Friday, December 15, 2017

Rian Johnson Kills the STAR WARS Spark in The Last Jedi. Spoiler Filled Review of Star Wars The Last Jedi

Who needs Kylo Ren to snuff out hope when there's Johnson's Loser Luke Skywalker?
By Nick van der Leek

So far the critical reviews seem unanimous - Star Wars 8 is a masterpiece, a triumph, either the best Star Wars ever or second to Empire Strikes Back. It sure had its moments. But it also had a ton of misfires.

One word has emerged in the mounting backlash; it's the same sentiment I left the cinema with.


This had a lot to do with the lousy middle act of the film.  That's where things went wonky.  It seemed to serve no purpose other than to burn up screen time. I've watched the film two more times and the middle act is such a drag. If only it ended there though. I love Daisy Ridley but she's fallen off the horse in this flick. I'm not sure whether the tonal problems are because of a lack of acting or direction nous, perhaps both, perhaps neither. Perhaps it's just a bad brief.

On Twitter a lot of fans were critical of the apparent hypocrisy in not liking Force Awakens because it wasn't original enough, but criticising Last Jedi because it was too original. It's not quite as simple as that.

Force Awakens seemed to recycle and nod towards several plot elements in the original franchise. Last Jedi needed to be its own story, but without cutting itself off from the original mythos entirely. That means you don't resuscitate plot elements endlessly and indulgently from other films, you use what you have, and what you've been given and move forward.

Johnson's mistake is that he focuses on moving forward at the expense of the mighty platform he's been given.  Which is why when Luke Skywalker tosses away the lightsaber like a piece of trash right at the start, it just feels completely wrong - for Luke, for Star Wars and for Rey's journey.

So either Disney's brief was wrong, or Johnson totally misread it. I have a feeling it's the former, hence one tweet:

"Disney WTF have you done?"

For me, the essential spark of Star Wars just isn't there. Didn't the director know or care much about this particular franchise? Throwing away the lightsaber was just one of a bunch of bad calls by Johnson. There's some really bad humour in this film, like when Rey and Kylo Ren share an astral interlude, and Kylo has just come out of the shower...

I read somewhere that for this film, Johnson built well over 100 sets, which meant he had less than two minutes per set. George Lucas' genius is that he created entire worlds that felt sweeping, and yet Lucas gave them a lived-in intimacy for the first time.

You can only occupy a world when you allow yourself to live on those sets; but Johnson races through them so quickly he keeps having to build new one's.  And that's what the entire film feels like - a stone racing over a pond, skipping over the surface but not really taking us anywhere real, or anywhere that matters.

The island Ahch-To was a wonderful opportunity to do a vertiginous version of Dagobah, but Johnson is so petrified of the Star Wars mythos he spends the entire movie running away from it, just as his fucked-up version of Skywalker does.  That's weak storytelling, and weak understanding of the material Mr. Johnson.

It has the music, the lightsabers, the Force, the ships and space, but what it seemed to be missing was the right tone and gravitas. The spirit at the centre of Star Wars.  It also wasted a valuable opportunity to have Rey learn something from Luke.  Wasn't that what Force Awakens went to the trouble of setting up?

The most vital and magical moment in the entire Star Wars cannon is perhaps when Yoda takes on Luke as his pupil. It's spellbinding, fascinating and touching. In Last Jedi, it bafflingly never happens. Well hang on, actually it does, Yoda sort of takes on Young Skywalker as a pupil again, briefly, instead of Luke properly teaching Rey.

There's an excellent line somewhere in this where Yoda tells Luke:

"We are what they grow beyond; that is the burden of all masters."

I'm thinking the critics especially loved this, but the problem in last Jedi was that Luke felt more like a has-been than a master.  All that was missing was a bottle of whiskey. By the end of the film, the "twist" that Luke still commands tremendous power and respect feels a tad threadbare.

Narratively it would have worked better if Luke to Rey on as a student, and then expressed increasing doubts as her power increased, about her ability to resist the dark side. Then Luke could have felt a crisis of conscience: this is what I was afraid would happen, the same thing that happened to Ben is happening to you...

How did you defeat the Dark Side, Master, Rey might ask, in a moment of pained introspection.

Remember who you are, and the people who brought you into this world.

And Rey then has to demonstrate why she's just like Luke, except with the weakness that she still doesn't know her true parentage.

But the way Last Jedi is scripted it's shallow as hell.  Even Mark Hamill didn't like the way director Rian Johnson recast Luke Skywalker as a nihilistic depressive loser. Luke used to be the rebellion's greatest hope, a youthful, positive, can-do character. In Last Jedi he's the most pessimistic dropout in the galaxy. So ironically, this movie seems to be the epitome of Kylo Ren - it snuffs out magic and snuff out the Star Wars spark.

What were the Biggest Misfires?

It seemed to me this director is completely out of tune with the Star Wars mythos.  This comes through right off the bat when Poe contacts General Hux and pretends not to hear Hux's response -  twice.  It's gimmicky, it's silly, it's fun, but it's not Star Wars.

When Luke is teaching Rey the Force, it's done through sarcasm and whacking her hand contemptuously with a leaf as she hysterically cries: "I can feel it, I can feel it..."

Besides Luke and Rey going AWOL from each other on the little island, Supreme Leader Snoke is probably the biggest mistake. First of all, Snoke isn't nearly as large or intimidating a presence in real life as he is in apparition form.  Second, they say he was modelled on Hugh Hefner.  No surprise then that he's not only a killable pushover, he's not what every memorable villain needs to be - scary.

The spirit of what's wrong with this film seems to be rooted in a widespread dismissive carelessness. Star Wars is fantasy, yes, but space fantasy still holds to certain laws of nature. In a scene early on where a bomber crew person [Rose's sister] opens the bomb-bay doors very much in keeping with something out of World War II, she falls onto a sort of grill at the bottom, with the doors open.  It doesn't seem to matter that it's outer space, and in space there's a vacuum.  Nor does it matter when the same thing happens to Leia, aka Supergranny.

The many weird things in this film repeatedly pull one out of the immersive state; like the who-cares romance between Finn and Rose and their pointless excursion to find a codebreaker who ends up able to break the code, but when he does, so what.

There's also neither-here-nor-there astral projection, finger-snapping in front of mirrors, a casino that feels like it belongs to James Bond film and flappy-eared race horses running through a Space-themed Pamplona. It just feels messy, doesn't it?

The only silly bit that worked were the Porgs, and Chewy's reaction to the cute [and edible] penguins in outer space.

Chewy smashing in Luke's steel door [and then Rey sleeping outside, literally, with the door suddenly intact], and Finn going on a suicide mission - all of it somehow jars more than it delights.

In many ways, as mentioned earlier, this flick feels more like a Transformers movie than Star Wars. In other words, especially the centre of the film is loud, colourful, noisy and flashy, and there are a lot of pointless chases and explosions to get through the running time.

What was Most Confusing?

Rey finds out her parents are - she's her parents... It's almost like the director watched The Orient Express and thought a confounding answer is better than a rational one.  It's not.

The Rebels don't listen to each other is a another huge no no. Poe doesn't, Finn doesn't, Luke doesn't listen to Rey and Rey doesn't listen to Luke. Finn talks at length about being a legend, and Luke does the same [although he does a better and more believable job]. Rose tasers Finn, then joins him. Purple-haired General Holdo [Laura Dern] runs such a loose ship that Poe launches a mutiny which Leia [risen from the dead] has to stem with her laser set to stun. No one actually seems to listen to or care about authority or accountability in this film.And then they all live happily ever after on the Millennium Falcon?

Leia spends half of her magnum opus in a coma, and so does Finn. R2 is in a coma in the previous film and C3PO hardly does anything. Why are comas such a big deal here?  Finn coming out of his coma is another cringe worthy scene -  he knocks his head, falls out of bed, then wanders the corridors of the spaceship leaking some kind of amniotic fluid. Nobody notices the half-naked black dude until Poe does. But it does set up the next scene quite nicely, perhaps because it's just such a relief to move on to something else.

Captain Phasma is even more of a pushover than Snoke [although one suspects Phasma may return].

And wasn't there supposed to be a touching eulogy to Carrie Fisher at the end?  I waited and waited during the end credits, was a line or two of blue script it?

I could go on and on but I think you get the picture. The film wasn't a total misfire though, it had its moments, but not enough strung together for me to walk out with that awesome Star Wars buzz.

What was on Target?

The scene between Luke and Yoda was a surprise, and a nice surprise. Unfortunately the filmmakers were very cynical using both Luke and Leia, and one rather had the feeling that the crew thought of them as legends but has-beens, and so they're there, but sidelined. This is too bad, because Luke and Leia anchor the film, along with Rey. Unfortunately these three figures are the least present through the film, preferring to give the stage over to sidekicks. When Yoda and Luke finally share a moment, it's a relief.  It's almost as though the director stumbled across an old script and went: hey, why don't we add something authentic here.

The Millennium Falcon swoops in to the rescue... but then disappears. [When it reappears Rey is inexplicably trying to track the rebels through the mountain, when an entire battle is being waged on the other side of the mountain. Oh right, her laser canon broke - again.]

When R2D2 gets Luke on track with that old recording of Leia. See, that's what the film wanted, some real heart, real gravitas mined from its own rich history. Just imagine what really talented writers could have done by weaving in not only wonderful new fabric, but recalling the old fabric in a skillfull way. One has the feeling they tried to do this, but didn't quite pull it off.

The duel between master and apprentice [Luke and Ben]. It could have done with more actual light saber contact, but then Luke wasn't even there to begin with.  Overall, a nice move and good to see the Jedi beat the Dark Side with their own sleight of hand for once.

Ben and Rey taking on the galaxy for a few minutes...

Chewbacca did well when it counted while brushing aside mewing dashboard penguins....

I liked the two versions of the same story, in terms of Luke's explanation of what happened between him and Ben and Ben's version to Rey. Ben's invitation to Rey to join him so the two could rule the galaxy together also felt like classic Star Wars.

The special effects, especially in the battle scenes, were top notch, but then that's a non negotiable when it comes to Star Wars.

Last but not least, Adam Driver does well rising to achieve par with Darth Vader.

If only Rey was as convincing, but then Johnson doesn't give her a chance. If only Johnson had kept the faith in Luke, and  shown more faith in the franchise that bore him forth...

I suspect what Star Wars lacks is good old fashioned storytelling.  There's nothing wrong with going into new directions and introducing new characters, but remain true to the mythos, even while departing from it, or improving on it.

Disney has too much money and too little nerve for those quiet moments of roaring authenticity. And so, like the Transformers, the idea seems to be to deafen,  dazzle and tickle the audience into liking a story, rather than trusting in the traditional pillars of cinemacraft - characters, plot, pacing and mythos.

Going forward, I suspect it will turn out that Rey and Ben are siblings, but that unlike Kylo Ren/Ben, Rey has always been Rey - even if they are siblings, she created herself. I've maintained since The Force Awakens that there is a lot linking Han and Leia to Rey, but the idea that she may see herself as her own creation is certainly brave, but perhaps this is the greatest heresy in terms of Rian Johnson at the helm. I believe there's enough ambiguity for Rey to still emerge was Ben's sibling, just as Star Wars played with themes of patriarchy and sibling themes throughout.

The heart of Star Wars seems to be about royal blood ties. That someone isn't no one, they're royalty - they're princes and princesses of the galaxy. The magic of Star Wars is this idea about emerging from nothing, and becoming not merely someone, but a truly significant character in the universe.  It's about actualisation on the greatest and grandest scale, and finding that one's place in the universe is  larger than life, bigger than anyone could ever have imagined.

Johnson inverts this into something far more cynical. Without these buoys of patriarchy and matriarchy, Star Wars is just a bunch of anonymous, disconnected rebels who end up in it for themselves. If you want a story that nobody cares about, make it about a bunch of unschooled nobodies, killing without conscience, emerging in the universe only to realise they're treading water and going nowhere. We don't need the galaxy for that story, we have enough of that sort of cynicism on Earth. We'd like to know there's real hope out there, in Star Wars.

It's no wonder the death toll in this film is such that the survivors of the Resistance easily fit into the Millennium Falcon at the end. The characters don't care and by the end of Last Jedi, neither do we. That's how you snuff out the Star Wars spark. Now it's all on JJ Abrams, the director of Lost, to bring it back.

My Score: 6.5/10

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