Friday, December 22, 2017

Star Wars Watch: The Last Jedi

If I tend to do extra-sized posts for big, monumental movies that fit into the Venn Diagram of the kinds of movies which I'll cover these days - one of the things I liked quite a bit about Star Wars: The Last Jedi is that there's so much to talk about.  And, as happened with Blade Runner 2049 and a few other movies of late, I entered with zero expectations and found myself so fully immersed for the film's runtime, I know I didn't catch it all.  I am glad to say that this movie bears a second viewing, something I was ready to do at the very moment I finished my Tuesday night screening.

Like a lot of folks, I was pleased when the reviews came out and pulled a mid 90th percentile on RottenTomatoes. And, when the movie then pulled a 50-something percent in audience reviews on RT, I said to Max, "well, this probably means I'm going to love it."*  After all, you can kind of count on people with overly strong reactions to be the most vocal and actually take to the internets to voice their opinions (this is why Yelp! reviews are nearly useless).

And the movie is both a very, very conservative Star Wars movie and something that knows the series cannot just be retreads of the original trilogy in perpetuity.
As I believe this is likely just a first pass at the film, I won't belabor too much here with a plot recap - besides, I figure you've already seen it or you wouldn't be reading this post.  If you haven't seen the movie and you *are* avoiding spoilers, you might want to jump ship at this point.  I would recommend going in as pure as the driven snow.  I walked into this movie knowing nothing but what I'd seen in trailers and felt all the better for it.

Picking up where The Force Awakens left off in terms of adherence to a certain Star Wars aesthetic while also updating, bringing in new things - always with nods to the old.  Really, there's nothing quite like the cohesive look and feel of the Star Wars films - not even Trek managed to retain the same sort of continuity over any duration (of course, had they quit blowing up the damn Enterprise...).  I keep pondering the Samurai-ized Praetorian Guards, Snokes' chambers (a shadow of Palpatine's chambers, as it turns out), and the bridge of the Resistance cruiser where so much of the action takes place - which I'm 85% certain was supposed to be the cruiser from Return of the Jedi.  All of it familiar, logical and yet new. 

While I think Rogue One's slower pacing allowed for a style of visuals that served it exceedingly well from a cinematographic standpoint (that movie was beautiful), the more dynamic visuals of this series occurs against phenomenal landscapes.  I'm not surprised the trailers cashed in on the final-charge scene on the salt planet.  As Holdo's desperate turn-about to rescue her comrades paid off, I had one of the few involuntary audible utterances I've made in a movie in a while, the visual was so brilliant.

Space Laura Dern is excellent

I've already thrown in with the core trio of this cast - and had a laugh when we realized Rey and Poe hadn't previously met after two full films' worth of action.  The addition of Rose, Holdo and more... it still doesn't feel unwieldy.  Each character serves specific narrative purposes, has little in the way of duplicated arcs and all are well cast.  I'm more or less in the bag for anything Laura Dern is up to, and knew nothing of her character aside from a violet color-scheme before the movie rolled.  The actress playing Rose brought a certain unbridled light to Star Wars I'm not sure we've seen before in any character.

At the end of the day, I was blown away by The Last Jedi.  Certainly the evolution of Luke Skywalker was not what I expected, but in a series built on archetypes and stereotypes, I had expected - like everyone else - to see Luke quickly shake off the qualms that had put him into self-exile years before and pulled out of retirement to join us for two more films.  I do wonder if some of the folks bucking against the path the movie took are younger (probably not), but a broken and bitter Luke felt oddly... real.  It doesn't mean he can't get his redemption, that he doesn't play a part, but that he's cast as the disillusioned failure/ iconoclastic, reluctant Kung-Fu master is a stroke of brilliance, in my book.  (Of course, bringing back frikkin' Muppet Yoda to show how that's really done was absolutely lovely).

Always hire this person.  You need this spirit on your team.

While the books were saved and Rey seems bent toward a path of light, the movie's mid-story dalliance with Rey and Kylo Ren as opposite sides of a coin (one flipping in the air, so you're not sure how it'll land) was the most fascinating and possibilities-generating idea Star Wars has had since Luke landed in Dagobah.  In a series that has talked about "balance" of the Force, it's never really been that, has it?  It's been a stark contrast of Jedi and Sith.  And this movie had the cajones to address what all of us talked about over beers in college when pondering Star Wars:  look, the Jedi failed.  Things went badly there, and maybe just doing all of that over again is a bad idea.  And I don't think it's any kind of mistake that we saw the natural ballet of Kylo Ren and Rey able to take on overwhelming forces.

Oh, and of COURSE Leia has figured out The Force.  She's the smartest, savviest toughest character in all 8 of these movies.  But not everyone needs to grab a laser sword and dress like a hermit.

This is a safe space, so I'll be honest:  I don't entirely understand the qualifiers everyone in my facebook feed has been applying to their enjoyment of SW:TLJ.  "It wasn't perfect, but I liked it" is the common refrain.

Honey, ain't none of the Star Wars movies anywhere near perfect.  If this is just occurring to you at age 45, I'm sorry you spent all your money on Jedi robes and lightsabers and named your kid Sy Snoodles.  And, frankly, I'm scared to find out what most people think comprises a perfect movie, let alone a perfect Star Wars movie.

I'm not trying to do the "I'm so cool, it's just a movie..." thing.  I love Star Wars, too.  But part of loving anything is loving the imperfections, and if you've been happily giggling at the Storm Trooper bonking his head for forty years or rewinding to see if Luke yells "Carrie" when exiting the X-Wing, or accepting that Vader never source-senses Leia is his daughter or that the Droids just happen to find Luke Skywalker when we have planets and planets full of beings...  my friends, it's time to lay down for a while and ponder our lives together.

I was two years old when Star Wars hit cinemas (and, yeah, my dad took me), and 40 years on, it's astounding that not only have we got Her Majesty Carrie Fisher back for her final turn (you do not want to know how many times I teared up just seeing her in this movie), but Mark Hamill.   We're able to tell a tale of Luke Skywalker and Leia as older, wiser and sadder people.  That's the thing about the progression of time - there's no finish line until you're six feet under.  There's just an accumulation of history.  And if you wanted to see Luke Skywalker back, I guess we could have seen him return as a nigh-omnipotent space ninja who would laser-sword his way through the First Order, save Rey and Finn and toss Snoke down a hole where he'd explode into blue lightning, and we'd all say "wow, that had echoes of Star Wars and Luke is still cool."  But we were all expecting that, weren't we?  It was sort of obvious, wasn't it?

The thing is: we most definitely did get recall to prior installments with call and response to prior beats and dialog from ROTJ, and that messed with us, set us with expectations.  Rian Johnson might just know how movies work well enough to know how to play with us a bit and keep us spinning.  He seems to be enough of a fan to know what we expect, tweak it, change it up just that much more to keep one step ahead of the audience and give us that grim middle chapter we got in Empire.  (and for the people I saw complaining that the Leia/ Poe plot was about them running away for two days - I would like to introduce you to the Leia/ Han subplot of Empire).

Most certainly a lot of "incel" dudes are no doubt mad about the prominence of women in this movie, with General Organa, Vice-Admiral Holdo, Rey and Rose all taking not just leadership positions narratively and literally in the film.  And, heck, aren't just background characters or the token girl in the group.

And, maybe, the fact that the characters on the hardest path for personal growth across the movie are Poe, Finn and even Luke Skywalker.  I mean, after 7 prior movies, the lessons learned by all three of these characters were maybe some of the most difficult things to process in someone's life - understanding the power of failure as a guiding force, that it's how you react to and learn from failure and disappointment that matters.  It's something we tell kids, but only experience and hopefully some personal growth is going to verify the claim.  And, maybe asking people to see how this works, what striving to learn from experience is like, what releasing the past (distant and recent) can do to move forward was too much to ask.  Especially in a framework that has always rewarded the audience with characters overcoming challenges through derring-do.

And maybe that's a bit antithetical to Star Wars itself, but it landed right with me.

That the movie wrestles with the oddness of the Skywalker legacy and simultaneously absolutely freaked out millions of fans who were pointlessly obsessing over Rey's parentage also frees up the Star Wars universe immeasurably, and, frankly, reinserts some logic by taking away destinies and bloodlines as the overly-trod territory of chosen ones.  I'll take a grass roots, populist uprising any time.  And the idea that Rey is you or me or anyone from any walk of life - that matters (and the movie all but smacks you over the head with the idea that this is where we're going at the end, I suppose).

At this point, I don't want a trilogy.  I want 7 or 8 movies with these characters, which means I want more with them and their universe, and if that isn't success, I don't know what is.

Anyway, hopefully I'll see the movie again in the near future.  More later.

*Of late, me and fan culture don't agree on much.


Simon MacDonald said...

I went to the movies on Sunday to see The Last Jedi and this literally happened to me:

I can't believe that I spend two weeks off the internet to avoid the movie being spoiled and it was ruined minutes before I went into the theatre.

I was so angry I'm not sure if I could properly evaluate the movie. I mean I liked it and I know ostensively it is a kids movie but some people acted really, really dumb. I'm not sure why there was even a Finn sub plot on the casino planet. I didn't feel like it added anything to the movie. I did really love the new characters introduced in the movie with Rose and Laura Dern's Holdo.

I really think I need to see it again before I can really comment on the movie.

The League said...

I firmly believe that the crowd that catches movies about two weeks after they come out is the worst crowd. They weren't in a mad rush to see it, probably just wanted to see a movie - any movie - and why not this one? And, for whatever reason, it means their movie etiquette sucks. Talking, cell phones, whatever. It's just not a priority, but something else, too. I'd rather see a movie a month after it came out than two weeks afterwards. At least then its just people really making an effort after the advertising died off.

That said, I had two other character's fates told me to via tumblr the Friday morning after the movie was released on Thursday.

Anyway, the Finn detour is one of those things that I've been like "huh, nope, made perfect sense to me" that even Jamie and I can't agree on. I can give you my take if you care to hear it, I guess.

JAL said...

I think what bugged me most about this movie, without dropping some major spoilers, is that there’s a lot of talk of “killing the past”, how holding onto the past keeps you tied to it. And, I don’t think I’m wrong in that the implication is, that no matter how difficult it may be to separate yourself from the past, it’s the only way to move forward. Which is a great, lofty ideal. And then, um, they just made it really easy for the heroes to move forward. Does the Luke stuff or Rey’s parents stuff really change any direction for these characters? It ultimately strikes me as lazy writing. Or, I dunno, maybe it’s great and I just don’t get it.

I thInk anyone who expects the creative team behind these films (or the audience) to move beyond the previous films is in for a rude awakening when part whatever comes out.

It makes me wonder if Lord, Miller and Trevorrow weren’t trying to do just that and got the boot.

My dislikes aside, Rose Tico and Admiral Holdo 4ever.

The League said...

Now that Simon has seen the movie, I am freeing us all to drop major spoilers.

I'm not sure how they made it easy for the characters to move forward. This movie seemed fairly full of major character beats, even if they felt a bit on the inverse side of myth-building in the monarchical tradition. For 1.6 movies, Rey was both looking for surrogate parents and dwelling on the notion of them lost in space unable to retrieve her - which set up some really intense fan theorizing. I'm not sure it's any more or less meaningful in this chapter than Luke finding out Darth Vader was his father in Empire (spoilers), the moment Rey's discovery mirrors. But what it will mean next movie does seem pretty important as indicated by the suggestion of the film's finale that the Rebellion will come from a grassroots effort, not royal families fighting each other. If Rey from Nowhere can be that Rebel leader, all the better.

Luke's shame and carrying the shame of a 1000 year of failed Jedi is, I guess, released by his ending and willingness to let the future be the future. Whether Rey calls herself a Jedi (and I'm half theorizing Kylo Ren will not call himself Sith, and she won't call herself Jedi), then it clears the table. No more Snoke. No more Luke. No more of the same old battle that's been occurring over and over. That *seems* significant, but that's if Abrams doesn't do a patch job and just reset the table.

I may be in for a rude awakening, but right now it feels like a welcome change from "oh, shit, they're just photocopying the original trilogy". Which, as I said in the post, this is a deeply conservative Star Wars movie. It basically took the outline of Empire and inverted all the outcomes. Which, for Star Wars, felt like a total shock.

If what I heard right about Lord and Miller, they got canned for making the crew stand around endlessly and burning through money while they did a 1000 takes which were pretty jokey. But that may be wrong. Trevorrow, I have no idea. But Jurassic World was terrible, so I was never terribly upset by that decision.

And, yes, Rose and Admiral Holdo were fantastic.

JAL said...

We'll see what the next one holds. I am most curious to see where Kylo's story goes, which seems more interesting than what the Rebels will do. For as good as his speech was, I didn't feel like him making himself the new "dark lord" was killing the past in any way shape or form. It feels like the trajectory is to just keep hunting down the Rebellion now, or maybe it's just Leia at this point. Anyhoo, I really do hope you're correct.

Do you think we've seen the last of Luke?

I'm not so sure you release your own shame by creating a diversion, then disappearing peacefully. Who did he do this for? Himself, Leia, Rey? Luke and Yoda just yuk it up until we need plot intervention. Maybe it's the bourbon talking, but would it not have been more interesting to make Luke a failure at the end of the day and (maybe) get Leia killed? He resolves his own shame, by creating his own demise. Luke bakes his cake and eats it, too...and I was disappointed. Maybe this is me just being a bad viewer.


The League said...

You know, I have no idea what will happen with Kylo Ren. I sure as hell didn't predict what happened in this movie, so I'm reluctant to say what's gonna happen. But I *do* think that the movie did more to actually ponder "balance" of the Force via Rey and Kylo Ren than the pretty stark Jedi/ Sith business of the last 7 movies. So, that's new. So who knows what Kylo will do? At least with Snoke out of the picture, we aren't just getting the Palpatine redux.

What I'd heard about these movies was that VII was Han's movie, VIII was Luke's and IX was Leia's movie - and I kinda think that trajectory sounds right, if you look at who has the arc per movie. And, the hint this movie seemed to be giving that Leia was more than we knew. Disney has said she won't appear now in IX, so anything is possible. They've got a pretty big gap to fill, but I bet Billy Dee would take the gig.

Again - one of the things I liked about the movie is that I have no idea what will happen next, which is not necessarily how I felt at the end of Episode 1, 2 of 3. I was to young to really remember what I thought would happen in Jedi in that terribly long window between movies - but I do remember thinking Vader was a lying liar and wasn't Luke's father.

I may be over forgiving, and that's fine. But it did work for me, and not just because they gave me a Star War. I won't claim it's gonna set sci-fi on its ear for a generation, but it was a sort of overturned dark middle chapter that I think will make the next installment all the more satisfying.