The Last Jedi: Themes Critique

***Yar! Here Be Spoilers!***

 

 

It’s too bad that JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson got into an argument about what Star Wars is about, because it makes for a somewhat jarring viewing experience. At least, it did for me, and I get the impression it did for a significant number of other fans as well. JJ did his stupid “mystery box” thing, and then Rian Johnson came and said “Fuck you and your mystery boxes,” basically. There are at least a half dozen huge questions that The Force Awakens asks, some explicitly but all quite clearly, which Rian Johnson just has no interest in answering. He had another agenda entirely, which was fine, but I wish they had worked more closely with one another.

The Last Jedi was in many ways a repudiation of what came before it: Episode 8 versus Episodes 1-7. It is an iconoclastic film in the Star Wars legendarium, and it only had two and a half hours during which to smash expectations and tropes. As a result, I think there were a number of themes touched upon that I would have liked to have seen explored more fully.

Unmasking

Early in the film, we have Kylo smashing his faux-Vader mask in another fit of rage. We get to see a bit of Gwendolyn Christie’s blue eye through the smashed chrome helmet at the end of her fight with Fin. We have a bit of unmasking on Casino Planet (Canto Bight), when Fin realizes the ugly nature of the beautiful place he sees. Supreme Leader Snoke himself could have been unmasked. This theme of unmasking could have been explored more deeply, and could have provided a bit of connective thread in a movie that was very busy severing connective threads with not only The Force Awakens but also every previous Star Wars film. If someone sets out to tell a story that defies strongly-established tropes, one also needs to offer something in place of those tropes, like a strong, consistent theme explored from multiple angles.

Hidden Origins

The Force Awakens asked a lot of pretty explicit questions: who were Rey’s parents? What happened between Luke and Ben Solo? Where did those other students of Luke’s go? How did Ben Solo become Kylo Ren? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? How is the First Order related to the Empire? How is the Resistance related to the Rebellion? Why did Luke go into hiding?

The Last Jedi clearly did not care about most of these questions. Of course, a few answers are offered. Luke had a moment when he thought he might murder Ben Solo and put an end to the growing influence of darkness in him (which just made no sense, I’m sorry), and subsequently returned to the birthplace of the Jedi to die of old age. Rey’s parents are (allegedly) nobodies who died in a pauper’s grave on Jakku. Those are unsatisfying answers, though at least the answer about Rey’s parentage ties directly into one of the core themes of the film, which we’ll talk about below.

I think this lack of thematic development around hidden origins would have been less of a problem if the directors had worked together more closely, or at least had not been at cross purposes. Those are a lot of huge questions, and only the question of Rey’s parentage is answered in a way that makes sense. Otherwise, there is just a cosmic shrug. Who cares who Snoke was, he’s dead. Who cares where the First Order came from, they’re here and inexplicably threatening, despite being led by a man who throws tantrums and an incompetent Hux. The Resistance is just the Rebellion with a new name for no good reason. Who cares where Luke’s other students are, they’ll show up in a video game or something.

Light and Dark End to become Balance

My impression of the progress of the story isn’t so much that Light and Dark must end, but rather light and dark changing shape somewhat but moving ahead, still in direct opposition. Kylo Ren might want to end the Sith, but he did the archetypal Sith thing, which is to betray and kill his master. He’s Sith through and through, whatever he might say. And Rey similarly does the archetypal Light-side thing, as we’ve seen with Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke, in that she ignores the instruction of her master and goes off half-cocked to save the world.

I was honestly expecting more nuance between Kylo and Rey. I expected Kylo to reveal more layers, and I expected Rey to be more tempted by what she was presented with. I could see Rey, disillusioned entirely by Luke, being more willing to hear a more-reasonable Snoke out. Maybe more actively consider joining Kylo to kill Snoke.

Luke and Rey said a lot of eloquent things about balance, but Kylo and Rey basically lived out the old pattern – a little Return of the Jedi and then a little Empire Strikes Back. But the whole second half of the film would have been even more interesting if Kylo and Rey had been a bit more grey.

Skywalkers with Power become Tyrants

Luke almost deciding to murder the only child of his sister and best friend just makes no damn sense. I’m sorry. No work was put in to explain why that would suddenly be in his character. It was there for the shock, and the iconoclasm, and to add some “See, Kylo has a point” to the story. But the filmmakers didn’t do the work to earn that moment.

They could have, though. What do we know of the Skywalkers? Anakin became the most famous villain in the galaxy. Leia actually seems to remain herself through her story, and would perhaps be the exception that proves the rule. Kylo is a mini-Vader, prone to ultraviolance and temper-tantrums. So what if we presented the theme that, actually, when Skywalkers get power, especially power through the Force, they become tyrants? What if we saw Luke, well-intentioned but without guidance from any other Jedi, slowly become more harsh and unyielding and doctrinaire? What if we saw Kylo eclipse him, winning the students over because he gives into his darker urges more readily than Luke, and this gives him greater power?

Any of these options could have been handled with a five-minute montage, at most. Probably one much shorter. And then when Luke and Kylo come to blows, Kylo wins, thinks he has killed Luke, burns his temple to the ground. Luke, maybe in voiceover, realizes that there is something corrupt about the Skywalker line and its relationship to the Force, and so that’s why he goes into hiding – to quarantine himself. He thinks he might even corrupt Leia, which is why he just ghosts her for years.

That would have been an amazing revelation to put on screen. Yes, this is the story of the Skywalker dynasty, but it is the story of the galaxy defeating the Skywalker dynasty, because they are inclined to become tyrants when they develop Force powers. So now we have the nobodies rising up, with their own power and their own agenda, to bring down the First Order and the Jedi – the last legacy of the Skywalkers themselves.

See? That’s how you earn that moment of shock and revelation.

The Last Jedi: 8 Better Ways to Have Handled Luke and Ben

***Yar! Here There Be Spoilers!***

 

 

 

I enjoyed The Last Jedi, but it is still a movie with problems. Some of those problems are minor, in my opinion – just flaws like every movie has. The slowest chase scene in the galaxy; no need for Phasma; that kind of thing. Others are problems that can be explained away: theorycraft around Holdo weaponizing hyperspace, and why that wouldn’t just become what everyone does in every space battle, for example.

One problem, though, is a core problem to the story. It can’t be explained away, I don’t think, and it does far more damage to the story than any good it might do. That problem is the big reveal of what happened between Luke and Ben Solo. It is, in a word, an utter failure. It is a moment that the film did not earn, or even attempt to explain. It comes at what is supposed to be an emotional climax for the film, and falls utterly flat. It violates what we the audience know, or think we know, in a way that isn’t subversive or iconoclastic but rather hand-wavey in the worst way.

I paused during a recent conversation online about this scene, and easily came up with eight ways this could have been handled much better.

  • All of these are about actually earning the moment where Luke makes his biggest mistake and falls from grace. Here are some ways they could have earned that moment, but kept the iconoclasm and subversion they were clearly going for:

Luke doesn’t wield power well, but is corrupted by it.

We all know power corrupts. Luke has at least a couple of decades during which he is a galactic hero, the only living Jedi, and during which there are no Sith anyone knows about. It doesn’t take a genius storyteller to tell the story of a hero falling from grace through hubris.

The galaxy is better off without Skywalkers.

Maybe go harder with this theme of subversion – the Star Wars saga so far has been explicitly about the Skywalker dynasty, but show that their dynasty is fundamentally corrupt. The whole idea of dynasties is corrupt. People demand heroes and Chosen Ones, and it always turns out awful in the end. Make the Skywalkers the emblematic example of this. Luke realizes that there is something wrong with a dynastic family that dominates the galaxy’s destiny for generations, and goes into hiding in order to end it all.

Snoke deceived Luke.

Snoke is there in the background, manipulating things. Maybe something Luke does, or fails to do, opens him up to Snoke’s influence. We already know that one Sith Lord can manipulate an entire Temple full of fully-trained Jedi. Maybe Snoke is ancient and knows Force secrets that Luke has hardly guessed at. Maybe this is how Snoke developed the Force-connection technique that he used on Kylo and Rey. And if Snoke deceived Luke at the height of Luke’s powers, then it’s really true that Luke can’t save the galaxy. Then who can? Oh, right, our new heroes. Rey has her Wonder Woman moment, is like “You can’t save the galaxy, but I can.” Bam. The baton is passed.

Luke buys into his own hype.

He comes to see himself the way the galaxy sees him – the hero and savior. But then Ben Solo demonstrates even greater power, even greater talent with the Force. He starts to sway Luke’s students away from him, and they start calling themselves the Knights of Ren. Luke can’t teach them, can’t compete with Ben. Ultimately, it comes to a head.

Luke is telling the truth, but Rey doesn’t believe him.

She feels she has this deep connection with Kylo, and that she can be the one to redeem him. Hell, it’s what Luke himself did with Vader! But “This won’t turn out the way you think!” She confronts Luke, they have their fight, and she leaves to go rescue Kylo. Later, Kylo reveals that it was actually worse than Luke thought. Luke was leaving things out, but it was to save Rey from the full horror of what happened. And damn, Kylo can play the long game, and isn’t just a tantrum-throwing dweeb. He manipulated Rey to get here right where he needed her for his coup. And Rey has learned that she can make big mistakes too, just like Luke. Character growth.

Any deep misunderstanding between Luke and Ben that isn’t stupid.

Delve more deeply into the lore and philosophy of the Jedi. Luke and Ben have very different experiences, very different takes on it. Ben doesn’t understand the danger of the Dark Side, perhaps, because he grew up in an era of the New Republic. He’s like a Baby Boomer, basically, born to affluence and taking it for granted. Kylo tries to stage a coup against Luke, but is defeated, because Luke is more of a baddass than we’d thought. This would also foreshadow his later coup against Snoke, and echo the tradition of Sith betraying their masters. Luke decides that it is the philosophy itself that is incomplete, or fatally flawed.

Luke is too dogmatic.

Luke tries to rebuild the Jedi temple and religion as it was before Palpatine’s purge. He works from ancient Jedi texts that he barely understands. And remember that Luke himself was barely trained at all. He was basically a very skilled, too-old padawan who had the advantage of being Darth Vader’s son and the galaxy’s literal only hope left. But he wasn’t a master in the way that Obi-Wan was, or Yoda was. He could come to embody everything bad about a college sophomore – overconfident about his shallow understanding. Maybe he realizes, too late, that the Jedi philosophy is fundamentally flawed. The Light gives rise to the Dark (as Snoke intimated in TLJ) inevitably. But his realization comes too late to save poor Ben Solo. Because Luke holds back in their inevitable fight, he ends up buried under rubble and utterly dejected. And that explains why he decides to go to the first Jedi temple to ensure that no one makes his mistake ever again.

Han and Leia are not good parents.

This would be more iconoclasm, and was already strongly implied by The Force Awakens. Han is back to scoundrel-ing, and Leia is a Big Damn Leader now, and maybe neither had time for little Ben. They sent him off to study with Uncle Luke when all he wanted was love and attention. Maybe Luke sticks up for Ben’s parents, is offended by Ben’s bitterness, and Ben has his first Force-powered tantrum, burning down the temple. This explains a lot of how Kylo is presented – desperate for Snoke to be the father he never had. Easily manipulated. Unable to control his emotions or deal with frustration and setbacks. And it ends up being precisely what Luke manipulates in their climactic showdown. It explains why Kylo had no idea Luke was an illusion the whole time.

All of these are better than what we got in The Last Jedi, and I’m not even that good of a writer. I think these ideas pull in the core themes of TLJ better, and connects this core moment to other parts of the film. I think when I re-watch, in the back of my mind I’ll just think about these and other alternatives when this scene comes up, and imagine the better moment that could have been.

What are preferable ways to handle this falling out that you’ve come up with?

Elves and Batman: Stories With No End Aggrieve Us

In the legendarium (I just like that word) of Middle-Earth, the story of the elves ends in grief and loss. The elves are slowly overcome by grief by their long years in the world, and at last the world loses them as they depart into the Undying Lands. Their stories have no endings – they just go on and on. In the same way that Bilbo found so exhausting when he still had the Ring, “…like butter scraped over too much bread.” It’s clear from the text, to me at least, that their longevity is what brings their grief – part of why human mortality is called a gift. Our stories, as humans, have endings built in from the start.

I was thinking about superhero reboots, just now. How even in the comics, periodically superheroes and supervillains have to be rebooted, and in movies every decade or so. Or more often if you’re Spider-Man. Even when you have four Batman movies in a row without a new origin story, they are four very different Batman movies. But it seems that a trilogy is about as far as they tend to get before they start again.

How many times have we seen Bruce Wayne’s parents shot, or seen Uncle Ben die? How many times has Superman crash-landed on Earth? Right now I’m watching the new Punisher series on Netflix, and I’ve watched two other Punisher movies before now. Ten or fifteen years from now, will we have a Wonder Woman or Black Panther reboot? Will that be how we know that POC and female supers are here to stay as lead characters?

The problem with superheroes is that they are like elves – their stories have no end unless they die, and since death means the end of a storyline and loss of sales, superheroes never die. Neither do supervillains. Well, generally speaking of course. But even looking through a list of supers who have died, particular individuals have been the ones who died. The superheroes go on. They never die, and eventually it comes to grief. We just get tired of the story, and then comes the reboot.

Thing is, stories need endings. Eventually they attenuate, then burn out; wear out their welcome and their meaning. Eventually, without an end, stories don’t mean anything.

The other things is, the end of stories is always contrived. Endings are something we make up, so that we can make sense. Sam Gamgee hits on this truth, when he realizes that he is part of the same story that Beren and Luthien were in, that the light of the Silmaril is the same light caught in the Vial of Galadriel that he and Frodo carried. “Don’t the great tales ever end?”

Well, Sam, yes and no. We end them, in order to make meaning. Or, when we can’t end them, as with so may superheroes, they lose the meaning they had. I think so, anyway. So we go to see reboots, because if the story can’t end, at least it can begin again.

But that’s not as good. It’s never as good.

Four Cool Things Iron Fist Failed to Be

Image result for iron fist funny

A Wu Tang, Kung-Fu Hip-Hop Mashup

I was kind of excited when the show opened with a hip-hop track and the promise of some forthcoming kung-fu. There is a lot of overlap between hip-hop and kung-fun, at least in my own opinion, and nothing represents this to me more clearly than the Wu Tang Clan, but you also have Afro Samurai and the fight scenes in Boondocks among many other examples. I’m not an expert here, but the connection is there, and Iron Fist did precisely nothing with it.

Occasionally Danny Rand would do his awkward faux-Tai-Chi meditation before a fight, and he’d play some cool music, but it had no connection to the rest of the story at all, except that when his plane went down he had an iPod. They could have gone somewhere with this connection, in the story itself. It could have been an interesting mashup in style following on Luke Cage’s heels. But, no.

A Vehicle for a Breakout Asian Star

What was Mike Colter doing before Jessica Jones and Luke Cage? I don’t know either. But we know now, because Luke Cage was awesome. If I saw Mike Colter on the street, I’d half expect to see him in a bullet-hole hoodie. On my Facebook and Twitter feed, black nerds were going wild about Luke Cage. All nerds were going pretty wild, to be honest.

Iron Fist could have been that kind of breakout moment for an Asian actor and martial artist. I mean, he’s a similarly obscure superhero – it isn’t like there is a huge existing fan-base for Iron Fist. They could even have met folks half-way with someone like Lewis Tan, who read for Danny Rand while they were casting.

I can’t believe that Hollywood isn’t bursting at the seams with handsome, charismatic Asian actors who would love to be cast as something other than Triad Thug #6. Come on.

But no.

The Anti-Batman Billionaire Story

We already have Batman Begins, where a white billionaire goes to Asia to learn supernatural, or at least superhuman, martial arts. We have Doctor Strange, the millionaire white guy who goes to Asia to learn magic from a white woman who is the leader of a mystic Asian sect. Danny Rand could have been interesting as a commentary on these stories. He’s part of a trope – OK. That gives you the chance to comment on the trope in an intelligent way. But, no.

A Humorous Meditation On Its Own Failure

More and more as the series progresses, we have the refrain that Danny Rand is a terrible Iron Fist. I think the show could have made more of this. There’s every indication that he went off half-cocked, barely having earned the power of the Iron Fist before he inexplicably flees his calling and responsibility to…I guess get into fist-fights with corporate security guards and whitesplain Asian culture to people.

But it would have been more interesting if they had leaned into this idea that he is not a very good Iron Fist. He earned this cosmic power, just barely, and then ran away. He’s petulant and obtuse and socially awkward. He grew up in a mystical monastery and is totally unequipped to deal with adulthood and the modern world. He tries to solve everything with martial arts, and it never works. This could have been funny, and endearingly awkward. Think of a stereotypical homeschooled kid with supernatural kung-fu powers. One does not have to be very smart to make that funny.

But, again, no.

Just…no.

Core Emotions

Inside Out emotions

I was recently listening to an episode of the Two Pastors Podcast dealing with fear, anxiety, anger and hatred, and it got me thinking. I really enjoyed Inside Out, in part because it very effectively and dramatically incorporated a lot of research on core emotions that I have been learning about for the last few years, particularly based on the work of Paul Ekman. (If you have ever heard of a “micro-expression” then you’ve heard something of Ekman’s work) In brief, Ekman and others have identified five (or maybe six) core emtions based on universal human facial expressions and bodily cues. In the context of Inside Out, there were five core emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy and sadness. To this list Ekman and others might add surprise, but that isn’t an important one for what I want to talk about.

I’ve used ideas around these core emotions, and their healthy expression and function, in situations like pastoral counseling and the spirituality groups I led for the behavioral health program at a hospital in San Francisco. I’ve also used these ideas a lot in my own life, not only trying to increase my EQ but also better understand myself and better manage my own mental illness challenges (depression and anxiety).

I found this really cool matrix based on the Inside Out emotions online that show show these five core emotions can combine to create other emotional experiences. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was quite right, so I made my own:

Anger Disgust Fear Joy Sadness
Anger Rage Hatred Panic Triumph Grief
Disgust Hatred Revulsion Horror Morbid Fascination Loathing
Fear Panic Horror Terror Surprise Despair
Joy Triumph Morbid Fascination Surprise Ecstacy Nostalgia
Sadness Grief Loathing Despair Nostalgia Despondency

One of these that I think I need to explain is the combination of joy and anger, I decided to characterize as triumph. Previously, I had fiero and also righteous anger in that slot: fiero I get from Ekman – he thought there was a particular facial expression for the feeling one experiences in something like a crucial sports victory, and he didn’t think there was a good English word for that feeling, so he used an Italian one. But just imagine the exultant, gritted-teeth, clenched fist emotion someone might exhibit right after they score a goal. This emotion might be distinct from righteous anger, but righteous anger was another example of how I understand a combination of anger and joy. I decided to go with triumph, however, but I’m not as confident about that one as I am with others.

Another key note: of the five core emotions, each has a healthy and necessary function for us, even though we think of most of them as “negative emotions.” In fact, of those listed, the only obviously “positive” one is joy. But one thing I loved about Inside Out is that each of the emotions had their place in one’s health, and a person couldn’t get by without all of them. Just like in real life.

Where one emotion intersects with itself in the matrix, I just listed an extreme form of that emotion, each of which is probably less healthy in its own right. But how these various combinations map to “health” and so on is a whole other discussion.

For now, just check out the matrix and tell me what you think. For me, it was helpful just to write out, if nothing else.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen




Here’s what I had to say, in brief, about Scott Pilgrim vs the World: 


This was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It was like watching someone play a video game, only more boring. It was sometimes slightly clever. If only it had a story, or a single interesting character, or anything meaningful to say.


I don’t remember feeling that detached from a movie in a very long time; possibly ever.  It was totally unengaging.  There’s a feeling that I really enjoy, when a movie makes me feel as if I am outside myself, if only for an hour or two, during which it is an engrossing, immersive experience.  Even very bad films can make me feel this way if there is an engaging character, or even a really funny scene.  Anything.


I might have connected to Scott Pilgrim’s character, if there was any character there to connect to. But he’s kind of a confused-looking place-holder who trudges his way through what passes for a plot.


If there was something genuinely attractive about Ramona Flowers, that might have worked.  But there was hardly a flicker of life in her, but alas.  She was the MacGuffin, and an empty one at that. All I knew about her was that 1. her hair changes color frequently, 2. Scott Pilgrim likes her and 3. she has evil exes.  Nothing about her that wasn’t on every promotional poster for the movie.


Where I really checked out, though, was the first battle with the first evil ex.  That was a scene that was so awful that I literally squirmed in my seat with embarrassment for the filmmakers.  I think the fight scene was supposed to resemble a Bollywood musical number.  I’ve watched a few Bollywood musical numbers, and this piece of tripe was a far cry from them.


There were occasional sight-gags, and I’ve never seen a movie that was presented in the same way, as an old-school style video-game with level-ups and coins bursting out of downed foes.  That was…slightly clever, I suppose.


But there was no world for Scott Pilgrim to inhabit.  One method would have been literalism – these supernatural music-fueled fights break out.  Another method would have been for the musical fights to be going on in Scott Pilgrim’s imagination, with the humorous return to reality after the fact.  The filmmakers went for neither; God knows why.  Rather it was what I experienced as a miasma of imagery – and I mean that in the Dictionary.com sense.


Part of my disappointment was that the movie could have clearly been so much more.  It could have said something.  


It just didn’t.


Or, more likely, it did, and I’m the only person I know who didn’t get it.


Maybe the graphic novel is good.