Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Yet Another Spoiler-Filled Take on The Last Jedi

This is now the third take on The Last Jedi we’ve posted. First, there was Dean’s ebullient review of the film, followed by Joe’s tempered praise. Now I enter the fray, Tarken-like, to rain on everyone’s parade.

I jest, of course. I didn’t hate the film; I just didn’t love it either. To me, The Last Jedi is perfectly mediocre. Indeed, if I were to rank all the Star Wars films, I’d put it third from the bottom, beating only the execrable Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Thankfully, The Last Jedi isn’t that bad of a film. It is, at least, good at being a film. It's just not great at being a Star Wars film. As far as the Disney franchise goes, I prefer both The Force Awakens and Rogue One by a significant margin.  

WARNING: spoilers.

First, what I did like: the characters. The core trio of Rey, Finn and Poe are likeable, relatable and well developed, while Kylo Ren’s angry-teen-with-issues adds a unique and compelling new villain mold to the Star Wars pantheon. I also enjoyed Phasma’s limited screen time and of course love BB-8 (who doesn't). This is a good cast, and Rian Johnson does a solid job of putting the actors in position to succeed. This contrasts with the prequels, where the new characters were either bland (Bail Organa, Qui-Gon, Padme Amidala), offensive (Jar-Jar, the Trade Federation), criminally underused (Darth Maul, Count Dooku) or weighed down by poor acting (Anakin).

At least it wasn't this
I also enjoyed Luke’s arc. Here we have the former hero, whose training you will recall was cut short by crisis. Now he is the master, and clearly could have used a bit more of Yoda’s wisdom and patience. Tthings don’t go well training a powerful and troubled Ben Solo, akin to how they didn’t go well for Obi-Wan training a powerful and troubled Anakin. Luke reacts poorly, creating a crisis; he becomes so consumed by guilt that he abandons the cause he once championed.

This was a smart take. “Power corrupts” is a cliché, but we don’t often dwell on those who grow uncomfortable with wielding great power, or the burden it places on the individual. His ultimate redemption is, in my opinion, the high point of the film. The way it plays out is genuinely surprising, and packs an emotional punch.

Unfortunately, those are pretty much the only things I liked. It's worth mentioning that only some of my issues with The Last Jedi are specific to the film, while others are legacy issues from The Force Awakens. A third category are likely casualties of the switch from mystery-box-loving JJ Abrams to the decidedly unsentimental Johnson.

Some of my just-this-film issues are also scene-specific. Space Leia is cringeworthy, while the detour through Canto Bight feels tacked on and half-baked. I’m also decidedly not a fan of salt Hoth, which simply reshoots an iconic scene from Empire with cute dog-like creatures and far less majesty. Luke’s denouement aside, the whole scene feels lazy and derivative. Oh, and I wish they'd done a better job writing new character Rose Tico. I like Kelly Marie Tran in the role, but the screenwriters don't give her much to work with--a more compelling pathos would have been appreciated.

The Last Jedi as Episode VIII

The rest of the film, if considered on its own, is fine. But you can’t just consider it on its own; it is part 2 of a trilogy, and part 8 of a nexus. And it is in this framework that Episode VIII failed to impress me.

The Force Awakens presents viewers with two mystery boxes: (1) who are Rey’s parents and (2) who the fuck is Snoke. The answer to (1) works for me—it goes against the grain of Star Wars tradition, but it’s not a tradition I put much stock in. It’s nice to see that she’s basically a nobody, and that nobodies can be heroes too. But the answer to mystery box (2) is deeply unsatisfying, because it isn’t an answer.

Granted, the tie-in novels tell us that Snoke is a Sith dude floating around the Outer Rim, who had standing orders from Palpatine to come lead the fight in the event of the Emperor's death. But who reads the tie-in novels? One percent of the people who watch the films? Two? Bottom line, this really should have been answered in the film, and failing to do so essentially tells hardcore fans that they were wasting their time thinking about it over the past two years. Worse, developing the mystery surrounding Snoke would have been a fantastic opportunity to imbue the film with an air of enchantment. Johnson could easily have taken out the tedious detour to Canto Bight, or the downright awful Space Leia scene, and given us some extended Snoke exposition—something that would have made his death climactic rather than anti-climactic.

This could have been so cool
My biggest gripe with The Last Jedi, though—or rather, with the Disney trilogy as a whole—is its lack of vision. The original trilogy, of course, tells an old story, one that’s common in global mythology as well as central to fantasy literature: the rag tag band of plucky individuals who confront immense power and triumph against all odds. This is now thoroughly cliché in sci-fi film. I mean, think about the major YA franchises of the past decade—Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent, etc. They are all deploying the Star Wars formula. So it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t a cliché yet in 1977. There are also extra layers to the story, which give it richness--about the arrogance that military power breeds and the redemptive power of love, specifically, that of a father for his child.

For all their many faults, the prequels also house a compelling vision: of how—in pursuit of security—free societies underwrite their own demise. There’s been a lot written over the past year on how citizens in democratic states can recognize creeping authoritarianism. Whenever I read these, I am reminded of Padme’s line toward the end of Revenge of the Sith: “so this is how liberty dies; with thunderous applause.”

This has--and is--happening in many parts of the world, as elected officials consolidate power in their persons and stack the deck against would-be opponents. There are many Palpatines in our world, most of whom do not take power so much as convince their citizenries to give up freedoms and protections in the name of security, prosperity and the chance to blame some bogeyman or another--usually ethnic minorities, foreigners or class enemies--for every slight, real or imagined. Lucas put this to film a full decade before most Westerners realized the danger was also a danger to us, and not just to "those people over there." Too bad, then, that the prequels are so bad at being movies.

This brings us to the on-going Disney trilogy, which so far has presented a vision of...the exact same one as the original trilogy. Actually, there is a mild subversion of the original trilogy’s meta-narrative, but one so mild that it's barely a critique. Once again, we have a rag tag group of plucky individuals who confront immense power and (are sure to) triumph against all odds. And the films hit you over the head with the referential frying pan. Starkiller Base from The Force Awakens is the Death Star, but bigger! Kylo Ren is Darth Vader, but emo! Luke’s island is Dagobah, salt planet is Hoth, casino planet is Cloud City and so forth and so on. It's the same old same old, only with crappier design and little romance--the kind of thing dreamed up by corporate executives with checklists in hand and theme park rides in mind.

Why bother designing a new battle sequence when you can just re-use an old one?
The creative decision to track the original trilogy isn’t just unimaginative; it's also a missed opportunity to use the Star Wars platform to make a statement. Think back to where we are at the end of Return of the Jedi. Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader are dead, the new Death Star has been destroyed and much of the Imperial fleet is toast as well. As both the now moribund expanded universe and Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath novels describe, this is followed by a period of intense chaos, where the New Republic steadily gains group against a demoralized and scattered rump Empire, which is increasingly relegated to the outer systems.

There are residual elements of this narrative in The Force Awakens. We learn that the New Republic is disinterested in a new confrontation. The First Order make their move against the New Republic anyway, committing planetacide, only to be stymied by the Resistance (i.e. the rag tag band of plucky individuals), who blow up Starkiller Base and First Order HQ (and presumably a lot of First Orderinos). Thus one assumes that the First Order has been dealt a significant blow and the New Republic is now aware of the serious threat they pose. Thus we might expect a shift of focus to the New Republic--weak and fractured, but still the biggest player in the game. What challenges might the Resistance struggle to overcome? A risk-averse, war-weary leadership? Incompetent governance, or an inability to mobilize a restive galaxy? Perhaps a traitor in the midst, sowing discord from within? Nope, nope and nope. Instead, in the text crawl that introduces The Last Jedi, we learn this:

The FIRST ORDER reigns. Having decimated the peaceful Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke now deploys his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy. 
Only General Leia Organa’s band of RESISTANCE fighters stand against the rising tyranny, certain that Jedi Master Luke Skywalker will return and restore a spark of hope to the fight.

So. The New Republic is inexplicably gone, and the First Order reigns supreme, despite its seemingly catastrophic losses. This serves one purpose, and one purpose only: to make sure we understand that this series is about a rag tag band of plucky individuals who confront immense power and (are certain to) triumph against all odds, and none of that other stuff.

What bothers me most is that I don’t need to see this story again, not when it’s been done so many times (and, in my opinion, done better in the original trilogy). What I really would have liked to see is a story that takes place amid the New Republic’s struggles to consolidate its authority, to present a more just and equitable system than its predecessor—and to do so in a context of deep economic uncertainty, institutional collapse and an ongoing insurgency.

This story is common in our world. Think about the various outcomes of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, from the mostly successful introduction of democracy in Tunisia to the retrenchment of military rule in Egypt, civil war in Syria and utter chaos in Libya. There are a few references to this kind of context in The Force Awakens, but only the tiniest glimpse of it in The Last Jedi (i.e. the allies who never show up). Yet this could have been the centerpiece in a unique and compelling grand vision, namely, how difficult it is to build something just in evil’s wake, and not accidentally underwrite new forms of dystopia.

I can’t help but wonder if the recourse to "fighting tyranny against all odds" reflects a peculiarly Western gaze, one in which there is only liberty (good) and tyranny (bad). The reality is infinitely greyer. There are party states, which take the form of democracy but whose elections are neither free nor fair; and elected strongman systems, where the skeletal form of democracy legitimates illiberal forms of governance. There are rational authoritarian states that do a better job delivering services than most if not all democracies; there are democracies that just seem to work, despite the deck seemingly being stacked against their long-term survival; and there are states that regularly swing back and forth between democracy and military authoritarianism. Even Western democracies, long been assumed to house stable institutions and robust systems of checks and balances, seem a lot less stable and a lot less robust than they once did. In fact, we all some insterstitial space between idealized liberty and demonized tyranny.

...but wait: why does Star Wars have to adopt a “realistic” morality? Isn’t it inherently about archetypes of good facing those of evil? Can't we just enjoy those kinds of stories for once?

To a degree it does, disembodied voice—but less that some people presume. Darth Vader exists in the grey area between good and evil, as does Kylo Ren. So, one might argue, do Luke and Rey—tempted as each has been by the dark side (even if, ultimately, they reject its siren call). In the end Star Wars still is mostly about good and evil, just not quite as starkly as it is sometimes framed. It's about good people with good intentions making difficult choices and not always choosing right, but finding a way in the end through sheer force of will and love for the people who love you back.

There is, of course, some of that in The Last Jedi. I just wish the new films explored those choices from the perspective of the power holders in the post-Imperial period, those burdened by the exercise of power and lack of clear-cut choices. Imagine how well that would have complemented the other two trilogies. It would have been original, it would have been compelling and it might just have been something we'd still revere thirty years from now. Perhaps I'm just yelling at clouds here, but to me that would have been a story worthy of Rey, Finn and Poe...


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.