Sunday, January 21, 2018

"There are alternatives to fighting": Good vs Evil in "The Last Jedi"

In Star Wars (or A New Hope, if you prefer), when the Millennium Falcon is pulled into the Death Star by tractor beam, Han Solo declares, "they're not going to get me without a fight!", to which Obi-Wan Kenobi replies, "You can't win. But there are alternatives to fighting."

In The Last Jedi, I struggled to see the relevance of Finn and Rose's sojourn to Canto Bight, where the upper crust of the galaxy luxuriate in the spoils of war profiteering. Rose informs Finn that "There's only one business in the galaxy that'll get you this rich [...] selling weapons to the First Order." It turns out that Rose isn't completely correct. DJ later reveals to Finn that in fact Canto Bight's patrons sell to both sides, the First Order and the Republic/Resistance. He recommends to Finn that the best course of action is to "live free; don't join."

Like Kylo Ren's sentiment that "It's time to let old things die", this has been misinterpreted as a message of the film, but it isn't. Kylo's mistake is his belief in the need to "let the past die". Yoda puts us on the right course: "the greatest teacher failure is." Similarly, we're not meant to agree with DJ. He isn't even firm about his own arguments. When Finn challenges him later in the film, arguing that he's wrong to perceive the conflict as he does, DJ replies, "Maybe."

Yet the film clearly isn't advocating, as some reactionaries have argued, a nihilistic message that good and evil are meaningless and that we're all just pawns in a capitalist machine. We're still clearly positioned to see the Resistance as good and the First Order as evil. Instead, the film is arguing that good doesn't have to win through violence. This is particularly emphasised in the film through its depiction of the human cost of "righteous violence". Poe's attack on the dreadnought Fulminatrix (yeah, I remembered the name from a Wookieepedia article) gets a huge proportion of the Resistance's members killed. He ultimately recognises this in the finale when he calls off the speeder attack on the (poorly named) battering-ram cannon.

How all this becomes relevant, ultimately, is how it is borne out in Luke's narrative. In the conclusion of the film, Luke projects himself using the Force to appear on the planet Crait, and single-handedly faces down the entirety of the First Order's ground forces. In the ensuing confrontation, he completely humiliates Kylo Ren and makes the First Order military look utterly incompetent and impotent, and he does all of this without striking a single blow.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda tells Luke that the Force is to be used for "knowledge and defence, never attack". In The Last Jedi, Luke never attacks, and he still wins. In my review of The Last Jedi I said that Kylo Ren wins "politically" by usurping Snoke, but more accurately, in terms of his long term goals, he loses. He gains rank, but fails to destroy the Resistance and kill Rey, or kill Luke, who instead peacefully becomes one with the Force. Luke won because he used an alternative to fighting.

This doesn't mean that the film somehow advocates pacifism or surrender. Far from it. What it relates, however, is a long-standing theme that good cannot and should not win by being like evil, by matching their raw violent strength with strength of the same kind. In The Last Jedi, despite the failures of Rey, Finn and Poe to turn Kylo, outwit the First Order and outfight it respectively, the Resistance still "wins" because they humiliate the First Order and make them look stupid and pathetic.

In Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance wins great victories over the Galactic Empire. Yet they do not do this by mounting full-scale campaigns of war against the Empire, seeking to conquer planets, seize resources and acquire better and more powerful weapons. Rather, they use the resources they have to destroy two weapons, the first and second Death Stars. No one in either of these films ever advocates capturing the Death Star and turning it against the Empire, or for the Rebellion to construct superweapons of its own to terrorise and attack enemy systems. In this regard the Original Trilogy is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings: Sauron is defeated by destroying his greatest weapon (the Ring), not by using it (or similar weapons) against him. The Force Awakens rather unimaginatively reused this concept.

Nonetheless, in this manner The Last Jedi offers another response to evil: good wins if it can expose the limitations of evil and, going by the kids at the end, if it can inspire hope and resistance. Evil cannot win if its weaknesses are exposed and if it fails to dominate the hearts and minds of those it seeks to control. Again, this is not to say that good does not need, to some degree, to fight back, but the battle is not won purely through overwhelming military force. This is entirely consistent with how the Rebellion wins in the Original Trilogy, by destroying the Death Stars rather than trying to conquer the Empire. In the same manner, in Return of the Jedi, Luke avoided falling to the dark side, firstly by insisting that he would not fight his father, and ultimately by refusing to kill him, refusing to match violence with violence and hate with hate. Similarly, the elite of Canto Bight only flourish through their clients' mistaken belief that victory only comes through physically destroying one's enemy. There are alternatives to fighting, and ultimately they are more powerful than evil can possibly imagine.

Note that this doesn't excuse The Last Jedi's structure and pacing issues and the weakness of some of its humour., and it doesn't change the Canto Bight plot from feeling heavy-handed, distracting or clumsy. It just occurred to me that perhaps some of its disparate elements are more connected than they first appeared. Seriously, though, couldn't there have been a minute or two for Luke and Yoda to discuss what "learning from failure" might mean for force users in general or future Jedi specifically, and what being a Jedi might mean in a galaxy recognising that the force "does not belong to the Jedi"? After The Force Awakens, people expected the next film to answer a lot of "plot" questions: who are Rey's parents? What's Snoke's deal? Where'd the First Order spring from? I didn't care about that, but obviously it bothered other people. More importantly, in my opinion, I think Episode IX needs to resolve the thematic questions set up by The Last Jedi: having learnt from the mistakes of the past, what is the future of the Force and the Jedi? How can the Resistance win without resorting purely to militarily overpowering the First Order? What are the consequences of Luke's very public humiliation of the First Order on Crait? I'm a tad concerned that this is just another course for viewers to be disappointed as the direction of the Sequel Trilogy again changes hands.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

"The Last Jedi": The Fanboy Cut



EXT. AHCH-TO - DAY

REY hands LUKE SKYWALKER the official Anakin Skywalker's Lightsaber™.

REY
We need your help to fight the First Order!

LUKE
Okay, let's go.

INT. FIRST ORDER FLAGSHIP - DAY

The Millennium Falcon flies into the hangar, guns blazing. Stormtroopers are blown up left and right. The hatch descends and Luke, Rey, CHEWBACCA and R2-D2 run out. Luke ignites his GREEN LIGHTSABER.

REY
I have a bad feeling about this.

Rey is instantly knocked out by stormtroopers. Luke shrugs.

LUKE
More for me, then.

INT. FIRST ORDER FLAGSHIP - DAY

Luke runs down a corridor on the flagship, cutting down stormtroopers with his GREEN LIGHTSABER.

INT. FLAGSHIP BRIDGE - DAY

GENERAL HUX is watching a monitor. The WILHELM SCREAM is heard over the intercom as Luke cuts down more stormtroopers.

GENERAL HUX
He's heading for Snoke's chamber! Warn the Supreme Lead-argh!

General Hux is shot by Chewbacca, who roars.

CHEWBACCA
[roars]

INT. ELEVATOR - DAY

Luke is now in a glass elevator heading up. Space can be seen through the glass. Two Star Destroyers are heading towards the Flagship.

LUKE
I don't think so.

Luke stretches out his hands and then brings them together. Using THE FORCE, he causes the two Star Destroyers to collide and explode. Suddenly, the elevator stops. Luke speaks into his communicator from A New Hope.

LUKE
R2! I need this elevator running!

INT. CONTROL ROOM - DAY

R2-D2 electrocutes a stormtrooper, plugs into a wall socket and spins the dial.

R2-D2
[beeps]

INT. ELEVATOR - DAY

The elevator resumes its ascent.

LUKE
Thanks R2.

INT. ANTECHAMBER - DAY

The elevator doors open, revealing Luke. He raises one eyebrow.

REVERSE SHOT --

The dreaded KNIGHTS OF REN™ ignite their LIGHT BLADES. DARAK REN is armed with a LIGHT SPEAR. SHENDAR REN is armed with a LIGHT AXE. ZEKRUS REN is armed with a LIGHT GLAIVE. IJNIL REN is armed with two LIGHT-CHUKS. FELMAN REN is armed with a LIGHT NAGINATA. DONF REN is armed with a LIGHT FALCHION. All six of the dreaded Knights of Ren™ are available in an action figure combo pack for $59.99 at Wal-Mart.

LUKE
It's time to say Good Knight.

They fight. All six of the dreaded Knights of Ren™ are defeated, although they survive so that they can appear in Episode IX. Luke goes through the door at the end of the Antechamber for the next round.

INT. ANTECHAMBER 2 - DAY

The door opens to reveal KYLO REN. He looks angry.

KYLO REN
You will never defeat m-

LUKE
Nope!

Luke uses FORCE PUSH to smash Kylo Ren into a wall. He proceeds through the door to the third round.

INT. RESISTANCE BASE - DAY

FINN and POE stand around doing nothing.

INT. SNOKE'S THRONE ROOM - DAY

SUPREME LEADER SNOKE is sitting on his throne.

SNOKE
Welcome, Master Skywalker, to the last day of the Jedi!

LUKE
It's time to end this, Snoke - or should I say Darth Plagueis?

Dramatic chords are heard.

SNOKE
So, you discovered my true identity. Then you must know I can never die due to my immense power with the Dark Side!

LUKE
I'm willing to put it to the test.

They fight. Snoke uses a RED LIGHTSABER, while Luke uses his GREEN LIGHTSABER. Eventually Luke disarms Snoke, who resorts to using FORCE LIGHTNING. Luke struggles.

SNOKE
You see, you fool? I cannot be beaten!

LUKE
Oh really? You think I spent all those years on that island for no reason at all?

Raising his arm, Luke uses a new FORCE POWER on Snoke: FORCE LIGHT. A beam of light shoots from his hand. Snoke dodges, but the Force Light blasts off his right hand. Shocked, Snoke runs for the escape pod behind his throne, where he is joined by Kylo Ren and the dreaded Knights of Ren™. They clamber inside.

SNOKE
I'll get you next time, Skywalker! Next time!

The escape pod blasts off. Luke wipes his brow.

INT. RESISTANCE BASE - DAY

LEIA gives Luke another medal, as well as giving a medal to Chewbacca. Luke winks at the camera.

SMASH CUT:

CREDITS
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
RIAN JOHNSON

etc.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"The Last Jedi": Luke's Character Arc

Arguably the most contentious element of The Last Jedi has been the characterisation of Luke Skywalker. When we last saw Luke in Return of the Jedi he was a triumphant Jedi Knight who had become confident and wise, resisted the lure of the Dark Side and redeemed his father. When we catch up with him in The Last Jedi he's a broken man who has come to despise both himself and the belief system he so strongly embraced in the Original Trilogy. The question is whether this makes sense.

Obviously a lot can happen in thirty years. Over that kind of time some people change drastically. Others scarcely change at all. So how did Luke change, and why? In The Last Jedi, Luke implies that the world he fought for in the Original Trilogy did come into being: "for many years there was balance." It appears that the change began when Ben was born; Luke notably says "I thought I could pass on my strengths." This seems to relate to what Yoda tells him later: "Pass on what you have learned: strength, mastery, but weakness, folly, failure also." This implies an error at the foundation of the philosophy Luke took towards training the new order of Jedi: that it was about strength primarily, particularly in Ben's case of enabling the "mighty Skywalker blood." Perhaps this to a degree explains how Snoke was able to manipulate Ben, because he had been trained to see the Force as a form of strength alone, as power, something Luke was very keen to tell Rey was explicitly not the case.

Is this error consistent with Luke's character in the Original Trilogy? It's difficult to say. In Return of the Jedi Luke certainly used the Force as a source of raw strength, particularly when he called upon it to threaten and ultimately destroy Jabba the Hutt. He also called upon it in fury in the final confrontation on the Death Star, in which he nearly slew his father before realising what the Emperor was doing. It's also true that he never truly finished his training with Yoda, because he left recklessly early in The Empire Strikes Back and only really "completed" his training and became a Jedi when he refused to kill Vader. Certainly Luke understood the value of compassion, and surely would have brought that to his training, but it might be argued that his victory on the Death Star was a combination of his own compassion and the Emperor's arrogance. I'm honestly not sure whether it's possible to conclusively say that Luke might have lacked the overall mastery to train Ben, but it's possible, and he seems to think so, claiming it was "hubris" to do so. Again, however, it may be a combination of circumstances: Luke's own overconfidence and Snoke's manipulation.

Nonetheless, I'd argue that this leaves room for Luke to develop in this way. It seems that the final say on how he lost Ben was a moment of weakness in which, foreseeing the destruction his nephew would cause in the future, he panicked and drew his lightsaber upon him: "I saw darkness. I'd sensed it building in him. I'd seen it in moments during his training. But then I looked inside, and it was beyond what I ever imagined. Snoke had already turned his heart. He would bring destruction and pain and death and the end of everything I loved because of what he would become."

This appears to be highly reminiscent of Luke's rash reaction in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda tells him he must not go chasing his vision: "But Han and Leia will die if I don't!" Obi-Wan tells him, "You don't know that," and when Yoda reminds him of his "failure at the cave", Luke insists "I've learned so much since then." He hadn't learned enough, however, to prevent him from running off after a vision about which he could not be sure. Yoda sums up the situation as he leaves: "Reckless is he." This isn't just a mistake Luke could make once; it's a consistent part of his character, seen also in Return of the Jedi when Vader's taunting about Leia almost leads to his fall to the Dark Side.

So, was a moment of weakness in which Luke would contemplate destroying his own nephew consistent with this aspect of his character? It seems that way. He nearly killed his own father before feeling pity for him, seeing what he himself was at risk of becoming, and relenting. Furthermore, sometimes people change in some ways but not in others. Yoda remarks upon this in both The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi. In the former, he observes, "All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon; never his mind on where he was, what he was doing." In the latter: "Still looking to the horizon, never here, now, the need in front of your nose." At this point Yoda also argues that Luke failed to pass on the value of learning from failure; I suppose we just have to accept that to be the case, but it appears to relate to his fixation on "the horizon"; he has never been sufficiently concerned with the present, thinking too much about the future and about certain consequences, which is actually a narrow point of view, as it both blinds him to the present and limits the possibilities he imagines. Just as he assumed that Han and Leia would die if he did not save them on Bespin, for a moment he assumed that Ben would bring the galaxy to ruins and acted rashly in response. This is a consistent part of his character.

The next thing to consider is the action he took after this, going into isolation on Ahch-To rather than rectifying the problem he had created. I feel that much of the explanation for this can be found in what Luke says earlier about training Ben. He observes that "Leia trusted me with her son," and "Leia blamed Snoke, but it was me. I failed." He later says that after drawing his lightsaber upon Ben he was "left with shame, and consequence." Luke argues elsewhere in the film that the Jedi are fundamentally flawed, as their actions have led to disaster, but I'd argue that the specific reason for his exile is more personal: he was deeply ashamed of having betrayed Leia and Han, his two closest friends who were also his family, by letting their son fall to the Dark Side. The other source of shame is probably the feeling that he failed to restore the Jedi Order, a responsibility which, after the death of Yoda, had fallen solely upon him. Reflecting upon his own failures and those of the Jedi Order historically, he must have decided that any further action on his part would only cause further pain and suffering and destruction. This would still fit with the "looking to the horizon" mentality; he must have believed that anything he could do would only make the problem worse.

Ultimately I think the characterisation works and is consistent with Luke's character and story, but I can also perceive a few problems with it.

1. Despite the enormous length of The Last Jedi, Luke's character is perhaps slightly underwritten. The audience is possibly asked to read into things more than they should. I think the characterisation works, but should I have really needed to rewatch specific scenes from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to find the most tangible links? These Disney Star Wars films probably need more production time to allow the screenplays to breathe. Also, while I'm sure Lucasfilm keeps a clear eye on the scripts, it may not have hurt to have had a collaborator or two on the screenplay.

2. The entire character arc only needs to exist because of the plot of The Force Awakens, and this leads me to a broader issue: I feel like the problems with the sequel trilogy fundamentally lie with The Force Awakens, and that there was not the time or means for this film to rectify them. If The Force Awakens had been willing to give a clear reason for Luke's disappearance rather than trying to keep the audience hooked with "mystery box" storytelling, there would have been no need for Luke to undergo so many changes in (from the audience's point of view) so little time.

3. This speaks to a wider problem with the Sequel Trilogy in general, which wants to have its cake and eat it too by introducing a new set of protagonists while retaining the old ones. Luke's role in The Force Awakens was minimised because it reduced the viewer's interest in Rey, and this leaves me thinking that, from a storytelling point of view, it was a mistake to have the Original Trilogy characters at all, because they will end up having either little to no character development (which is how Han appears in The Force Awakens), or have to go through too much (which is how Luke arguably appears in The Last Jedi). Yet Disney knows that familiar characters sell more cinema tickets. The film wants us to care about Rey, Finn and Poe, but by selling the films to us with Luke, Leia and Han, we are left wanting to know more about and see more of them. This is why I almost think the narrative about how the characters got to where they were by the time of the Sequel Trilogy sounds, from the snippets we get in the films and putting the spinoff material aside, more interesting than the story of the new characters in some respects.

4. This might be a bit unfair, but is there a slight issue in Return of the Jedi having an overly triumphant ending? Don't get me wrong, I love Return of the Jedi, but the screenwriters only gave it such a happy ending at George Lucas's insistence, and he probably wanted it because a film which left the audience happy would sell more toys to kids. That's probably why Han didn't die on Endor, and why Luke didn't have either of the touted endings he might have had: either falling to the Dark Side and replacing Vader, or "walking off into the sunset" at the end, having been utterly emotionally drained by his experiences. An ending more on these lines might have arguably set up more for Sequel Episodes, but I suppose we can't really blame it for not setting up sequels that even George Lucas wasn't thinking seriously about making until the 2010s (apparently he did consider making at least Episode VII himself before selling the rights to Disney. Google it if you want to know more).

The last thing I wanted to discuss was Luke's ending in The Last Jedi. He stops looking to the horizon and focuses on the here and now: if he uses his great knowledge of the Force, he can save the Resistance, maintain hope in the galaxy and start a new legend to inspire it, while also intimidating the First Order and leaving his fallen nephew with something to think about. He couldn't undo the effects of his failure, but he could act to attempt to help build something new. Now that he's one with the Force, he just needs to make sure to pass this on to Rey in Episode IX...

Thursday, January 4, 2018

"The Last Jedi" Rant 2: Rey Was Right Not To Join Kylo

Another thing I see people saying about The Last Jedi is "it would have been more interesting if Rey had taken Kylo up on his offer and joined him to bring order to the galaxy."

For instance, I saw a webcomic someone wrote which implied that this would have allowed them both to heal or similar. Also, in RedLetterMedia's review, they argued that doing so would have allowed the forming of a government to resolve the conflict. Let's think about this, though.

1. Kylo Ren's Motivation
When Kylo offers his hand to Rey, he's not offering her some kind of truce. He's not saying "Join with me so we can sort out this conflict around the negotiating table and agree to a solution which suits everyone." He's offering her a position of co-tyrant as absolute rulers of the galaxy. Would this really work as a character development for our protagonist, a woman who has never previously shown the slightest inclination towards desiring power over others? Furthermore, would it be a desirable message for this or any film, implying that there was value in autocracy and dictatorship? Kylo Ren's offer doesn't imply governance; it implies unquestionable authority and totalitarianism. 

2. Kylo Ren's Method
Kylo tells Rey that she's nobody, "but not to me". Admittedly I stole this from somewhere else, but this is the behaviour of an abuser, not an ally. He's putting her down so that he can get what he wants: the company and attention of a person he thinks understands him. His offer, in this light, isn't really an offer at all, but a manipulative and selfish request phrased in terms intended to undermine Rey's self esteem. Again, why would we want Rey to join this man?

3. Rey's Point of View
Through their Force connection, Rey has come to somewhat sympathise with Kylo Ren. She recognises that he is extremely conflicted and feels betrayed, and is somewhat pitiable as a result. This doesn't really change the fact, however, that she knows by reputation that Kylo Ren is a mass-murderer, and knows by experience that he is a parricide, who murdered his own father in front of her very eyes. He also once kidnapped her for information and tried to force that information from her using the Force. If he reached out his hand to you, would you want to take it?

As far as I can tell, it would have been totally inconsistent for Rey to join forces with Kylo Ren. Not only would it be out of character for her, but Kylo Ren made the offer in an extremely manipulative way with deeply questionable motives, and Rey knows enough about him to perceive this. As much as I'd like to see a different spin on the same old Star Wars good guys vs bad guys conflict, this would not have worked as a way to do it.

"The Last Jedi" Rant 1: Why Do People Care About Snoke?

This post is about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If you haven't seen it or don't care, don't blame me for not understanding what I'm talking about. I couldn't be bothered explaining it in detail.

Seriously, why does anyone care about the backstory of Supreme Leader Snoke? A common complaint I've seen about "The Last Jedi" is that Snoke, the leader of the evil First Order, who supposedly seduced Kylo Ren to the Dark Side, was killed off (by Kylo) in this film with no explanation of his origins. People seem to have wanted to know how he came to be such a powerful force user and how he came to take control of the First Order.

Now, I'm not going to make the argument other people have been making: "Well, we didn't know anything about the Emperor!" That doesn't work because we can assume that an evil Empire is ruled by an evil dude who goes by the name of "The Emperor". With something like "The First Order", which emerged from said Empire, I suppose it's natural to wonder about the origins of its "Supreme Leader". Simply by watching The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, here's what we know about Snoke:

1. He runs the First Order as its Supreme Leader.
2. He's an alien (apparently).
3. He's fairly strong with the Dark Side: he can use force lightning and mess around with people over long distances, and what not.
4. He seduced Kylo Ren to the Dark Side, seemingly telepathically: it doesn't seem like he turned Ben Solo's mind in person, but rather whispered to him from afar. Admittedly, I'm interpreting that a bit.
5. He's dead now.

Note that I'm not including anything stated in any supplementary text, like the novelisation of The Force Awakens or one of the Visual Dictionary books or whatever.

So I have two questions.

1. Did we need any more information than that?
People seem to be asking, "If he's so powerful, where was he during the Empire?" Not around, I suppose. The galaxy's a big place. Presumably after the Empire fell he showed up and established control over the remnants, and their descendants, either seizing power over the already-forming First Order, or taking it upon himself to found the First Order. Around the same time he began luring Ben Solo to the Dark Side. What else do we need to know? Again, the galaxy's a big place. Maybe when Palpatine fell he saw his opportunity to rise. Palpatine's rise from Senator to Emperor in the Prequels took all of fifteen years. The thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens is plenty of time for Snoke to show up and take over. Again, any statements not made in the script of the film about how powerful he is, how old he is or what he was aware of aren't important.

2. Why would any of the characters be interested in it?
As Rian Johnson pointed out, Snoke's backstory isn't relevant to the characters. It may be relevant to the interests of some fans, but it's not relevant to Rey's story, and ultimately it isn't even that relevant to Kylo's beyond the fact that Snoke seduced him to the Dark Side.

This leads to a couple of points.

1. Snoke is a plot device. His characterisation isn't important.
So far, the Sequel Trilogy has had a number of major protagonists: Rey, Finn, Poe, Han, Luke and Leia. It has a major antagonist: Kylo Ren. It also has a number of supporting characters: BB-8, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, Rose, Holdo, General Hux and Snoke. Snoke is Kylo Ren's supporting antagonist. He's not really a main character in his own right. This is normal in fiction.

Snoke should be compared to the character of Professor Moriarty. Putting aside years of adaptations which have ludicrously overinflated the character's importance, Professor Moriarty isn't really a character at all. He's a plot device invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to kill off Sherlock Holmes. In "The Adventure of the Final Problem", Holmes reveals that he has been working against Moriarty, a master criminal, for a long time, but Watson has never even heard of him. A few days later, Moriarty and Holmes fall to their deaths. He's fiction's first supervillain, arguably, but he's really just a plot device intended to affect a more important character's story.

Snoke only exists as a plot device to serve Kylo Ren's character development. He provides an explanation for how Kylo fell to the Dark Side: Snoke seduced him. He also now provides an explanation for how Kylo became Supreme Leader: Snoke was killed by Kylo, who took his place. Snoke doesn't need some kind of "arc"; he doesn't need elaborate character development. He's an archetype which was created to serve the characterisation of the real antagonist, Kylo Ren.

I will concede one point here, however: the character of Snoke should never have been created. He's a lazy piece of shorthand to facilitate Kylo Ren being where he is, and a more creative explanation for their place on the Dark Side would have made Kylo Ren and the First Order more interesting in The Force Awakens. I never liked the character of Snoke because he seemed like a rehash of Palpatine. This is why I'm glad he was killed off in The Last Jedi, because he's a piece of lazy storytelling and the Sequels are better off without him. This leads me to my second point on Snoke:

2. Snoke doesn't deserve a backstory. He's a crap character.
As I just said, Snoke's entire existence is due to narrative laziness. He should never have been written in the first place, so it's best to minimise how much he dominates the script. He's not "cool" or "badass". People seem to think he is, but I feel like the people with that attitude are often modern-style nerds who have had their imaginations so warped by games that they can only appreciate characters in terms of their "power levels" rather than their characterisation or role in a story. He's just a generic villain presented through impressive but unambitious motion capture. He's a boring video game villain and the Sequels are better off without him from now on.
I'm sure if you genuinely care about Snoke, some shite novel will be written in a year or two explaining his bland and uninteresting rise to power.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

Do the Caretakers keep his hand working?
The aftermath of the release of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi must be one of the most brisk turnarounds in recent film franchise history. In less than a week the received wisdom on the internet went from the by now utterly routine claim that the film was one of the strongest instalments in the series since The Empire Strikes Back, to such a judgement's nemesis figure, namely that it was a complete disaster, a franchise-killer on a scale equivalent to Supreme Leader Snoke's flagship relative to the mere dreadnoughts of the Prequels. It feels almost pointless to rehash the arguments being made online, especially about the film's structure, pacing, narrative choices and humour, although I'll still look into them for the benefit of any reader who only spends a healthy amount of time on the internet. To start without, however, I wish to contextualise the process of responding to The Last Jedi in regards to my own experience.

"The cave's collapsing!"
Before I saw The Last Jedi, I'd for some reason gotten it into my head that I more or less knew what was going to happen. Luke would be a wise old man who trained Rey to be a powerful Jedi, perhaps after a little reluctance; she'd probably need to prove herself worthy of some great secret discovered by Luke on the Ahch-To island. Leia would send Finn and Poe on some arbitrary mission to fight the First Order, which would provide us with most of our mid-film action. At the end, Luke and Rey would return and fight Snoke and Kylo Ren. Luke might get killed by Snoke, or perhaps he and Rey would be unsuccessful, but would escape and decide that, in order to truly destroy these dark force users, they needed to give rebuilding the Jedi Order another go.

The salt planet of Noth.
I don't really know why I assumed that this is what would happen. Perhaps it seemed like the single logical direction in which the film could go after the end of The Force Awakens, which seemed to leave Rian Johnson in a position in which he had to produce a "Luke trains Rey, Finn and Poe carry on with the Resistance" story that I imagined could only go one way, particularly based on the limited amount of leaks I'd heard about or seen by accident. Nonetheless, I felt almost as if I'd already seen the film, and that the viewing would merely fill in the details for the sketch I'd already produced in my head.

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post about this film.
Perhaps this partially explains the sense of bafflement I experienced the first time I watched The Last Jedi, which saw me emerging from the cinema at the end of the screen head in hands and feeling absolutely bewildered, considering that what I'd just watched bordered upon being a Prequel-level mess. I went to bed that night exasperated and woke up pained, with a cinematic bad taste in my mouth. And if you think I was taking this trash about space knights hitting each other with glowsticks a bit seriously you'd be right, but at least I can take some comfort in the fact that an annoying Star Wars film was the biggest of my troubles. It was only as the film continued to revolve in my head, like black uniforms in a First Order washing machine, that I started to remember more and more how satisfying many parts of the film had been: Luke's discussions with Rey about the Force and the Jedi; Rey and Kylo Ren's telepathic conversations; Rey's confrontation with Snoke; Luke's confrontation with Kylo. I'd known from the start that I would almost certainly see the film again, simply because it was a Star Wars film (although I didn't with Rogue One), and I became increasingly eager to do so. I knew that for every sequence of Finn and Rose in a casino, or Poe being an insubordinate idiot, or Maz Kanata, I was going to get Rey in the cave, or Kylo killing Snoke, or Luke facing down the entire First Order.

"You must be swift as a coursing river..."
As a result, upon second viewing, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi, embracing its strongest scenes, taking its humour as it came and tolerating alien horse racing in the knowledge that we'd be back to Luke, Rey and Kylo soon enough. When the credits came I was full of good cheer, and over the next few days I was replaying scenes in my head, anticipating a third viewing or the eventual blu-ray release, and looking at myself in the bathroom mirror at work and saying, "I will not be the last Jedi." Knowing when the film would go astray allowed me to focus more on when the film succeeded, and I find myself thinking, right now at least, that The Last Jedi is the best of the Disney-era Star Wars films. That's not to say that the film isn't flawed, because it is, significantly, but what it does well it accomplishes with such aplomb that the problems pale into drastically reduced significance. Yet the reaction the film is receiving suggests that many do not share this attitude. I might touch upon the reaction as I discuss the film, but in general my view is that to completely dismiss the film as some kind of failure is to do oneself a disservice in overlooking how the film succeeds.

Narrative Structure and Pacing
At least one of these didn't conveniently
appear to separate Luke and Kylo.
As I've already discussed in my first impressions post, the major weakness of The Last Jedi is in its structure. Simply put, its secondary plot is too far removed from its primary, and is too slow and clumsy in establishing its contribution to the shared ideas which coalesce in the film's finale. Perhaps it's personal to me, because my favourite character in the Original Trilogy is Luke, and my favourite new character is Rey, but I wasn't sufficiently interested in Finn and Poe to not find their extended storyline distracting. While I found Finn somewhat annoying in The Force Awakens, I think John Boyega's performance was fine with the role he was given, and I liked Oscar Isaac's, smaller though it admittedly was. I was perfectly happy to see the characters in this, but I think the film devotes more time to them than is necessary. In a sense this problem largely arises because the Rey-Luke-Kylo narrative is so interesting that everything else seems irrelevant by comparison. Yet the issue also emerges from the contrived and clumsy nature of the secondary plot.

Why didn't the Falcon cause as much pants-
wetting from fans this time around?
My view was that an extended, slow-motion chase between the First Order fleet and that of the Resistance lacked any tension. It could have gone for a sense of dread, but the characters amble about so casually and everything carries on so normally, with so little apparent anxiety on the part of the characters, that it's hard to see it. Even Poe, the most frustrated character in this narrative, only seems mildly impatient most of the time. Furthermore, sending Finn and Rose to another planet in the midst of this sequence flattens any suspense even further, as despite warnings on Rose's part the characters simply feel like they have time to spare, time for Finn to run around the casino looking amazed, time to dismiss an offer of help from a fellow prison inmate and time to gently remove the saddle from an alien horse after a fairly long chase. It just occurred to me that the film has a chase within a chase, which enfeebles the larger chase further still. This storyline also involves the entirely arbitrary insertion of Maz Kanata, a character I greatly disliked in The Force Awakens, who seems to be Skypeing Finn, Poe and Rose despite being in the middle of a firefight; is a floating camera following her around? She seems to only be in the film because her actress was contracted to be, or something similar.

You can convert your gold to Muggle money here.
Ultimately the Canto Bight sequence is intended to flesh out the film's theme of democratisation, as well as the related progression of Finn's character development, and the reason it suffers is because that entire side of the plot is misconceived. There's no need for the fleet chase to happen, which is the excuse for Finn and Rose going to a casino. The tension could have been served perfectly well, perhaps better, if the Resistance had spent much of the film in the bunker waiting for the First Order to arrive, rather than hurrying there in the finale. The concept of rebellion and democracy could similarly have been established if the bunker had been occupied by some oppressive party upon the Resistance's arrival, perhaps one which offered to let them use the facility; would the Resistance be willing to weaken themselves further before the First Order's arrival by fighting to free the occupier's slaves? I'm hypothesising wildly, and I'm no screenwriter, but I feel like if this element was needed it could have been handled more elegantly. It would also have eliminated the sequence involving Finn and Rose infiltrating the flagship. This part felt, in my view, simultaneously rushed and protracted. At first Finn, Rose and DJ seem to acquire uniforms and find where they need to go with bewildering rapidity, but when they're caught and facing execution their sentences seem to be interminably delayed.

"He must have thought I was dead!
Good thing I wasn't!"
The primary narrative, featuring Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren, is engrossing by contrast, and only suffers in that it must share time with its counterpart. Indeed, at times Johnson almost appears to choose to cut away from this plot needlessly, and while this might have been intended to create a feeling of anticipation and excitement, it can instead make the secondary plot feel tedious and frustrating. Nonetheless, the "Jedi story", as it were, is the film's ongoing highlight. Rey arrives at Ahch-To seeking hope and answers, yet in the end Luke needs to find these from her. We learn more about Kylo Ren's attitude and the experiences which shaped him, yet with this empathy we discover that he is only being driven further and further into the darkness. Finally, we see how Luke has changed, his recovery and ultimately his victory over himself and his own weaknesses. We see enough of these elements, but in a differently-structured film I feel that they could have been explored a touch further and been just a mite more satisfying, to the creation of what would overall be a more effective whole. It's worth emphasising that despite structure and pacing being a prominent shortcoming of the film, and one which naturally affects other parts, it does not eliminate how successful the film's achievements are.

Just get R2-D2 to use his fire extinguisher.
If anything, The Last Jedi's construction as a narrative is most comparable not to The Empire Strikes Back but rather to Return of the Jedi, in that both texts feature a strong narrative for certain protagonists and antagonists, and an arguably distracting secondary plot which exists to a certain degree to give the remaining protagonists something to do. The question, however, is not really whether the Ewoks or Canto Bight are more annoying, but rather whether their respective sequences feel necessary to the plot, and I can't help but feel that needing to find an unrelated codebreaker to get aboard Snoke's ship is a more clunky plot development than needing to disable a shield generator specifically built to protect the Death Star. Both elements do inform the other plot; the Ewoks demonstrate the folly of underestimating an opponent, while Canto Bight addresses the concept of freedom. I do, however, feel that the Return of the Jedi plot is a more functional secondary narrative.

Direction and Cinematography
Where was this on the island anyway?
Now I'm not a filmmaker, and to call my knowledge of direction, cinematography and editing superficial would be an understatement. Nonetheless, it's clear even to my untrained eye that Johnson knowns how to derive a strong performance from his actors, and that he probably lets the characters emerge in the performances as well. The film is also photographed very coherently, especially in the use of establishing shots and high or wide approaches with depth that give us insight into the positioning of characters in their environment. Of course, in special effects-laden films it's not always possible to convey complete clarity, and The Last Jedi has the same visual shortcomings all Star Wars films do in struggling to convey where characters are inside vast battleships and space stations. The only other major points of visual weakness which occur to me are some slightly awkward cutting which left me a little confused as to the location of the tree on the Ahch-To island, and some effects shots in which I found the size, arrangement and composition of the Resistance fleet a tad unclear, as well as some inevitably artificial-looking moments in the Canto Bight escape.

Instant migraine.
On the other hand, as with all of the film's other strengths, when the film succeeds visually it does so in masterful fashion. This is particularly evident in the scenes in which Rey and Kylo Ren communicate telepathically, which are so effortlessly clear in what they convey that they almost require special attention to notice the deftness of touch found in them, so natural is the framing and editing. The film eschews the pastiche which dominated The Force Awakens and achieves its own visual style with the use of shots I've previously mentioned, in addition to some other interesting pieces of filmmaking, such as an extreme close up early in the film, the use of reflection and the use of low angles to enhance vigorous moments particularly. This makes sequences such as Rey's lightsaber practice, Luke's giant spear fishing and Rey and Kylo's battle with Snoke's Praetorian Guard memorable and distinctive. The reshooting of scenes through flashback to contrast Luke and Kylo's conflicting stories of their confrontation at the Training Temple also creates a structure in which the audience visually engages with the storytelling, as well as contrasting the traditional style which was almost always firmly in the present action. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are both films shot in a generally engaging manner, but The Last Jedi is almost certainly the most interesting of the Disney films thus far, including the shock-and-awe disaster-movie shooting style of Rogue One.

Effects and Design
Cross-sections ahoy.
This is an area I probably understand even less, but in these computer-enhanced action blockbusters they have to be addressed. In general, the practical effects and digital effects succeed in that they are difficult to distinguish from each other. I do think this looked somewhat better than some of the effects in The Force Awakens, although this may partially be due to kind of action presented. As I've said, the alien horse riding at times looks a little fake, and so do some of the scenes of them crashing through walls, as well as ships blowing up. The scenes of BB-8 controlling an AT-ST feel rather hollow also. Some of Poe's X-Wing manoeuvres defy belief to an extent, but they're tolerable. In general, as has been said before, there's little achievement in effects anymore unless practical effects receive more the renaissance they could have with today's technology, and effects are not where this film's strengths lie.

Nah.
Design-wise, while much of the film relies on the established look of The Force Awakens, itself drawing heavily upon the Original Trilogy, it does have a few new things to do. Canto Bight and its inhabitants remind one of the Prequels somewhat, so it's perhaps for the best that they are only a few scenes and not the entire film. The Resistance bombers are a design which fits well with days gone by. Outside the casino, my greatest objection would probably be to the First Order vehicles with which we are presented. The new AT-M6 walkers to me just look pointlessly overdesigned, and the look of the Dreadnought is unmemorable, as is Kylo Ren's TIE fighter. Snoke's flagship is a little better, but its absurd size somewhat stretches credulity in the same manner as the Starkiller. It seems implausible that an organisation still recovering its old Empire can produce such excessive weapons. One of the more shameful design choices is the use of glossy red armour for Snoke's Praetorian Guard; why would they so closely evoke the Emperor's guards except to reference the Original Trilogy? It's a design choice which only seems to make sense outside the confines of the narrative. The creature designs were heavily marketed in the leadup to the film, especially the Porgs, but personally I found the Caretakers to be the most effective new design. The alien horse things, and crystal fox things, are not especially memorable.

The shield will be down in moments.
You may start your landing.
This is something I very rarely touch upon, but one area in which the film shines is in the costuming. Kylo Ren's new outfit, and the attire Rey dons for her confrontation with him and Snoke, are striking ensembles. Luke's mixture of costumes reflects his highly varying roles, while Leia's garb provides Carrie Fisher's final performance with gravitas and dignity. Even Snoke's flashy gold robe reflects his role in the story well as an individual who thinks more highly of himself than he deserves. To be utterly cliché, clothes maketh the man, and in The Last Jedi they're a point in the film's favour especially in terms of how they reinforce the film's stronger narrative. Note that Poe, Finn and Rose's textbook Resistance duds are nothing particularly appealing, although the officer's uniform, replete with massive jodhpurs, Finn is wearing during his brief stoush with Phasma gives him a certain distinctiveness in an otherwise inconsequential scene.

I like to think that Chewie still
ate the one he cooked.
Screenplay and Humour
Like the rest of the film, the screenplay is a mixture of stronger and weaker elements. A number of commenters have objected to the amount of humour in the film, especially arguing that it deflates tension and makes it difficult to take the story seriously at points. I certainly think there are times when the humour is unsuccessful, although the main one which comes to mind is most of Poe's interaction with Hux at the start of the film. I did get a chuckle out of a few points, like Luke tickling Rey's hand, Kylo's bemused look at Hux repeating his orders and DJ's dismissive, "Maybe," when his attitude is challenged by Finn. Leia telling C-3PO to stop looking nervous is amusing too. From a more visual standpoint, the Caretakers are kind of amusing, and the Porgs clearly just fodder for the kids, but they feel like natural enough insertions without getting in the way. The humour is one of those elements which has the most impact upon first viewing, and falls away somewhat subsequently. It bothered me somewhat the first time, but I didn't really mind it the second.

Let's dance.
At times I do think other lines can be clunky or seem inadequately reviewed. For instance, both Poe and Lieutenant Connix say "Punch it," only a minute or two apart. Both Rey and Rose accuse someone of being a "Snake" later in the film. There's perhaps an overuse of the word "scum" as well. I found Rey's question to Luke, "Did you try to murder him?" possibly unavoidably clunky due to its cadence and the specificity of the language given the heat of the moment; why wouldn't she just say "kill" unless it was meant to reflect her struggle to say it earlier? I'd also argue that if Rey has any issue with this she doesn't seem to feel any remorse about killing the Praetorian Guards later in the film, regardless of the situation being one of survival.

Why no crappy video game for the Sequels?
The rest of the script, in my view, was solid and serviceable, with some notable highlights particularly from Luke and Kylo. Kylo's thoughts on the past, and Luke's on himself, the Force and the Jedi are thought-provokingly articulated and lend the serious moments the weight they deserve. A couple of other noteworthy lines might include Finn calling Phasma "Chrome Dome", which evokes "Goldenrod" in reference to C-3PO, and Yoda's "We are what they grow beyond." Although I'm sure there were numerous stipulations, allowing Johnson to both direct and write gave the film a unified voice and vision, and as with everything else, when it succeeds it does so highly.

Characterisation and Character Development
Rey
Does Rey even know what an ocean is?
Of the new protagonists of the Sequel Trilogy, I found Rey to be the most interesting part of The Force Awakens and the most interesting part of this. Rey was perhaps the character about whom my expectations were the least defied. I expected her to learn more about the Force and about herself. Yet what I enjoyed about her characterisation was how it played upon her successes in the previous film, an aspect which raised eyebrows. In this film, Rey's hopes that Luke will provide meaning to her life are shattered, she is manipulated into sympathising with Kylo Ren, and she shows herself to be both naïve and hubristic enough to think that it is within her capacity to redeem Kylo and confront Snoke, and in both of these regards she fails. From this, the film tells us, learning must emerge.

How do those sleeves stay on?
Daisy Ridley brings the same endearing sincerity to Rey as she did in the previous film, and her rapport with both Mark Hamill and Adam Driver are a testament to the actors and Johnson's direction. Something which lends Rey strength in the film is that she is a character afforded less of the humorous dialogue; most of the comedy surrounding her involves her being clumsy or overconfident. I feel like, in much the same manner as Luke, Rey is a character whose motivations we understand. Like so many people, she's unsure of her place in the world, and wants answers. When she thinks she's close to getting them, she risks getting carried away, and makes some rash decisions. Her belief in Kylo's potential for redemption is less strongly founded than Luke's with Vader, but it's also pleasing to see her refusal of Kylo's offer of power derive not from hatred and disgust, like Luke's, but from frustration and disappointment. After trying to reignite Luke's belief in his own legacy, she tries to emulate it without having been through the same experiences, and fails. Things don't go as well for her as she expected, and she has to carry on. It's noteworthy that her desire to redeem Kylo largely derives from the belief that doing so will save the Resistance, while Luke's was more personally between himself and his father. It is Rey's devotion to her friends and her cause which drives her narrative.

Did she bring hair gel with her in the Falcon?
If I am to criticise anything about Rey it would only be that I felt as if she didn't have enough to do in the film's finale, merely firing the Millennium Falcon's guns and lifting some rocks, although in the latter role she functions neatly as the Resistance's ongoing hope after Luke's departure. I was particularly pleased by the revelation about her parents: that they were nobody. This was entirely consistent with the film's themes about equality and rebellion. I appreciated the notion that she was simply the figure who arose from the light in the ongoing balance of the Force. It would have been absurd for Rey to have been descended from an existing character, implying that strength or greatness can only come from lineage and dynasticism. As a narrative choice it also succeeds in undermining the cynicism of the suggestions in The Force Awakens that her parentage was some big secret. The importance she placed in her family derived from her own desire for meaning, not from anything real. It's a perfectly plausible and psychologically comprehensible point of view. If anyone thinks it doesn't explain why the lightsaber affected her in The Force Awakens, our answer is right here: she's the figure essentially thrust into the limelight by the light side of the Force.

How does she make that new outfit for
confronting Kylo and Snoke?
A few other moments stand out for me concerning Rey in the film. The sight of her taking enjoyment in the rain dripping from the side of the Millennium Falcon is a nice reflection upon her desert origins. Her willingness to explore the dark place below the island foreshadows her later hubris. Her eventual meeting with Poe, whom she'd never actually met before, was an entertaining moment. I found it another pleasing visual to see her briefly wielding Kylo Ren's lightsaber, and I appreciated that the struggled to best the Praetorian Guards. Her sequestering of the Jedi texts was an effective touch as well. Overall, I consider the character to have been built upon in more or less entirely the appropriate manner in this instalment.

Kylo Ren
Maybe his scar didn't move. Maybe he got a new one
by turning on the lightsaber too close to his face.
As he and Rey are revealed to be opposites in the Force in this film, Kylo Ren receives a similar amount of attention and development. We are shown more of his doubts and frustrations, his reluctance to destroy more of his family, and yet also his sinister ideology that the past must be destroyed, presumably so that he will no longer be burdened by conflict and regret. Through his communications with Rey we are encouraged to sympathise with Kylo Ren, especially in regards to his abuse by Snoke and his feeling that Luke betrayed him, but at the same time he also reveals what amounts to a desire for order at all costs, clearly born of these feelings of confusion and conflict, which are manifest when he kills his master and assumes the position of Supreme Leader of the First Order at the conclusion of the film.

"I can't believe I paid fifty bucks for this!
The page never said it was child size!"
In this manner, Kylo Ren's story was interesting as a subversion of what we expect from Star Wars. We're used to a fallen character, having been reached out to by a sympathetic figure, destroying his evil master and redeem himself in death. Yet here we see the relationship between dark force users we've been told about in the past but never seen; he kills his master and takes his place. Snoke's gullibility in not realising Kylo's intentions was perfectly executed, in my opinion. Snoke may be powerful, but we can see how absurdly arrogant he is: "I cannot be betrayed." He's completely wrong, like so many others in the film. This film was also interesting in that it eliminated the semi-respectful master-pupil relationship of The Force Awakens and, in the wake of Rey's besting of Ren in the previous film, had Snoke treating his underling with contempt and paying the price. In the previous film, Ren seemed respectful of Snoke: "The Supreme Leader is wise." Deciding to strike back and place himself in a position in which he can impose his own vision upon the galaxy takes the character in a satisfying direction not only as a subversion of what we've seen before but additionally as a logical ambition of such a tormented individual.

"I haven't slept in two days."
My chief criticism of the use of Kylo Ren in the film is simply that we don't get to see enough of what he's doing "in his spare time", as it were. He seems to just be standing around on Snoke's flagship doing nothing. I felt like this made his narrative marginally less effective as a parallel to Rey's; of course it's largely a result of the film's broader structural issues. Ultimately, however, like the heroes, Kylo Ren fails, and despite his rise in rank it's clear to see that his true desires cannot be fulfilled because of the choices he has made; he can never really connect with another person, and he cannot get revenge on the people he thinks let him down. To have him both succeed in, shall I say, a "political" sense while failing personally makes for a compelling villain.

Undoubtedly Freudian.
Luke Skywalker
In the press tour for this film, and beforehand, Mark Hamill has been repeatedly quoted (and perhaps misquoted) as having struggled with the direction in which the film takes the character of Luke, particularly in regards to his former position as hero of the saga. I can relate to this, as Luke is my favourite character of the Original Trilogy, especially in Return of the Jedi, which is one of the reasons it's my favourite of the original three films. To some degree the first time I watched the film I was frustrated that Luke was not simply the character I remembered, albeit older and even wiser. Yet to portray the character as disenchanted and full of self-hatred is an entirely sensible direction to take him, if he is to have any role in the narrative at all. Otherwise he would be little more than a walking, talking instruction manual for Rey, and I must say that while I'm sure Hamill could have managed the Obi-Wan role comfortably, it would not have resulted in a performance nearly as worthwhile as this.

He should have had a little boat
for taking pleasure cruises.
If I am to make any criticism of Luke's story in this film, it's only in regards to what we don't see. The briefest of glimpses we receive of who he was when training young Ben Solo and the other pupils in the time after Return of the Jedi to me appear worthy of cinematic representation in themselves, and it's almost a shame that we couldn't get a film set ten years earlier so that we could actually see with our own eyes Luke's transition from the confident man we knew in days gone by to the crushed figure with which we are presented here. Nonetheless, Luke's "moment of instinct" in which he contemplated slaying Ben for the good of the galaxy is entirely consistent with his character as we saw it in both The Empire Strikes Back and its sequel; we know that there is darkness within him, albeit darkness which passes. In his confrontation with his father and Palpatine, the consequences were ultimately positive. In his confrontation with his nephew, they were not. Here the film continues its arguable interest in narrative realism, despite the fantasy trappings, by disregarding the possibility of happiness-ever-after and instead showing how in life, and time, there is always change, even if the past and future may be familiar. By showing a different outcome to Luke's darker side, the film also furthers its interest in diverging from audience expectations and exploring alternative possibilities to dilemmas we've seen before.

Thinking up more stuff to be
taken out of context.
As with his two main co-stars in his side of the film, Ridley and Driver, Hamill's performance brings value to the film regardless of and beyond the script, pacing and narrative choices. His vocal performance is as rich as would be expected from such an accomplished voice actor, but it is in his physical portrayal of a much changed character that his talent continues to be evident. For much of the film we see the heaviness and emotional exhaustion of a man weighed down by his past, yet at times of need, such as during Rey's communication with Kylo Ren, some of the old strength and confidence emerges; this grows into what might be described as a positive acceptance by the film's end, albeit one mingled with a healthy measure of remorse, "peace and purpose" as Rey puts it. His confrontation with Kylo reminded me of the Luke last properly seen in 1983, but developed. At the same time, Hamill recaptures for a moment the feeling of Luke in his relative immaturity when he is reunited with old friends, particularly Chewie and R2. His scene with Leia is poignant and effectively understated, and his brief reunion with C-3PO perfectly timed and executed. Perhaps my only complaint was that he doesn't get a final scene with Rey, although I suspect we'll see the two of them onscreen again in Episode IX.

"Whaddya mean I'm not the lead?"
This leads me finally to the conclusion given to Luke here. Having Luke die seems almost too similar to the previous film with the death of Han Solo, yet I'd argue that this film succeeds in having him "become one with the Force" in a way even more dignified than that of Obi-Wan and Yoda. Hamill gets one of the film's best lines when he tells Kylo Ren, "Strike me down in anger and I'll always be with you, just like your father," and I can only hope that we see an interpretation of this in the next film; more scenes featuring force ghost Luke with both Kylo Ren and Rey would be welcome if they served their narratives effectively. Unfortunately, with the death of Carrie Fisher, I'd say that even if Lucasfilm didn't intend for Luke to return, they now have a much greater incentive for him to do so in order to keep at least one Original Trilogy star as part of the main cast.

Exactly.
Finn
Finn had to learn to see the bigger picture. After The Force Awakens, he couldn't keep acting like only his and Rey's survival mattered; note that even in this film he's prepared to ditch Poe as well to save Rey. He was able to witness that other people besides himself might be suffering and needed help too. Even in his effort to save the fleet, however, he was unsuccessful, and he is thwarted from sacrificing himself by Rose. Arguably this served the film's overall message of equality and democracy, but many of the elements Finn's story introduced seemed rather incidental to Finn himself. I can't help but feel as if Finn's narrative was one of the less successful elements of the film.

Poe
What a flyboy hothead wildcard daredevil risk-taker.
The same can largely be said of Poe. Did he really need to learn a lesson about trust or keeping a cool head? Perhaps if the idea that a spy or traitor had infiltrated the Resistance was more overtly stated, I could understand his motivations a little more, but his reluctance to follow the chain of command here ultimately came off like a lesson in not being insubordinate, which almost seems to contradict other themes of the film. I also feel like he didn't come across as a disobedient hotshot in the previous film, so I found his behaviour inconsistent here. I feel like, especially if they'd been kept together, a tighter, more focused narrative for both Finn and Poe could have reinforced the film's themes without distracting from the more important storyline.

Other Major Characters
Guess they have a detailed map now.
It's probably worth noting that, despite increasing the representation of women in the film, the characters of Rose and Vice Admiral Holdo only really serve as facilitators of Finn and Poe's respective developments as characters. While Rose served a purpose in representing the downtrodden and their potential to throw off the shackles of oppression, I felt like her line about hate and love to Finn at the end didn't make a great deal of sense. As for Holdo, it almost seemed as if she only existed so that someone other than a recurring character could destroy Snoke's ship at the end. Couldn't autopilot do it? In any event, I found her sacrifice to be contrived and arbitrary. And no, I'm not one of those people who thinks that Admiral Ackbar should have done it. Personally, I wouldn't have bothered killing off Admiral Ackbar, but only Star Wars nerds even know who he is, really, so having a puppet-headed man in a lobster costume piloting the ship would have just come across to general audience as ridiculous, I fear.

I feel sorry for the extras manning
the ropes on that door.
 I should also briefly consider Leia, if only to express that it's a shame we won't get to see more of her. The sudden and striking manifestation of her abilities impressed me, as I've already said, and I have no objections to the scene in which she survived the attack on the bridge. I thought it was another unusual and interesting depiction of what the Force could do. I only wish things could have been different.

"Now that you are here, Rey, I must
inform you and Kylo Ren of a great secret!"
Other Narrative Choices
The Death of Snoke
If any choice in this film has caused controversy among obsessives, who are typically more gently referred to as "fans", it is the decision to simply excise Snoke from the story without any concession to his apparent power or any explanation of his origins. Personally, this never bothered me, as I never found the character interesting in the first place. In fact, I actively disliked the concept of the character, as I've expressed in every post I've written on the topic of The Force Awakens. What Rian Johnson achieves in his script for this film is to fulfil Snoke's role based on everything he can be in this film, and everything he genuinely was in the previous film as well: a plot device which existed to facilitate Kylo Ren's character development. This is all he should ever have been, and fortunately it's all he ends up being.

"What is it, my master?"
I've seen it argued that given his role and power, the audience was owed an explanation of Snoke's origin. Yet as Johnson has pointed out, doing so would have added nothing to the story. He could have been Darth Plagueis, or anyone else for that matter, and it would have meant nothing to Rey and added nothing to how he contributes to Kylo Ren's story. It's more than enough for me to imagine that Snoke was some individual who kept to himself during the time of Palpatine, and saw the emerging First Order as an opportunity to fulfil his own dreams of conquest. It is far better to simply eliminate such a limited and cliché supervillain than allow it to dominate a narrative in which more interesting characters need the opportunity to thrive.

"I am actually, secretly, the person
who gave Grand Admiral Thrawn his first job!"
Similarly, the death of Snoke functions as another iteration of the film's interest in exploring the alternative choice to the scenarios and dichotomies of Star Wars films past. In the Original Trilogy, the Emperor was introduced gradually, first as only a name, then as a hologram, and finally in person. While Snoke did not appear in person in The Force Awakens, he had a number of scenes, which immediately makes him less menacing and mysterious than the Emperor despite his unclear origins. Killing him off deletes that problem. Similarly, it allows the film to explore a past idea in a new way. Vader desired to usurp his master, but never had the opportunity. With Kylo Ren, the narrative now has the opportunity to engage in this storyline, in which the complex, developed villain has ultimate control, not their more archetypal superior.

"Then he didn't learn to be always
prepared from you, then, did he?"
It's admittedly entertaining to play armchair psychologist or sociologist when it comes to discussing the behaviour of fans, or to simply sneer at them, yet the reaction to Snoke's treatment in the film to me seems to encapsulate the essentially superficial nature of the "fandom" of major consumerist franchises. An interest in the background of Snoke of all people suggests to me a misdirected mindset, in which meaningless minutiae about secondary characters and events are more important than a text's success as a piece of storytelling involving the development of key participants. I don't wish to imply that Star Wars is something with more depth and profundity than it really is, or that telling a story was even the priority of a franchise this mercenary, but nonetheless I can't help but feel that wishing for this film to digress about Snoke expresses not only a misunderstanding of this film as a whole, but a misunderstanding of the whole nature of narrative, particularly film narrative, altogether. However, it's probably an attitude that the sci-fi/fantasy/escapism culture industry, of which Star Wars is a major component, has actively cultivated in order to sell merchandise and blandly-written spinoff fiction, and is in a small way now harming itself.

How do the crews see out of
those triangular windows?
The First Order Reigns
This film strives to very noticeably subvert audience expectations by refusing to give the kind of plot twist answers The Force Awakens suggested, at least in regards to Rey's parentage and the importance of Snoke. Yet in many respects, as is perhaps inevitable for a film which follows on from one which so heavily evoked the original Star Wars film, this sequel similarly evokes the sequels to the original. What is also noticeable, however, is how much this film actually appears to be interested in reestablishing the status quo from the Original Trilogy. The First Order, which seemed to be a fringe organisation in the previous film, is here presented as seizing control of the galaxy in much the same manner as the Empire, while the Resistance is reduced to a tiny opposition even referred to as a Rebellion, and the Jedi Order remains nonexistent. I can't help but wonder whether this was intended to establish an ongoing Original Trilogy-like setting which Disney can extend for as long as it is profitable, permitting them to present endless Original-like films in a universe with essentially the same power dynamic as the Original Trilogy. In fact, Luke's correction to Kylo Ren summarises this situation: a reborn Rebellion, an ongoing war which will presumably continue over the long term (for at least a second Sequel trilogy), and future Jedi, but not necessarily many of them.

A franchise to last a thousand years.
To quote the famous paraphrase of Marx, history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. For every great individual of an age, there comes an inferior successor. In the wake of Darth Vader follows Kylo Ren. If the narrative direction of The Last Jedi is representative of anything, whether it comes from genuine inspiration or artistic bankruptcy, it is of the repetitious nature of history. World wars have set the stage for future world wars. Empires are founded in the death throes of empires. The apparent triumph of freedom and democracy has allowed new dictatorships to arise. Events taken on different experience in hindsight compared to how they seemed when they were experienced. Of course, if this state of affairs is perpetuated in fiction endlessly it becomes absurd. If nothing else, The Last Jedi functions as a case study of how consumerist entertainment contributes to society becoming locked in stagnation, and if anything I find that to be an interesting case of probably accidental realism despite recognising its dearth of imagination. 

"It's not about lifting rocks, but that
admittedly is one of its useful features."
Themes and Politics
Failure
The largest similarity this film arguably shares with The Empire Strikes Back is that both narratives represent what leads to failure and its consequences. Failure arises from overconfidence and pride. Its consequences can be dire, destroying lives and ruining opportunities. It must be learned from in order to grow and develop. Some of the characters' failures arguably come across as underdeveloped or arbitrary, particularly Poe's. Others, like those of Rey and Kylo Ren, feel more natural as extensions of existing characterisation. The film argues that one of the biggest instigators of failure is an inability to balance between short- and long-term thinking. This is a reasonably rounded point, and one which appropriately complicates the following themes. 

Democracy and Equality
"It's a planet made of... uh... blood?"
The film also strongly advocates a message that anyone can be great and that anyone can achieve; it's not dependent upon lineage or descent. With hope and inspiration, people can stand up to those who oppress them. This of course may be applied however the audience desires, although one can't help but feel as if a state of oppression in modern politics is largely attributed to the kind of movements and governments which are typically compared to those historical movements which the First Order evokes in visuals and policy. Nonetheless, it's not uncharacteristic, as both the Original and Prequel trilogies reflected the political concerns of their respective eras, with the Empire, the Sith and now the First Order evoking whomever in that context was seen as corrupt and dangerous. In this manner the film also makes a specific target of the military-industrial complex, and how a profit motive can be used to drive any "side" towards conflict. This is a theme which has been relevant for decades, and only suffers in this film due to its connection with the clumsiness of the Canto Bight plot and its distraction from the more spiritual concerns of the better narrative. The weakness, however, of this entire concept is its representation of the emancipation of indentured labour in the form of the stable children, when so much of Lucasfilm and Disney's profits are generated by the exploitation of foreign labour in the third world. In this manner the film borders upon hypocrisy.

Why would the bombs fall towards the dreadnought?
...they'd fall towards the planet, of course.
I criticised Blade Runner 2049 for being too concerned with the political at the expense of the spiritual. The Last Jedi handles these parallel elements somewhat more effectively, with the themes of equality funneling towards the idea of failure and growth, which then flows back towards the concept of democracy. As with everything else, it's purely let down by the clunkiness of the Resistance plot. This is a film which advocates balance, but does not always succeed in attaining balance itself.

"Oh god, let me out of the cinema!"
Conclusion 
The Last Jedi is a long and complex film. It's absolutely flawed, and almost astonishingly compromised in its structural and pacing issues, which surely could have been identified and dealt with over the course of post production. Nonetheless, its strongest elements are, I would argue, the strongest since the Original Trilogy. It's certainly more interesting, in my opinion, than The Force Awakens, and is in some respects a refreshing antidote to some of that film's weaknesses despite having so many of its own. As far as I can tell, there are three main avenues of negativity concerning the film. The first is that the film's pacing is frustrating, Canto Bight is pointless and distracting and the humour is unsuccessful. While I can accept these elements in light of the film's strengths, I can completely understand why they would bother some. The second is that the film simply stagnates, that it's a holding pattern which doesn't really develop the characters in a meaningful way. I think that's possibly true of Poe and to a lesser extent Finn, but I don't see how Rey and Kylo Ren didn't develop. As for the third argument, that the film somehow "ruined" Luke and that it failed by not explaining who Snoke was or making Rey's parents important people, if I'm going to be perfectly honest I think that's an opinion held by obsessives with a completely superficial, consumerist understanding of the potential or purpose of film or storytelling. The Last Jedi is a very imperfect film. Its problems should be recognised and understood, for future reference at the very least. Yet I think its strengths are refreshing and surprising for such a piece of product, especially considering the limitations of what has been offered since Disney's acquisition of the property.