Friday, April 13, 2018

Movie Review: The Last Jedi


This post will contain minor spoilers for

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi



You have been warned.



Star Wars: The Last Jedi released in December of last year, almost four months to the day. And no Star Wars film has had such controversial reception.

I saw this film shortly after it came out, but I didn't put out a public review until now for a variety of reasons. My first thought was that everyone and their brother had made a YouTube video or article or Reddit post detailing their opinion. Surely anything I had to say had already been said.

Another huge deterrent was the film's toxic “discussion” atmosphere. Nothing generates thoughtful debate like someone claiming you're a frustrated, immature fanboy if you have a different opinion than them.

But after mentioning The Last Jedi in multiple posts, I felt it was only fair to stop dancing around the topic and finally disclose my thoughts on the film.

Let me be clear: you're not an idiot if you like The Last Jedi. Nor are you an idiot if you don't like it. I'm not better than you just because I've expressed my opinion on a blog post. It's stupid to judge someone based on their personal preferences. You either like or you dislike, agree or disagree. No opinion is better than another.

Also, I am no Rian Johnson. I haven't written and directed a film for media giant Walt Disney Studios. I haven't even published a single thing of my own yet. Rian Johnson has years and years more experience than me. I am not writing this to say I am a better writer than him, nor that I could have done a better job. I am not and could not.

Now, I'll admit, most of my reasons for reviewing this film are selfish, but here's my list of why for the sake of full disclosure:

  • To provide transparency and clarity of my opinions on a film I've referenced on my blog
  • To ensure my criticism is constructive (offering suggestions for improvement) rather than destructive (complaining or criticizing but offering nothing in return) To help me sort out my own feelings about the film
  • To identify elements of the film I felt didn't reach their full potential, and to explore and discuss possible ways of better achieving that potential
  • To learn from others' experience in order to become a better storyteller
  • To segue into an issue that few others have addressed concerning The Last Jedi controversy

Remember, if you disagree with me, I'm totally fine with that! Don't let me delegitimize your opinion. You may see nothing wrong with Rian Johnson's decisions or see no need to alter what he poured his heart and soul into creating. And that's perfectly fine. In fact, I want to hear your viewpoint! Let's talk about it! This film needs more healthy discussion.

Now, with all that said, here are my thoughts on The Last Jedi.

THE BAD


Vice Admiral Holdo

This was a brand-new character introduced only for this film. Despite being a high-ranking officer in the Resistance, she does not look it: Holdo wears an evening gown and sports purple hair when everyone else is in war-torn fatigues.

T B Skyen asserts that everything about Holdo's design was created to be a lie, to intentionally misdirect the viewer.1 And given how many times director Rian Johnson tries to subvert the audience's expectations throughout this film, I believe Skyen is right.

While I can appreciate this conscious choice of character design and the ability to catch me by surprise, I'm not a fan of subversion for its own sake. This is because to me, it tends to feel forced, and it often causes characters to act in uncharacteristic or illogical ways.

This is precisely how I felt about Holdo and, by extension, all the subplots connected to her.

Holdo has a “twist” that is not set up at all within the film; Rian Johnson never gave us any clues as to why Holdo was acting the way she was. Having the mystery's answer hidden off-screen, away from where I could see it, felt like the storyteller was cheating; it left me feeling quite unsatisfied.

Because I had no clues as to what Holdo was actually thinking, I was left with a poor first impression of her. Her lack of communication with her crew results in unnecessary losses, which makes her seem less the hero she's painted to be and more illogical, ill-advised, and downright incompetent to me.

This is ironic, considering Holdo is not the character the film paints as reckless and incompetent... that criticism is reserved for Poe.

Poe

The film paints Poe as a hot-headed flyboy, and unfortunately, he not only proves that accusation but doesn't even get a chance to redeem himself by decisively overcoming this shortcoming.

Poe's failure is, as many have pointed out, a subversion of expectations, namely that “Good guys will always win” and that the hotshot protagonist who thinks with his heart is always right.2 And while I love that idea in theory, it does not play out well in The Last Jedi. Poe's failure doesn't help him as a character. His entire plan falls apart, and he never gets a chance to get it right. He doesn't get to show how quick-witted he is or how skilled he is by the end of the film. And rather than this failure clearly making him a better person, YouTuber KingEmperorPenguin points out that the only “growth” we see from Poe is that he pulls his fighters away in a moment of crisis... when their suicidal charge was the last hope to protect the Resistance.3 Poe's growth doesn't clearly make him a better person (the film itself doesn't even celebrate his decision to pull back his troops); in fact, Poe's “growth” would have doomed the Resistance!

Failure should always cause characters to show off their strengths or work on their weaknesses. Poe's doesn't.

I much prefer the way Voltron: Legendary Defender's earlier seasons handle the “good guys' plan fails” trope. Often when pitted against their titanic robotic enemies, the Voltron team will quickly try out various plans. They try going for the enemy's legs. When that fails, someone suggests they flank the enemy. And if that doesn't work, they try something else. Each failure leads them one step closer to discovering their enemy's weakness. And the failures happen so quickly, they never feel like they drag on.

But while failures in Voltron only take a couple of minutes to run through and correct, Poe's failure takes up half the movie before we see it ultimately fail. It's the entire B-plot of the movie, but it adds nothing to the overall plot of the film. It does not develop Poe or Finn. It doesn't showcase their unique strengths (anyone could have gone on Finn's mission and met with similar results). It barely even increases the tension, because the Resistance starts the movie in almost the same position they are in by the end: cornered, low on resources, lower on staff, and perilously outgunned.

All these issues, coupled with the fact the film's title suggests it would center on the Jedi, left me feeling bored with the B-plot.

To counter this, I would have removed Holdo for starters, as many of my issues with the B-plot were created for and by Holdo.

The B-plot should have existed to tell us more about who Poe, Finn, and any other new characters were. It should have given the characters opportunities to play off each other and to face various challenges so their different strengths could shine. The most cost-effective way to do that is to keep the main cast together for as long as possible. Give Poe and Finn something to do, but keep it tied into Rey's plot. Maybe they accompany Rey on her journey to find Luke, just in case Luke didn't want to come, or just in case it was a trap, or just in case the First Order located Rey and attacked. This way, when Rey runs off to confront Snoke, Poe and Finn are there to help during her dramatic showdown.

And speaking of our plucky protagonist...

Rey

I, like many fans, found Rey far too powerful without any given reason.

To be fair, this issue was not new to The Last Jedi; it began in The Force Awakens, but it was a problem present in this film.

Remember my points on new generation characters vs. old characters in a story? Rey felt like a lesson in that. Rey is incredibly powerful at the beginning of her journey, especially compared to Luke's beginning. Sure, Rey grew up with stories about the Jedi to serve as her inspiration, but as Mark Hamill joked in an interview, “She hasn't even been to Dagobah for training!”4 This was a tongue-in-cheek jest, but it's a sentiment I certainly feel. Why is Rey so much more powerful in the Force and automatically so much more skilled than Luke when they pretty much had the same starting point? I was hoping The Last Jedi would assuage my questions and concerns by linking Rey to some powerful Force-user in the past, but that wasn't the case. The film didn't even try to explain, which left me extremely disappointed—not because I'm “anti-woman” or a disappointed fan theorist, but because making Rey so much more powerful than Luke without any training feels like a slap in the face. It feels like the film is saying, “Here's a stronger, smarter, better-looking version of what you used to love. Isn't it great?” No. It's not great, because it seems to suggest that anyone could have done what Luke did... and better. This is not a good way to honor the legacy of the Star Wars series thus far.

There are some simple ways to change this. Make Rey far less competent in the Force and have her work her way up. Or, I saw one YouTube video that suggested Rey be incredibly powerful, but her potential is raw, untapped, and difficult to control (alas that even after days of sifting through my view history I could not find this source—please comment if you happen to know whose video this was!). I love this idea, not only for the conflict it would present to Rey but also because it adds even more incentive for her to draw close to Luke and, if he continues to resist teaching her, then to Kylo Ren.

Luke

While I didn't mind seeing Luke as a tired and jaded old master, I wanted to know how he got this way. We only got one flashback scene and a small monologue. The amount of time dedicated to showing how Luke fell was disproportionately small compared to the enormous transformation Luke underwent, leaving me feeling unsatisfied with this explanation.

To solve this, sprinkle flashbacks of Luke's descent into Rey's training montage. Her courage and optimism can remind him of simpler times in his own past... and the disastrous consequences he believes resulted.

Or, a more in-depth solution (for those who argue Luke wouldn't have fled into exile): create a reason why Luke is trapped on an island and was unable to come to his friends' aid sooner. Maybe he's looking for answers as to where Snoke came from. Maybe he's looking to recapture his old fire for being a Jedi. This opens the door to discuss Snoke's origins and rise to power, however briefly, and it also allows Rey to be Luke's “ray of hope” without making her more powerful than her master.

THE GOOD


Luke

I loved seeing Luke's perspective on the Force and being a Jedi. I thought this was one case where subversion of expectations was used well, as his philosophy on the Jedi and the Force was new and refreshing, unlike anything we'd seen from other Jedi instructors before.

Also, and I cannot stress this enough, Luke training Rey was my most-anticipated part of the film, and it did not disappoint. I enjoyed the training and their interactions so much, in fact, that despite all my qualms with the film, Luke and Rey training alone was enough for me to consider this a good film overall.

Rey

Despite everything I disliked about Rey, The Last Jedi handled Rey's personality so well that it completely altered my initial distaste for Rey and won me over to her side for good.

When I walked out of The Force Awakens, I had mixed feelings about Rey. I found her a likable character to begin with, but it seemed like as soon as she started her journey, she began to grate on my nerves. Her Feminist “I don't need any help” attitude did not leave a great first impression on me.

But Rian Johnson totally redeemed Rey in The Last Jedi. He drew out Rey's vulnerability, her genuine concern for others, her curiosity, and her relatable awe of the Force and of Luke Skywalker. And that scene where she stumbles across a shirtless Kylo? Adorable, hilarious, and embarrassingly relatable for me.

And speaking of Ben Swolo...

Kylo

Asajj Ventress from The Clone Wars, 2008 LucasFilm
Kylo Ren is head and shoulders my favorite part of the new trilogy. And that's coming from me, Miss “I love the paragon heroes and hate the villains.”

I'm not your typical audience member. I don't usually find the villains cool or relatable or even all that interesting. But Star Wars has consistently made villains I almost enjoy seeing more than some of the protagonists: enemies like Jango Fett, Cad Bane, or Asajj Ventress, for instance.

Kylo Ren easily fits into this category. I love angsty boys, and boy does he fit the bill. I love his anguish about who he wants to be. I love how I don't know for sure how he'll react. I find it fascinating that I have some sense of who he is as a character, but not enough to always predict what he'll do. So to see him bounce off Rey, to see even more of his vulnerable side, was a real treat.

And I can't geek out enough over that final fight scene with him and Rey against Snoke's bodyguards. That was one heck of a fight, and I loved every second. There's nothing much more satisfying than a villain working alongside a hero they formerly worked against.

But whether the good or bad, I've thought a lot about The Last Jedi, analyzing my own opinion, comparing my thoughts to others', seeing the fan backlash, and watching in horror as the fanbase attacks itself. And all that pondering has helped me realize something I've barely seen anyone else talk about with regard to this film: why it's so divisive in the first place. Why are there such wildly different stances on it?

We'll be talking about that next week. I'll see you then for some good ol' fashioned discussion starters.

---
Notes and References:
  1. T B Skyen, “The Lie of Vice Admiral Holdo,” YouTube video, 20:36, January 3, 2018.
  2. “Should Admiral Holdo have been Hera in TLJ? (Possible spoilers; but who honestly hasn't seen the film!) [sic],” Reddit, January 13, 2018, accessed April 12, 2018.
  3. KingEmperorPenguin, “A Military Analysis of The Last Jedi (or why is everyone incompetent?) [sic],” YouTube video, 32:03, January 19, 2018.
  4. JarJar Abrams, “Mark Hamill talks about his disappointment [sic],” 5:42, July 22, 2016; from Star Wars, “An Hour with Mark Hamill Panel, | Star Wars Celebration Europe 2016,” 1:02:09, July 16, 2016.
Star Wars and all related names and terms property of LucasFilm and Walt Disney Studios. And, unfortunately, I am not affiliated with them.

From Him, To Him

7 comments:

  1. That was a good and balanced review. I'm not a Star Wars fan (don't hate it, but I'm not a crazy fanboy about it), but I think the division is just insane from what you told me and from what I recently saw. There are worse things to freak out about, people.

    I'm glad there are cooler heads to prevail on this matter like you. I hope I came off the same way whenever I have to address things in my reviews.

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    1. You tend to present a more level head than I do when it comes to your reviews! I'm glad I was able to present it in a fair way. It certainly took some time cooling off to be able to write this review. It really saddens me to see that fans are taking out their frustration on each other rather than examining what went wrong (or what was done well!) in the movie. Like you said, there are so much worse things to get upset over, and why can't we just celebrate what we have in common: that we all like Star Wars and want what's best for the franchise? It's really unfortunate.

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    2. Is that so? I sure hope so. I do admit that I do use more emotion for some reviews whether I really like or dislike something or mentioning issues I'm passionate about. It's great that you were able to cool down before making that review. Seriously, I'm starting to get concerned with the nerd community with how shallow and blind to serious issues they can be as they use entertainment as an escape. There's nothing wrong with watching movies or playing video games in moderation, but this is getting ridiculous.

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    3. The incredibly negative and downright attacking attitude many fans have these days really concerns me too! I can only hope that cooler heads prevail. They're out there!

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    4. Of course, and it's so concerning. I really hope more people could just calm down.

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  2. Loved this...what a perspective...made me think through some things I hadn't thought on!
    Beth

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