Monday, December 18, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

One of the criticisms lobbed against The Force Awakens was that it was derivative of the original Star Wars trilogy, repeating many of the plot points and character types from the first film and some of the second. I still enjoyed it because it remixed those elements enough that it felt fresh, and because it was fun to experience a competently written and directed Star Wars film again after the letdown of the prequels. But one of my questions surrounding The Last Jedi concerned whether it too would be a derivative remixing of the original trilogy, or whether it would take Star Wars in new and interesting directions. The answer seems to be both yes and no.

Like The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi repeats many elements from the original trilogy, particularly The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The film begins like Empire, with the villains catching the heroes in the middle of an escape attempt; also like Empire, a pupil seeks out training from a Jedi master, has a reflective experience in an enclosure laden with the dark side of the force, and abandons their training to confront a villain. Like both Empire and Return of the Jedi, villains and heroes attempt to turn one another to their causes, and a villain is betrayed by his apprentice, among many other similarities.

Yet even more than The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi spins this material in new directions, remixing it until it resembles the original trilogy only in passing. The rebels' escape attempt, for instance, is drawn out into an ancillary plot that lasts the length of the film, and the equivalent of the battle for Hoth is moved from the beginning of the film to the end. More than this, however, The Last Jedi goes far beyond The Force Awakens in introducing new and exciting narrative elements. The result is a film that most certainly feels like Star Wars, but one that also revitalizes the series, yielding a largely stellar -- although not unflawed -- entry in the saga.

The climactic confrontation between Rey, Ben, and Snoke -- one of many highlights -- is exemplary of how this film successfully blends originality with familiarity. This scene has many shades of Luke’s confrontation with the Emperor and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi: a hero willingly turns themselves over to their enemy in attempt to win them over to their side, and a villainous leader is undone by their overconfidence. Ben even betrays Snoke similarly to how Vader betrays the Emperor (i.e., fatally).

Yet large differences persist. Snoke’s grisly death is perhaps the biggest shock, considering that one might expect his defeat to be saved for the third film. Even more, Ben’s betrayal of Snoke is not a moment of redemption like Vader’s betrayal of the Emperor, but a moment of self-interest. Drawn to Rey, and not as truly evil as Snoke thinks (or at least, not as thoroughly under Snoke’s thrall), Ben would much rather kill Snoke than Rey. Snoke is a cruel leader who belittles and manipulates him, while Rey not only sees him the way he wants to see himself (an intimidating and powerful force wielder), but she is also someone with whom he feels strongly connected, thanks, ironically, to Snoke, who enabled their connection earlier in the film by linking their minds through the force.

Snoke linked their minds in a Machiavellian ploy to get Rey to reveal Luke's location, as Snoke is still obsessed with finding and killing him. We might wonder why, but then Ben slices through Snoke's abdomen with a lightsaber, which is the physical equivalent of the story slicing through questions about Snoke's vendetta against Luke. In the end, who cares? Certainly not me. Exposition about a one-dimensional character like Snoke -- even when played with curdled relish by Andy Serkis -- would have needed to bear a heavy burden to rise to anything more than background noise against the much more interesting story concerning Rey and Ben’s increasingly complicated relationship. 

The efficiency with which Snoke is dispatched is matched by the efficiency of Ben smashing his Kylo Ren helmet to pieces in a fit of rage. In both cases, the film is actively moving beyond a need for the series to mimic the previous successful films. The mask was a crutch, a relic from the original trilogy. Both in The Force Awakens and in The Last Jedi, it’s an effective symbol of exactly what Snoke describes in Ben near the beginning of The Last Jedi: a talisman that a boy used to try to convince himself that he is as powerful and evil as the grandfather he idolizes, even when he knows in his heart it’s not true. Rather than continuing to pretend to be the new Darth Vader, instead Ben and The Last Jedi dispense with the accessory, and both are ultimately more powerful for it. This new trilogy does not need a weak facsimile of Darth Vader as a villain; not only is Ben’s struggle with his demons more compelling in its own right (note his inability to fire at Leia's ship in one of the space battles), but Adam Driver is also more effective when he's allowed to use his face. Moreover, Ben’s wrestling with his past also serves the truly unique storytelling device that this installment brings to the series, namely the parallels created between Rey and Ben.

I found Rey and Ben’s relationship to be one of the film’s most complex and rewarding developments. Their mind link begins predictably, with mutual naked hostility, but quickly becomes much more complicated. Stuck with a connection to someone they loathe, but unable to do anything about it except talk, they start to better understand one another, and gradually see each other as more human in the process, especially when they realize that they’ve each suffered the same trauma: abandonment by their parents.

In Ben’s case, the abandonment is emotional -- he felt unwanted by Leia and Han, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Leia was likely busy being a leader, and Han does not seem like a strong candidate to have become a committed parent. To Ben, being sent away to train with Luke was just another sign that he was unwanted. In Rey’s case, the abandonment is literal. Questions about her parents haunt her so much that her experience with the dark side on Luke's island centers entirely on their identity. Eventually, contrary to fan speculation, we learn that Rey isn’t connected to the Skywalker family at all. Her parents were junk traders who simply traded her away, and she just happens to be powerful in the force.

By itself, Rey’s lineage is a pleasing development because it makes the Star Wars universe just a little bit bigger. However, it also serves an important purpose in the story because it turns her and Ben into self-aware parallels of one another. They’re drawn closer together because they understand their shared pain, and they each become increasingly convinced of what they want to see in the other. Ben, burdened by his lineage and the expectations it creates, wants to tear down the past in order to start anew, even if it means doing horrible things like killing his father, and he thinks Rey will be open to his vision because she has no such past weighing her down. But Rey actually possess a different view: coming from nothing, she wants to latch onto something from the past in order to make more sense of her place in the universe (she tells Luke as much early in the film). Rather than destroy the past, she wants to preserve what’s good about it and build upon it (thus her stealing the sacred Jedi texts from Luke’s tree shrine).

Their different approaches to the same dilemma make them sympathetic to one another while also preserving their antagonism, leading to the exciting and surprising scene where they momentarily become outright allies in their lightsaber fight against Snoke’s Elite Praetorian Guards (in what is by far the goriest fight in a Star Wars film yet). For the duration of this fight, the film is pregnant with the possibility that Ben and Rey's new partnership might be more than a fleeting alliance born of circumstance. Indeed, once the battle is over, the drama between them rests exclusively on what Rey and Ben will do with their newfound detente. However, their opposite approaches to their shared trauma (coupled with Ben's murder of Han, which still stings Rey) leads Rey to reject Ben’s vision of a future together, reverting them back to antagonists. But it's their mutual recognition of their similarities that even creates this tension between them, and it's completely new to Star Wars -- there hasn't been a pair of mirrored equals on opposite sides of a conflict in any of the previous films. Rey and Ben's opposing visions for how to negotiate the past and shape the future makes this scene one of the film's emotional high points, and coupled with the deaths of Luke and Snoke, their conflict creates very intriguing possibilities for where the story could go from here.

Luke’s story in this film also brings something new to Star Wars: a good man who needs to be convinced to try to redeem his past failures. Yes, Vader had a redemption arc as well, but it was much more abrupt; we don’t linger on his guilt or sorrow the way we do Luke’s because it doesn't haunt Vader (or at the very least, he doesn't let it show until near the end of Return of the Jedi). Luke, however, has been destroyed by what he turned his nephew into.

The part I found most compelling here were the different versions of what transpired between Luke and Ben that pushed Ben to embrace the dark side. In Ben’s version of the story, Luke is a merciless zealot, ready to cut down Ben at the slightest hint that Ben is reaching outside of Luke’s teachings and dabbling in the dark side. For Luke, drawing his lightsaber in fear of the evil growing inside Ben is a moment of weakness and foolishness, the ultimate failure of his attempt to teach Ben to be a Jedi. Their different versions of this story reveal both why Ben would hate Luke so much, and why Luke would be so scarred by the experience that he would cut himself off from the Republic/Resistance, the galaxy, and even the force itself. Moreover, each version of the story is wonderfully performed by Mark Hamill, who demonstrates what forty years of experience can do for an actor: in Ben’s version, the hate in Luke’s eyes is harrowing, while in Luke’s version, the conflict he feels over what he’s about to do is nuanced, his hesitation fraught, and his remorse palpable.

Luke’s turning point comes courtesy of a visit from Yoda's force ghost, whose appearance possesses amazing restorative power not only for Luke, but for Yoda’s place in the series. The Last Jedi features the return of the wizened, impish version of Yoda from the original trilogy, rather than the ponderous, portent-spewing version of the prequels. The difference -- particularly in the dialogue, but also Frank Oz's performance -- is so stark that it reveals even more the extent to which the prequel version of the character is nothing more than a tedious perversion.* He reminds Luke about his parting instructions to pass on what he has learned, and speaks wisely about failure being one of the best teachers, in the sense that one can learn from past mistakes. This is a line that resonates both with these new films and with the original trilogy. Luke had Darth Vader as a model for what failure could look like, and uses his father’s negative example to choose the right path at the climax of Return of the Jedi. So too does Rey have a model for what failure can look like, using Ben’s turn to the dark side as a negative example for what she mustn’t do when presented with the choice to join him at the climax of The Last Jedi.

* No, I don’t subscribe to the argument that Yoda is so different in the prequels because he is younger and more arrogant, and that the fall of the Jedi precipitates changes in his character that lead to his behavior in Empire. The writing in the prequels is simply atrocious. Prequel Yoda possess none of the warmth, mirth, or wisdom that describes the character in the original trilogy. 

My one major criticism of the film is that it’s overstuffed, even at two hours and thirty-three minutes. There are simply too many plots here. Every time the film moved away from Rey and Luke for extended periods of time, I found myself impatient to return to them. The Finn and Poe stories each have some fun moments, and yield some of the films’ most jaw-dropping visuals, but neither is as compelling as Luke’s redemption or Rey’s connection to Ben, especially considering that both Finn and Poe are totally ineffective in achieving their goals. The two hatch a plan to escape from the First Order fleet chasing down the last dregs of the rebellion by sneaking aboard the lead First Order ship and disabling its tracking device. In order to execute this plan, Finn and newcomer Rose are dispatched to recruit a code-breaker who can hack into the First Order ship, but ultimately, neither Finn nor Poe take any action that makes a lick of difference. Finn and Rose’s adventure only matters insofar as it puts their code-breaker, DJ (the Benicio Del Toro character), in a position to reveal to the First Order the rebels’ backup escape plan, putting the rebellion in even greater peril. Poe and Finn would have better helped the rebellion by doing nothing at all.

I suppose there’s something interesting about Poe’s plot insofar as his clash with Laura Dern’s Holdo seems to comment on the difference between leadership and heroism, or the different forms that heroism can take, but a lot of the tension between the two would have been relieved by their simply possessing better communication skills. Moreover, it is unclear if Poe actually learns anything from his experiences -- he seems to remain a hotheaded fighter pilot from beginning to end. I suppose he grows a bit in his realization that Luke is buying the resistance time to escape in the climax, but this is a pretty slim development on which to hang his character growth.

If Poe's plot felt stagnant, then Finn and Rose’s adventure felt rushed. They search for DJ at a casino, whose "evil" patrons are painted with the broadest of brushes, courtesy of a few moments of child labor, animal cruelty, and the strange presumption Rose makes about the casino patrons all being arms dealers (itself only tangentially related to the nefariousness of the First Order). This attempt at making the casino patrons antipathetic is particularly jarring, considering that mere moments earlier, a lavish tracking shot seems designed to enamor viewers with the grandeur and diversity of the casino (this setting is the film’s equivalent of the cantina or Cloud City).* Like with Poe, there’s something marginally interesting happening here, this time concerning Finn’s loyalty: he begins the film trying to sneak away from the rebels to rejoin Rey, and ends his climactic duel with Captain Phasma by proudly declaring his commitment to the Resistance, but it’s a character beat that felt pretty underserved by the film overall.

*If we must insert some antipathy for the rich into this film -- a strange fit for Star Wars, which often isn't explicitly concerned with economics or social class -- I would have much preferred a more creative approach: perhaps a rapid (Eisenstein-ian) montage cutting together a series of inserts depicting income inequality, oppression, violence, slavery, and other foul acts. Instead we merely get a shot of a bunch of aliens having a good time coupled with a moment of cruelty from an animal trainer who doesn't even seem to be a part of the social class the film is attempting to criticize. 

Ultimately, Poe and Finn’s plots seem like devices meant to give these characters something to do rather than vital components to the story. Better would have been to condense them into a single plotline where they both had greater agency in shaping the course of the narrative, and where they achieved a clearer measure of character growth along the way. Of course, this would have made the film more like Empire, which also divides its characters into two groups, but in this case, greater similarity would have been an improvement.

Nevertheless, the strength of Rey, Luke, and Ben’s stories in this film more than make up for the somewhat lackluster B and C plots involving the other characters. Moreover, The Last Jedi also creates intriguing possibilities for the next installment in this series, as it concludes some of the arcs I had expected to stretch into a third film. With Snoke and Luke gone, and the rebellion needing to start over nearly from scratch, the way is paved for an even more original third installment concerning Rey and Ben’s antagonism, one that also hopefully devises a creative way to meaningfully involve Finn and Poe.

 Other thoughts:

- There wasn’t much for Leia to do in this one (aside from somehow using the force to escape from the vacuum of space), but that seems by design. The first film heavily featured Han, and this film heavily featured Luke, thus it seems like the plan for the third installment would have been to give Leia a prominent role, completing the pattern. Carrie Fischer’s unfortunate death makes this impossible, however (I'm optimistically ruling out a distracting and ghoulish CGI version of Leia, ala Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One, which I thought was one of that film's many flaws). Fischer's loss is a shame, but the end of The Last Jedi seems open enough that the third film won’t be crippled by her absence.

- Another interesting difference from the original trilogy is that The Last Jedi is largely devoid of a romance plotline. Finn and Rey -- the strongest candidates for romantic coupling, courtesy of The Force Awakens -- are kept apart for nearly the entire film, and while Rose does kiss Finn after saving him from foolishly sacrificing himself, whatever feelings she might have for him are not well-developed during their earlier scenes together. Indeed, the surprise of their kiss is yet another reason for why the Finn/Rose plot felt rushed. At the very least, I suppose it sets up the potential for a Rose-Finn-Rey love triangle in the third film.

- Lots of fun stuff with BB-8 in this one, ranging from his taking out prison guards by firing coins at them, to his clumsy navigation of a First Order ship while disguised as a different droid, to his rescuing Finn and Rose by operating the weapons of an AT-ST. He's a very effective cipher for R2-D2.

- Speaking of the original trilogy droids, it's interesting that there's no next gen equivalent of C-3PO. One stuffy, oblivious android is enough, evidently.

- Maz Kanata’s brief holo-video appearance is a delight. Not only does it reveal that there’s more to her than we saw in The Force Awakens, but it’s also a reminder that even though it might seem as though the fate the galaxy hinges on the conflict between the First Order and the Resistance, there are also interesting stories taking place in other parts of this narrative world. Plus she literally exits the film by blasting away on a jetpack! I hope she returns for the next installment.

- The Last Jedi is a gorgeous film, perhaps even the best looking of all of the Star Wars films thus far. One highlight includes Holdo decimating the First Order fleet by light-speeding into Snoke’s giant ship. The film underscores the moment by going full 2001: A Space Odyssey in the sound design, cutting to around seven seconds of silence as we’re presented with multiple shots of the effect of Holdo’s sacrifice. Other highlights include: Luke’s death calling back to his gazing out at the twin suns of Tatooine in the original Star Wars (complete with the same soaring musical motif); Finn and Rose racing across the nighttime beach as two moons hang in the sky; the Millennium Falcon dashing through red salt crystal caves (itself reminiscent of the Death Star trench run in Return of the Jedi), and the widescreen compositions of Ben and Luke facing off on battle-scarred salt plains, among many other moments.

- I greatly enjoyed the revelation that Luke was merely projecting a vision of himself onto the salt planet while remaining on his island. The film neatly sets up the possibility for him to actually make the trip to save the Resistance by having Rey briefly glimpse his submerged X-Wing off the shores of his island, thus making a last-minute rescue possible, if not plausible. However, attentive viewers will be able to anticipate the reveal, because he's using the wrong lightsaber in his duel with Ben -- this is the Anakin/Luke/Rey lightsaber we just saw torn in half a few scenes ago, not the green one Luke has used since Return of the Jedi. I also enjoyed Luke's projection because it showcases his mastery of the force. He is no longer the half-trained Jedi-aspirant we saw at the end of Return of the Jedi, but a true master, even if he still possesses some of the same shades of petulance that he displayed in the original trilogy, transformed here into his stubbornness with Rey. Plus his wiping off his shoulder after withstanding the AT-AT laser barrage is a baller move.

- I became a bit teary-eyed when Luke tells Leia that no one is really gone forever, and we briefly hear the Empire musical motif associated with Han and Leia’s romance. R.I.P. Han Solo.

- I enjoyed Ben's stealth in unceremoniously murdering Snoke just as Snoke finishes a speech about how unbeatable he is. The maneuver satisfyingly executes the trope of villains being defeated just when they think they've won. In the end, Snoke was more right than wrong about Ben. It's just that he was really wrong about a small but very important detail.

 - It was nice to see that even without Han Solo, Rian Johnson was able to pack jokes into the margins of the film. I particularly liked Luke admitting to Rey that Jakku really is the ass end of nowhere when she tells him where she’s from. Also nice: the understated reaction a First Order officer has to Ben’s orders after Ben slams Hux into a wall for questioning them. On the other hand, the porgs were a bit cloying, although I did like it when two of them dangerously investigated Rey’s discarded lightsaber.

- Benicio Del Toro makes some questionable performance decisions, particularly his stutter, but overall I liked the character for the scene where he provides Finn with an alternative ethos: self-interest and self-preservation.

- Captain Phasma's silvery storm trooper armor is actually good for something, deflecting Rose’s laser blast. Why isn’t all storm trooper armor made out of this stuff?

- More nerdy nitpicking: Why did the rebel bombers from the first space battle fly in such a tight formation that the destruction of just one ship cascaded into the explosion of several adjacent bombers? Had they never flown into battle before? The design for arming and releasing the bombs and the mechanism for delivering them were also irritating, as their purpose seemed solely to allow for Rose’s sister to have a heroic moment. Warheads can be attached to missiles, especially in the vacuum of space (although I suppose that would make these ships something other than bombers).

- I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed Yoda’s appearance here. Not only was he accompanied by his familiar musical motif from Empire, but the writing was excellent, perhaps even truly wise. I was particularly struck by this line, in reference to students: “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of mastery.”

- When Rey finally tells Luke why she sought him out, she talks about how the force awakened in her, and I had my own (forehead-smacking) awakening, realizing that this is probably the best meaning of title of the first film in this new trilogy.

- Yoda needed little convincing to train Luke, but Luke is never fully on board with training Rey. However, Rey doesn’t really seem to need much training, given her skill with a lightsaber, and how easily she clears boulders from the cave entrance at the end of the film. The rebirth of the Jedi order is in good hands with her. Let’s just hope she’s as wise as she is skilled and powerful.

- One last interesting parallel: when Ben makes his pitch to have Rey join him in reshaping the galaxy, he contrasts the two of them, telling her she comes from nothing. However, the Skywalker lineage also came from nothing, as Anakin was a slave on Tatooine before he was a Jedi. It's unclear if Ben is aware of this part of his family history, but it's a further link between their characters.

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