Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review: The Last Jedi

*Warning: Spoilers*

We saw The Last Jedi last night at a theater in Destin, Florida. Apparently, the goyim know about the "see a movie on Christmas" trick (I suppose they all could have been Jews, but we're on the panhandle, so I doubt it).

Overall, I thought the movie was very good. But before we go any further, I should probably address the issue that's at the foremost of everyone's mind. To wit: The Last Jedi decisively proves (as if there ever was any doubt) that Poe Dameron is no Wedge Antilles. By my count, Poe's impulsiveness and "I know best" arrogance ends up ruining carefully-laid Resistance plans not once but twice. Losing the bomber squadron may have been forgivable, but Vice Admiral Holdo's escape plan would have worked were it not for the infiltration plot that Poe decided he just had to try. Poe Dameron has the deaths of literally half the Resistance on his hands thanks to that stunt.

Okay, that's out of the way. Overall, The Last Jedi is clearly better than The Force Awakens. If the latter was a shot-for-shot remake of A New Hope, the former is an amalgamation of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But not only is it different enough from both of these films to not feel derivative in the way The Force Awakens clearly was, focusing on its original-trilogy predecessors distracts from the bigger influence on The Last Jedi: Rogue One. One of Rogue One's greatest strengths was how it started to turn away from the "one true hero whom everything revolves around" tenor of the series, in favor of a narrative equality between main characters and side players. Like Rogue One, this is a grim movie, and not only does not everyone get a happy ending, not everyone even gets a glorious, cinematic ending. In both major revelations and smaller, more subtle moments, The Last Jedi continues to reinforce a refreshingly egalitarian message that to my mind opens up more storytelling potential untethered to the "What are Luke/Han/Leia and/or their children/relatives/secret lovers up to" well.

Obviously, the big iteration of this is the strong implication that Rey is, in fact, nobody. Not a child of destiny, not secretly related to the Skywalker clan, just ... a nobody, who happens to be force-attuned. But for me, some of the most powerful moments in the film were where it made clear that every member of the Resistance has a rich inner life and story that (for them at least) is on par to that of any of the main characters. The knowing nod between two starfighter pilots as they prepare to take off -- only for both of them to be vaporized when a proton torpedo enters the hanger bay. The bombardier clutching her necklace charm as she desperately tries to complete what she now knows is a suicide mission (this was an effective scene even without the later revelation that she's another major character's sister).

None of these characters "matter" in the grand scheme of the narrative. But people who don't matter, still matter. They have their own lives, motivations, relationships, and personalities, and The Last Jedi does a very good job communicating that throughout the film.

What makes these sequences so effective is that they are not emphasized or given any special significance. Most directors don't bother to pay attention to such side players at all, and those that do often revel in accentuating the head fake ("Oh you thought so-and-so was going to be a main character? Surprise! Laser to the face!" Looking at you, Joss Whedon). By playing it straight, The Last Jedi reinforced one of the most powerful narrative themes there can be in a war movie: everybody has a story, everybody has a narrative, and so having a story and a narrative doesn't make you special and doesn't offer any protection.

From a fan-boy perspective, I appreciated some of the new tactical permutations that were shown in space combat. Getting to see B-wing bombers was pretty cool, and the "slice open the Star Destroyer by hyping through it" was a neat trick (though if that works, it's unclear why the Resistance wouldn't have used it more often as a Kamikaze tactic -- it is a brutally effective way of neutralizing the First Order's capital ship advantage). We can quibble with some details (has nobody invented autopilot yet?), but for the most part I was able to suspend disbelief.

Obviously, the newer iterations of Star Wars are light-years ahead of their predecessors in terms of gender equality. A slew of excellent female characters are well presented and fully fleshed out -- and again, what's most important aren't their presence among the leads (Rey and Leia, though they both are fantastic) but as integrated up and down the supporting cast. Plenty of action movies have one or (maybe) two Strong Female Characters surrounded by a sea of indistinguishable dudes. Rarer is the film wherein women are just a normal part of the universe -- occupying mid-level command posts, serving as infantry grunts, working as unremarkable technicians, and so on. The Last Jedi is exceptional along this front, and deserves much credit for it.

Overall, The Last Jedi was to my mind the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. I don't really understand the backlash against it, and I do think it works very well as a strong second act setting up a potentially epic Episode IX. So well done Disney, and well done Rian Johnson. The Force is strong in this one.

Assorted bullet thoughts:

  • Where are all the aliens? If the Resistance and the First Order are finally gender-integrated, the conflict still seems strikingly human-on-human. Aside from Chewbacca, I counted one indeterminate alien starfighter pilot and one Sullustan (apparently Nien Nunb -- his fan club can rest easy). There actually could be something darkly amusing if this huge galactic conflict really was basically an intra-human spat and the other species of the galaxy just didn't care ("Humans ... there they go again"), but that doesn't seem to be the message of the film.
  • Captain Phasma continues to hold the "Boba Fett character who seems like a total badass even though she actually doesn't really do anything" award. The Praetorian Guard certainly made a good run at it, though.
  • I love the humor in The Last Jedi. All the major laugh moments do it for me, but the one that really killed me was when Rey "reaches out" to grasp the Force. Mark Hamill's eye roll game is on point.
  • Speaking of, I have mixed feelings towards how Luke is portrayed in the film. I neither love it nor hate it, but I do think that Mark Hamill gives it everything he has. His "brush your shoulder off" move is also on point.
  • Kylo Ren is turning into a pretty solid villain. It might have been interesting had he succeeded in turning Rey, though. Now that would have been a plot twist nobody would have seen coming.
  • I appreciate Vice Admiral Holdo is shown to be competent along all dimensions. Again, her escape plan would have worked had Poe not ruined it. And she also seized an opportunity to escape her captivity when it was presented.
  • Man, Jedi have gotten a lot more powerful in the past few decades. Remember when Yoda could impress us by lifting one starfighter out of a swamp?

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