Sunday, December 17, 2017

Not Quite From the Journal of the Whills--Thoughts on the Last Jedi (Spoilers!)


I’m probably not going to post this for a while, but I wanted to write up some feelings on The Last Jedi while the first impression of the movie is still fresh in my mind. I was lucky enough to go into the movie without hitting any major spoilers on the internet, although now that I’m seeing them, a lot of spoilers, out of context, really don’t convey what happened in the movie. There were a lot of moving pieces in this film, and isolating one plot point doesn’t really explain a lot.



I’m also going to try to avoid directly addressing comments I’ve seen online, although I can’t promise that some of those comments haven’t helped to form what I end up addressing and in what detail. While we can seek to blunt the edges, we are all products of our biases, and it is all but impossible to live outside of our own heads.

Reactive Film Making

I’m sure someone with an actual education in film probably already has a toolbox full of terminology for this kind of discussion. I apologize, but I don’t have that at my disposal, but I’ll try to make due. I wanted to address, right off the top, a trend that I’m seeing more and more in movies, especially in franchise movies. Reactive Film Making, for the purposes of what I’m discussing here, is taking what was said about another film on a similar topic and making a film that seems to directly address observations and criticisms of that other film.

This has always happened, to a degree, but it’s less noticeable when, say, a director makes another police buddy film that isn’t in the same series as the one whose criticism was the basis of the reaction. There have also been other course corrections that have happened over the years, with creators taking the spotlight off a less popular character, or recasting someone that didn’t seem to work well in the previous film.



But what I’m seeing a lot of now is directly reactive. Dawn of Justice directly addressed fan criticism of Superman not saving enough people in Man of Steel. Justice League directly addressed the tone and direction established in Dawn of Justice. The Marvel movies seem to almost be directly addressing the more serious, darker tone of the DC movies by pushing even harder into comedy. Hell, the X-Men movies literally reacted by giving an in-universe explanation for why everyone could ignore the movies that were the least popular in the franchise--before repeating some of the mistakes of the movies that were erased from the official timeline.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this trend. I really want creators to stick to their guns and produce what they feel moved to produce. On the other hand, George Lucas reacted very little to fan response to the earlier prequels, and as a result, seemed to double down on the elements that seemed to cause the most consternation with detractors.

In the modern information age, I’m not sure that we can avoid reactive filmmaking. It’s too easy to learn exactly what audience reaction to a film might be, and with larger and larger studios in charge of big franchise movies, executives are going to call for course corrections if they feel that profits might be impacted. With all of that said, I’m not sure I want to be as aware of the filmmaker reacting to feedback as I have been the last few years. It may be a new art to develop a light enough touch to correct course without letting the viewers feel the change in direction.

I say all of that because I could feel reactive filmmaking at work in The Last Jedi. While I’m not a fan of the trend, I did like the way that Rian Johnson reacted, even if I could see the outlines of where those reactions existed in the film.

The Meta-Theme:  Subversion

The meta-theme of The Last Jedi seems to be the subversion of expectations. After two years of negative comments about The Force Awakens being a remake of A New Hope, instead of avoiding any allusions to previous Star Wars movies, The Last Jedi has many--and then makes sure that the assumed outcome doesn’t happen.

If this had been done in a way that felt like a “gotcha” moment to the audience, I would not have enjoyed the film. I may be one of the few, but I felt like the “gotcha” moment with the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 was set up as a subversion only for the sake of subversion. It was a punishment to anyone that brought previous knowledge of the franchise into the film. In many places, where there was subversion going on in The Last Jedi, it really felt, to me, as if the film built up a “balancing point,” and then tipped the opposite direction that the previous films might have gone.

There is nothing disingenuous in the narrative that a thief and slicer is going to betray the heroes for credits. The tension of the moment comes from the meta-knowledge that Lando betrayed the heroes in The Empire Strikes Back, but then helped them. Other than as an echo of a previous story, there is no reason to expect DJ to have any kind of crisis of conscience. What went one step beyond is that the heroes didn’t manage to accomplish their goal anyway--betrayal resulted in failure, full stop.

The idea that a character was going to sacrifice themselves in one big gesture to win the day is a recurring theme, not just in Star Wars, but across heroic fiction. This gets subverted in two different ways, in that the one big gesture didn’t save the day, and that the one big gesture never got a chance to be completed. What is even more interesting about this subversion is that the movie itself set up two big self-sacrificing characters before this scene, creating that balancing point to where it was totally believable that the sacrifice would happen and have an effect, as well as the acceptable alternative that we wouldn’t be doing it yet again in the same movie.

The pivotal moment of a character turning one way or another is subverted in that the situation where, in the past, that decision point is binary, in this case, has multiple directions. Deciding to turn against your master is a different course of action than deciding to turn against what your master has taught you. There is also an interesting lesson in not giving up on a person, but also realizing that not everyone is strong enough to turn back to the light. Subverting the idea of redemption, while still realistically presenting the idea that it may have been possible, might even underscore the impact of previous redemptions in the franchise. Not having the redemption “take” isn’t a rejection of the concept of redemption, it’s a reiteration that redemption is hard.

Possibly one of the biggest subversions of the franchise, which I’ve only seen touched on a bit, has been the idea that everyone that matters in the galaxy has some kind of legacy. Anakin was the Chosen One, Luke and Leia were his children, and the children of a Queen. Chewbacca was friends with Yoda. Boba Fett was the child of the template for the Clone Army. In other words, there is a handful of “important” people in the galaxy, and everyone in the galaxy that matters touches on this circle in some way. This was subverted most specifically with Rey and the reveal about her parents, but it’s also echoed with Finn and Phasma’s interaction during their fight. No, you don’t need to be tied to one of the “important families” in the galaxy to matter when it comes to unfolding events.

A somewhat more subtle subversion, is what it means to be a leader in a Star Wars film. Luke is given an X-Wing and takes control of his flight as soon as he joins the Rebel Alliance. Hand and Lando become generals as soon as they sign up. To this point in the Star Wars franchise, if you are personally competent, it is assumed you must be leadership material. Poe, who pulls off things in an X-Wing that we haven’t seen before, gets demoted, then must learn, and then relearn, what it means to be a leader. We even get a subversion within a subversion, where we think that Poe’s lesson is to think outside the box for resolutions, when in truth, the real lesson is to play the long game.

There is another subversion going on that has been ongoing for a while, even in canon material, but it is explicitly discussed by Luke in the film. A lot of people watching Star Wars movies still default to Light Side Force user = Jedi, Dark Side Force User = Sith. While Snoke already subverts this to a degree, it’s becoming more common in Star Wars media to introduce canon examples of Force traditions outside of the Jedi and the Sith. And like most of the subversions in the movie, the subversion gets partially subverted when we realize that the point may be that the Jedi aren’t the only light side Force users, but they aren’t gone, either.

One final subversion I’ll mention ties into the actual, overt theme of the movie. It appears that the movie is driving hard towards Kylo Ren’s point of “let the past die,” but this gets subverted, partially. After we see Luke’s hard-line “the Jedi must end,” and we see the symbolic Emperor figure with his red-armored guards cut down mid-movie, it seems to reinforce this point. The actual point becomes--take what is works from the past, find out what that means to you, and then make a new future. The Jedi don’t have to end, they must change. The Resistance doesn’t have to be its own thing--it can take what it needs from the legacy of the Rebel Alliance and become something new that honors the past.

The (Non-Meta) Theme

The theme that is apparent within the movie, not just from observing trends and how items in the movie cling to or move away from franchise tropes, is that of building a lasting resistance to the evil in the galaxy, and how building that lasting resistance may be harder than making grand gestures towards heroism. The theme is also one of taking what is good about the past, but changing and making a better future. You can repeat the cycle, but you don’t avoid the mistakes made in the previous cycle, you fall into stagnation. While it’s not explicitly called out in the movie, that “change to survive” is almost implicit in the New Republic not changing enough from the Old Republic to avoid the same fate, allowing the First Order to grow just as the Old Republic didn’t act on Palpatine’s rise to power.

The theme of building a better, long-term future is addressed in a few places, and may not have been as explicit as we are used to seeing in Star Wars. Rose and Finn’s trip to Canto Bight was totally about seeing the flaws in the old ways, as well as building a new generation of people that will not make the same mistakes.

While the Resistance has destroyed Starkiller Base, in many ways we’re still getting an origin story for them. They were a small group that thought they needed to act against the First Order instead of just ignoring the problem, as the New Republic seemed to be doing. But the stories in this trilogy (so far) have been much more closely packed to one another. We’re seeing that the Resistance may just have been a “placeholder” for the heroes until they realized what they really needed to be.

Blaster Proof?

You may have been able to tell from what I said above in my analysis that I largely think that The Last Jedi works, and that I enjoyed it. Does that mean I think everything worked as well as it could have? No, but I think there is more going on in some of the scenes than a cursory pass can cover.

Pacing

I got a similar feeling in the first act of the film that I had with Rogue One, where I felt like we did a lot of cutting between locations to establish some facts, and that I wasn’t feeling the through line immediately. The second act took too long to resolve. I think both acts eventually come together to do what they need to do, but the awkward transitions and the lack of dynamic action cause the movie to lose a little of its momentum for a bit.

The “slow speed chase” to Crait was something that I think could have used a bit more action. We know that the Resistance ships are faster, but low on fuel, but visually, we just see the First Order capital ships behind them, and the Resistance ships up front. Other than positioning, we don’t get a real feel for the speed.

If we had let the ships get out of visual range, and possibly had a few skirmishes with TIE fighters scouting the fleet, it might have been possible to convey the same “hunter and hunted” feeling with a bit more immediacy. I understand the choice of the slow speed chase. It both avoids the appearance of overt heroism by having Resistance ships taking out First Order scouts, and it preserves the idea that Crait is uncharted and a surprise objective.

The problem is, a starfield is visually uninteresting. Broken, mined out planetoids, debris, anything would have helped the scene out, and continued to obscure Crait as the actual objective. To some extent, having “anything” else in the scene but Crait, or having any kind of action may have partially undermined the “don’t just be a hero” theme, but it’s almost a Star Wars tradition to partially undermine your underlying theme with a gratuitous action scene.

Canto Bight is another pacing issue in the movie. While I can see why it was used, when coupled with the character issues below, the scene takes too long to resolve. 

Character Scenes

I enjoyed most of the character interactions in the first and third act. I felt as if Canto Bight was a little devoid of character interaction. Finn, Rose, BB-8, and eventually DJ, are the only actual characters. For much of that scene, it felt like we literally had them walking through cardboard cutouts of figures with signs around their neck saying, “out of touch rich person.” It started to feel hollow after a while. Even a two dimensional, but charismatic police officer would have helped.


Another problem with the Canto Bight sequence is the importance of the children in the scene. Much like the out of touch rich people, there isn't really a strong connection to the children. They have similar signs on them, only these signs read "abused orphans." I only care about them because I'm supposed to care about them, not because they have any real personalities attached to them.

As a final note about Rose and Finn, I didn't feel like the romantic angle really worked. This is one that might look different in hindsight, after seeing where this goes in the future, but I like them working together as friends. I didn't really feel anything more going on. If it turns out that it is intentionally one-sided, and that only Rose is feeling it, and we see an exploration of this, maybe this is actually working as intended.

Snoke Begins

Snoke served his purpose as a symbolic representation of the Emperor to be sacrificed to Kylo Ren’s character development. That said, one line mentioning that he’s the last line of dark side sorcerers from the Unknown Regions or something like that would have been appreciated.

Even though Luke establishes that the old Force traditions don’t have a monopoly on the Force, and even though much of the movie tries to establish that not everyone needs to be connected to a previous Star Wars element, I think (and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Star Wars movie) all of that is a bit too subtle. People still have conspiracy theories about Snoke, and I think a blunt, quick--this is who he is, and all that he is, would have been a good way to close off his story.

I get that he was basically an Emperor fill in for a First Order that was desperate to have their Emperor figure, and that the point of this movie was for Kylo Ren to start making the First Order into his own thing, instead of the Empire 2.0. But I think so much buzz has surrounded the character for so long, and it has been so ingrained in fandom that anyone that uses the Force needs a ton of backstory--we could have had a blunter declaration that “he’s an evil wizard--they exist, he was one, and now he’s dead.”

Always In Motion the Future Is

I enjoyed the movie. I think it took risks, but I think it took risks in a way that was informed by previous Star Wars media. I also realize that because it took risks and departed sharply from the tone and structure of the Force Awakens that the movie may not be as well received by all viewers, across the board. No judgment from me--all I ask is that you don’t take elements out of context as an excuse to dismiss the whole movie, or dismiss the opinions of people that may disagree with you.

If I have one concern, it’s with how this movie transitions to the next story in the trilogy. So far, we have had a very tight, focused timeframe in which these stories unfold. Everything has happened in a short period of time.

In addition, this movie has established that the “point” of this entire movie was that the long-term development of the Resistance, and creating lasting change, are the important aspects of what needs to be done.

That means that if we get another, tighter time framed movie, taking place days, weeks, or months after this one, either we shouldn’t get a resolution to the Resistance/New Order conflict (which could be seen as a commercial decision by Lucasfilm to prolong storytelling potential but would make sense as established by this movie) or else we get a quick resolution that undercuts the theme of this movie. “Oh, I guess big heroic gestures are better than lasting change.”

On the other hand, we could get a movie that jumps several years, like we did at the start of Revenge of the Sith and The Empire Strikes Back, where we can infer that the Resistance has been building their long-term change for years across the galaxy where we pick up with them again. In this case, however, it is still going to be tricky to resolve the situation without defaulting to “bold, singular, heroic action.” You can do this, but at that point, you need to reiterate that “sometimes you build, sometimes you take decisive action” to give this movie equal weight with the sequel.

I’m not one to jump on the J.J. Abrams hate bandwagon, but I’m not sure that a tonal reminder of the theme of the previous movie, while establishing a new and consistent theme in the current movie, is really Abrams style.

If we get a resolution in the next movie, what the resolution looks like is going to be very important in determining the legacy of The Last Jedi. If we get a galaxy where there is no longer a single galactic government, but everybody is living in relative peace, and we have multiple Force traditions, for example (and this is only an example--I’m not saying this is the only way the movie could signify significant change), then we see the cycle change this time around. If we end up with a "New" New Republic and Rey on the verge of training a new Jedi order, very much in line with the Jedi order we’ve seen before, this may end up feeling like an aberration instead of a bold change in direction.

All of that said, the possibilities opened by the direction of The Last Jedi make it at least fun to speculate on a direction, rather than being able to assume that what has come before is what will be again.


1 comment:

  1. Well, we know Rose is at default a hero worshipper, so she may be mistaking her regaining of her faith in Finn as love.

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