Movie Review: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi

I decided to take on both of these films simultaneously because I didn’t have much to say when the first sequel came out. I wanted to see where the writers would go with it. Having now seen The Last Jedi and (unlike some of my friends) enjoyed it, I thought I’d share the thoughts of a 41-year fan. Fair warning: Major plot spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen either film yet and plan to, you might want to punt on reading this blog.

My relationship with the Star Wars franchise

Okay, all you folks who are still with me, can we talk?

If you’ve read this blog or my previous blog, you know I’ve been attached to the Star Wars franchise since the ripe old age of seven. I’ve watched the films an unhealthy number of times, read several of the books, and more importantly for me, wrote my own stories and a terrible novel set in that universe. I love those characters (Gen Xer here talking about Han, Luke, and Leia, not the prequels). I love that universe. While I might be an anti-prequel snob, I’m not religious about the movies. I don’t look to them for deep insights on spirituality, ethics, history, or politics. I go for the spectacle, the entertainment, and perhaps a bit of magical storytelling. My favorite character was (and is) Han Solo, who was just about the only realist in the bunch. I don’t dress as a Jedi in my free time, though I’ve had wistful thoughts about purchasing a Han Solo vest or jacket now and then.

And yes, I took it a bit personally that Mr. Lucas created such clunky, awkward, albeit visually impressive (if distracting) films preceding his original highly successful trilogy. Even with the late Carrie Fisher’s help as “script doctor,” Episodes I-III clunk along with dialogue that makes the original trilogy sound like Shakespeare by comparison. I left my DVDs of the prequel films in Huntsville prior to my last move because I refuse to waste any more time with those stories.

All this is to say, while I loved the original trilogy, I was supremely skeptical about Episode VII, The Force Awakens, when it came out a couple years ago. So let’s dive into my thoughts.

Episode VII: The Force Awakens

This film was almost entirely derivative of the first movie (meaning the 1977 Star Wars, not Episode I). I could nitpick it to death, but others have done a splendid job for me already. There are any number of reasons to dislike TFA, but the scary part is that I didn’t.

While JJ Abrams recreated what is now Episode IV, he also managed to write non-groan-inducing dialogue and to hire three talented young actors who deliver their lines and action sequences with gusto and (here’s the key word) charm. You could make a case for Ewan MacGregor portraying young Obi-wan Kenobi well and Liam Neeson as his doomed mentor with his usual aplomb and charm. I had to watch a couple other movies to discover that Natalie Portman could act, engagingly and with emotional sensitivity. I’ve not seen Hayden Christensen in anything else. I will give him a Mulligan on the lines he was given to say. I can’t forgive him for delivering them badly.

But wow, I like Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac! Given a better script and better direction, they made me remember some of the things I liked about the original trilogy, the primary thing being my love of the characters. So I bought in, despite the villain with the temper tantrums who kills his own father, despite the derivative script. Much like working for a good manager or with likable colleagues in a crappy job, I’ll forgive a lot if the people are likable.

We end with Han Solo dead, the budding Jedi-from-nowhere Rey presenting the reclusive Luke Skywalker with his own lightsaber, the injured Finn being repaired by the Resistance (renamed Rebel Alliance), and hot pilot Poe Dameron ready to head off for another adventure. Great! What’s next?

The Last Jedi

My biggest fear about Episode VIII: The Last Jedi was that they would recreate The Empire Strikes Back much the way TFA recreated A New Hope. While there are some resonances/reflections of Episode V, I’d still call TLJ a different animal.

Similarities to Empire

Yes, the Resistance is on the run from the First Order (the Empire reborn). Yes, the young Jedi-from-nowhere goes in search of a Jedi Master. But so what? Those were to be expected. There’s also a scene where the evil Jedi, Kylo Ren (a.k.a. Ben Solo) asks Rey to join him and offers to complete her Jedi training. But soon after that, things start getting interesting.

Differences from Empire

The battle sequence between Rey and Ren (and then, eventually Snoke, Ren’s evil master) starts to reveal the critical differences between TLJ and ESB. For example, we actually encounter Snoke on the screen as opposed to him being a partially seen presence as the Emperor was in Empire. Where things got interesting for me is where Rey and Ren actually join forces against Snoke’s guards and then (yep, not pulling any punches on spoilers here), kills the supreme bad guy in the “middle” episode. Mind you, Rey goes back to the “good” side eventually and things proceed on course. But that opened some intriguing possibilities for the next film.

Outguessing the fanboys

One of the things I enjoyed about the script of TLJ was its upending or debunking of quite possibly every stupid fan theory I’d read online prior to the film being released:

  • Rey is the offspring of:
    • Han and Leia
    • Obi-wan Kenobi and…someone
    • Luke Skywalker and…someone…NO. She turns out to be a nobody from nowhere–that’s important, I’ll come to it later.
  • We’re meant to learn something significant about Rey finding and presenting Luke’s own lightsaber to him…NO. Luke finally takes it from her and tosses it over his shoulder.
  • Snoke is actually…someone from the original trilogy or prequels. NO…Snoke is just the guy in charge of the First Order.

Et cetera. There were so many expectations slathered onto this film, much like the prequels, but this time instead of disappointing those expectations (in my view), the screenwriters simply upended them, or turned them on their head.

Huzzah for the screenwriters! All the fan theories were incorrect! I can’t help wondering if that’s really why everyone who has hated The Last Jedi has been so upset. They didn’t use my theory/story!

The new direction for the series

The Last Jedi did some fun things for me. By making Rey a nobody from nowhere, they once again broadened the possibilities for who could use the force and for what. (I myself still hope to use the force to remotely fetch myself a beer from the fridge.) There’s a tantalizing glimpse of a slave child on Canto Bight at the end of the film using the force to levitate a broom his direction. So there might be more Jedi out there than we think.

This is great if you happen to follow the Star Wars critiques of David Brin, who has been well-nigh merciless about the films for a decade or so. He complains that the Star Wars films turned out to be only about saviors or people with special powers/bloodlines using the force rather than it being something anyone, anywhere could use given enough training. That democratizes the force and opens up the Star Wars galaxy to more interesting characters and storylines because you don’t just have to be born with it.

Luke Skywalker’s throwing away of the lightsaber is almost a bold statement that “We’re stealing from Dune once again!” If you read the first three or four books of Frank Herbert’s original Dune saga, you realize that one of his primary narrative purposes was to de-mythologize the “great man” or the “messianic hero.” What do we find when we see Luke Skywalker for the first time in 20+ years? He’s grumpy, he’s sullen, he tosses away the lightsaber of his youth. He tries to shoo Rey away from him. He doesn’t want anything more to do with the hero business. Sounds like an embittered Paul Atreides in Dune Messiah or Children of Dune. He’s all about preventing another cycle of damage and destruction from following the Jedi, much like Leto Atreides II in God Emperor of Dune.

“The force doesn’t belong to the Jedi,” Luke tells Rey.

In a similar fashion, in God Emperor of Dune, Leto II is striving (sorry, I’m throwing out spoilers left and right here, but there’s a method to my madness) to make human beings invisible to “the oracle.” Leto wants humanity to be free of worshipping all-powerful leaders with future-seeing powers. Director Rian Johnson is trying to free the Star Wars galaxy of dependence on the Jedi.

I’d also add this: renunciation has been a recurring behavior of Luke Skywalker. Rather than join Vader in Empire or strike him down for the Emperor’s entertainment in Return of the Jedi, he jumps down an air shaft or tosses his lightsaber aside. Luke isn’t about hate, nor is he particularly interested in power. In TLJ he stages one final battle–from multiple star systems away–and then fades away. You kind of feel that’s the way he’d want to go in the first place, don’t you? I did. I found his departure fitting.

I understand this is a minority view. That’s fine. It’s my view, and I look forward to watching this film again.

The film is not perfect, and it drags in places–it could’ve been about 20 minutes shorter with no harm to the script. There’s a scene that’s flat-out sentimental and stupid–Rose’s last-second deflection of Finn–and I’m not sure how they managed to save Leia from hard vacuum when the actress portraying her actually became one with the force last December. No matter. I look forward to seeing what Episode IX brings. There are new possibilities to look for, new mysteries. The Jedi are being demystified, bringing more mysteries to ordinary people.

I for one am thrilled.

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