Film Critique Fridays Special Edition - Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi - Part 2 of 2: The Women of a Galaxy Far, Far Away / by M. Glenn Gore


So many SPOILERS ahead!

As promised, I'm going to attempt to cover a number of topics in the conclusion to my review of The Last Jedi, and what better place to start than with what works?

First of all, this movie is a visual smorgasbord (that word never looks like it's spelled right), a feast for your eyes and, if you were lucky enough to view it in Dolby Atmos, a treat for your ears. The worlds visited in this episode are sweeping and genuinely breathtaking, and that is no small feat given the locations this series has already invited us to explore. The island planet of Ahch-To, home to the first Jedi Temple, is a vibrant swath of lush green jutting from foreboding, turbulent waters. The strikingly stark red and white salt wastes of Crait, with its crystalline, foxlike Vulptex critters, hearken back to not only Empire Strikes Back's ice world Hoth, but also any number of American Westerns, and serves as a more than fitting stage for a final showdown. Supreme Leader Snoke's throne room is a piece of art, a near-installation piece comprised of opposing metallic black and saturated crimson planes, and host to a scene soon to be inducted into the all-time Star Wars Hall of Greats.

                                                                       It must cost an arm and a leg to heat.

                                                                       It must cost an arm and a leg to heat.

The opulent casino palace on Canto Bight, while the least alien thing you'll see in the movie, is designed with purpose that I'll expound on momentarily.

Even the ship designs are worthy of note, which is something I haven't been able to say about Star Wars in a while. The Dreadnought is gorgeous, as much a testament to and an illustration of the First Order's unapologetically militarized id as any Nazi regalia it is meant to invoke. The outdated, rickety, asymmetrical Crait speeders were pitch perfect, serving as an ideal visual metaphor for the shaky ground upon which the Resistance precariously stands.

And the sound design? My God! You just have to hear it. The lightsaber battle in Snoke's throne room is a crisp, piercing soundscape that plays with gleeful, explosive moments of tension and release that come and go in waves until you realize you haven't been breathing for several seconds. The destruction of Canto Bight's casino palace is percussive, with the thunder of stampeding Fathier (a kind of alien horse) hoofbeats and decadent walls of gold and stained glass crashing down one after the other, another metaphor to be certain. But the most memorable piece of audio design belongs to the obliteration of the First Order fleet at the hands of Vice-Admiral Holdo, a scant few seconds of positively awe-inspiring destruction that play wholly without sound, which, in a movie all about sound, is inspired. I could literally hear everyone in the theater gasp.

So, I'll be the one to say it. I loved what they did with the characters in this one.

Adam Driver's Kylo Ren has, in a single movie, become exactly what I hoped he would be as this trilogy's big bad. In fact, he's grown into what I feared he might never be, and that is, following his defeat in Force Awakens, a legitimate threat. But in another subversion of our expectations for what a villain should and shouldn't be, Ren has shown himself to be so much more than a black hat. Full of conflict, desire, rejection, and uncertainty, his arc is more nuanced than Darth Vader's ever was, and while I don't believe he'll ever match classic Vader's now-iconic and intimidating stature, what he brings in its stead is a different kind of menace. Kylo Ren is a wild card. Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Malcolm would say he, "wields power like a child who's found his dad's gun." Ren is vulnerable, unstable, impatient, angry, powerful, and now in complete control of the First Order, the largest military force in the universe. Basically everything you don't want a wild animal that shows up in your house to be. I don't know what happens next, but it's a safe bet it's going to be catastrophic. 

Luke basically ended up in the exact same place Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi did before him, suggesting to me that being a Jedi is a path that just leads to isolation and regret. And let's be honest, what soldier doesn't come back from war without regret, without scars, even when that war is won? Han Solo and Leia's marriage was shattered by their son's turn to the Dark Side and subsequent deeds. It's harsh, but it isn't at all outside of the norm. No one ever wants to see their heroes change, which is tacitly unreasonable. I accept that seeing your favorite character ride off into the sunset is a fair indication they lived a long and happy life, but when you demand a visit after not speaking to them for THIRTY YEARS, I regret to inform you you're sticking your head in the lion's mouth.

                                                "This is your fault. You should've let me die! NOW look at me!"

                                                "This is your fault. You should've let me die! NOW look at me!"

To talk about what works with Last Jedi, we have to talk about the women. There are no damsels here, thankfully, only a number of incredible female characters who, by and large, do the vast majority of the film's heavy lifting, which is wholly to its benefit.

Carrie Fisher's Leia is the best she's ever been, stronger and more mature in her role than she was even in the original trilogy, and that's saying a lot. Witnessing her staggering mastery of the Force was a welcome delight. She is given so much to do in this outing, a favorable contrast to her too-small part in The Force Awakens. She is the last one holding on, the light at the center of the Resistance. Where Luke was always the hope of the originals, Leia is the heart. She never gave up the struggle even though there remains nary an end in sight, and this was a proper sendoff for her character.

Daisy Ridley's second turn as Rey delivers in spades. I applaud the filmmakers for being willing to say she doesn't have it all figured out yet. Backwards thinking and foolishly beholden to the idea of her parentage as the only means of defining her net worth, she is equal parts inner turmoil and outer hope. Rey holds fast to lore, to the past. This is her weakness, and what makes her an easy target for Snoke, Ren, and the First Order. She's been raised on the legends of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi, only the first of world-breaking disappointments she would have to endure in this story. Shaken to the core by what she learns of herself, she soldiers on, determined to be great even if her name is not, to grow beyond what Luke and Yoda and all who've come before her are.

The Last Jedi is, among other things, the story of non-legendary characters colliding with actual legends. Rey, a nobody, is tasked with persuading the Luke Skywalker to return to the fray; she battles for the soul of Han Solo's son; Poe Dameron, a pilot, must carry out the whims and strategies of Leia Organa; and newcomer Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico, a mechanic, is the reason Finn, hero of the Starkiller Base Assault, does an emotional, Third Act about-face and goes from coward to attempted martyr. Having just lost her sister in a disastrous bombing run (Thanks, Poe!), she has no time for deserters, and offers Finn no quarter.

Rose fights for the Resistance because she sincerely believes in what it stands for, not because she's the next in some renowned bloodline, or gifted with amazing Force powers. As with all of the new guard, she shows you don't have to have a great name to do great deeds. Throughout the film, she becomes Finn's moral compass and introduces both him and the audience to the true enemy responsible for all the galaxy's woes.

     And the thought she might one day smash the military-industrial complex fills Rose with determination!

     And the thought she might one day smash the military-industrial complex fills Rose with determination!

In Part 1, I said I would talk about the infamous Canto Bight sequence, so here goes. The scene has been lambasted as being superfluous and pointless, a side quest if you will, padding out an already daunting runtime. It also takes flak for not looking alien enough for an alien world, for resembling Earth too much, but I disagree with both sentiments. While the events set here don't appear to directly affect the main thrust of the storyline, I would argue that what we learn is worth the time spent. Canto Bight is a den of wealthy one-percenters, callous moguls and technology barons who have made their fortunes by supplying arms to both sides of the war. They have grown fat off the suffering of entire worlds, Canto Bight itself being no exception, as we are treated to brutal scenes of animal cruelty and quasi-Dickensian children slaving away in poor conditions, all while set against the extravagant, frivolous lifestyles of the high-rollers living mere meters above them. This is a first for Star Wars, an admittance that the battle is not about good and evil, but greed.

Canto Bight looks like Earth because it is. We're looking at us, at our existence-old doctrine of propaganda and war in the service of material gain, and the sobering notion that if you want to uncover why a problem exists, all you ever need do is see who benefits from it. Star Wars has never been so bold.

                                                                   The  real  Dark Lord of the Sith.

                                                                   The real Dark Lord of the Sith.

Now, I can't in good conscience get out of here without talking about Laura Dern's Vice-Admiral Holdo, who takes over command of the Resistance Fleet when Leia is injured during an earlier attack by Kylo Ren and the First Order. She butts heads with Poe Dameron over how the fleet should be run, which leads to a mutiny and countless more Resistance losses. I mentioned this theme in Part 1, and it's back here. Last Jedi, on three occasions, depicts female characters taking their male counterparts to task for their inaction, as is the case with Luke and Rey, their cowardice, as is the case with Finn and Rose, and their impulsiveness, as is the case with Poe and Holdo. Poe wreaks so much havoc in this movie because he simply doesn't listen. He is hotheaded and reckless, and while these are commonly traits and behaviors male heroes are celebrated for in film, I applaud Last Jedi for exposing them for what they are: dangerous, immature, and yes, toxic.

The era of the loose cannon, of the John McLanes, Martin Riggses, and Dirty Harrys, is over.

                                                                                 And good riddance, punk!

                                                                                 And good riddance, punk!

Holdo is responsible for my favorite moment in the film, a brilliant sequence in which she stands alone on the bridge of the lead Resistance cruiser, sets a collision course for the incoming First Order fleet, and jumps into hyperspace, shredding their Dreadnought and its Star Destroyer group into scrap in a concussive blast sufficient to create a new galaxy. It is amazing! I like to think Jyn Erso would have been proud.

Han Solo warned us long ago of the dangers of going into hyperspace with objects in your navigation path, and now, forty years later, we know why. Her sacrifice, known hereafter as the Holdo Maneuver, is so effective, so devastating, it should just be standard protocol when engaging an enemy fleet. The Resistance should be employing this tactic all the time! You wouldn't even require a human sacrifice. Just put a droid on the bridge or, better yet, program a button that just does this for you.

It's a pity she wasn't in The Force Awakens. I wager her death would have had a greater emotional impact had we been able to spend more time with her. And speaking of deaths, let me briefly talk about Captain Phasma, who is this trilogy's Boba Fett. She looks cool, she has a cool voice, and despite what the filmmakers would have me believe, she doesn't do much. Personally, I don't buy that she died in her battle with Finn, and my hope is she'll return in Episode IX with some righteous burn scars, ready for some good, old-fashioned revenge.

                                       Seriously. Don't just stand there. Do something. No! Don't look at  me!

                                       Seriously. Don't just stand there. Do something. No! Don't look at me!

I have to give this movie credit for its full-throated commitment to diversity. Not only are many of the film's most prominent characters women, but people of color populate nearly every scene. The Resistance is a sea of black and brown faces, as is the First Order. It's the way it should have always been, which, not surprisingly, has been another complaint from the more unhinged recesses of the Internet. Accusations of virtue signaling and feminist agendas and SJWs glut the comment threads on all Last Jedi and Force Awakens videos online, as the previous film was the first real salvo into this new world where women were important and people of color could do more than stand in the background or, if they were fortunate, die to save a straight, white, male character.

And I have to say, if you're one of those people who's somehow offended by seeing women and minorities, you're the problem here, not the film, and there's about fifty years' worth of movies you're free to go watch instead. Star Wars and the rest of us are going on ahead. And you're more than welcome to stay behind.

So, what about cons? Oh, yeah, Last Jedi has them. Some of them bigger than I'd like to admit, but they're in there. The pacing is, without denial, all over the place, particularly where it concerns the Resistance fleet's slow car chase to Crait and the aforementioned Canto Bight sequence. The former is never quite as tense as I think the film wants it to be, and truthfully doesn't reach the nail-biting point until the First Order learns of the thirty small craft attempting to slip past them to the planet surface, and then mercilessly open fire on the lot of them. The latter, sadly, does slow the film's already questionable pace to a standstill. I wish there was another way to say it, but the detour into Canto Bight slays any momentum the film manages to build almost every time we cut back to it. This is dangerous, especially when you consider this scene ends up having minimal impact on the main plotline.

That said, my biggest complaint is easily that at no point do BB-8 and his insidious, First Order doppelganger BB-9E fight each other. Last Jedi goes out of its way to make us aware the dastardly and soulless BB-9E can clearly see his orange and white nemesis hiding under that trash receptacle. It goes out of its way to give us a menacing close-up of his cold, dead, lifeless eye, a doll's eye, an eye just barely hiding such malice as you can hardly fathom. And if BB-8 is capable of taking out three armed human guards, what wealth of lethal implements are housed within his shadowy foe's twisted, mechanical innards? Lasers? Explosives? Is he just filled with chainsaw after chainsaw? I guess we'll never know. Yeah, I was disappointed.

                                                                                                 FINISH HIM!

                                                                                                 FINISH HIM!

It's no secret The Last Jedi takes a massive gamble, stepping boldly into waters heretofore uncharted in the Star Wars canon. Whether or not that gamble will pay off can't yet be stated, but it's fascinating to me the amount of vitriol this chapter has garnered when, if you take a look, The Empire Strikes Back, now universally acclaimed as the best entry of the series, received a similar backlash from critics and fans. It, too, was deemed too dark, too bleak, and too aggressive a departure from the tone established by A New Hope, so much so that when Richard Marquand all but reset the board with his 1983 switchback to the status quo Return of the Jedi, a film that rarely cracks the average Star Wars fan's Top Three, it was met with praise and adulation. "Difficult to see, the future is," Master Yoda would say, and it's true. What I think The Last Jedi needs most now is time to let history decide how it's to be remembered, so to all those who felt it fell short of their hopes and aspirations, take a moment as well. In the meantime, if you need me, I'll be watching it for the third time.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This review and critique was a huge undertaking. I would not have been able to get it done without the tireless efforts and brilliant insights of Nicole Cortazzo. Thanks, babe!