Friday, December 15, 2017

All the Things that Bothered Me About Star Wars: The Last Jedi (SPOILERS ABOUND)

I've been a huge Star Wars nut since I was about 12, and I was well and truly obsessed with The Force Awakens when it came out. Obsessed to the point of writing theories all up and down the internet and even a tongue-in-cheek fan fic just for fun. I have a full Rey costume (the vest one from the island, which I'm hoping to visit in Ireland). Still, I tried not to get over-excited about The Last Jedi before it came out. I set my expectations modestly because I know how hard it is to be blown away. Critics built up good buzz with their rave reviews (it's got, like, 93% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I tried not to let it go to my head. 

"Just needs to be entertaining and satisfying," I told myself.

Entertaining, it was. Satisfying, it was not. And here's why.

LAST WARNING FOR SPOILERS. THERE ARE MANY MANY SPOILERS. THE BELOW SPOILS THE WHOLE THING. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Before I begin my list, I want to say that the thinkpieces out there saying that fans are divided in their reactions because "this is not the Star Wars I was expecting" or "this is different from the other Star Warses" are simplistic. And kind of condescending. I'm fine with change. In fact, I'm glad that The Last Jedi wasn't the rehash of Empire Strikes Back that it could have been.

What bothered me was that the new direction didn't feel well executed. Now, I've only seen it once, and it's possible that upon second viewing, I'll change my mind (I'm seeing it again tonight). Mostly, it felt like subpar writing and sloppy worldbuilding got in the way of what could have been a fantastic new chapter. Rian Johnson seemed to care more about being subversive and surprising than about creating a coherent story that fit in with the original saga. I think that's why the critics love it... they're so used to seeing the same franchise fare over and over that "different" automatically means "good."

Not for me. I like different, but different has to be done well too. And below are some of the craft issues I had with The Last Jedi.

The Force Awakens built up a lot of things that were left to fizzle in The Last Jedi.

Who are Rey's parents? How is she able to wield the Force so well when she didn't even realize it was a real thing until after the movie begins? Why did the Skywalker lightsaber call to her? Who is Snoke? How is he so powerful? What was Luke seeking at the first Jedi Temple? The Force Awakens left us with so many questions, and I was hoping they were all leading to something.

Nope.

It didn't bother me that Rey's parents were revealed (by Kylo Ren) to be nobodies (I was hoping for a Skywalker legacy, but ah well), and that her backstory turned out to have no particular significance. What bothered me is that it makes her spectacular Force abilities a deus ex machina (more on that later). A lot of people were bothered by how she could so easily pick up high-level Jedi skills with literally zero training in The Force Awakens. I held out hope that The Last Jedi would explain it. Maybe she was trained as a child but had her memories blocked. When The Last Jedi failed to do so, it made her abilities feel unearned. 

Unlike Anakin, she didn't have to spend a decade training with a Jedi Master to grasp her skills. Unlike Luke, she didn't have to visibly and palpably struggle to understand her abilities and learn to use them. Even Kylo had to spend years and years training with Luke, and then with Snoke. Rey? As one tumblr joke put it, "LOL wtf is this glowstick." It's as if someone who's never seen a violin before can just pick one up and start playing like Joshua Bell. And with no explanation other than that she's Kylo's "counterpart". And to say "because the Force is strong with her" is to turn the Force into a deus ex machina that magically grants abilities even if you never learned a thing. It cheapens the Jedi and the whole Star Wars universe, in a way. 

Of course, they could always reveal more in the third movie, but I'm not holding out hope.

Meanwhile, Snoke turns out to be a lame-ass cartoon villain if there ever was one. No explanation is given for his rise and power. He just is. Until he isn't. And his fall is really, really disappointing. Palpatine is cackling at him in Sith Hell... and taking his lunch money.

As for Luke, the explanation that he came to Ahch-To to wallow in self-pity rings false. If he just wanted to impose self-exile, why choose a place so significant to the Jedi Order? It was somewhat implied in The Force Awakens that he might have been seeking some kind of special knowledge or understanding at the first Jedi temple. Instead... mwap mwap. He just came here because it was hidden. Except that doesn't even really make sense because he's closed himself off from the Force and wants nothing more to do with it. Why would he go to a place that would remind him every day of what he failed to become? Self-punishment is a possible explanation, but without any kind of dialogue discussing that, it just seems like Johnson wanted to be contrary without giving the contrary-ness any meaning.

Also, going back to The Force Awakens... everyone was surprised when R2-D2 conveniently woke up in time to give the Resistance the location of the last Jedi. I was hoping there was some explanation for that too... maybe R2 had been told by Luke to wait for the right moment to reveal his location. Instead, it was just another convenient coincidence that he just happened to have exactly what the Plot needed. Lazy storytelling through and through.

The Force is turned into a deus ex machina

In addition to the issues I discussed above ("How can she do that without anyone teaching her anything?" "Because the Force." "But..." "THE FORCE WILLS IT"), the Force's actual meaning becomes muddled in this movie. George Lucas worried about the new filmmakers making gobbledygook out of the Force. He was, unfortunately, right.

In the original trilogy, the Force is an energy field that, when wielded, can grant the user some telekinetic and telepathic powers, plus enhanced abilities. The new trilogy pushed its limits by making it far more powerful than before. Kylo Ren stopping a laser blast, for example. The Last Jedi goes beyond that, even.

Suddenly, Snoke is able to bridge Rey and Kylo's minds against their wills, without them knowing what's going on. And they both just accept that "the Force wills it." Suddenly, a Force ghost is able to cast down a giant lightning bolt that sets fire to a huge honking tree. Suddenly, Leia's able to survive being sucked into the vacuum of space, despite there being no indication that she ever developed her Force abilities. I didn't mind Luke's astro-projecting as much, but it was one more thing that can be attributed to "because the Force."

In a way, it makes the Force somewhat Biblical. How's Rey able to all these things? Because the Force is the Almighty God. I guess Star Wars has always had religious connotations (and is indeed treated as a religion by many), but from a storytelling perspective, it feels lazy.

Next movie, I won't be surprised if Rey shows up in a room full of stormtroopers and just blinks to make them all vanish into thin air. Because that's the level of hokey-ness we've reached.

Again, it makes everyone's abilities feel unearned. And at the end, when Luke declares that Rey is the last Jedi, the title feels empty. She's done nothing to earn that title. She hasn't had to work for it at all. Everything is just given to her. While I like her as a character, it would have been more interesting to see her struggle to control her powers. Maybe she's super powerful, but that makes her more susceptible to wanton destruction with unfortunate collateral damage (for a brief moment, it seemed like they might do this, but it was ultimately played as a gag). That could've been an interesting angle--her learning to rein in her raw strength. But instead, she just is. Because THE FORCE WILLS IT.

Threads are left dangling, and I'm not holding out hope that they'll be tied up.

Early on, Luke introduces Rey to the Force and warns her that there's a place close with the Dark Side, kind of like the cave he himself encountered on Dagobah. Rey goes right for it, which frightens him. She later jumps into the cave itself in search of answers, but finds only a mirror. And... that's it. There's no moment when it seems like the Dark Side cave will corrupt her, even that's what we're meant to fear. The whole thing seems like it was created to create tension for the sake of tension... and as an excuse for a trippy mirror scene.

After Leia's magical flight through space, no one questions how she was able to do that. Not even Leia herself. It's just accepted that this seemingly human woman, who up till now has been portrayed as very earthly, suddenly has goddess-like powers. No one asks why. No one cares. 

For that matter, it's never addressed why Leia never developed her own Force abilities. A few lines of dialogue would have done the trick. "I'm Darth Vader's daughter, and I know myself well enough to fear following his path." Or "I want to focus on the here and now, so I'll leave the Jedi stuff to my monk of a brother." And yet she clearly is still Force sensitive... what does that mean to her? How does she feel about suddenly defying reality, presumably because of the very abilities she rejected. NO. ONE. CARES. Except me, apparently.

And Leia doesn't seem to care that she's lost her husband, brother, son, and most of her Resistance fighters (including all her leadership) within days. Though considering her lack of reaction to Alderaan's destruction in A New Hope, maybe that is consistent. (Or maybe, as George Lucas did, Rian Johnson is waiting for the Star Wars novelists to pick up the slack via pained flashbacks).

Meanwhile, where the heck are the Knights of Ren? They'd better show up in the next movie...

Rey and Kylo's intimate Force conversations are the stuff of Tumblr fan fics.

#Reylo fans, rejoice! Rian Johnson is one of you! And he might be stealing your ideas!

The whole Reylo thing always grossed me out because 1) Kylo is nothing but creepy and abusive toward Rey in the Force Awakens and 2) I suspected that they were intimately related.

So #2 was a red herring. That's fine. What's not fine is that #1 is still the case. Rey is thrust into the position of being the girl who's sympathetic toward a jerk because he's misunderstoooooood. Admittedly, as an audience member and fangirl, I get Kylo Ren/Ben Solo's angsty appeal. But in the context of the movie, it just feels... like the stuff of Tumblr fan fics. 

In fact, there have actually been (very popular) Reylo fan fics that started off with the premise of Rey and Kylo Ren having intimate conversations from afar via the Force. Which is exactly what happens in the Last Jedi. Including one scene where Kylo is gratuitously shirtless. That the whole thing was a honeypot operation by Snoke to draw out Rey doesn't make it any less... annoying.

The whole movie lacked emotional resonance.

What made Empire Strikes Back such a great movie is that, for all its flaws, it rang true emotionally. Luke's struggle to understand the Force as he trained with Yoda felt real. Rey never had to struggle. She explores a bit, but her abilities are taken for granted. Luke's hero-worship of his father is turned on its head with the Darth Vader reveal, and despite the overacting, the devastation feels real. There's no equivalent for Rey, except maybe in her disappointment when Kylo fails to see the light. 

Even so, their relationship feels shallow. The two have barely known of each others' existence for a few days. Why should Rey care so much about redeeming Ben Solo? Some of it can be chalked up to her inherent kindness, but without a stronger bond, it just doesn't... mean as much. Meanwhile, Luke's been worshiping the father he never knew for a lifetime, so his connection with Vader rings true to the core.

Then there's the romances. Han and Leia had such palpable chemistry, every fan in the world felt validated when Carrie Fisher revealed her real-life affair with Harrison Ford. I thought Finn and Rey had great chemistry in The Force Awakens, but they spent most of The Last Jedi apart. Which is fine. What wasn't fine was Rose Tico's love for Finn being shoehorned in. I liked Finn and Rose as a duo, but they had zero romantic chemistry. Zero. They were partners in crime, siblings in arms. So when Rose suddenly said that she loved Finn and gave him a peck on the lips, I was like, "REALLY???" There was more sexual tension between Vice Admiral Holdo and Poe Dameron (now there's a romance I could've gotten behind).

And, as I mentioned before, Leia's lack of reaction to the devastating losses she faced made her whole storyline feel kind of empty. Which is a shame, since this was Carrie Fisher's last bow. (I think she did a great job with the script she was given. The issue was that the script didn't give her the opportunity to do more).

The Force Awakens actually had a lot more emotional resonance. Finn and Rey's friendship was palpable, so when they're constantly getting into trouble and worrying about each other, you sincerely want them to rescue each other so they can just hang out. Rey and Han's quasi father-daughter relationship worked too in a way that Rey and Luke's never did. Not only because Luke was always brushing Rey off, but because it never developed beyond that. The only moment in The Last Jedi that actually got me in the feels was when Luke and Leia reunited at last. And even that was cheapened when it was revealed that he was never actually there.

Aaaaaanyway, I could go on, but this post is already far too long.

To be clear, I don't dislike The Last Jedi. I'm just disappointed. And not for the reasons those condescending thinkpieces state. Maybe it'll grow on me upon a second viewing. Maybe.

In the meanwhile, I'm still planning to visit Skellig Michael dressed as Rey (with the vest and the boots and everything! And the staff if I can figure out how to get it on an airplane). Because despite everything, it's still Star Wars, and I'm willing to forgive a lot. 

1 comment:

  1. Lots of great thoughts and I can't really disagree with any of them. There were so many "where did that come from?" moments. I think the other critique I had is that virtually nothing the resistance did was successful. The whole Canto Bight side trip was ultimately useless, as was almost every plan they had. They didn't stop much of anything, the best they did was delay the First Order a few times. The cannon broke through the wall, the transports got mostly destroyed. They escaped from a base, then escaped to another base, then escaped that base. It was almost all reactive, without at least a couple proactive successes. They even cut the legs out from what could have been successes (like Finn's assault on the cannon). And, like you, I loved Rose, but that kiss was out of nowhere. She deserved more than to end up in a random, unrequited coupling. Even to say something like "I lost my sister but I saved a hero" would have given it more appropriate emotional weight based on the way their friendship developed.

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