Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi

Buying Time
or
"Everything You Just Said is Wrong."

"Darth Vader CAN'T be Luke Skywalker's father! Obi-Wan Kenobi said Darth Vader murdered Luke's father, so that would make Obi-Wan Kenobi a LIAR! Irvin Kershner has destroyed the Star Wars franchise!!" 
Said by absolutely no one...ever in 1980

The eighth episode of the linear Star Wars saga is out, written and directed by Rian Johnson this time, but it is the second of a traditional trilogy in this series, as are The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones, so, by design, it is darker, raising stakes and setting expectations for a third act, which will wrap up its story. 

But, it also has another function—it buys time, changing up some things, filling in some back-story, doing some adjustments, complications, and generally, teasing for a last act, where—if the past is any indication—they will cram in some necessary bit of information to careen to a conclusion that we should have seen coming if the second act didn't do some deflection away from it.

So...it is, once again, a dark time for the galaxy. If we were to believe The Force Awakens, a lunatic fringe of Imperial survivors led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is trying to gain control over the Galaxy from the Resistance, who brought Peace and Order to the Galaxy...at one time, at least. A new recruit, Rey (Daisy Ridley) who has an unnaturally strong connection to "The Force", spent the previous episode becoming embroiled in Rebel matters and, personally, set out to find the One Man who might bring things to a peaceful conclusion, the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). When we left the last movie, Rey was imploringly holding out Luke's light-saber to him.

But, wait...(there's going to be a lot of that, so get used to it). It seems things are not going so good in the Universe, after all. The rebellion of General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, who has a lot to do here and is extraordinarily good doing it) doesn't seem to be quite in the control we were led to believe. They are evacuating their rebel base, just at the point the First Order jumps out of hyper-space to stop them. General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) gives orders to fire on the base...and then gets a bit distracted. He's got the rebels dead to rights and when he has the opportunity to deliver a death blow, he doesn't. The Supreme Leader isn't very pleased and literally mops the floor with him. I couldn't blame him. A plot-point will come up later that might explain why they let the Good Guys jump to light-speed, but that might be too charitable. They had a chance to wipe them out, but they didn't (perhaps because if they did, as Hitchcock liked to say, "we wouldn't have a moooovie") Once the jump is made, we go back to where we left off.

The ocean planet of Ahch-To, with a convenient couple of islands on it. We reprise the scene where Rey gives Luke his light-saber. There's been a lot of internet speculation about what his first words would be. I won't spoil it. But his reaction is perfect. Hamill's Luke Skywalker here is an interesting character, and, bless his heart, every time Hamill is on-screen, he makes the most of his time. I will try to be as spoiler-free here as possible, but Johnson gives you a reason why Luke would have run away...to this particular spot, and why he chooses to remain there at a time when worlds might be crumbling. A lot of echoing of sentiments about the Jedi Knights in the prequels is made and, frankly, I find them legitimate. I have no issues with anything Hamill or his character do in this film...although it will cause a fair amount of hysterically feverish pixels being tossed about on the internet. 

But, back to the rebellion—the optical wipes are done quite well and done in the obvious manner that they should be, given the series' origins in "Buck Rogers" serials. There is much breast-beating done about the escape as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, who loves doing this stuff, you can just tell) has used the opportunity to destroy one of the First Order's super-dreadnought ships, using possibly the silliest of the Rebel fleet's ship designs—bombers...in space. There's a lot of laser fire typically going on in these dog-fights, and no small share of individual ships blowing up. So, why oh why, would you create a ship-design with ready-to-blow-up bombs on it that you have to situate over the other ship (necessitating getting close to them) and then "dropping" them in gravity-less space. Oh, I know. X-wings make turns—one brakes and does a drop-behind maneuver, as well—TIE-fighters growl like baby tigers in soundless space, but...oh man, this is really dumb. Of course, given the fact that they're dumb ships with a dumb plan, they have a lot of casualties, and Poe is demoted by Leia from Commander to Captain for good reason. Off to the next convenient rebel base, they travel.

On Snokes' ship, the same thing is going on—the Supreme Commander dresses down Hux and brings in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, who continues to be terrific in a tough, tough role), who, after being read the riot-act by Snokes ("...and TAKE OFF that ridiculous helmet!" he snarls) is given the task of pursuing the Rebels. This is accomplished by one of the two new wrinkles in "Star Wars" arcana—tracking the fleeing ships through hyper-space (that would take a LOT of signal strength, but wait, it gets better). The rebels are nearly out of fuel (fuel? Has anybody ever mentioned "fuel" in Star Wars before?) and jump back into real space...they have enough for a short jump, but that's about it. It's a good thing the First Order can't track them through...oh, wait, there they are. And for the second time, the Rebels are sitting ducks. What does the First order do? Kylo takes a bunch of TIE-fighters out and cut down their defenses and ships as much as possible. Then, after having done that...they stop.

Why do they stop? Hux starts to pick off transport ships one by one...whenever the mood strikes him, I guess. This gives a chance for Finn (John Boyega) and a new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a chance to go gallivanting to the planet of Canto Bight to find a particular kind of "cracker" who can disable the tracking device on the lead First Order ship (they only have the one tracker installed, it seems). So, while Finn, Rose, and BB-8 go looking for that, Hux very...slowly...attacks the transports.

Now, with three fields of story going, the film starts to do some very judicious cross-cutting, as, having been stymied by her encounters with Luke, Rey begins to be contacted by Kylo Ren aaaallllllll the way across the Galaxy, enticing her to join the Dark Side of the Force. Just like tracking a ship through hyper-space, this must take a lot of energy, too. But, you've got to bridge the space- and story-gaps somehow, so...go with it. It gets interesting. But, it doesn't necessarily make things better. It does move the plot along—that's basically the first 45 minutes of the movie and it's 152 minutes long, making it the longest film in the series. As you can imagine, things get complicated.
And, at that point, I shut up. To say anything...ANY-thing else in particular will spoil what joys any Star Wars fan (or any nuance any NON-Star Wars fan) will enjoy in watching this movie. It is the second part of a Star Wars trilogy. New characters will appear—particularly Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo and Benicio del Toro's rapscallion DJ (I wish there was more of him in the movie)—and because it is supposed to be a bit darker than the other entries, some characters will not make it through the movie. Some...like DJ...will just disappear. On the other hand, there are some interesting call-backs from past films, which will soften some of the blows for the die-hards.

A friend admitted recently that they'd never seen "a Star Wars." Well, this one is no place to jump in. It is, legitimately, it's own story—it has a beginning, middle and end with no cliff-hanger other than the whole thread of how everything gets resolved. But, this one has so much back-story, I can't recommend this as a good starting point. You'd get lost without, at least, seeing VII: The Force Awakens, and then, the first trilogy and the prequels, in that order. But, that's a lot of studying to do for something that's supposed to be entertainment. I've had job training that lasted less than that would take.

The other thing (for die-hard's) is that whatever you're expecting—and more importantly, if you THINK you know what's going on—you're wrong. Enormous things happen in this, and some aspects, questions, origins...will simply be dropped without resolution or a tidy explanation. This will frustrate some. Not me. I took rather a perverse joy in it. Hey..."Sith" happens. As the character DJ says at one point, "Good guys. Bad guys. Made-up words."

I like that. But, I'm still having problems with the villains. I think they're not much of a threat. They're not as vicious as they should be—the whole movie teeters on the fact that they just don't go in blasting everything and bloody end the rebel threat. I don't find them credibly motivated. And Kylo Ren?  Driver pulls it off, but he has to be the most un-readably vague villain that there is. He is constantly in conflict, wanting to be like his grand-pappy Vader, but always spouting about "forgetting the past, destroying it." Dude. Has anybody played back what you're saying to you? What do you want, Kylo? What's the game-plan? Hell, what's the end-game? What are you trying to accomplish? I hope Episode IX tells us that he's suffering from a midi-chlorian overdose and prescribed some Alderaan Adderall. He may be the most pitiable bad-guy since Wile E. Coyote.

So...good? Bad? I dunno, is there an "ambivalent" side to the Force? The Last Jedi is clearly better than The Force Awakens. It takes chances. It takes chances that will upset people (ya know, like the prequels). It goes places people won't expect...to a purpose I don't think the producers have figured out yet. But, I hope the philosophy is in the same vein as this film, not going the safe route despite the lapses it took to get there. One must keep in mind that Star Wars was made to be a "gee-whiz" "Buck Rogers" adventure story with grit and texture. One mustn't take it too seriously. Up, you must grow...ye-ees.




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