Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Quick Thoughts: The Last Jedi

Hannah, Emma, and I finally saw The Last Jedi (TLJ) on Sunday, and for all that it has been hyped up, trashed, and spoiled online, we really liked it.  I’d probably give it four stars out of five, and that’s on first viewing.  I liked The Force Awakens (TFA) much more on second viewing because I noticed a lot of little things that I hadn’t seen the first time through.  I’ll never be the same ten-year-old boy I was when I experienced The Empire Strike Back (ESB) for the first time, but I’ve still really enjoyed both installments of the new trilogy.  I like them more, for example, than I liked Rogue One.  Both movies took us into uncharted territory, but that’s doubly true of TLJ, and that’s something that we badly needed.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
My initial thoughts on the movie are below.  These include detailed spoilers.  You have been warned.
1. I’ve been very surprised by the level of fanboy outrage at TLJ on the Internet.  But I am starting to wonder if these aren’t the same people who were pissed that TFA was headed by a girl, who also never got over the fact that Rey beat Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel at the end of the movie.  My personal opinion is that these are naturally unhappy people, and that their outrage is good for the rest of us.
Honestly, some people could use a bit more disappointment in their lives.  Internet trolls are at the top of this list.
I don’t personally feel the need to defend TLJ, per se, but if you want to read an impassioned defense, Slash Film’s is excellent.  I don’t necessarily agree with everything that they have to say, but their take is well worth your time.  
If you hated TLJ, I think maybe you didn’t understand it.  It’s a much more complicated film than any that have preceded it.  That’s a good thing.

2.  My take on TLJ is that it’s fundamentally about loneliness.  Ben Solo is an incredibly sad and lonely little boy, and he has been for a very long time.  His parents… let’s be honest, they were not great parents.  Leia is a workaholic who loves but can’t seem to make time for anyone, and Han is a good dude but not the kind of guy you want to count on for the long haul.  They collectively send Ben away because he’s acting out, and then the headmaster at his boarding school decides to kill him because he’s still acting out.  So he runs, but as is wont to happen, he runs to a place that’s even worse than where he started.  
He knows this.  He knows that following Snoke is a fool’s errand.  They call it out in TFA and again at least once in TLJ.  But Kylo Ren is way too pissed off to go crawling back to mommy and daddy, and all things considered, I get why.
Similarly, Luke is also lonely and miserable.  He’s made some bad choices, and he knows it.  He tried to kill his sister’s kid!  He’s ashamed, but he’s also worried that he’s made things worse—a not unreasonable fear.  By the end of TFA, I'd started wondering if the Force wasn’t a weapon of mass destruction without which the galaxy itself would be better off long-term.
Folks seem upset that Luke is no longer a heroic figure, but we already knew that he’d failed.  They laid it out pretty clearly in TFA.  Else, there would be no Kylo Ren and no First Order.  He failed as all the Jedi have failed and in much the same way.  
Rey’s loneliness is the most explicit.  She’s literally, “no one from nowhere.”  As Kylo says, “You have no place in this story.”  That’s a great line.  We can all see what an abusive asshole he’d be as a boyfriend, right?
Anyway, all of these characters need a new way forward.  That, to me, is the point of the movie.
3.  Director Rian Johnson loves the prequels way more than you or I do, and TLJ takes a lot of its cues from them.  It treats them as a legitimate part of this saga in a way that TFA did not.  In particular, we’re dealing with the legitimate failures of the Jedi Order, perhaps for the first time.
We’re also back to dealing with the politics of the Galaxy Far, Far Away.  Star Wars was a decidedly political film, about a ragtag band of freedom fighters facing off against Space Nazis.  But ESB and RotJ dialed the politics down, to the point where we got writers like Blog Tarkin arguing that the Rebels were terrorists and the Empire was actually a force for stability and social good.
The prequels brought politics back, especially RoS.  “So this is how democracy dies,” Senator Amidala says, “to thunderous applause.”  This during the Bush White House, especially in reference to the Patriot Act.
TFA takes it even further, though not quite as obviously.  Now we see the stormtroopers being, well, stormtroopers.  Meanwhile, the Republic can’t bestir itself, even to stave off annihilation.  They’re the French in 1936 or ‘37.  They can see the war machine rising, but the horrors of the last war are still so vivid in memory that they’d rather pretend that there’s not any danger, and then it’s too late.
TLJ then calls out the inherent Socialism of the Rebellion, putting the words in Finn’s mouth because he’s the escaped slave.  In that sense, Blog Tarkin is right.  If you’re in the Upper Class, the First Order is probably not out to get you unless you piss them off.  But if you’re of the right race and social strata, Hux and his friends are more than ready to make common cause.  Finn explicitly wants to tear this all down in the name of social justice, but really, it’s characters like Leia and Bail Organa who are the heroes.  They could be on the side of the 1% but choose instead to fight for right and good.
At the same time, Luke has taken the Jedi back to something like Qui-Gon Jin’s position in The Phantom Menace.  Qui-Gon tells Padme, “I can’t fight a war for you.”  Ultimately, it was the Jedi’s later willingness to embrace war—and the compromises they made to fight it—that led to their downfall.  
TLJ offers no ready answers, and it’s telling that no one in the galaxy is willing to come to the Rebellion’s aid at the movie’s end.  The one thing we know for certain is that Rey won’t be the same kind of Jedi that Yoda and Mace Windu were.  Rey has a connection to the Dark Side and Kylo has one to the Light.  More important is what they choose to do with their power.  I suspect that Rose’s line about winning “by saving what we love” will come to bear as we (perhaps) attempt to wind up all three trilogies with one final bow.
4. Kylo Ren is a fantastic villain.  I really love the way they’ve conceived his character precisely because we can understand what he’s thinking and why.  He’s not some faceless bad guy.  He’s a dude who is legitimately conflicted about his role in all this.  He’s Dylan Klebold with a bit more conscience.  Even so, he’s still a genocidal maniac, and if he can’t quite bring himself to kill his own mother, he nevertheless watches while his stormtroopers do it for him.  The fact that they don’t quite succeed is irrelevant.
Kylo knows he’s a monster.  He admits as much.  And honestly, if this series had let him redeem himself, I would have been very, very angry about it.  This is a man who sat by and did nothing while the First Order used a super-weapon to wipe out the entire Republic!  He killed his own father and watched as his soldiers killed countless others.  There was never any coming back from that.  The scene in the throne room when he and Rey both realize this truth is one of my favorites in the entire series.

5. My buddy Chris specifically hated the interstellar stern chase that serves as the movie’s central plot device.  I did not.  These kinds of chases were real and relatively common in 18th and 19th century naval history, and they are staples of naval military historical fiction like the Master and Commander series.
All canvas out plus guys on the oars to pull the ship.
6. Similarly, Chris didn’t like the timing of some of the scenes.  I will agree that the First Order has an unbelievable amount of combat power at its disposal, particularly in the wake of its loss of Starkiller Base.  But the structure of the movie itself…  I mean, the key is to realize that a lot of the scenes that are being shown concurrently are not actually happening concurrently.  
The real time space battle at the heart of the movie takes place over at most four or five days.  Meanwhile, Rey is on the island with Luke for weeks or maybe even months.  Despite the fact that her scenes are shown second, she gets to the island first, perhaps by quite a bit.  Her scenes are shown second because Johnson opens his movie on action and not because they happened at the same time as those opening scenes.
This also happens in ESB.  Luke is on Dagobah for weeks at least.  But his scenes are shown concurrently with the chase through the asteroid belt, even though that whole sequence takes at most 48 hours.  Lucas doesn’t show us the time it takes our heroes to fly at sub-lightspeed to get to Cloud City, nor however many days Han and Leia spend waiting around once they get there.  We also don’t see the endless rounds of torture that Vader presumably puts them through after he catches them.  Instead, we get a single scene to let us know that they’ve been waiting around awhile and a little torture.  But there’s also a lot of time stuffed in there somewhere.  What we don’t get is repetitive stuff that doesn’t advance the plot.  This is also true in TLJ, but it might make the timeline seem a little wonky.  Still, whatever the timeline, it’s not exactly central to the plot.

7.  To me, the biggest surprise in the entire movie is that Finn’s side-quest is unsuccessful, and in the most believable way imaginable.  Not only that, but the whole fact that they attempted it is what gets about three-quarters of the surviving rebels killed.  Admiral Hux was onto these guys from the start.
Think of it like this: Poe mutinies in support of a terrible idea, the result of which is such an extreme loss of life and combat power that 100% of the survivors can get on board the Millennium Falcon with room to spare.  They go from having thousands of rebels and dozens of ships to having maybe fifty rebels and exactly one ship over the course of a single movie.  That is 100% Poe’s fault!
And no one is even mad.  Leia forgives Poe, and in fact, it looks like Poe is probably going to be leading the Resistance going forward.

8.  I have no idea how they’re going to make Episode IX without Leia.  I’d read that TFA was supposed to be Han’s movie and that TLJ was supposed to be Luke’s.  It follows that Ep. IX would be Leia’s, and TLJ sets this up with its construction.  However, they’re not going to replace Carrie Fisher.
The good thing about Ep. IX is that we have no idea whatsoever what’s going to happen next.  TLJ pulled most of its ideas from ESB, but the throne room scene very obviously hearkened back to RotJ.  Now there’s no obvious way forward.  The Rebellion itself was defeated in detail, and all the original movies have been mined for source material.  Whatever happens next, it’s going to be completely new.

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That's all I've got.  What did I miss?

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