"I've seen raw disappointment like this only once before, in Episode I. It didn't disappoint me enough then. IT DOES NOW!"
Ok, look, I'm not proud of what I'm about to do here. I'm getting older, folks. I really, really thought that my days of complaining about the substandard quality of pop-culture, big budget blockbuster epics were over. I thought that in my age and wisdom, I could reconcile the fact that no story is really sacred, there are winners and losers, and you're better off just sneaking a flask of Wild Turkey into the movie theater and tryin' to have a gooood time! For example, the Thor: Ragnarok script plays out like every single part was written for Robert Downey Jr., with ancient celestial deities awkwardly delivering punchy one-liners like it's open mic nite at the Asgardian Comedy Store... but hey! Those visuals, am I right? That soundtrack! After all, it's a comic book movie. Transcend your negativity, man.
Besides, something that really turned me off to giving my actual opinion about anything was the Ghostbusters backlash. Like, holy shit, what even was that? An army of kids who were three years old when Dan Ackroyd Et Al. ad-libbed their way through one of the most ridiculous non-porno scripts of all time feeling so entitled that they started harassing the actors off of Twitter. I know those were some really precious memories of discovering the original Ghostbusters on DVD fifteen years after its release following a really animated "Dude, you've never seen..." conversation at the local food court, but the cold truth is that Colombia Pictures is not indebted to your forced sense of sentimentality. The whole thing made me question whether the world really needed one more nerd with a blog (me) taking up more server space with lamentations about how an industry that is now like 90% dedicated to nostalgia and fan-service is ruining our memories and disservicing us as fans. It just seemed a bit like overkill.
However, I am but a humble human nerd, and I guess I'm off the wagon again.
Part of it is that pesky, irrational emotional appeal of Star Wars. Despite the fact that as a movie franchise, its got a less-than-stellar batting average and really, the entire toiling juggernaut pretty much just gets along by sprinkling in ever so much originality into an ever-expanding soup of self-reference, I'm just not really over it. And so, with two pretty good Disney-led Star Wars films in the bag and scores of glowing critical reviews all over the Internet, I walked into this one with some high hopes.
I felt that familiar emotional rush during the opening fanfare, the 'Its really happening!' moment I literally dreamt of as a little kid during the pre-prequel years. And, just like the first time, it transitioned pretty quickly from 'It's really happening!' to 'Surely this will get better!'. But deep down, I knew. I'd been down this road before. Following the first exchange, where they let Oscar Issac's now traditional opening joke stretch out just long enough to not be funny anymore, I looked back through time and space to my younger, less buff, baggy-jeaned self sitting in the theater for The Phantom Menace and said, "I got a bad feeling about this".
I'm convinced that this current crop of beaming movie critics are either being paid off by Disney or watching a completely different move than the one I saw. After seeing reviews like, and I'm paraphrasing here, "This movie keeps all the mystery and magic of Star Wars alive while taking it in bold new directions, etc, etc...", I can not willingly believe that our experience was the same. The Last Jedi (hereafter referred to as TLJ) was not only one of the worst Star Wars films ever made, but it fails repeatedly at even the most basic elements of storytelling. Whatever isn't boring and pointless is fucking unbelievable. Whatever is believable is boring and pointless. And yes, I am of course adjusting for suspension of disbelief.
Let's start with the fact that this thing is a giant 'fuck you' to even JJ Abrahm's derivative vision of the Star Wars story. Sure, he basically remade A New Hope with a fresh crop of handsome, sassy youngsters, but he left plenty of threads to pull on to keep the fan-theory boards alive and well for two years. Absolutely nothing about the state of this cinematic universe is answered in TLJ. Every juicy question put forth by The Force Awakens is either completely ignored, or made immaterial by the death of what or whoever we were asking about.
Additionally, while all of our questions are being unanswered, the majority of the characters are doing absolutely nothing. That's right! Nothing! I tried long and hard after seeing the movie to remember what all of the gang was up to, which was very difficult because none of it had any effect on the story. Finn and Rose begin a very Star Wars sounding quest to sneak onto an Imperial... sorry, First Order ship to once again disable some overlooked piece of equipment that will help the rebels not die. In the course of this convoluted side-quest, they go to a space-casino that any director in Hollywood, or really, any 9-year-old with some Hasbro action figures and an active imagination should have been able to write into a more interesting story point. Instead, the crew gets instantly arrested, meet Benicio Del Toro en route from the Marvel Universe on his way to a paycheck via an ultimately pointless character, and then ride around on a bunch of dumb CGI horsegeese while trying to make some point about how rich people are bad. Then, after escaping that cockamamie scenario, they get captured again and fucking fail. That's right! Not only do they fail miserably at the (what now, 4th?) Star Wars 'dress up like the bad guys' plan, but it turns out that by the time they would have succeeded, their fleet is pretty much destroyed anyway.
And you know what? That's OK. From a writing standpoint, its fine, even dare I say, bold to have your main-ish characters fail at something. The problem for me is that the whole process took so long, with so many chase scenes, explosions, and ham-fisted pseudo-discussions about morality that by the time the whole thing is over and Captain Phasma falls into a pit (how many pit-deaths is that now for the franchise? 4?), I totally fucking forgot where the characters were supposed to be or what they were supposed to be doing. The whole rebel fleet > casino > jail > enemy fleet > jail again > rebel fleet transition was spliced in via 4-5 minute segments for two hours of a movie that included two other story arcs. Get out your graph paper, folks.
So what's our snappy new hero Poe Damron & the fleet doing during all of this? Running awaaaaayyyyyy!!! Yes, after an initial rally and then a brutal asswhooping, we get all the excitement of an hours-long sub-lightspeed chase. As tactically sound as this decision may have been for the characters (especially in a universe where apparently all ships have an equivalent maximum cruising speed), it does not make for a very exciting movie. During most of this time, Leia is comatose, having survived being blasted into the vacuum of space by way of the absolute most asinine scene in cinema history. Let's just forget about the fact that the angle and velocity caused by explosive decompression and the residual velocity of the ship would have put her miles away from the vessel within seconds. Suspending all possible disbelief regarding anything to do with how space, or really, moving objects work, it was just fucking stupid. In sixty years, Leia has only ever at most displayed a spider-sense level of force control. Now, for the purposes of a cheap audience fake-out, she whips out almost godlike powers to save herself. This is doubly bad because the movie had not by this point, and does not at any point in the future, re-establish an emotional bond between Leia's character and the audience. The only reason anyone gives a shit that Leia might die is because of how we felt about her in previous movies. It's a dirty, bait-and-switch, poor-ass movie making tactic that does no real narrative work. This rings especially true because after Leia wakes up out of her coma, she doesn't fucking do anything besides show up, stun Poe Dameron, and then idly recite empty platitudes about hope until she changes her mind and the end and says that actually, there is no hope.
In the meantime, the role her character should have had is given to Admiral Holdo, a late-addition rando whose purpose is to argue with Poe, (in an exchange about as compelling as a Dungeons and Dragons adventuring party leadership dispute after the soda and chips have run out) and then singlehandedly destroy the enemy fleet. Ok, I guess.
Finally, the Rey / Skywalker / Kylo Ren storyline is the most palatable of the bunch, and the only one that features any attempts at acting, mostly thanks to Adam Driver. It also is the only one to actually advance the plot through the poorly-paced, overscored middle 70% of this epic-length movie. After all, Rey finally gets on the path to becoming a Jedi, despite the fact that Luke spends a combined total of about 7 minutes actually training her and the rest of the time running across the island to yell at her if she uses the force at any point thereafter. Kylo Ren ascends to power by killing Snoke, another no-backstory rando who is introduced just to run his mouth and then fucking die. This results in the best fight scene of the movie, though without further explanation I have a little trouble trying to accept the motivations for Snoke's trained Red Power Rangers to fight to the death defending their already dead master against his clear successor. Like, if they are that loyal, shouldn't they be trying to kill themselves for failing?
The Skywalker scenes are kind of hit-or-miss. I'm assuming they were trying to paint him as a jaded recluse with a dark and bitter past, but he sort of just comes off as an awkward crazy neighbor. That is until the end. And oh boy, let me tell you, if Leia's space ballet was the stupidest scene in movie history, the end of Luke Skywalker is the most vicious, faux-clever, fuck you cop-out that I've ever seen. The fact that what we've been waiting to see for 30 years, Luke fucking Skywalker back in action, was ALL aN IllUsIon!!, a shitty deux-ex-machina double-take bullshit scam where he just sent out his spirit to do all the dirty work and made us all think it meant something is the worst part of all. Like a deadbeat dad who promises to show up for your birthday and then swings by for 15 minutes on his way from the bar to his girlfriend Cheryl's house, the disappointment is real. The emotion of Luke's last words to his sister? Fake. His epic last stand to confront Ben? Fake. All of it rendered meaningless in a trick to literally buy ten minutes for the kids to run into a cave and escape. And then he dies anyway! After all of that chicanery, we cut to Luke meditating on his front porch, where he shouts, "Oh! My ticker!" and falls over. What the hell was the decision making process behind that? This speaks to my point about sloppy writing and having characters do a bunch of convoluted shit that lands them in the same exact same place with the exact same consequences that they would have experienced anyway, just with extra steps.
Just cut out the middle man! Have Skywalker show up in person, use force push to make all the AT-ATs blast each other, have a real lightsaber battle with Kylo Ren, and then suffer a fatal wound to die a hero after the gang gets to the Falcon. Or something. It's not that hard. I have no idea how that ending got past a first draft, because a 'ha ha! gotcha!' ending like that wouldn't make it out of a freshman creative writing course. Its not a 'bold', 'unexpected' bit of scripting that deserves to be lauded because people fell for it. It's a cop-out masquerading as crafty misdirection, a crutch used to support lackluster ideas. It's the kind of thing you do when you're writing down to an audience.
In general, the film suffers from pacing issues that make it feel rushed and disjointed even though it's actually three weeks long. It somehow had the ability to make me simultaneously bored yet anxious, which I guess count as emotions. Beyond that, in addition to the general character-pissing-on fest I detailed above, the movie seems to prioritize bad, superfluous characters above characters people actually care about. Chewbacca is basically relegated to cheaufeurr and comic relief, seemingly cutting in on C-3P0's action, while R2-D2's role is to painfully remind the audience that Star Wars used to be good. Yoda shows up to impart wisdom, in the way that a stupid person might think a wise person would impart wisdom, saying Zen-sounding things and generally being a doucebag. Instead of these fan favorites, we get either boring new characters or JJ Abrams creations trotted out and then disposed of without any enrichment or purpose.
And finally, maybe it's on a spreadsheet somewhere, but I have absolutely no fucking clue how anybody got anywhere in this movie. Like, physically how. Space travel, the Journey, and the passage of time are all rendered meaningless in this movie. Despite lightyears of distance, light and sub-light speeds, and time-sensitive events, everyone just gets where they're going at the exact second they need to be there. I'm sure if I plotted it out on a graph, it may all make sense, but as an audience member trying to keep track of 9+ main characters, 3 schemes, & 5 locations, I just have to take their word for it. I have no idea which ship anyone is on at any point in time. People show up just in the knick of time, and since I can't remember where they just were or what they were doing, I'm forced to take it on good faith that they both knew where the next event was happening and had the means to get there.
To that point, travel and technology concerns that used to encompass entire movies or at least several pinnacle scenes are now routine tasks for even minor characters. Remember when getting onto and off of an Imperial starbase took 60% of A New Hope, even for a party led by a Jedi as powerful as Obi-Wan? That was amateur hour, apparently. After being flung at the flagship dreadnaught in a space-box by Chewbacca like a stressed-out UPS driver, Rey survives the battle with Kylo Ren. She then wakes up while he's passed out, somehow finds her way off this gigantic ship under the nose of the entire First Order, gets from that ship back to the Milennium Falcon, and from there to the final rebel base... all off camera.
Also, unlike for the entire Rebellion in both Return of the Jedi and Rogue One, flouting Imperial shield technology is no problem for Benicio Del Toro (or "DJ"... fucking of course his name is DJ), who somehow has a set of flash drives that are universally compatible and allow him to both cloak his newly stolen ship and disable First Order shields. This is another convenient Deus ex Machina that happens to be possessed by a random character that Finn and Rose meet in jail while searching for a different character who would have served the exact same role. It's a confusing bit of redundant audience misdirection that conveniently advances the already-moot-by-this-time plan to the next stage. Maz Kanata makes it real fucking clear that there is only one guy in the galaxy who's good enough to crack First Order shield codes. It turns out that not only is that dead wrong and there are there two guys in the galaxy who are good enough to crack First Order shield codes, but that the other guy who can do it, out of all the myriad planetary systems of the Star Wars universe, is literally downstairs from the first guy. Like, ok? Why tho?? Does nobody understand that if you send your characters on a mission to find an important plot device and they fail, and then they are provided immediately with an identical backup replacement for that plot device, there are no stakes to the story and nothing that happened really mattered?
Or how about Rogue One even, which murdered its entire cast demonstrating how fucking hard it is to steal top-secret enemy plans? Not for Rose, the low-rank flight deck worker who can just pull up holographic dreadnaught schematics in her bedroom on command. All of these things, while they could potentially be overlooked individually, combine to make a pretty nasty case of sequel-itis. At this point, you're glossing over problems that other writers constructed entire films around (like how characters get places or know important things) because by the end of the movie, none of it mattered anyway. And that's a bad sign!
So that's really the trick to this one; you can turn your brain off and just go along for the ride (which is what I assume all these gold-star bestowing critics were doing), but even then, there's not much to hold on to. Characters that were starting to show promise at the end of TFA either plateau or backslide. The general storyline of the universe is whittled away to the point where JJ Abrams is basically going to have to either turn Rey into a god or go completely off the rails to come up with any way to end this 35-year story arc, which is a pretty tall order for a guy who is basically a B- directorial composite of his influences. I do feel for the guy though. Rian Johnson basically took everything Abrams tried to seed in this new trilogy and wiped his ass with it, leaving him with nothing but original trilogy support characters and a new class that spent their transitional 'Empire' movie doing nothing but chase scenes and running from explosions and generally spinning their wheels. Because of Carrie Fisher's passing, the only Skywalker left to complete the Skywalker storyline is Ben. (Man, that was sad to type). However, if anyone can salvage the final installment, I think it's Adam Driver / Kylo Ren. He gets all kinds of fanboy flak for not being a badass, but while somehow the critics have been lauding this pile as a 'bold masterpiece', what's actually bold is to play a follow up to Darth Vader as a deeply flawed, petulant child with anger issues who has more power than he knows what to do with. After all, if you wanted a super-powerful stock villain with no depth or conflict, well, you already got Snoke, who fulfilled all those requirements so perfectly that all he had to do the entire trilogy was put on a bathrobe and sit in a fucking chair until he got killed.
It may take a lot, but judging by the scores the actual audiences are giving this one (which some critics are of course pinning on trolls because this movie is obviously perfect), a course correction may be possible if the studio is taking note.
So hopefully, two years from now, I won't have to do this again.
Holy moley, I mean to put the link to my book at the bottom of this rant and totally forgot. Now that it's too late and you're already read this, here it is! I wrote this collection of stories years ago, so there's basically no diversity. So please, everyone buy it and support my next one which will have lots!
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