Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Last Jedi - stepping out from the shadows cast by the world's biggest franchise?

This post contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for The Last Jedi. Don't read past this picture of the movie poster unless you have seen the film or don't care about spoilers.

Still here, OK, then.

A review in one sentence: Well, that repeatedly went in a different direction than I expected.

Here are six things that struck me about the film.

1) Rey is a nobody, and wow, was that dark!
After The Force Awakens, there were lots of discussions about Rey's provenance. Was she related to the Skywalkers? How would she link in with the rest of the known universe? That tends to be the (much mocked) trope in Star Wars films.

But, no, she is a nobody from nowhere. And how bleak is this - her alcoholic parents sold her for drinking money to the junk dealer Unku Plutt. It's interesting that in The Force Awakens, Finn talks about being taken as a child and indoctrinated into the First Order as a child soldier. My mum commented on that at this time. But this is as bad a situation in terms of mistreating children.

Abandonment and child slavery? The Galaxy Far Far Away (GFFA) is a messed up place. But, equally, this is refreshingly different for a Star Wars character.

2) They killed off the 'big bad' in the second act
I don't really care about Supreme Leader Snoke. I thought he was annoying and a ridiculous baddie, really. Like so many evil characters he seemed to prefer to send his minions to do his bidding for him rather than sort things out himself. So I wasn't too upset when he got sliced and diced by Kylo Ren.

I was surprised though, that it happened when it did. Normally it's the sort of thing saved for a third act showdown, but no, Snoke just got offed and then afterwards we had an epic fight scene, with Rey and Ren fighting back to back against Snoke's elite guards.

3) War profiteering is the real evil in the galaxy
Whoah, Star Wars just got relevant. I really wasn't expecting this theme to ever come up. Star Wars has always been about light versus dark, good versus evil, heroes and villains. But first with Rogue One, and now with this film, the GFFA is starting to become more nuanced. There are grey areas.

The scene in Canto Bight is quite stunning in its own way. Finn sees the glitz and is mesmerised by it. Rose sees through the glitz to the brutality that shapes the entertainment for the wealthy gamblers. Fascism always creates an elite and it is easy to be bedazzled by it. In the first Star Wars film, it was a grubby smuggler's township that was a hive of scum and villainy. In the Last Jedi, the scum have floated to the top by making money off the suffering of others. That's an astonishing message condemning the military industrial complex for a mainstream film to be putting out there.

4) The scoundrel stays a scoundrel 
Star Wars has always been about redemptive arcs. Han Solo in A New Hope, Lando in Empire Strikes Back, and, of course, Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Arguably the prequels lacked this redemptive theme, which is one reason why they fail to connect emotionally. In The Force Awakens, we see Finn going through his own redemption as he turns his back on the First Order, and that's perhaps one of the reasons it felt like the films were back on track in Episode VII.

So when Finn and Rose meet a thief and hacker in a prison cell, and promise him paid work, we all know how this will turn out. The criminal will have a change of heart and join the rebellion because it's the right thing to do.

Except he doesn't. There is no redemptive story arc for him. He sells out Finn and Rose, and the fleeing remnant of the Resistance to save his own skin. He kind of apologises for it, but doesn't seem very sincere. He doesn't fly back in to save the day like Han Solo. He takes the money and he walks away.

5) The hotshot pilot is a bit of a dick
Poe is a poor leader. He is willing to sacrifice the lives of people around him to achieve an aim. He is reprimanded and demoted by Leia. He doesn't trust the decisions of the leadership and tries to take over the ship instead, trusting in his own gut instincts to fight, rather than to protect the people he should be trying to protect. He inadvertently alerts the code slicer that Finn and Rose have recruited to Admiral Holdo's plan, which gives the slicer a bargaining chip to use when captured. When he cuts a deal the First Order destroy at least 12 unarmed transport ships full of Resistance crew and soldiers as they flee towards Crait. (And, yes, I counted them as they got blown up.) All those people died because of him.

The message here if that it's not enough to be heroic. People die as a result.

Luke Skywalker, of course, was a hotshot pilot. Jumping into a vacant X-Wing seat he totalled the Death Star. In this film, he is also shown to be a failure as a leader. His hubris in establishing a new Jedi Temple facilitated Ben Solo's growth as a Force user, and then his panic at Ben's seduction by the dark side cemented Ben's transformation into Kylo Ren. One of the most interesting parallels in this film is between Poe and Luke - both are legendary heroes, but prideful. Both are hotshot pilots and they end up getting the people around them killed.

6) A background person becomes more than background
Rose isn't anyone special. A tech working "behind pipes all day". She doesn't get whisked into top-ranking briefing rooms or given super top secret missions. She is stunned to be talking to a real life Resistance hero when she first meets Finn.

I think this is probably the first time a committed member of the movement actually steps out of the shadows into the role of hero. If you look at almost every other rebel character, they start out as established leaders (Leia, Poe), or start their story outside the Rebellion but become heroes through great feats of daring do (Luke, Han, Lando, Finn, Rey). Rose is unique - not new to the Rebellion; not a noteworthy person.

Of course, the film still just trashes numerous Resistance troops, from the crews of the doomed bomber squadron at the start of the film, through to the trenches full of troopers outside the mine in Crait. The resistance is whittled down to just a dozen or so survivors huddled in the Millennium Falcon, their only serviceable ship. The death toll in this film is massive.

To sum up
In conclusion, then is seems the directorial team took to heart Kylo Ren's advice to Rey: "Let go of the past. Destroy it if you have to. So you can become the person you were meant to be." They certainly trashed the past. The Jedi failed. Luke Skywalker went from being a legendary hero to a devastated hermit, haunted by what he had unleashed in Kylo Ren, and cut off from the Force. The script literally left you thinking that everything about the Jedi had been left to burn.

The film has garnered some praise and some hate. My feeling is that the directors made a lot of brave choices to take the film in several different directions, upsetting several established tropes from the series so far. It is incredibly hard to imagine a Star Wars film that is revolutionary. Rogue One tried but to me, was a huge disappointment in that regard.

And just to round this post off, here is my round up of random opinions. Feel free to disagree.

Best character: I do still really like Rey.

Best hairstyle: Vice-Admiral Holdo, by several parsecs.

Most annoying character: I'll give this to Poe. He's a tool for most of the film.

Most under-used character: Captain Phasma. Although, yet again, the pre-release merchandise led us to believe some new characters would play more of a role than they ended up doing. The First Order black rolly ball droid had about 30 seconds of screen time, and yet is a pop vinyl figure. (It's no Morroff or Pau from Rogue One, though.)

Funniest bit: Probably Poe winding up General Hux right at the start. Although Rey 'reaching out' to feel the force in Luke's first lesson was very funny too.

Best line: Finn's "Rebel scum!" response to Captain Phasma. Finn also had a great line when the TIE Fighters all peeled off to chase the Falcon: "Oh, yeah, they hate that ship!"

Most jarring line: "Page-turners, they were not." It was very funny but the phrase 'page-turners' didn't seem very Star Wars-y. (But then they were actually books, which is interesting given the idea that people in the Star Wars universe are functionally illiterate.)

Most quotable bit of Star Wars wisdom: Rose, saying "We don't win by fighting what we hate. We win by saving what we love."

Biggest surprise: Ghost Yoda turning up.

Daftest bit: Leia force-guiding herself through the vacuum of space.

Biggest disappointment: They killed off Admiral Ackbar! I was genuinely gutted by this. He was one of my favourite characters as a kid, and probably my favourite of the original Star Wars figures that I had. And he dies ignominiously along with the entire bridge crew, which is pretty much an off-screen death.

Weirdest plot turn: Pretty much everything with the casino at Canto Bight, including the escape on the racing animals.

Thing I'm most relieved to report: The porgs were stupid, but bearable in small doses. And they were in very small doses.

Some more Star Wars posts:
How Rogue One almost killed off my love of Star Wars
What I liked about The Force Awakens
What Return of the Jedi means to me

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