Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

This review will be spoiler-free, assuming you have seen the trailer.

I am mostly writing this because as of the afternoon of December 15, Last Jedi has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93% with critics, and only a 56% audience score.

This is a link to my review of The Force Awakens. It has a long explanation of my relationship with Star Wars, which I will briefly revisit here.

I love Star Wars. The movies are generally not very good. The books are usually not great, with some notable exceptions. But the idea of Star Wars, that is good. At its essence, Star Wars is a simple fantasy: good-vs-evil, plucky rebels against the dictator, but with space wizards and starships instead of regular wizards and horses. This is, I think, part of where the prequel trilogy went wrong, but I won't dwell on that here.

Episode VII, The Force Awakens, brought the series back to its roots, which was a cause of much complaint among the fanbase. Because the film had such structural similarity to Episode IV, irrational expectations were generated for Episode VIII. Almost everyone agrees that Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film. There are a lot of reasons for this, which I'm also not going to go into now, but the upshot is that there was strangely a lot of pressure on the middle film of this trilogy, even though that's a tradition weak spot in any trilogy structure.

The Last Jedi is not Empire. There are actually some similarities - notably the apprentice training with a master, and rebels fleeing a superior enemy - but they play out in dramatically different ways than they did in Empire. This by itself will cause some people to dislike the film. No other franchise raises hopes like Star Wars, usually higher than can possibly be fulfilled.

There are some significant problems with Last Jedi. For one, it is extremely long. About three quarters of the way through, I started wondering how they were going to wrap up all of the plot threads they had set in motion and arrive at an ending. This brings me to a second problem: the film has several plot threads which fizzle out or dead end in ways that are less than satisfying. The most charitable thing that can be said about this is that the film keeps the audience guessing as to what is going to happen next. Less charitably, this movie has too much going on at a structural level. I also have some issue with matters of in-universe physical continuity that can't be discussed without spoilers.

That said, I liked this movie. I'll need to watch it again to see if I feel differently now that I know how the plot goes. The filmmakers made some bold choices, which I appreciate. As usual, the visual effects are top-notch. Some scenes are stunningly executed, enough to draw gasps from the audience. The score is excellent. The fight choreography is better than Episode VII. There is excellent use of color and contrast to make the film visually interesting. While the pacing drags in places, there are a number of good action sequences, and also some decently emotional bits and some humor to break the tension.

Speaking of which, I was worried that the Porgs would be obnoxious, but they don't bother me. I love the crystal foxes, though as the name of the website might indicate, I'm biased.

Most other topics I might want to discuss involve spoilers, which I will address in a different post.

So, why do audiences like this movie so much less than the critics do? Keeping in mind that critics are pretty much paid to dislike movies, and that being a movie critic is a soul-crushing job that will such any joy you might have ever had for movies out of you... ahem. Reasons why I don't review much anymore.
I suspect that a lot of it comes down to expectations. The people leaving feedback on Rotten Tomatoes right now are the people invested enough to go to Thursday showings. I don't think any movie could have satisfied all of them. Combined with the very real problems discussed above, I'm somewhat surprised that a majority of audience feedback is positive.

So, will you like it? Good question. The primary reason I started doing this was to give some advice on what kind of person would like a given movie, but this one is tough. If you hated Force Awakens, this isn't likely to redeem the series for you, though I suspect you will think it's better, at least. If you loved Force Awakens, you should like this too. If you're in between, it probably depends (like the force cave on Dagobah) on the baggage you bring with you. Remember that Star Wars is space fantasy, an adventure story. It is not high cinema, and has never been known for its outstanding plotting or acting. If you reacted badly to that last sentence, maybe wait and catch this on video.

The spoiler version of this review is here.

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