Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)


Despite my mostly positive comments here, I recently tried to re-watch The Force Awakens and could not get past Han Solo's entrance. I find that, like Tony Zhou, I long for a different new-trilogy-kickoff film, one that spends more time on its new characters than its legacy ones. And one that tells a different story than the one that is already told more impactfully and economically in George Lucas's 1977 Star Wars.

However, despite my "blah" feelings about Episode VII, I stand by my concluding sentiment in that review, which says that
I sure look forward to seeing the next couple episodes of Rey's ongoing adventures. She is the single most compelling element of this latest Star Wars viewing product.
Indeed, I went into Episode VII with mediocre expectations overall but some hopes for interesting Rey / Luke developments. I ended up enjoying the film very much, at least on my first viewing. For me, The Last Jedi strikes a good balance between "soulless corporate pablum" and "a film somebody actually wanted to make." I like writer / director Rian Johnson's idiosyncratic touches and  I mostly found the tone of Last Jedi and the whole Luke Skywalker storyline to be spot-on. Kylo Ren continues to be the best-developed new character and Rey is compelling onscreen despite thin, predictable scripting for her this time around. I even enjoyed the Yoda cameo, an aspect I assumed I would hate. Yes, it was obvious fan service but it was handled well for the most part.

Even some of the gratuitous nods to the structure and visuals of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi didn't bother me too much. I am not sure we needed walkers attacking a rebel base on a "snow" (er, salt) planet yet again at the end, and some of the visual homages were heavy handed (e.g., the image of Yoda in the foreground, Luke in the background watching a ship take off copied from Empire). Along the same lines, the whole "gambler betrays the heroes" story element felt shoehorned in, but maybe that's because that whole Finn-Rose subplot, despite those two characters' good interpersonal chemistry and a fun animal chase, was clumsy, thinly plotted, and unnecessary.

All that said, I mainly enjoyed Last Jedi a great deal. Visually, it is a cut above most other Star Wars films (reason enough to see it in a theater) and there were enough new twists and fun ideas, mostly surrounding Luke's renouncing of the Force and his big astral-projection-trick finale, to keep me on the hook. I especially liked Leia's return to the ship after her brush with death -- FINALLY the series does something with HER portion of the Skywalker Force-imbued bloodline. That moment was weird and powerful and unexpected and I liked it very much.

The very best element of this film is its meta-commentary on failure:
In tackling this notion head-on—in being willing to not only challenge Star Wars’ happy ending, but to question whether happy endings actually exist—these new films are giving the saga something that it’s always somewhat lacked, even in all its constant grappling with themes of the spirit versus the machine: humanity.
Indeed, The Last Jedi, especially as it concerns Luke Skywalker, is the most humanly resonant Star Wars film since 1980's Empire. It is, as other reviewers have noted, a bit overlong and messy, but probably not too much the worse for it. I certainly enjoyed this film -- and had elements of it stick with me afterward -- in ways not even remotely achieved by any prequel or recent sequel.

The Last Jedi contains far fewer dead moments and outright imaginative failures than does The Force Awakens (e.g., Leia and Chewie failing to acknowledge each other post-Han's death) and I'm quite glad Johnson at least tried to take some chances (e.g., with Luke's character arc, with our understanding of what the Force can do). There were some subtle yet palpable misfires, such as:
  • Holdo's big death scene should have been Leia's.
  • Speaking of Holdo, why doesn't she just tell Poe the plan (or at least admit that she's got one) so as to eliminate that largely superfluous subplot he secretly and insubordinately sets in motion?
  • Finn's self-sacrifice should have been allowed to happen, even though he's then a black guy sacrificing himself for the whities.
  • Ren's bullshit talk of letting everything die, of letting go, seemed like a coded message to fans rather than anything he actually believed. He still wanted to indulge his hate and destroy the resistance. I guess we're supposed to just take it as bullshit, as lies he tells Rey to win her to his side, but it still felt weird and too meta-textual to really work.

"Hey guys, director Rian Johnson here. Be sure to let go of the past 
before you watch The Last Jedi!" 

Is Yoda a bit jokey? Yes, but this works for me -- he and Luke are colleagues now, not master and student. When Yoda blows up the tree and Jedi library, it fits the theme of the film and Yoda's approach to the Force. I like it.

But the smash cut from the end of that scene, Luke and Yoda sitting together watching the fire, to a ship hurtling through hyperspace comes a few seconds too soon and is emblematic of the film's most pervasive weakness: it is trying to pack so much in that it rushes things. It doesn't fuck up character moments as badly as J.J. Abrams does in the prior film but it still rushes them. I get that the casino planet sequence is ultimately a lesson about failure, a meta-theme of the movie, yet couldn't some of that material be eliminated or trimmed to give us a few more grounded character moments with Rey and Kylo, or even Luke and Yoda?

Also, as the Red Letter Media guys note, there is a real sense of finality at the end of this installment. The Last Jedi, even in its title, has the feel of a final chapter, not a penultimate one. So while it vastly improves on the lackluster Force Awakens, it doesn't really leave us with anywhere interesting to go. With Luke dead in the film and Leia dead in real life, two of the best characters are gone, leaving us with Ren and Rey. But what can they do next except battle it out some more?

I guess we'll find out.

JAY: See you again in two years for the next one . . . 
RICH: . . . when they just have to blow up a super-weapon and she has to get into a light-saber fight with Kylo Ren again. 'Cause they can't do anything new or interesting with Star Wars, they just can't, it's not there. I'm sorry -- you've wasted your life and your fandom.

UPDATE 1/2/2018: I saw The Last Jedi again yesterday and overall, I enjoyed it as much as, if not more than, I did the first time. It honors (most of) its characters and really keeps the viewer on the hook. I still think it is TOO fast-paced and overfull at times (that cut away from Luke and Yoda at the burning tree is quite wrenching -- it does not even wait for the last note on the musical score to resolve), yet overall the movie jells very well and is a real pleasure to watch.

That said, my main critique of it -- that the subplot involving Benicio del Toro's codebreaker character is especially weak -- still stands, and in fact was even more glaring to me on a second watch. As much as I love del Toro -- and I really do, I have sat through the shitty James Bond film Licence to Kill many times largely for his great performance in it -- his character in Star Wars is woefully underdeveloped and the whole plot involving him is, as I said, unnecessary. The "failure" theme is more than adequately covered by the Luke storyline, and the only part of the casino planet sequence that really comes alive is the stuff with the racing herd animals and the stable-cleaning kids. THAT part of that subplot IS narratively relevant, as it continues the theme of empathy for non-human animals that begins with Chewie and the porgs and concludes with the "crystal critters" on the salt planet.

But as for the "finding the codebreaker" stuff, it is weakly scripted (how and why do they meet Benicio in that prison cell?) and should probably have been cut. It would make far more sense to just have Rose be the codebreaker (or know someone who is) and have the side quest forego the casino planet altogether and head straight for Snoke's ship.

In fact, this time through I noticed what I think is The Last Jedi's one and only plot hole, and of course it involves the Benicio del Toro plot. (And let me preamble this by saying that I almost NEVER notice plot holes or continuity errors unless they are especially glaring. I did not catch this one until the second viewing.) It is this: when Finn, Rose and Benicio are in Snoke's ship at the end, and our two heroes learn that he has betrayed them, how does he know the information that he uses to buy his freedom? That is, how does Benicio know that the rebels are escaping in shuttlecraft when the film has already established that NOBODY except Holdo and possibly Leia know about that plan? Finn and Rose surely don't. So how does Benicio learn about it?


  1. Dude!
    We finally saw THE LAST JEDI today.
    I’m still processing it and it was good to read some commentary on it here with your review.
    I really should go to bed, but I’m here now, so...
    (And continuing the SPOILERS probably and in no particular order):
    1. There were moments that felt a little like fan-fiction. I enjoyed it, but I definitely felt like “these aren’t your parents’ STAR WARS.” Right at the beginning was General Hux “put on hold” in the opening battle. Even the term “put on hold” seemed culturally out-of-place to this fictional universe, so I was slightly thrown by that, but once the idea was there, I enjoyed the mischievous playfulness of it.
    2. But after the movie, I thought it was interesting that the idea of “stalling” was the default battle plan throughout the movie. From the start there was a stalling strategy with “the phone call”; Holdo’s plans of “doing nothing” was a stalling tactic; the attack against the battering ram cannon was also a stalling tactic in anticipation of support for the Rebels from other planets, and, finally, Luke’s battle with Kylo Ren. That repetitive strategy/plotting seems like a flaw in terms of a lack of originality, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s actually a motif. From a military perspective, the First Order is mightier than the Rebellion, and getting stronger as it keeps destroying the Rebels’ artillery, etc. through these battles. So, the best the rebels can do at this point is keep stalling its way through battles now. But, I’m also wondering if they’re laying groundwork for a different type of ending. Not a big battle climax like A NEW HOPE as we expect, but something... different?
    3. Re: something different. I thought the numerous inclusions of nature/animals was significant. The little creatures that Chewie was eating but then wound up befriending, the horse-like (in spirit) creatures that were released from being abused for human recreation, the crystal creatures that knew a way out of the rebel base and so “helped" the humans once the humans expanded their focus around them. I think this is a deliberate effort to expand the audience’s acceptance of a different path to what winning could be and moving towards something more... spiritual? Which seems like very touchy-feely holistic bullshit for a corporate mega franchise like STAR WARS, but who knows? Maybe Rey and Kylo Ren’s final battle won’t be purely physical and emotional but also spiritual if she is indeed the last Jedi (Next Jedi?).

    1. Good comments -- I agree that the film really gets all the Force-spirituality and the non-human animal relations stuff spot-on. I loved those elements. I enjoyed the film's humor and found the whole thing (except the casino planet subplot) to be well-integrated, yet I also agree with you that the movie took some chances in "going meta" as much as it did.

  2. I had to break this comment into two, dammit!

    4. Re: "Holdo’s death should have been Leia’s.” In hindsight, with Carrie Fisher now gone, perhaps it should’ve been. At least, that’s what I felt reading your thoughts on this. I felt you were influenced by Fisher’s death in real life and this was an unfair comment. But having said that, if there’s a conscious effort to “end" the lives of the three main characters left from the original trilogy in this final trilogy, the order is curious: first Han Solo, then Luke, then Leia? It would seem that by design Luke should be last, because he was the protagonist of the original film. So, from that perspective, the "order of deaths” seems wrong, if Leia was expected to die in Episode 9. Although, who knows, maybe the Rebellion is expected to win and we finally see the Princess ascend her throne..?
    5. Another (possible) foreshadowing of altering the audience’s notion of what to expect in Episode 9: DJ’s (Benecio del Toro) talk with Finn about the arms dealer whose ship they stole and the pointed revelation that the dealer sold weapons to both the First Order and the Rebels. That seemed a conscious effort to add grey to the black and white thinking of who’s bad and good. Or it merely foreshadowed the opportunistic philosophy of DJ, so don’t trust him entirely. But, the re-examination of the Force during Luke’s training of Rey seemed to be also laying groundwork about what the Force is, and that it has two sides for balance. So, talking out of my ass here, is “May the Focre be with you” a prayer/blessing or a variation on the presumptuous idea of "God is on my side," but in actuality, the Force could "care less" about whose side it’s on, it’s more like Nature and just is. So, if there’s something to that notion of re-thinking what the Force actually is...
    6. ...I think it was also interesting that there’s a Rashomon-like element to the plot, too, with three examinations of the same moment in the past: when Luke last saw Kylo Ren. What actually happened? Who was to blame? Was there an outright villain and victim in that event? Although the difference here (from RASHOMON) is that Luke revisits his first interpretation of the past, and his update includes his weakness and eventual responsibility for it. Yoda’s appearance does seem like fan service, but he was Luke’s teacher, so it does seem appropriate he would come back for another lesson. And his jokiness, which seemed a part of THE LAST JEDI’s consistent playfulness/irreverence throughout, seems appropriate for someone who has died and gains some perspective from death: don't take everything so seriously. I say this in hindsight, thinking about things afterward. I didn’t think that as I watched it.
    7. Also, speaking of that scene with Yoda, did I understand this timeline and what happened correctly?: Did Rey take the Jedi books/manuscripts without Luke’s knowledge? Because those books were in that drawer that Finn opened up on the Millenium Falcon at the end, weren’t they? Were they already gone when Luke went to burn them up? Was Yoda blowing up the tree purely for Luke’s benefit?
    8. Anyway, I enjoyed the film, and it wasn’t as immediately satisfying as EMPIRE. I wondered if they’d leave this episode on more of a cliffhanger note like EMPIRE, but they left it in a more positive situation, just unfinished business. There was a lot of stuff in it. It did seem like a long film. Enjoyable throughout, but I did wonder when it was going to end, so my anticipation of that, preparing myself for a cliffhanger, etc. consequently made me anticipate/wonder when the film was going to end as well, which made the film seem longer. By comparison, ROGUE ONE was more immediately satisfying. But still I enjoyed this film a lot, Rey is still my favorite character from these last two episodes, and I’m impressed and surprised that Rian Johnson wrote and directed this episode.
    Good read! And Happy New Year!

  3. Good point about Holdo / Leia, I think I was indeed influenced by Fisher's real-life death. The second time through (I saw the film again yesterday) that element did not feel so out of place and I was glad Leia and Luke got to see each other again at the end.

    Another friend pointed out those books on the Falcon, I did not spot them the first time.

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