while others feel it is the worst one since Attack of the Clones (2002).

Notice, that -- in both instances -- The Last Jedi is being compared specifically to its reflection in a previous trilogy: the second part of that particular movement. The Empire Strikes Back, it is understood, defines a good second chapter in a trilogy. Attack of the Clones apparently fails that test dramatically.

And so The Last Jedi…has created a schism in the Force.

But here’s the truth, from someone who has absolutely no horse in this race: The Last Jedi is neither the greatest nor the worst Star Wars film, and it features both great highs and great lows. It deserves some praise, for certain, and also some criticism. Like any other Star Wars movie you can think of, it is both highly enjoyable, and simultaneously, highly imperfect.

What I find so relentlessly intriguing about The Last Jedi, however is the specific manner of its success and failure.  The film succeeds on the basis of ambitious storytelling, character development, and most crucially, overall theme, as I will explain below. These are the “big” issues of a movie: what does it mean, and how does it express its meaning?

Where The Last Jedi fails egregiously, I would argue, is in the basics of movie-making: plotting and editing.

In other words, the big picture “stuff” of The Last Jedi is largely terrific, and the basic “stuff” is, at times, horrendous.

Where does assessment that leave us?

With a flawed but absolutely fascinating Star Wars film that will be evaluated and re-evaluated for years to come.

I know, you don’t read a review for even-handedness. You read it to know where the reviewer stands. So where do I stand, ultimately, when I can see both the positive and negative elements associated with the film?

If choose a side I must, finally, I must count the positive elements as more important, if only slightly.

In my books, and here on my blog, I often write about how a work of art reflects the time period that gave life to it. The Last Jedi, accordingly, is the most populist film in the Star Wars saga, a rallying cry for the “resistance” movement in the Trump Era. The film reminds us that failure is not an end, but a beginning; a lesson to learn from, And The Last Jedi also reminds us that we all have a voice in our future. Like the Force, we can choose to be “woke,” or choose to accept the status quo.

On those grounds, The Last Jedi is relevant and provocative, and the Star Wars film we need, right now, in this moment of national darkness.

It’s a terrible shame, then, that some of the worthwhile messaging in The Last Jedi is lost in the oppressive, repetitive cross-cutting, and in the weak “go-nowhere” narrative.


“We are what they grow beyond.”

While Rey (Daisy Ridley) contacts the long-missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To, the Resistance attempts to flee an attack by the First Order.

General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is injured in an assault on the Resistance fleet after it is learned that the First Order has developed “hyperspace tracking” technology, and can trace escaping ships to their destination.  Unable to travel to hyperspace without facing attack, the fleet limps away lamely as the First Order picks off ships one at a time.

This strategy of limping away from battle doesn’t sit well with hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who launches an insurrection against Leia’s chosen successor, Holdo (Lara Dern). Meanwhile he sends Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to Canto Bight, a casino world to find a hacker who can disable the First Order’s hyperspace tracking device.

Elsewhere, Rey learns that Luke wants nothing of the Force, or the battle with the First Order, and has, in fact, cut himself off from the Force. Luke trains Rey in the ways of the Jedi only grudgingly, and seems afraid of her abilities. When Rey connects with Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) through the Force, Luke can’t stop her from going to him, and attempting to sway him from the Dark Side of the Force.

Unfortunately, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is behind the Force connection Rey and Ren share, and now Rey is in his manipulative hands.  This fact leads to a change in the First Order, and a new stage in the relationship between Kylo and Rey.

Finally, Luke is visited by an old friend, who urges him to learn from his failures, and pick a side in the upcoming battle; a battle which could see the end of the Resistance, or the beginning of a new hope.



Every word of what you said is wrong.”

My greatest criticism of The Force Awakens (2015) was (and remains) the rehashed nature of the narrative. The film slavishly recreated the details of A New Hope (1977), down to a third iteration of the Death Star (called Starkiller Base, but still, really, a Death Star…). The Last Jedi addresses this sense of “sameness” beautifully, taking the Star Wars saga in bold and challenging directions. If you’ve seen the film, you know that -- love it or hate it -- the film takes creative chances.

For example, The Last Jedi reveals new iterations of Force powers, ones that allow Leia to survive in the vacuum of space, and Luke to astral-project himself across the galaxy. I have absolutely no problem with any of this new information. Indeed, I would not want the Force to be limited only to what we have seen in the movies in the past, and it is wonderful to see Force sensitive individuals “stretch” their use of the mystical power that binds the universe together.

More than that, it is refreshing that director Rian Johnson has thought about The Force in a way that is bold and surprising but not at all out of line with what we know. Luke’s feat, during the climax, is rousing, and a wonderful apotheosis for the beloved character. Consider that Luke has been defined, since The Empire Strikes Back, as a character who always focused on the future, or some other place, not where “he was” or “what he was doing.” Appropriately, his final act in this mortal coil is to transform that weakness, or character flaw, into a strength; projecting himself to the one place in the galaxy where he can do the most good. For once, his mind being in another place is exactly the right answer.

Similarly, the movie goes in a surprising direction with Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order. It says something about the audience’s limited imagination that everyone just assumed he would be around until the final film of the trilogy, leaving Kylo Ren permanently in the apprentice role. Again, just because that’s what we saw with Vader and Palpatine, it is not how things must be. Once more, the writer-director answers the biggest criticism of The Force Awakens by pushing the saga in new and often shocking directions. We don’t have to wait for the third chapter to see Snoke fall.

Better yet, many of these new directions are aligned to a larger theme, and purpose in The Last Jedi. To sum up the film’s theme, it is that failure makes us stronger. “The greatest teacher, failure is,” Yoda informs Luke at one point in The Last Jedi, and that wisdom seems to be the galvanizing thought of this second chapter. Indeed, it is through the failure of the main characters, primarily, that this film expresses itself as a second chapter, one of reverses and down-turns. 


Poe fails dramatically, unable to save the Resistance cruisers, or even take command of the fleet. He learns it was a failure to even think in the terms he did, as playing the “hero” when grown-ups like Holdo and Leia already had a plan, minus the heroic theatrics, to save their fleet.


Finn fails radically in the film too. He not only fails to wrangle the right hacker on Canto Bight, he fails to disable the First Order’s tracking device aboard the dreadnought. Later, he even fails in his bid to take down a dangerous cannon-weapon, and go out in a blaze of glory. He is dealt set-back after set-back, only to find -- at the end of this road of failure -- a friendship he never saw coming, with Rose. That friendship could be the beginning of something more.  Had Finn succeeded in his earlier endeavors, perhaps that doorway would not have been open to him. Failure opened a door for him.


Rey fails too. She fails to turn Kylo Ren to the light side of the Force, and nearly dies at the hand of Snoke. On a simpler level, she fails to get Luke to invest in her training, and in the battle for freedom in the galaxy. Luke is right when he tells that things won’t go as she expects. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t learn something.

And I expect that this is where Star Wars fans really get upset. Luke Skywalker himself grapples with failure in this film.

If The Last Jedi belongs to any character, it belongs to Luke. He clearly sees and feels his failure to stop Kylo Ren’s descent to the dark side of the Force. And in a very clear reference to the first trilogy, the prequels, he notes too, the Jedi Order’s failure to stop the rise of Darth Sidious (Palpatine) in the first place. All around him -- and in the mirror too -- Luke sees only his own failure, and how he failed to live up to the Luke Skywalker legend. But Yoda’s Force ghost appears and makes it clear that we learn best from failure. This message seems to resonate with him.

Mark Hamill is terrific in the film, and I believe The Last Jedi represents his best performance as Luke. Too often, mainstream films forget that we are not complete and “grown” at forty, fifty, or even sixty. We grow and change through our whole lives. It’s not just the young who face challenges, or hurdles. The journey we saw Luke begin in the OT continues and concludes meaningfully in The Last Jedi. He finally becomes the Jedi he always dreamed of becoming.

Luke saves the Resistance, one last time, lighting the spark that will rejuvenate “light” in the galaxy. We have every reason to expect that Finn, Poe, and Rey, fresh from their failures, will similarly bounce back, providing us the triumphant conclusion to the trilogy we all hope for in Episode IX.

The whole “failure” motif, which runs throughout The Last Jedi, also refers to our contemporary politics, make no mistake. For those who feel bereft and devastated by the most recent presidential election, the film is a reminder to keep up the fight.  I know there will be some readers who call “foul” and note that Star Wars films are not political.

But, of course, history reveals them to be wrong.

George Lucas has acknowledged on many occasions that he wrote the Star Wars story as a deliberate response to the Nixon Presidency, and his fear at the time that Nixon would oversee a move from democracy to authoritarianism.

Likewise, Revenge of the Sith all but echoes George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us, or you’re against us” language, and equates such “absolute” thinking with the behavior of Sith Lords. 

And now, The Last Jedi serves as a call -- right from its opening crawl -- for “RESISTANCE” (all-caps) in the face of what seems a lost cause, or a lost country. Very clearly, Kylo Ren, is our Donald Trump corollary here.  He is a faux populist who tells Rey that he wants to “let the past die,” and start fresh, draining the swamp as it were, to use a familiar phrase. But we know from a year of Trump’s Presidency that the swamp is now exponentially deeper, and that our country is being plundered by corrupt, self-interested plutocrats.


It is clear that faux populism in a desperate time gave us Trump. Similarly, we know it would be a grave mistake to trust the future to Kylo Ren. He wants to “kill the past” but for him, all that really means is that he gets to rule the galaxy.  The people and their needs are forgotten, as they are in Trump’s Administration. I have read that Star Wars fans are upset, feeling that Ren’s call to kill the past is actually a message to Star Wars fans to forget the franchise’s past.  To them, I say, not so fast. Remember who is making this call, and remember what he really desires: absolute power.

Again, folks can complain about Star Wars being political, but it has always been political, and it has always been liberal too. Trust your feelings. You know it to be true.

Accordingly, The Last Jedi is full-on populist/progressive in outlook. We see on Canto Bight, a world where the rich and powerful live in luxury, unconcerned about the war raging everywhere. Indeed, many of the folks enjoying the high life at the casino sell weapons to both the First Order and the Resistance. Like Trump himself, these folks don’t really care about ideology, they care about making money, about fleecing everybody else to maintain their status as “elite.”

Rey's lineage is another example of the populist outlook of this installment of the saga. Kylo Ren tells Rey that her parents are nobodies, just drunks from Jakku, and that, accordingly she "has no role in this story." 

But, once more, everyone has a role in the story. You don't have to have a name like Skywalker, or Kenobi, or Solo to be important to this galaxy far, far, away. Just like in real life, our leaders shouldn't have to be members of the Trump, Bush, or Clinton family to wield power. 

The movie’s sense of populism extends to the awakened Force. A stable boy slave, like Rey -- a desert scavenger -- is sensitive to it. This is a metaphor for individual power in the political arena in 2017. So many people feel powerless today in America, unaware that they still hold great power as long as they make their voice heard (which, frankly, just got exponentially harder with the anti-democratic repeal of Net Neutrality).

But for the time being, we all still possess power to resist the corruption, greed, and foreign collusion we see emanating from our ethically-compromised“leader” in the White House. We just have to let our activism “awaken,” and fight back.  The message of The Last Jedi is The Force is with us, and will be with us, and so we must stand up and use it. Those without hope must “awaken” to the fact that even after a great defeat, they do possess power: to organize, protest, and most importantly, vote.

These qualities all make The Last Jedi a Star Wars film for 2017, just as Revenge of the Sith spoke trenchantly to 2005, or A New Hope did in the immediate post-Watergate era.

Where I believe The Last Jedi fails, however, is in terms of many of its specific plot lines and contrivances, not to mention the editing.

Much of the film is spent with a Resistance fleet crawling away from a First Order armada. The Resistance ships run out of fuel, and because they can be tracked in hyperspace, they get picked off one at a time.  The first thing to consider here is the bizarre notion that hyperspace tracking is a new or revolutionary development in Star Wars. A homing beacon on the Millennium Falcon allowed Darth Vader (and the Death Star) to track it to Yavin IV in Star Wars. That’s the same thing as hyperspace tracking, no? I fail to see the distinction, because a ship is tracked both ways, to its ultimate destination, with hyperspace as the route. By my reckoning, this kind of technology has been around at least thirty years, in-universe.

But let’s put this detail aside for a minute.

This movie asks us to believe that the First Order fleet -- which does possess plenty of fuel, ostensibly -- can’t make tiny jumps at hyperspace, and instantly catch up with the fleeing Resistance ships? The whole battle should be over in five minutes.  Even if we accept that the First Order fleet can’t catch up just by increasing speed a little, it could have sent fighters ahead, let them burn their fuel in the battle, and then refuel the craft when the dreadnoughts finally catch up.

Instead, the whole blooming movie -- Finn’s adventure on Canto Bight and Rey’s on Ahch-To -- occur while the Resistance fleet barely outruns the First Order ships. If Finn can get away to other planets, why can’t the Resistance fighters do the same? Why don’t they all launch escape pods or those convenient little transports and make a run to Canto Bight?

The movie-length, slow-motion crawl from the First Order gives one the hard-to-shake sense that The Last Jedi possesses absolutely no forward momentum; that the movie actually goes nowhere.

And this is perhaps the worst edited of all eight Star Wars films. The film is a never-ending series of periodic, choppy cross-cuts from one plot to the next. The result of the repressive “A story, B story, C story” editing is that we are never with Rey and Luke, or Leia and Poe, or Finn and Rose, long enough to truly glean a sense of place, time, or, significantly, scope. Ahch-to is beautiful, but we hardly get any time to marvel at its beauty, because the film is always cross-cutting to the next plot-line in a blunt, intrusive manner.

The editing style is a devastating miscalculation that makes The Last Jedi a film that is nearly impossible to be swept away by.  Finn’s plot-line is the weakest, but we seem to spend the most time on it, perhaps so that the film’s coda (with the stable boy’s awakening) has a dramatic pay off.

Another example of the lousy editing involves an attack on Leia’s cruiser, and the death of Admiral Ackbar. The blast hits, and Leia and the others are seen blown into space. The film then cuts away, to another scene, and it is absolutely impossible to concentrate on because we have just seen our beloved Leia blown into space, and have no idea that she possesses a “Force” power that can save her. Also, identification with Leia and her plight is lost via the editing. The scene would have worked much effectively if we had followed Leia into space, watched her nearly die, and summon up the Force all in one scene.

What else doesn’t work in The Last Jedi?

Captain Phasma is a terrible character, one resurrected only to be killed off yet again. She is perilously close to being a total joke at this point. If Phasma shows up again in Episode IX, only to be dispatched a third time, she will be remembered as Star Wars’ lamest and most incompetent villain.

If one thinks about it, the evil BB-8 droid on the dreadnought is a much more effective and sinister villain than Phasma ends up being in this film.  Maybe the droid should come back in Episode IX.

So Snoke is dead, in an effective surprise attack, Phasma is a joke, and we are left with Kylo Ren -- who can’t outfight a phantom -- as our main villain going into the third and last film of the trilogy.  He doesn’t exactly inspire fear or respect Kylo still has his emo temper tantrums, and he still hesitates when going in for the kill.  The Knights of Ren better show up to supplement him in Episode IX, or it’s going to be a short, lopsided finale. I feel this approach is a mistake. I understand the value of surprising us with Snoke’s death, and I like that moment, but the idea that this trilogy has a “plan” and a “direction” is in utter shambles after The Last Jedi.

Star Wars fans are up in arms for the way that The Last Jedi treats Luke, or the way that it re-wires the Force, or for the new, more populist approach to the material. For this critic, all those elements are well-played, hard-earned, and an effort to overcome the weaknesses of The Force Awakens. The qualities that upset me most about this movie are the technical details, from the lousy pacing and cross-cutting to unbelievable central scenario.


The Porgs, the crystal foxes, the caretakers, and the racing dogs on Canto Bight almost make up for these deficits, as they are a welcome reminder of the galaxy’s diversity. It wouldn’t have killed the filmmakers, however, to populate the casino with a Rodian, Neimoidian, or other familiar face from canon, which would have visually reminded us that even as Star Wars pushes forward, it remembers its history too.  This way we would know, for sure that Kylo’s line “let the past die” isn’t the filmmakers speaking to fans, but rather a character’s distinctive point of view.

In the introduction, I noted that, ultimately, I fall on the positive side, when regarding The Last Jedi, and I do.

I would rather watch a flawed film with great ambition, than a mindless rehash of past glories. If, in some way, the film’s reach exceeds its grasp, that’s ultimately okay, especially as this is a second chapter in a trilogy. Rian Johnson goes for broke, and I appreciate the audacity of his vision. If the film’s editing and narrative had lived up to Luke’s final, elegiac moment -- once more gazing hopefully at the twin stars of Tatooine -- then The Last Jedi might have truly been the new trilogy’s The Empire Strikes Back.

That doesn’t happen, exactly. But I have little doubt that the filmmakers will grow beyond their failures here, and continue to take Star Wars to daring and unexpected new heights. 

In terms of 21st century Star Wars movies, however, this one still falls (well) behind Rogue One (2016), and ahead of The Force Awakens (2015).

5 comments:

  1. The day after I saw The Last Jedi, I decided to finally watch Suicide Squad. In both cases, I felt as though the art of storytelling is dead in Hollywood. Even when the film is supposedly written and directed by one person, I can't help but think that these writer/directors are handed endless reams of notes from executives telling them what new toys need to be worked in, what the focus groups are saying, etc. The end result is that the window dressing becomes the main focus and the actual story is secondary. While I love all these fantasy films being made today, there all a hollow mess. I'm hoping we can get back to an era like the 60s and 70s when films were made by individuals with a distinct vision and not by committee.

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  2. A great review, John; I fell just on the disappointment side of the fence while judging it, but I our opinions on Last Jedi are close to one another's. More so than most. I think the most depressing thing to watch this last week was how insane the fan community has become (another metaphor perhaps for U.S. politics): neither those who hate it, or the ones who can't fathom people hating it, are at each other's throats. No common ground, each calling themselves the "real fans", whatever that means. All, ironically, for a film series about something that is about something that "binds things together" and choosing to see the best in others. Have a great holiday!

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  3. As someone who was extremely disappointed in the creative laziness of The Force Awakens (and I say this as someone who loved what Abrams did with Star Trek), I had very low expectations going into the The Last Jedi. To be honest, I fully expected to hate it. I only saw it so that I could credibly participate in the critical discussion about the film. But color me surprised that I thought the film was actually quite terrific.

    I went into the film knowing most of the spoilers ahead of time (I'm not a spoiler fetishist like most people) and yet I was still surprised by Rian Johnson's story. Unlike you, I didn't find the editing or the pacing off. I thought it proceeded at a consistent, galloping clip.

    TLJ is like many of the best "second chapters" in genre filmmaking that I love, ranking up there with The Bride of Frankenstein, Empire Strikes Back, Temple of Doom, Back to the Future Part II, Batman Returns, Attack of the Clones, X2, The Dark Knight, and Batman v Superman; all films that I think vastly exceeded the prior "first chapters" in their respective series. In all cases (including TLJ), these films took advantage of all the expository heavy lifting having already been taken care of and hit the ground running. All of the above films took advantage of the creative capital earned by the financially successful preceding chapter of their series to take real, genuine creative risks. Zagging where others would have zigged. Because of that, it doesn't surprise me that in most of the above examples (including TLJ), these "second chapters" were critically lambasted by a public (and, sadly, a critical establishment who should know better) that was incapable of appreciating the risks taken by these films. Too many people simply want "more of the same" and chafe at anything that goes beyond their very limited comfort zones.

    Daniel (commenting system won't publish my name for some reason)

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  4. Bravo, John!

    This was a very enjoyable review, and spot-on in so many ways. Like Daniel above, my bar was low after TFA. For months, I've been telling people regarding The Last Jedi that if anyone in the film says "I am your Father/Brother/Sister/Mother," I'm out. That being said, I loved the unexpected directions the film took, and am grateful to Rian Johnson for the chances he took. My feeling is that the final 40 minutes more than make up for any weaknesses the film had. Not only that, I feel that the movie's third reel is some of the strongest Star Wars ever produced.

    Yet I've heard the same criticisms as you and others, and have actually been ridiculed for my enjoyment of the film. Bothers me it does not, as Yoda might say. To each his own. I'll probably see it a couple more times, with Junior Mints in hand. That'll show the haters!

    TLJ, as you intuit, is clearly a film for our divisive times, and actually made me reconsider one element of TFA which I disagreed with: Why did Luke, Leia, Han and the Rebellion fight? What was it all for, if things just turned out the same? TLJ underlines and punctuates the point that we must always remain vigilant, and always fight tyranny, because it will rear its very ugly head again (as we are seeing now in our own political climate). Perhaps this bothered some viewers as much as having their fan theories go up in Snoke (snicker snicker).

    A couple more things: I disliked the whole Casino sequence, which smacked of some executive saying "We need another Cantina scene. I don't care how you do it, just do it!" So we got space horses. However, the purpose of this part of the film is to allow Rose to develop feelings for Finn, and when it pays off, it really is a nice moment. Also, one of my friends was critical that they pointed out that the surface of Crait was covered with salt. So what? he posited. Okay...Did you happen to notice that Luke wasn't leaving any footprints in that salt?

    Luke's final moments are beautiful, as is his moment with Leia. I was actually getting choked up by it.

    All in all, I'm actually indebted to The Last Jedi. I was starting to think I was turning into a cynic. This film made me feel that there's still hope. It appears I got its message after all.

    Steve

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  5. Hi John,

    Great review, as always.

    The one thing I did want to quickly pick up on is the whole idea of hyperspace tracking and your comments about failing to see a distinction between what is happening in TLJ and what happened with the Falcon in ANH. Here's how I see it...

    As you note, a homing beacon has been physically placed on the Falcon that allows it's position to be tracked from the Death Star when Han's ship finally emerges from hyperspace and parks up at the hidden Rebel base. What I took from TLJ is that the First Order's snazzy new technology actually allows it to continue tracking ships (that they have already picked up in 'normal' space on whatever passes for radar in the Star Wars universe') as they travel through hyperspace, allowing them to pretty much keep pace with them, arriving at any destination only moments later.

    Clearly this wasn't something the Empire could do, otherwise the Rebel retreat from Hoth or any of those times the Falcon was able to use hyperspace to escape Star Destroyers (which probably happened far less frequently than it seems in my mind) would have had very different outcomes...

    Best regards,

    Anton van Beek

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