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My Regrettable ‘The Last Jedi’ Review

When the Internet is Forever … or Regrets? I’ve Had a Few.

It’s been more than a year since The Last Jedi came out, and we’re halfway to the next chapter in the Disney sequel trilogy. My original review is still up on this site. I gave it a tepid positive review. I don’t regret all of my review. I think I very pointedly complained that it was, to be kind, a mess of meandering, mediocre movie-making. I also didn’t want to pick at too many plot points for preventing spoilers at that time.

My biggest regret is that I defended, quite incorrectly, that the movie was respectful of the Force and StarWars-y things. I have no excuse. My reasons for doing this are probably a mixture of giving the movie too much credit from past good will, and perhaps a bit of a moment of shock of looking on the bright side after watching StarWars fade like so many neuminal Lukes into dual sunsets.

The Last Jedi has become a bit of a polemic by itself. Much more iconic than its status as a part of the StarWars saga, it is now really a symbol of where entertainment is going in the conglomerate age, and how far large entities can push their fans, via social media, before they break their trust.

I will get this out of the way. I gave positive reviews to the way The Force is used in the Disney sequels out of a sense of nostalgia. While The Force Awakens also suffers looking back with a critical eye, I thought JJ Abrams at least was true to much of the aesthetic which made StarWars so memorable. I will give him that. I did enjoy a lot of The Force Awakens, and I don’t regret enjoying it for what it was. But I see Disney as having duped the fans, exploiting and mocking their nostalgia and enthusiasm. Shame on them and those who enable them.

My tl;dr gripe with The Last Jedi:

  1. The movie is not well plotted or well directed. You could excise Rose and Finn’s arc from the entire film and lose nothing in particular. The Crait scene at the end makes no sense. At several points characters go unconscious in order to transition to the next scene. Characters have to get to a particular location because the plot requires it, and they are constantly able to just be in the right place regardless of guards or distance or any other obstacles.
  2. So, if the goal was to introduce more women into significant roles, they had two new female characters in Holdo and Rose who were just terrible. Past characters from the Extended Universe (EU) of novels, comics, and games included Mara Jade, Satele Shan, Ahsoka, Ventress, etc. All were all female characters with real arcs, who fit in well with the space-fantasy genre of StarWars. These characters did not.
  3. Maybe this is 2a, but as far as the Holdo maneuver went, it really should have been a chance to give a heroic exit to Leia, excising Holdo entirely from the story. Also, it broke my disbelief very heavily that the maneuver wasn’t done earlier once all the transports were away and they were being fired on. Also, yes, it was pointless as they could have had a droid do it.
  4. Ultimately, Luke was very ill-served by this story. I could handle that this would have been Luke’s exit from StarWars. I could also accept if he were a minor character in this particular story. But they relied him as the MacGuffin for putting the whole story into motion. We spent a lot of time with him only to have him pointedly be a tragic figure, negating his previous incarnation as an optimistic cipher. They turned a classic hero story into a meditation on failure. We lost the EU, and all of Luke’s great adventures, for this?
  5. Rey is the protagonist in the story, and there was little to no growth of her as a character. They introduced her as a mystery box, but she still seems to have nothing at stake, and it’s not clear who she is as she deliberately has no back story.

The Soft Reboot Used the Original Characters for Nostalgia, but Impeached their Stories

The original trilogy (OT), the story that started all this, ended in failure. Nothing the original characters did had any effect on the galaxy. The Empire returned, the Jedi did not. All their plans turned to ashes.

Han and Leia gave birth to an emo Vader cosplayer who killed his deadbeat Dad. Luke ended in complete failure, and failed to “return” the Jedi. Even poor Akbar just got unceremoniously sucked out into space.

The New Republic failed, ending with the Empire’s successor building a superweapon which created a larger genocide than the original Death Star. In the end, when the Resistance sent out the call for help from Crait, everyone in the galaxy who said “we would have been better off sticking with the Empire” turned out to be correct. No wonder nobody answered the distress call.

Return of the Jedi Turned Out to be No Such Thing?

After Return of the Jedi, the first dialogue Luke Skywalker has in a movie is a discussion where he says “it is time for the Jedi to end.”

Technically, his first line is “go away.” Then he throws his father’s lightsaber — his first lightsaber — over his shoulder.

Just let that sink in. Disney thought they’d mine nostalgia. Then they frame their story so that the original heroes ultimately ended in complete failure with no effect on the galaxy. Contrary to the triumphal ending of Return of the Jedi.

Luke would have saved more lives, and possibly kept hope that Jedi knowledge would stick around, if he had surrendered and served Palpatine and learned the ways of the Sith. Even if he had, and ended up as an evil emperor himself, that would still be a better story, as it would give a clear course of action for the next hero in the next story.

With Luke serving the Dark Side and helping the Empire triumph, there would have been far less destruction and chaos in this fictional universe. The Empire’s infrastructure would still exist, an entire system of planets presumably would not needed to have been destroyed by the campy First Order. And the whole apparent war profiteering going on with the arms dealers on Canto Bight would have been mitigated by an Empire at peace rather than endless civil war.

Instead, they impeached all impact Luke had on the galaxy when he and his friends previously triumphed over the Galactic Empire. Now, Rey, this ungrounded mystery box, is the Last Jedi, and supposedly will be the one to bring back their return. This isn’t merely a sequel. It’s essentially a reboot of the same story as Luke’s. Which belongs in a cheap copy of StarWars, not an authorized sequel.

Had Luke trained a generation of Jedi, and then the sequel trilogy dealt with their conflicts in a new era, which Luke in the background, serving as a coda to his story, allowing him to die with some meaning, even tragically, I would have taken it for what it was. I wanted to believe very much that this would have been what we got that I suspended my disbelief and shamefully made myself feel as if it is what we got. But this was not even close. So I rescind all prizes and ribbons I’ve sent to Disney since.

It’s a Shame About Rey

One of the more outlandish theories of Rey I heard was of Rey being a chromosone-switched clone of Anakin. Not my favorite theory, still better than the worst EU. But also better than what we got.

Story-wise, she should have been an orphan/servant in that Force cult we saw at the beginning of The Force Awakens. She could have been the mistreated washer girl. We see her at the beginning, grounded in a society, but also being on the bottom of that society: forgotten, dismissed, etc. All part of the necessary trope of the hero’s journey.

My proposal would have been to cast Temuera Morrison as her servant/mentor in the Force Cult. Perhaps a scene where he gives her some basic advice, muses on his own history as a “warrior,” and also we also see that he’s the one who has taught her how to fight with a staff.

Then, when the cult was all slaughtered by the First Order, she goes out in the desert to be a scavenger and eventually discover her destiny. This kind of quick setup could have added a lot of worldbuilding to the story with minimal screen time.

The throne room scene was the strongest sequence in The Last Jedi, and was the last moment that this movie (and the new trilogy) could have been saved. There was a storyline possibility with her joining Kylo Ren somewhat. She was a bit of a Mary Sue in the first movie, but in this, we are only told that she is vacillating between the Light and the Dark. Told, now shown.

Yet, there is literally zero worldbuilding for Rey. She grew up on a flat, completely featureless desert. We know nothing about her hopes or fears, how she can read or fly a ship or know how to live as a feral teenager. Luke originally dreamed of a wider world, but felt an obligation to his aunt and uncle who raised him. When they were killed, he instantly had a reason to enter that wider world and a very personal reason to fight the Empire. Rey has no grounding whatsoever for any decision or action she takes. The story just lurches forward from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi with her having no moral dimension to decisions she makes.

If Rey was supposed to have a whiff of darkness, we should have seen her do things like steal BB-8 rather than just ask nicely. Rey only ever faced obstacles in theory, and succeeded at everything she tried on the first try. She only has radiated goodness in the stories thus far. And having some connection to Kylo was the only thing which could presented moral depth.

I was fine with Rey not being a Kenobi or Skywalker. I do think it redeemed the meaning of the Force to me to have broom boy at the end. But none of that in the end goes anywhere with this story.

Was it Just Rian Johnson or was JJ Abrams Our Last Hope?

I would like to defend JJ, and have hope he’ll make something worth seeing in Episode IX. (Edit: title is Rise of Skywalker? There’s your nostalgia plea.) But The Force Awakens still shoulders the blame for putting this trilogy on a dive which it could never recover from. I’ll explain:

The essential problem set up in TFA is that they simplified the story by keeping it focused on a few main characters with Rey as the protagonist. This could have been fine as the template. But they put it on a trajectory where the original trilogy had no effect on the universe. Everything they did ended in failure, with the Empire’s inheritors returning with a bigger genocide than Alderaan in the originals.

I can forgive using Luke as a MacGuffin in the first movie. But they needed a deeper story. There needed to be a generation or two of Jedi which he had trained, who operated inside the story. Not just that they all died in some throwaway line. There needed to be more of a story arc to give us genuine sense of something at stake rather than just CGI genocide happening in an expository shot.

We didn’t get anything which stands alone from the original series. And that fault was present with the TFA.

Yes, But is it Art? Subverting Expectations, You Incel!

I like artsy-fartsy movies as tone poems. But I have a problem with David Lynch as a storyteller. He only enjoys making movies like the way he makes paintings; he likes to make something you experience, or that washes over you with your own internal interpretation, giving you a take-away. Plots or satisfying stories are not his thing.

Twin Peaks new “season” I thought, was mostly a waste. Because he teases out characters and storylines as though it will go somewhere. You get a sense of a plot or a resolution, but in the end, there is none. I find this frustrating because it’s “subverting expectations” just to do it.

If you are going to do this, I can handle artsy-interpretive things. I recommend watching Twin Peaks: The Return Episode 8 as a standalone movie. None of the other episodes are necessary. It’s a completely meandering, interpretive film, mindfuck. It’s horror and sci-fi all combined. None of the other episodes explain it, and it does not lead into any other resolution. It stands alone on its own as David Lynch doing his thing as he does best.

The Last Jedi defenders are doing a rearguard action, like they’re explaining some kind of David Lynch artsy-fartsy tone poem. But it’s not. It’s a plot-driven movie with characters who are supposed to serve as the guides to a story of adventure and heroism. Giving us some sort of muddled, wet-fart characterization and plots which are perplexingly incomprehensible is not art. It’s just a shitty film. And everyone in the film industry, in the creative industry, all know it. The only people who are vocally defending this movie seem to have career incentives to do so, or otherwise fans with Stockholm Syndrome.

But Wasn’t Lucas a Gadfly Auteur Who Had a Vision?

George Lucas took a major personal risk on making the first Star Wars, and then another big risk in using that to finance The Empire Strikes Back. With both of those, he couldn’t afford complete creative control, and had to compromise more than he wanted to.

Compromise was a very important part of why the original Star Wars worked, and what the prequels lacked. It was saved in the edit. I really cannot stress how important that movie about the editing of StarWars is to any fan who is interested in the process of creativity.

He offloaded a major part of the writing work in The Empire Strikes Back to Lawrence Kasdan, and less mentioned is Leigh Brackett, who was a solid sci-fi storyteller who provided many of the solid story beats (and fantasy elements) to Empire. Sadly, she died in 1978, and didn’t help with Return of the Jedi. Yes, a female writer provided the bones for what became the primary story arc of the original trilogy. The Force may in fact be female, but it’s not the current story group who made it so.

David Lynch famously went to meet with George Lucas about possibly directing RoTJ. You can hear him speak for himself. Obviously, Lynch himself has a huge ego. But it’s pretty clear that Lucas wanted someone who would just do a journeyman job, which would be aggravating for a lot of creative people.

The Reaction to Criticism Brought Out the Worst Kind of Corporate Remoras

After The Last Jedi came and went I shrugged and realized I wasn’t interested in the rest of where this story is going. Given the shortcomings of it as a movie and story alone, I didn’t think they could really take it anywhere after all that, and closed that chapter of my mind as no longer being interested in Disney StarWars. But the fierce defense of the movie, as if it were something of object quality which was being criticized as a result of edgy philosophy — attacking the detractors as incels, MRAs, Trump supporters(?), garden-variety misogynists, and of course as racists — became part of the script used in defending this poorly-received corporate product. This has become interesting on its own, as the attempt to gaslight the public, with massive, paid media campaigns to mock former fans and customers, strikes me as a particularly terrible precedent.

My own experience online has included giving mild criticism to the current StarWars direction. In my case, a paid radio host for Lucasfilm forwarded me screenshots of a seemingly angry and mentally-defective juvenile making some kind of horrible threats in Tweets. The radio host asked me if I thought this was “OK.”

And there you have it. With Twitter, and social media in general, we have this brigading effect. Not only do people pile on, flood, dox, and anathematize contrarian opinion, but they will hold up random, bad eggs as if some barely-literate twitter person says something hateful or misogynistic, that random person’s tweet automatically counts as a press-release from your camp. This is gaslighting, and it has destroyed the integrity of genuine disagreements among fandom.

George Lucas received a lot of criticism from his fans for meddling with his own movies and doing odd things with the prequels. It’s still a worthy discussion of who really owns something which lands so large in public consciousness. I always fall on the side that it was Lucas’ right to do what he wanted with his creations, just as his fans have every right to point out where he isn’t honoring his own creations. I think he could never really reconcile that with himself, and for that reason I’ll bet it was a relief for him to offload all this to Disney.

But sold them he did. And Lucasfilm and the StarWars legacy is not in the hands of a visionary, but a large, multi-billion dollar corporate entity. There was a massive investment here, and then there an intention of having it all pay off. There is no hiding that Disney’s appeal is calculated to get customers. There is no other reason for it to exist.

Lucasfilm now, which is an entity which does hire public-relations employees who do issue press releases, seems indifferent to their employees who have open contempt for their fans. This is completely bizarre to me. This justifies to me every notion of refusing to purchase product from these people. They only tolerate this contemptible behavior from their employees, I assume, because they calculate that enough people won’t be driven away.

Corporate decision makers do love the idea of an entertainment product which appeals equally to boys and girls. They would love to sell movies, books, toys, comics, games, etc., equally among both sexes. As it has always been, StarWars had a primarily male fanbase, and entities like Twilight have primarily female fanbases. I don’t fault the mammoth corporation of Disney for trying its mightiest to make StarWars appeal to more female fans. But they’ve done it so ham handedly, so contemptuously, they’ve isolated their current fans, including their current female fans. (If 20% of their fans were female, still one presumes that they liked it the way it was.) I’m sure that George Lucas is having himself a mighty laugh.

2016: Ructions All The Way Down || Arrival Review

Writing about culture is delicate thing at the end of 2016. Our society is undergoing frantic re-contextualization of what is right or wrong, conservative or liberal, taboo or normalized. Is social media is ultimately a tool for more social democratization or a boon for totalitarians? I suspect the ructions will continue, and we won’t shake this out for some time.

Maybe the received wisdom from cultural curators in the past was just reporting on general trends rather than influencing them. I’d wager that established cultural critics have never been less influential on popular perceptions than they have been in 2016. In the past, I would have thought the influence of internet bloviating twitterati as being over-hyped. This year has proved me wrong. Received wisdom is being overturned with every tick of the news cycle.

I think the pushing aside of the clerisy has been a long time coming.  As a Libertarian who is technically an atheist, I don’t exactly stand athwart social change shouting “stop.” But I’m afraid right now we are in the Stalinist stage of the social media revolution. The marketers, both of the commercial and political species, have legions of marketing and psychological methodologies at hand. The trick nowadays for the would-be power brokers is not to actually be an individual going viral with an original point of view. Clever power brokers at the top now seek to use strategically placed social media as an imitation of authenticity.

One of the insights on the state of all things digital and cultural was provided to me by Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying about his work as a PR person deliberately manipulating media blogs. Internet news blogs run on advertising, and advertising runs on clicks. They must get you, the consumer, to click on something, whatever it takes. Thus, the most ridiculously arresting, arousing, or infuriating of headlines will be hyperlinked. The metrics of what works are known by cruel, unfeeling, Darwinian culling. If it harvests a click, it multiplies; if it does not, it withers. It doesn’t matter whether what is being put forward is uplifting, insightful, or important to your actual life. What matters is a boolean consideration: whether or not the user clicks that link.

Media manipulators have used the accumulated knowledge of human nature to figure out what makes us click. Turns out, things that make us angry make us apt to click more than anything else. Yes: puppy videos or celebrity nip-slips are up there, too. But it’s much more profitable, if you are running a web site, to have a headline with a declarative statement that will cause blood pressure to spike one way or the other. This earn clicks. And only clicks matter.

It could be said that advertisers, politicians, and polemical-minded journalists are trolling us. They are much like the fisherman trying out different shiny flies to find which one gets the bass to bite. The troll feeds on its catch, grows larger and smarter, and the cycle continues.

Trolling reverberated throughout the election this year. Electoral anger was made possible by a Democrat Party that sought to suppress democracy in the name of Super Delegates delivering up a candidate neither welcomed nor even widely well-liked by the would-be consumers.

Anger-induced clicks helped with the Bernie backlash against the Clinton product simply being handed to the Democrat constituency by this clerisy. And this anger against the clerisy ultimately helped Trump against everyone else.

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American politics are almost light-hearted compared to, say, the Turkish would-be “coup” this summer. This is a story almost completely uncovered in the West. In what’s become a theme this year, the government of Turkey seems to have trolled their own populace. The Islamist President blamed the coup attempt on a bookish Islamist organization his own Islamist party was once allied with. In this way, Erdoğan cemented his hold on the country as a populist Islamist, while also claiming to fight dangerous Islamism. This contradiction is not coincidence. The incoherence is confusing and demoralizing, of course, but that can only help the powers in charge maintain their hold by repressing dissent.

Not so subtly, the Erdoğan regime has claimed that groups of secularist liberal intellectuals are tied in to the “Islamist” coup through links in education. Thus, the current Islamist populist regime has cemented its hold on the country, while claiming to be fighting Islamist terrorists by arresting and removing from positions of power large numbers of non-Islamist secularists. It takes some deliberate concentration for an outsider to follow these events, but the population of Turkey is forced to take it all in stride, and stand compliant in the face of a broadly mendacious official government line. And if the individuals do not like it, they can say goodbye to their jobs, their livelihoods, and in a word repeated quite often: their “honor” in society.

True totalitarianism is not merely living in a society in which official power repeats lies endlessly; that happens often enough everywhere. Under true totalitarianism, one is forced to recite those lies with phony sincerity and a phony smile, which everyone knows is phony, but which is required nonetheless. Totalitarianism demoralizes the individual by humiliating him and emasculating him, forcing him to smile and partake in his own humiliation.

Social Media has proven to be very adept at reinforcing these totalitarian norms by leveraging every pseudo-private space as a vector through which to enforce these pageants of self-negation and submission. In the West, we’re so far only playing games with totalitarianism and hate-clicks; contrarians still have room to mock back. In Turkey, the real thing is playing out for blood and body-counts. It remains to be seen whether the Turkish experience is an anomaly or a prequel for the rest of us.

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Of far less importance than matters of Trump or Turkey, is the state of the culture of geekery.

I’m not sure whether it’s purely motivated by money, or part of some social experiment, but the social media hive minds been telling us consumers of geek media that what we really need is for women to kick ass!! in more action/sci-fi/super-hero movies.

I think, for the dollars involved, marketers are determined to fight the fundamental truth that a bunch of action films are power fantasies that boys — testosterone soaked boys — revel in. Female power fantasies — which exist — are often much subtler, personal, and less about punching or using swords. The company line that feminism means we need to see more women kick ass!! is as phony to me as claiming Cinemax soft-core lesbian sex scenes are “empowering” for the gay community. Both seem to me really driven by the consumption habits of a male audience, eager for the visual spectacle of titillating female flesh.

I think the story of 2016 as the year of the Great Gaslighting might best be exemplified in this RedLetterMedia video on the failed Ghostbusters reboot. Consider: a major corporation, worth billions, for the sake of maintaining high-income executive salaries, conducted an ad campaign for Ghostbusters that framed the existing fans of their intellectual property as basement-dwelling misogynists. This is not to defend the small number of misogynists who actually did make their foolishness known, but to point out that Sony marketed their product as a symbol of progressivism and feminism that all well-meaning, right-thinking people should embrace by principle. Whether it’s fraudulent to advertise an awful, unfunny movie as if it were otherwise, is besides my point. It’s about a multi-billion dollar corporation ginning up hatred against a group of people that Sony even explicitly recognizes as powerless and small. The massive corporation played the part of victim for being rejected by its own consumers. This is a level of cynicism really beyond parody.

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This is not to claim that there are no legitimate fans of watching women kick ass!! in movies. Geek girls exist, and they are legion, and I love them. I just won’t pretend that these are things that everyone actually wants. I’m in favor of the things that not everyone gets.

I just am aware that geek girls are numerically in a minority, and no sane person goes to, say, ComiCon because it’s a great place to meet girls. I stand for the contrarians, the geeks, the outcasts, and the lovers of insanely nerdy inside references. I fight for the users! There is something to be said for being in the minority, anyway. Who wants to always be in the “most” when the “most” is mostly wrong?

As it is, true nerds have seen their culture appropriated as super-hero, fantasy, and sci-fi movies have taken over movie grosses. As a geek, it’s interesting to watch female starlets play comic book characters. I often think to myself: has she any clue who Emma Frost or the Scarlet Witch are in comic books? And one level further: has she even dated the kind of man who has any idea who those characters are?

Fine enough. Let the nerds and neckbeards have our moment. We geeks suffered through playing right-field in our day, so I am fine with the pretty, chiseled people in movies coming to ComiCon and grovelling at the great otaku temple to win the favor of our dollars and clicks.

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Arrival is a science-fiction movie with a female protagonist, and it’s very good science-fiction that satisfies the thinking geek. Nothing felt false to me in the movie, as things so often do in the sci-fi genre these days.

I’ll compare it to the Martian, as far as smart sci-fi goes. I didn’t care much for that movie, even when I wanted to like it. It pulled me out of my suspension of disbelief a little too often with over-acting actors making too many quips and asides that fell flat to me. I liked it for the journey of the protagonist solving problems in a methodical way, providing the base for the rare hard sci-fi big budget movie. I felt I appreciated the Martian more as an idea of a story than the story itself. Which follows, as I heard the book was better.

Arrival, also based on a book I didn’t read, is not quite hard sci-fi, as obviously it involves aliens and fantastical elements. But let the geeks rejoice! This is a movie wherein the two lead characters are scientists. And they act like scientists. And there is honest-to-Xenu drama in watching them figure out the complexity of communicating with aliens. There is no fake-out with people acting like they wouldn’t act in real life, nor needless quips, nor jokes to elicit audience response, nor cheeseball moments. It all felt very true. Even the heart-wrenching sentiments, which are very powerfully evoked by Amy Adams’ character and her very personal loss, are all very pure.

Critics said they hated how the military stymies the scientists when they’re trying to figure out how to communicate with the aliens. But I found it rang true. Forrest Whittaker’s character says “I need to know exactly what you’re going to do before you go in there, because I need to defend it to a room of people trying to protect their jobs.” Sounds like a perfect recitation of the drama of life in a bureaucracy. In my experience, any actual scientist would nod knowingly at that scene. (Yes, that’s how you can recognize the real scientists in the theater: they’re the ones in the lab coats nodding.)

There still is a lot of drama that is milked from characters under danger from other characters pointing weapons at them, but it serves the story progression within context of the plot, not as a plot device to add drama unnecessarily. No jump scares. Sound is used as part of the story, but the alien noises are very deep audio tones, and it worked to hear it in a theater where the room is shaking. No audio is used in lieu of plot. (Take that, JJ Abrams and Lost.)

Yes, the message is a bit hippie-dippie: “we all need to get along!” But if you’re going to criticize human nature and the state of the world along those lines, this is the way to do it.

Arrival is science-fiction at its best. It is transcendent storytelling that bridges the world we know with fantasy, and brings us face to face with things both beautiful and terrible.