Saturday, December 30, 2017 03:21 PM
On the Viewer - Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
 by Fëanor

I don't know if you guys heard, but a new Star Wars movie came out recently. Rian Johnson is the director this time. I was excited to hear he'd be in charge, as I've enjoyed his work on Brick and Looper. There's some controversy over his film, however - critics love it, but many fans are angry about what he's done to their beloved Star Wars.

The odd thing is, in a way, the film itself addresses these criticisms. It's a Star Wars film that's at least in part about Star Wars - about legends and stories, and the difficulty of telling them well: of knowing what to keep of what's come before, and what to change. It's about how we deal with the past, how we lead, how we fight our battles. It's about finding the balance we need to make our way through life. It's also got space battles, silly jokes, lightsaber fights, blue milk, rock lifting, and cute little bird-things called porgs. It's long, and perhaps it doesn't quite succeed at striking the balance it seeks between the new and the old, but it's still a pretty great Star Wars movie.

Be wary! From here on out, there be spoilers.

We open with one of those big Star Wars space battles - and a very familiar one, too. The Resistance, the location of its base having been revealed to the First Order at the end of the last movie, is evacuating, and the First Order is trying to blow its ships to pieces before they can escape. It's the start of a chase that will last basically throughout the whole rest of the movie.

In a tone-setting scene with some goofy comedy of a type we're not entirely used to seeing in Star Wars, hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) essentially prank calls General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) before singlehandedly wiping out the main cannons of a First Order dreadnought cruiser (the first appearance, I believe, of such a ship in a Star Wars movie, though it's not terribly different from the ridiculously massive, heavily armed, triangular spaceships we're used to seeing Star Wars bad guys tool around in). General Leia (the irreplaceable Carrie Fisher) is satisfied that this stunt will buy the fleet the time it needs to escape, but Poe wants more: he sees a chance to destroy the dreadnought completely, and he refuses to give up that chance. In an act of defiance that will setup his character arc for the film, as well as establish the continuing tension between him and the Resistance leadership, he demands, despite orders from Leia to the contrary, that his fellow pilots make a bombing run against the dreadnought.

We're used to seeing anonymous pilots explode in fireballs left and right in Star Wars space battles, but in this film, those deaths feel more real and more traumatic than usual. In part this is due to great performances, especially from Fisher. It's also due to the extraordinary number of heroic self-sacrifices in this movie, and the drama inherent in such acts. The gunner who sacrifices herself to make the bombing run a success is Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), and her act will have a strong effect on her sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), whom we'll meet later and learn a lot more about.

Though the bombing run is a success, the cost is high, and when Poe gets back, Leia rewards him with a slap in the face and a demotion from Commander to Captain. He protests that there were many heroes on that bombing run, and Leia replies, "Dead heroes. No leaders." As the story goes on, we realize she is grooming Poe for leadership, and is disappointed that he can't, as she says, "get your head out of your cockpit." The rest of Dameron's arc is him learning, slowly and painfully, the balance needed to be a true leader: knowing when it's time to retreat from the battlefield today so you can fight again tomorrow. Knowing when not to go in with all guns blazing. Knowing when to trust that your own superiors know what they're doing. Poe is rather annoying in this film actually, not least because he is a man constantly explaining to women in authority what it is he thinks they should do, with the implied assumption that they aren't capable of figuring it out on their own. It's never been a good look, but is particularly grating in 2017. In one scene Poe even tells the pilots of an escape craft to fly as fast as they can away from the people shooting at them, as if they weren't already obviously doing that. Thanks for your input, Captain Mansplainer! Eventually he gets so annoying Leia has to wake herself up out of a coma, drag herself off her sick bed, track him down, and stun him with a pistol to get him to stop. It's actually kind of a satisfying moment.

Before Poe gets that slap in the face, he's reunited with his bromantic partner Finn (John Boyega). Finn was, you'll remember, unconscious at the end of the last film, recovering from injuries sustained in his duel with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In a deliberately silly scene, he awakens suddenly in the middle of the space battle and goes wandering through the halls of the cruiser, naked except for a bag that's leaking (presumably healing) fluids. When Poe finds him, Finn's first question is, "Where's Rey?" so naturally we then cut to Rey (Daisy Ridley) right where we left her, handing that lightsaber to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). This time the scene continues, with that same unexpected lack of solemnity the film often has for its subject matter, with Luke taking the saber, tossing it casually over his shoulder, and stalking off wordlessly.

Thus begins a sequence familiar to any fan of martial arts films: the eager and irrepressible student pleading with the reluctant old master again and again to teach her, and enduring any and all hardships in her quest for knowledge, while the master steadfastly refuses her, until finally he's worn down by her persistence and agrees to teach her. It doesn't go exactly the way it usually goes in martial arts movies, but that's to be expected.

Luke, we learn, has come to this island - home to the first Jedi temple - to die. After his failure with Ben Solo and the destruction of his school, Luke has sentenced himself - and the Jedi order itself - to a slow and lingering execution. He has closed himself off from the Force and - as Rey discovers after following him about the island for a day or so - now spends his time fishing with a ridiculously long spear, milking a weird alien creature (in a scene that's funny in a really uncomfortable way), and brooding, not only on his own personal failures, but also on the failures of the Jedi as a whole. All of Luke's visitors try to convince him to return and help them defeat the First Order: first Rey, then Chewie, and finally even R2, who, in a deeply nostalgic and emotionally powerful scene, replays the original holographic message from Leia that first pulled Luke out of the desert backwater of Tatooine and out into the larger world. But Luke only refuses over and over, insisting that he cannot and will not help. He does finally agree to give Rey three lessons in the ways of the Jedi, but only so he can also explain why the Jedi must end.

He tells Rey that the Force is all about balance - the balance between extremes of life and death, of light and darkness. But he himself has become utterly unbalanced, wallowing in the past and dwelling on his failures, shutting himself off from all his friends and loved ones. He claims he wants the Jedi dead, but he's chosen their first temple as his place of banishment, and he reverently protects the resting place of the original Jedi texts. In a fit of pique, he threatens to destroy those texts, but cannot bring himself to actually do it. Luckily, an old friend appears and does the job for him. It's great to see Yoda again, taking on the guise of the silly, wise, prankish oldster we remember from our first meeting with him on Dagobah. He returns now to teach Luke yet another important lesson: that although there are things in the past worth keeping, dwelling on the past to the expense of the present and the future is foolish and destructive. And when we teach, we must pass on not only our strengths, but also - and in fact most importantly - our failures, so our students may learn not to make the same ones, and may eventually surpass us. We must find a balance, in other words, between the new and the old, between weakness and strength.

The thematic opposite of Luke in the film is Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo. When we see him first in this movie, his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (professional motion-capture-suit-wearer Andy Serkis), is supremely unimpressed with his student's performance in the previous film, and calls him "a child in a mask." Shamed, and still twisted and torn by his recent patricide, Ren destroys his mask and jumps into his starfighter with his face uncovered, to take his anger out on the Resistance fleet. But when he senses his mother in his crosshairs - and she in turn senses him - he finds he cannot pull the trigger. Unfortunately, the TIE pilots to either side of him have no such compunctions. They obliterate the bridge of the main Resistance cruiser, killing most of the leadership of the Resistance (including Admiral Ackbar, alas), and sending Leia spiraling out into space. Apparently this threat to her life triggers some innate, heretofore unknown Force ability that allows her to fly herself to safety. It's kind of a goofy visual, but also pretty neat, and makes me wish we could have seen more of Leia as a Jedi.

Although Leia survives, she's left in a coma, so the command of the Resistance falls to Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, in a rather disappointingly small role - although she does have great hair). Poe seems disappointed he's been passed over, and less than impressed with Holdo as a person, so it's not surprising that the two of them get off on the wrong foot from the very start. Poe pulls his old mansplaining act, giving Holdo plenty of unsolicited advice, demanding to know her plan, and even pretending to a higher rank than he actually has. Holdo's reaction is understandably negative, and my sympathy is almost entirely with her, although it is frustrating that she keeps secret from him her plan for saving the Resistance fleet. Why not tell Poe and the other pilots what she's doing, instead of making it appear that she's sitting idly by and allowing the fleet to be slowly destroyed? It seems to be a secret kept merely to create drama later on; a fed-up Poe even goes so far as to lead a mutiny - for which, I'd like to point out, he is never punished. Leia even seems to promote him before the end, ceding command to him during the final escape.

But we were talking about Kylo Ren. Internally, he's clearly still in turmoil, but outwardly he is determined to gain back Snoke's regard and to become the monster Rey accuses him of being. Rey and Ren seem to develop a mysterious connection that allows them to see and speak to each other even across the vast distances that separate them. So while Luke teaches Rey about the Light and pleads with her to reject the Darkness, Ren is there, too, to tempt her to the other side. Beneath the hatred there's definitely an attraction of some sort between Rey and Ren (as many shippers have noticed). At one point Rey psychically intrudes on Ren while he's shirtless and, in another unexpectedly funny moment, asks him if he could find anything to put on.

Ren is Luke's opposite in more ways than one. While Luke is trapped in the past, Ren wants only to charge forward into the future, forgetting the past entirely, killing and leaving behind all parents and teachers and leaders, to take the reins of control for himself and forge his own destiny. And he wants to take Rey with him.

And so Rey finds herself caught between Luke and Ren, desperately seeking balance and a place for herself in the world. She is still obsessed with her own past, so desperate to know the identity of her parents she will even dive into the domain of the Dark Side when it teases her with the possibility of that revelation. But she finds its promise empty and hollow. And she looks also to the future, just as desperate to find help to save the Resistance and destroy the First Order. Who will be the one to guide and help her - Luke Skywalker or Ben Solo? And which one of them is telling the truth about the night Luke's school was destroyed? Luke says Ben turned on him, and Ben says the opposite. But as with all other things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

As if this wasn't enough story, the movie follows yet another set of characters on their own adventure of discovery. Finn, after waking up to find Rey gone and the fleet in a desperate and seemingly hopeless retreat from the First Order, falls back on his old habit of running away from his problems, and tries to sneak off in an escape pod. He's caught in the act by maintenance worker Rose Tico, who feels doubly betrayed by his cowardice and treachery, given her sister's recent sacrifice, and that she looked up to Finn as a hero of the Resistance. In his attempt to convince her of the uselessness of remaining with the fleet, he reveals that the First Order has somehow found a way to track ships through hyperspace. But then the two of them, with their combined technical knowledge, manage to work up a theory, not only of how the tracking works, but of how it might be defeated and the fleet successfully escape. They come to Poe with their plan and Poe, still convinced he knows better than any of the women actually in charge, decides to secretly move forward with the idea without telling anybody. The problem is, they need a hacker to do the job right. He asks Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) for help, but she's busy with a "labor dispute" which involves a lot of shooting and flying around, so she recommends somebody else, an expert that Finn and Rose (with the help of Poe's droid, BB-8) will have to seek out in the casinos of Canto Bight.

Finn is at first dazzled by the riches and charm of Canto Bight, but Rose tells him to look closer. The splendor and beauty of the planet are built on the backs of a poorly treated, slave-like underclass, and the upperclass who enjoy the casinos make their money through arms dealing and war profiteering - selling death and destruction. It's a side of the Star Wars universe we rarely see.

Unable to connect with the hacker Maz recommended, Rose and Finn find themselves forced to accept the help of the shady thief DJ (Benicio del Toro). DJ has an interesting perspective on things. He points out to Finn that those arms dealers don't just sell to the "bad guys" - they sell to both the First Order and the Resistance. It's all a machine, he says, and his advice is not to pick one side or the other, but to simply not join at all - to be only on your own side. Finn and Rose will learn to their cost that DJ follows his own advice. He's found a middle way that works for him, but is devoid of morality, honor, and compassion. I find DJ's character pretty fascinating (despite his slightly irritating speech impediment), and I've always loved Benicio del Toro's acting, so I'm hopeful he will return in the next film in some capacity.

Before escaping back to the Resistance with Rose and BB-8, Finn gets to have it out finally with his old tormentor Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, who we will, to my disappointment, apparently never get to actually see act outside of her armor in the movies, although we do get a glimpse of one of her eyes in this film - before she plummets into a fireball). Cornered in an old Rebel base and faced once again with the prospect of destruction at the hands of a pseudo-Death Star (this time a battering ram cannon), the Resistance looks at last defeated. But Finn refuses to run or to give up anymore, and tells the others it's time for a last ditch attack. So the few Resistance fighters that are left jump in some crummy old speeders (which are in such bad shape Poe literally puts his foot through the bottom of his) and charge a very intimidating First Order army.

It feels like one battle too many in a very long movie full of battles, and, what with the walkers and all, it also looks a little too much like the Battle of Hoth (even if one rather odd Resistance fighter helpfully points out, after tasting it, that the white stuff on the ground is not snow, but salt), but here we go again!

At this point, Poe has finally learned his lesson, and when he sees the tide turning against him and his fellow pilots, he orders a retreat, rather than pushing forward with another desperate suicidal attack. But Finn has not learned that lesson yet. He's not only found the courage not to run away, he's swung to the other extreme. He ignores all orders to retreat and aims himself right down the cannon's throat, determined not to let the bad guys win. But Rose has lost too much and flies in from the side at the last minute, knocking him out of the way of certain death. She tells him they'll win, not by destroying what they hate, but by protecting what they love. Then, just to make clear what it is she means, she kisses him.

So not only has Finn's love life just gotten a lot more complicated, he's also learned the same lesson our other heroes have: that life is about balance.

Rey, unable to convince Luke to come back with her, decides her last hope lies in turning Ben to the Light, and in the hopes of doing that, leaves Luke behind and surrenders herself to Ben Solo. He in turn gives her over to Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke rips the secret of Luke's location out of Rey and is confident he and his student will now at last see an end to the Resistance and the Jedi, beginning with Rey. He sets a last test for Ren: kill the girl.

Of course, Snoke has also just revealed that he manipulated both Ren and Rey to get to this moment, and the tormented Ren is thoroughly done with treacherous teachers. In a spectacular battle scene, he and Rey make an end of Snoke and all of his laser-weapon-wielding personal guard. It seems for a moment then that Ren will in fact turn and join Rey, but instead he asks her to join him in destroying everything - Resistance, First Order, Jedi - and taking over the galaxy together, just the two of them. But that's not a path she can walk. After a satisfyingly symbolic fight over Luke and Vader's old lightsaber, which ends with them splitting the weapon in half, Rey leaves Ren to rush back to Finn and the Resistance.

During this sequence, Ren answers a question that has been tormenting Rey - and many a Star Wars fan - for a long time: who are Rey's parents? He reveals what she's always secretly known: that they were actually nobody at all - just junk traders - and that they're never coming back for her. It's devastating, but also freeing. She can leave that part of her past behind. And I for one am deeply relieved. I like this revelation very much, especially insofar as it is not at all like the parenting revelations in previous Star Wars movies. Thank God Rey is not a Skywalker! We've had enough of the stories of Skywalkers and their surprise progeny. It's time to move on.

It's a little surprising and even disappointing (despite the thrilling nature of the death scene) to see the big bad, Emperor-type guy go down in the middle film of the trilogy, especially when his character and backstory still remain such a mystery. But perhaps this is setting up Ren to be the big villain in the final movie, and/or we'll learn more about Snoke in flashbacks.

I already enjoyed the bitchy, contentious relationship between General Hux and Kylo Ren in Force Awakens, and in this movie it gets even more entertaining. They've never agreed which one of them is really in charge, and when Hux finds Ren unconscious on the floor of Snoke's throne room, with Snoke's dismembered corpse lying nearby, he reaches for his pistol, hoping to decide things once and for all. When Ren wakes up, Hux puts the gun away again. Then Ren starts shouting orders. Hux objects, but a Force choke from Ren quickly changes his mind. I look forward to more of their squabbling in the next movie. Long live the Supreme Leader!

As Rey returns to her Resistance friends, she shows that she's learned enough about Ren to know how to push his buttons. Rey and Chewie fly the Millenium Falcon down into the middle of the final battle and draw off most of the First Order fighters, giving the Resistance a chance to attack (even if ultimately that attack fails). Ren just cannot resist sending his fighters after his father's old home. He needs to kill all the history embodied by that ship.

Of course, Luke also knows how to push Ren's buttons. In the final sequence of the film, Skywalker finally does come back into the world to save the Resistance - in a way. We're given a number of clues that he's not entirely what he seems. His face is younger than we've seen it recently - it looks more like the way it did the last time Ren saw him, the fateful night the school was destroyed. And the lightsaber Luke carries and duels Ren with is, impossibly, the blue-bladed one Ren and Rey have just destroyed, and not the green-bladed one Luke himself constructed and has wielded for years.

What Luke has decided to do is to give the world back the legend of Luke Skywalker, because he has realized it has its uses after all. It can give hope to the downtrodden, and maybe it can even "light the spark that will burn down the First Order." It can also give the Resistance time to escape out the backdoor of that old Rebel base - as well as royally piss off Kylo Ren. So not Luke himself, but a Force projection of Luke steps out and faces down not just Kylo Ren, but the entire First Order. When the enraged Kylo orders all guns to fire at his old master, the untouchable Luke steps out of the smoke and brushes dust off his shoulder in one of the more mythically bad-ass Star Wars moments.

Luke has found his balance, his middle way. When Ren insists that soon the Resistance and the Jedi will all be dead, Luke can confidently state that no, he's wrong. The Resistance will go on, and Luke will not be the last Jedi. Rey carries with her both Luke's strengths, and the knowledge of his failures, and armed with those, she and the Resistance have hope. Plus she can lift rocks like a bad-ass.

The Force-projected duel against Ren costs Luke more than he has to give, and he vanishes shortly after, becoming one with the Force. In the final scene, the little stable boys on Canto Bight are telling Luke Skywalker's story, reenacting, with their own homemade action figures, his mythical standoff with the First Order. Interrupted in this play by his master and tormentor, one of the boys steps out into the night and picks up a broom (or does the broom jump toward his hand, as if called there by some force?) and stares up into the starry sky, full of hope and wonder.

It's a beautiful scene, and I see it as Rian Johnson's love letter to the story of Star Wars itself - the legend of a farm boy who flies out into the stars and discovers he's much stronger than he ever knew; that maybe his actions can help save the galaxy from evil. It's a story that can give hope to people even during the worst of times.

The new trilogy so far has indeed been making some small progress in killing the past. We lost Han in Force Awakens, and now Luke (and Admiral Ackbar) in Last Jedi. And with Carrie Fisher gone, we will have to lose Leia, as well - a loss that will presumably have to be explained in the next movie, as Johnson decided to let her performance stand as it was in this film. That's all three of the classic trilogy's main heroes gone. The baton must now be passed to the new heroes - Rey and Finn and Poe and Rose and maybe even Ben/Kylo - and I feel confident they will carry it well.

Before his final duel with Ren, Luke has a quick scene with Leia, where he gets to apologize for failing her and her son (it's about time!), and to give her a little hope. In the film, Luke is referring to Han when he says, "No one's ever really gone," but the fact that it's also Mark Hamill talking to Carrie Fisher gives the scene even more power than it would otherwise have had. Our Princess and our General, she will indeed never really be gone. She lives on in these great films, for one.

Johnson sought balance in the way he told his Star Wars story - taking what was best from the old films, but setting aside their mistakes and learning from them - focusing the story more on POC and women, for one thing. There were maybe a few more story elements taken from the old films than was totally necessary, but all in all, I think he struck a pretty fine balance, and told a great story - a Star Wars story. It will not be the last story told about Jedi - not by a long shot. And thank God for that.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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