So I fulfilled my destiny and gave Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi not a watch so much as a long (2.5 hours), concerned stare. And it is with sad disappointment that I must say it continues what’s become a trend in this saga of sucking mightily; which, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t shitting all over something of priceless sentimental value.
To this day I conflate the battle with the AT-ACT Imperial Walkers (of which my parents gifted me a toy one of) in Empire Strikes Back on the icy Hoth planet with the eruption and ashen aftermath of Mount Saint Helens. I was an impressionable young kid at the time but I think I internalized the original episodes 4 – 6 for reasons similar to why millions if not billions of other children and adults alike have: it’s simply and beautifully relatable.
All the characters tap into existing archetypes making us already familiar with them. The brash “bad boy” (Han Solo) backed up by his unkempt, nerdy but reliable loyal sidekick (Chewbacca) and their shitty looking “sleeper” muscle car (Millennium Falcon) that is constantly breaking down. The droids played to a fat man (R2D2) and skinny man (C3PO) comedy duo tradition begun decades earlier by greats like Abbott and Constello and others. The young fool on a warriors quest to fulfill his destiny (Luke Skywalker) learning to fight from the old warrior hermit (Obiwan Kenobi) and learning about himself from the wise master (Yoda) before facing his nemesis (Darth Vader/Anikin Skywalker). The queen (Princess Leia) effectively managing with courage and grace this motley crew of misfits to ultimate success. Jabba the Hutt is your quintessential mob boss. And so on.
Are any of the characters introduced the new episodes or the prequels as easy to describe? Rey? Fin? Po? BB8? The only thing close to relatable, consistent or even interesting is Kylo Ren’s anger management issues stemming from parental problems and falling in with a bad element (Emperor Snoke) that’s exploiting him.
It is the interaction between simple characters that create complex and interesting stories that reflect aspects of ourselves. As Luke learns to recognize and struggle with the darkness inside him, as Han learns to become less selfish, when Vader’s ultimate self-sacrifice for his son redeems him, we become invested in and a part of these powerful narratives that the history of our humanity is interwoven with.
No such threads exist in the new episodes. The character development is so shoddy as to render the characters forgettable. And because we don’t know what’s motivating any of them, no cohesive story line ever emerges. It’s just a series of images that, if we had to come up with a backstory for each of them, we would probably do a far better job describing pro bono than an over-funded studio managed to.
It’s not difficult. This is a dystopian future in a galaxy far far away wherein a powerful authoritarian regime (The Empire) dominates a universe of rampant poverty and violence in which a small but wily disparate contingent (The Rebel Resistance) fights against their oppression. This familiar story of struggle continues to be played out around the world today. Ripe tales of heroism, tragedy and victory, the major arc of the Star Wars plot can write itself if it’s just left to be what it is.
But no, Last Jedi had to inject jarring subplots blatantly addressing social ills like systemic corruption, inequality and animal abuse that came off like preachy PSA’s than anything that moved the plot. These sorts of messages can and should be implied, layered in a way that doesn’t detract from the primary objectives. In New Hope, for instance, Luke’s uncle purchases his farming equipment from a thriving black market (that delivers!) which is how we’re introduced to Luke. Meanwhile, this could be argued as commentary on the role of poverty in kidnapping, trafficking, slavery and illegal immigration without getting in the way of an enjoyable movie experience.
It’s not that we don’t have all the elements of epic movies or the actors aren’t capable in the new episodes. They are. And that’s what’s particularly disappointing and infuriating about the failure of those tasked with putting these otherwise wonderful pieces together. The writing smacks of being micromanaged into grueling mash by too many cooks in the kitchen, few if any of whom evidently could prepare mac-n-cheese (probably severely overpaid “idea” types) much less produce the masterpiece they were charged with even with all the necessary ingredients. And this failure of management falls on Disney, though I fear it may be more feature than bug.
Basics like framing and lighting are ignored. The best scene in Last Jedi is the battle in Snoke’s chamber which, contrary to his predecessor’s, is brightly lit. So much for the “dark” side. If the lighting had been dimmed, the chamber would have appeared larger, Snoke more menacing and brilliantly contrasted the falling, flaming debris. Not to mention, a fantasic opportunity for a silhouetted scene between Rey and Kylo against the large windowed vista of space and the broken fleet outside.
In an age of CGI, I expect a land battle with AT imperial walkers to at least rival that which was produced with stop motion animated scale models and video effects 37 years ago in Empire Strikes Back. These new ATs resemble hulking robot apes with knuckled forelimbs. Putting them in a battle where they were climbing over the mountainous terrain, grabbing ships with those huge fists, to get at rebels trying to escape through and attack them from rocky cracks and valleys would have been a natural fit. But no. Not even close to anything that spectacular. They just slowly lumber across a salt flat, shooting at rebels who are flying and shooting at them. The stupid rebels get wasted. None of the ATs even get scratched. No strategy is revealed by either party.
Over the last 40 years, talented and inspired artists and writers have contributed to the Star Wars universe books, graphic novels, interactive games, animated productions and more fan art than can be cataloged. With this wealth of material at their beck and call – seriously, who wouldn’t be honored to receive a little scratch for the opportunity to contribute to one of the episodes? – Lucas and Disney didn’t have to make up anything new … but they did and what they did blows!
And fans of the franchise knows it blows. Even Mark Hamill has been somewhat critical of the Master Jedi Luke Skywalker he was written to play in the movie.
Rogue One, while unremarkable, was enjoyable. Better than Force Awakens. I had guarded optimism for Last Jedi, no hope left for whatever becomes of Episode IX. But there are more of these Star Wars movies coming out and while that’s welcome news on one hand after so long without, on the other they’re being produced like cheap replicas for a cash grab rather than anything that can possibly stand the test of time. We’re being fed this garbage for short term gain whereas if Disney would take the time and put in the effort they used to on a production then they could release a work of art that would make them many times more profit well into the future.
Alas, I feel a tremor in The Force, as though millions of fans cried out in bitter disappointment and then stopped paying to see to this overproduced, underwhelming waste of everything once holy and good. Consumed and shat out, Disney will pick clean the bones of Star Wars before locking them in a vault never to seen much less resurrected by anyone more worthy again. It’s then that Star Wars’ journey to the dark side will be complete. Until then, Disney will force us to watch it suffer and die.
The next epic to resonate like Star Wars did will not come from the likes of Disney or their big industry peers. It will come from an independent filmmaker once again.
Credit: Image by Ralph McQuarrie