‘THE LAST JEDI’: The FOTS Roundtable

Brian, Manu, and David go in-depth on Episode VIII. Spoilers ahoy.

MANU: I’ll admit, I still haven’t come down from the film. This is the Star Wars moviegoing experience I’ve been pining for since The Phantom Menace was first announced over 20 years ago. The Last Jedi offers the duality I’ve craved: paying homage to the tone and aesthetic of the original films while taking the story and the mythology into a new (and perhaps controversial) direction, all on the backs of well-rounded characters and stellar performances.

Perhaps that’s where we should begin.  Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are powerful in their portrayals of Kylo Ren and Rey, but it is Mark Hamill’s performance that resonated with me most. Luke Skywalker is a seminal hero in modern canon, and his importance both within the universe and without has a gravity nearly unmatched by any other character.  Hamill carries that weight with aplomb, equal parts the legend of the Rebellion and the failure he would become thereafter, all with the fate of the Jedi hinging on how he spends his last days. I always felt Hamill was the weakest part of the main cast in the OT, and had some worries coming into this film which would so heavily lean on his performance. But he rose to the occasion, putting a punctuation mark on his character’s arc while handing off the reins of the franchise to Rey.  Did the long-awaited return of Luke Skywalker work for you, Brian? And how did you feel about the rest of the cast?

BRIAN: I imagine we’re going to disagree about this movie (which I still liked) a lot, but not here. Mark Hamill was legitimately great, as were Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. I was less enthused with the rest of the cast, not so much by their performances, and more in how they were used. It truly felt like they were just wasting time with John Boyega. This movie’s pacing is a real problem for me, and part of that is how heightened and ridiculous everything Finn did in this movie was. I loved Boyega. I love Benicio Del Toro. I really liked Kelly Marie Tran. Nothing they did in this movie meant anything, and it might have been a tighter, more enjoyable film without them in it.

Before we talk about the overall look of the movie (which I loved), I want to hammer home just how insanely edited it really was. I think the best thing a filmmaker can do is have the final act of their movie keep viewers on the edge of their proverbial seats. The Last Jedi did that for me, insofar as it gave me a panic attack. It was like the last 45 minutes of Return of the King, except every potential ending was more and more ridiculous and outlandish, with the movie spiraling out of control until people were dying left and right.

But we’ll talk about that.

DAVID: I knew going in, just from our Twitter conversations last night, that Brian was going to be the Hux today. And I’m honestly fine with that — Rian Johnson made a surprisingly personal film, and made a lot of bold storytelling choices, and not all of them are going to work for everyone. Heck, not all of them worked for me. I enjoyed the Canto Bight interlude in the moment, but as the third act unfolded, I realized how inessential it was. Near as I can tell, it served only three purposes: to get Finn on the ship so he could fight Phasma (another poorly-used minor character, or have we just overhyped her because it’s Gwendolyn Christie?); to set up…something with Del Toro’s character in Episode IX (I hope); and for the payoff of the film’s coda, with the cute kid and the broom and the decoder ring. I actually found that really affecting, especially in context of how the film retconned a bit on just who has access to the Force, and how. Nevertheless, it’s one of the marks fans can strike against a film that I thought was otherwise airtight.

We can all agree, though, that the Luke/Rey/Kylo stuff was magnificent, and, fortunately, the heart of the film. What was you guys’ reaction to Kylo’s decision to take out Snoke, and what followed? Was there ever any doubt for you that he and Rey would remain opposed by the time the credits rolled?

MANU: I got goosebumps a few times during this movie, but no more so than for Kylo killing Snoke. Johnson tipped off that Kylo was going to pull some sleight of hand, but I did not expect Snoke to fall then and there. Remarkably, it both called back to Han’s death in The Force Awakens and declares that this is going to be something new, with no Palpatine-esque figure looming over our main characters.  And man, that battle with Kylo and Rey against the Imperial(?) Guard was a sight to behold; Rey and Kylo’s flawless teamwork against the red backdrop might be my favorite setpiece in the Star Wars universe. There were at least three audible “holy shits” in the audience when Rey threw Kylo the lightsaber and he ignited it right into a guard’s face. And with the new weapons that Snoke’s guard utilized, the language of the action was new and refreshing.

I came into this film expecting “something new,” so in that moment I really thought we might lose the Resistance and set up an Episode IX with Rey and Kylo set to take down the First Order on their own.  This was buoyed by the several scenes we see Kylo and Rey connect via the Force, hinting at a team up. But looking back, this was the right call for Kylo’s character, as the killing of Snoke and then pleading with Rey really brings forth the conflict of light and dark within him. And it gives him a lot of “heat” (to borrow some wrestling parlance) going into Episode IX as the Big Bad.

I really loved the climax of the film; instead of ending on a giant space battle or lightsaber duel, it was built off character moments. Rey’s use of the Force, Kylo’s mistake, and of course Luke’s illusion. It’s a use of the Force we’ve never seen before, but it worked for me as Luke used every last bit of his power before fading away like his mentors before him. After Rey earlier saying the Jedi basically use the Force to move stuff and not much else, it felt rewarding to see a new tool in the box used to pay it off. But I realize the expansion of the Force mythos and what Jedi can do is not as well received by others. Did the ending work for you guys? And what are your thoughts on the “new” powers of the Force we witnessed?

BRIAN: Before I go too hard on this movie, I can say that the things I liked about it excited me a lot more than anything in The Force Awakens, which was just sort of pleasantly enjoyable and inoffensive. 

Turning Kylo into the Jacen Solo I always knew he was going to be worked perfectly, but I think killing Snoke like that is something that sounds great on paper, as a way to undermine those old Star Wars tropes, but as I said on Twitter, there’s a big difference between undermining a trope and actually deconstructing it. It’s something that looked cool in the moment, but maybe doesn’t make sense for the story as a whole. That whole sequence, where Rey and Kylo fought off the Guards, was great, but also extremely gory and violent, which doesn’t really mesh with anything else in the film and just added to the tonal schizophrenia of the whole thing. Like, it was cool, but also maybe not appropriate for a kid’s movie where people keep talking about keeping hope alive and working together and being great friends to have an extended sequence where people are getting chopped into thousands of pieces and blood is flying out.

As I said, I don’t to want be too negative. I loved everything about Kylo and Rey (and especially that weird expressionistic sequence where Rey jumped into the giant evil butthole and had weird visions). I’m more confused by this film than upset or disappointed by it. I don’t understand why it was edited the way it was. I don’t understand why they killed off some characters but left certain others perfectly fine, despite, you know, the actress in question being incapable of ever reappearing.

I think in the end, my biggest problem with The Last Jedi is that it seemed more interested in tricking me than it did actually surprising me. Very little of the “bold, inventive” stuff was actually new for Star Wars, and in trying VERY HARD to not be The Empire Strikes Back, it ended up being just as enslaved to nostalgia as The Force Awakens ever was.

Also I’d ask what new force powers you’re referring to, Manu. Astral projection, or whatever we’re calling that, is hardly a new concept in Star Wars, which is something we can talk about more when we get into spoiler territory.

DAVID: Yeah, let’s get into that. We need to talk about the Skywalkers. I admit, I thought for more than one heartbeat that Leia was a goner when she was blown into the vacuum of space — my mind was whirring a thousand miles an hour wondering if it was a late change to the story — and then she used a sweet Force power we’ve never seen before to make her way back. And while astral projection itself isn’t new to this universe, we haven’t really seen it done this way, where Kylo and Rey or Luke and Leia can make physical contact. If the story didn’t require Luke to make that last stand on the salt flats against Kylo, wouldn’t he have just had that faint blue glow, like Yoda did? (Also: YODA! HOW GREAT WAS YODA, YOU GUYS??)

The reveal in the final sequence that Luke was still on Ahch-To and, having attempted to close the loop the best way he could, was going to simply dissipate like Yoda and Obi-Wan before him, was a heartbreaker. Ultimately, Luke was a failure. And the old way of the Jedi with him. (Failure’s basically the theme of the movie!) But his final act was all to give Rey the chance to one day build a better world. It made sense for the character, who was far too sick of this shit to be more than an advice-doling Force Ghost for Episode IX, but it was surprising that the Skywalker Saga was coming to a definitive close so soon. Couple that with Fisher’s untimely passing, and the final installment will be, for all practical purposes, without the main trio from the original films. That’s the hardest news to swallow of all, even if the film’s major theme was “letting old things die” so something new — new stories, a new world — can be born.

So Episode IX definitely begins with Leia’s funeral, right?

MANU: I think David nailed my thrust on new powers; we haven’t seen the astral projection quite on that level, and a giant Force pull from Leia was on a scale we haven’t seen (dare I hope for a Rey/Kylo lightsaber duel in space?).  And Leia’s funeral is a perfect spot to start the next film, which may be set a couple years down the road after this one pretty much picked up where The Force Awakens left off (and the opening scroll suffered for it, since there really isn’t much that takes place in the interim).

Moving into some final thoughts, I did want to touch on Rey’s parents, revealed to be some no-name junkers who ditched Rey on Jakku years ago. Personally I was a proponent of this approach, as I feel the singular focus on a few small Jedi families betrays the scope of this story and the essence of the Force. By ironing out these incongruencies, Rey’s talents derive not from her bloodlines, but from the work and training she put in to become the titular “last Jedi.” This also helps push the Star Wars saga past the Skywalker family as Kathleen Kennedy, Rian Johnson, and company start looking past Episode IX.

Oh, and a shout out to Holdo hyperspacing through Snoke’s ship to save the Resistance fleet. The visuals combined with the silence really took my breath away, and ranks among the coolest moments in these movies for me.

How did you guys feel about the Rey reveal? And any other closing ponderings on this movie or the future of Star Wars?

BRIAN: Okay, so it’s good we can talk about Luke’s death now. As a singular moment, it was great, as was the way the conflicting stories he and Kylo told Rey about the night the New Jedi Order died, but at the end of a third act that is, charitably, a gigantic fucking mess tonally, it just kind of felt like another thing that happened. Especially after the movie spent so much time teasing out his and/or Leia’s deaths. ESPECIALLY with the several major character deaths that took place right before it. It felt…unimportant. Like a minor plot point. Which is how a lot of Jedi felt (mainly everything that happened with Finn or Poe). It was like every choice made about the movie was made either to openly trick viewers (the Luke vs. Kylo scene was cool, but let’s be honest, it was first and foremost a giant misdirection), or to make sure this movie was as unlike Empire as possible.

So instead of being a carbon copy of a previous movie, doomed to live forever in its shadow like TFA, Jedi in the end felt like a movie trying so hard to not be a carbon copy of a previous movie that it’s still doomed to live forever in its shadow. It did look great**, though, as good as any movie in this series since Empire (in my opinion, the best looking movie ever made). The decision to kill Snoke and slot Kylo Ren into the main antagonist role is probably going to work out, but it just really unbalanced the whole movie.

So in the end, it’s certainly an interesting experience. I don’t even think I really hated it more than it just confused me. It’s a mess, which I suppose is an improvement over being vaguely enjoyable or vaguely boring, which the previous two new movies were certainly guilty of. The gore was really off-putting, and the idea of a dark, morally ambiguous Star Wars is undercut both by the fact that that’s been done a lot better before* and by it not really committing to that idea by having all the heroes be selfless, generally vapid and shallow character tropes brought to life a bit by some good acting.

*Directly comparing these new movies to the 10% of the Expanded Universe that is actually good would be unfair if not for these movies directly lifting plot points, character arcs and sometimes straight up assets from the New Jedi Order book or Knights of the Old Republic game series.

**Yoda looked awful. Like, really bad. They tried to make him look like he did in Empire, and it did not come off well. Also, he (and Luke) were written to be way too quippy. They both sometimes sounded like people from our universe who got dropped into the middle of a Star Wars movie and had to let the audience know how wild and crazy it was. Using Yoda here was a really shitty decision to me, except for that it got Frank Oz paid, which is always good.

Anyways, that’s enough out of me.

DAVID: I have to say, your critique of Yoda is the first that’s really thrown me, because I thought he was a home run. I absolutely want to close this on a positive note, even though I think this discussion has been representative on where fandom is landing on the film. It’s certainly more polarizing than I expected. But to circle back to one of Manu’s points, I also was thrilled that the big Mystery Box of Rey’s parentage was…empty. Thrown off the cliff, like Luke’s lightsaber. J.J. Abrams is going to have an interesting time working out how much of his original setup he wants to maintain, now that Johnson has torched a lot of it (Who is Snoke? Who cares?) Rey’s just Rey, and her ordinariness is more inspiring than the bloodline roulette that consumed the fandom since her first appearance. Like the ordinariness of Rose Tico, who gets to gleefully destroy the pleasure palace of her old masters. These decisions carry emotional weight even if we struggle with the plot mechanics.

I think time is going to be much kinder to The Last Jedi than it already has been to Force Awakens and Rogue One (films I still enjoy immensely), but the bottom line is that all three have brilliantly executed elements that push the flaws to the background. With TFA, its was the casting, and the giddy energy of being back in this universe. With Rogue One, it’s obviously the film’s climax. And here, for my money it’s the the most character-driven success, the triumvirate of Rey, Luke, Kylo Ren. I love the Rashomon-style explanation of the night the latters’ relationship was broken, and how they have taken their own guilt and resentment from it. I’m more eager to see how that plays out than the fate of the Resistance, which, honestly, is a nice problem to have. These are wildly successful, indelible characters, and now we have to see if Abrams can do the one thing he’s never done: land the plane.

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