Thursday, December 21, 2017

Rey from nowhere


Even with this many self-imposed handicaps, it's still the best Star Wars movie the franchise's new cycle has so far produced.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson
With Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Gen. Leia Organa), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico), Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke), Domnhall Gleeson (Gen. Nux), and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren)

Spoiler alert: severe

It has to be the centerpiece exhibit in the case against the theatrical experience: a woman deciding to start talking in the quiet space that hangs between the blue-tinted legend, "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," and the first blare of John Williams' score.  This is what they call a holy moment, you know?  (And even if you want to call me a fanboy asshole for saying it, you do know.)  In a figurative sense, it's the best part of Star Wars.  It's when everything is still possible.  Then that ocher text crawls across the dark.  Sometimes they talk about striking from hidden bases.  Sometimes they talk about trade disputes.  You never know.

As for this eighth episode, somebody might plausibly claim this silent moment in the darkness to be literally the best part of it.  This is despite the fact that The Last Jedi has many more parts to get through before the customary iris wipe finally brings us back home, and some of them are bound to be good.  Nevertheless, it's staggeringly obvious that not all of them needed to be here, or should have been here, in much the same way that it is not one bit obvious why a 152 minute film required this much filler.  The Last Jedi feels at least a little longer than it already is because of it; and even in 2017, a 152 minute blockbuster is still very, very long.  It's the kind of movie where you bleed straight through your tampon, is what I'm saying; and, as I am a guy, and clearly not drawing upon my own experience to fashion a colorful metaphor, maybe you can guess that I'm not using a metaphor.

This is a metaphor.

A lot of those parts are good, however—even great.  A lot of them are the best things in any Star Wars movie since Return of the JediIt's a little infuriating, honestly, because the worst parts are very close to as bad as the worst parts of the prequels (maybe even the Holiday Special), and they feel like the prequels, tooThus has The Last Jedi been divided into two mostly-incompatible halves.  The first half is the story of Luke Skywalker and his new would-be apprentice, Rey, entwined with the story of Luke Skywalker's old apprentice, Kylo Renonce called Ben Solo—and Ren's new master, Snoke.  And this story is almost too wonderful to believe, inhabiting a Star Wars movie that actually lives up to the Original Trilogy, not just in terms of its tone and tenor (for they finally cracked that formula last year), but in bigger terms: of character depth, visual imagination, raw emotion, and even (to whatever extent this applies to any Star Wars film) actual philosophical resonance.

Meanwhile, the second half is the story of stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn, Finn's new sidekick/love-interest Rose, and Finn's asshole pal Poe Dameron, all trapped on a Rebellion/Resistance/New Republic fleet.  (It's the piddliest bad thing about Last Jedi, but this story makes an incredible hash of The Force Awakens' political astronomy, despite that film delivering, at absolute maximum, no more than three hard facts about it.)  This fleet, led by Leia Organa and Vice Admiral Holdo, is engaged in a struggle to escape the First Order, a struggle rendered hopeless by their enemy's advanced tracking technology, which makes their usual evasion tactic of jumping into hyperspace useless.  You will, of course, recognize this story immediately as Battlestar Galactica's first proper episode, "33," except worse in many of its details; soon, you'll recognize it as Battlestar Galactica's last good episode, "The Oath"; and finally it'll become unrecognizable as anything whatsoever, except, perhaps, what you might imagine the Star Wars of a wholly alternative history might've looked like, where George Lucas thought better of directing those prequels, and invited Luc Besson to do it for himBut then Luc Besson deleted these scenes even so, because they were pointless, and shrill, and bloated, even by Luc Besson standards.

Of course, because this is Star Wars, these two halves are very much the same story, cross-cut with wipes from one end of the screen to the other and back. This is an extremely sharp double-edged sword: by the same movie magic that only rarely allows the second story to become oppressively boring, the film is also constantly distracting itself.  At times it's actively annoying how much you'd prefer they'd never cut away in the first place.

It really doesn't quite work.  The second story is motivated by the most awful screenwriting in what I would still call a good Star Wars movie: a disagreement between Poe, a non-character from The Force Awakens, and Holdo, a character new to The Last Jedi, overwell, just their personalities, really.  Such as they are.

The Finn/Poe/Rose story is where the politics bleed in, and, in true prequel fashion but moreso, Star Wars has become a little deranged with contemporary issues, as we all haveI have a little sympathy for that. The Last Jedi, after all, represents the first time in seventy years that a movie about fighting Nazism (Space Variant, but you can say this about any variant) has had to contend with the fact that Nazis are actually real.  The broader allegories from this new trilogy I tend to like, in fact, probably because they seem serendipitous and accidental, notably Awakens' carried-through vision of a wannabe Empire run by a couple of alt-right kids cosplaying Darth Vader and Moff Tarkin, and not remotely living up to either villain's dignity (while serving at the pleasure of a demented pumpkinhead in a bathrobe, no less).

I'm not constitutionally opposed to The Last Jedi's more deliberate allegories, either—not even the Purple-Haired Hillary Clinton of Outer Space versus the dirtbag leftbros set against herthough it might've been nice if it had made sense, or, if that's still too much, if Poe Dameron had gotten shot in the face and the blaster hadn't been set to stun.  But either way, I am opposed to a literal recitation of a rejected op-ed, especially when this task descends upon poor Rose in what is already the worst and most pointless scene in the movie, where she and Finn and the inevitable BB-8 are dispatched in a lifeboat to a casino planet to find a "codebreaker," with whom they'll return to their fleet, and deactivate the First Order's tracker.

And that's entirely unacceptable: "a tense space battle" whose participants are apparently at liberty to pop off for a pack of smokes whenever they like. (The Last Jedi's space travel logistics really are psychotic trash; a late-game dramatic transition from one starship to another is accomplished through editing.)  But it's somehow worse in its specifics.  First and forever, The Last Jedi completely loses track of Finn: whatever story could've been told about the janissary who found his conscience is submerged in quips and clowning, and John Boyega set to maximum charm can still only make it modestly entertainingThen there's that casino planet itself, the most boring-looking and jarringly-anachronistic setting ever seen in a Star Wars movie, including that 50s diner in Attack of the Clones, which at least took up less screentime.  Thus do Finn and Rose spend untold minutes (though it's probably only like fifteen), dicking around in subplot that does not have the first interesting thing to say about anything untilat lastit arrives upon its basic life lesson"sometimes a scoundrel is just a scoundrel"though this is a lesson that could've been taught more economicallyeven with this exact same character, if he'd just already been aboard one of those Rebel shipand sitting in its brig instead.

On the other end of this plot, and almost as unacceptable, is Poe's mutinyforegrounded against the crazily underwhelming spectacle of our Rebel fleet getting chased at a sublight snail's pace through the depths of interstellar space whilst the First Order smugly waits for them to run out of fuelit's strange, I suppose, how sound tactics can translate so readily into bad cinema.  But the whole middle stretch of this chase is defined by such a palpable nothing: no fighters; not enough Rebel ships being destroyed to give a sense of their forces dwindlingone incredible absence of the sensation of motion, thanks to the lack of any nearby reference point.  It's uncanny how inert it islike following two ocean-going battleships from horizon to horizon, except without a horizonand that feeling is so uncanny that The Last Jedi's directorRian Johnsonmust've sought this feeling out on purpose.  He simply and honestly had no idea it would prove so dull.

But that's something, at leastJohnson's demonstrable willingness to try new things.  (He is likewise credited as sole screenwriter, and while this elicits a hearty "ha ha," there is more of an identifiable voice this time around.)  And so let's give him some credit: Johnson's playfulness with the concepts behind this universe absolutely pays off in the other half of his film.  Truthfully, if we're judging solely by volume, it's more like its other three-quarters: even the tiresome middle stretch of that starship standoff is bookended by scenes of such elegance and astonishment you wonder how they snuck their way into a sequel to The Force Awakens.

Consider an opening WWII-style bomber sortie that embraces the dumbest anti-physics and the inherently high emotional stakes of Star Wars space opera in the best way it possibly could (though somehow this is the silliness that people latch onto, and not the arcing trajectory of turbolaser fire)consider what comes soon after, the utterly incongruous spectacle of an old woman, strong in the Force, telekinetically heaving herself back aboard a ship after getting blown out of itand consider that this is something truly never seen before.  Above all, consider the literally breathtaking combination of image and silence that concludes the chasethat pretty much breaks Star Wars combat forever if you dwell on its implications, and, yes, seems like something somebody could've done two days ago if it was that easyDamn, you do ask a lot from your Star Wars, don't you?

Perhaps a little more, in fact.  To my mind the strangest thing about The Last Jedi (and, if I can be allowed to be extremely crassby far its biggest missed opportunity) is Holdo's hyperdrive game of chicken: it's the way that this film, for reasons I cannot come close to figuring out, decides to shove Leia aside in favor of what amounts to a Leia stand-inthen gives the stand-in the beautiful death that it is very, very obvious belonged to the real deal in at least one draft of Johnson's screenplay.  It is known that Johnson fought to avoid reshoots that in any way acknowledged the reality of Carrie Fisher's own demise, and that he was aghast at the very idea that he might resort to CG trickery, ala Peter Cushing's cyberghost in Rogue One.  This seems very respectfuluntil you realize all Johnson's actually done is pawned off the responsibility to Abrams, who's probably just going to have to kill her with dialogue.  So what we're left with is the unforgettable heroism of one character whose name we'll still have a little trouble remembering, serving as an enduring testament to the sloppy wager Disney and its imagineers made when they turned in their final bet on the order in which the Original Trilogy's cast was going to die.

But, finally, we need linger no further upon the bad, and turn instead toward the impossibly goodnearly everything that has anything to do with the last Jedi, the last Sith, and Rey, whatever it is she's in the process of becoming.  (The only thing I could be moved to hate about any of it is how it turns out Luke wasn't alone on his sanctuary island: apparently there's some order of alien nuns who keep up the ancient Jedi temples there, and it really doesn't seem like anybody realized that this undermines Luke's radical asceticism a little bit, too busy were they to figure out how to throw some slapstick comedy into Luke and Rey's plot, which is perhaps technically cute but never strictly worthwhile.  I suppose I also hate the part where Luke stabs a fish, as I had always sort of assumed it would make sense for Luke to be a vegetarian.  Not a vegan, mind: one of The Last Jedi's finest moments is also its most aggressively bizarre, looking for all the world like the Force Ghosts of the Farrelly Bros. appeared upon the set to guest-direct one single shot.)

Anyway, this is The Last Jedi's real triumph: a saga as deeply concerned with the majesty and mystery of the Force as any Star Wars film has ever been, and with the nature of its adherents.  It is apparently very easy to overestimate how much it does that is new: it rhymes, egregiously so in some places, with Yoda's training of Luke back in Empire and Luke's redemption of Vader in Jedi, and, with one chapter still left in this trilogy and infinity more left in this franchise, there are hard limits on exactly how surprising The Last Jedi could ever be.  But if a Star Wars movie can make you earnestly wonder, even for a moment, it is great Star Wars, and that's all there is to it.

This is the part of the film that feels like it means something, and it's served well by performances and writing that outstrip everything else in the film by a parsec (it has the best imagery, too, but that at least keeps up throughout the rest of The Last Jedi).  It makes Rey into an actual character now—it makes the best and only correct decision regarding her parentage, and I noticed, for the first time, that Rey has a very nice theme.  (How is it possible that I have gotten this deep without remarking that John Williams has finally returned to this franchise in full force?)  In the best of all of Star Wars' many, many traditions, it makes this trilogy feel, for the first time, like a trilogy The Last Jedi makes The Force Awakens better, and just as Star Wars '77 only overcame its limitations in context with Empire, I suddenly find do care deeply, after all, about an orphan from a desert rock with the destiny of a hero.  Like Mark Hamill before her, Daisey Ridley found the fundamentals on her first try.  She found a way to make them important on her second.

But this is Hamill's fourth, and The Last Jedi lives and dies upon his return: it's possible there's never been a better reprise of any beloved character this far from the source.  I have always been on Hamill's side, I want you to know; Luke Skywalker is, by Return of the Jedi if not before, the best-acted (and, bias disclosed, my favorite) character in the Original Trilogy, and Hamill is a fine actor in general.  He's stunning here, from the easiest stuffthe way Hamill's weathered face kind of automatically conveys a lifetime of pain and lossto the magnificently hard, which Hamill makes look easy, the way he threads every version of Luke seen throughout the OT into a unified, effortlessly-believable new version of the same character thirty years older and wishing he were wiser.  You can see in this Luke the Jedi he became, like his father before him, and the shithead still whining about power converters at Tosche Station; and the way Hamill reconciles both of them within crabby, tragic maturity is beautiful.  Knowing that Hamill actively disagreed with Johnson about Luke's character in The Last Jedi, and I completely understand why he didit's a testament to his professionalism and craft that you would never guess this from the film; whereas as far as that particular disagreement is concernedThe Last Jedi comes to the horrible razor's edge of not understanding Return of the Jedi, and then backs off, and tells you, yes, for once more in a lifetime, a movie does understand Return of the Jedi.  It's a miracle.  Good God, Hamill is forced to narrate a potted history of the Jedi Order in this film, and somehow this man makes the prequels sound awesome.

The Last Jedi handles Kylo Ren in exactly the same way as Rey: deepening his character, making him matter.  Gone are the comedic temper tantrums of AwakensBen Solo's fits of rage are terrifyingand Adam Driver's desperate grasping at Ren's uncontrollable emotions are the second best thing about this movie.  This film turns to Jedi for its plot and then turns Jedi right on its head.  (If Driver's performance is the second best thing, it's only because Johnson is so terrifically good at putting him into scenes with Ridley without them even being in the same star system: the Force-driven mechanic that allows them to speak across a whole galaxythe intimacy this generates, is this picture's lifeblood every bit as much as LukeAnd it's achieved with pure cinema: nothing more than splendid editing.)

The Last Jedi even makes Snoke cool, and he wasn't anything but reheated leftovers of Palpatinebut now we know he wasn't supposed to be.  You almost get the feeling Johnson maybe didn't even like The Force Awakens.  Good.  Forty years ago, you might've gotten the feeling Kershner and Kasdan and Brackett weren't as huge on Star Wars '77 as everyone else.  But now that he's exiting the premises, it's worth mentioning that Andy Serkis was doing an excellent Ian McDiarmid impression this time around, wasn't he?  All the better that the mocap specialist gets to be seen in the CG flesh here, and the Supreme Leader is the raddest alien in Star Wars in some time: on the level of pure, unadulterated image I kind of adore Snoke, like a grown-up, fucked-up E.T. who had his face halved with a lightsaber and put back together by a blind man.  And there is very, very little not to love, on that level of image, about a battle with red men with red lightsabers in a red room.  Especially when it is the most outstandingly violent thing ever put in any Star Wars film.

This leaves odds-and-ends, especially the humor, and The Last Jedi is already at least mildly infamous for being "too funny."  (It's already mildly infamous for a lot of things, I guess.)  It is, indeed, about 10% or so too jokey"funny" is actually giving the movie the benefit of the doubt, and it's only really funny, oddly enough, when it's dealing with its most dramatic plot, with Luke and Rey and Kylothough only a few things are anti-funny, you know, Jar-Jar style.  What tries to be funny usually does rise to the level of amusing, at least: the sparing but well-timed use of Chewbacca and Threepiothose adorable Porgs (turns out they're mocapped puffins); somehow, even the metahumor is good (if you'd told me that a Star Wars movie actually used the term "laser sword," I'd have groaned, but Hamill really sells the contempt that drives this line).  What I totally do not understand is the disdain being thrown Domnhall Gleeson's way: am I the only one who gets that he's playing a camp, comedic figure?  Or am I just the only one who thinks General Hux getting Force-choked (or Force-thrown-into-a-fucking-wall) once per act is hilarious?

On the other hand, I'm not terribly excited about the twist that dominates the ending, though again Hamill ensures that every instant of it is wonderful: it feels like Johnson was righteously hellbent on ensuring that the crystalline moment where Luke dies, sitting before a binary sunset, would be in the film; however, a simple non-narrative shot was rejected as "too arty," hence Luke's Force Skype from the sanctuary island.  There's literally nothing about the ending of this film that would have been substantively different, if Luke had been physically present.  It's not, you know, bad.  Just unnecessary.

And that is the awful conundrum at the heart of The Last Jedi.  So much of it is unnecessary or bador unnecessary and bad.  But then, so much of it isn't.  I love it, and I have no idea what to do with it.

Score: rrrrrrrRRARRGHH/10 (ok, fine, but with the standard caveat that nobody knows whether a Star Wars movie is good or not for years and years after its release, 8/10, but I could go 7, I could go 9, and I'll be the first to admit that it doesn't matter in the slightest)


  1. I can see your heart straining for that 10. Stay strong, Hunter.

    Yeah, I just watched this for a second time and while I did enjoy it a little more, the flaws are just SITTING there, plain as day. It's extravagantly messy in a way that feels mysterious and pointless, just as much as it's exhilarating and gorgeous most of the time.

    1. I kind of need to see it again, to see if familiarity irons out the crappy parts. It usually does.