Monday, April 30, 2018

The Last Jedi

Star Wars is dead,
long live Star Wars!
Beware Spoilers

Last year concluded with Star Wars month once more. So I was on appointment to go and watch the latest set of fireworks. I had prepared for this event. The night before I watched the exhilarating Star Wars: The Force Awakens and thought long and hard about the next instalment. The potential of possibilities keeping me awake through the night. It was a unifying experience, as Star Wars fans all over the galaxy lay awake with me - thinking about what next to speculate in their ongoing coverage of Star Wars on Youtube. Non-stop theorycrafting online was having more impact than the actual movie. Ratcheting up expectations beyond anything Disney could possibly imagine. The multiverse is fanmade. Yet, nothing could prepare me for the asteroid field The Last Jedi would navigate with Solo-like abandon.

Everything that flows through Star Wars needs to qualify as dogma.

It's hard to see this film in isolation, so this post is a much about Star Wars as it is about The Last Jedi. It seems just yesterday when I mentioned Star Wars' creativity deficit in my review of Rogue One. For the reason that everything that flows through these products needs to qualify as dogma. As much as I like the fiction, this form of canonization has been the bane to my enjoyment of it. If you only watch the feature films this statement may raise an eyebrow but engage with any other media and you'll notice the patterns. This especially applies to games. Where the intention is to put the player squarely inside the movies. A recent example: Battlefront 2, a game by EA, is symptomatic. In it, like an extra that overslept, the player seemingly walks on set right after the cameras are shut off. But instead of joining the other extras in the pub, shoots them with laser guns. Games, comics, series, they all share the same basic ingredients. Their sheer amount of sincere verbal and visual queues and callbacks to the movies are to me like fingernails on chalkboard. The only technical benchmark is how well the game mimics the movie. The only idea here is: "Hey, remember this?" What once felt like they were classic and original lines from unique characters are banalized as if they are phrases that are said all the time. For events that happen all the time. Said by everyone and their mother, porg and droid.

New characters are also derived from the series' archetypes. Each villain is another Darth Vader, squeaking with prosthetic and oozing inhuman menace. Every mercenary a Han Solo, self-reliant, quippy and charming. Every aspiring Jedi a Luke Skywalker with his head screwed the on straight. As they repeat, the franchise railroads itself further and the universe becomes smaller - like a fractal of boring. Then there are the typical themes that have occurred forever. Some of which were concepts in the original movies. Some were solidified, even demystified, in the prequels. Extrapolated backwards in time by George Lucas in desperate need of inspiration. It's the reason every Jedi looks like a Tatooine moisture farmer.

Moisture farmersJedi Master Owen Lars, Moisture farmer Ben Kenobi, Tatooinian free spirit Qui-Gon Jinn

The Last Jedi goes some way at least to setting the fiction free from some of its rusty conventions. As such it may be the best thing to happen to the series. In fairness, Star Wars has almost become a genre onto its own. The Force Awakens was textbook. A new iteration of A New Hope. The Empire Strikes back was the quintessential sequel. So how does this latest sequel hold up? It's rather odd even for Star Wars, like duck that doesn't quack. But in no small way less true to the formula, this needed to be the darkest entry in the trilogy, and The Last Jedi pulls if off with comedic aplomb. Everyone fails! But as Yoda said "The greatest teacher, failure is." Some characters even live to learn from their mistakes.

What does all of this mean? The Last Jedi proposes an answer: it doesn't mean anything.

What does all of this mean? The Last Jedi proposes an answer: it doesn't mean anything. Star Wars has always been a science fiction fantasy ride, but it seems to have been made it out to be something else. A profound reflection on the nature of existence. An elaborate puzzle made by a superhuman genius made to unravel the true meaning of. It never was. George Lucas seems to have bought into the hype too when Darth Vader was made out to be something of monumental significance in the prequels. Even though it was never warranted. Remember, Vader almost didn't survive the original trench run attack. He just so happened to become an iconic villain - and commercially interesting.

VaderRemember him? And the other guy?

George went where the money was and served us another helping of Darth in the form of Anakin Skywalker. The arc from well meaning brat to volatile psycho ended short of having him spout a red tail, laser eyes and fire breath. That's another thing. I'm bothered that Star Wars adheres to fairytale logic that ugly means evil. It's a terrible lesson. For one, some may mistake my good looks for outstanding morals and trustworthiness. The prequels fully leaned into the videogame logic of the evil-ugly connection with red eyes, a head crowned with horns and a voice that sounds like a bag of crisps being stepped on. Star Wars forget that Anakin looked the way he did in Return of the Jedi because of physical trauma and not necessarily because he was a bad man. Before you bring it up the Emperor... when he first appeared in Empire Strikes back he was basically an old man with glasses for eyes. Not a waxfaced vampire that had napped by the stove too long during Star Wars month.

Snoke Kylo RenFirst: Snoke, second: Kylo Ren

The new trilogy gives us Kylo Ren, who's trying his hardest to be Evil but retains the good looks of a renaissance nobleman. Even after his puberal episode in which he tried to score a thousand dark side points by slaying his father. He has a trembling lower lip just like his grandfather at his age. But unlike him has reasons to be peeved. His misdeed don't impress his mentor: the Supreme Leader Snoke. Soke is an old man and yet an other victim of heat exposure. He looks like he'd been left out in the sun too long, chain smoking, and when trying to douse his stub in a vat of brine, fell in. The master and apprentice relationship is another well-worn convention that goes back to the very beginning. Obi-Wan, Yoda, and eventually the Emperor. The original Star Wars only mentioned the Emperor in passing. Nothing hinted that he was anything but a politician. Vader himself at that point was nothing more than a "dark side Jedi". Not too important. Again, Vader could have easily chrashed his dingy Tie fighter in A New Hope, no matter how strong the force was with him. Yet when Empire Strikes Back was released, we learned the Emperor was Vader's master and force sensitive. There was no mention of him being Jedi-related however and 'master' doesn't mean 'mentor'. In return of the Jedi, we are informed the Emperor is a Dark Side teacher. A powerful one at that, which is meant to explain why Vader must do his bidding - which somewhat contradicts Vader in the prequels. Does Vader even have free will or is he just a tool? This utilitarian relationship was made a rule in the prequels. "Always two there are", mumbles Yoda. They are given a name too: the Sith. The members are given a title 'Darth Coolname'. The Emperor used to be just the Emperor but is now Darth Sidious. In whose employ are Darth Maul, Darth Tyrannus and then Darth Vader. All are treated as disposable tools. Neither of new odious duo are Sith. Thankfully it's not Darth Snoke and Darth Ren. There's even the hint at other dark Jedi in the Knights Of Ren. Lucky for us, rebellious Kylo Ren would rather see his master and all that which hints at the old order disappear.

Yoda and Luke

The mentor role is getting a bit stale too, and so is that of the problematic student. In the originals Obi-Wan never marked Luke's age as a problem. Later, Yoda considers him "too old" to be trained as a Jedi. At the time it seemed like an excuse for Yoda, old and tired, to not get back to work. But it also made it seem like becoming a Jedi was a life long commitment from youth. A result of this, there was Jedi preschool in the prequels. Filled with aggravating younglings served with gag-inducing child worship. The only thing to make up for Luke's lack of training was the overabundance of special destiny and his Skywalker lineage. Now take Rey who, at about the same age as Luke was at the beginning of his story, discovers her force ability more or less on her own. No special training required save for some perseverance and experimentation. No age stipulation is made, no guru figure needs to holster her power. In fact, the latest Mentor is the reluctant Luke. In a flashback to the training of Kylo Ren another reversal is shown. The mentor tries to slay the pupil. Frustratingly, we're not keyed in exactly why the desperate act happened. Which is frustrating. But it's yet another sign of Skywalker infighting. On a related note. Vader being Luke's father was a cool twist in the Empire Strikes back. But it set an expectation of hidden family lines. I wanted to claw my eyes out everytime I heard this or that pundit speculate who Rey was the daughter to. Was she a Skywalker? A Palpatine? A Kenobi? Why would anyone want this dynasty mentality? We're allowed to like new characters. No relation needed. How can a creative mind come up with anything new if it is chained to the past? It also doesn't help that force sensitivity used to be portrayed as a hereditary trait. Of course everyone is related, it's basically a requirement.

Rey LukeRey and Mark Hamill.

Particulary the Skywalkers are strong in the force. 'Being powerful', first uttered in the originals, became a quantifiable property in the prequels. Mi-di-chlo-ri-ans. Anakin even boasts to Dooku, in Dragonball like fashion, that he has "Become twice as powerful as when we last met.". This is yet another videogame-like system that deals in force powers and rock-paper-scissors lightsaber stances, and only stops short of Jedi character sheets populated by attribute points for strength, wisdom, courage and midichlorians. You may be alarmed to learn flocks of fans are already turning themselves into knots, arguing online about the mana cost of Luke's 'Force projection'. They're also running into problems explaining it using the established rules, adding fuel to the fire. In my opinion, the answer to the question "Who's the best?" should always be "It depends." or if I'm being honest "Who the hell cares?". Why bother, what's the use? It all reminds me of when middle aged men discuss the horsepower of their cars to detract from their receding hairline.

Literal reading of events in a movie are what kill the symbolic meaning of them. It removes a layer of interpretation and some of the magic evaporates. It's what happens when start counting medichlorians. Talk about force powers. Manacosts. The magic of the Myth is lost if we were to recognize that Achilles' armour weighed in at 15 kilogram and Hector's at 20 kilogram. Thanks to the extra mobility Achilles could move around faster and dodge Hector's attacks and was victorious even though he had to land more blows to defeat the extra armour. The rules that build tension dictate that the fight could go either way. The implication then is, for dramatic purposes, that they were each others equal in all other respects. But that doesn't justify pulling apart each aspect in order to quantify them. It's all nonsense that leads to pointless bickering! The point is that Achilles won and Hector Lost. It's what the story demands and no measure of attack can defeat plot armour.

"The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi" said Palpatine. He ostensibly said this because it would mean Luke's power level would exceed nine thousand and neither Vader nor he would be able to stop him from overthrowing them both. What superpowers that would entail was never quite clear to me. It was a vague statement that was left to interpretation. Sith doctrine (possibly no longer canon) however states that a good asset should never go to waste. Sadly, this base interpretation of the originals wasted alot of the symbolism that could have gone into the aura of a Jedi, in this case Luke Skywalker. No, might makes right. It's almost an animalistic law - and somehow thát is the biggest concern of the Emperor, a politician. In fact, it is hard to fathom that Luke's threat would be a physical one. Maybe It would have been better if Luke was considered dangerous because he could become a symbol of hope. "He could destroy us" said Palpatine, which would still be true. If Luke became a galactic paragon of all that is good, he could rally neutral forces to bolster the Rebel Alliance against the Empire. This would make Palpatine a more political/strategic thinker rather than a strong animal that fears a stronger animal. It would also have been inline with the terrifying symbol that was the Death Star. Or even the symbolic might that a person like Darth Vader projects. The Last Jedi seems to reestablish the latter. The resistance wants Luke back as a beacon of hope, to inspire allies and bolster their forces. He seems to be stuck in the old mentality of the Jedi superhero though. He interprets their question as a call of duty and refuses. Ultimately both come to pass. Though it's the symbolic act that matters. Not so much the minutiae of Luke buying time for the desperate escape. The showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren is the stuff of legends.

There are three more stand-out scenes to remember. One is a rare scene has some actual tension building before it happens. The Kylo Ren and Rey team-up. Part of the conflict here has always come from people who would get along but for their political or philosophical differences. This is contrasted against the greater conflict - a battle for how society should function. It would be very easy to imagine Rey and Kylo being the best of friends if not for some differing opinions. But the point is that dark and light don't need to be sworn enemies out for the other's extinction. This scene shows us just that. The scene calls back to when Luke and Vader put the sabers away in favor of more civilized course of action. Neither wanted the other's destruction. It is pretty well established that the dark and light are in a self-sustaining balance in The Last Jedi. Foreshadowing a union rather than a schism.

The second is a bit more political. Not even much of a scene, really. Some nuance is brought to the story with the introdiction of the unnamed character of Benicio Del Toro. A mercenary with a surpluss of stat points into competence but less in virtue. A character that doesn't fit into the dark or light system. He shows Finn that both sides are being supplied by the same military industrial complex and therefore he shouldn't care for either side. "It's all a machine, partner. Live free, don't join".

The final scene is short: Rey's force vision about her parents. It's a delightfully weird sequence that tells us more about the force than it does about Rey. It's not logical and that's the whole point. How else to tell that understanding the force is difficult by showing a scene that doesn't adhere to everything we've seen before. It's linked to the universe and not to some need to be a superhero. It's not a mere tool to be used in war.

DJHere's hoping Benicio Del Toro will return to reprise his role.

All the upsets to the canon seem to come at a cost in storytelling cohesion however. One element I'm hoping does not make a return is the liberal use of deus ex machina. The result of a few too many empty epic moments that can't be resolved in any logical way. A few examples:

  • Finn and Rose are hounded by the Kanto Bight police and strand at the edge of a cliff. BB-8 saves the day with a brand new stolen spaceship.
  • How did Kylo Ren and Rey resolve their quarrel? Rey steals an escape pod offscreen and flees towards the Millenium Falcon parked outside the current system?
  • Finn and Rose are surrounded by a hostile army, about to die. BB-8 hijacks a AT-ST to provide covering fire and an escape vehicle.
  • Finn is about to sacrifice his life for the rebels by ramming his ship into the battering laser. Rose comes out of nowhere and rams him out of the collision course. The power of love will save everyone, in the background the First Order breaches the final defensive line.
  • The Rebels are stranded on Krait, the First order has land and air forces to put the pressure on. The Millenium Falcon shows up and draws away every flying First Order craft.
  • The Rebels are stranded on Krait, the First order has land and air forces to put the pressure on. Luke Skywalker shows up at exactly the right time and place to draw away the land-based First Order army.

There's a built-in excuse for all of these of course: The Force is with the rebels. Or at least a select few of them. I wish fans would discuss the mana cost of the Plot Armour force power.

I'm still waiting for some time-travel or parallel universe nonsense to push things into the absolute Marvelesque absurd.

The fact that backstory is teased in The Force Awakens, or not explained at all, or seemingly postponed to a next - this - movie exacerbates fan theory madness. With no answers or pay-off in The Last Jedi there's actual madness. You could rightly say the fans take their favorite fiction way too serious. But so far that fiction has been playing it straight too. I'm still waiting for some time-travel or parallel universe nonsense to push things into the absolute Marvelesque absurd. Though it may already be there! Seeing as how much and what kind of weaponry the First Order produces, one has to wonder if they're not conjuring them out of thin air. The means to enact a comic book reset or revival of characters are already present too: cloning technology. Before you raise an eyebrow, it's not just comics. In the end the Dune novels had nothing but clones in them, all of whom had their progenitor's memories. Cloning technology and genetically determined force powers? The story could practically write itself, over and over again!

As much as Rian Johnson tries to pry open the door to a brighter future it remains far far away. Star Wars is still basically a black-and-white story about good and evil. The closing chapter of The Last Jedi tries to smooth the creases it so interestingly made. Empire versus Rebels. It doesn't really handle its characters too well either. Rather, it looks inwards and back to the original trilogy. It is Star Wars obsessed with Star Wars - not its denizens. A trait it shares with the prequel trilogy. I'm also sure this will only lead to more navel gazing by the community. It's ultimately unsatifying. I shedding its skin, the snake that was eating its tail seems to have lost more than it has gained. The scene is once again set for the next round. While we wait and speculate.

A looming danger with this sequel trilogy is that it may result in the old status quo.

A looming danger with this sequel trilogy is that it may result in the old status quo. The situation from before A New Hope. I can imagine it now. Episode 9 has the First order grows into the newly formed Empire. A Palpatine hologram, prerecorded or otherwise, congratulating Hux and Kylo Ren on a job well done. In response the resistance has no other choice but to become the new rebellion. Setting the stage like it was just after A New Hope. Allowing Disney to plow Star Wars each and every year. It would be a plan made for economy rather than any passion for telling a story. A wild guess on my part - but one needs to sketch the situation in order to see its horror.
A more definitive ending would maybe play out as follows. Proven to be an inept commander Kylo Ren is deposed and replaced by Hux. After which Kylo joins forces with Rey. The Resistance overthrows the First Order and reforms the Republic. Kylo and Rey establish a new form of Force practice that is neither Jedi nor Sith.

 

I remain adamant: the original Star Wars is the best Star Wars. For as simple as the movie is, it hinted at an immense depth of potential that was gradually made more shallow with each new film. The big twist in Empire Strikes Back signalled the death spiral. It turned the whole plot onto nothing but itself. The recent Force Awakens is the only film in the series that bucked the trend. And yet. In case you haven't seen any of these movies, I'd recommend watching only the first one. Leave the untapped potential to your own imagination rather than watching the later entries. Skeptical? Look no further than the deluge of fan outrcy at current run. Each voice louder and more indignant than the next, telling us how Star Wars should have been made instead. Solid proof of how it could be the same but different. Many will point to the pre-Disney extended universe on how things should be done. Demanding something new while expecting something old. It's a fools errand. It will never be good enough. Besides, no matter how good or bad things get. No matter how you feel about it. Remember that it's the creator's right to drive his creation into ruin.
 

 

 
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