Movie Review: The Last Jedi

[The post (which is a no-draft babble like all my visual media things) has no spoilers but, if you haven’t seen it yet and are dead set on doing so and want it to be as unspoiled as possible, you probably don’t want to read this, which isn’t 100% abstract but discusses elements of the movie in a general way.]

I saw The Last Jedi over a week ago and have been mulling it over without discussing it much. (It’s quite likely I’m adding nothing new to the conversation but it’s just my take.) While The Force Awakens and Rogue One didn’t fill me with unalloyed joy, I did really like them both, overall, and was basically sold on this “new Star Wars” thing. I even got The Force Awakens on DVD last Christmas and had already put Rogue One on my list (and got it this Christmas). So then I went to see The Last Jedi with high hopes that it would be at least as good as the others and less derivative (or homage-filled) than The Force Awakens.

I’d been really afraid that The Last Jedi would be a remake of The Empire Strikes Back just like The Force Awakens was of Star Wars. They partially avoided this by making it a remake of The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi at the same time. Luke is a sort of anti-Yoda and Rey is a sort of off-beat Luke. Later, “Snoke” (ridiculous name even for Star Wars) and Rey and Ren replay most of the Emperor/Luke/Vader scenes of the third movie. What is so disheartening is that neither recap is remotely as good as the original. The special effects are even richer and the action is even more frenetic but the comparison of ideas and characters and interactions and emotional power of the scenes reveal the new movie’s inferiority.

Perhaps worst of all is the Disneyfication of the franchise. I was pleased that The Force Awakens felt like Star Wars. I was initially uneasy but ultimately pleased that Rogue One felt a little different (primarily in a grittier way). But The Last Jedi is a Disney film. Star Wars has always had cute weird critters (the worst offenders being the Ewoks, of course, who had redeeming resistance fighting features, at least) but this movie was chock-full of extreme examples ranging from good Disney ice foxes to horrible Disney “porgs” – the fat bird-like “comic relief” critters. Worse, the poor child-labor urchins with their brooms fell out the utterly wrong kind of stereotypical Disney movie. Again, this isn’t unprecedented in the sense that Luke was a poor farmboy but this was extreme. Perhaps worse still was the “humor.” Star Wars has always had cynical, smart-alecky humorous dialog (generally very successful) and even sometimes direct “humor” like the critters eating other critters outside Jabba’s palace (with mixed results). But this movie attempted to be funny, having the characters “do comedy” in a way that worked in the abstract (because so conventional in moviedom terms) but failed utterly in a Star Wars context, pulling the dramatic rug out from under every scene in which it was employed.

If all that wasn’t the worst, the worst was probably Rey. The character has so much potential and Daisy Ridley can be so magnetic that it’s obvious she’s the star. But she was a mere component of this movie which was as interested in Finn and his gratuitous new love interest and Dameron and all his infighting with the rebel leadership. Which, again, forcibly makes one realize that this movie can’t do the “Han and Leia in the asteroid field” storylines. (But it’s worse. In the originals, even aside from my enjoyment of all the disparate lines, they all served purposes. You could cut the Han and Leia line from Empire and just recap what happened while they were away from Luke before they all get to Bespin – or cut Luke and Yoda the reverse way – but that would be worse than removing a kidney or a lung “because you can get by with one.” On the other hand, the storyline of Finn and the new girl could have been cut entirely with no loss at all and arguably multiple gains.) Obviously a core part of the movie was Rey and she obviously did get a lot of screentime but it was relatively little and she’s starting to feel separate from the Rebellion and a mere adjunct to Ren. Vader was always a big draw but Luke and Han and Leia more than held their own. Worse, Ren doesn’t remind me of Vader so much as – and here I will mention the trilogy which doesn’t exist for the first time – young Anakin Skywalker. Ren has none of the cinematic power of Vader but the script is writing him almost as though he’s the actual point of all this. Rey has more cinematic power than Luke and they’re sidelining her. And Poe and Finn together, however generally likable, don’t make a single Solo.

Not that this movie was all bad – far from it. Allowing for some debatable elements, Carrie Fisher has a good final role and performance, which is very important. And, except for some stray cartoon critters, this movie looked very good. It was reasonably well paced. They did nice things such as with Ren’s mask. The fights and battles were very exciting and, again, good looking. Some of the Force elements weren’t bad. I was initially mostly happy and only got very uneasy as the looong, two and a half hour movie wore on and, even at the end and for several days later, I couldn’t make up my mind exactly what I thought. So, “there is some good in” it. But I believe the new movies have turned to the Disney side.

Perhaps the most telling thing is the “see it again” test. I really feel like I ought to see the movie a second time. Perhaps my reactions would change, at least somewhat. But, while not violently opposed to the concept, I don’t really want to cough up more money to do so. And that’s certainly not the reaction I had to the other five movies.

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Movie Review: Rogue One

When I post about a story, it’s always spoiler-free. (Well, it has been so far – I haven’t decided about how to handle classic stories but there’d certainly never be spoilers without warnings.) This is about a movie, though, so I think I’ll do this in three sections. No spoilers at all, a normal description and discussion of non-spoilery parts of the movie, and then a spoiler-filled section. This is all academic because I’m probably the last person on earth to have seen the movie but I just have a thing about spoilers.

No Spoilers

For quite awhile early in the movie, I was very worried and not happy. However, things got better for me and I ended up enjoying it. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it.

Synopsis (still no critical spoilers)

The protagonist is the Scientist’s Lovely Daughter but this is done so well, I didn’t even think of her in that way until just now. She is the daughter of a scientist who has tried to escape the clutches of the evil empire, but has been found. They kill his wife and force him back to his vital work on the Death Star, while his daughter escapes. Years later, she is captured by the Empire but then gets rather forcibly abducted by the rebel Alliance and is initially not at all eager to participate. They need her because they want to contact a person who’s an even more radical rebel than they are and he happens to have been her foster parent. Since he has picked up a vital defector and he wants nothing to do with the Alliance, they think she’ll get them in the door. A Love Interest is assigned to handle her and they go off to meet the guy. In the course of this, they acquire a pitiful band of rebels, learn how the Death Star acquired its famous flaw, participate in much derring-do about quite a bit, and the relatively small movie surprisingly blossoms into a gigantic space opera sequence.

The original Star Wars was quite dark in its ways but was also quite light and had the wise old Ben, the innocent farmboy Luke, the beautiful princess Leia, and even the scoundrel Solo really had a heart of gold. Naturally, the Alliance were the Good Guys. In ways, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and numerous other things shared similar aspects. In these days of grimdark, everything gets the new BSG treatment and I was initially afraid this movie was going to do the same thing to Star Wars in a ruinous way. The scientist is a collaborator, the orphaned heroine is a cynic, the hero is an assassin, the Alliance is coercive and split with internal strife, and on and on. Even the cinematography seemed dark and a bit claustrophobic. So it had Star Wars things in it but didn’t feel like Star Wars or even much look like it.[1] By the time we began acquiring our ragtag band, though, I began to warm to the film. The “Jedi” and his machine-gun-blaster toting friend (why doesn’t everyone have weapons like that?) seemed like iconic, yet likeable, characters and the droid (who seemed half overly-like C3P0 and half-overly-diametrically-opposite to him) gradually became more rounded and likeable. In essence, it recaptured the initial delight of the fast banding together of C3P0 and R2-D2, Luke, Ben, Han and Chewie, and Leia in the first movie. Which raises the point that this movie frequently referenced the originals but much more adroitly (for the most part, with critical exceptions) than the heavy and constant referencing of The Force Awakens. Finally, while it would be hard for things to go much more differently, the main underlying point of the movie regarding sacrifice for the cause and the power of (the original) hope is very much in line with the original movie.

WARNING: Absolutely Total and Ruinous Spoilers!

Death. At least two aspects of death in this movie figure prominently and it’s perhaps ironic which bothers me and which doesn’t. This is a very unusual movie in that it returns to the darkness of its opening and kills off every single main character. But I don’t have a problem with it. It enabled the movie to put them in a situation most Hollywood movies would get them out of at the price of a complete destruction of suspension of disbelief. Here, they were able to avoid most of that. (The obviously not-dead Love Interest having been shot but returning at the precise moment needed to allow the Lovely Daughter to complete her mission is an example but is minor.) And their deaths are transfigured by their hope (and our knowledge) that the sacrifice is not in vain and does accomplish something wonderful. One might complain that the ultimate moment exactly repeats that moment in (I think it was) Deep Impact (and that it repeats itself – though perhaps appropriately – in that that’s how the foster parent died) but it’s an effective and well shot scene. So I was okay with the ending but could certainly understand it troubling some people (especially any movie execs who wanted to make a sequel of the prequel – but they’ll probably just make a prequel of the prequel).

The other aspect is more troubling. It seemed to me that they actually used clips from the original to produce the fighter pilots from it in this movie and I assume they are all alive or at least some of them may be. Either way, I felt like this was an excellent call back and really thrilled to it. It made perfect sense and was a small tasteful component to the larger action. The very large role given to Governor Tarkin was quite disturbing to me, though. Much like the dancing bear, being able to do it at all was amazing but it was not convincing, looking like some kind of animatronic replica. There was a tiny but hugely significant uncanny valley of wrongness. And though it was a final and shoulda-been-wonderful scene which featured Leia receiving the plans (and Carrie Fisher was alive at the time), the CGI of the younger princess was also not convincing and was disturbing. And that’s just the aesthetics. I’m not sure how I feel about the ethics and propriety of it all.

A couple of trailing notes: speaking of prequels, I am ordinarily very opposed to them. I like stories that move forward, advancing into the future and this is all the more important in SF. But, if you’re going to do a prequel, this is how it’s done. It focuses on what seems like an important but small part of the original and then magnifies it in a way that seems self-justified but which also (I think and hope) will enhance, rather than detract from, my enjoyment of the original when I watch it again, which will be very soon.

And speaking of flaws, in a negative way I want to see it again just to see if the part where they travel across the galaxy, find a spot of a planet, and a building in that spot, and a spot in that building, and follow each other one by one to that spot, is rationalized any better than I thought. (I’m speaking of when Love Interest was trying to shoot the Scientist and Lovely Daughter was climbing the building and Pitiful Band followed them all.) It seemed way too convenient in a The Force Awakens style where the rest of the movie seemed to avoid the worst of the “we forgive you” moments The Force Awakens asked us of us.

Still, I’m very glad to have seen it, wouldn’t mind seeing it once more in theaters (if I really hurry), and expect to get it on DVD just like the original trilogy and The Force Awakens.

[1] Edit (2017-02-03): Reading the Wikipedia article reminds that part of what threw me off in the beginning was the omission of the opening crawl and the changed music. It probably wasn’t  even so much that as that the opening music just didn’t seem very good. However, the music returned to its usual excellence and I forgot about that complaint. Another thing akin to this is the location text superimposed on the images at points throughout the movie which is a klutzy thing the other movies didn’t do. If we were on Tatooine or Dagobah, that’s just were we were and it was made clear by the movie itself. And somehow I forgot about the Yoda-as-pinball-in-the-prequels scene of Vader boarding the ship near the end. If you compare how he entered the ship in Star Wars and in this, it’s just two scenes you can’t square. But, unlike the silly Yoda scene, this was a friggin’ awesome scene, however inconsistent.