Monday, December 18, 2017

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi (ALL Spoilers)

May as well put this all in one place on a blog post, because I hate digging through social media to find what I've said.

I will include spoiler warnings in the text, but generally, if you haven't seen The Last Jedi yet, maybe put this post off for later.

Even though it's crappy writing, let's put this in Question and Answer format:

Did you like it, Rob?


Come on. Get in the weeds a bit.

OK. The Star Wars Films in order:

1. The Empire Strikes Back
2. A New Hope (the original)
3. Return of the Jedi
4. The Force Awakens (could have been 3 if it hadn't mostly been a remake of A New Hope)
5-6. Rogue One and The Last Jedi (could have been 3 if it were 30 minutes shorter and lacked an extended commercial for the new Christmas toy)
7. The Last Half of Revenge of the Sith
8-9. The other prequels make me feel dirty.

On Facebook, I'd put The Last Jedi above Rogue One, but thinking back, Rogue One had a much leaner story, a clearer objective that better defined and guided all the action in the film. I like action films that move in a straight line, most of the time.

That's a little low, for The Last Jedi, isn't it?

For perspective... my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe films (Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, Civil War and Spider-man: Homecoming) ... I don't think I liked any of them more than #5 on this list. My favorite Superhero films ever, The Dark Knight or Spider-man 2 (Doc Ock) might be between 4 and 3. I really like Star Wars. It's magic.

Rogue One?
Well... if Rogue One had been less meandering in the first half, it would definitely have been 5. The final sequence of Rogue One, from the tower invasion on, was one of the most exciting sequences in a star wars film. On the other hand, if The Last Jedi had slimmed down the subplots, character bloat and toy ads, they could have taken that spot easily, as their main cast has a clear advantage over Rogue One's. But neither of those things happened, so I'm not making a call right now. I'll watch each of them one or two more times before deciding for sure.


So what were the little things you liked?

Luke's crowning moment of awesome was truly awesome (and much needed after how low he'd been brought through the rest of the film.)

The best scene in the film was Snoke's throne room, and Kylo and Rey vs. Snoke's guard was everything we've been waiting for, while the twists and turns of who is offering what and who is willing to throw down with whom is fantastic.

Kylo Ren is a great villain, as I said last time I talked about Star Wars. That he is conflicted makes him more interesting and less predictable. The way he will derail an entire battle plan to chew on one of his obsessions like a dog on a toy makes him interesting... but he (like Luke Skywalker) understands the power of a symbolic moment. (which is why he was able to be baited). That he is trying to PROVE to himself how evil he is gives him a higher ceiling of evilness than Hux. Hux is smart enough to create a successful battle plan and accomplish more evil overall by taking over the galaxy for his evil purposes, which is scarier from five thousand yards. But Hux wouldn't derail a battle plan for the sake of being especially mean to this person over here, just because fuck them! He's too calculating. When they're in a room with you, Kylo is more likely to do something cruel or horrifying than Hux, just because, so for the purpose of an interesting scene in a film, Kylo Ren is more interesting than red-haired Hitler.

Rose Tico was pretty cool, and it's about time we saw an Asian face with speaking parts in the Star Wars universe, she had one of the best lines in the film about saving what we love rather than fighting what we hate, but her and her plotline slowed the story down... and was a waste of a perfectly good Benicio Del Toro.

Rey was pretty great. After TFA she was in a dead heat with Poe and Finn and Kylo, but now she and Kylo have separated themselves from the pack, and she gave me chills a couple of times. Finn's subplot felt shoehorned in at times, and Poe was reckless: as likable as he was, he was dangerous and wrong and deserved worse than he got as a penalty for his mutiny.

I like that they batted away the fan theories about Rey's parents. And the conversation where they addressed that was devastating. I was ready to go to the dark side for Kylo at that point.

Best line in the film:

Rey: "If you see Finn before I do..."
Chewbacca: "GGGrrrrRRRRAAAWWWWwwwWWW"
Rey: "Perfect. Tell him that."

The fact they replayed the twists and turns of the Return of the Jedi throne room in Episode 8 means that we're in uncharted territory for episode 9. Who knows what will happen now that Kylo Ren is without his big bad. I predict the rivalry between him and Hux playing into a few crucial moments, as Ren and his urge to be dramatic continues to get in the way of Hux's sound military strategies. In fact, I'm gonna go on record saying that The First Order's undoing is going to be Hux stabbing Kylo Ren in the back, or vice versa, as they decide they can't stand each other and can't work together. Mark it down.

What is great about Star Wars? Are there problems built into the basic premises of the Star Wars Universe?

Yes, there are.

First, what's great: Good star wars movies have always made you care about the characters -- the heroes and the villains, or at least understand what they want. That makes THIS space opera different from the others. Star Wars stories live and die with likable characters, so the casting is really important, and the two good trilogies (Original and VII and on) have really nailed the casting with leads that are fun to watch and easy to care about. The Star Wars juggernaut will start to falter when they start flubbing the casting. This is why people say Star Wars has "heart." Because they make us care about the characters.

The original Star Wars used a couple of brilliant storytelling devices as well... but two of them also have the seeds of problems the audience will have as we see more and more Star Wars.

The droids as storytelling devices 1

R2D2, and droids that bip and squeak, as well as Wookies, are great foils for exposition. You get to talk about what's going on and what you have to do without it seeming cloying, and then you get to respond to their reactions even though the audience doesn't understand them. It is a way of downloading information to the audience without getting tiresome, because the audience is still filling in gaps even during bald exposition. R2D2 and Chewbacca stood in for the audience so that we got the information we needed, in a way that wasn't annoying.

Meanwhile, the droids and wookies were all very technically accomplished, meaning that instead of dropping a load of technobabble (see: star trek) on the audience, we could have a growl, or R2D2 could shove a plug into a panel, beep, whistle, and the alarms would stop ringing. Basically... authorial intrusion in the form of robots and wookies that could do anything the plot required to bloop over in order to get to the next action scene. The conversation between Finn and Rose about how to stop the First Order's tracking device on The Last Jedi is the first time I can remember a technobabble conversation in Star Wars.

Chewbacca and the droids were seriously underused in this film, which means we had things explained with technobabble instead of blipped over. More of that and Star Wars will have the same problem as other Space Adventure Shows.

The droids as storytelling devices 2

C3P0, on the other hand, basically operated like a little golden Greek Chorus, (a group that underlines the scenes' importance and explains the action to the audience, but doesn't take part in the plot) reminding us of what's at risk, how dangerous the thing is they're about to do ("Never tell me the odds") and adding little commentaries that, while annoying, let us see the story through his eyes... in which the events appeared bold, thrilling, and terrifying. The Greek Chorus doesn't factor into the plot, neither did C3PO. He was just there commenting on stuff.

The fact he didn't operate this way is why K2S0 was a character in Rogue One, and fit into the story differently than C3PO does.

So far it's worked, but C3PO barely figured into The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. Are audience stand-ins and Greek choruses absolutely needed in Star Wars? I'm not sure. But that might have contributed more than we thought to the way the old Star Wars had that epic, massive, sweeping feel to it. Visiting new planets doesn't necessarily accomplish that same feeling (or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets would have had a different reception), though there are other ways to do it that don't necessarily have to use droids. "Freaking out at everything Finn" did that in The Force Awakens, for example.

Lightsabers are awesome, but... the problem of melee weapons in space sagas:

The four awesomest types of action scenes are (in no particular order):

1. Aerial dogfights
2. Chase scenes (especially car chase scenes)
3. Swordfights
4. Martial arts style hand combat

The rarest of these is sword fights, because they can only plausibly appear in swords and sandals and martial arts films. George Lucas' idea of space wizards with lightsabers is genius because it lets us put sword fighting into the same universe as aerial dogfights -- not just aerial dogfights, but SPACE dogfights! A universe where all four awesome kinds of action scenes can plausibly appear in the same film is pure genius!

The fact is audiences like to see battles come down to hand combat scenes, two heroes going at each other with melee weapons. Seeing armies swoop across a field from an eagle view just isn't as gut-exciting as seeing two warriors punch it out, even though most real battles or wars aren't decided by Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler getting into a knife fight. Even great battle scenes that are mostly about maneuvers on a battlefield feel more satisfying when they end up close and personal. This is better when it ends with this (Game of Thrones, Battle of the Bastards).

The problem is, in a space epic where everyone's flying around in space ships, it's hard to get people together in a room to swing lightsabers and vibrating bludgeons at each other. There are only so many plot devices that accomplish that, and we're close to having seen them all now. I worry that it'll start to be like the James Bond movies where Bond has (yet again) been captured and the villain explains himself (yet again), puts Bond in (another) slow-acting, easily-escapable death device, and (predictably) walks away: it worked, and then it didn't, and then suddenly it was self-parody. There are only so many times we believe a hero would turn themselves in to the head villain before we start smacking our foreheads and updating the evil overlord list. Why on EARTH (why IN THE GALAXY) would Snoke allow Rey in a room with him and lightsabers, knowing what happened to Palpatine?

Getting Finn in a room with Phasma took a 40 minute subplot that turned out unnecessary. Their fight was too short anyway. Getting Rey in a room with Kylo Ren was a little too easy, but involved inventing a new Force Ability (Force Skype) that we haven't seen before. Neither was a satisfying way of moving the characters from place to place, in my opinion.

What didn't you like about this film?

NO DISNEY! BAD! You get ONE toy craze per trilogy (cf Ewoks-bad enough in their own right), and that was BB8. Don't be greedy.

Snoke's throne room was ridiculous. A red scrim cloth? It looked great burning, though.

Snoke was ridiculous, too. Vamping in a Hugh Hefner robe was NOT what I expected from the buildup he got in The Force Awakens. Yes, I get that you have to make him different from decrepit, creepy, creaky Palpatine, but Snoke was not doing it for me.

Snoke was underused and a letdown after the buildup he got in TFA. So, basically, everything about Snoke was bad. Except when Rey tried to call her lightsaber and Snoke made it hit her in the head. That was awesome. If he'd had a sense of humor like that all through I'd have been down with mischievous, petty evil Snoke. That wasn't what we got though.

Finn didn't have enough to do and wasn't nearly as fun as last time, and the thing he did get to do turned out to be mostly plot wheel-spinning, little but a pretense to get him on the bad guy spaceship.

Poe was an idiot. Likable, but an idiot in this one.

It was the longest Star Wars film, but one whole subplot was mostly unnecessary and a waste of Benicio Del Toro, who is a limited natural resource.

The Big Thing: Pacing

It felt like they were cramming as many "ooh!" scenes as possible in. The final act had enough of them for any two films. I counted three storylines going on at once for most of the last half of the film. Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi gave us jump-cuts between multiple storylines, but this was the most crowded finale yet.

With such hectic pacing, and so many subplots, all the story had time for were the characters' big motivations and desperate needs. We never got to just hang out with them. The situation was a good one to see the characters strain under the pressure, too. Cornered, running out of fuel... that could have shown us (better than it did) what they were each made of. Instead we got a tour to a casino planet, as if this were a James Bond film!

This film lacked little, personal moments like Han offering Rey a job, or Maz giving Rey advice in The Force Awakens. Those moments let us see what Rey wanted, what kind of a person she was, and start liking her. The little jacket bit between Finn and Poe was a touch of color that humanized both men (not to mention the lip bite that launched a thousand 'ships). The reunion between Leia and Han didn't advance the plot, but it let us see who they had become, with so much unsaid between the lines they said. Our old friends were back!

This film never gave the characters time to stretch their legs, and that stuff matters. Star Wars "A New Hope" played like a slow burn, with lots of slow spots where we got to know the characters - little "Let the wookie win" moments don't make the highlight reel, but that's where the quotes come from, that's where we feel like the world they live in is real, and they are real people.  I am starting to like the characters less when all we see of them are their desperate needs, and not How They Normally Are. Show me Finn and Poe playing cards together. Show me Rey and Chewbacca learning to work together piloting the Millennium Falcon.

Most of all: let us spend some time with Chewbacca, Luke and Leia as they grieved Han Solo! He deserved at least that.

That said... being beaten over the head with different characters' desperate needs is better than getting static cutouts bouncing off against each other the way we're getting now with the established characters in the MCU, so...

All in all, I'll take Star Wars over any other franchise going, but the distance between Star Wars and Marvel, the second best extended universe still going, is getting smaller.

Force Skype and New Force Abilities

The scenes where Rey and Kylo could talk to each other from far away were cool in this film. They were. But we're now nine films into the Star Wars universe, plus a TV series or two. How far in do we get before The Force's powers are pretty much set?

I mean,  storytellers have always nerfed or buffed existing powers to serve a story (Superman gets weaker or stronger from storyline to storyline, but he always has super strength), but storytellers aren't inventing NEW powers for Superman anymore, and for Batman or Iron Man to invent a new gadget the story has to build up to it. If you're pulling "Bat-Shark-Repellent" out of your ass, your storytelling is shit.

So how long before we say "No. It helps the story, but inventing more force powers is now bullshit" -- because looking back, Force Skype would have been really handy during the execution of Order 66. Yoda was super strong in the force: if Snoke and Luke could both do it in this film, SURELY he could have used it to save some Jedis from Order 66. Freezing Blaster bolts, as Kylo Ren did in TFA would have been an incredible move for young Anakin or Darth Vader when they needed to intimidate an enemy, and his way of raiding someone's memory would have been much more effective than Palpatine's "I feel your anger" kind of stuff.

In storytelling terms, it made sense for Harry Potter to be learning new spells because he was a student. It also made sense for Luke to be... and we were learning about the force too. But we've seen enough force users now that it strains credibility to think that Yoda couldn't have done Force Skype, or frozen a blaster bolt, if he'd wanted to, and if he could, why didn't he? It would have been handy in a few tight spots where we saw him NOT use those abilities. Why have we never seen a Force Ghost do something other than appear, shimmer, and talk before - then suddenly Yoda called down lightning onto the Jedi Temple as a Force Ghost?

What is the nature of force powers anyway? Are force abilities like X-men powers -- different users have a different "suite" of force powers? This would explain why Rey picked up a few of the skills so easily, and why Kylo Ren is the only Force user we've seen freeze a blaster bolt in the air, even though Yoda and Palpatine were (presumably) both powerful enough to do it. This accounts for the way Force Lightning and Force Choking are dark side powers, and why nobody on the Jedi Council in the prequels could simply look into little Anakin's mind, which would have been handy, and the kind of skill the Jedi Council would probably have recruited for.

Or are force abilities like spells in Harry Potter -- anybody can learn them, but learning them takes work, and there's nothing to say a clever enough force user couldn't develop a new power if s/he worked at it, just like Hermione or Dumbledore could invent a new spell?

Or are force abilities like a Green Lantern ring, where anybody who puts one on (has the sensitivity) gets access to the same set of powers, (accounting for training and natural ability)?

But mostly: how far into the Star Wars universe do we get before we say "Storytellers should no longer make up new Force Abilities that aren't plausible combinations of other abilities we've already seen"? I'm reaching that point now, myself, as cool as the Force Skype scenes were, I don't want The Force to be the site of a bunch of storytelling ass-pulls and deus ex machinas.

Final Word on Super Franchises

Film Franchises, in order of "Knowing What They Are And Delivering What They Promise"

1. John Wick
2. The Fast and the Furious
3. Star Wars
4. Mad Max
5. Marvel Cinematic Universe
6. Pirates of the Caribbean
7. Transformers

Every other movie that ever got a sequel

162. Justice League/DC Extended Universe

Of these, Star Wars is in the toughest spot because new Star Wars movies are competing against two generations of fans' nostalgia of seeing the other films as kids, so expectations are ridiculously high, storytelling is most important, and how do you add more "heart" in postproduction? Justice League has the hardest spot because they've decided they want to compete with Marvel, choosing to play a near-insurmountable game of catch-up, while starting from the back foot because of bad creative choices at the outset. Marvel has done an amazing job of threading the needle between story continuity, fresh looks at superhero films, rotating in new heroes, while warding off superhero film fatigue, showing respect for the heroes and their storylines, and giving the films mass appeal also for non-comic reading fans. The question is how long they can keep all those plates spinning. Every new film where they continue this streak increases the difficulty rating.

Transformers is in the easiest position because they can just throw money at digital effects artists, cast a few stars from foreign markets, and make half a billion in China, and Pirates is in the second easiest position because Johnny Depp likes big paychecks and Jack Sparrow is good at selling pirate zombies, and again, global audiences seem to eat it up. Fast And The Furious looks like it's in a good spot, but more than you think depends on audiences believing in the vision of family that Dominic Toretto talks about, and the cast being believable as a cohesive unit built on loyalty and love. John Wick films could keep being good for as long as Keanu Reeves' body holds up and the fight choreographers have a free hand. But I have a feeling after three or four they'll walk away and leave John Wick as a perfect series of films preserved in amber. I really hope they don't beat it into the ground like Taken did.

But Star Wars is great. Laser swords, space adventure without technobabble, and oh mercy, that music always gets my blood going! They've had more "punch the air awesome" moments per film than any other series, by a far sight, and as long as they keep nailing the casting, people will buy tickets to see laser sword fights. They just will.

Comment moderation is on but I'll let everything pass through except spam; I'm always up to chat, but be patient please: it's grading period.

See you all at Episode 9!

EDIT: Here is a great article that sums up why TLJ had to be the way it was. More later, maybe.