[Featured image courtesy StarWars Official Twitter]
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Directed and Written by Rian Johnson
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Image courtesy Star Wars Official Facebook
[This article also published on Fang and Saucer]
Since its release on December 15 2017, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (SW TLJ) has garnered both enormous sums of box office revenue (over $1 Billion worldwide as of December 31, 2017) – and a bit of controversy. Disney may be too busy swimming in a sea of revenue to hear (or care), but segments of fandom are not happy. Where critics see director Rian Johnson taking familiar SW tropes and beloved characters in bold new directions, some fans see character assassination, even going so far as to create an online petition asking Disney to wipe TLJ from the SW canon.
Johnson and a cast and crew of thousands (if the credits are any indicator) have made that rarest of movie creatures; a critically acclaimed, controversial, four quadrant money machine. In these days of inoffensive, mass-produced CGI blockbusters designed for the broadest possible appeal, that is noteworthy.
I’m a “first generation” SW fan. Nine year old me waited months to see A New Hope in 1977; I believe my brother and I had to wait for our report card results. My happiness with subsequent SW movies, books, and comics has varied, but my love for the SW universe remains constant.
So how did I like The Last Jedi?
Let’s go over what didn’t work for me first.
A Long, (Long, Long, Long, LONG) Time Ago … I Watched the Opening Crawl
One macro issue is TLJ’s running time. At two hours and 32 minutes, TLJ joins my “I loved it but … it’s 20 minutes too long” list. Weirdly enough, a long running time doesn’t automatically earn a spot on that list. A movie can be several hours long, but so vivid and immersive that time flies (Seven Samurai, 1954, three hours, 27 minutes), while a movie with an average run time (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, 1999, two hours, 16 minutes) makes me regret every moment spent watching it without RiffTrax.
TLJ had a rather unique take on this pet peeve of mine. All of the story-lines were important, either as practical goals characters needed to accomplish, or Life Lessons They Must Learn. As a viewer, I found the story-lines listed below overly convoluted and unnecessarily drawn out. I liked the destination they arrived at, just not the particular route taken from Point A to Point B. As a viewer, I felt that the following bits sat down next to me, propped up their feet, and helped themselves to some popcorn.
Scenes From the Class Struggle on Canto Bight
The Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran)/Finn (John Boyega) mission find a genius hacker on the casino planet/war profiteer haven Canto Bight is a character building McGuffin. Its success or failure has less to do with helping the Resistance than helping Finn Grow Up and Learn a Something Important (mainly, “don’t cut and run”). The Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) Idiotic Space Mutiny story-line has a similar aim, but the joy I experienced calling Poe an idiot while watching it earned it a pass.
There are some highlights to the casino scenes. The Dickensian children working in the casino stables, the cruel treatment of the animals kept in them (officially, they’re named fathiers but to me, they are Jackalopes), and Rose’s anger at the cruelty and class divisions propping up Canto Bight’s economy are aspects of the SW universe we’ve never seen before.
But by time Finn and Rose get to the Jackalope stalls, I was looking for points where the story might wrap up. Instead of Rose and Finn getting out while the getting is good, we watch Jackalopes breaking out of captivity, crashing through the War Profiteer Casino, complete a circuit around the racetrack, then race to freedom through the pampas before Rose and Finn are recaptured.
Rose and Finn make a great pair, but would’ve shone brighter in a more tightly written and edited story.
If You Liked the Many, Many, Endings of Return of the King ….
If you’ve ever had to endure a particularly long graduation ceremony or holiday religious service, you know this routine. You hear the music develop and build to what seems to be an ending. But no! The music suddenly skips back to the very beginning, or the maybe the middle, but most certainly not to the end. Eventually, when the last graduate crosses stage or the appropriate amount reflection time has passed, the music transitions to what you hope is the conclusion.
Before TLJ, my most vivid experience of this phenomenon in a movie was Return of the King. This piece at The One Ring.Net describes how the multiple endings in ROTK take a viewer “out of the movie” because they think an ending is near.
“But then the next scene comes up and they are forced back into the story. Once that is over and the scene fades too, they are certain that this is the end, it is time to leave and to think about where the car was parked and how long it will take to get out of this crowded place, but – it is not over yet. Another scene, and with it the realization that this could go on forever. ”
The final section of TLJ gave me that same feeling. Like the Rose and Finn adventure on Canto Bight, with each new scene I found myself hoping that THIS scene – maybe – might be the end. The basic story is pretty simple. After escape the pursuing First Order fleet, he Resistance escapes to a base on the planet Crait. However depleted and demoralized, they live to fight another day.
Here’s how those events played out for me. I’ve put in brackets what felt like essential story bits wedged in between the superfluous.
(Resistance flees to surface to surface of the planet Crait, escapes into hidden base.)
*Resistance mistakenly thinks there’s only one way in or out, braces for showdown based on that mistaken belief.
*Resistance and First Order engage in battle.
*First Order sloooowly brings up Big Space Canon to blast open the Only Way In/Out Door
(Luke Skywalker-Kylo Ren Showdown)
*Resistance survivors notice digi-dogs have fled the cave, follow said digi-dogs and,
*Find Big Pile of Rocks blocking only escape route.
*Rey miraculously lift Big Pile of rocks, followed by melancholy reunions.
(Rey and Kylo Ren reenact one of my favorite scenes from Jane Eyre with Meaningful Gazes)
(A wonderful coda of stable boy using the Force to lift a broom, sweep a stable, and gaze at the stars)
AND FINALLY WE REACH
Or is it?
Dare I have one more complaint about TLJ?
Yes, I do.
Alongside the noodling route taken by Rose/Finn and the finale, another moment combined circuitous story telling with too much improbability for a Space Opera. Even Star Wars movies, with their very tenuous connection to science, can have such a moment.
During the First Order fleet’s pursuit of the Resistance fleet, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leads an attack on the Resistance command ship. Connected to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) through the Force, Ren senses his mother’s presence on the ship. He cannot fire, but a wingman lands a direct hit on the command center.
We see a bloom of fire consume the command deck, and Leia is sucked towards a gaping hole in the ship into the void of space.
At that moment, I was on tenterhooks; how could Leia survive this? Instead, I watched Popsicle Princess Leia float slowly from the ship, then somehow use Force abilities we’ve never seen her display to propel her unconscious body back to the ship. Even watching a Space Opera, I can only suspend my disbelief so far. And that moment snapped it as I wondered how Princess Leia could survive that long in the heartless vacuum of space.
Horror movie fans (like me) can appreciate a movie filled with moments that don’t add up to a satisfactory whole. Even a disappointing movie can have some amazing images or interesting ideas. A complete mess of a movie (which TLJ most assuredly is not) isn’t a waste of time – as long as it’s an interesting mess.
I recommending listening to Episode 445 of the Bloody Good Horror podcast (discussing Cult of Chucky) for a great example of this approach. I don’t know if other genre fans or professional critics at large look at a movie in through the same lens. When I watch a horror movie, I can appreciate and enjoy a striking image, a unique setting, an interesting idea that works on its own. Even if the finished product doesn’t coalesce into a “good movie,” you can still recommend a movie to other fans.
Am I more lenient towards TLJ because as a horror fan I can appreciate some parts of it, ADORE other parts, but still find plenty of things I don’t like? I love a genre devoted to characters who face extreme situations and must deal with the disastrous consequences of poor choices. That may explain why I loved moments other fans loathed.
Namely, the Luke Skywalker and Reylo (Kylo Ren + Rey) story-lines.
The Last Temptation of Luke Skywalker
The best moment of The Force Awakens was the most shocking; Kylo Ren’s murder of his (or Ben Solo’s) father Han. But overriding my shock and sadness at that moment was an overwhelming sense of puzzlement. I immediately wanted to know: What had led up to this? What happened beforehand that was so bad, so destructive, that Kylo Ren committed patricide?
TLJ gives us that answer. It both illuminates the backstory, and paints a heroic iconic character in a light that many fans find hard to reconcile with their memories of a plucky, heroic Jedi who never gave up.
We learn more about the destruction of the Jedi Academy hinted at in TFA. Training his sister’s son, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) saw the darkness taking a hold of young Ben Solo. The Hero of the Rebellion felt helpless to counteract the malign influence of Snoke. Luke finally considered, if only for a brief moment, murdering Ben as the young man slept.
For me, this moment, this memory, brought a level of depth and development to the onscreen Luke that surprised and delighted me. I loved the character’s struggle. Given the magnitude of the consequences of his momentary weakness, it made sense that Luke’s sense of shame that would lead him to years of self-imposed exile and disconnection from the Force.
But for many fans of the original SW trilogy, the connective tissue between the Luke of ROTJ and TLJ is not there. I don’t agree with that feeling, but can see where it comes from. The last image we had of Luke in the original trilogy was a young man who’d been through the fire and still retained a fundamental goodness. The Luke Skywalker of TFA was a silent image without any information on what had led him to the island of Ahch-To. To the film’s detractors, the Luke of TLJ is a prop whose character is sacrificed to make way to newer characters. Luke’s self-exile from the galaxy and the Force served no real purpose but to get him off the stage and make other, newer characters look more heroic.
Like my earlier question regarding the greater leniency a genre fan may give a movie with many great pieces that don’t make a good whole, is a SW fan’s opinion regarding Luke in TLJ dependent on how much (or how little) of the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels (now known as Legends in the post TFA timeline) they’ve read?
Of my immediate social circle (an admittedly small sample size) this maybe the case. Those who’ve read at least the Thrawn Trilogy liked TLJ, those who haven’t read any SW EU disliked Luke Skywalkers’ story intensely. I’ve read SW EU books from the Thrawn books through Legacy of the Force, and I loved the Luke Skywalker I met in TLJ.
The Luke I saw in The Last Jedi was not a sacrificial prop, but a logical extension of the character I read about in the books. A character who made mistakes, misjudged people, and made a heartbreaking decision regarding his sister’s son. In the Legacy of the Force book series, Leia’s son Jacen Solo turns dark by becoming a Sith Lord. It the movie it’s Ben.
For me, the movie turn was handled much better, but it’s not totally unexpected because I’d encountered it before. If the last you saw of Luke Skywalker was at the end of Return of the Jedi, you may see TLJ as a cheap shot at the character we remember from the original trilogy. In this framework, Rian Johnson ruined a beloved hero to build up newer characters like Kylo Ren and Rey. Perhaps Star Wars now has a fandom similar to Star Trek – with fans of various generations rooting for “their” version of the story.
The Ballad of Rey and Kylo
I’m a Reylo, I’ll admit it. And the development of the relationship between Rey of Jakku (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo in TLJ is so far beyond anything I hoped to see on screen that I’m still a bit amazed. TLJ developed and built on the scenes between Rey and Ren in TFA – from the “Bridal Carry” to Rey’s interrogation to their duel in the snow on Starkiller Base, I felt that Rey and Ren had intense screen chemistry.
With the Force Bond (maybe) established by Snoke continuing after his death, the relationship between Kylo Ren and Rey continues, whether as enemies, reluctant allies, or something else. It remains to be seen how it will develop in Episode IX. The choices made by Ren and Rey at the end are less on a final note than a springboard to the final chapter. For me, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is “Anakin done right” and Rey is Jane Eyre In Space. Kylo Ren is a multi-dimensional character with glimmers of light in his darkness. Rey is fascinating in her sturdy self-reliance and inner loneliness. We know as little about Rey’s history as she does. I love seeing a character who is (as far as we know) unencumbered by legacy and bloodline developing into a major part of the SW universe.
Like the yin/yang-esque art in the Jedi Cave in TLJ, will Kylo Ren and Rey become the future of the Force? Will Episode IX “Save Ben Solo” from the decades of manipulation and brainwashing from Snoke?
We will all find out in 2019.