For my 500th Review, I’m doing the one movie I swore never to touch.
There are wars! In the stars!
Right after the end of the last film, the First Order attacks the Resistance base. General Leia Organa (Carrie “on, dear wayward space mom” Fisher) orders the base to evacuate. It turns out that the First Order can track them, so the evacuation doesn’t do much more than buy time. Leia gets shot into space, but manages to save herself through Force Pulling in Zero Gravity (any other explanation is terrible). Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura “I Kissed Ellen” Dern) takes over while she recovers. Running out of fuel, the rest of the fleet tries to outrun the First Order.
Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy “Not Peach” Ridley) attempts to talk Luke Skywalker (Hey Kids, It’s Mark Hamill) into helping the Resistance, but he declines to aid and believes that the Jedi Order needs to end. He ends up agreeing to give Rey some lessons in the Force. Rey finds herself communicating with Kylo Ren (Adam “I’m trying harder than everyone else” Driver) using the Force despite not really understanding how. It’s revealed that Kylo Ren betrayed Luke after Luke contemplated killing Kylo after Snoke (Andy “Bread and” Serkis) started speaking with Kylo (how close he actually came is debated). Rey thinks she can save Kylo from the dark side, so she leaves. Luke is counseled by the spirit of Yoda (Frank “Miss Piggy” Oz) to learn from his failure.
Meanwhile to the meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar “The Grouch” Isaac) sends Finn (John “You ship them” Boyega), Rose the mechanic (Be nicer to Kelly Marie Tran, internet), and BB-8 to find a way to deactivate the First Order’s tracking device. They’re told that there is only one person in the Galaxy with the skills. They head to Canto Bight, the space Las Vegas, and don’t find that person, instead meeting a hacker who also has the skills in prison named DJ (Benecio Del Toro). Finn, Rose, and DJ infiltrate the First Order flagship and get captured by Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the only Stormtrooper with the budget for useful armor. Rey finds Kylo who brings her to Snoke, who claims he connected Rey and Kylo to find Luke.
Vice Admiral Holdo plans to evacuate the Resistance. Poe, thinking that’s the cowardly act, leads a mutiny that ends when Leia shoots him. Holdo stays on the main ship and tries to buy the evacuation time, but DJ betrays the people who he just met while in prison and tells the First Order what’s happening. The First Order blows up a bunch of the small ships that they’re using to evacuate. Snoke orders Kylo to kill Rey, but he kills Snoke instead. Rey and Kylo fight together, then against each other. Holdo sacrifices herself by accelerating to light speed and destroying the flagship, crippling the First Order fleet. Kylo takes over the First Order. Finn, Rose, and BB-8 kill Phasma then rejoin the Resistance survivors on planet Crait. Finn prepares to sacrifice himself to buy time, but Rose stops him.
Luke Skywalker appears before the First Order and confronts them, buying time for the Resistance to escape. Despite an army firing at him, Luke appears to be unscathed. Kylo Ren challenges him to a duel, but discovers that Luke is just a Force projection. Luke then passes away. On Canto Bight, a group of stablehands who helped Finn and Rose escape talk about the Resistance, and one uses the Force to move a broom. It never gets brought up again, but I’m sure the figurine for that kid sells for a lot.
So, I acknowledge that I was poisoned against this movie before I saw it. One of my family members called me after seeing the premiere and said “White. Ford. Bronco. Chase.” I knew it was a reference to the OJ Simpson police chase, but I didn’t understand what he meant at the time. Unfortunately, once I saw it, I couldn’t un-see it, because that’s what a lot of this movie is: a low-speed chase where the parties conveniently always maintain an enforced distance that doesn’t make sense. The focus on this element led me to join a bit of the crowd decrying this as a terrible film. However, I also disliked most of the groups of people that were crapping on the film, so I decided this would forever be the one film I would not give an opinion on.
Then, I had to think of something special to commemorate the 500th review, so congratulations to all of you for getting to hear my opinion about a movie that is now 3 years old and completely out of the zeitgeist. So, let’s get to it:
I once said that the closest thing I could get to my feelings on this film were contained in my review of the Breaking Bad episode “Fly.” That episode, also by Rian Johnson, is amazingly well-shot, contains some of the best interactions between the leads in the show, is perfectly performed, has some of the best dialogue in TV history, and completely destroys a lot of what the rest of the series built up. This movie is the same: It’s a great movie, but a terrible Star Wars film.
First, let’s say why this is a good movie.
Artistically, this is the best-shot Star Wars film. One of Rian Johnson’s strengths is his grasp of quality cinematography and this movie is no exception. Since its inspiration was in the Republic Serials of the 1930s and ‘40s, the franchise often had relied on the same kind of straight-forward camerawork with most of the beauty and art coming from the scenery and matte work. This film, instead, makes use of more dramatic framing and shot progression. Some of the scenes, particularly the fight scene in Snoke’s throne room and the silent shot following Holdo’s maneuver, are nothing short of beautiful. Even the scenes of the speeders on the salt plains are more visually stimulating than most of the settings of Star Wars.
In terms of dialogue, this film has a lot of great exchanges. The style is energetic, like The Force Awakens, but also has more willingness to play with itself. Rey and Kylo Ren’s exchanges are particularly well-done, with each using a linguistic style that represents their position. Rey uses emotional language while Kylo is blunter and more aggressive. It also has a lot of decent jokes that, if I wasn’t so blinded by rage during my first viewing, probably would have elicited a chuckle. Now, does it have any lines as good as The Empire Strikes Back? Well, no, but neither does most of the Criterion Collection and they’re still considered art.
In terms of performances… well, that’s tough. Star Wars is not Shakespeare and it’s not supposed to be (unless you read the Star Wars Shakespeare books). It always is meant to have a pulp feel, with characters who are more wildly expressive, like Han Solo. In that sense, everyone does a great job except for Adam Driver, who unfortunately thought he was in a much, much more sophisticated film. Seriously, he has a level of subtlety that is generally overlooked by these kinds of films, and while it’s impressive, it’s also somewhat jarring. However, that’s what Alec Guinness did for the original trilogy, so there’s precedent and therefore it’s okay.
Really, from a critic’s point of view so far, this movie has all of the basics down solidly. Unfortunately, we have to shift from my position as critic to my position as Star Wars fan.
Interestingly, one of the things that actually makes this a solid film is the exact thing that makes it bad as a franchise movie: Subversion of expectations. This movie thrives on trying to avoid giving the audience what they think they deserve and instead tries to give them something new and challenging. Since The Force Awakens was mostly a retread of something that even the movie pointed out had already been done twice, this really wasn’t a bad idea. The problem is that this film attempted to subvert EVERYTHING and it came off less as challenging the audience and more as profaning the franchise it was supposed to continue.
Some of the things this movie challenged really deserved to be subverted. Star Wars has always been a big example of a cultural submission to the “Great Man” theory of history and societal progress. In all of the original films, and even the prequels, great Galactic conflicts largely boil down to a few personalities that end up doing almost all of the work and they’re almost all from the same family. As opposed to saying “there are chosen ones in this lineage which basically decide the fate of the masses,” this movie takes the opposite position and says that the masses themselves ARE the power and that lineage means nothing. That’s why at the end of the movie they suggest that Force users can come from anywhere and that’s why it was so important for Rey to actually have parents who were nobodies (to be undone in the next film for reasons I’ll cover below). This is a great subversion that is representative of how Western society has shifted since the Republic Serials which inspired the original film and supports the more diverse casting in the film. The movie contains a number of scenes which debate whether the past should be destroyed in order to create something better and whether revering the past as an ideal leads to replicating the mistakes. This is a great theme that challenges the nature of a franchise and, if that were all the movie did, I think it would have made this the equal of every Star Wars film except maybe Empire.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing that it did. Instead, Rian Johnson also decided to highlight some things that, while they may have been dumb, were parts of the franchise that everyone had already accepted. A large part of the film is dependent on the fact that the fleet is short on fuel, something that A) makes no sense considering they’re a rebellion that had long been based on the planet and B) has never really been an issue in Star Wars to begin with. This was likely supposed to be a shot at creating arbitrary new rules to heighten tension that seem illogical, like forcing the X-wings to do a trench run rather than just shooting at the Death Star from the outside. Similarly, Finn and Rose run into the single person who is capable of doing the job they need by complete coincidence, a shot at how characters in Star Wars will coincidentally be in the same place as the person they need to find (like Luke landing near Yoda despite only being told to go to the Dagobah System). Most famously, and perhaps insultingly, Holdo accelerates to lightspeed and, using relativistic physics, proves that to be an incredibly powerful attack that devastates larger enemies, something that apparently no one in Star Wars had ever thought of doing. These are all just exaggerations of elements that were already in the series, but they were elements that we had already accepted as part of our suspension of disbelief in this universe. By trying to subvert or attack them, this seemed less like a “commentary,” and instead more like an assault on the people who liked the previous films.
Then there’s how the film treated some of the previous characters. I’m willing to ignore Leia’s flying, because I refuse to acknowledge the difference between that and a Force pull or Force jump in zero gravity. However, I’m less willing to ignore the fact that when Leia awoke to find that Poe Dameron was literally leading a mutiny, that she basically just knocks him out and says “okay, well, lesson learned.” She’s a General and should know better than that how you handle failures to follow chains of command. It undermines her position as leader. Also, not telling Poe the plan in the first place is ridiculous and unnecessary. Luke Skywalker’s self-imposed exile is selfish and born out of his own shame, but that’s not actually crazy given that he spent an entire trilogy overcoming his anger and impulse issues only to falter and give in when facing Kylo’s power. While Luke denies the version of the night where he attacks Kylo first, the fact is that he may be deceiving himself, something that actually explores interesting new paths with the character. Unfortunately, at the end of the film, rather than see Luke actually try to correct his error, we instead see him play an elaborate game to buy time and then die from the effort… somehow. It undercut most of the progress that Luke made in the original trilogy and denied him another opportunity.
If the film had only done a few of these things, this would probably have been an amazing experience, having enough familiarity to feel loyal but also challenging the status quo. However, since it decided to do all of them, it felt like a rejection of the franchise and of the fans who support it. As someone who spent a LOT of their childhood, teen years, adulthood, and probably future on this franchise, that makes me naturally opposed to it. On the other other hand… This didn’t do midichlorians, so let’s not pretend it’s the worse thing.
If you made it all the way to this part of the review, thank you for reading and thank you for supporting me through 500 reviews.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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