Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Some Extended and Spoiler Filled Thoughts on The Last Jedi

This should go without saying, but please do not read this article if you have not seen The Last Jedi and have any intention of going into the movie without having everything spoiled. I'm about to spoil everything. If you want a non-spoiler review, please check out what Dean has to say.  If you want something specific and non-spoilery from me, let's just say that I thought it was great and I'm trying to sort out just how high to rank the movie based on one viewing and spending too much time thinking about it. Alright. Let's do this.

 When I walked out of the theater two years ago I was giddy and energized by just how much I loved The Force Awakens. I'm not one to bag on the prequel trilogy, but The Force Awakens was refreshing for how much it felt like Star Wars and brought back all of the joy of discovering Star Wars as a child and watching the movies over and over again. It may have been a touch on the nose for echoing the original movie, but the joy of Star Wars was back.

There are far worse comparisons to make for The Last Jedi than The Empire Strikes Back given that Empire is one of the greatest films of all time, one whose reputation continues to grow with each passing year. I'm not quite so bold as to claim The Last Jedi will be regarded on the same level as The Empire Strikes Back.  Only time will give answer to that question. I do wonder, though, how moviegoers felt walking out of the theater having just experience The Empire Strikes Back for the first time. It's a bit of a downer tinged with just enough hope that maybe our heroes have a chance to overcome the Empire, even if there's no clear path to victory.

The Last Jedi is something like that. The Resistance has been crushed to just a handful of survivors and while there is hope and belief flames of a new rebellion will fan from the embers this one, but things may be as dire as they've ever been. So dire, in fact, that my assumption is that Episode IX will take place a number of years, if not at least a decade, later. The Republic is gone. The Resistance is in tatters. If The Resistance was a sports team, reporters would describe them as being in rebuilding mode. They'll hope to contend in a number of years with some additional draft picks if they can keep the nucleus of the team intact.

Something I find interesting is despite being the second movie in a trilogy, The Last Jedi resets the deck for the Star Wars story. This is something we can argue should have been done in The Force Awakens, but that movie was a reintroduction and a making the old new again. The Last Jedi turns the franchise into something subtly different.

For seven movies Star Wars has been the Skywalker Family Saga. For all the galactic war and cool shit blowing up and lightsaber battles and Yoda flipping around like a muppet on speed and stormtroopers having the least precision aiming skills around and everything else, Star Wars is really about one family and their oversized impact on the galaxy. Even in The Force Awakens we're left with a pining for Luke to return and Kylo Ren anguishing over being able to live up to his grandfather's (Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader) legacy of darkness.

The Last Jedi takes that, and twists. Kylo owns his own darkness, destroys Supreme Leader Snoke and wants to destroy the remnants of the Jedi, Sith, and any other legacy of Stars Wars past. Luke, on the other hand, is a somewhat broken Jedi who wants nothing more than to live out his life on an isolated island on an isolated planet and die alone, one without the Force. Luke's recognizes his legacy of being a near mythological "legend" and rejects it. He knows that legacy brought him nothing but failure and a moment where he was so confident of his rightness that he considered murdering his nephew in his sleep in fear than young Ben Solo could turn into another Darth Vader. That moment of being so perfectly wrong shaped the rest of Ben's life into embracing Snoke's teaching, murdering his fellow students, and eventually murdering his own father, Han Solo. Everything Luke feared came to pass, except it was Luke looking down into the eyes of a frightened young man who saw his beloved teacher and uncle with murder in his eyes. Yes, Luke knows about being a legend and he's done with it.

But those years of isolation have turned Luke into his own version of Yoda, bounding up and down a mountainside, milking some animal with a half impish / half mad glint in his eye, taunting Rey with his mastery of that island. We see Luke's X-Wing under the water, echoing its burial at Dagobah, but the teachable moment here isn't Rey lifting it for future use.

The role of the legend of Luke Skywalker here serves two primary purposes. The first is for Luke to finally figure out how to live with that legend after all these years without letting it define him. It takes most of the movie, with nudges from Rey and a renewed Force connection with Leia. When Luke truly returns he is as close to being at peace as he possibly can, which gives his confrontation with Kylo Ren to have echoes of the Darth Vader / Obi-Wan Kenobi confrontation in the original Star Wars. It is one of many echoes to earlier movies running through The Last Jedi, except each of those echoes are being subverted. Luke tells Kylo "strike me down in anger and I will become more powerful than you can imagine" and throughout that entire fight sequence we're waiting for the mirror of Vader striking down Kenobi, and then when it happens it's not what we thought.

Luke doesn't embrace his own legend, but he comes to peace with it and recognizes that it can be used as a tool. Stories of that fight with Kylo are spreading throughout the galaxy and the Crowning Moment of Jedi Awesomeness is that Luke wasn't even there! Luke was meditating on his island, projecting himself onto the salt planet and he was such a bad ass Jedi that nobody knew, except perhaps Leia. The legend becomes a tool, used to help continue the Resistance and foster a new spirit of excitement and defiance.

And then. The legend dies, fading away with only a Jedi robe whipping into the wind. It's a fitting end for Luke Skywalker, better than we could have asked for and better than we dared hope for.

This is also where I stop focusing on Luke because I did claim The Last Jedi wasn't about the Skywalker Family Saga, and then spent an additional six paragraphs talking about THE Skywalker.

Where The Last Jedi truly reshaped the focus of Star Wars is that, Luke's return and demise aside, ALL of the heroes of the movie are women. Rose Tico, the maintenance engineer who has spent her time in service to the Resistance working with her head down fixing pipes and keeping stuff running? She's also spent her time stunning deserters trying to steal escape pods and, when finally faced with one of her heroes (Finn), has to stun him, too, when she realizes that her hero is a deserter. From that, Rose herself becomes a hero of the Resistance, adventuring with Finn to Canto Bight (more on this later) in a last ditch effort to find the only bit of hope left for the survival of the Resistance and even there, it is her empathy and skill and sacrifice that even gives them a chance to be successful in their mission.

Then there's Rose's sister, Paige Tico. Paige was a bomber on a run to destroy a First Order Dreadnought. In the end, it was her heroism and sacrifice of her life that ultimately won the battle and saved the Resistance from being eliminated right then.

We'll come to Leia at the end, because there are a lot of things to say about Leia, so let's talk about Leia's second in command Vice Admiral Holdo. Holdo steps up when Leia is incapacitated (much more on that later), assumes command, and immediately earns the scorn and derision of Poe Dameron, our otherwise heroic X-Wing pilot and burgeoning leader in the Resistance. He recognizes her legend, but comments on her appearance and then when her apparent plan of inaction doesn't meet his approval, he verbal reprimands her in public and eventually mutinies. We're so trained as viewers, and perhaps as Star Wars viewers, that because Poe is a hero, he is correct and right and she is wrong. That Vice Admiral Holdo is the ineffective leader that will lead to the slow destruction of the Resistance. That's the story the movie is setting up, and also what predicates Rose and Finn's mission to Canto Bight. Despite Leia's leadership throughout this movie and the last, there is also a sense of "here's the man correcting the woman once again".

Readers, Vice Admiral Holdo is not wrong and Poe is not right. It is Poe's continued impulsiveness that several times almost costs the Resistance everything and both times has weakened the Resistance, despite achieving a minor victory. Vice Admiral Holdo does not explain the minutiae of her plan to Poe Dameron because, well, she simply does not need to as befitting her rank compared to his and the crisis situation at hand. Holdo's heroism is quieter, but powerful and in the end, sacrificial.

We see Maz Kanada in a cameo appearance giving the Resistance hope while engaged in her own fight. We see the women in all levels of the Resistance, from the pipe fitters to the pilots to communications experts to a powerful Force user and the General holding the whole thing together. They are not just props and window dressing, either. They are given prominent and important roles, and more importantly - screen time and character development. Their actions on screen matter.

I'm not sure if Rey is the heart of the this new trilogy of movies and Leia is the soul, or if Leia is the heart and Rey is the soul. Either way, the combination of these powerful and important women is the driving force of both The Force Awakens as well as The Last Jedi. Leia is the rock around which the Resistance exists. She has spent her life fighting. Every moment Leia was on screen was one rooted in command and power and heart, and knowing this was the last movie we have of Carrie Fisher playing General Leia was a weight over the movie. There was a sadness and a wistfulness that I felt the first moment of each of Leia's scenes, never knowing what the last one was and needing to savor each moment.

Rey, on the other hand, is the driving force not only behind getting Luke to even show up again but also pushing her own need to do something that matters. She knows that with Luke on the sidelines, she's the one who has to step up and put down Kylo Ren and Snoke. She's the one with the ambition to return Ben Solo to the Light, with the dedication to rebuke Snoke to his face. She's the light the Resistance will be following for years as the legend of Luke Skywalker fades even deeper into the past.

I think that's why Kylo Ren's reveal that Rey's parents were nobody important and they just abandoned her is so important. This is where the Skywalker Family Saga turns. It doesn't matter that Rey isn't a Skywalker or a Solo or a Palpatine or the daughter of Mara Jade. Or, rather, it does matter that her parents were nobody of consequence because The Resistance is a meritocracy. Be good enough, care enough, step up when everyone else steps aside and you can rise and do great things. As we saw throughout The Last Jedi, anyone can be a hero. Despite Kylo Ren having taken over the First Order, you don't need to be a Skywalker to make a difference and to matter. Anyone can dream even if they don't have the right name.

Someone else can write an essay about the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. They are, in some ways, mirrors of each other. Kylo, as Ben Solo, had everything (on the surface). Famous and powerful parents, presumably love in his life, an uncle committed to teaching him. Rey had none of it. Abandoned by her parents, she lived on stories of legends and scrapped to survive. But Rey was committed to doing right and Ben, seeing his master and uncle betray him, went the other way. Rey's story is of the plucky underdog with a strong sense of justice and the power to do something about it, if only given the opportunity. The Last Jedi is that opportunity.

Let's go back to the closing shots of the movie. I'm not thinking so much the last shot of the boy force grabbing a broom and looking into the sky dreaming of the legend of Luke Skywalker and of a rebellion already in his heart, but the scene just before centered on Leia and Rey having a quiet moment with all of the noise around them. It's that scene which showed the heart of The Last Jedi is the women, Leia and Rey, but also Vice Admiral Holdo who faced down the insubordination and mutiny of the generally heroic Poe Dameron, and also Rose, the engineer who twice kept Finn on the right path.

Of course, we do need to talk about the biggest bit of what the fuckery in the entire Star Wars saga, and that includes Bea Arthur's singing bartender in the Holiday Special, which is Space Leia. After the bridge of the command ship is attacked and destroyed, Leia is ejected into space and is, presumably, dead. We see her body freezing and Leia is still. Leia is dead. Leia is gone. I'm processing all the emotions I can in as quick a manner as I possible can while sitting in the theater and then, Leia opens her eyes - which are magically not frozen. And then she force pulls herself back into the ship in time to be rescued and then slips into a coma (leading to Holdo's ascension).

Seriously, what the hell was that? I have a more than healthy suspension of disbelief in most movies and even greater than that in a Star Wars movie - but vacuum survival seems unlikely given there is an extended period of time between the attack and when we see Leia revive herself long enough for self rescue. While I loved having more Leia in the movie and the reunion scene of Leia and Luke, Space Leia felt so out of place, even for Star Wars and the use of the Force. This, more than anything else, was my biggest problem with The Last Jedi.

My smaller problem with The Last Jedi is the entire sequence at Canto Bight, which is either a casino planet like Coruscant is a city planet, or is just the name of an intensely exclusive casino. The Canto Bight subplot seemed to fit more into a side movie out of the main Star Wars sequence. Finn and Rose are a wonderful pair (and if Finn needs to have a romantic relationship at all and it's not with Poe, it might as well be Rose), but it was a complete digression from the main thrust of Rey / Luke, Resistance Proper, and First Order ship. There was perhaps one more storyline in The Last Jedi than the movie could hold and the movie might have been better served with tightening it. The scene with the boy and the broom at the end would have worked just as well without most of Canto Bight.

With that said, Canto Bight did provide a small bit of nuance to the movie. It suggests that the ultra wealthy are all war profiteers, which seems unlikely, but notes that at least one of them are selling to both the First Order AND the Resistance. The profit is in continued war and raises a small question if part of the rise of the First Order could have been supported by arms dealers besides just the rise of the remnants of the fallen Empire.

That small nuance isn't quite worth the rest of the Canto Bight sequence. We get more than enough of that nuance in the Rey / Kylo Ren relationship as well as Luke's character development. Canto Bight is visually interesting, and I love the fathiers (the horse creatures) and how they appear to be far more sentient than they are treated, but the real exploration of Canto Bight I would like to see will take place in the recently published story collection and perhaps in an off-year movie (or future animated series). Here, it's a distraction.

The Last Jedi wasn't the Star Wars story of giddy excitement and renewal (that was The Force Awakens), but it built and weaved the threads of story into something that was far stronger than the initial thirty to sixty minutes of the movie suggested it could be. It pays just enough homage to the past while showing off what Star Wars is likely to look like going forward. Only time will tell if The Last Jedi will share a level of esteem and regard anywhere near that of The Empire Strikes Back, but it was definitely on the right track of reshaping the vision of Star Wars and doing it exceptionally well.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading since 2004. Minnesotan.