Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson; 2017)

This week’s review is going to be different than my normal.  When I review a film I assume that the people coming to my site have not yet seen it and are reading what I have to say in an attempt to decide whether it is a film worthy of their time and money.  This is not the case with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Since the majority of the world’s population is going to see this film no matter what reviews say, this week’s write up will be less review and more deconstruction.  I intend to talk about parts of the film in far more detail than I usually do and without trying to avoid talking about surprises and plot points which means there will be major, surprise ruining spoilers ahead.  I will write my usual Final Verdict section first without any spoilers, and from there on out do not read any farther unless you have already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi or you don’t care at all about spoilers.

Final Verdict:  Star Wars: The Last Jedi very nearly, but not quite, manages to both take the Star Wars series of movies in a new direction while also remaining the Star Wars which enraptured us from 1977 – 1983.  Almost.  The film never quite has the guts to fully commit its bold changes to the Star Wars Universe’s usual moral tropes nor its strict adherence to the typical Hero’s Journey, but it does explore a less black and white view of morality often and maturely enough to raise eyebrows in a positive way for those who want a more modern Star Wars and in a negative way for those who find the white hat/black hat dichotomy the strongest part of Star Wars’ appeal.  The Last Jedi should appeal, and therefore I recommend it, to most audiences except for those who have never seen a Star Wars movie before, but I don’t see many coming away with it as their favorite Star Wars film.

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Establishing a universe is more than writing a story

Arguably the biggest challenge the makers of the new series of Star Wars films face is establishing a coherent universe in a series that really didn’t need one before.  We didn’t need to know how the Empire came to power, who the founders of the Rebellion were, nor what the relationships of one planetary system was to another in order for the original Star Wars trilogy to work.  We just needed to have characters we could invest ourselves in and an exciting, engaging story.  In fact, once George Lucas decided to start telling a story which needed to involve politics and a larger galactic timeline the seams of the universe Star Wars is set in not only started showing but also unraveling.

A lot has happened in the larger storyline which wasn’t created with an abundance of detail in mind, but now that we have a context of 8 films plus television shows plus a plethora of novels and even a few video games which take place in this galaxy far away questions which were unimportant before are necessary to establishing a decent amount of suspension of disbelief and show that these new films are an actual story and not just a cynical cash grab via nostalgia and toys.  After The Force Awakens, we were left with many questions.  Who are Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents and why is she such a natural at using the Force (and anything else she puts her mind to)?  Where did The First Order come from and how did they rise to power and crush the government created by the Rebel Alliance so quickly?  Who is Snoke (Andy Serkis), and why had we never heard of him in any of the other films before now?  What caused Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to turn to the Dark Side of the Force?  Why did Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) go into hiding?

When you’re making a trilogy, most understand that not only do you not need to tell everything in the first installment but it’s actually best if you hold quite a bit back so you can create tension in the mystery and entertainment value from the reveal.  Since you want to establish your story and characters in the first installment and bring the story to its climactic finish in the third, most of these reveals will take place in the second installment.  The Last Jedi does hold to that pattern for the most part but it fails to answer a handful of important questions and many of the answers we get are at best unsatisfying and occasionally infuriating.

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We learn, for instance, that Rey’s parents were no one special.  They were just scavengers who abandoned her on Jakku.  There’s nothing wrong with that explanation, in fact, it’s rather nice that the makers of the film didn’t feel a need to tie her into the grander storyline through a shoehorned in explanation and went with something believable and realistic.  If that is her origin, though, how do we explain her extraordinary number of talents?  She could have learned to repair a starship and how to fight from her time scavenging, but how did she become an expert pilot?  How does she speak Wookie?  Or droid?  If she’s such a natural at using the Force, why did it never manifest itself in the many, many years she was struggling to eke out an existence before the start of the film?  The answer we’re given to Rey’s parentage is satisfying in that it is not the typical grandiose origin we expect, but it’s entirely unsatisfying in that it raises just as many questions as it answers, and in this case, those questions are not due to a mystery but due to sloppy character writing in The Force Awakens.

The reveal of Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side is far more satisfying.  In fact, the two short scenes which deal with his turn are far more effective and engaging than three entire films dealing with Anakin Skywalker’s turn were.  We see his story from both Luke’s perspective and from Ren’s himself, and this sort of mini “Rashomon” shows how a character can become a Sith with far more nuance and true characterization than anything Star Wars has done before.  Luke senses Snoke’s influence in Kylo Ren, and in a moment of panic and doubt decides its best to kill Ren before he kills everyone else.  But, Ren wakes up at the last second, manages to defend himself, and Luke’s rash decision causes Ren to do exactly what Luke feared he would.  This shows that heroes in this universe are subject to panic and bad decisions, though we have seen that in good guys who aren’t necessarily the heroes before in Star Wars films, but more importantly it shows that the villains in a Star Wars story can have recognizable realistic motivations for their wrongdoing.  Sure, Snoke metaphorically whispered in Ren’s ear and planted some seeds of doubt, but it was Luke’s attack, his betrayal, which actually turned Ren.

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Examining the storylines

 The primary focus of the film is the relationships between the users of The Force.  In an obvious reference to The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi starts with Rey seeking training from Luke which Luke is dead set against due to his past with Kylo Ren.  Shortly after we learn that much to their surprise Kylo Ren and Rey have some sort of mental link with each other through which they can see each other, but only each other and not their surroundings, and through which they can communicate.  It’s an odd situation which doesn’t entirely work, but it does accomplish something very important to The Last Jedi‘s plot, themes, and tone which is that the primary protagonist and primary antagonist can relate to and truly understand their opposite.  This link means that they are not just opposing forces needing to get the other out of the way to achieve a goal, but that they are mirror images who see in the other what they are seeking in themselves.  This is even more nuanced and three dimensional than the relationship Darth Vader and Luke had and it’s accomplished without resorting to familial relations and without a need for one of the characters to be ignorant of their ties.  We take this journey along with them, and that makes for a more organic and multi-faceted relationship than we are used to between hero and villain particularly in a Star Wars movie.

Luke and Snoke are also mirror images of one another in the film due to the fact that both have at one point been masters to Kylo Ren, one for the Light Side of the Force and one for the Dark.  This mirrored relationship is not as nuanced and important as that between Kylo Ren and Rey, though.  This is partially due to the fact that these two are more traditional Star Wars hero and villain, but the primary reason this relationship fails is that Snoke himself is such a nothing character with no obvious connection to any of the heroes in the story.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that with no explanation of where he was during any of the other films, where he came from, how he came to lead The First Order or any other background of any kind other than he’s Kylo Ren’s master, Snoke is less a character and more a simplistic plot device.

The way the confrontations play out between these four is also highly uneven in quality.  Snoke, once again, is nothing but a mouthpiece for stereotypical villainous dialogue –  threatening and glowering but never actually doing anything which drives the story.  When Kylo Ren kills Snoke it was so obviously telegraphed that it would have been far more surprising had Kylo Ren attacked Rey as Snoke was continuously monologuing he would.

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However, the confrontation immediately after between Rey and Kylo Ren largely makes up for the disappointment with Snoke.  This is where we see the two main characters recognizing in the other traits they need.  Ren killed Snoke where Rey couldn’t have and it was the fact that he is steeped in the Dark Side which allowed him to do it.  In Rey Ren sees the balance he needs to keep from losing himself entirely to his rage.  In earlier films, the “join me” invitation is one which comes from a tactical power grab.  Darth Vader and the Emperor get a powerful subordinate to help them in their quest for more power, but they are never prepared to make nor view their invitee as an equal.  This offer from Kylo Ren to Rey adds a new twist to this now familiar Star Wars trope.  You can tell he does view Rey as an equal, as a true partner, and this offer to join him is less a power grab and more a warped marriage proposal.  This is a great twist which gives new depth to the Star Wars Universe and its characters as we glimpse the fact that balance between the Light and the Dark does not necessarily mean an even conflict but can instead mean the two sides learning to combine their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Finally for this storyline is the climactic confrontation between Kylo Ren and Luke.  This is a highlight of the film cinematically and dramatically, but a lowlight thematically. Since the two major plotlines come together at this time, I’ll speak on that after I talk about the other major plot in The Last Jedi.

The other major storyline is that of the Resistance and primarily of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).  I found this to be the more interesting storyline of the two as here the writers had the guts to flip the usual Hero’s Journey story on its ear and also had the guts to commit to it unlike the primary storyline involving the Force users.  This is a subplot which seems to be the usual impetuous hero comes out on top by disobeying orders and showing his superiors that his way may not be by the book, but it is the best.  As we continue down the path Finn, Rose, and Poe (with BB-8 along for the ride) decide to take, though, we see that what they are doing just keeps making things worse and worse and the eventual payoff we’re expecting doesn’t appear to be coming into reach, and ultimately we learn that the more practical and less flashy plan the leaders of the Resistance came up with would have worked, but because Poe and Finn decided to buck command and be heroes, the Resistance is all but destroyed.  That is so un-Star Wars like as to be completely unexpected and is the real heart of The Last Jedi, in my opinion.  The second act of a trilogy is meant to leave the heroes at their lowest point, but it’s rare that that low point is reached due to their own arrogance and incompetence.  That is exactly what happens here and leaves room for a redemption storyline for the characters who are not Force users in Episode IX.

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The opening of the film in which Poe single-handedly confronts a First Order fleet in his X-Wing sets up this dynamic as his flyboy antics lead him to call in an entire bomber wing against the wisdom of his commanders, and while the target he wanted to destroy does get taken out, the Resistance loses nearly every pilot involved in the attack including every single bomber in their fleet.  This gets Poe demoted, but it doesn’t reign in his cockiness so when most of the Resistance leadership is killed (and Leia (Carrie Fisher) put into the hospital in a scene which is pure fan service and very out of place with the film’s overall tone) Poe refuses to listen to the deputy leaders thinking himself far more clever and instead ropes Finn and new character Rose into a desperate plan to save the few remaining members of the Resistance.

The actual implementation of the plan inside the casino is the weakest element of this storyline as not only is it tonally all over the place but also visually chaotic.  Finn and Rose seem absolutely lost as they try to take in everything around them and figure out how to find the master code breaker, and unfortunately, the audience shares that state of mind with them.  I imagine this was intended to be the most humorous scene in the film, but most of the comedy on display here falls flat (a lot of the film’s humor does as it seems to be aimed squarely at children, young stupid children, for the most part) and the attempt to make the setting look like a large, bustling playground for the rich just ends up becoming a dizzyingly busy crowd of CGI effects thrown at the screen.

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After the bit in the casino, and things calm down, the storyline really gets down to business again as we see Finn and Rose in their desperation to be heroes make bad decision after bad decision including trusting the enigmatic DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who ends up being one of the most mercenary characters in the Star Wars universe who isn’t a straight-up gangster or bounty hunter.  While DJ was definitely entertaining, he was another inconsistency in the film’s story.  I loved the fact that he was interested only in whomever could pay him the most, but seemed to want that person to be one of the good guys.  He seemed to have a political awareness and pragmatism rarely seen in epic stories and never before in a Star Wars film, but he was also so incredibly skilled and well equipped you had to wonder how he found himself inside a cell in the first place, especially since he demonstrated he could escape instantly at any time he wanted.

The inevitable capture during their mission to crack the First Order’s tracking system and subsequent betrayal by DJ is the ultimate payoff of this section of the film.  Finn’s confrontation with Captain Phasma is so disappointing that it would probably have been best not in the film at all, but aside from that the payoff of Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) being discovered by the First Order directly due to the arrogance and impetuousness of Poe and Finn is the most powerful moment in the film from a thematic standpoint.  The villain’s to date haven’t been that organized, intelligent, nor impressive.  The heroes fail not because the villains beat them, but because the heroes are undone by the foolhardiness of some of their own.

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The climactic scene

After those few left in the Resistance make their way to the salt planet Crait they are joined by Luke, Rey, Chewbacca, and the attack force led by Kylo Ren.  The concept of a planet made up of red salt covered with snow makes for some truly spectacular visuals.  The red and white powder being thrown into the air by the fast-moving vehicles and the impact of weapons fire is reminiscent of blood on a battlefield and makes for a gritty visceral feel you can’t normally get in a film made with a younger audience in mind.  Add to that the sense of scale and motion between the gigantic slow moving weapons used by The First Order versus the speedy but small and decrepit vehicles of the resistance followed by Luke standing on his own against an army of AT-AT Walkers and  we are treated to one of the most visually spectacular scenes ever put in a Star Wars film.

The resolution of the final conflict is also satisfying as it comes down to a battle of psychology.  By projecting his image onto the planet as Rey helps the survivors in the Resistance escape, Luke keeps Kylo Ren’s focus exactly where he wants it to be, on Luke, and plays off of Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable anger to distract him just long enough that the true objective of keeping the Resistance alive for a little while longer can be secured.  It’s also a pretty great payoff to the audience when we realize that Kylo Ren has been played and he was defeated not by greater power or skill, but by his own emotional weakness combined with the cunning of his opponent.  The only problem I had with the resolution of the final conflict was wondering why we had never seen a Jedi do something similar before with the Force.  Once again, creating a consistent universe containing numerous films, television shows, and books is far more difficult than creating a single contained story.

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Finally, we end with the death of Luke.  This was a strange choice which seemed to come from nowhere to me.  It seems almost a given that he will appear as a ghost in the next film, so unless I am completely wrong in thinking that and Mark Hamill is still contracted to appear in the next film I see no dramatic reason why he should just die alone far away from anyone he knows and apparently due to stress rather than an unnatural cause.  The wisdom of this choice will hopefully become apparent in Episode IX, but it certainly isn’t now.

So, in the end, The Last Jedi is one of the better installments in the Star Wars universe.  It still has a few too many poorly handled elements such as humor which doesn’t connect, fan service which is more distracting than pertinent, and clunky dialogue to be an honestly great movie like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but there are some glimpses here into true genius and talent.   Hopefully, next time around the cast and crew can continue their exploration of more realistic themes but without chickening out and returning to the standard black and white morality of the Star Wars films of the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves; 2017)

In 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes rebooted yet another beloved franchise in the attempt to show us the story of what happened to Earth while the astronauts who feature in the now classic 1968 movie were away on their ill-fated mission.  Most were surprised at just how gripping and intelligent this new take was with a story with themes warning us of the dark road hubris could one day lead the human race down, completely sympathetic and gripping characters despite their hubris, and just the right amount of action to make the film more a blockbuster and less a think piece so it can appeal to a broader audience.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the new intelligent species of apes, and once again ended up being an intelligent action film giving us both spectacle and commentary on xenophobia and its insidious and far reaching consequences.  Now we have the trilogy’s conclusion, and with Rise, Dawn, and now War for the Planet of the Apes we get to see the truly rare trilogy in which every part  is masterfully crafted both as an individual work and as one third of a larger epic story.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up two years after the conclusion of Dawn with Caesar and his clan still hiding in the forests outside San Francisco, but now they are being actively hunted by the remnants of the United States Army who were called in to exterminate the apes by the human colony in San Francisco in Dawn‘s finale.  Caesar has had a new child in the intervening years and his older son has been acting as a scout trying to find a place the apes can relocate to so they can get away from the army without violence.   The news of a new living space reaches Caesar too late, however, as just as the apes are preparing to leave San Francisco they are discovered by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of the army stationed in the area who is bent on wiping out the apes.  A skirmish between apes and man ends with the humans being chased off, but the apes’ losses prompt Caesar to decide the Colonel must be killed at all cost and so he leaves his tribe on a suicide mission to confront the Colonel and end his life.

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War for the Planet of the Apes has all the intelligence and empathy of the two films which preceded it.   This time, the major themes on display are ones of survival, revenge, and fear, though not the xenophobia which was the focus of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  This time the fears are very well known, not unfounded, and inescapable.  It’s less about fear of the unknown, and more about how we act when our fears are justified and right in our face.  Caesar and the Colonel are both charismatic leaders and idolized by those who follow them, and Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson bring both of these magnetic personalities to life brilliantly.  As is the case in the best fiction, but particularly in the best action adventure fiction, we are given two characters working against each other who are nearly mirror images and the only reason one is considered a hero and the other villain is due to the lengths the Colonel is willing to go to ensure the survival of the human race and the men in his unit.

As has been the case in the first two films in the trilogy, the special effects on display in War for the Planet of the Apes are remarkable.  There are more animated via motion capture actors than live action in the film, but this does not create any lack of empathy in he audience.  The apes are still quite silent, preferring to rely more on sign language than actual speech, so their communication is done with facial expressions and body language and nothing is lost in translation despite the fact that what we are seeing isn’t real.   The environments also change this time, as we leave San Francisco and its forests behind for more northern climes, and again the shots involving the snow covered mountains are gorgeous.  Also deserving special mention is the lighting in the film.  Much of the action takes place at night, but Reeves and his crew never allow that to interfere with our vision either as mistake nor crutch.  We see everything we need to see while still understanding when the action is taking place, and in a Hollywood in which action scenes are literally getting darker and darker this was a pleasant choice.

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This trilogy does have its problems, and one that seems to be consistent across all three films, and that is that since the characterizations and plotting are so intelligent that when a specific bit of action has to be rushed through due to pacing issues that bit really stands out.  For instance, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes what takes years and years to change Caesar’s brain so he has human level intelligence happens overnight with a little gas for the rest of the apes.  In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Caesar is brutally fighting for his life with great strength and agility mere days after being shot with a high powered automatic weapon.  Without spoiling anything, War for the Planet of the Apes also has to fall into similar traps to keep the story moving, and that little bit of dumb shoved inside what is otherwise genius really sticks out.

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Final verdict:  War for the Planet of the Apes ends its trilogy wonderfully, putting this apes trilogy up there with The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Nolan Batman films as one of the truly great action trilogies in all of filmdom.  Each part can be enjoyed on its own as a complete work and will still be satisfying, but the experience is amplified by enjoying all three as a continuous work.  Caesar will go down as a legendary Hollywood character, and his story as one of the greats.  I hope Hollywood ends it here and does not give in to the temptation to create more films as a cash grab as this really was the finale the story of Caesar deserves.  None of the films are perfect, War for the Planet of the Apes being no exception, but they are gripping and intelligent action films which deserve your attention.  If you’ve seen the first two, War is a must, but you probably already knew that.  If you haven’t seen the first two, you can still enjoy War for the Planet of the Apes, and I recommend you do, but I recommend even more seeing Rise and Dawn before moving onto this one for a far richer experience.