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The Last Jedi poster

If there was one thing that was going to completely derail this movie for me, it was going to be its tone. The cockpit furby in the trailer was completely off-putting for me, and the actual movie begins with a dumb joke that makes one of the movie's key villains look like a complete dolt. Maybe that's the point, but the joke fell completely flat, pulled me out of the movie, and the movie had to do a lot of work from then on in order to pull me back in.

Fortunately, it eventually did pull me back in and held me throughout. I was totally on-board with the direction Rian Johnson took Luke Skywalker, and the parts of the movie that take place on the island were the definite highlights for me. Tone was still an issue though. There's a lot of attempts at humor that fall flat on their face. About the only jokes that worked for me were Luke tickling Rey's hand with the leaf and Luke chucking the lightsaber over his shoulder (apparently in the same place he chucked his X-Wing and all his other unwanted garbage).

Obviously, this movie takes a lot of its thematic and tone queues from The Empire Strikes Back. It's the middle movie in a trilogy that's [assumedly] not going to end with the main character murdering all the other good guys in cold blood and turning into a bad guy, so it has to be dark and brooding. The juvenile humor (along with some cartoonish action) just completely doesn't work in a movie that takes itself as seriously as this one does.

Those bad jokes and occasional cartoonish action sequences are surrounded by a movie that actually does have a lot of meta-thematic weight to it and tries very hard to push the Star Wars universe in a new and interesting direction. This isn't the fan service vehicle that The Force Awakens and Rogue One were. This is an actual movie with something to actually say about movies and fan communities. It doesn't hit quite as hard as Black Mirror's recent evisceration of fan entitlement via a Star Trek parody (and it's even more blunt), but it comes close. As much as The Force Awakens delighted audiences with its whole-hearted embrace of nostalgia and fan service, The Last Jedi works very hard to actively disappoint fans. As the trailers promise, "this does not end the way you think", and from here on out, it's SPOILER TIME:

The Last Jedi goes out of its way to disappoint, regardless of what fan theory(ies) you subscribed to.

Your fan theory is wrong!

You wanted epic space battles on par with Return of the Jedi or Rogue One? Sorry, you get a rebel cruiser playing pace car to the First Order's Star Destroyers for two hours of film time.

Did you want an epic ground battle on par with The Empire Strikes Back or Rogue One? Sorry, but the heroes basically give up and retreat.

Were you expecting Rey to turn to the dark side, or for Kylo Ren to be brought back to the light*? Nope. Kylo pays lip service to building a better galaxy, but it rings hollow as he goes on to just take charge of the First Order and go about their daily business.

Were you expecting Kylo Ren to finish off his mother the way he finished of Han? Or to refuse to kill her and start a transition to the light side*? Or for Leia to have some grand send-off as a way of saying "goodbye" to Carrie Fischer? Nope. The movie completely cops out with regard to killing Leia.

Did you expect Snoke to be Darth Plagueis or some other secret identity pulled from extended universe lore*? Or that he was Darth Maul returned from the grave? Or Jar Jar? Or for his true form to be a little gnome the size of Yoda*? Nope. His appearance and death is treated with no fanfare, and he's just swept aside to make room for Kylo Ren to ascend to full villain status.

Were you one of the people who was theorizing that Rey was a secret sister of Kylo Ren? Or that she was Obi-Wan's daughter/grand daughter? Or that she was somehow a child of Luke? Or a descendant of Emperor Palpatine*? You'll likely be disappointed by the mundanity of the truth.

* indicates the fan theories that I either believed or hoped for.

Poe's prank call, and many other attempts at humor just fall completely flat.

I liked virtually every one of these creative decisions, even though I'm also simultaneously disappointed that some of the more interesting speculations turned out to be false. After all, uber-fans' fascination with and insistence that every little detail be explained and everything be connected together is part of the reason that we have trash like Rogue One. That was a story that didn't need to be told, in a movie that didn't need to happen, that exists solely because somebody felt that there just had to be some grand explanation behind why the Death Star reactor has an exhaust port.

Pumping the brakes on the speculation train does, however, concern me. Snoke was kind of just incidental in The Force Awakens -- like Darth Maul or Count Dooku in the prequels. But that movie made such a big deal about the mystery of Rey's parents that it's hard to believe that the writers didn't intend for it to be some big reveal (whether they knew the content of that reveal or not). The fact that the sequel just throws all that away wholesale suggests that maybe Disney doesn't really have a plan for what they want to do with these movies, unless they're going to pull a double-bluff with regard to Rey's parents in the next movie by revealing that Kylo was just lying to her. But if he was lying to her, then why does she accept that she "always knew" the truth?

Hero worship and Mary Sues

Even though the movie is about giving up some of the hero-worship that comes with fanboyism, it does indulge in some of that very same worship of heroic characters. Poe's stunt in the opening scene makes him seem invincible (maybe even ... "Mary Sue"-ish?). Leia's refusal to die based on her willpower alone seemed like a cop out. Snoke is still unreasonably intent on finding Luke because apparently Luke is going to single-handedly save the galaxy. Holdo keeping her (actually very clever) plan secret for no apparent reason other than to teach Poe a lesson (and thereby accidentally inciting a mutiny) was just flat-out stupid, and could have been easily and completely fixed with the inclusion of a single line of dialogue implying that there may be a spy on board (possibly giving the fleet's location to the First Order). Rose almost killing herself and Finn in order to prevent him from completing a suicide mission that would have saved everybody was similarly stupid cop out that makes Finn seem maybe more important than he actually is (although, I guess the point is supposed to be that he is important to Rose, even though they've only known each other for like a few hours). Luke stalling Kylo Ren with a mirage came very close to coming off as silly fan service. And so on.

But other elements of homage or nostalgia feel much more earned in this movie than it did in the previous two movies. This is mostly because a lot of them are actually thematically relevant. While the previous movies were reverential in their imitations of the past, this one is almost mournful in recognizing that the past is gone, and attacks the very idea of fans' nostalgic veneration of the past. The movie wants to say that it's time to stop doing the same old Jedi v Sith stuff again, and that the franchise needs to go in a different direction that's maybe a bit broader in scope and more welcoming to new characters. The ghost of Yoda appearing to tell Luke to just "let go of the past" was fantastic. I'm pretty sure that Yoda was an actual practical effect, and kudos to the film-makers for pulling that off. Whether those were puppeteers or really good CGI animators creating that effect, they and Fank Oz totally nailed it!

If you ever thought Rey was a Mary Sue, she definitely isn't in this movie.

The anti-climactic reveal of Rey's parentage also does kind of complicate the "Rey is a Mary Sue" issue. I did believe that she fell into the category of a "Mary Sue" (which is maybe the wrong label, but it's the closest one that I know) in The Force Awakens on the grounds of feeling [to me] like an unjustifiably-competent self-insert fan fiction character (in a movie that played out like a piece of fan fiction). She is literally, a metaphorical stand-in for Star Wars fans, who is competent solely because she is metaphorically a Star Wars fan.

That being said, I am happy to say that I did not get Mary Sue vibes from Rey in this movie. This is mostly because she got all of that nonsense out of the way in the last move, so there's nowhere for her to grow except as an actual character with layers and nuance. But remember that a big component of the argument against her being a Mary Sue was that subsequent movies would reveal that she got her force aptitude from her parents, and that would somehow justify her presentation in the previous movie. The mundanity of her parentage (assuming Kylo isn't lying to her) swats that idea, and now there isn't really any good reason for her to have been so Mary Sue-ish in The Force Awakens. Being a "Star Wars fan" and wanting to have Force powers doesn't mean that you get to just have Force powers, let alone know how to use them.

But this reveal does also take the element of destiny out of the equation. After all, if The Last Jedi is about anything, then it's about the idea of a new generation inheriting the legacy of its forebears but finding its own identity. Since Rey isn't a Skywalker or a Solo or a Kenobi or a Palpatine, it means that anybody in this universe can be a hero (as evidenced by the final scene), even if you don't have the "magic hero blood of destiny". -- much like how Luke felt like just a random nobody in the original Star Wars (prior to the "I am your father" reveal in Empire). It's almost like a reset to before Empire Strikes Back. Being freed from the question of her parentage frees Rey as a character, and it's frustrating that the writers of The Force Awakens had to compromise her character and introduce the Mary Sue issue to begin with by making her appear as some kind of Second Coming.

Building a more nuanced universe

In addition to making the characters a bit more nuanced, I also really liked that the movie attempted to inject some nuance and shades of gray to the Jedi / Sith mythos and the the universe as a whole. Characters are finally questioning whether the Jedi were ever actually a good idea to begin with. We also get a glimpse of class divisions and at least on some subset of individuals who actually did profit from the Empire and had an interest in its continued existence. Not only is there resentment towards the blatantly militaristic and oppressive Empire, but the denizens of this universe also harbor resentment towards an elite upper class that feeds that military-industrial complex in order to maintain systemic oppression (through servitude and wealth inequality) and to make themselves rich at the expense of the rest of the population. I didn't like this sequence from a narrative or visual standpoint (it slows down the pace, feels like a deus ex machina, and gets a bit cartoonish), but it does serve a valuable world-building purpose that I feel justifies its inclusion in the movie.

I really loved the inclusion of Rose's character because of just how incidental her existence is. She's just a technician, doing her job and mourning the loss of her sister in a war that really should have been over 30 years ago. She's a walking, talking avatar for how cruel and unjust the Star Wars universe is, and just how shitty it must be to live in this universe if you aren't nobility or otherwise filthy rich. She should have been the protagonist of Rogue One! She has virtually the same arc as what's-her-name from Rogue One, but she actually has some charisma and screen chemistry with her co-stars, except that it isn't really romantic chemistry, but they kind of turn it into that even though it feels awkward and stilted. Anyway, I actually remembered her name after walking out of the theater, unlike Jyn Erso (who's name I had to look up on Google)!

Rose should have been the protagonist of Rogue One.

The complexity and nuance that the movie is trying to build is also why I was all the more disappointed by Kylo Ren's double-betrayal. He turns on Snoke, pays lip service to ruling a more just society, but then turns around and goes back on the warpath. This felt like a huge cop out in a movie loaded with cop outs. If the movie had just ended here with the implication that Kylo and Rey actually had just absconded to do their own thing independent of the First Order or the Resistance, that would have been so much more interesting than just re-drawing the same battle lines and ending the movie almost exactly where it started. Maybe clouding the "hero" and "villain" distinctions was a line Disney wasn't willing to let writer/director Rian Johnson cross (even though they let him cross virtually every other line). Again, it really doesn't look like Disney went into this whole Star Wars thing with a plan.

Building an even smaller universe

Lastly, I have to mention that I was also frustrated The Last Jedi further confounds the "shrinkage" of the Star Wars universe that I've complained about before. The movie still relies on the hyperdrive as a narrative crutch, getting characters back and forth across the galaxy in a jiffy, making distance seem trivial, undercutting the military tactics on display, and reducing the sense of scale to this universe. But in keeping with the movie's dedication to adding nuance, it does introduce the concern of fuel as a limiting factor in the use of this crutch. It also does subvert the idea of fleets of ships hyperjumping in at the last moment to save the day by posing the possibility that maybe they don't want to. As much as I liked this subversion from a narrative standpoint, it just does further damage to the integrity of the world. Not only do we the audience think that a ship or fleet is going to jump in at the last minute, but the characters within the fiction also believe that help is going to warp in from literally every corner of the galaxy at any moment.

The writers did find a way to use the hyperdrive as a deus ex machina that works brilliantly, looks awesome, and doesn't cripple the sense of tension and anxiety that the movie's trying to build up. Seriously, that would have been a fantastic climax to the movie. It should have ended there, maybe even leaving off on a cliff-hanger regarding whether or not Rey and Kylo actually do team up. It's too bad that it decides to go on for another half an hour.

Bottom line: I liked what The Last Jedi was trying to do thematically. The execution is just messy and clumsy. From a story standpoint, the whole thing seems stale and stagnant, as if the entire series has just been jogging in place since the end of Return of the Jedi. This seems like it might be part of the thematic subtext, but it still makes for an overall uninteresting story. There's a lot of structure and pacing problems and the movie falls flat on most of its attempts at humor. Whereas Rogue One disappointed me so much that it made The Force Awakens look better in retrospect, The Last Jedi makes The Force Awakens look like pointless nonsense in retrospect. Unlike The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi (as narratively shaky as it is) actually has a valid and poignant artistic message that reverberates so hard that large portions of the audience seem to hate the movie -- possibly because they feel like that message is being targeted at them, and it isn't a flattering one.

And you know what, the Porgs weren't half as bad as I feared they'd be. Mostly just because they don't do anything or have any purpose in the movie. But since they don't do anything, they also don't ruin the movie. Sorry, Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks, you're not gonna have any new companions quite yet.

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