Film Critique Fridays Special Edition - Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi - Part 1 of 2: The (Not-so) Subtle Art of Subversion / by M. Glenn Gore

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Absolutely honkin' huge SPOILERS ahead!

It probably won't come as a galloping shock to you or anyone, really, to learn I wasn't an enormous fan of The Force Awakens. The new characters were fun and engaging, sure, but while everyone around me was carrying on like Tom Jones was in the building, I sadly found my enjoyment waning the longer the movie ran. While my friends were elated and relieved that Star Wars was back (we had been robbed of it for a time, you see, by those garish prequels), I felt left out of the high, electing to mostly stay quiet in the aftershow parking lot meet-up so as not to rain on whatever parade I had apparently just missed. I wanted so much to love that movie, but I didn't. I liked it. For the most part. At the time, that was the best I could muster.

And that's all on me. I accept that. I simply wasn't prepared for just how much of an homage/tribute/re-tread to/of A New Hope it was going to be. Looking backward now, I honestly don't know what else I expected from master Xerox artist JJ Abrams, whom, at this point, had become best known for his big budget replicas (and in the case of Star Trek Into Darkness, full-on ripoffs) of other directors' films and styles.

                                                                               KHAAAAAAAAA --  Ah, forget it.

                                                                             KHAAAAAAAAA -- Ah, forget it.

The decision to use The Force Awakens as a kind of $300 million reset button (Yikes! It hurts to even type that) was instantly validated, however, when I reached the closing credits of The Last Jedi, the ninth and bleakest installment in the harder-to-kill-than-cancer-despite-some-downright-Hank-Aaronian-swings-for-the-fence Star Wars franchise. Written and directed with near-vengeful execution by Rian Johnson (Looper, Breaking Bad), this film makes its predecessor look like 120 minutes of Muppet Babies repeats, both in tone and sheer thematic heft, and that's when I finally understood why it had to be this way. If we had started here in 2015, the auditorium following the first show would have looked like this:

                                                                                  I believe you're in my seat.

                                                                                 I believe you're in my seat.

You don't start with a chapter like The Last Jedi. You can't. A movie like this has to be earned, revved up to. It's a vault that requires momentum to hurdle. Picking up nearly where The Force Awakens ends, Episode VIII reunites us with Luke Skywalker surrogate, Rey, and Obi-Wan Kenobi surrogate, Luke Skywalker, who has exiled himself to the island world of Ahch-To following the wholesale slaughter of his students at the hands of Kylo Ren because, as far as I can tell, the Jedi retirement plan consists mostly of, "lose everything you love, hermit yourself on the dump planet of your choice, slowly come unglued."

Rey, played with fearless conviction by Daisy Ridley, whose craft has matured admirably in the last two years, is both at her applause-worthy strongest and heart-wrenching weakest in this outing. She wants Luke to help her get the band back together (read: rejoin the Resistance) and hopefully school her in the ways of the Force along the way, but he's not having it. He's been to this square dance before, and would probably welcome having his other hand lopped off in lieu of taking on another wide-eyed, idealistic pupil.

Seriously, Luke is a ghost here, a mere shell of himself, and outside of his stellar voice-over work in the Batman Animated Series, I have never seen Mark Hamill more confident. He is racked with guilt, swallowed up by the totality of his botched effort to save Kylo Ren from the Dark Side. He refuses Rey's call, and answers with one of his own: Put an end to the Jedi Order, for good. Because, in the end, what have they accomplished? For all their centuries of sermonizing, of pious policing and ineffectual oversight, the worlds are still at war. Only the names and faces of the combatants have changed. The old wisdom borne out of the Jedi Council (you remember what a fun bunch they were) has failed spectacularly to lead us into a future that is anything save for trial and fire, and this is what is (mostly) at the film's core. Notice that I said "core" and not "heart."

                                                                Pictured: All the good the Jedi have done.

                                                               Pictured: All the good the Jedi have done.

While Rey attempts to get Luke back in the game, on the other side of the galaxy, General Leia Organa, played as assuredly as she is elegantly by the late Carrie Fisher, leads the tattered scraps of the Resistance, and believe me when I tell you she is utilized to perfection this time around. That it took us this long to see this Leia onscreen is a crime.

Supreme Leader Snoke (rocking a gold tinfoil smoking jacket straight out of Elton John's Goodwill donations) and the First Order have them on the ropes. Oscar Isaac returns as hotshot X-Wing pilot/man-baby Poe Dameron, whose brazen recklessness at their last campaign cost the Rebels dearly, putting their surviving number on the literal run. He fancies himself leadership material, at all times attempting to save the day the only way he knows how, which is very much the problem. His character arc in Last Jedi is so very satisfying, and I'll be giving it its due diligence in Part 2. John Boyega's Finn, freshly healed from his ill-advised run-in with Kylo Ren at the climax of Force Awakens, is also back in action. And by that, I mean he's once again attempting to desert the Resistance, a plotline I would be grateful if we could just let die.

Unlike Poe's, Finn's character arc is unnecessarily repeated here. The difference this time is he is taken to task for his cowardice and selfishness by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran's earnest and sincere Rose Tico, a maintenance worker in the Resistance. This is a theme played thrice throughout the film, that being women who deny the ids and egos of the men around them who threaten, albeit unknowingly, to jeopardize everything at stake. She refuses to let Finn run away, opens his eyes to the true enemy every space battle and lightsaber duel thus far has failed to snuff out, and ultimately sets them both on a weird and arguably pointless (but not really) trek into RPG side quest territory. More on that later, too.

                                                                         Rose Tico has unlocked Gold Chocobo.

                                                                        Rose Tico has unlocked Gold Chocobo.

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren, whose path in this new trilogy is rapidly becoming its strongest and most memorable thread thanks in no small part to Adam Driver, finds himself at a crossroads. Rebuked by Snoke for his defeat at the hands of Rey and openly chided for his childish, misguided hero worship of Darth Vader, the seeds of one of Last Jedi's most jaw-dropping reveals are laid when he discovers he can Force-Skype Rey on the other end of the galaxy. These scenes are simply amazing. They do double duty as any good scene should, drawing these opposing characters into such close emotional and physical collision while also deftly expanding on the unknown capabilities of the Force.

So let me talk about that for a second. We see the Force do a number of things new to the Star Wars mythos in this episode. We witness Rey and Kylo Ren communicating telepathically across the cosmos, at one point even going so far as to actually bridge the physical barrier between them; we see Leia, in a moment that took nearly four decades to deliver, use the Force to propel herself through the dead of space, illustrating in seconds that she has been busy these last thirty years; and the coup de grace, the Kamehameha, the tip of Everest, we see Luke astral project himself across light years and whole worlds to confront his former student, proving in an instant that his mastery of the Force is beyond our narrow scope of understanding, and that for all his power, Ren still has much to learn. In a word, it is beautiful.

                               I swear we're only one movie away from this by now.

                              I swear we're only one movie away from this by now.

At first, I thought it was kind of absurd, over the top, even. I mean, we've never seen anyone in the Star Wars universe do this, right? Then I realized I needed to shut up. Each trilogy has always shown us new aspects of the Force. The originals showed us it could control minds, project illusions, levitate people and objects, and even summon lightning. The prequels compounded what we already knew of its ability to enhance the user's physical skill in the way Anakin could pilot a pod racer and in how Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi could Force Dash through the Trade Federation flagship.

It only stood to reason this new trilogy would present us with an updated set of Force powers and abilities, and it did not disappoint. After all, we haven't seen Luke and Leia in thirty years. We have no idea what they've been up to, what adventures they've been on together, though I'm certain they were fighting the powers of darkness side by side the way God always intended brothers and sisters to do.  The kung fu lover in me really wishes we could see one final movie all about their training to reach their current power levels. I'd take that over a Han Solo standalone any day of the week.

So why then is this titled, "The (Not-so) Subtle Art of Subversion"? Because storytelling is a language all its own, and the longer you live, the more stories you hear, hopefully. The more you read, the more movies you watch, the more you learn about plot structure, character motivation, setups and payoffs, and tropes. We know what tropes are; we see them everywhere and in everything, and while they can be fun, they exist for a reason. Tropes are the inevitable result of there basically only being so many types of story you can tell. Tropes lead to convention. Convention begets expectation. And expectation, particularly fan expectation in the case of The Last Jedi, is the mother of disappointment.

The Last Jedi excels as a film, as a story, and as a continuation of the Star Wars saga because it knows the fans' expectations. It uses the false sense of security its eight predecessors and, yes, everything else you've consumed up to this point have laid to subvert those  expectations. After The Force Awakens released, there was barely a corner of the Internet that wasn't buzzing with fan theories about where the saga would go next. Some of the theories were good, most were not, but they all fed into a narrative that it was our place as fans to ask for, even demand, those theories be validated by the revelations of the next installment. Was Rey Luke's daughter? Was she a long lost Kenobi? And what about Snoke? Was he Palpatine resurrected? Was he Mace Windu's ghost? I wish I was making up that last one.

                                            "That's a stupid-ass, mothafuckin' idea. You know that, right?"

                                           "That's a stupid-ass, mothafuckin' idea. You know that, right?"

We believed we were owed not just answers to these questions, but our answers! But here's the kicker. That mentality, that pervasive entitlement that has all but become the uniform of the so-called "true" fans everywhere on the spectrum from Rick & Morty to Steven Universe, it is flawed beyond reason and entirely self-defeating. Why? Because it can only lead to your complete and utter disappointment. These franchises owe you nothing. And obsessing over something does not entitle you to a reciprocation or even an acknowledgement of that obsession.

Rey's parents? Surprise! They were nobodies! They were actually worse than nobodies. They were the kind of people DSS would have had incarcerated. Rey is as devastated by the revelation she does not hail from Star Wars nobility, from a lordly line, as an embarrassingly large portion of the audience was, and that is not an accident. It's the best thing that could have happened. The Force doesn't belong to the Jedi. Greatness is not by pedigree.  It's not as though only the Skywalker lineage can produce heroes. That's the equivalent of saying only George Washington's descendants can lead our armies. Only Thomas Edison's family is allowed to invent things.

                                                      Only a noseless asshole would think something like that!

                                                     Only a noseless asshole would think something like that!

And Snoke's origin? Jesus, who cares? Snoke, at best, was a red herring, a boring placeholder designed to be such a blatant and laughable knockoff of Palpatine that we'd welcome his eventual and unceremonious demise. I breathed a sigh of relief when Kylo Ren gutted him before launching into the coolest lightsaber fight ever because it meant yet another shackle slavishly tethering us to the old ideas was thankfully broken.

And to everyone let down by what Luke became, while it may not be what you wanted, it is what the franchise needed. A hero who cannot be broken is boring. A hero with regret, however, with a worldview shattered by crisis and failure, that is something else entirely. The future may not be in the hands of Luke Skywalker anymore, but his part in the story isn't over. Luke returns, in a fashion, at the climax on Crait, not to duel Kylo Ren in typical Star Wars fashion, but to buy time for Leia and the Resistance to escape, to "keep the Light alive." What the Rebels witnessed in that moment, one man standing down the First Order all alone, is the stuff of legend. It will be talked about for ages to come, and as evidenced by the final scene, will give rise to a new Rebellion. This is why I said "core" earlier instead of "heart."

Hope is at the heart of The Last Jedi, hope that we'll learn from our past failures and use them as fuel for the fire that lights a better tomorrow instead of continuing the same sad and vicious cycle that has netted only wars of varying names and lengths, and produced more corpses than heroes. Rey saved the ancient Jedi texts, making manifest the belief that even she will not be the last Jedi. It is an amazing time for the Star Wars universe, and I have to say, I am more excited for the next installment than I have been in a very long while.

In Part 2, I'll cover the other characters' paths in greater detail, particularly the many women of The Last Jedi and their wealth of contributions to the success of the film. I'll dive into the pros and cons, I'll address some of the fans' more absurd complaints, and I'll finally give my rating. Stay tuned.