Thursday, December 14, 2017

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi": Initial (Baffled) Impressions

The title crawl should have been in red.
That would have really pissed people off.
Another year has come and gone, so the other night I dutifully donned my homemade Emperor Palpatine robes and m'colleague and I trudged off to the cinema to watch another Star Wars film.

I looked like this about halfway through.
I have to admit that, despite my criticism of The Force Awakens, I was quite eager for The Last Jedi. I'd gotten it into my head that Rian Johnson was the right man for the job, and that what he was going to deliver would be a solid, satisfying Star Wars outing which would probably be a bit better than The Force Awakens. We'd have Rey and Luke, Finn and Poe, some action, and a set up for things to come. I wasn't as hyped as I might have been, but I was ready to watch a Star Wars film which would leave me thinking that what I'd just seen was a sci-fi action film which would be a worthwhile addition to the Star Wars rewatch cycle along with the despecialised editions of the Original Trilogy and the occasional touch upon Episode VII.

This'll be exciting in the finished film, right?
That's not quite what I actually got, and if I am to give The Last Jedi credit for anything, it ought to be for the fact that it surprised me. This was overtly not J.J. Abrams' Star Wars, almost wholly lacking the slavish devotion to George Lucas' narrative style and cinematography which dominated Episode VII. The Last Jedi in many respects feels like its own beast, although admittedly at times it feels, like its predecessor, like a remix of its equivalent episode in the Original Trilogy. This, I think, is what made The Last Jedi challenging for me, and at first viewing ultimately somewhat disappointing, as I juddered back and forth between thinking "This is a bold take on things" and "What the hell am I watching?!"

Tosses the tone over his shoulder too.
My initial reaction is that The Last Jedi is an overly-long, rambling, unfocused, confused mess of a film which doesn't fully appreciate its own strengths and is torn between two parallel narratives, one which is fundamentally engaging and another which is intrinsically tedious. This is a result of a problem with pacing and structure which makes the film suffer substantially. The film regularly snaps back and forth between Rey and Luke scenes on the planet Ahch-To, which I found engrossing, and Finn and Poe stuff with the Resistance fleet, which over time bored me to tears, and as I often say about films regarding which I have mixed feelings, this is a game of halves.

"What should I do with Kylo Ren in the middle acts?"
"I dunno, stick him in a room for hours."
It's my impression from one viewing that, as both director and screenwriter, Rian Johnson comes across as overwhelmed, trying to give a substantial narrative to all of his growing cast of major characters: Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren, Leia and Luke, as well as newcomer Rose, and whether of his own volition, or mandated by Lucasfilm/Disney, the film ultimately fails to wholly recognise that it is only Rey and Luke's story (and by extension Kylo Ren's) which is especially interesting or substantial. This is particularly egregious in the final act of the film in which Rey, notionally our main protagonist, almost disappears, being relegated to manning Luke's old firing position on the Millennium Falcon rather than actively participating in the plot. That's not to say that the ending isn't about Luke and Kylo Ren, but it has a particular insistence at the same time in focusing on the Resistance, as represented by Poe, Finn and Leia, a narrative which in my view wasn't the crux of what the film explored most effectively: not the idea of resistance, but rather of balance. I particularly wondered as I watched whether the depiction of the First Order as an unstoppable tyranny, despite being crippled at the conclusion of the previous film, was some kind of political statement reflecting  the popular conception that "the bad guys are running America" at the moment, which is arguably true in a greater-or-lesser-of-two-evils sense, but feels inconsistent with the previous instalment and almost exhausting; if the First Order is still so strong, and the Resistance so utterly weak, it's hard for me to care. I want to avoid delving into hypotheticals in this article, but I can't help but feel as if the narrative would be more interesting if it was more microscopic in scale, with the conflict limited to a small section of the galaxy and the belief that even the most remote and seemingly-unimportant part would be worth fighting for if its freedom was threatened.

Was he not played up as much in the
promotion for this one?
The fact is that the film is a bombardment, much like a First Order dreadnought firing lasers at the Reistance fleet, with a plot which seems to take place over the course of about seven acts and is constantly assailing the viewer with new elements and situations; calling them developments might be overstating matters. I was constantly wavering between deep interest, particularly when Rey and Luke were onscreen, and complete bewilderment whenever we returned to Finn and Rose or Poe, wondering why their plot needed to exist at all, why I should care about it and when it would get back to the half of the story which I found interesting. Another thing which occurred to me is that this feels less like an Episode in its own right and more like a followup to The Force Awakens, especially in the reuse of settings and the close connection of the two narratives, which leaves me feeling like there should be another couple of films rather than just one. Who knows? Perhaps there will be if the Disney accountants have anything to say about it. Perhaps this trilogy will bleed into Sequel Trilogy II.

Let's cut the rest of the fat and get to what I liked and didn't like.

What I Didn't Like
1. The Resistance Plot
Stay in the pod, Finn!
As I've established, I simply wasn't interested in the large percentage of the narrative devoted to the Resistance fleet trying to escape from the First Order. This element, depicted equivalently in the first act of The Empire Strikes Back, here covers almost the entirety of the film. It reached the point in which it became utterly absurd, in my view, that the two fleets were pursuing each other through space seemingly in first gear, with neither side able to catch up to or outrun the other for reasons which weren't clear to me. I understood that the fleet couldn't jump away without being caught again, but why was it so hard for the First Order to simply catch up to the Resistance and blow them out of the sky? They have a ship the size of a small country, but they don't have the technology to go a little bit faster than their enemies?

Dead Phasma toys: only $9.99 each.
Somehow, the course of this pursuit gives Finn and Rose time to go to a completely different planet, find help and come back. Furthermore, after it's over, following multiple scenes of devastation on the part of First Order battleships, Finn and Rose going to a casino, Finn, Rose and Benicio del Toro going to the First Order flagship and getting captured, BB-8 driving an AT-ST and hyperdrive ships slicing other ships, the Resistance lands at a giant bunker which looks like a snow plow to have yet another fight with the First Order. By this point I couldn't believe how long the extended conflict between the two parties was going for. It was just too much. If this had been, say, half an hour of the film it would have been tolerable, but it dominates it, and distracts needlessly from the film's strongest elements.

If only he'd stayed dead.
I also didn't particularly enjoy Poe's character arc in this. In The Force Awakens he came across as a fairly pragmatic combatant who was, for instance, prepared to abandoned the Jakku village if it meant he could keep the map from the First Order. Here he just seems like some cocky try-hard who can't take orders and needs to learn a lesson about leadership. Was it really necessary? Oddly enough, despite liking the character in The Force Awakens, in this film I found him a bit annoying.

2. Too Much Humour
Obviously Star Wars is pretty lighthearted at times, and the Original Trilogy has plenty of memorable one-liners, but The Last Jedi is somewhat overwhelming in this regard, starting with a joke featuring Poe pretending he can't hear Hux over the radio and only becoming bigger from there. Hux looks like a complete buffoon, Luke plays practical jokes and delivers snarky one-liners, Finn and Rose exchange quips and so on to the point at which it's hard to take anything seriously. It feels like they took Poe's brief piss-taking of Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, and a few sarcastic Han lines and excited Finn remarks, and blew them completely out of proportion in this script. I'm a miserable, joyless, self-hating, lonely, jaded wretch, but give me a break. The audience in the cinema was laughing it up, though, so I guess it hit the right spot for some. My biggest issue was that Luke came across as too flippant and dismissive a lot of the time, and insufficiently consistent with the character we last saw in Return of the Jedi.

Luke's Star Wars: The Card Game set.
3. The Best Stuff is Not Fleshed Out Enough
So Luke's a recluse who wants the Jedi Order to die, Rey and Kylo Ren have developed a telepathic link, Leia can survive a hard vacuum and the Force still needs balancing. These are all interesting elements of the film, but they just don't get the attention they need to really satisfy. There are conversations between Luke and Rey about the Force and the Jedi which are too short and leave us begging for more. Meanwhile, when Rey is communicating with Kylo Ren, we don't have a good sense of what Ren is doing at the time in order to contextualise his experience of this link. He just seems to be standing around in a room. We get some philosophising about the Force, including a surprise appearance from Yoda, but it's all glossed over in a few short scenes. If we'd spent less time mucking around with Finn in Casino Night Zone and the Resistance and First Order fleets participating in the slowest car chase of all time, I feel as if the screenplay could have really come to grips with these elements, which instead to me felt rushed and incomplete, as if we were only seeing edited highlights of something more complex and profound.

"Steady, Dack. Attack pattern delta."
4. Lack of Atmosphere
Just a small thing, but when we met Snoke for instance I felt like there was very little sense of tension and presence. It was similar with Rey being around Luke, I suppose. Something in the cinematography and sound design at these points made me feel distant rather than immersed, as if I were watching the film through a window in another room. Perhaps that was an effect of exhaustion and Irish whisky, but I can't help but feel that a trick was missed at some of the notionally most awe-inspiring moments of the film. Then again, perhaps it was deliberate, as I'll detail in the next section.

What I Did Like
1. Spins on ideas set up in The Force Awakens
Phone home.
...I've never seen E.T.
Who's Snoke? Just an arrogant, overconfident idiot with delusions about how much control he really has, like the Emperor but even more foolish and blind. Who were Rey's parents? Nobody important. What has Luke realised in his time away? That the Jedi were selfish hypocrites. All this stuff seemed fairly bold to me, with Rian Johnson slicing through all the "mystery box" bullshit set up by Abrams in the previous film. The answers are straightforward and convincing. Killing off Snoke in particular was a sensible and gutsy move, preventing him from seeming entirely like a rehash of the Emperor (although he still kind of is; he's just a shittier version of the Emperor, basically). Here I wonder if the lack of atmosphere was deliberate, so that we could recognise that Snoke was not all that he seemed. Establishing that Rey's parents were nobodies is a refreshing touch of realism. In this respect, the film seems like an antidote to the more egregious rumour-mongering elements of Episode VII, which only really existed because of the famed twists from the Original Trilogy.

The lightsaber kind of looks like a plastic tube in this scene.
2. Rey and Luke
Although we didn't see enough of them, both of these character were welcome. I still think Daisy Ridley's Rey is the best part of the new Trilogy, despite the fact that I think she could have come across as a little more aware of the nature of Luke's successes and failures and how they could be applied to her own experience. I suppose she possesses a little hubris, which ultimately is another way in which aspects of this film echo both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as the film is somewhat like Luke's motivation in Jedi with Empire's outcome: tries to turn villain back to the light but fails.
Good thing he didn't really quit voicing the Joker.

Mark Hamill is entertaining as Luke, and although at times I thought he came across as too dry and jaded, he fitted well enough into the role of a character who has been scarred by his experiences. In particular, the cool confidence Luke presents in Return of the Jedi is gone for much of this, replaced by self-awareness and resignation. In his final confrontation with Kylo Ren, however, much of the strength of Luke in his prime re-emerges, as we see Rey re-ignite something of his faith. This would all have been improved if the film had simply had more time to devote to these characters. I'm almost reminded of the Hobbit films, which became endlessly distracted from Bilbo in an effort to be more epic. In this, I feel like the film keeps wandering away from its titular Last Jedi (singular or plural), which is frustrating, but when they're around they're generally worthwhile. I criticised the lack of "atmosphere" surrounding Luke, but again, perhaps it was deliberately to make his later scenes more satisfying. This would have worked better if we'd seen more.

"My nose still hurts."
3. Kylo Ren
Dildo Ren was a bit more interesting in this than he was in the previous, particularly in his Force-based conversations with Rey, in which they test each others' character. With all this stuff it's not contextualised or developed to its fullest extent, but it's still interesting. In particular, we gain a more complex insight into his backstory, thinking that Luke betrayed him and establishing his Vader-like desire not just for power but for order, and this is played upon by showing him, unlike Vader, killing his master in order to seize control. We're left wondering where the narrative can go next, which I suppose is as good a selling point for Episode IX as any. I liked the idea of Ren usurping Snoke's place as Supreme Leader of the First Order; it's noteworthy that when he tells Rey that they need to dispose of the past, he collectively refers to the Sith and the Jedi, but only to the Resistance in isolation, establishing that he cares more about the ideology of the First Order than might otherwise appear.

4. Leia can breathe in space
She still didn't hug Chewie.
...oh wait, yeah she did.
A lot of people didn't like this element, apparently, but I thought it was kinda cool. She's meant to be strong with the force, albeit untrained. Why shouldn't she survive being blasted into a hard vacuum? I only wish that I understood better her role in the plot overall. It was pretty obvious that she wouldn't be killed so abruptly on the bridge, although I fear that this sequence was intended to set up Episode IX elements which will no longer be possible to fulfill.

"Gawsh, this Jedi training is rrrather
different to what I expected, eh what?"
I still don't know where I stand with The Last Jedi. Was it an occasionally-good blockbuster which is receiving rave reviews because it's full of big explosions, corny one-liners and over-egged "cool" moments to please the dummies, or is it subtler than I'm giving it credit for and warrants more viewings? Perhaps it's a little of both. Perhaps I'm no different to the Original Trilogy fanboys walking devastated from the cinema in 1999 because they didn't get exactly what they imagined in the preceding years. Maybe the film's composition is meant to represent its themes, with the balance between light and dark being reflected in the balance between interesting reflection upon the franchise and mindless slush. On the other hand, maybe it won't bear that much scrutiny. Perhaps only time and an endless cavalcade of better or worse Disney Star Wars films will tell.

So anyway, do the Jedi need to die out or not? Luke thought so, and Yoda seemed to agree with him, but then at the end Luke seemed satisfied that Rey would allow the Jedi to continue on. I'm sure there's some deep and detailed explanation buried deep in the film...
Do Wookiees age in reverse? He looks
a lot more sleek than he did in '77.

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