Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Last Jedi: first impressions.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a mess. 

The atmosphere at 4AM in Screen 7 of the Cabots Circus Showcase was subdued. Not Phantom Menace subdued ("I piss on the evil of that film”) but still subdued. We had almost definitely seen something mostly very good; but there was a lingering sense of disappointment. Of having been cheated. 

I kept hearing expressions like “mad” and “crazy”. 

Some people are already comparing this film with the Empire Strikes Back. It’s the middle volume of the trilogy, don’t you know. And it’s about the Rebels, strike that, Resistance falling back and trying not to be annihilated, and an ice planet, and walkers, and the main character spends most of the film isolated from the action and learning the ways of the Force from an incredibly irritating Jedi Master. 

Sad thing is; I agree with them. The last time I felt this way was in the Leicester Square Odeon one afternoon in 1980. Yes, the walkers were great, and yes, the green muppet Jedi was great, and yes, the fight on the bridge was great, and yes, the Bounty Hunters, and yes the big reveal at the end, so why am I feeling this overwhelming sense of disappointment? 

I have always been an apologist for the Prequels. No, there is no need to list their deficits again; I know them and I largely agree with you. But I can see what Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are doing and I think it is largely what they ought to have been doing even though I wish that they had been doing it better. 

I am not sure what The Last Jedi was trying to do. I am far from sure that whatever it was trying to do was what the eighth Star Wars movie ought to have been doing. But I am in no doubt at all that it did it very well. 

I assume that there must be someone who signs off on new Star Wars movies — if not George Lucas any more than some Franchise Runner? It cannot surely be that in a universe this size and a franchise this expensive very big decisions about which major characters live and which major characters die and who turns out to be who’s cousin are decided on a case by case basis by whoever happens to be producing this episode? 

Surely the final fate of Luke Skywalker —  and wild horses would not make me reveal what his final fate is, although irritating sparkly goats might persuade me to hint that it is not actually anything terribly interesting — surely the final fate of Luke Skywalker is decided by someone with an over-arching plan? Someone who knows where the Saga is headed? Surely after forty years and nine movies it doesn’t come down to someone called Johnson deciding, about six months ago, what might make a cool scene?

The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a sequel to The Force Awakens: it feels like a repudiation of it: as if Rian Johnson has his own quite different vision of what a Star Wars film should be and takes on J.J Abrams’ characters only reluctantly.

The Force Awakens ends with Rey offering Anakin’s lightsaber — by now a literal holy relic — to Luke. The question left hanging is “will he take it, or not.” The Last Jedi begins with Luke taking the lightsaber.., and throwing it in the sea. (It is rescued by penguins. They are not referred to as Porgs anywhere in the film, but then, neither were the Ewoks.) This raises a laugh from the audience. It doesn’t feel to me as if Abrams set up a joke and Johnson delivered the punchline two years later. It feels to me as if Abrams left the story at a great big dramatic crux and Johnson chose to undercut it. 

There is nothing wrong with a Star Wars movie making the audience laugh. But this humour is too meta-textual: too dependent on shifts of register and gentle pushes at the fourth wall. This feels quite wrong. For Luke to have discovered a small cache of foundational Jedi texts is one thing; for him to realize that these dry old manuscripts do not contain the truth he is seeking is another; but for a character — I won’t tell you who, but they were a major supporting character in the old films and we weren’t necessarily expecting them to crop up here — to say “Page-turners they are not” is something else again. 

It’s the wrong sort of humour. Ewoks and Gungans to this undercutting of the material prefer I do. 

And, at risk of being incredibly geeky: anyone who has ever played the Star Wars RPG knows that there is no paper in the Star Wars universe. This is not, of course, a very big deal: but if you are always being reminded that bar-tenders use portable computers to tell you what your bill is and that messages are sent by hologram, not carrier pigeon, then you can’t forget that this is an alien galaxy, very different from our own. (Of course, Luke could have explained to Rey that these are strange ancient things called books made of a substance called paper. But he didn’t.) 

When Finn and a new character whose name I didn’t catch run off on what can only be described as a side quest to an alien casino we see aliens being served drinks in martini glasses and tea in cups and saucers. Is that the best we can come up with to indicate wealth and sophistication – Martini and Tea? Back in ‘76 one of the cool things about Star Wars was the blue milk. Milk just happens to be blue and no-one comments and nothing follows because we aren’t in Kansas any more. 

Does Johnson basically not get Star Wars? Did the keeper of the holocron never take him to one side and quietly explain it to him? 

The Force Awakens was criticized for being a little too safe and conservative, so it is perhaps unfair to criticize The Last Jedi for veering a little too far towards the unexpected. But we have reasonable expectations about what should happen in a Star Wars movie — obligatory scenes — and leaving those scenes out seems borderline sinful. If you’ve cast Mark Hamil and Carrie Fisher in the same movie than for George’s sake give them some screen time together. If a Major Character got killed off in the last film, then spend some time showing us how it affected his big furry companion. (Until next years ill-advised Han Solo movie comes out we aren’t going to know if the “Wookie Life Debt” thing is canon: but I would like it not to have been quite so much taken for granted that now Han is dead Chewie automatically stays with the rebel humans.) 

I suppose the original sin was committed in the opening seconds of Episode VII. What we want — what we need — is to see Luke in the Obi Wan Kenobi role: as the wise old man accompanying the kids on their adventures. But Abrams decision to make him the McGuffin of the first movie pretty much guarantees that he can’t be anything other than the Yoda of this one. He’s detached from the action, having very little dialogue with anyone apart from Rey. His major plot arc (which I don’t buy for one second) takes place in a few isolated flashbacks, which have the distinct look of having been added at quite a late stage in the proceedings. 

I know I am going to get punched for saying this: but I kept thinking of the Lone Ranger. This is not quite as rude as it may sound: I didn’t hate the Lone Ranger nearly as much as you presumably did. But both movies have the same feeling of vast, expansive splurging; of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks; of arguments between creatives and studios that were never quite resolved; of changes of direction part way through; the absence of a singular vision of what kind of a movie this is meant to be. Several times characters are on the point of laying down their lives nobly to save their friends when they unexpectedly get rescued, or turn out to be less dead then we thought, in ways that don’t give the impression that our hero has affected a dramatic hairsbreadth cliffhanger escape, so much as the impression that one writer wanted to kill them off and another writer overruled him at the last moment. 

We know what we want from a new Star Wars movie. We want the chance to play Star Wars one more time — to pretend to pilot and X-Wing, to pretend to be in the Rebel Alliance, to see all the great big ships crash together and explode. But we also want it to be the next chapter of the Saga, the unfolding of some more of the history of the Skywalker clan, revelations about who is who’s father which raise even deeper questions. What does the title mean? Who is the last Jedi? And why? But while it’s doing those things, it also has to be a good film: a film which hangs together and makes structural sense. 

The Last Jedi unequivocally succeeds in the first area. It’s the most visually exciting Star Wars movie we’ve so far seen. Po Dameron is basically what happens when Luke Skywalker and Han Solo get smashed together: the charming rogue whose also a hot young fighter pilot. The opening scene, in which Po takes on a Star Destroyer with a single X-Wing is fun in the way that the Death Star Run was fun in 1977. (It also feels like the kind of stunt which a player character with too many Force Points might have pulled.) 

I would say that the film pretty much crashes and burns in the second department. The Force Awakens left us with a series of big, interesting questions; and fans have spent two years coming up with more or less interesting answers for them. Johnson doesn’t merely fail to answer the questions – he seems actively uninterested in them. No, madam: I do not in fact think that The Last Jedi ought to have included long disputations about the fuel to speed ratio of the Millennium Falcon. There are, indeed, some things which are of interest to fans but of no interest to the general viewer. But I do think questions like “Who is Snoke? Why is he so powerful?” would occur both to fans and to people who have never owned a single Star Wars action figure.

As to the question of whether it is a good film or not… Well, I come back to where I started. The Last Jedi is a mess. Some of the material is good (the Great Big Space Battles) some of it is rather disappointing the entire Luke/Rey plot) and some of it – the whole Casino sequence – makes you drop your jaw and ask “Did I go to sleep and wake up in an entirely different movie?” I think that there is so much action and plot movement and aliens and jokes that the non-action-figure-purchasing community will like it very much indeed. But I think that a very large number of fans – people with an element of buy-in to the Star Wars milieu – are going to say “Yes...but wait a minute… what?” 

We have asked the question “What is the difference between fan fiction and any other kind of fiction?” several times in the past. In the end, it is (I am truly sorry) a question of canon. You are quite free to imagine in your head what should have happened to Luke Skywalker after The Return of the Jedi; and I am quite free to imagine it in mine. But what the Last Jedi imagines happens to Luke Skywalker after Return of the Jedi will now effect every Star Wars film comic book and novel for as long as they carry on making Star Wars films, comic books and novels. And it doesn’t seem to realize this; or spot why it matters. 

I think that history may show that The Last Jedi has damaged the integrity of the Star Wars saga much more irrevocably than Phantom Menace ever did.

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  1. I gave up on Star Wars after The Force Awakens. (Given the franchise's influence on me, since decades past, it was quite a wrench) So it causes a confusing mix of disappointment and schadenfreude to learn that this film's a failure - or at least, becoming a success in the way the Transformers franchise is a success.

  2. I quite liked this one, personally. Some spoilers below, if the username didn't tip folks off.

    One of the issues I've had with both television and movies lately is that they're incomplete. Rather than focus on telling their own story, they're constantly assuring you that there's an even better story coming down the pipe, so just wait until the season finale, wait until next season, wait until the next movie comes out... And the payoff is never as good as the build up, never as convoluted as the internet theories are (nb. if that theory relies on something from a piece of subsidiary media or something which hasn't been mentioned recently, odds are it is wrong), and usually only there to get you interested in the next batch of questions. Hence my issues with some of Steven Moffat's tenure in charge of Doctor Who (but that's a different ball of wax).

    Take, for example, "Who is Snoke?" This always struck me as a bizarre question. It's not something that The Force Awakens asks; all the characters seem perfectly aware of who he is. His identity isn't a mystery. He wasn't going to turn out to be Mace Windu or Jar Jar, or the stormtrooper who banged his head on the door in Star Wars. Snoke was always going to be Snoke. He gets the same treatment that the Emperor gets in the original films. There's no story of his rise to power, no detailed explanation of how he and Vader met, no discussion as to why he's able to make magical lightning shoot from his hands via the Force.

    I was much more interested in the turn from "Never meet your heroes" to "Inspirational stories are actually important", and thought the way the film riffed on this theme in various ways was brilliant. Esp. Luke's completely demythologizing of the story at the beginning, "facing down the entire First Order with a laser sword", and then doing exactly that at the end, using the same lightsabre he had tossed away (well, a mental recreation of it, because the real one had been torn in half, but I digress...)

    Johnson, far from being someone who dislikes Star Wars, strikes me as someone who understands the films very well, and gets why they work. I'm looking forward to seeing it again to pick up on bits that I missed the first time around.

    I'm also looking forward to hearing your second impressions, Andrew, even if they are negative :)

  3. Started to reply to this.

    Realized I have more or less written a new article.

    Will edit and publish.

    Going to see filum again on Tuesday.

  4. What does the title mean? Who is the last Jedi? And why?

    That's the thing about middle parts of trilogies. Which two towers? And why?

    As you probably know, the Spanish translation of the title "The Last Jedi" showed that Jedi is plural -- something that can't be determined from the English title, since the singular and plural forms of "Jedi" are the same, and adjective are not declined in accordance with the number of their object. But knowing this bit of metatextual detail, it's pretty clear that the response to the question "Who is the last Jedi?" is "That's not the question -- the question is who are the last Jedi?" And then it's clear that the answer is Rey and Ben.

  5. Take, for example, "Who is Snoke?" This always struck me as a bizarre question. It's not something that The Force Awakens asks.

    Right, exactly. No-one, coming out of Return of the Jedi in 1983, asked "Who is the Emperor?" He's the Emperor.

    I thought Snoke's unexpectedly premature demise was one of the best things about the film -- and completely in keeping with the way The Last Jedi keeps you off-balance throughout. Sure, it's a trilogy. That doesn't mean everyone has to survive into the last instalment. That's not how life works. For that matter, it's not how Buffy works. With Snoke gone, the way is open for us to find out what Ben Solo is really made of. Structurally, this is fascinating. By bringing the key RotJ scene forward into the new trilogy's ESB, the new Vader is now able to take on the mantle of the new Palpatine. Which means that if Rey turns him in the last film, he can do so much more than just topple an evil supreme leader: he can become a good supreme leader.

    So, yes: "This is not going to go the way you expect it to". Which is all to the good. This one might by my favourite since ANH.

  6. Started to reply to this.

    Realized I have more or less written a new article.

    Holy cow! I'm flattered!

    Looking forward to it :)

  7. And, at risk of being incredibly geeky: anyone who has ever played the Star Wars RPG knows that there is no paper in the Star Wars universe. This is not, of course, a very big deal:
    But isn't this a piece of lore from the RPG? It's not something that has ever been explicit in (what is now considered) canon. We might not have ever seen anyone use paper in the previous movies - but in a world where people read novels and news on their kindles, keep their diaries on their phones and sign for deliveries on electric pads, this is not necessarily unusual, nor a sign that no one ever uses paper for anything...

    a side quest to an alien casino
    In some ways this was the bit that struck me as the most awkward - the resistance are fleeing from a powerful armada, threatening to overwhelm them at any minute as they have limited fuel, yet they have time to fly off to search for someone who can help them in a "heist". On the other hand, referring back to the aforesaid RPG, it is exactly the sort of thing the Player Characters would find themselves doing (I'm sure my characters have been in some of those scenes...)

    The Force Awakens left us with a series of big, interesting questions; and fans have spent two years coming up with more or less interesting answers for them. Johnson doesn’t merely fail to answer the questions – he seems actively uninterested in them.
    I tend to think this is a good thing - When Star Wars has answered "Big Questions" in the past, they have ususally made a complete hash of it. The "Mysterious Religion" that no one believes in turns out to have been the intergalactic police force less than 20 years ago. The all-powerful Empire only has a similar vintage...
    Big, interesting questions are good - They allow fans to concoct theories, and writers to build on them in future instalments. Answers are boring - they close off any further development and deny many possibilities. I always felt one of the problems with Nu-Who was it's unseemly haste in providing answers...

  8. tmellis exactly nailed my position on Big Questions and their answers. I've only ever encountered one prequel for which the answers it provided to the earlier work's backstory questions was satisfying. That is The Silmarillion, and it works because it was sixty years in the making, most of it predating the "earlier" work The Lord of the Rings. Unless you are J. R. R. Tolkien, it's generally best to leave Big Questions open.


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