Something lighter for the weekend, yes?
First, regarding my personal perspective and baggage: I am old enough that I saw the original Star Wars on opening day. My Dad — who had loved the kitschy fun of the old Flash Gordon serials and passed that love down to me — took me to work instead of school and we saw it in a now long-gone movie palace in suburban Chicago. It was the only time I saw it in a less than packed theater and I probably saw it somewhere between 50-100 times in its original run. You don’t often to get to see cinematic history that fresh.
Nevertheless, while I have seen every film on or before opening day, still own a professional grade Vader mask from 1977-78, had all the original Kenner toys (and had the Christmas where you got a box of coupons because demand so far outstripped supply), and so on, I was never one of those who immersed myself in all the ancillary books that may or may not have been official canon at some point, etc. I’m mostly about the movies themselves.
That brings us not to The Last Jedi, but to The Force Awakens, so that you know where my current benchmark was set. I think Jonathan V. Last is basically correct in assessing that it probably hasn’t aged well with many people, that we were so glad to have a new installment that we tended to overlook its rather obvious remix qualities or to not immediately take issue with Rey as a Mary Sue so powerful that she lowered the stakes for that movie, particularly its climactic lightsaber battle. Last was also correct to call Poe Dameron a cipher, most likely because he died early in the original script and thus didn’t have much of significance to contribute to the narrative when he was resurrected in later drafts (most likely to secure Oscar Issac for the role, which isn’t a bad reason).
I tend to agree with Last’s critiques, though perhaps less strongly, insofar as I am sympathetic to the idea that Disney wanted to play it safe and reassure people that we were going to be more in the world of the original (middle) trilogy instead of the prequels. Moreover, Lucas always conceived of the series having its elements echo and reflect across the series. And if Rey was a Mary Sue, you could argue that Luke Skywalker was pretty precocious in the original film, though perhaps a childhood of bullseying womp rats justified his skills.
Against those benchmarks, what can I say about The Last Jedi without spoilers?
I can say that on average, the remixing is more smooth here, drawing largely from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Some of the lifts are still obvious, if none are as egregious as the Starkiller Base in TFA. Some of the old tropes are deployed in ways that can be clever and surprising. A few are actually subtle and those are the ones that perhaps work the best.
The Mary Sue problem is reduced here. In this second act, as in TESB, the protagonist’s conflicts are more internal than external, both with Luke and with Kylo Ren (and those two also have largely internal struggles). This isn’t to say Rey doesn’t see her share of action here; she does. But her raw power is put into perspective, much as Luke’s was in TESB. And her mysterious backstory, much discussed since the release of TFA, manages to surprise.
Finn is Last’s least favorite of the new generation of characters, and I guess I would say I find him the most frustrating. There is an interesting idea or two lurking in the Finn character. How much is he motivated by disgust with the First Order, and how much by cowardice? It’s possible to pull off a conflicted, somewhat buffoonish hero (see Jayne in Firefly/Serenity). But I think this film is the second time the new team has failed to execute well on those ideas. Finn’s storyline may look better in hindsight, as some of it may be a set-up for the third act, but it is the weakest part of this second act — and particularly the second act of this second act.
Poe gets more of an arc in this film, which is a low bar to clear, for the reasons already mentioned. It’s a bit of a strange arc and one that may leave some unsatisfied in the context of an all-ages space opera. But I think this might be an instance where some of the text of his narrative is also to be found in the subtext of TESB.
Almost anything I could say about Princess Leia would be a spoiler, but the late Carrie Fisher’s performance is much improved over her turn in TFA, when she had not been acting for a while.
Luke Skywalker gets his due share of the spotlight, and Mark Hamill does quite well with the material (even if the rumors suggest he wasn’t thrilled with the direction it took). One certainly may argue that this script stretches the boundaries of how we think of Luke, perhaps to cover for TFA killing off the franchise’s biggest star. But much time has passed and events have left Luke a changed man, even if some of those changes are a little unexpected.
Speaking of time, that’s a problem in this film. Then again, timing was a problem in the TESB script also; it just seems more obvious here. This is a risk with a remix project; sometimes you inadvertently import weaknesses instead of strengths.
I guess my overall impression is a mixed one, even after accounting for the inherent difficulties of making a second-act film. But I’ll also say that The Last Jedi is the most explicit of the series in addressing how we confront the past — and that’s a fairly audacious subject for a multi-billion dollar franchise now thoroughly steeped in nostalgia.
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