Friday, December 22, 2017

BOP REVIEWS: Star Wars - The Last Jedi



STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS was a film that ultimately re-ignited my long dormant love of a galaxy far, far away, and it didn't really disappoint whenever I walked out of the theater two years ago. Despite the plot feeling very familiar, I'd always been keen on the idea of the Star Wars saga as the ultimate nostalgia trip - keep in mind, I was never a big fan of anything related to the Expanded Universe, got no real enjoyment from the prequels to the point that I consider them outside of the canon of the original trilogy, and basically considered the original films where my interest lived and died. The most I could say that I got into the series beyond those original three - A NEW HOPE, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and RETURN OF THE JEDI - was that I had played a couple of the games, and not even the ones everyone else holds dearly. I stuck to admittedly poor side games like Bounty Hunter and The Force Unleashed, because honestly, Star Wars was more of a thing I had liked as a kid, when Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker had been engaged in a battle of familial wits and The Force was something still elemental and vaguely magical in nature. That ended, so I moved on.


But the idea of a film series that followed the story set up in those films and recaptured the spirit of them, to me, was always vastly more important than the criticisms leveled against it. Criticisms that I even wholeheartedly understand. Yes, I admit it: THE FORCE AWAKENS can become too much of a retread at times. The canyon run from Yavin IV and the race to take out Starkiller Base play by the same basic structural rules, up to and including the explosion of a giant planet as The Millennium Falcon and a few X-Wings fly off towards camera. But by the same token, I also don't think of the character of Rey, designed to be the new trilogy's protagonist, as a carbon-copy of Luke Skywalker. I think she's an analog, sure, but I also find her to have her own strengths as well as her own weaknesses. She and Luke coming from desert planets, being skilled at piloting, and having greatness thrust upon them through The Force is about where I think their similarities end.

In some ways, Rey is also the anti-Luke. She doesn't want to be apart of this conflict initially, while Luke craves it. Luke needs it, in a way, to find a greater sense of identity within himself. He wants to fight against the Empire because he doesn't agree with them, a feeling that's heightened whenever the opportunity to follow in his late, great father's footsteps presents itself through tragedy. Rey, on the other hand, has no real reason to fight back against The First Order until she's unwillingly drawn into the conflict between them and The Resistance. Rey is more than content just staying out of the way before that. But whenever she goes out of her way to help the cause, she does it because she sees a need to aid BB-8, an idea she can't let go of whenever presented with the opportunity to trade the little droid in for Unkar Plutt's 60 portions and declines on a moral principle she didn't know she even had. Her place in the battle isn't personal, as she admits several times that her real desire is to go back to Jakku once she carries out the mission that puts her together with Finn, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and the rest. Her journey is about discovering that the things she clings to aren't always going to be what she expects. Her own self-delusions aren't going to define her - finding out the truth is. That's what she needs, and that's what she goes after.

So whenever THE LAST JEDI picks up her story, that's exactly what she's looking for out of the isolated Luke Skywalker, who walked away from the path of The Jedi after realizing his own quest might not have been as noble as he thought it was. Luke won the day by persuading his father, Darth Vader, to relinquish the dark side of The Force and destroy his former master in order to restore balance. That was his role in the larger Star Wars tapestry, and he carried it out. But what happens when a destiny is fulfilled? Is a path beyond those expectations truly set in stone, unwavering and inescapable? Or is there room to question the initial lessons that led one to greatness if it also leads to failure? These are concepts that writers have tried to play around with for many decades after the release of RETURN OF THE JEDI, specifically with Luke Skywalker's post-trilogy story. And personally, I've never been all that interested in seeing it play out.

But in following Rey's story, I was interested. I did suddenly want to know what could have turned Luke from an inwardly heroic avatar of The Jedi Order into an embittered old hermit that had lost his way. That to me was a much more interesting, even bolder choice of destiny for Luke's post-trilogy path than I had seen in the Extended Universe, where Luke either continues to be a Jedi in a series of new adventures that really don't do much to expand his overall place in the saga or is ultimately turned to the dark side like his father, completely negating the idea that he was ever going to be better than Anakin. This version of Luke has an awakening that shatters alot of our own personal beliefs - the idea that what we hold dear isn't all that it's cracked up to be, and it's up to us to figure out where the truth lies. For Luke, he thinks all is lost and that the galaxy is better off without him if his instinct to kill the growing darkness inside of his nephew, Ben Solo, was brought about by the same teachings that had made him a legendary hero of the Rebellion.

For Rey, though, it isn't like that at all. She not only rightly sees that Luke blames himself entirely for a path that Ben Solo ultimately chose himself, despite a misunderstanding leading him on the way to that path, she also sees that her path isn't as vague without personal sacrifice as she was hoping. Rey doesn't know what The Force is, only that it resides inside of her. She has a few tricks of it down pat, but she's still lost inside of it and terrified of what her connection to it means. Luke begrudgingly agrees to help her find her way, through three lessons that change the both of them and bring about a sense of hope that the galaxy is sorely lacking in these days. And that starts with the answer to a simple question that's plagued Star Wars fans for two years straight, myself included: Just who in the bloody hell are Rey's parents?

For me, the answer seemed obvious - at first. Whenever I walked out of the theater for THE FORCE AWAKENS, I was thoroughly convinced that Rey's surname was Skywalker and that the meeting that took place during the film's final moments was between father and daughter. After all, that's what the franchise had taught me up to this point: only a Skywalker could truly save the galaxy with the aid of The Force. Not only had the franchise told me as much, but the film itself seemed to be begging me to accept the idea that Rey was of that lineage, through such things as a trailer that utilized Luke's powerful "The force is strong in my family" monologue from JEDI. There were other hints too, sprinkled throughout Rey's journey in the film. When Rey is told by Maz Kanata what her nightmarish visions mean once placing her hand upon Luke's former lightsaber, she specifically states "It is the lightsaber that belonged to Luke, and his father before him, and now it calls out to you..."

To which I mentally replied, "...because you're a Skywalker too!". It seemed so obvious that I found myself getting into slight arguments with friends about the idea whenever I expounded on my theories about the post-TFA sequels. They didn't want such a convenience placed upon this new and exciting character, and I was convinced otherwise. And to be honest, I could even see the potential of what such a storyline could entail. In my head, the version of events where Luke and an unknown wife (Mara Jade, maybe?) give birth to a girl named either Rey or a different name entirely before Rey becomes her name starts when Ben Solo becomes the villainous Kylo Ren. Luke, knowing that his nephew now wields the same power of darkness that corrupted his father and knowing what steps his former masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi took to ensure his safety, does the same for his daughter and leaves her stranded on a remote desert island not too dissimilar from his own homeworld of Tattooine. There's an obvious issue with this line of thought, but we'll get to that, because I used to have a rebuttal to what was quickly pointed out: "Rey doesn't react to the name Luke Skywalker as if it's her father's name, she reacts with believing that Luke was a myth." My solution was thus: He never gave her his real name. To preserve a life outside of the new Jedi Order he was going to build, Luke would have also taken up a different name in the same way that Obi-Wan Kenobi did to avoid the child he was sworn to protect from asking too many dangerous questions. To Luke, Obi-Wan was only "Ben" for his formative years. I assumed the same was with Rey and her father.

But, there came a few more issues with that rationale as I began to rewatch the film over the two years between installments. For one, to assume my version of events was even somewhat correct was to assume that Luke would have looked at his past and seen it as a road map for how to ensure the safety of his own child. That's... pretty flawed logic whenever you consider just how close Luke himself came to death multiple times throughout the original trilogy. Obi-Wan's attempts to conceal him from Vader fail, his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are murdered, and he loses a freaking hand to his own father. The entire point of what Obi-Wan and Yoda did to protect Luke is that it had an expiration date. One day, eventually, it would all unravel. So wouldn't Luke want to avoid imposing the same fate on his only prodigy, the same girl who would have possibly displayed proficiency with The Force before Kylo Ren's betrayal?

There were other things, aswell, that didn't add up. But the most important thing to me was in the final moments of THE FORCE AWAKENS, where Rey tracks down the hermit Luke Skywalker and outstretches his own lightsaber with a pleading look that screams "Help me." For Rey to have that reaction over a reaction of realization or even shock, Luke could not be her father. Or at least, she couldn't be aware of what her father ever looked like, which just makes the logic jump too great for me to fully buy into. The point being that as time went on, more holes in the fabric of my own personal fan-theory developed. And as I watched it happen, I saw the same happen to other theories that didn't quite make as much sense. "Han Solo was her real father all along! She's Han and Leia's other child and the sister of Ben!" Rey and Han Solo met, I thought to myself, and at no point did she openly suspect that to be the case in the amount of time they spent in each other's presence. Neither did she confront Leia about that potential idea that she was her child whenever the two of them met towards the end of the movie. "She's Obi-Wan's granddaughter!" What? Huh? I eventually just started to shake my head. If she wasn't a Skywalker or a Solo, what possible significance could there be in making her related to another big original trilogy character? Say that she had been revealed as, I don't know, Lando Calrissian's daughter. Or a Fett who didn't specialize in bounty hunting. Or the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, or some horrible offspring of a renegade wookie and a human. It just got even more ridiculous as it went along.

The more that I thought about the idea of her being related to a preexisting character, the more that I realized it wasn't likely to occur as a revelation. Did I think that Rian Johnson was a lot smarter than I am and could have figured out a way to make THE FORCE AWAKENS' self-contradictory implication that Rey was Luke's daughter work? Of course. But at the end of the day, I was looking for a justification for my own set of mental gymnastics that had taken up far too much of my personal time. I wasn't looking for an actual story to propel Rey forward. So eventually, I let it go and threw myself in the position of waiting to see what Johnson was actually going to cook up for THE LAST JEDI.

And what Johnson gave me was actually kind of a brilliant, unforeseen version of events I would never have guessed in a million years: Rey's parents were never important at all. Not only were they not important, but Rey's expectations for her own life were once again thrown to the wolves and torn apart in a brilliant display of choosing character progression over fan expectation. Rey is given reason to doubt everything she had desperately wanted, and as a result, is put in a place of choosing to fight for what's good beyond herself. She chooses to become a Jedi not for personal resolution, but for the sake of protecting the new family she's acquired along the way. Finn, BB-8, Chewbacca, R2-D2, Leia, and The Resistance are the family she never had. And to some extent, Luke Skywalker is her master. The difference is that she made the choice to embrace all of those connections through establishing trust, and that faith in them is eventually rewarded through their actions. She returns to save them at their moment of peril in kind, setting up her future pretty optimistically and without the need to make her the heir to the Skywalker throne.

The entire theme of THE LAST JEDI is that some myths and romanticized concepts that we cling to do not hold together when held up to the scrutiny of life. We think we know something, and it turns out to be a lie, or at least not as glamorous as we imagine it to be in our heads. When confronted with that scenario, the choice is always given to us to make sense of that reality and to either reject what we had initially thought entirely, or accept that it indeed wasn't as great as we had initially thought and still hold onto it with the idea that it'll eventually become something new. Rey rejects the idea that her parents' identities made her important, or is at least forced to reject it and push it to the side for the good of the war between The First Order and The Resistance, and chooses to embrace the imperfect teachings of a hardened Luke Skywalker as a springboard for how she can use The Force to her advantage. The result is that were it not for her vital save at the end, there wouldn't be a Resistance left. Poe Dameron, General Organa, Finn, Rose, Threepio and the rest would undoubtedly have died fighting despite Luke's redemptive final effort to buy them time to escape. But they had a hero in Rey, who joins them in an uncertain journey into the future, where battles are likely to continue to be fought and a war will have to be resolved.

Needless to say, Rey's journey is the heart of THE LAST JEDI for me, just as it was the heart of THE FORCE AWAKENS. And I absolutely loved the fact that Johnson boldly chose to make that journey a hard-hitting series of characters questioning everything that had come before, to both reinforce the strength of what was there that truly worked and dissolve what never did. Luke Skywalker was a hero once, but he let himself get swallowed up in guilt. He returned a final time to do what was needed of him, and used the last of his power to save who he could after fulfilling Yoda's wish to have his teachings be passed on through a new hero in Rey. As he watched the twin suns of his final home give into sunset as he once did in the deserts of Tatooine, he gave into The Force fully and died every bit the legend he had once been again. To me, it was a beautiful end to a character that I had thought already experienced his end 34 years ago.

THE LAST JEDI has many other strengths, aswell. I absolutely loved the fact that Poe Dameron's character was elaborated on and given weight through challenge, the same way that the original trilogy had challenged it's protagonists. I found myself realizing where Finn's place in the overall saga actually was, after being left perplexed by where his journey could go after THE FORCE AWAKENS left him comatose. I was given a great, horrifyingly sympathetic villain that had started off as somewhat of a pretender to the throne of an iconic villain in Darth Vader through Adam Driver's very emotionally driven performance as Kylo Ren. And I was even introduced to new faces in the form of Kelly Marie Tran's Rose, who's role as a counter-point to Finn's naivety towards war should hopefully remain vital as we enter into the still-untitled EPISODE IX, and Laura Dern's Admiral Holdo, who was the living embodiment of the film's theme of never believing fully what you assume. And in speaking to the late, great Carrie Fisher's final performance in film and as Leia Organa, I can't think of a better end than having her defiantly blast away her own misguided-but-loyal pupil while he's in the midst of staging a mutiny against the only person trying to save lives at a critical moment in time. Except maybe the end she actually got, which was to assure Rey that the Resistance has all that it needs to carry on after being willing to die fighting until the bitter end. Despite not knowing what the future holds, I'm going to miss that character under Fisher. To paraphrase the previous installment, she's always be royalty.

And of course, nothing can be said of this film without talking about Mark Hamill's (final?) bout as Luke Skywalker. In a rare return to form that exceeds anything he ever did before, Hamill - who went onto entertain audiences primarily as a voice actor through a legendary turn as The Joker in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and other associated projects - commands the screen like never before in this movie and gives what is easily his best turn as Luke. Reports had come in early on in the movie's production that Hamill was initially hesitant to go with Johnson's vision for Luke, and I can see why, given how dedicated Hamill himself has always been to Star Wars' loyal fanbase and their perceived notions of where Luke should end up. But I think his trust in Johnson was more than earned, and the result is a performance light-years ahead of what he would have been able to give had he simply been the same Luke that ended the original trilogy. In a way, this version of Luke plays on an unknown series of strengths Hamill had as an actor, and it helps to really solidify the idea that if he were going to come back, it had to be for the best reason imaginable. Like with Harrison Ford's return as Han Solo, I'd rather Luke go out with one memorable last bout than stick around and potentially ruin any of that good will.

Of course, the film isn't perfect. For as many praises as I've already heaped upon it, there are some characters who don't leave the film as better versions of themselves. Specifically, two that ended up being major disappointments: Firstly, the enigmatic Captain Phasma, who was introduced so late into the movie that despite an engaging fight between her and the former "FN-2187", I didn't really feel as if she got much more to do here than she did in her weirdly cameo-esque role from the last movie. I'm counting on J.J. Abrams to look at the surefire disappointment with wasting GAME OF THRONES alumni Gwendoline Christie twice in a row and take it to heart in crafting her role in Episode IX, if her end in this movie isn't meant to be a curtain call - to which I honestly don't know if it is, considering she ended the last movie apparently being trapped in a trash compactor inside of an exploding planet and survived. I could see her miraculous returns being a running theme in this series, and I wholeheartedly hope I'm right. Christie deserves to make her mark on the series beyond just showing up to be immediately defeated.

The second disappointment was more... insurmountable, I guess. And that's of the use of the villainous Snoke, played by Andy Serkis in the brief time we had him. While I ultimately don't feel animosity towards THE FORCE AWAKENS' use of nostalgia to craft their story together, I do feel a little of that in Snoke's character ultimately amounting to nothing more than a direct copy of Emperor Palpatine up to and including his death. While it's easy to overlook certain things, it becomes alot harder when you see Kylo Ren delivering Rey to his massive star-ship chamber in an elevator, have Snoke then given her lightsaber, have him then expound about how essentially everything came about due to his design, how he's going to make her watch his fleet of soldiers destroy her friends, how he's going to use her to cultivate a new apprentice void of conflict within the dark side of the force (though in a slightly different way by having Kylo kill her, so points there?), ect, ect, ect. I could keep going, and believe me, having him be slain by his own apprentice is certainly the most egregious part of it all, but the point is that there was absolutely nothing I could say differentiated Snoke and Palpatine beyond a change of actor and attire. Even his weird scarred up face lends the same type of effect as the horrifically aged Palpatine did in ROTJ, making him act out the same scenes all the worse. I was glad to see Kylo kill him for far different reasons than the redemptive act of sacrifice that Vader took, but that was it. Snoke was an utter waste of time and a boring stand-in for Palpatine. Nothing less, and as it turns out, nothing more. He's the main reason this movie didn't get five stars from me, because I think Snoke was the sole act of this franchise going too far to evoke the past. I'm kinda glad he's dead, now, just to hopefully avoid anything like that further down the line.

The other reason this only gets 4 and a half stars out of five is a reason that most are pointing to, whether they hated the film or not: the entire Canto Bright sequence. I have nothing further to add other than it was indeed unnecessary to the plot, slowed everything down, went out of it's way in evoking too much of the prequels, and really affected nothing in the overall story. If anything, given this movie runs nearly three hours long, I'm hopeful to see a cut where all of that is excised, because it truly is that worthless to an otherwise fantastic movie that already has more than enough material to keep itself afloat.

But nevertheless, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is a pretty genuinely great film that follows up THE FORCE AWAKENS in a large number of unexpected ways. Ways that really challenge the notion of what Star Wars is, certainly, but ways that also help to underline and heighten the strength of what it is by placing it under the lens of scrutiny. By affirming that it doesn't fall apart when challenged in the end, specifically through Luke Skywalker's meticulously crafted story arc, it's ultimately an exercise in proving that one of cinema's greatest franchises will live on forever. And as fans debate long and into the coming months about where it stands and whether this deserves to be considered on the same level as it's predecessors or even it's direct predecessor, I say this: may the Force be with it.

- MB