Killing the Past

(Spoilers galore. You had five days; if you haven’t seen it by now, you don’t really care what someone says about it, anyway.)

The most obvious thing after watching Last Jedi a second time? Rian Johnson loves Star Wars, he just doesn’t love your Star Wars. If there was any doubt, he scatters hints throughout the script.

Luke: This is not going to go the way you think!



Yoda: We are what they grow beyond.

And, most telling:

Kylo: Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.

J.J. Abrams slathered homage to the original trilogy on Force Awakens like it was apple butter on a hot biscuit. Johnson winked at it a couple of times to let us know he knew it was there, and then blew it to smithereens.

More than anything else, I think this is the cause of the wildly divergent opinions on the movie. The audience score at Rotten Tomatoes is almost forty points lower than the critic score. Critics like a lot of movies that audiences don’t, but those movies don’t make $220 million their opening weekend. The IMDB user score dropped a half-point in the eighteen hours between the first time and second time I saw the movie.1 Read the user reviews on IMDB, for example, and you’ll find a common cry: “They ruined my childhood!” There haven’t been reactions this strong since New Coke.

It isn’t just one or two things, it’s everything. Think Luke’s going to kick butt and take names after that ten-minute2 closing shot from TFA? Think again. Think Rey is Kylo’s sister or second cousin or Palpatine’s granddaughter? Think again. Think Poe is the reincarnation of Han Solo? Think again. Think Snoke is the new Palpatine? Think again. Think Ackbar is going to be on the bridge to warn of another trap? Think again. (And, by the way, the bridge is gone, too.)

It’s already well-known that Mark Hamill initially disagreed with “every decision” that Johnson made about Luke in the script. Almost all of the “You killed my childhood!” reviews quote that interview. The difference is that Hamill came to grips with the story, but many of the millennials haven’t.

My problems with the movie aren’t with the direction it went — Han died in the last movie, Fisher died after this one was finished, and Rey and Finn are both great characters that are well-acted, and Ren is greatly improved from TFA (sorry, still not a Poe fan). The galaxy had to move on. Given a choice between the slavish devotion of TFA and the blow the past up of Last Jedi, I would choose the latter everytime. It’s been forty years, it’s time to “let the past die.” (I do find it amusing it’s the younger generation that’s having the most trouble with the changes.)

That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the movie. There are many. Let’s talk about them. And maybe some of the good stuff, too. (Warning: lots of words here.)

Humor

Lawrence Kasdan is one of my favorite screenwriters. He’s best known for The Big Chill, Silverado, and Body Heat, but it was Lucas that made him famous, first with Empire and Return, and later with Raiders. When excoriating the prequels, I always begin with the dialog; comparing Lucas’ to Kasdan’s is like comparing bad Twilight fan fiction to Victor Hugo. The thing I was most excited about before TFA was released was the announcement that Kasdan was writing the screenplay.

Johnson is not as bad as Lucas, but he’s no Kasdan, either. Luke’s “Yeah, that’s pretty much nowhere” response to Rey is mildly amusing, but it has no place in that scene. The “reach out” sequence is funnier, but still tone deaf. (This is one of the Luke decisions that I disagree with as well; sarcasm is rarely a good teacher.) Luke’s throwing the lightsaber away after Rey finally hands it to him is the right action, but the way he throws it is silly and anachronistic.

In other places the humor is better placed; Leia’s “I changed my hair” line is perfect for the moment. Unfortunately, there are way too few of those moments and way too many of the former.

The Force

Lots of the so-called fans have a problem with Rey becoming so Force-adept so fast. From their comments, it’s apparent that their real problem isn’t with the speed (or the power), it’s with Rey’s gender.3

There is a problem with the Force in this movie, and it is with a female, just not that female, and not because she’s a female. Leia’s spacewalk is, and there’s no way to suger-coat this, absurd. It’s absurd because movie Leia is Force-aware but not Force-adept, it’s absurd because even if Leia was Force-adept, she didn’t have time to form an oxygen bubble before the bomb hit (not the least because she’s not a practicing Force-adept and certainly not a Jedi), it’s absurd because even if she did have time, why would she then immediately lapse into a coma upon re-entering the ship, and it’s absurd because there has never been even a hint of that kind of Force capabilities in the movies.

It felt like Johnson had a conversation with himself: “I want to kill everyone on the bridge but Leia, but I’ve already kept Poe out of a scene so I could kill everyone else. I can’t do it that way again; what’s another way to do it? Ooh, ooh, I know…” It wasn’t a conversation with someone else — anyone else would have told him that was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard. It breaks the cardinal rule of a movie — don’t do anything that reminds the viewers they’re watching a movie. You can do things that can’t be done in the real world, but they have to be believable in the movie world. This one wasn’t, and it wasn’t even close. It was an exceedingly bad decision, and the stink of it can’t be completely overcome by the good decisions Johnson made.4

One of which was the home run that was Luke’s final battle with Ren. At the first viewing we attended, almost the entire theater gasped at the cut to Luke sitting on the rock. We were perfectly willing to believe Jedi Luke could survive the cannon barrage, and it was easily believable he could pull a Matrix-move in a lightsaber battle. It was only after everything was over that we thought about Luke’s appearance behind the blast door and that his lightsaber had been broken in half during the Snoke fight.

On second viewing, there were a number of clues and possible clues:

  1. Luke tells Rey early on, “There’s nothing you can say that is going to make me leave this island.”
  2. Luke’s appearance behind the blast door. It’s already been established there’s not another way in or out.
  3. It’s a younger Luke at Crait, matching his appearance in the flashbacks (and therefore the way he looked the last time Ren saw him) — his beard is brown, not white, etc.
  4. It’s possible that when he hands Leia the dice she knows it isn’t him. Or it could have been she was surprised by the dice. Or both.
  5. Luke’s wink at C3PIO and the lingering shot on C3PIO’s eyes lead me to believe that C3PIO knew it wasn’t really him.
  6. The aforementioned lightsaber.
  7. Luke doesn’t leave footprints in the salt, which Johnson actually goes to some pains to show.

Regardless, it was masterfully done. (This scene is an example of one of the countless reasons I no longer watch trailers, read Internet movie sites, etc., before I see a movie that matters. I want a true first-viewing experience.)

As to Luke’s death, I’m not sure why the internet is so apoplectic. On a first viewing, I took it, not that he just decided to go, but that the energy it took to project himself a half a galaxy away took everything he had left. It still looked that way to me the second time, too. But even if he just decided to go, to me it would be because he had decided that the galaxy was in good hands with Rey.

Authority

Han Solo loved flaunting authority, and the ladies (both in and out of the movie) loved him for doing so. And why not — there weren’t really any lasting consequences for doing so. Johnson not only gives us consequences, he gives us authority figures to dish them out.

Poe cuts off his radio in the opening battle sequence in order to take out a dreadnought in spite of General (Leia) Organa telling him to fall back. The result is the loss of the entire bomber fleet; when Poe tries to justify himself with “There were heroes out there!”, Leia snaps back with the most devastating line of the movie:

Dead ones, and no leaders.

Poe is a slow learner; after the bridge disaster (see The Force issues above) results in Leia’s coma, he decides to go rogue again when he doesn’t like what he doesn’t hear of Vice-Admiral Holdo’s plans. That eventually leads to a full with weapons mutiny, and one of the great (re-)entrances in Star Wars history. When Leia walks through the just-blasted door, Poe stands up in surprise, but clearly he thinks it’s a good surprise — he expects her to defend his actions. Instead she blasts him off his feet.

You’ll find plenty of sexism on the webs about this, too. As described above, without reference to gender, it’s clear that Poe is in the wrong and should not only be demoted again, but probably put in the brig. But because Holdo was a woman, there’s a huge contingent that says she brought it on herself by not explaining her plan. Which is absurdis extremis — vice-admirals don’t have to explain themselves to their underlings. What’s the number one rule in a military? Follow orders.

Rylo

Good or bad, this trilogy rises and falls on Rey and Kylo, the new characters representing the light and dark sides of the Force, respectively. I loved Rey’s character in TFA, but thought Ren was a whiner. It turns out I wasn’t the only one — Snoke dismisses him early on in Last Jedi as “a child with a mask.” Ren immediately smashes the mask to bits, fixes the scar Rey gave him n TFA, and decides to give (a dark side) adulthood a try. Last Jedi, and presumably Star Wars IX, is better for it.

Rey follows in the footsteps of every Force-adept we’ve ever met — she thinks she knows more than everyone else when it comes to the dark side (Kylo, in this case). She’s convinced she can bring him back from the brink, and she’s convinced her connection to him is evidence. How that “connection” appears on-screen is one of the best decisions of the movie: Johnson wisely avoids a split-screen and just cuts back and forth between the two, with the fading out of the background noise and alternating close-ups of the two parties all we have to tell us what’s happening. It’s very well done, and it gives us something we haven’t really had in Star Wars before – a real relationship between the light and dark.

Rey, and Johnson, almost has us convinced she can succeed with Kylo. Even after Snoke reveals that it was him behind their connection, hope remains. We obviously know Kylo isn’t going to kill her, but by taking out Snoke and fighting an epic sequence with Rey against Snoke’s guards, we’re given three or four minutes to think that maybe she has brought him back. We, and Rey, soon learn she was as wrong as Luke was in Empire, but at least she didn’t have to lose a hand as a result. This trilogy is better for it; I’ll go on record that if they take the Anakin way out with Kylo, I’m going to be disappointed. The Star Wars galaxy needs a bad guy that stays bad to the end.

Conclusion

There are other mis-steps (the entire codebreaker sideplot is superfluous; even Benicio del Toro isn’t worth that setup; “we can’t do anything but follow behind them for several hours” was as ridiculous as Leia’s space-walk), there are other good parts (I’m apparently in the minority in liking Laura Dern’s Holdo; the red salt on Crait was a brilliant visual touch). Some of the complaints have no merit: we never knew anything about Snoke, but we didn’t know anything in the original trilogy about the Emperor, either. Overall, The Last Jedi draws a (red) line in the salt — this is not your father’s Star Wars.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a good movie. I’m (mostly) fine with how Luke was handled; it might not have been how the rest of us would have done things, but it was internally consistent. Ren is no longer just a whiny underling who might not even survive a showdown with General Hugs, but a proper villian who’s clearly in charge. Finn is rebel scum and proud of it. Rey is a Jedi in all but name, and her connection to Ren could lead to further interesting developments down the line.

Killing the past had to be done eventually. Rian Johnson did it with style, even if he did it before some of the fan base was ready. (They were never going to be ready, and the longer it took, the less ready they were going to be.) Last Jedi is a good-but-not-great movie, holds up well to repeated viewings, and clears the deck for a grand finale to the trilogy.

We’ll find out in a couple of years whether Abrams is up to that task. Past performance does not guarantee future results, but I don’t like the odds.

  1. It’s bigger than you think — that’s the difference between The Godfather and The Matrix.
  2. It seemed like it at the time.
  3. Sexism is a alive and well, to no one’s surprise.
  4. In other words, every conversation about this movie is going to mention the awfulness of this scene. For eternity.

3 thoughts on “Killing the Past

  1. We agree on something related to film and culture! Stop the presses. This is a banner day!

    I’m with you on pretty much every point above.

    For me, the thing that kicks it from good up to great is the meta-narrative/meta-criticism that the film levels at itself and the audience. You point it out in several lines of dialogue above – as it relates to the film and the universe. But I think that on a grander scale there is a great nihilism at work here. It critiques the audience’s search for meaning and over-obsessive-online-theorizing and acts as a deus ex yoda to set their tree aflame.

    “Everything you just said is completely wrong.” “Have you even read the books in the tree?” These are allegations levied toward the audience as much as the characters – perhaps moreso.

    I think that as a film it is good, even above good. But when I step back and look at the gut punch/wake up call of it, I think it’s great. Is this the right vehicle for that? Maybe not, but it’s a hell of an effective Trojan Horse.

  2. Yes, I didn’t mention it because they were relatively minor and I already had enough words for two blog posts, but I loved the two “completely wrong” segments. I loved them the first time through, and I loved them more the second time. I loved that the second one called back to the first one, that both were issued by the two main characters on either side of the Force; I would have loved it more if Johnson hadn’t filled in the blanks with exposition and let Ren (and us) fill it in ourselves.

    I can’t get to “great”. The Leia space walk and extended “follow along and lob bombs” and casino sequence were too bad to be in a great movie.

  3. I hear that. And the complaints are justified. I’m just at a point of forgiving those missteps because the director was not afraid to be on the nose about anything. It was as subtle as a hammer to the thumb. Loved that bravery.

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