Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi

2017, d. Rian Johnson - in theatre (2 viewings)

[Non-Spoiler Section]

At this stage there's such a legion of Star Wars fans, two entirely different generations in fact, that no single Star Wars movie is going to service everyone.  A film catering exclusively to fans will alienate the general populace and likely met with critical apathy, a film too generic will bore the fanbase and critics alike, while a film built for critical favor could leave the fans feeling rejected and target the wrong general crowd.  It's a crazy tightrope to walk.  All Kathleen Kennedy and company can do is their best to bring the right teams together to make the best movies that try their damnedest to do all these things.  No matter what, people are going to complain on the internet, because that's what the internet is there to do, and despite whatever resoundingly positive favor there is out there, the negative voices will always get a chance to cut through the clamor and have a voice of their own.  It's the "Fair and Balanced" world that Fox News built, afterall.

But I say ignore those who complain loudly about their disappointment.  The Last Jedi is a Star Wars film through and through, and not just a damn good Star Wars film, but a damn good film overall.  One of the best Star Wars films and one of the best movies of the year.  It's not perfect, but, what it does is reinvigorate the franchise with a bold message about moving forward and not obsessing about the past.

The loudest complaining voices are those of people obsessed with the past.  They want their Star Wars to be Luke, Han and Leia almost exclusively.  Director Rian Johnson is clearly a fan, just as much as Rogue One director Gareth Edwards is, but where Rogue One was a love letter to the time and place and style of the original Star Wars, The Last Jedi pays its respects to the past, but barrels headlong into the future.  Johnson did not want to wallow in the past, not even the recent past of Episode VII.

I can see why some people are upset.  There was a lot of stock put into the mysteries of The Force Awakens...not that Lucasfilm spent a lot of effort to fuel the speculation about Snoke's origin or Rey's parentage, but a lot of people put a lot of their brainspace over the past two years into thinking about these mysteries.  Johnson's answers may be less than satisfying to some, a lack of payoff in their investment.  Likewise, the grand return of Luke Skywalker, now a Jedi Master and hero of the Rebellion against the Empire, a legend... he returns, but not as some may have hoped, even Mark Hamill had reservations about Luke's portrayal here (but Hamill kills it!  An amazing performance).  These combined seem to be the key elements of a great many disappointments, but looking past that is a film with more than a few things to say within a bold, exciting, character-heavy action/adventure/space opera franchise film.

If I'm being generous, The Force Awakens was about things repeating in cycles... if I'm being cynical it was just retelling Star Wars again.  The Last Jedi similarly takes a few of the structural elements of The Empire Strikes Back trilogy twin, but only enough to give a barely tangible sense of familiarity while Johnson remolds everything else around it.  Here Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn and Poe all grow as characters.  They don't end as the same people they were in the Force Awakens.  Likewise, series holdovers Luke and Leia aren't the same characters they were 35 years ago when Return of the Jedi ended.  Johnson uses that time and space to give the characters new life and meaning, which can be hard for people wanting to see them live in the same old light, or be more grandiose extensions of who we knew them to be.  Johnson creates interesting people here, not superheroes.  And if he's creating heroes, it's because of what people choose to do, the actions they take, not whatever abilities they have or what rank they hold or what family they came from.  A hero can come from anywhere.

The opening line of the title crawl states "The First Order reigns."  The Order's military might is highlighted here by Johnson, but always with the caveat that they are not infallible or unbeatable.  Their quest for galactic dominance has all but been secured, it's just the simmering revolution of the Resistance that plagues them.  They are the dark shadow over the galaxy and the Resistance is the fading light.  What the Resistance needs in this film is hope.  It's why they sought out Luke Skywalker, not because he's Leia's brother, but because his monumental triumphs over tyranny and evil have cache.  If he comes back, people will believe there's a chance, they will fight.  Luke, however, has other thoughts about who he is, and what he can contribute.

Little Orphan Rey is looking for her place, and for parental figures.  Her own parents left her young, and the briefly supplemental father in Han Solo was taken away from her by Kylo Ren.  So in Luke she seeks so much.

Finn, meanwhile, must face his own lesser instincts.  His cowardice, his reluctance, and his selfishness.  Most of this comes in the face of Rose, a technician who joins him on a quest that could be the difference between renewed hope and utter annihilation for the Resistance.  Rose sees Finn as a hero of Starkiller Base, like Rey sees Luke as a hero of legend, but over time both must accept the humanity of the men beneath the stories, weighing the truth of their past against the reality before them.

Poe Dameron, meanwhile, has adopted too much swagger, gotten too confident, to the point that what he sees as successes are anything but.  Leia puts him on a path to learn to lead, as opposed to just succeeding by pointing and shooting.  He has good instincts but doesn't think or plan too well.  Lessons will be learned.

Kylo is the product of failure and disappointment.  Every authority figure -- Han, Luke, Snoke -- underestimated him, if not failed him, repeatedly.  Likewise, he fails himself, repeatedly.  Kylo is a man who hates everything because he hates himself.  His conflict is similar to Anakin's, and to Luke's... the light side, the dark side - temptation from both ends.  What is the right path?  Who can show him the way?  He thinks, perhaps, with Rey, they can figure it out together.  And Rey, much to her horror, finds herself connected to Ben.  And like with Luke, she sees a myth, a monster built in her head, but must learn to accept the man beneath.

Facades. Idols. Heroes. Monsters. Death. Hope. Rebirth. Growth. Failure. Disappointment. More than just the battle of light and dark, The Last Jedi is deep and complex looking for the middle ground in between and what drives people to either end of the spectrum.   I suppose some were simply looking for more action, and adding more dense layers of intricacy to the Star Wars franchise, but what Johnson says here, quite unequivocally, is that these films need to be able to stand on their own, without being burdened by living up to the past.  There's a whole new cast of characters Johnson is determined to have stand out on their own (and he even introduces a couple more), not just as potential offspring of -- or stand-ins for -- Luke, Leia and Han.

What I've enjoyed about Star Wars since Disney took over is that the films are not built around set pieces.  Events don't happen just so that they can lead to an action action sequence happens because of the events in the film.  Here, because of the way the story is told, there's almost a relentless pressure.  Perhaps borrowing conceptually from Battlestar Galactica (the snake eats its own tail) the great ongoing series premiere "33" - one where the fleet must keep jumping away from their enemy only to face them again every 33 minutes - the Resistance similarly here is on the ropes against the First Order, and, it seems, out of options.  But this is what makes the film so enjoyable.  The more dire the odds that the Resistance and its team faces, the more it looks like they're going to lose, the greater the triumph will be when they don't, in spite of it all.  It's rather exhilarating.

But even with my overwhelming appreciation for the film, there still is a little disappointment...



I mean I would be lying if I said I wasn't expecting something terribly cool, and terribly powerful out of Luke Skywalker.  I dunno, something like toppling AT-ATs with Force pushes or hauling Tie Fighters out of the sky, or taking down Snoke's flagship in just an X-Wing.  But, as I said, creating superheroes wasn't on Johnson's plate.  And what he does with Luke here is far more interesting on a character level.

What Luke does wind up doing is the stuff of legend regardless, taking the bombardment of the First Order's entire ground assault team and surviving (even though he wasn't really there).  Despite the fact that strain and effort to Force project himself across the galaxy killed him, other than Rey and Leia, nobody knows for a fact that he's moved on to the next phase of Force life and so this legendary figure who already was bordering on myth is now something even greater.  And the fact is, despite Luke passing peacefully, he can return in the next film.  We know so little about the afterlife in the Force that if JJ Abrams and company do decide to use Luke as a Force ghost (and they'd be kind of crazy not to), they have an almost blank slate with which to work with and define the rules of.  It's actually more interesting, and exciting if we finally learn the meaning of Obi-Wan's words in Episode 4 "Strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine".  That "power" Obi-Wan mentions never truly manifested in the original trilogy beyond him guiding Luke here and there.

The death of Luke is sad, primarily because we see him here at his lowest point.  He refuses to train Rey, he's disconnected himself from the Force, and he's pretty much given up on himself and the galaxy at large.  He thinks he has nothing of merit to contribute.  The legend people look for in him he does not see himself.  He's a Jedi Master by default, because there's nobody else around to become one, and he failed so spectacularly at it.  It takes a wizened Jedi Master, with Yoda's Force ghost returning, to council "young Skywalker" that failure -- and learning from that failure -- is what makes us stronger.  Yoda failed to learn about the presence of a Sith Lord in his midst and did the same thing Luke did, ran and hid away on an isolated planet.  Both Obi-Wan and Yoda were reluctant to train another Jedi in case it went awry again.  So scarred they were by Anakin turning to the Dark Side that they didn't want Luke to be another gone wrong.  Luke had the same experience with Kylo/Ben, and now treats Rey like he himself was treated, as yet another possible failure.  But Luke's arc in The Last Jedi is a redemptive one.  He knew he couldn't take on the entire First Order with just a laser sword, he needed to do something grander, and Leia in her most desperate hour, found her only hope had returned.  (Artoo even reminds Luke earlier that he was indeed the hope she and the Rebellion needed).

Am I disappointed that we don't learn anything of Snoke's origins?  Not at all.  Did we know anything about Emperor Palpatine when he cropped up in Empire, or again in Jedi?  No, no we did not.  And did it matter?  Not in the slightest.  The Emperor was just the greater evil, the grandmaster of the Empire, the Big Bad.  I'm not sure why we thought there was some big mystery to Snoke in the Force Awakens.  I suppose it's because of the way George Lucas structured the Original Trilogy and the Prequels, we've been trained to expect everything to be connected.  Darth Vader is Luke's dad.  Leia is his sister.  C-3PO was made by his dad.  R2-D2 used to be his mom's droid.  Everything seems to orbit around him.  That Snoke's past never comes to light (I bet it will in a novel or comic series, but I digress) doesn't really matter.  What we see from him is what we need to know, he has tremendous power (he's able to use the Force across vast distances), and tremendous ego.  Unlike Palpatine who was a master manipulator, Snoke is far more clumsy, not seeing that his abuse of Kylo Ren will be the cause of his pupil's betrayal, and believing his great power is enough to stop it should it happen.  And it happens so spectacularly.

Because we've been trained to see connections between everything Star Wars, the mystery of Rey's parentage was actually more of a tease.  Even in this film, Luke asks Rey twice over "Who are you?"  To have Rey's parentage be ultimately revealed (by Kylo Ren, so take anything he might say lightly) as a desperate couple who sold her for water, it's actually a good break from the whole prophesized lineage that the prequels thrust upon us, and that retroactively caused Luke's destiny to be somewhat foretold as well.  Rey is a nobody from nowhere, on her way to being the first of a new generation of Jedi.  A boy Finn and Rose met on Canto Bight we see again at the very end of the movie pulls a broom towards himself with the force, hitting home that the next generation of heroes for Star Wars can come from anywhere.  That's a very purposeful statement that needs to be made.  This Galaxy is huge, for everyone important to come from one narrow band of lineage and short connective threads becomes more implausible the longer it persists.

Speaking of Canto Bight, if there's anything that seems out of place in the film, this is it.  Finn and Rose go on this side adventure to find the Master Codebreaker (a cameo appearance from Justin Thereaux), but everything goes wrong, and they wind up with Benicio Del Toro's DJ instead.  It's not the search for the Master Codebreaker, nor DJ, nor any of the message about how the rich and wealthy of Canto Bight became rich and wealthy (arms dealers, selling to both sides, profiting from war) that bother's the almost prequel-esque, unnecessary (and, to be honest, unexciting) chase sequence through the casino city.  I think what we're supposed to get out of this sequence is that Rose starts to fall for Finn in that moment (as much later she reveals her love for him), but it doesn't come across particularly well (so that reveal is a bit out of nowhere when it happens) and Finn seems generally oblivious, and still fixated on Rey.

I like the idea of friendship in Star Wars more than romance... for Rey and Finn have both led pretty lonely lives, so their connection isn't a romantic one necessarily.  Same with Finn and Po.  And given that The Last Jedi picks up immediately after The Force Awakens pretty much any congenial humanoid contact (that isn't barking orders or controlling them) is still rather meaningful to Finn and Rey.  That's why the Resistance matters, because these are people connected to each other by more than just a systemic ranking structure or taking advantage of their desperation.  Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (an overwhelmingly awesome Laura Dern) share a moment at one point which conveys so much history that we may not ever know, but we catch the weight of it regardless.  Even Leia and Luke are more dear friends than family, and their reunion is fantastic, the connection between them, a lifetime of adventures shared, all conveyed without any specific words. "I know what you're going to say... I changed my hair."

There's so much that is great with this movie on a deeper level that I'm forgetting the surface level, which is just as amazing... the fight sequence with Rey and Kylo against the Praetorian Guards, Holdo's bold sacrifice, the opening bombing sequence, the final battle on Crait, Luke's last's all as epic as anything we've seen in Star Wars.  It's not an upping-the-ante, per se, but it creates exciting sequences that are story (and sometimes character) driven.  The fact that from moment one, the Resistance's fleet is on the decline, from one scene to the next more lives are lost, it's a palpable sense of dread and urgency every step of the way.  As Hux says, the First Order have them on a string.  Even their escape plan finds them penned in with no help on the way and nowhere to go.  It's as dire as Rogue One only Johnson's tone always offers the glimmer of hope, where Edwards was far more fatalistic.

Johnson also imbues The Last Jedi with a surprising amount of humour.  Poe Dameron's wisecracking in the opening moments at Hux's expense start as the two defining moments for these characters in the film.  Hux's self-seriousness gets the better of him and we learn that, despite his rank, people look down on him for it (Snoke teaches Kylo the importance of having someone like Hux in such a role).  Snoke tosses Hux around like a rag doll on the bridge of his own ship at one point, in front of all the crew at one point (I'm wondering if the lesson is that no matter how ridiculous someone may seem, don't forget how dangerous they can be *cough*Trump*cough*).  Luke is very sardonic, not a goofy little bean like Yoda became on Dagobah, but a surly old miser with a deadpan wit that could give two fucks.  There's physical comedy, wordplay, situational comedy...and it's mostly funny too (the drunken alien mistaking BB8 for a slot machine on Canto Bight was another good bit which has payoff later).  It's not that Star Wars hasn't had comedy before, but it's almost always been incidental, whereas here there's comedy moments, in place exactly for that purpose (Chewie having to face a flock of Porgs while he's about to eat a roasted one... unnecessary, yet still funny and charming).

Ultimately, the point of The Last Jedi is to show what a creator with a strong personal vision can do within the confines of a big franchise, just as Taika Waititi showed with Thor Ragnarok  this year.  As much as Abrams and Edwards tried to ape what Lucas did with their films, this to me seems much more in keeping with the George Lucas auteur way of making a film, specifically a Star Wars film.

 To be honest I was wondering if The Last Jedi was going to flame me out on Star Wars, too samey-samey, repeating patterns, but it's done the opposite.  It's reinvigorated my fandom, made me see that what's still ahead of me is the possibility of surprise.  There's always so much discourse over a new movie while it's in production and so much dissemination of trailers before it's release, that by the time we get to it we think we have a pretty good snapshot of what we're in for.  It's so damn nice (and FUN!) to be surprised.  As Luke said in the trailers "This isn't going to go how you think it will."