Sunday, December 17, 2017

"The Last Jedi" Teeters on the Edge of Pointlessness

I saw Star Wars VIII last night (words that I never in a million years imagined that I would have to string together), and at the end of it I didn't know to feel.  It's taken a full night's sleep and most of a day to process my reaction.  Eventually, I decided that I would have to see the movie again to decide how I really felt, and in that moment I found that I didn't care to bother.

That's my ultimate verdict on The Last Jedi: aggressive apathy.

I'll put the rest of this post below the fold, along with an implicit spoiler warning.

My thoughts on this movie are still kind of jumbled at this point, but I'll try to organize them as best I can.

Curmudgeonly old Jedi Master Luke is easily the best part of the movie.  Everything Mark Hamill did was pretty much perfect; I can find no fault with it.  Luke's character arc, what with his having retreated to an island on a planet in the middle of nowhere to hide and mope and be ashamed of his failures, is depressingly realistic compared to the perfect and legendary hero we get in the EU novels—but I have to admit that it fits the tone of Star Wars to a tee.  The Star Wars films, at least, are all about the cyclic nature of the Jedi: masters and students, the Light Side and the Dark Side, the passing of generations.  Even the gaps in the story that get filled in this time around, including why Ben Solo finally turned and why Luke has become a hermit, call back to the old trilogy: things happened very differently from Luke's and Ben's different points of view.

That all pretty much works.  Also, the fact that in this timeline Luke tried to reestablish the Jedi Order but failed, sits better with me than the way things worked out in the novels.  In Return of the Jedi, when Yoda outright tells Luke that he'll be the last of the Jedi once Yoda dies, I always took that as a prophecy rather than a plain statement of fact.  To me, Yoda was declaring the Jedi Order extinct.  This film—The Last Jedi—both calls back to that important line of dialogue, and subverts it in a way that comes off as meaningful.  It's rather different from the perfunctory way things panned out in Kevin J. Anderson's "Jedi Academy" trilogy.

This leads me to one of the difficulties I'm having with the new movies: I grew up with the Expanded Universe.  So I can't help but compare everything about these Disney movies to the EU.  In a lot of ways, the EU was awful: the major characters remained fairly static throughout, and any attempts to really "move the story forward" were always terribly ham-fisted.  Either some development would occur that was ultimately meaningless, lacking stakes and easily undone by a later author; or they would just kill off a beloved character.  It got annoying after a while (and intolerable around the time of Vector Prime).

Hell; looking back, I would say that only the original Thrawn trilogy could really be called "good".

But when I compare the EU to the new movies, I find myself nostalgically longing for the familiarity of the EU.  No… "familiarity" isn't right.  It's more like the EU novels were… organic.  They were a natural progression of "what happened next", but guided in a direction that preserved something important about who these characters (Luke, Leia, Han) were and what they were fighting for.  And the big picture—the restoration of the Republic, the fall of the Empire—that at least happened and mattered.  It means that the events of the original movie trilogy mattered.  But with The Force Awakens deciding that nothing changed after all, that the New Republic didn't really get off the ground, the Jedi Order didn't come back, that the First Order is out there playing Empire and the Resistance is still around and playing Rebel Alliance all these years later… ugh.  It's so damnably artificial.

Even the prequel movies had a certain genuine quality to them that these new movies lack.

In fact, I think that's what's wrong with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.  They don't ring true; they ring hollow.  The original trilogy is awesome—it inspires wonder.  The EU novels and comics, and George Lucas's prequel movies, are enthusiastic—almost childlike in their love for the material.  But these new movies are not: they're soulless, cynical, and kind of tired.

When I look at The Last Jedi specifically as a single piece of cinema, as self-contained as I can manage to view it, I still see this all over the place.  Not in the scenes with Luke, those were all pretty much great (with all due props to Hamill's acting chops—he carries the damned movie); but it's in everything else.  The movie is constantly trying to establish that the new characters make mistakes and keep on making the same mistakes—that they're not learning from the past, so they're doomed to repeat it.  Back to that whole thing again where Star Wars is about cycles and generations—fine, well and good, point made.  But when it all comes down to that scene at the end, with the slave-child on the casino planet playing Jedi with an action figure and wearing an entirely-too-toyetic Rebel/Resistance ring, I just couldn't ignore how fucking commercialized the whole endeavor was.  Like, they weren't even trying to be subtle about this: the movie's message in the end was, "Yay for you, Star Wars fan!  Didn't it feel great, seeing the original movies and playing with the old toys, when you were a kid?  Doesn't feel great to have it all back?  Aren't you excited that another generation of kids gets to feel the same magic you did?  Congratulations on your nostalgia!"

But it didn't feel great.  It felt as if I was being manipulated, cynically, by the new corporate owners of my childhood.  Took me right out of the movie and the sparse, incoherent story woven together by every scene that didn't have Luke Skywalker in it.

And now (big surprise, we all knew it was going to happen) Luke has disappeared into the Force, probably to return as a shimmery blue Force-ghost next movie.  Leia won't be back because Carrie Fisher is dead (I'll admit, I'm curious about how Star Wars IX will explain that one).  And Han is dead, pointlessly, after having a whole movie dedicated to showing off what a loser and deadbeat he turned out to be in the years following Return of the Jedi—because he didn't change his ways after all, and nothing that happened in the original trilogy mattered.

Thanks, Disney.  Your latest Star Wars movie went and replaced heroism with nihilism.

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