Film Reviews

Understanding The Last Jedi

I wanted to start this essay by swearing on a stack of bibles that I’m not some left wing patchouli stink hippie wearing berets and reading Dylan Thomas in the nearest star bucks knock off. But then again, I actually do wear berets (a hold over from my college years) and I have read Dylan Thomas but I can’t think of the last time I was at a Starbucks (but I have been there) and I am definitely not what you would describe as left – wing (not that I have a problem with liberals – “some of my best friends are democrats”). But having said all of that, and reading a lot online about how the Star Wars fandom has apparently split following The Last Jedi, I thought that I would attempt to bring together some thoughts on the history our Sacred Space Saga and try to explain (not mansplain, but just more of a layout) of some of the issues derived from The Last Jedi as well as answer some of Rian Johnson’s more notable critics. Not for the sake of argument, and not for the sake of being right, but just for the sake of understanding what it is we are all so upset about.

I am a huge Star Wars fan. It was indeed, the first time I had been in a cinema. It is the first commercial I remember seeing on TV. I remember being heartbroken when Empire was sold out, and I remember being absolutely smitten with Return of the Jedi. I named my son Luke, for Christ’s sake. So I think my credentials as a fan boy are valid. The seeds of the fandom split were born in the special editions in the 90s with not only the bad adding-on of deleted scenes that were cut for good reasons, but the addition of good for then, bad for now CGI that was completely unnecessary, including the legendary mistake of Han’s showdown with Greedo in which Greedo shoots first. Yes it changes the character. Yes it is a mistake. Did I really let it upset me at the time? No, because it’s just a fucking movie.

Harder to explain to the fandom was the introduction of Jar-Jar Binks into the saga, opening a divide between those who refused to dislike any Lucas creation and those who saw a fundamental problem with telling such a dark tale as the turning of a child of good into a paragon of evil with a fully CGI character that looked bad, sounded worse, and interacted with live action with no rationality. Flat acting we could tolerate, but not with bad Asian accents, a plot about a trade war that we couldn’t understand, and the first character we truly started to hate. This is not the fault of Ahmed Best any more than it is the fault of Eric Stoltz when he was replaced midway through shooting of Back to the Future. Best did his Best, and it wasn’t a question of ‘was it good enough’, it was a question of ‘what the fuck was George thinking?’ The next move after the first edit was to eliminate Jar Jar from the plot – completely possible given that fanboys had made a ‘Phantom Edit’ of the film and posted it on torrent sites before the summer was over. It would not have been a loss. We would not have noticed it. The next worse thing in the film is the bad acting (we could say bad directing) and if you didn’t put up with that, then you weren’t a fan. The last 30 minutes of Phantom were so good, you could have gotten over it. Best did an amazing interview with Matt Gourley on the I Was There Too Podcast in which he discusses the film and when it came to the controversy had only this to say: “My job as an actor is to provoke a reaction, so if you had a reaction, I was doing my job.” To which we should all nod and say “yes, it was a great job, Ahmed, and it is not your fault you were miscast, given bad directions, and your footage used regardless.” Best was not the problem with Phantom. Jar Jar was, and we shouldn’t persecute Best for that.

It seems remarkable to see a featurette on Attack of the Clones in which Lucas is directing his animators during Yoda’s famous shit-fit fight over Count Dooku, the finale of the best film in the three ring circus that is the prequels. “This has the potential to look ridiculous,” Lucus warns his animators, “and we don’t want it looking that way.” Instead, we have a bad ass and reverential warrior monk Yoda we all screamed at in the theatre and clapped. George almost pulled it off, but the Sith had their revenge. The lava fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan, outrageous and off-putting, gave the weird sensation among fans of admitting to themselves “I know this is a movie about laser swords and light speed, but it just seemed a little fantastic to me.” Yes, it was, and it’s why Revenge of the Sith sits next to Phantom as the worst film. More than ten years passed. I never thought my son would see a Star Wars film in theatres again. But it happened, and though we both thought the first hour of The Force Awakens was absolutely solid, the minute Han and Chewie show up it all goes to shit. The saving grace of the film – the awakening of the force in Rey and the revelation that she rather than Poe or Finn will be the crux of the saga – comes too late to save an awkward battle on an Endor-like planet despite thoughtful long shots, and is ruined when, holding the lightsaber in her hand, John Williams music is not given another bar to make the emphasis of the moment truly take hold. It’s rushed, just like the screenwriting. On top of this are weird costume choices for Rey, a Kylo Ren that doesn’t look bad but doesn’t exactly look good, and Charlie fucking Weasley as an admiral. The Empire was old and decrepit just like the men who ran it. The Emperor. Anakin. Admiral Viedt. Captain Needa. Governor Tarkin. These seasoned strong men were replaced by a corps of what looks like young lions. The oldest actor was Captain Phasma, a character that was definitely cool, but who has no purpose and was only added in because Kathleen Kennedy came up with the idea and everyone thought it would look cool.

What The Force Awakens should have had as a third act was which I thought was going to be obvious and thus would not need to be said. Luke is found, but it is too late for Han. As Han lies dying in Leia’s arms in a chamber of your choice after a battle of your choice between Kylo Ren and the Rebels, the walls of the chamber start shaking, the storm troopers look around getting nervous, and Leia starts to lightly laugh. “You’re in for it now, Ben. My brother is here.” Enter Luke, in a scene of complete bedlam, crushing shit with one hand and tossing his Seven Samurai Saber across the room with another, slaying storm troopers and closing exits, but not fast enough for Ren to escape. Luke saves the day, but not Han, who then dies. The film closes with his funeral. Credits. It seemed obvious to me, like it seemed obvious that Anakin would actually see his children before he turned to Vader, and actually killed Padme in his rage to find Obi-Wan. But then, I suppose, why write the obvious ending?

Contrast this to what is the force of Rogue One: the strongest Star Wars film since Empire and currently the 10th highest earning domestic release in history. Rogue One had it all: the decrepit old men, the solid plot being the weakest link in the first film. The only thing I found distracting was Forrest Whitaker and Rez Ahmed whom I found miscast and out of place. Rogue One was not without problems. The script was in trouble. Godzilla director Gareth Edwards was replaced and the entire ending reshot with Tony Gilroy at the helm. Fear was in the air. But as it happened Kennedy made the right call. Gilroy had written four Bourne films and directed Bourne Legacy as well as legal thriller Michael Clayton. He fired some minor department heads, rewrote the ending, and shot for twelve weeks. For some fans, it was confusing. Most of the footage from the first two trailers was not even in the film. But the result could not be argued with. I was giddy after seeing Rogue One. It was the film I hoped The Force Awakens could be. Kennedy pulled the trigger again on Solo when dailies and early edits clearly showed the film was not headed in the direction she or Disney wanted. She made the right call, the call Lucas never had the guts to do. Solo was saved, and though I have some issues with Alden Ehrenriech’s acting not really lining up with Harrison Ford’s (come on defenders, Ewan MacGregor studied Alec Guinness’ accent for months), and while I thought Woody Harrelson was miscast, I do love the film, and I fear what it could have been. Kennedy should have done the same to save the legacy of The Force Awakens, which I fear over time will slip on the audience tomatometer, if not the critics.

But what to do about The Last Jedi? Every time I watch it I am both more impressed and more depressed. It reminds me of what the literary censors in the Soviet government said about Doctor Zhivago. Although a towering work, the themes in the book were central and long running, and heavily anti-Soviet. Due to the purpose of the book being so ill aligned with the goals of the worker, the censors informed Boris Pasternak that there was nothing he could do: no paragraph to strike, no chapter to delete, no subplot to change. The book could not be published for the inherent nature of it could not be changed.  Can it be that The Last Jedi suffers under the same circumstances? Can we excise some scenes, delete certain shots, perhaps insert a few minor scenes, with the effect of turning the film in a comletely different direction? Or is it that the theme running through the film are inherently tied to what the film is and what has been done cannot be undone? Most of you reading this I am sure have noticed by now an independent movement, real or imagined, to reshoot the entirety of The Last Jedi for this distinct purpose. Perhaps a 100% reshoot like Solo is not necessary. Maybe we only need 10%. Can it be that we can have true hope to do this, or are we stuck with the version we have (most likely) for the only reason that Johnson should have listened to Mark Hamill?

Hamill’s interview with Jonathan Capeheart on the Cape Up Podcast didn’t reveal a lot we didn't already knew. Hamill strongly objected to what Johnson wanted to do with Luke’s character, but felt ultimately he was an actor, like any other, and the role did not belong to him. Hamill was right about that, but he was also right in thinking what he wanted, a more Yoda-like Luke helping a more Luke-like Rey, would be much more preferable to breaking Luke down to a disgusting old man uninterested in the galaxy’s problems and completely disengaged from the Force. Considering the structure of The Last Jedi, it was not impossible to fix the film’s apparent shortcomings (the entire Canto-Bight Casino subplot) and fix the narrative direction Luke and Rey take.

The answer to Canto-Bight is obvious. Cut it the fuck out. Twenty minutes of screen time is wasted on a place we don’t care about with people we don’t get to know doing bad things just to make a modern day point (yes, people get rich off both sides of war) – which becomes pointless in the grand scheme of Skywalker’s return (which is supposed to be the focal point of the film).  The deeper narrative issues, Luke’s seeming unwillingness to do anything for the sake of the Rebellion, is not a complete failure (after all, Luke does come in some form to help the Rebellion), but it could be turned with very minimal additional shooting, to be what Hamill thought it should have been from the beginning. The only problem with turning Luke into another Yoda, Aach-To into another Dagobah, is that The Last Jedi already looks too much like The Empire Strikes Back, which in of itself is a huge help, and a huge problem.

Johnson of course did this on purpose. Instead of involving Rey in the opening battle sequence like Luke on Hoth, he starts with Rey on Aach-To. This is in part due to necessity since the ending of Force Awakens puts her there (they didn’t have to, see my above ending proposal to Force Awakens). This is also partly a mistake because then Rey has no clue what is going on with her friends. Luke used the Force to divine what was happening to Han, Leia, and Chewie on Dagobah. Luke then becomes a master asshole on Aach-To, his lessons to Rey not false but used for wrong purposes. His defeatism is equated very much to Kevin Flynn’s game theory in Tron Legacy: “the only way to win is not to play.” This, of course, is very true on an individual basis. Flynn was stuck for thirty years inside the Grid, but the arrival of his son Sam changed the nature of the game which he failed to immediately see. But Flynn did turn in the very next scene when Flynn was in danger, and the third act of Tron Legacy is very much father and son fighting CLU for the very nature of the Grid. Flynn’s sacrifice then has meaning. The Last Jedi could have learned from this. Instead of Luke waiting until the last ten minutes to decide he wanted to do something, he could have been more like his Master Yoda or Master Kenobi and been that teacher for Rey. After all, Rey’s sudden presence means the game has changed. Luke can play again and even more, this time he can win. His refusal means a complete breakdown in the Jedi narrative, and the fact that it comes from the sacred cow of the Star Wars story makes it a bitter pill to taste. Luke turning his back on the Force means he is turning his back on Kenobi, on Yoda, on everything that farm boy left Tattoine for in the first place. And that is complete bullshit.

As it is, R2 convinces Luke to help train Rey but it is a bit of a betrayal, since what knowledge he gives her is intended to push her away from the Force, which of course back fires. A master such as Luke should have known the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. A master would have known with the Force it is everything or nothing. Even when he was appalled at how Rey reached out to the Dark Side he didn’t even care to teach her why she shouldn’t. The hole in the ocean floor was nothing more than the cave at Dagobah; the mirror only a reflection like Luke’s face in Vader’s helmet. Her flight back to the fleet mimics Luke’s flight back to Bespin. Luke’s square off with Ren a repeat of his fight with Vader, only this time he dies. Even the ending of both films is the same: a catastrophe has occurred but the Rebellion has survived. Thus the arches of both films are extremely similar.

What are so different between the two are the nature of Luke and the projection of his narrative. It is like he has given up. Considering his being upset about Han we have to wonder what did he think was going to happen? If he knew Kylo-Ren was corrupted, was going to rise in the Dark Side, was going to raise others in an attempt to restart the cult of the Sith, how is it that Luke’s outlook changes to ‘well, I guess I just won’t do anything about it.’ His look back on the history of the Jedi is correct, blaming the rise of Palpatine and Vader squarely on their shoulders. In effect, this is a direct conflict that criticizes Lucas’ entire trilogy plot for episodes 1-3 since finding Anakin was supposed to “bring balance to the Force.” Well, if the Sith were in hiding, what would ‘balance’ mean if the Jedi were running the show? Likewise, what ‘balance’ did Luke think was possible if he became the last Jedi? This is beyond puzzling. It makes you wonder why Kennedy, who is by far the most powerful studio head in Hollywood history, who has forty years of filmmaking experience, who has by now replaced two directors during production and replaced three directors before principal photography, and scores of writers along the way, why, why, why, did she just not tell Johnson to cut the casino, reverse the Luke narrative, and give every fan boy (and girl) what they always wanted since they saw Rey hold that lightsaber for the first time? And if Johnson said no? Well, I hate to say this to the director of such a fine film as Looper, but then he’s got to go. Call in Gilroy. The entire Luke-Rey narrative would need additional scenes, but not a third act reshoot. The finale might not even need changing. The Rose character would have been minimized for sure (I am not anti-Rose like most other fanboys, but I find her purpose confusing), but that’s not a loss. The entire purpose of the film would not have changed, but the journey there would have changed fundamentally. Instead of walking out with a bunch of questions (not always good), people walk out with a sense of “wow, what a story.”

There are other things that put me off. Laura Dern is a great actress, but she looks lost in this movie, awkward, definitely miscast. She looks like she’s wondering why she’s there. And why, when everyone including Leia is in a uniform, is she wearing a weird dress out of Blade Runner? I am not a fan of the mutiny subplot itself, but if you cut out the casino, it would stand out more and a few more scenes could give it more meaning. The bombs supposedly ‘falling’ in outer space brings us back to the arena of absurdity. It reminds me of the ice in GI Joe that ‘fell’ to the bottom of the ocean. I know we are watching a fantastic spectacle. But if you betray the laws of physics, please be very careful in how you present it. How Johnson worked in many aspects of the original trilogy was masterful (Han warned in IV that if you weren’t careful you could fly into a star in hyperspace) and the lightsaber battle in the throne room has to be, hands down, the best in all the Star Wars films. The Last Jedi is good, but it could have been so much better, with minimal more expenditure. And while we should be happy that as a whole, they are getting better as they go along (Solo is much better than The Last Jedi), we have to wonder why are they not as good as we want them to be? Budget is not the issue. Getting actors is not the issue. Getting the writing talent is not the issue. So why are these films (VII and VIII) so marginally better than mediocre? Is it because I’m a fan boy who’s not getting what he wants? Maybe that’s it. And is that bad? I’m not talking about Incels bitching about a girl being the center of attention. I’m talking about ‘where the fuck is Chewie in this movie if he’s Rey’s sidekick,’ and ‘could there have been a better way of Leia getting back to the ship other than deus ex machina Mary Poppins bullshit?’ Star Wars can be better than this. The question is why isn’t it? Is it because, like Doctor Zhivago, the nature of the beast cannot be changed?

Do we admit defeat by saying, as I concluded at Greedo, “It’s just a fucking movie?” This might be hard to do for an entertainment franchise that holds ten spots in the top fifty highest earning films of all time. I don’t know. My son and I were walking out of The Force Awakens, premiere night on Thursday, when he wrapped his arm around me. It was about minus twenty outside, so like everything he does there was an ulterior motive. He asked me ‘so, what did you think?” I considered his question while I started the car and waited for the heater to kick on. ‘I think that what I experienced as a kid was special to me because of that time and place. And however much I want it, it’ll never be the same again. And as soon as I admit that I’ll never be that fulfilled at a Star Wars film again, the better off I’ll be.” And by extension, the fanboys too. Luke pulled his seatbelt on and clicked it, shoving his hands in his pocket. “Jesus, Dad,” he shook his head at me, “that was deep.” I shifted the beret on my head and we went home.