Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence

Score: 4 out of 5

Modern-day South Park tends to be very hit-or-miss in its satirical targets, with the hits and the misses typically varying wildly depending on who you're speaking to. However, one recent recurring plot point is almost universally agreed upon to have been an absolutely on-point skewering of the state of popular culture in the 2010s. I am talking, of course, about the "memberberries" from season 20 last year. A strange type of sentient fruit, memberberries set off pangs of nostalgia in people who eat them, reminding them of the good old days of the pop culture they consumed during their youth back when everything was "still good". ("'Member Ghostbusters? 'Member Slimer? Oh, I 'member!") The spread of the memberberries sets off a nostalgia boom in pop culture, one that is content to recycle, rehash, and reboot old ideas and franchises rather than evolve and innovate, leading to stagnation in American media and society. What's more, the memberberries' influence extends beyond the pop cultural ephemera that people enjoyed. They also provoke nostalgia for the politics and cultural viewpoints of the past, when Reagan was in charge and everybody "knew their place", leading to the rise of Mr. Garrison as a serious Presidential candidate (and eventually President) in a thinly-veiled parody of Donald Trump's campaign. The connections between the embrace of the pop culture of yesteryear and the embrace of its social mores are explicit and blunt.

Why am I talking about South Park in a review of the latest Star Wars movie? Because, as evidence of the pull of the memberberries, the show explicitly cited Star Wars. The berries frequently name-dropped characters from the original trilogy to incite those warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia, and J. J. Abrams' work on The Force Awakens was presented as a case of nostalgia run amok. In the real world, this was the most frequently-heard line of criticism of that film: the fact that, structurally, it cribbed so much from A New Hope that it felt like a fan film made on a blockbuster budget. I actually liked The Force Awakens, including for its nostalgic throwbacks and familiar plot structure, which I thought were a great way to reintroduce people to the series after over a decade of dormancy. However, I still found myself wishing that Episode VIII would take more creative risks instead of rehashing The Empire Strikes Back like its predecessor did A New Hope, lest the franchise, now under the umbrella of the great Disney megacorporation, quickly fall into a creative rut.

Well, here we are two years later, and I'll be damned if The Last Jedi didn't do everything I hoped it would, and wound up a better film for it... and yet, there has been a very vocal contingent of Star Wars fans who have utterly damned the film for precisely that reason. The Last Jedi is almost the total antithesis of The Force Awakens: whereas that film was rooted heavily in nostalgia for the original trilogy, The Last Jedi is straight-up anti-nostalgic and calls for its characters and institutions -- and by extension, the fans -- to get over and move on from their obsession with the legacy of figures like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. In short, if The Force Awakens was a memberberry delivery system, then The Last Jedi is almost completely, self-consciously devoid of them outside of the series' trademark stylistic cues. For a good chunk of the fanbase, this felt like a betrayal, but for me, it was a breath of fresh air, producing an outstanding, if imperfect, Star Wars movie that sets a bold new direction for the franchise and takes a very different look at the tropes and structure that the series is built upon.

We start where The Force Awakens left off, with the First Order having dealt a shattering blow to the New Republic and the Resistance now on the run. We follow three concurrent storylines: one concerning the efforts of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to save the last fleet of the Resistance from First Order attack, one concerning the ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and ship maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) launching an audacious plot to strike at the flagship of the First Order, and finally, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeking out the legendary Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to learn the way of the Force and the Jedi in order to better fight back against the vicious First Order henchman Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). To say any more would be spoilers, but suffice it to say, if you've seen The Empire Strikes Back... then, to borrow a widely-used quote from Luke in this film, things are not going to go the way you think.

Let's start with the characters, particularly those who best represent the film's broader themes. Luke's long-awaited return, teased at the end of the last film, comes out in (pardon the pun) force here, and he is a very different man than he was at the end of Return of the Jedi. Suffice it to say, he did not earn a happy ending after the events of that film, and is now living in seclusion on a remote island on a remote planet, a hermit much like his old mentors Obi-Wan and Yoda who is now reluctantly serving that role to Rey. Emphasis is very much on the "reluctantly": he has lost faith in the ways of the Jedi, condemning them for having grown decadent (as seen in the prequel trilogy) and allowing the Sith and the Empire to rise while they were at the height of their prestige and hubris, and initially does not want to train Rey to better use the Force, seeing in her a reflection of his past mistakes and fearing her power as a result. Luke is, for most of the film, a bitter old man, a portrayal that reportedly rankled on Mark Hamill himself and led to a lot of push-and-pull between him and writer/director Rian Johnson -- a push-and-pull that, in the end, produced a phenomenal performance on Hamill's part and an outstanding arc for his character. Rey, meanwhile, goes to Luke with her mind effectively clouded by the legend that had built up around him after the events of the original trilogy. She wishes to be like Luke, a hero who she idolizes and started consciously acting like in The Force Awakens, and must confront the reality of both who she is and what Luke teaches her. On the other, darker side of the Force, Kylo Ren likewise spends his time grappling with his legacy as the heir apparent to Darth Vader, increasingly frustrated over his inability to be like his own idol. Rey and Kylo are two sides of the same coin here, two people, one good and one evil, who must grow beyond the men who inspired them if they are to forge and embrace their own destinies. I could just as easily be talking about the two of them as fictional characters as I can about them as people; the film is nothing if not meta when it comes to presenting its themes. Just as Rey and Kylo set out to break free of the destinies that they have seemingly been shoehorned into, the film is setting out to declare that it is not another rehash of the original trilogy, and that, in fact, it is going to directly challenge the worldview of its predecessors.

This becomes ever more apparent with the tale of Finn and Rose, serving up both the film's strongest comic relief and its greatest moral ambiguity. The two of them set out for a Monte Carlo-esque casino resort with the bobble-headed robot BB-8 in search of a master codebreaker they need for their plan, and while they fail to reach the man they were looking for, they do find a codebreaker in the form of DJ (Benicio Del Toro), a roguish, charming fellow who immediately calls to mind the Han Solo of old. Amidst a sea of rich scumbags, you'd expect Finn, Rose, and DJ to make fools of the fat cats at the resort, then jet off into space and save the day. Well... you get the first half of that statement, bundled with the sort of uncomfortable facts about war that Star Wars has historically (until Rogue One, at least) skirted over in favor of the battle between good and evil. Many of the high rollers there turn out to be arms dealers, people who have profited from the First Order's war against the remnants of the New Republic and have no problem with arming both sides in the conflict in order to make the most profit. And when the gang gets back to the big fight... let's just say that recruiting some random dude you aren't familiar with to help you on a dangerous mission works about as well as you think it would. Without spoiling anything, DJ is no Han Solo.

The other Solo-esque character in the film, Poe Dameron, spends the film aboard Leia's cruiser butting heads with her and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) over how to respond to the siege that they're under from the forces of the First Order. Poe, who got precious little screen time in The Force Awakens, gets plenty of room to shine here -- and by "shine", I mean "behave like an impulsive hothead". Opening the film with a move straight out of Han's playbook, only to be forced to deal with the fact that his stunt produced a Pyrrhic victory that left the Resistance in worse shape than before, Poe is the guy who supports Finn and Rose from the ship that they're trying to save, convinced that their plan is going to save the day even as Leia and Holdo come up with a far more sensible plan -- one that still produces one of the most awesome moments in the film. (Short version: it looks like a shot pulled straight out of a really badass anime.) This chunk of the film belongs to Poe and Leia, the latter role letting the late Carrie Fisher go out like a champ and the former giving Oscar Isaac the great moments he lacked in The Force Awakens. Once again, the "traditional" Star Wars move turns out to be very questionable in its utility, especially in the face of more realistic alternatives that accomplish the same end goal.

This, I think, is why there has been such a visceral hatred of this film from some corners of the Star Wars fandom. Not merely content to avoid indulging in nostalgia and fanservice, writer/director Rian Johnson flat-out questioned many of the underlying assumptions of the universe, from the idea of destiny to the focus on characters' lineages. The Last Jedi is nothing short of a deconstruction of the foundation that the series is built on, capped off with a new, distinctly modern vision that embraces some Star Wars tropes, remixes others, and rejects a number of them. It feels almost as though Johnson had read Star Wars on Trial, a famous book-length debate between science fiction authors David Brin and Matthew Woodring Stover over the merits of George Lucas' franchise and the values underpinning it, and proceeded to make a film that responded to all of the points raised in that debate. Somebody attached to the idea of "classic" Star Wars and what it represents is undeniably going to take issue with how this film goes about handling many plot points and mysteries, quite a few of which it answers with a point-blank, unambiguous "who cares?"

Johnson proved to be an excellent pick for bringing this revisionist take to life behind the camera. Having previously made the excellent Brick and Looper, not only are his action scenes top-notch, boasting great cinematography and special effects alike, but he also delivers some standout set pieces and quieter moments of development, giving the entire cast room for some great moments on each of their parts. The story he weaves starts with three separate stories that only come together towards the end, but when they do, they come together beautifully and produce a stellar final act, one with a whole bunch of incredible moments that, once the backlash dies down, people are probably going to be talking about for a while to come. Unfortunately, the journey to getting there is where I found the only real problems that I had with this film. At two hours and thirty-two minutes long, The Last Jedi is a big, sprawling movie, and at times the pacing can drag. It's easily the longest Star Wars film yet, and probably could have stood to be at least ten to fifteen minutes shorter, with most of the lipo going towards a bloated second act that, at times, tended to wander. While most of the criticism I've seen over this issue has gone towards Finn and Rose's story, particularly with how it had one or two chase scenes too many, I'd argue that all three of the stories here had the problem of needing some fat trimmed. Yes, the Porgs were amazing and unbelievably cute, and the scene of Chewbacca being shamed into not eating one was hilarious, but I don't think the film needed to spend so much time with them. Nor did it really need the scene of Rey, upon her arrival on Luke's island, following his daily routine as she tried to convince him to train her. Some more trimming around the edges would've helped the film flow a lot better during its midsection.

The Bottom Line

While not a perfect movie, it's impossible to deny that this was a bold one, especially for a mega-budget tentpole in what is arguably the defining franchise of modern Hollywood. It's daring, it's weird, it's subversive, it's overly long, it's unwieldy, and it's already driven a number of fans into a frothing rage. In other words, it's probably the exact sort of Star Wars movie I'd make if I were writing and directing it, warts and all. It may not deliver the nostalgic feelings of The Force Awakens, but it does something just as good in my book: it moves Star Wars forward.

No comments:

Post a Comment