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Thursday, Dec 21, 2017

My mixed (but mostly bad) feelings about Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I loved how the new Star Wars defied old tropes, weaved new themes about the Jedi and the Force, and had important character arcs that weren’t the sort of typical (white dude, with a couple tokens) cast that most movies present to us. My problem was that I just didn’t think it was a very good movie in terms of telling a well-constructed story that moved us along, made sense, and created character interactions and character development that track to the developments in the plot.

When you look back at the movie, you find that major chunks of the action could have been cut out entirely without affecting the plotline, which kind of cheapened whatever character development happened during those parts. Much like my issue with Rogue One, a lot of the drama was about uncertainty between protagonists – which can be great if done well, and if it heightens the tension as you lead up to some climactic moment – but seemed too often to lead to some kind of anticlimax. When two opposing forces bring us to edge-of-your-seat suspense and the real fear about what might happen if something goes wrong, that’s drama! When two opposing forces just kind of cancel each other out and negate whatever has been happening for the last few minutes (or last hour), that’s not good filmmaking.

Some of the characters and character developments came across this way too – you have conflicted or contradictory characters, not because the person is an “antihero,” or a “bad person with a heart of gold,” or they committed a crime to feed their family, or due to past traumas they are now visiting traumas on others to achieve safety, or because they’re overzealous in pursuit of the good, or they’re the scoundrel who saves the day anyway… but just because we weren’t sure if we should like them a lot. Or maybe for a moment we liked them and then later changed our minds, or vice versa. Simply creating characters that aren’t all good or bad isn’t particularly dramatic – you have to create conflict and allow that conflict to play out in the plot of the story! Here are a couple of examples from previous Star Wars movies:

  1. Vader is bad, but he loves his son, so he doesn’t kill him and eventually betrays his master to save him. This character conflict leads to conflict in the plot and results in moments where the plot arc changes dramatically because of a change in the character’s resolve or his loyalty. The conflict in Vader is not just indecision but acting in one direction and then acting in another.
  2. Lando Calrissian is an old friend of Han’s, but he has lost his sense of loyalty; under duress he betrays our heroes, but when he realizes there’s no point trying to placate the Empire he decides to save them. Lando’s conflict is also very important for driving the plot forward. And the discovery that Lando has betrayed them isn’t just a change in course, but actually rewrites our understanding of what had been happening during the current story line. As a result, we the audience also feel betrayed and lied to because we thought our heroes had found a sort of safe harbor.

But the character conflicts in The Last Jedi often take the form of “the audience isn’t 100% sure how we feel about someone”, rather than these reversals that truly drive the plot forward – or if they do, we’re not emotionally invested in the relationships and the values that are being betrayed so much as watching the plot take a left turn.

There were a few times I really felt the Star Wars tingles running down my spine. But to be honest, some of the jokes and the attempts at humor really broke it for me. Some moments that should have been sacred were interrupted with what seemed like an attempt at Guardians Of The Galaxy-type lightheartedness. Just when I thought I was getting into it… nope. The Jedi are a religious order 1,000 generations old, but this movie didn’t really seem to care, and I really never got close to feeling the sense of wonder I experienced as a boy watching Luke channel the force for the first time. So there was no Jar-Jar and barely a peep from C3PO; great. What we got instead is the Last Jedi in the galaxy cracking jokes during Jedi training (which, I might remind you, doubles as induction into an ancient religious order). Is this any better than Jar-Jar and C3PO? I honestly can’t tell.

All in all, I finished the the movie pretty bored. I’m happy that we have some story lines where Black and Asian characters – and plenty of women – have their own worth, their own authority, their own meaning. But I’m left feeling like… what a low standard we have set for ourselves, that in 2017 I have so few sci-fi and fantasy movies to choose from that we have to choose between well-crafted storytelling and characters more representative of the world we live in.

Update: Here’s an excellent article about one of the interesting trope-defying character arcs of The Last Jedi. (Lots of spoilers in that article.) It presents a good counterweight to one of my concerns about “characters we’re just not sure about.” I present it here for a few reasons:

  1. It’s a great illustration of this idea that diversity and representation in casting and storytelling isn’t just about some kind of quest for political correctness. In this case, we get to see an interesting character who is not quite what we expect, and not quite what one of our heroes expects either, contributing to their character development arc. “Diversity” is really just good storytelling.
  2. The piece of the story here actually kind of speaks to one of the concerns I have with the film: I like the thematic thing, but I thought the craft was off. I didn’t love the acting; I didn’t think the relationships this character apparently had with other characters in the film were shown or explained in a way that was compelling on an emotional level, and so the way this person’s story worked out didn’t hit home for me as much as I wish it had.
  3. One critique on the film that has been nagging at me more and more since I first wrote this piece is on display here: There actually is a deep, emotional story to be told, but they didn’t tell it. The story was great but the screenplay left a lot on the table. The way this article describes friendships and emotions and the characteristics of the different players in the film is far more compelling than what actually played out of the silver screen.

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