Monday, December 18, 2017

'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Is a Game-Changer, for Better or Worse

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the highly anticipated sequel to The Force Awakens, the film that revived the much beloved franchise for modern cinema.  It follows the continuing conflict between the Resistance and the First Order, while Rey (Daisy Ridley) grows in familiarity with the Force after meeting the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) struggles with the internal turmoil of choosing his path.

I’m going to be SPOILER-ish with this review, so let me first give my spoiler-free thoughts: It was an immersive and spectacular cinematic experience.  It has beautiful space battles, thrilling action, wonderful alien creatures, strong character moments, compelling acting, and new sophisticated themes.  It has “unique” story directions, but it also has a couple of bumps brought by a few pointless plot points.  Moreover, it has notably funny moments, but the humor gets to levels that are more typical of the MCU than Star Wars.  I wasn’t hugely appalled by this, but having too much gags nonetheless felt off and weird that I cringed a little.  In the end, I was definitely enthralled and entertained.

Nonetheless, what writer/director Rian Johnson generally did with The Last Jedi is change the game, for the better or for the worse.  Either way, it’s pretty daring.
(SPOILERS from this point onward…)
Star Wars has always had a straightforward “light vs. dark” theme.  But though The Last Jedi  still has a “good versus evil” narrative at the core, it also explores the “gray” area between “light” and “dark” – what it means to “bring balance to the Force”, as it’s been often mentioned in the past.  For me, it’s supposed to argue that the old Jedi way (shown to be flawed and, in a sense, hypocritical, especially in the prequels) is obsolete, making the extinction of the Jedi – or, at least, the form that we’ve come to know – a necessity.  The Jedi Order should end with Luke, and it’s time to bring about a worldview that truly adheres to the balance of the Force.  This “balance” is supposed to be brought about by the new generation – Rey and Kylo Ren.  Starting at different ends of the spectrum, it’s implied that they are to meet in the middle and discover that “balance” together – or, at least, Rey would, in the aftermath of her interaction and confrontation with Kylo Ren.  This is what I thought was the thematic implication.

But this presumption is defeated when Luke mentioned in the end that Rey is the eponymous “Last Jedi.”  I thought the film was establishing that Luke is the “Last Jedi”, and Rey was the “evolution” that will rise from the Jedi’s ashes.  So, does that last scene, in which a boy used the Force on a broom, mean the Jedi Order is continuing through Rey?  Or maybe my idea of it is still correct, and the “Jedi” will continue in name only, but Rey is going to be the pioneer of something all together new?
Anyway, with all its twists and turns, this seeming divergence from what I thought is its thematic implication is where The Last Jedi totally caught me off guard the most.  But regardless of that, being subversive and going for the surprise is what this film has been all about in the first place.
“Whoa, the ship’s bridge is blown up, throwing Leia and others into the vacuum of space.  So this is how Leia dies, huh?  I guess that’s how the late Carrie Fisher is being written off – uh, wait.  Leia’s not dead!  She uses the Force to float back into the ship, Marry Poppins-style.  So that’s a thing with the Force now, huh?”
“Whoa, Finn and Rose aren’t able to make contact with Maz Kanata’s recommended codebreaker; instead they have to settle with this DJ fellow they meet in prison in order to break into the Snoke’s ship.  For payment, he asks for Rose’s prized pendant – which has deep sentimental value to her.  DJ doesn’t care; he wants it regardless.  Later, he uses it in order to gain access into their targeted room, and returns it to Rose.  Oh, DJ is a nice guy after al– uh, wait. He betrays and sells out Finn and Rose to the First Order.  He’s a selfish jerk after all.”
“Whoa, Finn is going to sacrifice his life to destroy that battering ram canon!  Uh, wait.  He’s pushed out of the way to safety by Rose.”
“Whoa, Luke’s going to die.  He’s going to let himself be sliced by Kylo Ren, just like Obi-Wan letting himself be killed by Darth Vader.  Uh, wait.  He’s not dead; Kylo Ren’s lightsaber just went through him.  It’s just a projection of Luke!  He’s not really there.  He’s not even in the same planet.  He’s still in that hermit island where Rey found him.  He’s just using the Force to project a spectral construct of himself across the Galaxy.  So that’s a thing with the Force now, huh?  Before his projection fades out, he says, ‘See ya ‘round, kid.’  So the two are going to meet for real in Episode 9... Uh, wait.  He’s dying after all?  The task has severely drained him?  He then vanishes, leaving his clothes behind, just like Yoda and Obi-Wan  Oh, he dies in this film after all.  Maybe what he meant by ‘See ya ‘round, kid’ is that he’ll next meet Kylo Ren as a Force ghost?”
The plot is made up of things like this.  And I’m torn about it.  I appreciate how the narrative plays with expectations.  At the same time, I found some of the execution hokey.
In its audacious storytelling, it also makes plot choices that I’m not sure truly works.  For example, when Kylo Ren is tasked by Snoke to kill Rey, he instead cuts Snoke in half.  Then, in an amazing sequence, Kylo and Rey take on Snoke’s elite bodyguards.  But just when one thinks it’s a parallel to “Darth Vader turning on the Emperor” moment, it isn’t.  Kylo isn’t really having a heel-face turn.  He sees it as an opportunity to take Snoke’s place.  It’s a nice development.  But, on the other hand, his betrayal of Snoke was ironically the predictable route.  It could be seen coming a mile away.  The real shocker would have been Rey joining Kylo.  Moreover, it’s also hard to believe that Snoke, who was ahead every step of the way, got blind-sided like that.  And he wasn’t really developed as a character.  His origin isn’t revealed.  Killing the big bad like that should have come off as a huge surprise, but with us having little investment on him, it was hard to care.

Another major “twist” is that Rey’s parents are – *drum roll* – a pair of nobodies.  Yes, after so much build up about the mystery of Rey’s parentage in both this film and its predecessor, the big reveal is that they don’t matter.  Well, it’s still possible that Kylo Ren isn’t telling the truth about Rey’s parents, and their identities will only be revealed in Episode 9.  Otherwise, it’s almost a troll job.  It reminded me of the booking of Royal Rumble 2017, in which Roman Reigns came out as last entrant.  On the other hand, just like Royal Rumble 2017, there’s also something brilliant about it.  It means that Rey is her own character, that she doesn’t need to be related to someone in order to play a big part in the story.  The Force isn’t just for the Skywalkers, or the Jedi, or the Sith; an utter “nobody” can wield and master it and save the universe (besides, everybody is supposed to have midi-chlorians in them after all).  Wasn’t Anakin Skywalker a “nobody” as well?  Also, that kid with the broom has also shown aptitude with the Force, and he’s probably not related to any Star Wars icon.
While the new big three – Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron – and Kylo Ren get to shine in this film – which they rightfully should – the handling of Luke Skywalker is a bit disappointing.  He never had the chance to fight.  I don’t mind his dying, and his death scene is somewhat powerful – with the sunset and all, a throwback to his introduction in A New Hope – but it’s not quite as glorious as I hoped for.  And he didn’t even become a significant mentor to Rey.  What’s the point of Force Ghost Yoda encouraging him if he wouldn’t get the chance of teaching Rey for real?  Or, again, maybe he’ll actually do so, but as a Force Ghost.

Hamill’s performance is, however, terrific.  He conveyed the torment that Luke was feeling with emphatic potency.  Actually, everyone in the cast – particularly those involved in dramatic scenes – delivered moving, magnetic, nuanced performances, for that matter.  Carrie Fisher is also notably great.  And among the youngblood, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are the standouts.  The dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren is one of the best things about this film, and the two actors delivered the weighty, angsty, emotional acting that were required for it.
The film ends in an intriguing note.  The First Order has basically won, and what’s left of the Resistance is so few in number, that they can all fit in the Millennium Falcon.  Then the last scene shows a slave child with a broom – the one whom Finn and Rose met in their subplot – displaying Force abilities and wearing a Resistance/Rebel Alliance ring.  For me, the implication is that the First Order, under Kylo Ren, will finally become the second incarnation of the Galactic Empire, while the Rebel Alliance is going to be build from the ground up by Leia, Rey, Finn, Poe, and the handful of Resistance survivors, and will be made up of a new generation of Rebels and Force wielders – symbolized by that kid with a broom.

That’s why I think Episode 9 is going to be set several years after The Last Jedi, when the First Order has flourished into an Empire, and a functioning Rebel Alliance is up and running.  The passage of time is also a way for the writers to kill Leia off screen, since actress Carrie Fisher already passed away.  Episode 9 can even open with a funeral scene.
I understand why many fans are upset with The Last Jedi.  It’s truly a bold, new direction for Star Wars.  As a result, it has both prominent and subtle elements that gave off a “This is BS; this is not Star Wars” vibes.  Personally, I’m not quite sure yet what to feel about what it did for the Star Wars mythology.  I want to reserve judgment until I see it a few more times in the next two years and after seeing Episode 9 – if it manages to tie up many of the plot threads that are left hanging in The Last Jedi and present genuinely rewarding payoffs.

But judging The Last Jedi as a blockbuster film per se, it’s splendid.  The visuals are stunning and electrifying.  There’s an underlying powerful theme in the story, though it can be argued that it isn’t articulated as well as it could have been.  It invoked various emotional responses from me.  I was stirred, delighted, and thrilled.  Though I wanted more from it, I honestly enjoyed it.

If The Last Jedi is going to be deemed as “awful”, it’s not because of its cinematic quality, but it lies on its polarizing, different take on Star Wars – its immediate impact now as well as how it will hold up in the future.  Me?  Though I’m not yet confident of its ultimate worth, if I have to bet on it, then I would like to think that it’s going to rise above the hate and be an eventual classic.

Miscellaneous musings:
  • Where the heck were the Knights of Ren??!!
  • Among all side players, I like the impulsive Poe Dameron’s arc the most – how he learns the value of prudence.  The next time we’ll see him, he probably may be the leader of the Rebel Alliance.
  • The bombing scene at the start was awesome.  However, when you think about it, it doesn’t make sense.  The dropping of the bombs worked as if there’s a downward pull of gravity when it was all happening in the vacuum of space.  But, hey, sound also exists in space in the Star Wars universe.  So let’s just apply our suspension of disbelief to it, I guess.
  • Rose knocking off the kamikazee-ing Finn was dumb and reckless.  Not only was it the only option at that point to destroy the battering ram canon (remember, they weren’t aware yet that the Millennium Falcon and Luke Skywalker were coming), but her act itself could have had killed Finn as well as herself.  Dumb and reckless.
  • I love the Yoda Force Ghost scene.  I extremely enjoyed his wise and sarcastic lines.
  • Will Rey no longer wield a lightsaber in the future?  I understand the value of the “transcendent Jedi Order” that her arc could be going for, but lightsabers are one the coolest things about Star Wars.  I’m fine with removing everything about what we know of the Jedi.  Except for lightsabers.  Lightsabers should stay.
  • The Porgs turned out being cute comic reliefs.  I tremendously adored every scene they were in.
  • Admiral Ackbar deserves a better death.
  • Luke drinking that blue milk from that weird dinosaur-like sea cow...  WTF.
  • Having a continuation of the Star Wars saga is fun and all that.  But the thing is, this new trilogy (Episode 7, 8, and 9) negated the happy ending that Return of the Jedi provided for Luke, Han, and Leia.  It’s heartbreaking to see how tragic their lives turned out to be.  I’m especially sad that Luke and Han never got to see each other again in this new trilogy.

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