Sunday, December 17, 2017

Why Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi is Good for Star Wars (SPOILERS)

I won't beat around the bush: I absolutely love The Last Jedi. It was the movie that I've been daring to hope for, finally giving me faith that the Disney era of Star Wars can offer its own thing but still have the timelessness and emotional power that many of the other numbered saga films possess. I'm still too excited, even several days after watching the movie, to put together something tightly-written that would resemble a review, so bear with me as I get my thoughts down on how this movie delivered what I wanted...no, what I needed, and what Star Wars itself needed in order to MATTER to a new generation. More importantly, if you're skeptical of this movie, maybe I can shed some light on why I think this is the right step forward. I'm not an expert. I'm not a critic. I'm just a fan so excited about something that I have to write about it. The internet is a toxic place where honesty and respect rarely go hand in hand, but maybe, just maybe, I can bear my soul and at least show you how I see The Last Jedi.


I was not the world's biggest fan of Episode VII: The Force Awakens (TFA). I am not going to blast that movie to lift up The Last Jedi (TLJ), but if you were around a couple of years ago and heard the F This Movie podcast on that film, you might remember me having a pretty lukewarm reaction to the first Disney-produced Star Wars movie in the same way that a lot of people on the internet are having a tepid reaction to this film. I've spent the last two years feeling almost ashamed that I didn't love TFA. I thought I would come to love it in time like I love all the other Star Wars movies, but that never really happened. The problem for me was that, while TFA looked like Star Wars and sounded like Star Wars, there was something missing. That something was an overall place in the saga, a reason for existing beyond introducing people and places and things, because the people and places and things that we met in TFA didn't really seem to be heading toward anything. They were compelling crusaders in need of a crusade.

With other initial installments of the past two trilogies, the world and the stakes and the mission were very clear. In Episode IV: A New Hope, George Lucas introduces us to a galaxy torn apart by war. We don't need to know the particulars of the war, only that there is an evil Empire that is so big that all who oppose it will most likely fail. Yet, the Rebel Alliance has chosen to embark on what is essentially a suicide mission, the underdogs who fight for good, and we are instantly on their side. Lucas introduced us to characters we almost instantly cared about because they were the archetypes of myth and legend as outlined by Joseph Campbell's book Hero with a Thousand Faces. Those characters represented the same ones that had been recurring in myth since time began, and we immediately identified with them. Similarly, A New Hope introduces us to the idea of The Force, a spiritually-intangible concept that is fleshed out enough in that very first movie that we have a basic understanding of good, evil, light, dark, and the basic power that the Jedi Knights are able to tap into. Heroes are born through great deeds, and that movie leaves us with all we need. It is complete. The other movies are just icing on a wonderful cake.
Similarly, the first installment of the Prequel Trilogy, Episode I: The Phantom Menace does a ton of world building, showing us a Jedi Order that lives in opulence and pays lip service to the ideas of The Force and the light side, but has become corrupted from within, like the twilight of Rome. We see that they have become lazy, hidden away in towers and spires, while the people below are suffering. Ultimately, The Phantom Menace is about the decay of the establishment and the rise of the underdog and their refusal to bow down to tyranny, as told through the very kid-friendly players of Gungans, Jedi, and evil robots led by an evil in the shadows. There are podraces and space battles and lots of action beats with Jedi taking apart droids in awesome ways, but The Phantom Menace is fundamentally about building a world that is different from the one we knew from the Original Trilogy.

My biggest issue with Disney's previous effort is that I don't think The Force Awakens does any world building at all. It uses the exact same visual language that fans knew from the Original Trilogy, with only minor tweaks to the ships and the aesthetic. Even though it takes place some thirty years after Return of the Jedi, we leave that movie with no better idea of what state the galaxy is in. We learn terms like First Order, Republic, and Resistance, but we're given very little understanding as to what this world is like, who runs it, and why we should care one way or the other. More focus is put on the characters, and the new faces we meet in the movie are wonderful in that they are fun to watch and are easy to relate to. But, because the movie balances out the new characters with legacy characters, we never get to spend enough time with anyone to find out much about the new faces. In the case of Rey, she's a big, empty avatar. She's the living embodiment of J.J. Abrams' "mystery box," and a mystery box works fine for plot devices, but not for lead characters.
This all sounds like I'm dogging TFA, which is not my intention. I like that movie quite a bit, but I couldn't shake my feelings that there were crucial elements that were absent: no revelations or examinations of The Force, no idea who Rey really was and what arc her character was on, no clear stakes as to why we should care if the Resistance wins or loses, and--most importantly--none of the fairy tale mythology that is a hallmark of the series. It didn't help when we found out that there hadn't been any story development beyond the first chapter by J.J. and crew, and that this was all being pretty much made up as the filmmakers went along. We didn't know who Rey was, and neither did the people making the movies.

Star Wars is about more than lasers and lightsabers and space battles. Star Wars is Space Opera with wizards and knights and evil magicians and princesses and monsters. TFA got a lot of those things right, but it left out the mythology. And in case you're wondering where I stand on Rogue One, I really like it a lot (I saw it three times in theaters), but it's definitely more fan service and not something that further evolves the myth of Star Wars. Hey, fan service is okay. I've read scores of novels and hundreds of comics that did the exact same thing, and at the end of the day, Rogue One achieves what those books and comics accomplish: it tells a really cool story set in the Star Wars galaxy. But what Rogue One doesn't do is really change or expand how we see Star Wars. Those are things that I don't expect from a side story, but that are essential from the numbered Star Wars saga films. The side films can play with ancillary stories, but the numbered films need to be mythic.
Now we have Rian Johnson's Episode VIII: The Last Jedi and it is everything this Star Wars junkie has been wanting from a Star Wars movie since he first heard about the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm years ago. Judging by the reviews and the videos popping up on YouTube and online, this is a very divisive movie that has really angered some hardcore Star Wars fans and left some people completely cold. For me, I think it's outstanding Star Wars storytelling, brimming with the heroism, the sacrifice, the magic, and the myth of Star Wars at its best.

********************Remember, this piece you're reading (I can't call it a review, because it's not) is full of SPOILERS, so if you haven't seen the movie, read at your own risk.*******************

First and foremost, TLJ succeeds because it establishes the appropriate context for the world we are watching. Though we still don't know who Supreme Leader Snoke really is, we do know that he's the guy in charge of the galaxy, something like a half-baked stand-in for the Emperor. He has united the fractured elements of what was the Empire and vowed to snuff out the last of The Resistance. On that note, that's another thing this movie establishes: The Resistance is pretty much once again the Rebellion, and we leave this movie with a firm grasp that the Rebels are our heroes because they oppose the tyranny of The First Order, a name that Snoke no doubt came up with. I think in the end, we don't know much about Snoke because Snoke just isn't very important. He was like a giant misdirect, and it's pretty clear now that the ultimate evil in the galaxy is Kylo Ren, not some shadowy figure on a throne in a red room. Emperor Palpatine was critical to the story of Star Wars, but we still didn't know where he came from or who he really was until the Prequels, sixteen years later. Snoke is not a key player; who he is doesn't matter, and this movie makes that abundantly clear.
Most importantly, it re-energizes the mythology that is such a vital part of this saga. We witness the return of Luke Skywalker, revelations about the Jedi Order and their corruption, discussion of the balance of The Force, and the ultimate realization that for things to continue, there must be change and admission of failure by our heroes. Rian Johnson has paid homage to the past and the road that got us here, but he's also advancing the story forward in a very significant way. This movie is absolutely steeped in the myth that George Lucas established, but it's not beholden to it. The story Rian Johnson tells is the next logical step in the ever-evolving Skywalker saga. Yes, Luke was a hero and believed his own hype. He had the hubris to think that he could raise the next generation of Jedi. He failed in teaching Kylo Ren, and spent (wasted) years hating himself for it and meditating on his mistake. But in the end, when all is said and done, Luke has indeed trained the next generation of Jedi. The torch has been passed. Rian Johnson proves that Luke really is the hero of legend we always thought he was. It strengthens and affirms the past while moving forward.

Going in to this movie, I was thinking that the one thing I wouldn't be able to handle would be the death of Luke Skywalker. I didn't really expect them to kill him off in this movie, especially since we've already lost Han in the last movie and Carrie Fisher passed away tragically last year, but I knew it was a possibility. The Skywalker twins are a necessary connection (the last connection) to the previous trilogy, and I thought it would be smart to keep Luke around until Episode IX. But Luke DOES die, and I find myself completely okay with the decision. This movie gives me every moment I ever wanted to see with Luke. It gives me whiny Luke (as seen here in his final, beautiful lesson with Master Yoda), it gives me heroic Luke (in his duel with Kylo Ren), and it finally gives me the wise Jedi Master I've always wanted to see (when he sacrifices all and becomes one with The Force). No actor could ask for a better death scene, as twin suns set on the island of Ahch-To and Luke joins his father and his teachers in the Living Force. Goosebumps just typing that, you guys. And with Luke one with The Force, Hamill can come back at any time (I suspect we'll see Force Ghost Luke in Ep IX).
I love the maturity and understanding of the script. I love that Rian Johnson has a lot to say about The Force and the Jedi Order. People like myself criticize The Force Awakens for playing things way too safe (which proved to be a good financial decision for Disney), but here they've taken big chances and allowed Star Wars to go into some unexplored territory. This movie is anything but safe. These movies were built on the idea of Jedi Knights and the corruption that led to their downfall. This movie says that yes, the Jedi were imperfect, and that the Jedi lost their place because they were too focused on the holy text and the IDEA of the Force and were not plugged into the living Force that surrounds and binds all things. There's an applicable religious lesson in there, too, if you ask me. When we see Yoda (PUPPET YODA! YES!) give his final lesson to Luke, it's an admission of the failure of the Jedi, and that failure is the greatest teacher. Teachers are a big part of my life (I'm married to one), and a teacher can verify the truth of Yoda's line that "We are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all masters." The pain of being a teacher is watching your students surpass you. It's a beautiful sentiment, and represents a wonderful trajectory for the character of Yoda, who is the only Star Wars character we've spent any time with who has the perspective of all three trilogies.

Which brings me to another point. This movie doesn't shy away from the Prequels, and that's a good thing. I'm so tired of people bashing the Prequels. Those movies made over two-and-a-half BILLION dollars in theaters when they came out and they were the portal that millions of children walked through into a galaxy far, far away. Flawed movies? You betcha. Excessive? Yup. But they still have wonderful things to say and are absolutely essential to the Star Wars mythology, and Rian Johnson knows that. His movie takes place in a world where the Prequels totally happened, and he doesn't avoid the impact of those movies. Furthermore, in my opinion, the whole Canto Bight subplot, complete with CGI race-horse-aliens and funny little characters, is straight out of the Prequels. And I loved it.
Tonally, this is a mature movie with a lot on its mind, but balanced with popcorn entertainment and all the hallmarks of great Star Wars. Just like George Lucas was able to do in at least some of his Star Wars movies, we have bigger ideas on good and evil, responsibility, redemption, and sacrifice (I'm thinking Return of the Jedi), surrounded by exciting space battles, cool lightsaber duels, and high adventure straight out of Saturday serials like Flash Gordon. I love that this movie deals with a new generation struggling to find their place in this battle, while at the same time we have an older generation struggling with exactly the same thing. Whereas I was disappointed in The Force Awakens because it snatched away a happy ending for all our characters without really justifying WHY,  I feel like The Last Jedi does justify the pain that our characters have endured. I love the idea that the battles that the Rebels fought in the Original Trilogy have resurfaced for a whole new generation. Without getting too political, if you look at our own world right now, you'll see one where it seems as if the Civil Rights movement never happened. The sixties revolution might as well have been a hundred years ago. The fight for justice, equality, and consequences for those who have the money to buy immunity for horrible behavior is never-ending. It's all a big cycle. We fight a battle, and if we're lucky, we live long enough to fight those battles again when they pop up in the next generation. The Last Jedi understands that the struggle is endless, but is filled with something we haven't had in Star Wars for a while: HOPE.

Hope might as well be another character in this film. And it's a good thing, too, because Hope is what this series was founded upon, and it's been a driving element in the saga of Luke Skywalker. Now that hope lies in Rey, who is no one from nowhere, no destiny written in the stars, no prophesies of a chosen one, simply a person who decides to make a difference. That hope exists in the characters of Poe Dameron, who will carry on the legacy of General Leia, and in characters like Finn and Rose. And that hope exists in the final shot of the film as another no one from nowhere looks into the sky and feels a fire slowly building within.
For all the praise I have for this movie, I am aware of its shortcomings. While I personally really enjoy the whole Canto Bight casino planet subplot, I realize that there is no real need for it to be in the movie other than to give Finn and Rose something to do. While we are at it, there really isn't a reason for Finn to be in this movie, if you think about things structurally. Finn's story arc was concluded at the end of the previous movie, and he really shouldn't be here because there's nothing for him to do. His greatest contribution would have been sacrificing himself for the greater good, and any future involvement in these movies is really just a testament to how much people like him as a character, not out of any story need. As I write this, I am FULLY AWARE that I've just described Han Solo in most of the Original Trilogy, after his natural exit could have (should have?) been his being frozen in carbonite. Harrison Ford has said for years that Han would have had greater impact in death than in life because his story was essentially told after A New Hope. He finally got his wish in The Force Awakens, and I've been mad at Harrison Ford for two years because of it, but I finally get it. For all the fans of FN-2187 (including me), I appreciate that Finn is still around. We need leaders, not martyrs, as the movie tells us.

Most importantly, Rian Johnson remembers that STAR WARS IS FOR KIDS. It doesn't pander to children and it doesn't play like a family movie, but make no mistake, Star Wars is and always has been for the young and for the young at heart. It's about dreaming huge dreams and being the best you can be. It's about leaving the farm and becoming a part of something bigger. The Last Jedi is about all of these things, and as we leave our characters, they have all contributed to the big picture.
I could go on for 50 more pages: Rian Johnson seems to be working at least partially in Ring Theory, a device George Lucas appears to have used that was discovered and brought to the forefront by Mike Klimo (Google Mike Klimo Ring Theory and prepare to never watch these movies the same way again). There are echoes of past Star Wars, especially of The Empire Strikes Back, but this is not a beat-for-beat remake of that film. This is bold new territory, told with confidence, heart, understanding, and grace. Every actor and every performance is wonderful. Daisy Ridley has so much more to do in this movie than in the last, and she rises to the occasion. John Boyega's character has become a true hero, worthy of the saga. Oscar Isaac is turning into a great leader but brings some of the scoundrel swagger we loved about Han Solo. When Rian Johnson introduced the actor that plays Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) at the last Star Wars Celebration, he told us all that we would love her. He was right. Adam Driver is fantastic as an evil that we've never seen in Star Wars before, conflicted and torn, but ultimately driven by rage, fear, and hate, all the things we've been taught lead to destruction. Laura Dern is a new hero to the saga, but it feels like she's always been around. She joins the pantheon of great Rebel leaders like Admiral Ackbar and General Dodonna. Carrie Fisher is sharp, strong, and as radiant as Leia has ever been on screen. She's such a crucial element of this movie, and I miss her terribly, though I never met her. Mark Hamill is everything I ever thought Luke Skywalker could be as an aged Jedi Master, powerful, but as human as always, and this--in my opinion--is an Academy-Award-worthy performance. Every single character in this movie has an arc, a trajectory, and is changed by the events of The Last Jedi. Luke is gone, but he's passed the torch to one final student in Rey, The Last Jedi...a new hope. Echoes of the past. New verses of the same song.

The Last Jedi is not a perfect movie, but perfect movies are the rare unicorns of film. I'm not wild about some of the jokes, which feel out of place for this storytelling world, but in the end, that doesn't matter. I've already mentioned that it's divisive, but what movie in the last five years has not divided the internet right down the middle? We argue about DC vs. Marvel and pick things apart on the internet, but the internet doesn't speak for the majority. As I like to say, time is the ultimate equalizer, and I have little doubt that time will elevate The Last Jedi to the same status as The Empire Strikes Back (which isn't even my fave) in the minds of the public. If you have doubts, just sit back and wait a few years. We are reluctant to change, especially when it challenges our expectations. Then we look back and say "that was actually  better than I thought." Everything gets equalized by time. This movie needed to be different. It needed to shake things up and tear down the status quo so that bigger, better things can be born. If we want Star Wars around in the future, then it has to go into a new direction. This movie does just that while staying very close to the overall thematic vision that George Lucas established.
This is all just my take and my opinion (yours is equally valid), but I love this movie so much I don't even need Episode IX. I mean, I suppose I want to see how things end between Rey and Kylo, but The Last Jedi is such a satisfying movie for me that I'm completely content. To borrow a phrase from another franchise, the Lord of the Rings, "the road goes ever on." There will be more battles, more wins, more losses, more sacrifice, and more trials to come. But for now, The Last Jedi has given me everything that I could ever want from a Star Wars movie. I'm consumed by Star Wars in a way that I haven't been since the end of the Prequels, over a decade ago. My thoughts are filled with the deeds of heroes and the fight against an evil that seems insurmountable. Like the little boy at the end of the movie, my imagination is filled with the deeds of Luke Skywalker and a plucky band of Rebels, and my eyes turn to the skies, to my dreams. The Last Jedi brings us the end of several of our heroes, but it also shows us that the cycle continues over and over. Old life dies and new life is born, and with that new life, the adventure begins anew.

Thank you Rian Johnson. Your Star Wars story has made my cynicism fall away and it's given me back something I thought I'd lost: it's made me feel like a kid again.





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