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The Last Jedi: Mixed Bag of Missed Opportunities

16 Dec 2017

last jedi poster***This Review is full of Spoilers. If you want a pristine experience, you should come back after you’ve seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Consider yourself warned.***

Perhaps I am old. Maybe I have moved finally and fully out of the hulking middle at which Hollywood takes aim. It is also possible I am just plain wrong. Of the three, I consider the last one the least likely.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (TLJ) was a pile of missed opportunities, punctuated by an occasional moment of brilliance. I am of many minds as I think through the film and my reaction to it. The overall plot of TLJ was not, thankfully, a rehash of Episode V, and it takes the franchise in a potentially bold direction. The main characters (Rey, Kylo, and Luke) had strong moments that were more than mere riffs on familiar themes. Visually, the film was spectacular. The action scenes were memorable and well-executed. Beyond that, I had serious issues.

Let me speak positively up front. The scenes with Kylo and Rey were all quite good. Kylo has grown over the two films. Adam Driver’s portrayal of him is outstanding. He is a strong enough actor to portray Kylo’s conflicts through facial expressions, so we see his choices slide across his visage as he makes them. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is just as good. I am still not sure how Rey is so advanced in the Force, but I’m almost to the point that I don’t care. With these two moving forward, the next film is in a good place.

Particular scenes were arresting and polished. The initial bombing run of the dreadnaught was spectacular, even if the battle tactics were poorly conceived. The fight in Snoke’s throne room was riveting, probably the best Star Wars fight scene ever filmed. The mineral planet covered by a film of salt, Crait, was gorgeous and the speeder assault on the AT-AT walkers was a visual wonder. The scene where the cruiser rips apart the First Order ship, silently, was lovely and horrible. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron got deserved attention and we saw his character grow throughout the film.

I also like the basic direction the plot is taking. The Resistance is now dwindled to nothing, Kylo Ren is head of the First Order, and Rey is at least as powerful. While it feels a bit like the end of Empire Strikes Back, where it seemed the Empire was on the verge of victory, there are plenty enough unknowns to keep it interesting.

Beyond these points, I had some serious problems with TLJ.

First, the movie cheats in ways that, in retrospect, rob key scenes of their drama. I suppose this always happens when a twist takes place, but when these twists render what came before moot, they are artificial. They pull apart plot threads in a way that disturbs the film as a whole. When Luke is revealed to be “holo-Luke,” everything that just happened is a charade. There was no heartfelt encounter with Leia. There was no, “Holy Cow! Luke Skywalker is here to save us!” It was merely a force-projection that drains any tension away from the confrontation between Kylo and Luke.

It also, if I might say it plainly, took one of the icons of the franchise and reduced him to an illusion. Luke Skywalker, the character that binds together Episodes IV, V, and VI, did not go out in a blaze of glory. He just died of exhaustion, I suppose.

My big problem is pretty simple. When he “projects” himself, he does not put himself at risk, he just pretends to do so. I have one basic question: why not just put him in the middle of the battle physically? What did the projection accomplish that Luke himself could not have accomplished? He could have shown up and simply sacrificed himself at Kylo’s hands, much like his master did before Vader. It would have been a nobler death of sacrifice as opposed to just an existential whine that resulted in an absorption devoid of drama. Luke Skywalker, the Jedi who never gave up on his father, effectively gave up on the Resistance and his nephew by just fading away. Obi-Wan was absorbed into the Force when he was being killed by Vader. Yoda died of old age, it seemed. Luke just died. I’m still not sure why.

Another cheat happens with the pivotal scene between Yoda and Luke. (By the way, did Yoda look terrible or was it just me?) The conflict between them was over the role of tradition and the past as the Jedi moved forward. Luke wanted to burn the temple and the texts, but lacked the nerve to do it. He challenged the worth of the writings and diminished their impact on him. Yoda makes it clear that the teachings are embodied in Luke himself. He does not need the books or the temple to teach Rey, but only himself. We see everything burn and are meant to feel a change in Luke and in the Jedi Order.

Naturally, it turns out Rey had stolen the books, which are now safely on the Falcon in a drawer. So whatever Luke thought he was doing, and whatever Yoda did, had zero impact on reality since Rey had already absconded with the goods. Whatever tension that did exist just evaporated, right along with that glorified tree stump that used to house the Jedi’s sacred texts.

In both of these cases, in the end, there were no stakes. There was no risk. There was no cost. It was just the appearance of stakes. I am reminded of The Game, an old Michael Douglas thriller about a man caught up in a web of intrigue, literally running for his life, barely escaping with his skin time after time. (Do I really need a Spoiler Alert for a movie that is twenty years old?) What we find, in the end, is everything was just an elaborate surprise party. He was never in danger. His friends planned an adventure for him to experience and nothing else. Everything, including the film, was a hoax.

Beyond the cheats, the side mission to the casino planet (I don’t care enough to look up the name) felt like a waste of screen time. If we needed to figure out a way to get Finn and Rose on board the ship, we could have done that a million ways without pushing them on a journey that seemed designed only to appeal to those who wish to see significant political themes in Star Wars. I thought it needless.

Given the movie was already long, why not spend that screen time explaining a major character? How about Snoke? I have no problem with Snoke’s death, but I still have no idea who the character was, how he accumulated so much power, or what he did to seduce Ben Solo to the Dark Side. All I know is that he is dead and he primarily existed, it seems, to move the story along and for no other purpose.

If Luke was mishandled as a character, Leia was simply ruined. Gen. Organa got flushed into space after the bridge of her cruiser was blasted. She was in the vacuum for a bit of time, it seems, and magically pulls herself back into the ship and survives. I am comfortable saying it looked stupid and it felt stupid. I’m sure my wonky brothers and sisters will come yelling in defense of that moment of lunacy (“she has force powers! she’s a Skywalker!”), but nothing I have seen in all of the previous movies suggests even a Jedi would survive the deep freeze of space. Heck, why didn’t Qui-Gon just stitch his veins and arteries back together after getting stabbed by a lightsaber? Why didn’t Mace Windu just float in the air after being tossed out of a window? Why didn’t Anakin just reattach his lava legs and walk away?

Leia should have died there, or she should have died at the end of the film by staying on the cruiser and jumping to light speed, just as Vice-Admiral Holdo ended up doing. I love Laura Dern and I even liked the low-key hostility Holdo threw at Dameron when he got out of line (though why she would withhold a rational plan from him makes no sense), but having Leia sacrifice herself at that point would have made far more sense, at least to me.

My final bit of groaning happened right at the end. As Finn was about to sacrifice himself and take out the First Order’s cannon, Rose’s speeder knocks him aside. He finds her in the rubble, they exchange some words, and she passes out and we cut away from the action. Mind you, a battle is taking place around them. There are walkers and troops and blasters and death and destruction raining down. These speeders had been flown hundreds of yards, if not more, away from the base and toward the walkers when the moment of truth happens. Later, somehow, he drags Rose’s body, stretched across some rusty debris, into the base. At this point, I just laughed, shook my ahead again, and thought, “man, that guy is really fast.”

This is way too long and only Nathan D will probably read this far. (Shout out to the biggest Star Wars fan that I know!) I wanted to like TLJ, and part of me did. But only part of me. I am very curious to see how Star Wars fans react to TLJ. I am guessing it will be divisive, but maybe not.

Final Grade: 2/4 Eggheads.