Monday, April 30, 2018

My REAL Review of The Last Jedi

I am, by nature, a very talkative person. Most of my friends and family have learned what hot-button words get me into an hours(!!) long rant. Some avoid pushing these buttons and others love hitting said buttons with wild abandon and glee. My wife sometimes reminds me if she's heard a rant that I've given before and, with no small amount of sheepishness, I curtail the rant and try to get my brain onto another track... which usually leads to me talking a lot again. I've also talked a lot about Star Wars, given that I'm in the middle of a long-winded and yet curiously curt series on The Skywalker Saga.

It took me a half hour after seeing the movie to say more than a word or two. A lot of my friends were asking me what my thoughts were and I couldn't give them. There are very few movies that reduce me to that level of silence for even half that amount of time; the rest of those movies comprise my top ten list. The Last Jedi immediately joined the ranks of those movies. But I couldn't say anything, for months. Even now I find myself struggling to say more than a few words about the movie itself and what it was about and what it means to me. I should back up and start at the beginning. There's a pretty good reason why it took me that long to say anything, beyond a small and cursory review that I bumbled out in the days after watching it the first time.

I've always been a fan of Rian Johnson. From my first viewing of "The Brother's Bloom" I've found myself entranced by a number of things that Johnson does really well: punny visuals that reward multiple viewings (on time five I was still catching things in Bloom), compelling characters, and a good sense of humor that left me with some dark chuckles are among some of my favorite things about Johnson's movies. But the one thing that made me immediately love all of Johnson's movies was his refusal to wrap things up with a tidy little bow. When the central plot thread was resolved there was never an effort to answer lingering questions, but instead you were left to wonder about a great many things in the movie. It wasn't that there were plot holes, it was that the movie flat out refused to answer what you would have otherwise have thought important questions. These questions would dog me for sometimes months at a time and I'd find myself a better person for having to ask these questions that less considerate film-makers would have just answered. This is especially true of Johnson's first film, "Brick", which remains one of the most powerful films I've ever had the pleasure of viewing.

So, unlike most people, I walked in with a very clear idea of who the director was and what sort of stuff  he liked to make. I expected an eminently uncomfortable film where truths were dropped without any regard for my ability to receive them and that no attempt would be made to make me comfortable while all this was happening. I expected a movie of uncommon brutality. I was spot on. Those who are complaining that The Last Jedi completely dropped all expectations from The Force Awakens are mistaking the feature of Rian Johnson for a bug; Johnson was not picked for his ability to make you happy.

But even then I was surprised. Johnson used the movie to talk about something he doesn't talk about a whole lot: hope and mythology. His characters, who are usually running around trying to accomplish something of great meaning to them even while it's made clear that it very well may not, are instead trying to deal with a myth  that has personal importance to each and every one of them: the legend of Luke Skywalker. All of the characters live in the shadow of the world's greatest hero, including Luke.  And it's this fact that drives the movie. Every last thing that happens without Luke fails, horrifically. The Resistance is reduced to a handful, Ben is not turned, and the galaxy just doesn't give a damn without Luke.

But Luke is a broken man. A lot of people seemed to have issue with this, but I saw someone afflicted with PTSD on an instinctual level. Over the months this series of images kept flashing, over and over again, in my mind. It took me a long time to process it.

PTSD is, first and foremost, a conditioned response. You experience trauma and find that you've learned a trigger. The problem is that this trigger is not a mental thing, but a physical by product of the trauma.  It can take decades to get over this trigger, assuming you're working on it at all... which Luke was not. He had decided to revel in his accomplishments instead of seeing them for the trauma-inducing incidents they were and, when the reality of what had happened to him reared his ugly head, Luke freaked out and left. It's hard to communicate how many times I've contemplated that since PTSD has become something I live with. So, instead of going "Luke would never do that!" I found myself transfixed in horror and sympathy for what Luke was going through. The fact that Luke didn't strike down his nephew at this point is a moment of complete and total heroism. I'm not sure if, given those triggers, if I could have done much better than Luke.

And that's really the theme of the movie: heroism is not born of spunk, or deeds, or anything like that. All the actions that Poe, Finn, Rose, and Rey undertake fail. For those who complain about how The Last Jedi is a SJW love fest, I feel I have to ask: what does anyone beside Luke do that works? Nothing. The entire movie hinges upon Luke Skywalker being Luke Skywalker. Heroism is something you are born into, it's when you find yourself in a situation that only you can solve  because you are you. And no one but Luke in this movie is the hero.  Johnson makes no bones about this, at any point. The entirety of the narrative rests upon Luke coming back one last time, to give himself the one win that the Original Trilogy never gave him.

When Luke finally does come back to himself it's easily the most powerful series of moments in the entirety of The Skywalker Saga. It's on point, at every available moment. Luke has finally become the hero he always wanted to be. Even though his mistakes have backed him into a corner Luke does what he must, without an ounce of hesitation or regret. I knew from the second Luke said "I came here to die" that Luke would die. There was no question of that in my mind. Heck, walking into the movie it was a foregone conclusion to me that Luke would die. The only way for the narrative for the new characters in IX to have any weight was to have Luke die here. But the way it all goes down is nothing short of masterful and it elevates this movie as the most inventive Johnson has been since his first outing, Brick.

Star Wars has always been about the interior war against one's self. There's never been a point in time where the greatest opponent of any of the main characters wasn't their own Shadows. But never, in the history of Star Wars, have we seen such an clear victory over self. Johnson has outdone himself. Whereas his other protagonists walk away confused, hurting, or don't walk away at all, Luke actually finds peace. Outside of the considerations of the Skywalker Saga this movie has shown that Johnson has evolved as a filmmaker in a way most artists only dream of.

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