For a film that’s been out for two weeks; honestly, if your only driving desire to view a film or read a book is “whodunnit,” there is an entire genre of literature made for you. JJ Abrams’ work relies an awful lot on the concept of the “mystery box” (more on that in a minute), and that’s just creative laziness.
In case you’ve been living under a rock since Jon Favreau’s reveal of Iron Man at Comic Con in 2007 (yes, I was there), you’re likely aware of the rise of nerd culture, and you’re likely aware that there are some definitely corrosive aspects of that culture (including, but certainly not limited to sexism and male fragility), but the big one — the original sin of nerd culture, if you will — is gate-keeping. Someone, somewhere, always has to chime in on how this version of Spider-Man, or Star Trek, or whatever, isn’t the true vision preached by Our Lord and Savior, Jack Kirby. Until 20-ish years ago, I think that this was fairly harmless and almost invited by a sense of being ignored. Who cares if some wimps at Debate Club are poisonously arguing about whether Picard or Kirk is better? No one cares, it’s not going to matter in the long-run. Except nerds are now in charge of pop culture, which means that we are now living in a theocratic, fundamentalist society. It’s just that, instead of trivial issues like whose deity is real or whether women are people, too; we now have pop-cultural gate-keepers. Which means that there are now people invested in both the status quo and revolution. Sometimes in the same franchise. This is where all the contradictory opinions on this film come into play. People seem to either hate it, or love it; not many people seem to take a more nuanced view.
This looks like a job for me.
So, is this an awful film? Yes. Is it a great film? Also, yes. The most-accurate summary of this film is, it’s a superior Star Wars film to all of the prequels, it’s on-par with Return of the Jedi, but it also has many, many problems ranging from “minor” (How do they breathe on the surface of a Star Destroyer?) to, “yikes” (Kelly Tran is only in this film for, like three minutes). It feels more like a sequel to The Force Awakens than the third film in a trilogy. And, I think the root of that complaint lies within the tissue of the franchise itself, and the fan-dom that surrounds it.
A bit of necessary background about myself. I was, sadly, born after the original trilogy was released in theaters (a child born on the date A New Hope was released would now be old enough to have a mid-life crisis), although I am young enough to have owned the original, un-edited films on VHS (I use the idiom “young enough” because I’m aware that most Children of Star Wars can recall a time before VCRs were a consumer product owned by most Americans). I’ve read the spin-off novels. I’ve played most of the spin-off video games (it’s possible that Lucasfilm financed Revenge of the Sith with my childhood allowance). I waited five hours in line to see Phantom Menace. This would be mindless chatter at most dinner parties, but in 21st century cyberspace, establishing one’s credentials is a bigger deal than it should be. I’m saying all that so that it gives me a little intellectual credibility when I say that these are, originally, a weird, experimental set of films that were designed for people aged 10–14. And, I hate to admit it, but if you go back and watch the original films, they are not great films. They’re really good films, don’t get me wrong, but they aren’t worthy of the rabid fandom they’ve generated. If you look at A New Hope with an adult’s cynicism, you can definitely see a decent child’s fantasy flick grafted onto the skeleton of a very weird, indie experimental sci-fi flick. This is not an unimportant point, because if you look at Star Wars as a weird, experimental film franchise that somehow became a massive cultural phenomenon, other things start shifting into place.
Like the unbearably awful prequels. I’ll admit that a fair amount of my enjoyment of the current films is knowing that, no matter what I think of them, they won’t have Jar Jar Binks or vile Asian stereotypes (Nemoidians, anyone?). Which automatically improves them in a way only people who skipped home room to see Phantom Menace can appreciate. But, awful as they were, I have to admit that the weird, off-putting aspects of the prequels are in keeping with the general space-opera gibberish you see in the original film (I’m sure I’ll get tens of dozens of complaints for that criticism).
I loved Force Awakens, but I will admit it overly relied on dewy-eyed nostalgia and a willful disregard for the Ewoks and Salacious Crumb. That’s great for a single film, especially if it’s a “Welcome Back to School, Kids” thing, but it’s hard to use that sentiment to carry a trilogy. I really loved The Last Jedi, because it seemed to be intent on saying, “We love the original films, but it’s time to move forward.”
Apparently, a large chunk of toxic fandom finds wallowing in nostalgia to be preferable to new stuff, because all of the interesting risks Last Jedi made are largely ignored in favor of more nostalgia (that’s the “Why this is horrible” bit), but, the nostalgia is invoked and used masterfully in this film (that’s the “Why this is great” bit).
Among other risks that Last Jedi took was no overt romantic overtones between Daisy Ridley and the male leads, suggestions that there might be non-white humans in a galaxy far, far away, and killing off previously-established characters like Stormtroopers gunning down Jedi after Order 66. Naturally, there was a bit of backlash; however, unlike G. Lucas and just saying, “Meh; there’s no pleasing some people” and getting on with it; the studio canned the director and had him replaced by JJ Abrams, who helmed The Force Awakens. Force Awakens, you will recall, courted controversy by making an icky girl the lead, and not giving us any male Jedis (Jedi? What is the plural?).
And, in the most-bold departure from established fan canon, Last Jedi dared suggest that the universe is larger than Kentucky, and not everyone needs to be related to each other (seriously; I’ve been to family reunions that had less first-degree relatives than the entire Star Wars galaxy). Abrams walked back most of those gambles in an attempt to appeal to the core demographic. I get that, if you thought Last Jedi was better than Force Awakens, the sense of betrayal might tinge your viewing experience. Again; I didn’t skip a few meals to see the Gungans, so I’m just a little happy about that fact (the fact that there are no vaguely-racist novelty cartoon characters).
Having said that, all the best parts of Star Wars are on display here, but so are the worst parts (apart from a lack of cringe-worthy stereotypes; although we’re still awaiting biracial and/or LGBT couples in a galaxy far, far away)(although I would point out, again, that Kelly Tran is criminally down-played in this film)(one only hopes that this is because there’s a Rose Tico stand-alone film in the works). Every one is related. Rey is revealed to be — spoilers here — Emperor Palpatine’s grand-daughter. Palpatine is still alive, BTW, and what would be an entire Michael Crichton novella on Earth 616 (How does one come back from severe electrocution and explosion)(even Jesus only came back from a crucifixion) is entirely ignored here. Which brings me to a major complaint I have about this film (which is also representative of science fiction in general, but I didn’t see Blade Runner 2049 this afternoon; I saw Star Wars); the pacing is problematic, and there’s either too much pointless exposition, or none at all (kudos for carefully explaining the importance of killing the communications array on a space ship guys; I’d like to know how the people survived a high-atmosphere environment without helmets or space suits a little more, though). And the exposition is frequently inconsistent with previous films, or nonsensical (if Jedi can transfer life essence to others, why not just drop that into the first five minutes of film as a way to explain why the Emperor is still alive? “Yeah, I’m still alive because I’m a space vampire who’s been quietly devouring younglings for the last fifty years”). And the fight sequences are slow. Not as arduous as the aggressively awful Duel of the Fates scene, certainly, but I did find myself, at times, tempted to shout to Kylo Ren, “Just stab her, for God’s sake; she’s just twirling pointlessly!” And there is that JJ Abrams patented “mystery box” story-telling on full display at all times, which is great to start a new series (see Lost), but not a good way to tie up a story (see Lost). And there are gratuitous puppes/aliens/action-figure characters that don’t really do much for the story.
Also — and this is a big complaint — the first twenty minutes are just non-stop action-revelation sequences. They announce Emperor Palpatine’s resurrection in the title crawl. Then they cut to Kylo Ren landing on the Emperor’s Mystery Box Planet. Then, on to Finn and Poe contacting a Resistance spy and making a daring get away in the Millennium Falcon. Then, Rey training! That is the in the first half hour. I have never, ever wanted Fred Rogers to hit the “Pause” button on the projector, walk into the frame, and say, “Hello, boys and girls. It’s been a busy morning. Would you care to talk about it?” but I honestly felt like this film could use a ten-minute recess at the ten-minute mark.
And it’s a bit of a let-down that all the mysterious mysteries of mystery only pay off as, “Hey, the baddie from all the previous films is back, and he’s out to murder his grand-kids.” Yes. The only characters present in all the original films, prequels, and this film are Chewbacca, C3PO, R2D2, and Darth Sidious (I realize he’s not in Episode IV, work with me).
I assume all of this was made in response to toxic fans decrying the neoNazi villains, the subtle implications of a peaceful, multicultural, multi-ethnic society portrayed in a civilization with laser swords and faster-than-light travel, girls and their cooties handling light sabers, and Last Jedi’s suggestion that maybe your lineage and/or claim to the Iron Throne are not as important as what you do with your potential (you might think I’m joking; there are some folks out there who make me look normal).
Those are my main complaints; but they’re also valid complaints for most of Star Wars (that “Look at all the alien-y space aliens” aesthetic worked only for the Cantina scene, but they have a similar sequence in every Star Wars film). So, why is it worth the price of admission to see this film? Well, the nostalgia factor here is, as previously mentioned, omnipresent, and used masterfully.
How well-done is it? I hear no one asking. Well, there’s ten minutes of Carrie Fisher in it, which totally justifies the price of admission. There are a lot of instantly-recognizable settings and land-marks that will play well with die-hard fans (you can not tell me the finale of this film does not take place in the Valley of the Jedi). Kylo Ren finally dies. As does Darth Sidious. The final shot is of Rey returning to Luke Skywalker’s Tattooine homestead (which is kind of a nice nod to the concept, “Maybe romantic subplots aren’t the end-all, be-all to a series that is, largely, about peoples’ professional lives”). There are nostalgia-glazed shots of Bespin and the forest moon of Endor, too. There is no pod-racing. There are some subtle jabs about letting fringe extremist religious groups make policy (“This Final Order group sounds like a bunch of cultists”). I don’t like that it kind of quietly takes back several bigger risks from Last Jedi, but the film never feels like it fully retracts them or apologizes for them, so it’s not a complete loss on that front.
Do I like the film? Yes. Do I wish it had been a little more adventurous and doubled-down on The Last Jedi? Also yes. Do I feel like it was a good way to kill an afternoon? Also also yes.
Bottom line; the Interwebs are a chaotic info dump, and, chances are; you will know if you like this movie before you walk into the theater.
And, no matter what you feel about these sequels, at least there are no Goddamn gungans or interminable senate sub-committee negotiation sequences.