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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Two brothers, two takes on The Last Jedi

Brandon’s Take: Please come back, George Lucas

“I predicted that I’d like it and you wouldn’t,” you said to me as we walked out of the theater. You know me well, of course, and were right. Tell your wife…you were right about me…

The triumvirate of fail

I’ll get right to it. The failures of The Last Jedi, for me, are threefold: the uninspiring collection of its new heroes, its seeming indifference to its most interesting questions, and its tedious insistence on familiar, recycled tropes from the series’ previous installments.

Putting the old heroes out to pasture

I’ve thus far resisted reading any criticism of the film, but I’d wager that I can capture one of the most common complaints: the diehard fans of Star Wars justifiably care much more about its old heroes than these new ones. The franchise’s iconic characters cast a shadow too long for the apparently ill-equipped minds at Disney to overcome. Amid its incoherence, the one thing that The Last Jedi actually renders quite clearly is Disney’s objective to, one by one, purge the beloved and iconic heroes and pass the baton to the new ones. All well and good, you might say. Carrie Fisher (RIP) is real life dead. Harrison Ford was too old to believably reprise Han Solo. Imagine a septuagenarian Henry Winkler donning the leather jacket and playing The Fonze again. It wouldn’t work for the same reasons Ford’s portrayal felt so flat and his death seemed so justified.

The tragically unsatisfying subversion of Luke

Mark Hamill, on the other hand, looks just like you’d expect an exiled Jedi master to look. Unfortunately, his role – until the very end of the film – is relegated to that of angsty brooding. The Jedi failed and should extinguish, he says again, for what feels like the tenth time. This is not what I paid to see. No doubt many fans had much higher hopes for his character, especially after his absence from all but the final 70 seconds of The Force Awakens. For all the sins of the prequels, one thing they got right was a smattering of consequential and visually thrilling lightsaber duels featuring its most important characters. Here, we get Luke losing a low stakes stick fight in the rain to Rey.

Make me care, new characters

Taking the spotlight away from the old guard of heroes does make sense for the reasons I’ve detailed above. The chief problem, for me at least, is that I don’t care – or haven’t been made to care – about this new cast of characters, hero and villain alike. Nearly all of Poe Dameron’s distinctive characteristics are negative. He’s arguably more skilled than the First Order when it comes to killing off what’s left of the Resistance. Someone needs to sit the guy down and teach him the basics of cost-benefit analysis. Later, in a pubescent fit because he doesn’t get to know Vice Admiral Holdo’s plans, Poe stages a coup that – if successful – would have doomed the few surviving members of the Resistance. Luckily, the more stable leaders emerge victorious and save us all from the raging, F5 Poenado threatening to destroy everything. Despite all of this, we’re clearly meant to like him, whose brash swagger reminds us ever so little of Han. I don’t get it.

Then there’s Finn. He’s certainly brave and courageous, but I’m struggling to assign him a distinctive quality. What, exactly, is compelling (or essential, even) about his character? That he’s a turncoat who discovered he wasn’t cool with mass murder? With Han, we had the conversion of a loner, self-centered scoundrel to that of a bona fide hero willing to lay down his life for his friends. With Luke, we had a kid with big hopes and dreams who turned out to be the progeny of the second-worst dude in the galaxy, making him one of the most consequential heroes in the annals of Jedi lore. Leia was the undaunted, intrepid leader that the fledgling Alliance needed, and she set the entire saga in motion with her daring ploy to send the Death Star plans to Obi-Wan Kenobi. I can’t tell you why you should care about Finn, though, and that is a problem for a film franchise that has invested so much in him. At least he isn’t as idiotic as Poe, I suppose.

Even Kylo Ren is a swing and a miss for me. Somehow, despite killing his father and being responsible for Luke’s exile, I can’t muster the hatred for him that is intended. For one thing, all of the best Star Wars villains are terrifying to behold. I find it impossible to feel anything close to terror when beholding Adam Driver’s goofy visage. In short, he is the opposite of everything I want to see in a blossoming Sith Lord. And, in case you missed it, Hayden Christensen already did the whole whiny, angsty thing. The last thing we need is more of that. Snoke said it best, “You are no Vader. You are just a child in a mask.” I’d have much preferred someone cut from the cloth of Darth Maul, who didn’t have to say much of anything to achieve the desired effect—his appearance and skills with a lightsaber were more than enough. 

Not the time to introduce even more new characters into the fray

Rose Tico exists to...save Finn from an act of heroic self-sacrifice and say something pithy about love before maybe dying? If she survives, which we’re led to believe will happen, then she may emerge as the love interest for Finn. So that’s something, I guess, in a saga that has thus far steered clear of any overt romantic aspect. (I found myself pining for the mounting tension and suggestive banter between Han and Leia in the Falcon, with all of Ford’s roguish charm on display while Leia tries in vain to rebuff her feelings.)

DJ, played by the inimitable Benicio Del Toro, is little more than a convenient prop to betray the good guys to the bad guys. His presence is the only redeeming aspect to the mostly pointless casino montage.

Just kidding about all that Snoke hype

The Last Jedi provides answers to none of the most interesting questions left in the wake of The Force Awakens. We learn absolutely nothing about Supreme Commander Snoke, beyond how poorly attuned to his apprentice he really was when it mattered the most. We are left still wondering who he was, where he came from, who mentored him and a host of other questions the film does not address. With this death, Snoke usurps Darth Maul for an honor I foolishly thought had been locked up for all eternity: Most Underused Villain.

Aside: Nothing about Snoke’s death made much sense. He demonstrates his mastery of the Force by casually whipping Rey’s body to and fro, and then boasts that he was the one controlling Kylo and Rey’s connection. This was a sobering revelation that might have had an alarming effect for viewers if not for what followed. Somehow, a being of his evidently immense power lacks basic peripheral vision. Count me among those disappointed with his Bond-villain death.

Nick, you predicted that Ren only killed his father Han Solo to gain the complete faith of Snoke in a sort of long-con. A bit like Severus Snape’s prearranged killing of Dumbledore: something that, on the surface, seemed to cement his villainy but ultimately and more importantly served to gain the unquestioned faith of He Who Must Not Be Named. Viewed that way, Snoke’s demise does not seem quite as absurd. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine a Dark Lord of the Sith being so hopelessly naive and trusting.

Any hopes of learning Rey’s past were also disappointed. Gazing into the Mirror of Erised, Rey sees only her own reflection. To make matters even worse, Kylo Ren later reveals to Rey that she is no person of consequence. Perhaps this isn’t actually true and we should learn by now not to take Erstwhile Ben at his word. If the two were somehow related, though, one would think the conniving Kylo Ren would attempt to use that information to his advantage. I’ll allow for the possibility that more information on Rey is forthcoming.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … TEDIUM

For all of its dizzying action sequences, the film is marked by pointless tedium. Several scenes are devoted to Rey unsuccessfully beseeching Luke to rejoin the Alliance. Everyone knows he will eventually show Rey a thing or two about the Force and perform at least one more heroic deed, so what’s the point of delaying the obvious for what seemed like half an hour? We understand almost immediately that Luke is wrought with grief because of his supposed mishandling of Ben. Indeed, this is conveyed in the previous film and by the mere fact that he’s gone into hiding, but the writers insist on making sure we really, really get it.

Moreover, nearly the entire movie is spent showing the good guys fleeing from the bad guys in outer space. We are constantly and painstakingly reminded of the fact that the ship is running out of fuel.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Then there’s all of the recycled material. Rey is brought before Snoke ala Luke before Palpatine in The Return of the Jedi. In both instances, the hero’s escort is a villain wrestling with whatever small bit of good remains in him. And in both instances, said villain slays his big bad master. Granted, in Vader’s case we hear genuine words of contrition and regret, whereas Ren hasn’t exactly seen the light. Killing Snoke was about seizing his ambitions, and, perhaps, attempting to gain the trust of Rey, whom he courts for the esteemed role of co-ruler of the galaxy.

The Last Jedi saves its best derivation for last. The Resistance finally land on a planet that looks an awful lot like Hoth and are almost immediately besieged by a host of AT-ATs. I’m sure that I’ve seen this somewhere before. Surprise! Chewie and the Falcon swoop in just in time to save some of our heroes from being mowed down in a vision that hearkens back to Han’s timely arrival in the battle of Yavin. Then we are treated to the eerily familiar sight of the Falcon navigating tight quarters while several TIE fighters give chase. It’s impossible to not see visions of the Falcon narrowly escaping the second Death Star—the clear inspiration for this new sequence. So, the writers manage to recycle material from all three of the original films in one fell swoop. That’s so wizard, Ani!

Porgs are, of course, the new ewoks—a shameless ploy to sell Star Wars toys and a decent bet for most popular Halloween costume of 2018. At least the ewoks served a purpose in the plot of their film.

Weeding through the snark

Here’s what it comes down to, Nick. I had specific hopes and expectations for the film that were unmet. I wanted more Luke, especially a showcase of his Force mastery. I thought his legacy was cheapened by the dreary monotony on Ahch-To and found his sendoff unsatisfying. Fair or unfair, I’ve yet to buy in on Finn, Rey or Poe. Assuming you have, you’re probably scratching your head at all of my criticism. Likewise, if you did not really care so much about the mysterious Sith Lord or the lineage of Rey, you don’t mind that certain questions were left unanswered. Finally, I hoped for more originality in the unspooling of the plot. In shoving more banality down my throat, instead, Disney did little to dissuade me of my belief that most sequels are bantha poodoo. 

Thanks for reading. Now, read my brother Nick's take, "The Star Wars I Saw."

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