Episode VIII is here! After the less than stellar VII, and the interstitial Rogue One that also left me cold*, I nonetheless headed towards the theatre with great interest and heartened by early reviews proclaiming success…
Hmmm. I am, perhaps appropriately, conflicted about this movie.
On the one hand, there is some good stuff there, thematically, as there are some interesting directions to take the franchise. Which I would surmise is the reason it has garnered excitement from critics.
On the other hand, however, much of this goodness is undercut by the glaring problems in structure, world-building, texture, dialogue, and, most notably, in the quality of storytelling.
Let’s start with what’s exciting about The Last Jedi (hereafter TLJ), most noticeably, how it tears down the structure and nature of all the movies that came before it, and exposes the shared vanity that both the Sith and the Jedi possessed. That’s a bold course to plot in an entrenched franchise, and, to me, a welcome one. This is a movie about misplaced hero worship; both Finn and Luke remind others not to get too deep into idols. It’s a movie about needing the many, taking action, rather than the one. It could even be seen as a continuation of Kylo’s worship of Granddad Vader from the previous movie (TFA**)… and how both Kylo and Luke are about “destroying” what’s in the past to create the future.*** Again, very bold move, and one that resonates well. It is a call to action for us all.
Poe’s arc from a “hero” to a leader is also interesting and can also tie into that theme, though it is, unfortunately, quite diminished by muddled execution. He’s a hothead, he f’s up, shows he’s untrustworthy, is demoted from squad lead, screws up again in a mutiny… Poe’s need to be the hero gets in his way continually. Yet, all throughout, we’re made to root for him and to side with him, we’re given reason to paint him right against Holdo’s silence. Of course, she doesn’t need to tell him anything, and given his perchance for ill conceived action, she’s got reason to not tell him… and the real trouble here becomes that the film doesn’t do a good job bridging this gap to show any self-realization on his part, and that he understands that reliance on a hero (in this case, himself) and trying to fight every problem with a hammer can be counterproductive, that he was in the wrong. (That the transport ships start being blasted almost immediately kinda validates his position too, so more muddlement) And so when, on the planet, he tells Finn to “Break off, that’s an order” in a callback to the start of the film, it doesn’t feel like growth, it just feels weird. I think we’re supposed to take that he’s matured and can/will be a leader from now on, but the fact that’s a question shows something was missing.
The work with Kylo, though, is great. From the vacuous caricature in TFA, he’s given much more nuance, oomph, and a sense of something actually going on there. There’s still some thin convenient handwaving (he was turned, OK, but WHAT seduced him? What was Snoke’s angle?) but at least there’s the sense of development. He’s also afforded the opportunity to do something beyond being an angsty teen (and I especially like that the angsty teen thing is called out hard and cast out at the beginning of the movie: “just a child in a mask”) Not that there aren’t angsty moments, but because they’re just moments now, and not consistent, there’s a sense that there’s wounds and vulnerability there. The mind connection between Rey and Kylo was very intriguing and had a lot of potential, another conduit to explore the force, perhaps. That it was just Snoke who did it because wombly wombly bad guy plans was deflating. Still, the interactions between Kylo and Rey were still poignant, and a lot of nice parallels between their “coming of age” paths – each stepping up to take control of their future. They were good foils for each other, and there’s much to continue exploring there: Rey’s past as a no-past (no heroes, nothing special) and Kylo’s destroy the past to become the same future past (destroy the past but still become the ruler of it all much like the past). In the hands of a good writer, this could be what really makes Ep IX.
By these alone, there’s a lot going for TLJ, a lot going under the hood. But the rest of the vehicle is ramshackle and held together by bailing twine. I join the chorus that notes the muddled mess that is the escapade on the casino planet, with incompetent protagonists, telling not showing, overlong chase scene, comedic overdose, and victory through luck and requiring zero protagonist intervention. And the resolution is the worst, stumbling on to DJ by unbelievable chance, who then proceeds to break out without a problem (how did he get caught in the first place? Why didn’t he leave earlier?), steal a ship without a problem (again, why did he need their help?), and spewing exposition before betraying them all in an exposition way. I’m more than fine with theme being explored here, greyness and back turning, and the eventual setup for the force stable boy (interesting that the heroes chose to free the animals but not the slaves, eh?), but it’s a mess that drags the movie and doesn’t build anything for the characters involved.
But for me, the bigger mess is the film’s entire central structure. It is, from start to finish, a series of countdowns. Countdown to bomb the big ship before it fires on you, countdown to running out of fuel, countdown to turning off the hyperspace tracking, countdown to making it to the planet, countdown to the big gun shooting on the big door. Besides the repetitive nature of “always something big/bigger showing up” (and I mean, for crying out loud, the movie opens with what is essentially the FOURTH Death Star battle in the series – snub fighters going in to take down towers to hit the magic technobabble point to take out the big space gun. Geez…), this one, repetitive, note doesn’t make us feel tense or drive a sense of despair, it just makes us numb.
Furthermore, much of these countdowns are so patently contrived that, in the back of our mind, we know this is BS. The lack of TIE fighters during the opening sequence (two star destroyers plus the giant thing? Surely that sky would be swarming with TIEs!), the illogical nature of the out of gas chase (both because, again, TIEs could have been deployed to mess those ships up and, even more so, if the Alliance ships were supposedly “more nimble” and quicker than the star destroyers, wouldn’t they be PULLING AWAY?), and then, with the fleeing transport ships, we’re to believe that they could only destroy one ship at a time? What’s the point of a super large ship if you only have one turbolaser on it?
Lazy and contrived, and it fully robs the scenes of any real oomph because we know its bogus and that the scriptwriter is there, hovering over it, pulling the strings on the universe to keep things in line.
A few more thoughts:
- Those bombers at the start of the movie. That drop large thermal detonators. In space. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, even for Star Wars-style space stuff. (Of note, we see TIE bombers in ESB, and they are firing proton torpedo type things downward – so there is precedent for what a proper space bomber should be like.) Even if we accept that (and massive thermal detonators could be an interesting idea), though, what makes even less sense is the idea of needing a single person with a single, highly droppable, control to release said bombs. You couldn’t put a switch in the cockpit? And would this really be enough to take out such a giant ship?
- Why were there only a handful of AT-ATs sent down to the desert/red planet? That’s all they brought with them on that monstrous ship?
- I was not a fan with the humour, and even less so with the attempted amount of it. Some was great (mostly involving Luke), but so much more felt very forced and out of place.
- And poor Chewie. Reduced to the level of a comic relief puppet.
- And those Porgs. Walking merchandise. If they at least played some sort of actual role in the movie… even the Ewoks were integral! They’re worse than Tribbles.
- Those caretakers on the island, what’s up with them? They suddenly show up mid-way through, even after Rey’s been on the island for a bit. Where do they live? Same cluster of buildings but were hiding before then? Do they jet in only once a month do to cleaning?
- The dialogue, oy. Yes, never been a strong suit of these movies, but so much dialogue seemed to be literally reproducing what we were already seeing on the screen (why are you telling me what I already see?), or was narration straight from the writer/director’s mouth to the viewer. Subtlety, thy name is not this movie.
- I really like the new character, Rose, even if she was saddled with some of the worst description dialogue. The actress really sold it, bringing earnestness to the role.
- Also, poor Finn. A real let down that what could be the most interesting about his character – a Stormtrooper that broke his conditioning – is not broached one bit. Instead, we continue to be assaulted by the “funny” of him being a janitor (if so, why was he on a valuable attack mission in TFA?), and his supposed epic showdown with the silver captain comes off as hollow and boring. Yes, it is a moment when he chooses to not be selfish (only caring for Rey) and be part of the rebellion (Rebel Scum), but without any depth it feels perfunctory, not profound.
- Plus, this is the second time we’ve seen Phantasma go down like a chump. Why are we supposed to be impressed by her again?
- The lightspeed attack was very cool, visually… I like the series of hyper-contrast stills. And it made sense. Enough sense that it was predictable (in a why haven’t you… manner). And it muddled the idea of sacrifice – why was Holdo’s sacrifice a “good” one, and Finn’s a “bad” one?
- Mark Hammil’s performance was the highlight of this movie. Kudos to him. He did a really good job selling the cantankerous, conflicted Luke, with just a bit of Yoda mischievousness. I love how he throws away the lightsaber as the first scene in the movie – very intentionally setting that tone of “everything we’ve worshiped about the first films, we’re going to reexamine.”
- That said, I agree with Mark (and others) that Luke’s running away seems very much out of character. And, perhaps even more so, that moment of near failure in trying to take out the young Kylo. It’s nice to see that we can make a wrong choice, then pause, but it really feels like a backsliding for Luke’s character, given his journey and where he was at the end of RotJ (he was always dancing on the precipice of anger/dark side, but gave that up in the throne room).
- Especially, given the dissonance between “I will surrender to the Empire on the off chance my father can be redeemed” and “I will murder an emo child because there’s some dark in him and also oh no he can never be redeemed so don’t try” What gives?
- (Also, does Luke’s force trick subvert the theme by turning him into a symbol (that he tried to avoid)? The kids at the end are telling his story…)
- Could Leia not tell it wasn’t Luke at the end, or did she know and play along?
- I did love the subversion of the “Obi Wan” moment, of our expectations. Cut me down, and I’ll be more powerful… and… hahaha, I’m not here! Nice one.
- Taking out Snoke was another great subversion, and fit well into the theme and Kylo’s arc (while also cleaning up the detritus TFA foisted upon the trilogy).
- The fight that followed Snoke’s demise, eh, I wasn’t really wowed by it, but enough others have noted their excitement for it that I need a second look.
Taken together, as a package and as a movie, TLJ is poor. The premise is fine and the promised explorations are solid, and I give it props for what broached, for its theme, and even for where it could be leading the franchise in the future. But just as a music album is not judged by its liner notes or just the topic of the lyrics, a movie needs to stand on its own as a plot, narrative, and story. And this is where TLJ, unfortunately, falls down. The execution into movie form flubs the storytelling, both in general and even undercutting some of its intentions. I don’t feel like I wasted my money, and glad I saw it, but it’s poor.
Alright EP IX. The ball is in your court now.
* I never did a full review, but my capsule review is that I was excited during the first third for what it was seemingly introducing and setting up, and then I began to sour during the middle third, and lost completely by the third act when everything interesting/worthwhile was completely abandoned and the entire thing devolved into a generic action flic heavily littered with contrived “platformer-like” obstacles, narrative vacuity, cameos, fan service, and enough continuity-breaking happenings to blow up three star systems.
** To which I instead have taken to calling the movie The Force Abandons
*** You can get away with completing the past rather than having to destroy it or deny it or resist it, but that’s a separate philosophical conversation…