Just to be clear here: I'm not a fanboy.
I really don't care for fanboyism or, necessarily, its practitioners. I think fanboys are to some extent responsible for the terrible quality of our franchise blockbusters these days. Their vocal expectations of fealty to some supposed "canon" inform studio decision-making and stifle creative film-making. And as fanboys become the filmmakers themselves, the results are more often fan-fiction love letters than original or inspired cinema. One can do no worse by a fanboy than to challenge or surprise him in any way with beloved characters or material. Their truest satisfaction is to be justified in their theorizing, not to be shown something new. It causes me great joy that the latest Star War is causing so much suffering among fanboys.
But what if we step away from all of that and look at The Biggest Movie Of The Year™ through vision unclouded by the self-righteous tears of betrayed fandom and instead focus on what is presented on screen? This is what I'm concerned with today.
But as much as I would like to divorce this film from any others that bear the great Lucas seal, I cannot. For this is a film dictated, in many ways, by the follies and failures of its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens, and its home planet of the Mouse House. These combined influences prove insurmountable stumbling blocks for what could be an incredible film, Star War or otherwise.
This film has only served as confirmation for what I have come to suspect: that The Force Awakens is one of the worst blockbuster films of our time, possibly of all time. It fails to understand established characters while also profoundly neglecting the development or even establishment of newer, more important ones. What characterization choices it does make (mainly with antagonist Kylo Ren) are fatally flawed, then needlessly undercut by the film's daft tone. This is not a foundation upon which a single film can stand, much less a giant trilogy.
But such was writer-director Rian Johnson's task. And to his credit, he manages to introduce and begin exploring some pretty cool ideas about the Force, the Jedi, and the universe of Star Wars (--you know, the reason to have more films at all). Segments involving Rey's training and Luke's inner struggle are by far the film's strongest. The issues I have arise whenever Johnson needs to engage with the haphazard work of Abrams and company, which, unfortunately, ends up being most of the time.
Take Kylo Ren, for example. It's possible that Mr. Abrams was shooting for a complex, layered bad guy that people could try to relate to. What we are given in The Force Awakens ends up being an unstable, unintimidating, unskilled thug. Remember: he is bested twice by an untrained Rey, and is not taken seriously by anyone in the movie--not his master, not the First Order, not the resistance. That is a dangerous path to walk in characterizing your primary antagonist, because the audience is not given reason to take him seriously either.
Rather than start Kylo over from scratch, The Last Jedi tries admirably to lean into his crappy characterization and make it work. And it does, kinda. He can be manipulative when he isn't taken at his word. Perhaps he is aware of his shortcomings. But any advances are immediately erased, because people still laugh when he is in the room. Think: did you ever laugh during a scene with Darth Vader? Kylo is not terrifying when he loses his temper or makes threats because, ultimately, the movie doesn't let him. Its constant humor works efficiently to undo whatever advances are made in character or escalation is made to drama. He is the villain of a children's serial cartoon: bad because he has to be because the good guys need someone to foil, not because of any justification to the audience.
And let's talk about that humor for a moment. Think of one would-be powerful or profound or poignant moment, and there is a joke there to dissipate the mood. We finally meet Luke, weathered and conscience-ridden: he glibly tosses his lightsaber over his shoulder. The Millennium Falcon looks to be in danger: there's a porg squashed against the window to tell us they'll make it out. 13 pilots strike out in a heroic, futile last stand: Poe kicks his foot through the floor because it's just another day at the job. All that is left of the resistance fits into the Millennium Falcon after the events of the film: Poe jokes about Rose being "not dead." Disney is in full conflict-aversion mode, subverting any meaning the film's individual moments might have had, as well as its really cool thematic stuff about the meaning of balance, which must necessarily include conflict. What plays well in a children's narrative does not translate into a film that looks like it wants to generate real stakes for its characters.
So, why are people still fine with these movies? I mean, on the one hand, you love what you love and that is (and should be) good enough. But I mean people saying they are good good, not, "it was fun but, yeah..." And I think the answer is, to some extent at least, fan expectations and conditioning. We cannot abide saying it wasn't the best ever, so we make it so in our minds. But I think that is a lacking explanation. The truth is, these films are simply being made of parts that do not, and I would now say, cannot work. And that isn't simply the fault of the filmmakers, although they are not totally absolved. Let us also look squarely at Disney, who apropos of nothing willed these films into existence without the planning needed for such a gargantuan undertaking as they have outlined.
Consider this: JJ Abrams only pitched his idea for Episode IX two weeks ago. Pitched. A trilogy-capper which is arbitrarily scheduled for release in 18 months. I would submit that such is not the amount of time needed to conceive and realize a functioning story of this scale. But for us, the filmgoing public, Disney says it is. Because that institution is now no longer interested in the telling of stories or the creation of magic, or even in pretending that it is. Its focus is the mere accumulation of property and exploiting it through commodification. It has gambled that no one for as long as their are people on this world will tire of Star Wars, and so any product it makes with that branding need not be of any particularly rigorous quality.
It is at this, not unexpected turns for Luke Skywalker, that fanboys should be upset about. As for me? I don't now particularly care what happens in another Star War. If over the course of two films characters cannot be created that engage me in an emotional or intellectual way, I do not know that my time is well-spent in furthering my perusal of that series. Such did not have to be the case, and Heaven knows Mr. Johnson tried to make it otherwise, but a sound structure cannot be made from material already on fire.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi features Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and Kelly Marie Tran, and is rated PG-13 for fantastical space violence.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
If you're a human living on Earth, you are going to fight the madding crowd this weekend to see the new Star War that Disney is releasing. Early notices for the film are overwhelmingly positive, which should no doubt be encouraging for fans of the franchise or the work of director Rian Johnson. As a fan more of the latter than the former, I am feeling good about attending. So to do his work justice, I decided to brush up on the other Star War of this modern dispensation, The Force Awakens. And I had some thoughts I wanted to share.
Basically, it's really not that good.
To qualify that: there are good (or at least cool) parts throughout The Force Awakens. First to mind is the overall design of the film. It does an incredible job of marrying practical on-set creatures and effects with digital creations and manipulations. (But let's please agree that the one horrifying exception to this standard is the Jakku junk dealer.) The universe feels very real, something the first trilogy always succeeded at. Taken in isolation, there are also a lot of cool parts. The opening sequence with Poe on Jakku is arresting and well-paced. There are some cool "wow" moments in various dogfight situations. The film really has a lot going for it on a design and technical level, which should be expected if you spend infinity dollars making a film.
Unfortunately, very few of those infinity dollars went toward creating a story that worked on its own or was made of mature components. Two examples particularly stuck out to me on this viewing: 1) there is an incredible amount of narrative string-pulling, and 2) there is a baffling amount of expositional dialog. Let's look at these a little closer.
Narrative string-pulling is what I'm calling the phenomenon, rife throughout this entire film, of a force outside the film (i.e., the storytellers) propelling action forward in an arbitrary or at least unearned way.
Expositional dialog takes many forms, but is always used to inform the audience of important material. It isn't inherently bad, but it is often awkward or at least obvious, and detracts from any realism that may have been desired. Basically it is a lazy way for a storyteller to directly communicate with the audience. For my tastes, I think good films jettison expositional dialog almost entirely, instead using other, subtler devices to portray the film's world to the viewer.
The expositional dialog in The Force Awakens takes one of its worst forms: two characters talking about things they both know as if they don't. And it takes it often. A prime example is basically everything Han and Leia say to each other. You know our son, the bad guy who split us up? As you remember, it caused us to split up. It's too bad we had to deal with that in our own way by falling back on what we were best at. But it's good we still kinda like each other too. And so on.
But there are other forms for the fan of expositional dialog to feast on. There is plenty of "This is what I'm thinking" and "Remember, our plan is to do these things" and "Those are bad guys" and "Those are good guys" peppered around. Taken together, there are very few conversations which don't amount to explicitly clueing in the audience to new material or reminding them of or referencing old material, instead of revealing layers of character. Watched muted, the experience would be largely the same.
I bring all this up because I think that fans of franchises, especially franchises that have the resources to achieve anything they want, deserve films with complexity and depth. And The Force Awakens is a fundamentally depthless movie. Fun, yes, particularly on first viewing, but depthless. I brought up some specific storytelling issues here, but there is also the thing taken as a whole: Nothing new is really explored in terms of the Force or characters' relationships or even the geo-political situation of this fantasy universe. There are suggestions, yes, but so much has to happen that we get only a handful of non-expositional moments between anybody, which means we end up not really knowing (or caring) much about anybody. The characters themselves are hollow: either caricatures of themselves if they are old ones, or thinly painted in broad strokes if new. Indeed, the film has many of the symptoms of overstuffed contemporary blockbuster filmmaking, above all placing supposed spectacle over characters and conflicts that mean anything outside of the brand.
Again, I think that fans of franchises should hold what they love to a higher standard. Massive franchise movies can be fun and also really good--that's the whole reason you got into Star Wars in the first place. As a fan of Rian Johnson's other work, I really hope The Last Jedi has more going for it than a great-looking exterior, and I know he can deliver. I guess we'll see this weekend.
by Chase Harrison