Chuckle-inducing prank calls! Improbable encounters with absurd, hideous CG blue-milk beasts! Chewbacca barbecuing, then babysitting, banal baby birds, and a particularly grumpy Luke Skywalker with an actual speaking role! Stay tuned for my review of these and more hyperspace hijinks from Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi…plus a few overdue thoughts on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in this single, super-ginormous post!
Prelude: Blogging on Star Wars is a Fool’s Errand for Scruffy Looking Nerf Herders. Nobody reads blogs anymore, and everyone has an opinion on Star Wars. Nevertheless, I persist.
Still, I will soldier on! Star Wars itself is a bit of an intergalactic undead hoveround, hovering around all the time, past its expiration date, refusing to go quietly into the night, isn’t it? I mean, save a few multi-year intervals, it’s been with us—all of us, virtually everywhere—since 1977, and though it looks a little different these days, it’s never going away and simply cannot be stopped, even with a big explosion that launches it into the sub-zero vacuum of outer space, which is what happened to my copies of the prequels. Just kidding. I never bought them. What prequels? Let’s pretend they don’t exist.
To be clear, I love Star Wars. I keep writing about it. I’ve thrilled to the recent resurgence of the series like billions of other fans, and criticizing it is an act of love. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t write, and nobody reads this blog, so I must really care. A lot. Wow. Pausing for self-reflection here.
One more thing I’d like to be clear on: I have a deeply felt and sincere empathy for the plight of any director courageous and/or stupid enough to stand at the helm of yet another episode of this storied and indefatigable franchise, now in its fifth decade, with so much baggage to claim and so much more riding on its perpetual box-office domination.
Treading tenuously along that finest of razor-wire lines between adherence to authenticity within an established fictional universe and pushing forth with courage into new narrative territory means the prospect of simultaneous creative and financial failure is always looming over either shoulder of said director, whose every step must be scrutinized by platoons of brand managers, armies of lawyers and boardrooms of nitpicky executives. Which is to say nothing of the pressures of legions of passionate fans and their unrelenting criticisms of the tiniest of details. It’s enough pressure to make any remotely reasonable auteur politely decline the prospect and run in the other direction to chase ever-elusive whiffs of artistic freedom emanating from decidedly lower-budget affairs.
This list of not-crazy-enoughs includes the Davids: Lynch, Cronenberg and Fincher, plus Brad, Neil, Irwin, Steven, Matthew and many other recognizable white dudes who, perhaps wisely, didn’t see themselves herding the intergalactic cats of Lucasfilm for Disney or for anyone else. It’s a hell of a lot to take on, and my hat’s off to anyone bold enough to try. Here’s hoping Disney will wise up soon and give someone other than another white dude the chance to direct a movie about one hell of a diverse galaxy. Ryan Coogler, anyone?
This is all part of what we think about when we think about Star Wars. Because we’re dorks. We can’t help it. It’s part of who we are. As I dorksplained to my wife recently, Star Wars isn’t even science fiction, really. It’s more space fantasy, or to use an expired term, space opera. At any rate, it’s immersive. For those of us who grew up clutching Star Wars action figures in our chubby little fists before we knew how to properly tie our own shoes—we are hopelessly immersed—and as such, we find ourselves inextricably intertwined with the fates of the beloved fictional characters we have claimed as our own for the majority of our lives. Far too many of us are compelled to examine these details obsessively, as our spouses, by and large—for those of us lucky enough to have them—roll their eyes.
We cannot help ourselves. So we write stuff like this. Or make hours-longer-than-the-film-itself YouTube videos dedicated to our personal beefs with each movie. OK, so I don’t do that, but in this era of rapid-fire video and twitteratti, I still write these lengthy, unread missives. Why?
When your childhood is inextricably intertwined with a fictional universe that disappeared for 16 years, only to be delegitimized by pedestrian green-screen Bantha fodder for another six and then left critically wounded on life support for another decade…only to be reinvigorated with great success in your adulthood…you are certain to react…but as 40-somethings who grew up with this stuff, can we ever judge it objectively? I’m not sure that even matters anymore.
I enjoy writing the occasional film review, but when it comes to Star Wars, it’s not so much a review as a list of passionate exhortations on the work of the latest, hapless captain steering the ship of my youth, and whether or not this latest shot-caller ought to take it a little to the right or the left or slow down, speed up, or for the love of humanity itself, oh, I don’t know, include Lando fucking Calrissian.
I liked Episode VII: The Force Awakens a lot better than George Lucas did, and yet somehow, despite intending to write about its successor/distant prequel Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I also liked a lot—I got distracted by Led Zeppelin and never did. So, after a wee rant related to Stormtroopers, which has bothered me anew since Rogue One, and which is also applicable to the whole series, I’ll cram a few roguish thoughts in here before moving along to Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
Part I: Stormtrooper Armor Really Sucks.
I know you just read that, but I think it bears repeating. Stormtrooper armor really, really sucks, and it doesn’t make sense. This fact is not of the alternative sort. Amid thousands of laser blasts, hundreds of explosions, a poorly navigated hatch with minimal headroom, a few rocks and a slingshot tossed tentatively by three-foot teddy bears from a few feet away, or several light taps against the helmet from a blind guy with a broom handle…motivated, if not enthusiastic soldiers of the First Order ne Evil Galactic Empire (henceforth, First Empire) are being converted into battlefield casualties at an alarming rate.
Even after nine films across four-plus Earth decades spanning perhaps twice as many fictional years of adventures in its own expansive, never-ending canonical multiverse, and even in the new films set decades after the first, Stormtrooper armor still sucks. Amid the fascist, otherwise impressively outfitted First Empire, decked out in an epic wave of shimmering red and black hardware over an endless horizon—the fever dream of military industrial complex apologists everywhere—shouldn’t the armor have not just iterated but improved?
In an era of hyperspace-enabled interstellar travel accessible to average citizens from every conceivable walk of life, among many galaxies and scores of races traversing a range of multicultural, inhabited planetary systems—even a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—one might reasonably be led to assume that the technology available for design and manufacture of high-end combat gear would produce something a bit more, well, combat-ready.
One might assume that said armor might, say, absorb or deflect a shot from the average blaster, or manage at least minimal impact resistance and thus better protect its legions of hapless inhabitants, doomed to blanket star-crossed battlefields with chaotic, PG-13 piles of their largely bloodless, shiny, black-and-white paneled remains. That perhaps it would improve significantly, as technology inevitably does, over time. The First Empire never really seems (or seemed) strapped for cash, but the new armor iterations revealed in VII and VIII don’t appear to be any more resilient than they were decades before. Strange, no?
Part II: Rogue One was More Fun Because I Dig the Dark.
The second-most-recent film in the epic sandbox since George Lucas sold it all to Disney for four billion dollars, Rogue One’s box office alone earned back more than a fourth of Disney’s initial investment. Better writers have already mused at length on the many attributes of Rogue One, including its fascinating retro-tech aesthetic.
Somehow, it’s not a stretch for us to grasp this universe as simultaneously futuristic (laser blasters, spaceships), fantastic (laser swords and wizards) and mid-20th century retro (cords and plugs, hard drives and landlines). With no trace of wireless networking or cloud storage, there is no Internet-style infrastructure of any sort. Amid insanely advanced, dueling interstellar spacecraft and fully autonomous, self-sacrificing robots, an awful lot of effort goes into retrieving a clunky, portable storage drive and plugging in an extension cord. Collectively, we accept most of the charming aspects of this physical versus digital technological incongruence willingly.
By definition, Rogue One is a dark story about a doomed band of courageous rebels who save the day while sacrificing themselves on a suicide mission. Most Star Wars connoisseurs agree that the series is at its best when the stakes are higher, the emotional investments are deeper, and things look a bit more bleak. Here, there’s more room for drama, and relationships mean everything. George Lucas’s former film professor Irvin Kershner understood this, and it’s a big part of why The Empire Strikes Back, which he directed, remains the best of the bunch. Imbued with the lessons of Empire but set just before the events of the series' first film, Rogue One introduces a cast full of almost completely unknown characters, pulls off the feat of attaching us to each of them and then wipes them all out by the end in a heroic effort that paves the way for the series we all know and love. It’s one hell of an achievement.
Rogue One wasn’t afraid to wrestle with some morally ambiguous decisions that heroes sometimes have to make, and while it was as steeped in hope as any of the other films, it was this willingness to go dark that made it more compelling. It managed to have a sense of humor that necessarily verged on morbid but never descended into outright cynicism. Stakes started high and remained there throughout, and we felt the weight of every decision and the deep loss of treasured relationships along the way.
Building a small story about a threatened family into a wider arc about friendship, sacrifice and hope, Rogue One had few missteps. Sure, there were minor instances of CG-fueled annoyance, one being some sort of disgusting, truth-syrum-injecting, multi-tentacled monster that reminded me of Clayface from Batman comics. Another being the bad idea of resurrecting or de-aging dead or nearly-dead actors with CG, which is just creepy and entirely unnecessary. A lightsaber-flashing coda and immediate prelude to the original film, however, was an action-packed stroke of genius.
Part III: The Last Jedi: “It’s Time for the Jedi to End.” Really? Nah.
Based on what little I’ve criticism I’ve read, fans are reacting from opposite poles to Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, either extolling its unimpeachable greatness or eviscerating it as unforgivable series treason. For me, there cannot be an either/or reaction. In Star Wars, as in life, there is always gray area. Life exists in nuance.
Whether or not we are able to access impartiality, reaching an emphatic, caveat-free, love or hate judgment call on a contemporary Star Wars film just doesn’t happen for me. Though the first trilogy will forever hold a special place forever emblazoned in my nascent heart of hearts, and three traumatically terrible, related things happened between 1999 and 2005, my reactions to Star Wars movies are no longer binary.
Looking back on The Last Jedi a few months after seeing it, I’m still thinking that they crammed an awful lot into it. Probably too much. I’m sure I’ll see it again, but I didn’t feel the immediate need to revisit it before writing about it, like I did with VII. I think part of that was because it was an exhausting movie to watch.
Kinetic, frenetic, energetic and utterly unrelenting in its pacing, I felt like the movie lacked breathing room between action scenes. I found myself longing for more quiet conversation and reflection, and fewer quick-cut, frantic explosions and chases. The inclusion of more prevalent and perhaps overdue, off-the-cuff humor was welcomed initially but grew tiresome through its bludgeoning insistence on a certain irreverent sarcasm that had never been deployed in the series.
I love Laura Dern but just didn’t buy her in the role of Vice Admiral Holdo. She seemed lost on a set built for someone else’s character. Also, the whole rebellion-within-a-rebellion exchange that resulted in actual shots fired between factions led by Poe Dameron and everyone else were just absurd. Really? A violent insurrection resulting in casualties caused by Dameron, when stakes couldn’t have been higher for everyone, is again tossed aside as mere “boys will be boys” posturing, when people actually died. Again. What? Dameron is magnetic, and Oscar Isaac is always convincing, but it’s time for a chat. Somebody better either promote this yahoo or confine him to the brig.
That said, Holdo’s exit from the film is a thoroughly kick-ass, blaze-of-glory moment that I’m certain I’m not alone in having waited for ever since A New Hope. Speaking of such moments, I can think of two or three more of them that occur throughout this installment, a chapter rife with self-sacrifice, sometimes achieved, other times prevented, but always a source of deep reverence among the hopeful rebels who retain an indefatigable optimism for a better tomorrow. This hope, of course, resonates throughout every Star Wars movie. In that sense—bringing desperate factions of sidelined peoples and creatures together with collective hope and a side of self-sacrifice, it remains as authentic and empowering as ever.
Surely I am not alone in feeling like Yoda should return to puppet status. Why, 37 years later, does he somehow look LESS realistic on film than he did in 1980? This, as the inimitable Wallace Shawn noted in The Princess Bride, is inconceivable! They used a puppet this time, but it’s so obviously slathered in CG, Yoda ends up looking like a cartoon. Cartoons are not realistic when paired with human actors onscreen. Why do movie studios still not get this?
This is not Roger Rabbit. Nor is it an Oats Studios production (Neil Blomkamp’s visual effects studio and online sketchpad for cinematic shorts that is taking CG to new heights). Oats’ site is well worth your time, and you owe it to yourself to at least check out Firebase, Zygote and God while you’re there.
Of course Yoda exists in VIII as a holographic version of himself because he’s no longer in physical form, but if he’s in the film, he should look at least as real as he did in Empire, albeit with a bit of a bluish-tinted halo, and yet, he does not. He’s a blurry cartoon. At least he still sounds authentic, thanks to the incomparable Frank Oz, back on duty again. For this we can be grateful. One hopes Oz is recording a comprehensive library of everything Yoda might say into the foreseeable future, as Frank won’t be with us forever, and having Yoda look AND sound worse would be sad indeed.
As I wrote in my review of The Force Awakens (pics included), Chewie should look considerably older, not younger. Does he have whatever Benjamin Button had? He has even fewer gray hairs than Scully and Mulder do after a quarter-century of X-Files.
Why is he treated like a goofy buffoon, babysitting annoying, big-eyed birds designed to sell stuffed animals instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our heroes? This trend of relegating the Wookie to the sidelines for comic relief has got to stop. He was once taken more seriously as a character and is much more important than he’s been given credit for, beginning when he missed out on the gold medal everyone else got in A New Hope, which was total bullshit. Mad. Wookie. Respect.
So, suddenly, General Leia The Intergalactic Undead Hoveround has the power of flight, can breathe in outer space without a suit and quickly recovers from being literally blasted through the wall of a spaceship in her cotton gown with nary a scratch. Now I know our dearly departed Carrie Fisher (may she rest in peace) was one tough cookie, but the extent of Leia’s powers before Episode VIII meant “feeling” that Luke wasn’t dead in Return of the Jedi and “feeling” that something bad had happened to Han in The Force Awakens. This kind of Force-enabled upgrade was beyond transformational and utterly without explanation or precedent.
Had Leia been studying the mysterious arts of upper-level Jedi super tricks for the last few decades, when she had time off from her duties as a Rebel General, secretly reviewing the old books in the Jedi stump on Grumpy Old Luke’s island (unbeknownst to him) with blurry cartoon hologram Yoda, before he burned them all to crack a joke and break ho-hum Luke out from his poor-me post-Jedi doldrums? Maybe she always had these powers. Did Leia merely save up her Marvel-esque super-baddie-level powers for the most inexplicable moment in an already busy new film? We’ll likely never know. Other than this unexplained Mary Poppins-in-Space moment, it was great to see Carrie growl through more screen time, presumably for the last time, unless she’s digitally resurrected again. Please don’t.
So much happened to so many characters in The Last Jedi that it’s easy to get lost. I felt like the entire casino-planet sequence and its heavy-handed 99% v 1% social justice message and “save the captive beasts” chase could have easily been skipped, and the movie would have been fine otherwise. That time could have been better spent further developing Finn’s new relationship with Rose, especially when the bond that grows between them has clearly bloomed exponentially by the time everyone arrives for the big showdown amid the decidedly cinematic red clay and salty crust of planet Crait. I liked Rose, but I wanted to know more about Finn. Why do we keep having to get to know new characters without having a chance to get to know the ones introduced in the last film?
I mean come on, this guy faced off against Kylo Ren with a LIGHT SABER last time around and lived to tell about it! Before Rose came along, he was bailing on the rebellion, just like he had on the First Empire. He’s a much more nuanced and interesting character than we were allowed to see in this movie. Tell us more of Finn’s story next time, please.
This is not to say that there wasn’t much to enjoy. It was thrilling to see Mark Hamill re-engage with his iconic Luke Skywalker character, so much that I could almost forgive Disney for failing to let him speak or engage with Han once more (before killing him off) last time around. Almost. It was so great to have Luke back and participating in the film that it felt reasonable to accept him as a grumpy curmudgeon—despite the clunky flashback’s “had to be there” premise of who may or may not have tried to murder whom when Luke and Ben/Kylo parted ways during those dark times before new Star Wars movies.
I tried to look past the blue-milk monster, the improbable pole-fishing and Luke’s newly trimmed, Just-For-Men beard in the otherwise spectacular, holographically delusional battle of Crait, which was just made for the big screen. Fans were up in arms about this new iteration of Luke the Coot, and even Mark disagreed about Luke’s role in the new film, at least initially, but not even Luke Skywalker can stand in the way of the relentless Mouse machine that now owns everything Star Wars, everything Marvel, everything Fox and who knows what else. I was just happy to see the camera focus on Luke once again and grateful for the chance to see him kick quite a bit of ass, one (seemingly) final time.
Adam Driver’s conflicted, striving for something yet-undefined Kylo Ren stole the show. He was less whiney this time around and utterly riveting to watch throughout the movie, as was Daisy Ridley’s tireless Rey, and their ongoing “who are we and what are we doing here” conversations and battles that pepper the film gave it a much needed emotional resonance. I loved Rian Johnson’s nod to Xanadu’s hall of mirrors from Citizen Kane, as well as his homage to the throne-room showdown in Return of the Jedi, which was easily the best action sequence in a movie packed with excellent ones. It was stunning to see Snoke’s Elite Praetorian Guard (I had to look that one up) get down, ninja-style, with our conflicted, lightsaber-wielding principals. Snoke looked more realistic this time, I thought, despite his CG-laden self. The talented Mr. Serkis’ motion-captured menace was much more sinister and scenery-chewy than before, when he was only presented holographically, and yet it seemed implausible that Snoke was so easily tricked and extinguished.
Did I mention the great space-based battles between X-wing and Tie fighters, alongside plenty of other classic and newer models of space ship? These looked fantastic and were plenty of fun, as usual. It’s easy to take these WWII-inspired dogfights for granted in the series by now, but the addition of in-atmosphere dogfights in the new round of films is an exciting and welcome touch.
Overall, I was plenty entertained. There was a lot to enjoy. My main takeaway was that the film tried to cram too much into an already long runtime. I have nothing against a long movie if it makes good use of the time, but this go-round felt like too many characters, many of them newly introduced, on too many missions, spinning into too many directions, timeframes, motivations and storylines. Star Wars is vast, but it’s at its best when it takes a relatively small piece of its enormous universe and brings it into more exacting focus. This movie, while spectacularly entertaining, felt like it threw everything in, all at once. My hope for Episode IX is that it’s a little less frantic, with fewer characters and locations, a more narrow storyline and a greater focus on individuals…with a puppet Yoda…and one more thing…
Again I am left with a single, unanswered and ongoing question. I’m tired of asking it, and you’re tired of being prompted to read an old post about it. I’m gonna ask it again anyway.
OK so where’s the beef? My final beef with Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi? It’s right here, folks. Can you guess what it is? Wait for it…where the HELL is Lando?
Benicio del Toro’s new DJ character brought welcome, called for nuance to the story of those attempting to navigate a difficult, alternative path through the galaxy by choosing neither First Empire nor Rebel allegiance, much like Billy D. Williams' Lando brought to Empire so long ago, before his character chose sides, presumably for good. However, as much as I liked DJ, he just made me miss Lando.
Yet another new Star Wars movie has come to an end, and we still see nary a trace of one of the series’ most entertaining, fan-favorite characters. Lando’s utter exclusion—not just exclusion here but one could argue erasure from the series of new films—is simply inexcusable. How could Disney allow Han to die before granting us at least a single, final scene of witty banter with his old frenemy who had so courageously redeemed himself? Back in the original trilogy, Lando proved he was not just a crucial friend to Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, C3P0 and R2D2 but also a fully invested General in the Rebel Alliance who destroys the second Death Star? He deserved a role and still does.
At least, if not a speaking role, grant us a brief funeral scene for Han, with the saddened old smoothie himself nodding at Chewie behind blackout shades, pyreside. If that is too much to ask, does Lando not warrant even a casual mention between other onscreen characters on what may have befallen our beloved-yet-Missing Mister Mustache? Why completely ghost the poor guy? Disney, it’s great that you’re launching young Lando into more prequels, but back here on Earth...again—Billy Dee deserves better.
So, in true Star Wars fashion, I’ll be holding out hope…for Lando Time in Episode IX!