Saturday, December 23, 2017

My review | Star Wars: The Last Jedi


Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie ever made.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the worst Star Wars movie ever made.

There is no middle ground.

That seems to be the general reaction to the latest addition to the Star Wars saga. It's a divisive film. In some ways, it takes the series off in bold new directions; in other ways it serves as a big "FU" to longtime Star Wars fans. It's big, bold, audacious, tragic, disappointing, nonsensical, brilliantly written, terribly written, and both builds upon and destroys the sturdy foundation built by The Force Awakens.

Here are my thoughts on the movie.

Kylo Ren. How did this guy become such a compelling character? He was an easily memed "Vader fanboy" in the TFA, but The Last Jedi turns him into an incredible villain. He is haunted by his past but is determined to destroy it. In fact, I believe that's the central message of the movie: "Let the past die. Kill it if you have to." He pulls a fast one on Supreme Leader Snoke and kills him while trying to make Rey his own apprentice so they can rule the galaxy. It, um, doesn't work out.

Rey. She is so certain that the "Legend of Luke Skywalker" can save the Resistance, but she finds out the reality is something else entirely. Still, she knows the situation is dire and refuses to give up. She follows the Jedi Master around "Stairmaster Island" and tries to convince him to train her in the ways of the Force. Like Luke in ESB, she's headstrong and concerned about the fate of her friends. She rushes off to save them and hopes she'll be able to find goodness in Kylo. She's very, very wrong.

Luke Skywalker. It was fantastic seeing Mark Hamill back on the big screen. I didn't get the Luke Skywalker I wanted, but I also understand I got the Luke Skywalker this new generation of Star Wars movies needed. He is haunted by his past and by his own legend. He saved the galaxy only to see evil rise again in his nephew. Luke resolves to stay on the sidelines until prodding from Rey and R2-D2 convinces him to train her. It's a wonderful character arc, even if it doesn't satisfy 30+ years of expectations.

I'll be honest: I wanted to see Luke wreck shop and ignite the green lightsaber. I wanted to see him stare down a hundred First Order stormtroopers and dispatch them with a single gesture. I wanted him to raise his hand and collapse those First Order walkers, deflecting their blaster bolts with his lightsaber.

That isn't what happened. Instead, Luke Skywalker cut himself off from the Force and went to the island to die. He couldn't live with what he almost did to his nephew; he couldn't live with what happened to his students at the Jedi training temple. He ran and hid, which is a very un-Luke Skywalker thing to do. This guy blew up the Death Star! He survived two duels with Darth Vader--and won the second one! He brought down an AT-AT on his own!

But young Luke Skywalker did those things. He, like Obi-Wan before him (let's think about this in terms of OT Obi-Wan and not prequel Obi-Wan) thought he could train new Jedi as well as Master Yoda--just as Obi-Wan thought he could train Anakin. Luke was wrong, just like Obi-Wan. Luke bought into his own legend, and the results were catastrophic. As the Jedi of the Old Republic fell by their own hubris, so did Luke Skywalker.

Having Luke fly his X-Wing onto Crait and confront Kylo Ren and the First Order wouldn't have made sense for the Luke Skywalker the movie presented us with. Again: "Let the past die. Kill it if you must."

In the end, Luke shows he's the most powerful Jedi ever by using a Force projection to buy time for Rey, Leia, and the Resistance. The exertion is too much for him, and he becomes one with the Force. It's a bittersweet moment and a fitting end for him. I hope we'll see Force Ghost Luke in Episode IX.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked Luke's character arc. It made sense for him to go into exile--just as Yoda and Obi-Wan did.

Porgs. They were adorable and didn't get in the way of the movie. That scene where Chewie was about to eat a cooked porg was really funny.

Snokescreen. Supreme Leader Snoke was positioned as the new Emperor Palpatine, the kind of uber-powerful Force-wielder who'd pull the strings and bring the galaxy to its knees. I expected him to be dispatched in the final movie of this new trilogy, but that's not what happened at all. Instead, Snoke was Kylo Ren's final test. Kylo turned the tables on him and killed him. Like Palpatine before him, Snoke's overconfidence was his weakness. Now Kylo Ren is the supreme leader and ultimate villain of this trilogy.

General Leia. It's a shame we won't get to see Carrie Fisher complete Leia's arc. She was great in this movie, bringing gravitas and desperation to the plight of the Resistance. I love the idea of Leia using the Force, though I'm not sure I'm thrilled with how the movie executed that. I also kind of rolled my eyes at using the well-worn trope of putting someone in a coma to provide some artificial drama.

The Force. From Luke's Force projection to Jedi Skype and Force Ghosts that can interact with the physical world, TLJ expanded the Force in some exciting ways. I liked that it made that "hokey religion'' a little more mystical in the process. The Force is spiritual again. The truth is, we don't know that much about the Force; the movies don't tell us much about how it works. The movie shows us that the Force is much larger than we thought.

Things go wrong. This is the second act of a three-act story, so stuff is supposed to go wrong. Oh, man, does it go wrong. Poe's plan results in lots of people dying, Rey's plan to get Luke on her side goes wrong, Rey's plan to redeem Kylo goes sideways, Finn's mission to beat the First Order backfires. We're used to seeing these types of gambits go in the heroes' favor, but that didn't happen this time.

Artoo's message. Luke is beaten and broken in this movie, but Artoo pulls a "cheap" move by bringing back Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. That moment tugged at my heartstrings.

Yoda. Honestly, I initially thought puppet Yoda still looked kind of weird. I also thought, while he was cantankerous in Empire, that his goofball shtick was a little out of character. However, as is the case with Yoda, there's always more to it than you think. His ability to set the Force tree on fire also gave some added depth to Obi-Wan's warning to Luke before he rushed off to Cloud City: "If you choose to face Vader, you will do it alone. I cannot interfere."

I always wondered why Obi-Wan said that. I mean, the dude's a blue ghost! What could he do--appear in front of Vader to tick him off? Now I see it's possible that Obi-Wan could've physically intervened to help Luke. It's interesting to see a new spin on a movie that's nearly 40 years old.

Still, it was good to see Yoda and to learn he has more lessons to teach.

Canto Bight. Ask just about anyone what didn't work for them in this movie--even people who loved it--and they'll probably say the Canto Bight subplot dragged. I think the movie really struggled with finding something for Finn to do and wanted to find a way to expand Rose's character. I don't think Canto Bight came off the way the director wanted.

This should've worked like the cantina scene or Jabba's palace/sail barge. Or, really, even the "sports bar" the Attack of the Clones. It didn't work at all. It felt tacked on and I never felt like Finn & Rose were in any real danger. Secret Rebel Alliance decoder rings? I know some senators used to wear them back in the day, but they were never introduced in the movies, so that fell flat. The concept of war profiteering and playing both the First Order and the Resistance against one another to make money was an interesting idea, but the execution was lacking.

I think the whole subplot needed to be streamlined, reconsidered, or cut entirely. Mostly because...

The Canto Bight subplot was useless. We didn't gain much from Canto Bight. It didn't reveal much about Finn's or Rose's character to the audience. They never had to make a tough decision during the whole thing. Aaaaaand they really shouldn't have gone there in the first place because Admiral Holdo shouldn't have withheld information from Poe Dameron. I get it: Poe's a hothead. His refusal to follow Leia's orders at the beginning put the Resistance in peril. His decision to give Finn and Rose the go-ahead on their mission almost resulted in the destruction of the whole Resistance.

Unless Holdo thought Poe was a spy, however, she shouldn't have withheld the information about their real strategy from him. All it did was make a mess of things--a mess you're supposed to blame on Poe, Finn, and Rose, but was really Holdo's screw-up. Canto Bight was plot-driven, not character-driven, and that's why it failed.

What a waste of Laura Dern. Laura Dern's a great actress. Holdo should've been an interesting character. She wasn't. Why cast Laura Dern if you're gonna throw her away in one movie? I mean, she went out in a hell of a way with the hyperspace battering ram thing (which was awesome!), but her character meant nothing. She was just an obstacle to Poe's character and a tool to provide some growth for him and propel the whole Canto Bight thing.

You know what they should've done here? Instead of creating Admiral Holdo specifically to throw her away in a self-sacrifice that was cool but had little emotional stakes, give that moment to another character. I would've put Admiral Ackbar in charge of the fleet after Leia was injured (although I think I wouldn't have put Leia in a coma in the first place!). Instead of having Ackbar die like a chump, have him slide into the Holdo role and make the big sacrifice. It would've had more emotional impact on Star Wars fans because, though he doesn't have a ton of screen time in Return of the Jedi, the audience knows who he is.

DJ. After first viewing of The Last Jedi, I didn't care for Benecio Del Toro's character. However, I missed a key scene because I had to use the restroom: the scene where he shows Finn that the rich people on Canto Bight are selling weapons to both the Resistance and the First Order. He tells Finn not to "join" anything. That scene makes a huge difference for his character, and I had an incomplete reading of him the first time around.

I liked him much more the second time I saw the movie. Yeah, he sold out our heroes, but he pretty much made it clear that's what he does. I liked how he occupies that gray area in the Star Wars universe. He suggested something along the lines of "they blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow" as he was leaving. I wonder if we'll see him again.

But even if DJ was a good addition to the movie, that still doesn't make up for the Canto Bight subplot.

The First Order's plan was pretty dumb. The Resistance ships could stay out of range of the First Order big ships because they were faster at sublight speeds. Got it. No problem. The First Order didn't want to send starfighters out of range because starfighters rely on the protection of capital ships to operate at peak efficiency. Okay, got it. No problem. The First Order knows the rebels will run out of fuel soon and will just keep chasing them until they run out. Um, okay.

So why didn't the First Order, knowing full well the heading of the Resistance ships, jump a few capital ships on an intercept course that would've sandwiched the Resistance between two First Order fleets? I mean, maybe the First Order was too busy using the rest of its resources to subjugate the entire universe, but I would think destroying the Resistance would be priority one.

I suppose there's also the likelihood that the destruction of Starkiller Base crippled the First Order's military, but it seems pretty clear to me that the First Order is incredibly powerful and well-equipped, even with the loss of Starkiller Base.

Just a little food for thought there.

The score. As I'm writing this up, I'm listening to the musical soundtrack, and it's really good. John Williams brought back a lot of music from the original trilogy and used it in some different ways and arrangements. I liked The Force Awakens soundtrack (especially Rey's theme and the Resistance theme), but I think The Last Jedi is a stronger effort. The score feels like it plays a much more integral role in the movie than in Episode VII.

In conclusion. The first time I saw The Last Jedi, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't really tell if I enjoyed it or not. I had to reflect on it for a few days before writing out my thoughts. A second viewing really provided some clarity. I still have some issues with general plotting--mostly anything that doesn't involve Luke Skywalker/Rey/Kylo Ren has some structural gaffes and logic problems. That said, the fact that Luke Skywalker embraces his legend at the end makes everything worth it.

And when Luke steps into the cave on Crait and has his moment with Leia, I got emotional. Knowing what's coming really has an impact, and we're allowed to once again embrace the Legend of Luke Skywalker.

And I didn't even mention how awesome the throne room scene with Rey, Kylo, and the praetorian guards was!

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