Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★½

It's still hard to know how exactly to parse this one - which I think is far stronger than it had any business being: for a while I had trouble making notes on the film in any cohesive manner outside of the films structural mechanics through editing. However, learning that many of Lucas's unused ideas for Episode 7 were incorporated here provided a sort of gateway - it's something probably much closer to what he expected when he decided to give the series to new blood. Even so - most of these ideas seem to be incorporated into Luke's story if any, while the rest of the film simply works around it. Little of what Kylo or Rey say to each other during the inspired cutting together of their 'force' communication really holds any meaning - yet the formal construct: eyeline matches between totally different spaces, and because of narrative information, between potentially different planets and galaxies, remains totally brilliant. It's odd then: what's strongest about this surprisingly solid film rests primarily upon what lies on the peripheral, or via the concepts that Lucas has already established - Johnson here is really a very talented workman given creative freedom with very rich material. And if Last Jedi continues to hold up, its in part because of the sophistication of its editing, but also because of how well it lets itself be contextualized by the rest of the saga. But back to the peripheral: I may very well like this film for reasons that may have not even been intentional!

In his Twin Peaks review, Nick Pinkerton notes that The Last Jedi is, " lugubrious offal almost entirely lacking in merit as art or entertainment." He's very likely about the former, but the latter gets tricky: The Last Jedi, until its final thirty minutes, seems to me masterfully constructed classical Hollywood storytelling. But at the end of day, I wonder if this is less film and more industrial behemoth: what I find entertaining personally may very well not even be the film, but searching around it, navigating its rhythms: the "force communication" scenes are again, inspired, achieving a kind of spacial communication I haven't really seen in movies before - eyeline matches across whole worlds. As though an (unintentional?) odd experiment in filmic metaphysics, what this could lead too is how one reconstitutes time within a film. Now before I go on, I'm well aware that what is exciting me here may have absolutely nothing to do with the film, but the concepts which stem from what the film achieves structurally gives one many ideas for the future.

Firstly - the spacial eye-line matches between Driver and Ridley makes one start to focus on the other crosscuts in the film: we have Leia and Poe on the ship, Rey and Luke on the island, Finn and Rose looking for the key person, and Kylo et al on the Star Destroyer. While the characters never communicate through these cuts as Rey and Kylo do, what remains interesting is that the cuts hold a similar function - these things take place on different planets and in some cases a different galaxy - so each time we cut to a different sequence, we are seeing a cut of simultaneous action which nevertheless goes across time and space. And what of the constant jumps to light speed? There is always a striking juxtaposition whenever we cut from Leia/Poe/Holdo on the main ship back to the island - light speed contrasted with absolute stillness. What has this to do with the movie, ultimately I don't know - but I find it interesting: how long is Rey actually being trained for?

Note the difference between wipes and cuts as well: Johnson made note that the film uses the least wipes in the entire series history: only 12 (as opposed to Phantom Menace's 55). This makes another difference in how we experience this film in comparison to the prior entries in the series: Lucas's wipes often work as a kind of 'soft' cut, propelling the story forward but also encouraging the viewer to view the progression from shot to shot (as sequences change) as development rather than comparison (this is particularly evident in Revenge of the Sith, my favorite of the Star Wars pictures). However, by referring back to the basic 'cut', Johnson brings a hardness to each juxtaposition which in its comparision, implies a temporal shift between scene to scene because of its narrative locales. This is interesting - because the time frame of each story trajectory is supposed to remain in simultaneity, yet we are cutting across planets and galaxies - time would be very different!

BUT - if it were just for these structural constructs I'm unsure if I would like the film as much as I do: very sophisticated classical editing that calls back to Griffith rather than Eisenstein. I also like this because it reminds me of my dorkiest attributes: it manages to play within the rules of the established material incredibly well (and moreso for me, that it relates more to the prequels rather than the original trilogy), all the while being it's own individual work. We are often given two explanations for the occurrences of expositional events: one which works on a character-story basis, and one with works in tandem with the established mythology: Luke decides to end the Jedi because he failed teaching Kylo - but we are also told that Luke refuses to continue the Jedi Order because of internal corruption and facilitating the rise of Vader - which makes more sense, as these are the events of the prequels. Hell, Luke even seems aware of Bill Krohn's assessment of the series: the continual reversal of sides. Later on when we see Yoda, this introduction easily covers both fan service and also continuing these ideas: he destroys the Jedi tree himself (this is upended in the films final half-hour, but for the most part this makes sense). There are other nice touches: the match cuts between Leia and Kylo as he decides whether to shoot or not parallels the match cuts between Luke and Anakin as the Millenium Falcon approaches the Death Star in Return of the Jedi. And there's lots to like just on the peripheral as well - this is Anakin's lightsaber everyone is fighting for (and is split in two by the films end), linking it even moreso with the grander aspects of the saga. And again implications: back to the classic reversal of signs: Kylo and Rey see each others future - Rey says he will turn, and Kylo says she will turn. It's almost a cop-out that we see Rey use Kylo's lightsaber before losing it seconds later - if anything I would have liked to see this developed further, as it would have brought the entire saga full circle! (but perhaps that's best kept for Episode 9). There's already the thrilling implication very early on: the first time Rey and Kylo link minds, they breathe deeply for a short time before speaking - like Anakin/Vader.

Unfortunately, the last thirty minutes don't really continue the ideas of the film as much as they amount to very impressive window dressing. The film rather effectively ends when Laura Dern uses lightspeed to crash through the Star Destroyer: the films crosscutting reaches its logical end point - a set of diagonal lines collide, in fact all the films characters are now in the same radius! But logically, after diagonal lines collide, they would begin to diverge again - instead we end up in a straight line - ending with a large-scale battle sequence on Crait with all of the films surviving principle characters. It's in part because of this that upon revisiting, this sequence lacks any sense of dramatic impact (up to which point it has performed exceptionally well in my opinion) and exists wholly as big spectacle - the cloak is gone and the Disney machine is in motion. But I'm not so ready to reject the film (or this sequence) on that basis - once an emotional centre returns to the film, it is working solely on the basis of nostalgia: the reunion of Luke and Leia, and his fight with Kylo.

Yet, this still doesn't quite work - Luke resolves to continue the Jedi Order through Rey - even though the film has told us that the opposite should happen! Luke himself has pointed out to Rey, "To think that if the Jedi die that the light dies is vanity," - a point which balances well off the previous entries. Furthermore, Luke's resolve to end the Jedi and Kylo's resolve to "forget the past," once more plays into the reversal of sides dynamic that this series functions on. There is no logical reason for the Jedi to actually continue. So why don't I mind that much?

The movies final sequence is brief, yet strangely contextualizes this as a film on its own terms: the slave children we saw earlier in the picture play with handmade figurines - meant to be Luke Skywalker and AT-AT's. And the films final image is of one of these children holding up a broom to the stars as though a sword. There's not a lot of doubt in my mind that, for many who enjoyed this film, this is also something they have done. Toys and merchandise have been a part of Star Wars since it's very beginning - we can't pin this on Disney, Lucas has been doing this since the franchise's very inception. But - almost touchingly, this is likely the way many of us were first introduced to Star Wars, then and now. And there is nothing wrong with toys - if one has a problem with toys, surely they have a problem with children. If I didn't mind the last 30 minutes (even though it makes no sense whatsoever) it's because that sequence made me feel like a ten year old again, watching the Millennium Falcon fly around into mysterious red crevasses, while speeders race to a giant cannon - it's a big toy set.

So this weirdly worked for me - I'm so often deeply suspicious of nostalgia, but surely these are the same reason I'm so touched when Luke vanishes into air: we see Luke stare into the two suns three times throughout the series - episodes 3, 4 and 8. Each of these are a keystone of his life - birth, the decisive moment, and death. This is completely meaningless, yet without it I never would have realized how invested I had become in these characters - so I'm moved as hell when I see Luke at the end of Episode 8, staring one last time at the two suns, but from the opposite direction he had stared in as a youth - he's crossed the galaxy, internally and externally.

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