Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an incredible movie. But…

Led by Mark Hamill, the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise delivers science fiction fun and excitement, but there are some problems

Despite everything that will follow this first paragraph, you should go see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson understands what fun is — he effortlessly recaptures the excitement and wonder of the original trilogy. The opening space battle in particular is gripping. In contrast to prequels infested with bad CGI, every shot is visually stunning, well-constructed, and immediately evokes a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. If you go see The Last Jedi, you will enjoy it, because it is a good, fun movie. If you think about it too much, you might not, since it’s also a lazy one.

General Badness. No spoilers.

 

The Last Jedi’s biggest problem is one it shares with most other modern blockbuster entertainment: everything is constantly hectic and exciting, so there’s almost no space for anything to grow organically. A lack of originality is still apparent in this film. It’s not nearly as bad as in Episode VII, but there are still scenes and beats lifted from the original trilogy with only a slight twist or a different color scheme to set them off. The dominant plot thread is an unbelievably boring framing device (more details later), and it takes up about a third of the total screentime. There’s also a 30-minute side jaunt that could have been cut completely from the film without it losing anything at all (again, more later).

General Goodness. Getting slightly more spoilery.

 

I would watch Old Man Luke on an island for its own spinoff trilogy. Mark Hamill is hands-down the best thing in this movie: the tension created by an old, jaded Master Skywalker playing counterpoint to everyone’s memories of the naive and exceedingly optimistic young Luke is delicious, and Hamill’s gravelly, tired voice really sells it. Everything we learn about the island, why Luke’s there, and what his current philosophy on the Force is is wonderful — Star Wars’ focus on mythos is what sets it apart from more straight-up sci-fi like Star Trek (another movie series that is extremely entertaining but, like this trilogy, suffering from actionitis). Every shot in the movie is well-put-together — it does a lot for a film when each frame is just fun to look at, regardless of what’s happening in it. Finally, the space battles, when they happen, create the exact same lift and thrill as the originals did. Rian Johnson understands action and how to make sure viewers have a good time. The choreography is a huge improvement over the original trilogy, in which people with vast supernatural powers and laser swords made the same four strikes over and over again, and over the prequels, in which everything was insanely baroque (seriously — in Revenge of the Sith, there was a two-second period in the final fight where all they did was twirl lightsabers in the other’s general direction). The problem is not with any individual scene, but the slapdash quality of the overarching narrative itself.

Specific Badness. Definite spoilers.

 

Grand Admiral Thrawn is so good
If Disney is going to slaughter the entire Expanded Universe by corporate fiat, they need to be able to produce stories at least as good as those they’ve nuked

The two main plot threads are Rey on the island with Luke and the Resistance fleeing a New Order fleet attempting to wipe them out. The first one is fine, but the flight for survival among the Resistance? It’s not an assault, it’s not a pitched battle — literally all that happens for the majority of the movies’ central narrative is that three Resistance cruisers fly slightly faster than their New Order pursuers. It’s an absurd way to spend movie time. There’s a 30-minute sidequest in which Finn and Rose (new generic engineer character) go to a casino planet to get a “master codebreaker” to infiltrate and disable the tracking system of the main enemy ship. Since they basically just walked into the New Order’s top-secret superweapon in the previous film, this looks and feels like narrative padding, or at best a cheap solution to past criticism. The film would have lost nothing had it been completely removed. The movie still struggles with originality. The final battle is of the rebels holed up in a cave base on a desert salt planet as AT-ATs close in. Salt looks a lot like snow. A conflicted but mostly evil Ren brings Rey to his master. After watching her fight ineffectually against him for a bit, Kylo Ren kills the Emperor. I mean the Supreme Leader, sorry.

The biggest creative sin of the movie, however, is that no one involved has any patience to build anything. Two and a half hours of instant gratification leaves a movie that feels cheap, whose slick look and explosive action are stretched over a hollow core. The writing behind the characters and love stories, the training and development of Force powers, and the direction of the trilogy itself is a rushed afterthought, always taking a backseat to (very well done) action and (less well done) comradely quips.

  1. Han/Leia vs. Rey/Finn — in the original trilogy, Han and Leia cordially dislike each other in Ep IV, have a snarky and increasingly sexually tense relationship in Ep V, ending with the immortal “I know,” and even in Ep. VI, until Leia sets him straight, Han thinks she’s pining for Luke. Their relationship unfurls slowly, and the result is solid and believable because it has been built over the course of years. In the new movies, Finn and Rey become buds after an initial misunderstanding, and now are yearning for each other throughout because hey, the male and female leads love each other because it’s a movie. 
  2. Jedi Training — Luke received a few days of training from Obi-Wan and could barely even access the force. Rey has a three-minute conversation with Luke about the Force (and maybe a few days, few weeks of training?) and is suddenly the equal of Kylo Ren. She didn’t work for it. It’s not as fun watching her use those powers because she didn’t earn them — Luke sweated in Dagobah, went into self-training exile between Eps V and VI, and finally, after four years of in-movie time, is kinda-sorta-halfway prepared to face Vader. “She’s just that powerful” doesn’t excuse it. First off, that doesn’t keep it from being bad narrative. Secondly, it doesn’t matter if you are the strongest, fastest human on the planet — if you’ve never seen a basketball before in your life, you are not going to be schooling LeBron in a week. Also, an undertrained, overpowered Force sensitive is, throughout the entire history of Star Wars, the single biggest threat to the balance of the universe. So that’s just being ignored now, since she’s so incredibly powerful? That just makes her more dangerous. 
  3. The Overall Trilogy — Where are these movies going? What is their point? In the originals, there was a clearly delineated if simple hero’s quest: farmboy discovers inner strength, develops it, suffers setbacks, but eventually rises to defeat the Empire. In contrast, the new trilogy goes back and forth so often it becomes muddled — we’re the Resistance but actually we’re funded by the New Republic but oh whoops the splinter terrorist group the New Order killed the entire Republic in two minutes and now they’re the Empire and we’re the Rebels lol! This is happening because no one on this project cares about delivering consistency as much as they care about delivering thrills.

 

Specific Good. Still spoilers.

 

One of the greatest moments in all of Star Wars is when Kylo and Rey defeat Snoke, Rey is ecstatic about having saved “Ben” from the Dark Side, and then he’s all like, “Join me, we’ll rule together. Have you not been listening this whole time? I’m evil!” A+ Rian, great job.

Also, because it can’t be said enough, angry Luke wandering around an island. Would watch forever. His entire redemption arc is the best thing in the movie.

 

On sandwiches.

 

Does nostalgia play a role in my higher estimation of the original trilogy? Absolutely. I can’t deny that Ewoks happened. Neither can I defend a desert planet rube being cleared as a fighter pilot for an assault on the most advanced battle station in the Galaxy. The difference is that the original trilogy took its time and actually paid attention to narrative structure and character development. The trilogy-long arc of Luke’s struggle to become savior of the galaxy is believable. I cared what happened to Han, Luke, and Leia. I knew them well. The main character traits of this new crop are how powerful they are, how good they are at flying X-wings, or how quippy they are — they don’t have time to be anything else. The new trilogy has done so much so well. If they slowed down and actually put in the writing work to get the story to where they needed it to be (instead of just declaring THINGS ARE LIKE THIS NOW and expecting the audience to follow along), they could be truly great.

I do not have a monopoly on movie opinions (unlike Disney now has on movie making). Feel free to tell me how I’m wrong and I might even agree with you. The only problematic take I see is the idea that those who didn’t love The Last Jedi are hidebound purists, clinging to their original trilogy with gnarled fingers, terrified of change. Look, I didn’t dislike The Last Jedi because it was different. Hell, I didn’t even dislike The Last Jedi. I’m not mad. I’m disappointed in how much better the film could have been. If I’m eating a pulled pork sandwich and you replace it with bologna, I’m not disappointed because I fear change. I’m disappointed because now I have to eat a fucking bologna sandwich.

Three essential features Blade Runner 2049 inherited from the original science-fiction classic

God, Philip K. Dick. You're the greatest

Visual style, an ethical dilemma, and great casting made the original Blade Runner incredible, and Denis Villeneuve built the sequel the same way

The science fiction neo-noir classic Blade Runner is the single greatest book adaptation ever made. It’s laughably divergent from its source material — it picked up Philip K. Dick’s concept of androids and that the world was screwed and didn’t run with much else. Usually, this ends poorly for everyone involved, and the result is less like Lord of the Rings and more like The Hobbit. The film worked because androids, the idea it cuts out of the book like a painting out of a gilt frame, is morally and intellectually the most interesting part, and because it filled in all the holes around that idea with a style so distinct and clear that every frame of the film is a work of art. Also, Harrison Ford’s star wattage doesn’t hurt.

The gulf between an original movie and a 35-years-late sequel is similar to the distance between a book and its movie. Blade Runner 2049 took a different direction with its source material — a direct and respectful homage to its original. The difference between it and something like The Force Awakens is that it stakes out enough of its own turf not to be an artistic failure. Hate to be a buzzkill, and I loved seeing it in theaters, but The Force Awakens was a beat-for-beat remake of A New Hope without a single new idea of its own. So, why is Blade Runner 2049 a success?

Well, before you go any further, take a gander at what you can see in theaters this weekend:

The strengths of the original Blade Runner

The success of the first Blade Runner comes down to its visuals, the stimulating central problem of replicants, and Harrison Ford. Its worldbuilding is the greatest artistic achievement of that decade, and it builds its world with visuals. Everything is gritty, wet, and cramped, either too bright or too dark, except for the Tyrell corporation building which is a soft-lit, wide temple to wealth and power. Rick Deckard’s job in the movie is “retiring” rogue replicants, androids who have begun acting anomalously. The movie spins around the moral core of killing sentient beings just because they’re acting like sentient beings, i.e. seeking freedom. Deckard never seems thrilled to be doing it, and towards the end of the film he not only falls in love with a replicant, but begins doubting whether he is one. Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard is the final style piece of the film — no one has a better put-upon-why-me face, and he’s also Harrison freaking Ford.

The movie’s plot is well-constructed, but it’s not the central component of the movie’s watchability. The action in Blade Runner is understated, almost ponderous, but what keeps the film going is that every single frame is beautiful, is art. It’s easy to watch because the literal act of viewing each frame is rewarding.

Blade Runner 2049, genetics, and inheritance

Blade Runner 2049 is definitely its father’s son. Denis Villeneuve tries to rebuild the same world Ridley Scott constructed in 1982, just adding in three more decades of we’re-screwed. There’ve been several bloody replicant revolutions and a complete ecological collapse. The first bankrupted the Tyrell Corporation (original manufacturer of replicants) and the second was solved by the agri-tech of Blade Runner 2049’s main antagonist, Niander Wallace (who bought up Tyrell’s assets and started making “safer” replicants).

Denis Villeneuve pays the same attention to visual worldbuilding as Ridley Scott did, only it’s a world 30 years more bleak. Urban areas are an industrial wasteland filled with scavengers, rust, and death, and natural spaces are an ecological wasteland filled with cracked earth, dust storms, and dead trees. People live in the middle of these extremes, in a cityscape filled with ever-advancing technology. The interplay of light and dark, the picture-perfect artistry of each frame of the movie is still there, paying perfect homage to the original.

The ethics of the sequel have shifted. Not only has the replicant-as-slave trope been made explicit, with Niander Wallace (tech magnate and the current manufacturer of replicants) stating that “[e]very civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce” and regretting that he couldn’t breed replicants (as slaves were bred), but the main character, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K, starts the movie as an indisputable replicant, the property of the L.A.P.D. Blade Runner’s morality was ambiguous — the inventor of replicants, Eldon Tyrell, was a benevolent creator, and Rick Deckard’s attitude was “I’m killing replicants, ain’t it a shame, but hey, what else can we do?” In Blade Runner 2049, a definite replicant is struggling with issues of identity and morality. An unambiguous member of an oppressed class is at the center of the sequel, which changes the ethical landscape significantly. Not to mention Jared Leto’s amazingly creepy Niander Wallace is, unlike Eldon Tyrell, undoubtedly a Bad Guy (murder, torture, etc.).

Blade Runner 2049 has the same approach to plot as its progenitor — make it good, but don’t make it the center of the movie. The sheer beauty of the world that’s built is what makes the film. Its approach to action is a bit different — in the original, it’s a few short bursts of gunplay and chasing. In 2049, the fight scenes might be rare, but they’re definitely modern. Officer K is literally, as he was built, a killing machine, and it’s impressive to watch when he gets in a corner where the only way out is violence.

Ryan Gosling vs Harrison Ford

How cruel to put any actor up against living legend Harrison Ford, but Gosling does a really great job. Same balance of grim but emotional right underneath, same ratio of acting chops versus sheer ability to look cool. Ryan Gosling might be Harrison Ford for Millennials — good actor, attractive, with the ability to fill out an action movie without being typecast as an action star. Harrison Ford is part of what made Blade Runner great, and Ryan Gosling definitely adds style and charm to 2049. Ford is a legend, but Gosling is a worthy inheritor.

Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel every great movie deserves

Blade Runner 2049 and its predecessor are both primarily visual experiences. The plot of each is clear and strong, but the center of each film is just seeing the world it builds. Each frame, as a still photo, is interesting enough to make you want to see the next one. Preserving and intensifying the central moral quandary of the original and adding Gosling’s star power to the mix just adds more to love.

Blade Runner 2049 is heavily indebted to the original, but that’s by design. What’s important is that Villeneuve had the courage to use everything important about the original film — the stunning visual style and the central moral question of replicants — but still carve out his own original space. It might not be taught in film classes like Blade Runner is (yet), but the beauty of a director making an intellectual property his own is that one-to-one comparisons are no longer relevant. Villeneuve and Gosling made their own thing here, and it stands alone, and it stands strong.

Logan is a great balance of comic book movie action and painful emotional tragedy

And by great balance, I mean both aspects are set to 11 in Hugh Jackman’s last X-Men film

Logan gives Wolverine, one of the most popular comic book movie stars, a great sendoff. I suppose Wolverine himself won’t be leaving, but Hugh Jackman, the main reason the character is so popular, will be, and apparently he’s taking Patrick Stewart with him. The movie is a bit like Driving Miss Daisy, if Morgan Freeman were an alcoholic who just couldn’t seem to stop manufacturing amputees and Miss Daisy were an extremely dangerous telepath. The movie takes place years in the future. Charles Xavier has some type of degenerative brain disease, and whenever he has a seizure, he paralyzes everyone within a certain radius (including their lungs), so he’s living in a hole in the middle of nowhere. Logan is supporting him by driving a limo, apparently. All the other X-Men are dead. New mutants are not being born. Something is killing Logan slowly and painfully, and he’s drinking a lot and finally looking old (he was born in the 1880s). He’s aging, covered in scars, and limping, so his healing factor is ominously not working so well anymore. Add to this the sudden arrival of Wolverine’s murderous daughter clone Laura, who is on the run from the people who trained her as an assassin, and we’re off to the races! Spoilers follow. I guess they preceded too, but they really follow.

Logan is realistic, for a given value of realistic

The first thing that stands out about this film and sets it apart from other entries in the franchise, that makes it memorable (the only thing I remember of X-Men Apocalypse is an angry blue man and a collapsing pyramid) is its unstinting realism. If you replaced Logan’s claws with guns and his on-the-fritz healing factor with some good old-fashioned plot armor, John Wick style (ok John, maybe you have a bulletproof suit, but there’s a finite number of times people can shoot at you before one gets lucky and hits you in the face), and this could be a grim, gritty thriller movie about a grizzled ex-warrior who just wants to save his daughter.

Reality is the backbone of this superhero movie, which sounds weird when you get into the secret corporate labs, the kids with superpowers, and the man with giant claws. I’ll try to explain. The Hangover was just a movie about a group of guys going to Vegas, gambling, and getting drunk, nothing supernatural at all, but the underlying feel of it was completely unrealistic. It goes the opposite way in Logan. It’s a movie about a 150-year-old with a clone daughter and a telepath father figure all being hunted by a transhuman mercenary force, but underneath the superhero trappings is a story about age, and death, and loss. This is where the acting chops of Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman really come through. Those two men have carried most X-Men movies (with some help from Ian McKellen), and they are at the top of their form in this one. Stewart plays a feeble, confused, half-crazy Professor X perfectly — every line of his body radiates weakness, his voice cracks, he’s so frustrated at his helplessness he curses at Logan (yes, Professor X drops an F-bomb in this movie). Every single time you see Hugh Jackman’s face, decades of loss and disappointment hit you like a truck. His every movement, grunt, and word shows a man who is done with life, waiting to die. Their acting makes the movie work, and it’s so wrenching to watch this performance realizing you’ll never see them in these roles again.

Wolverine on a rock
20th Century Fox has every image of Wolverine extremely copyrighted, so here’s this one. Credit: Jonathan Othén | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s not just those two characters that make this grim. The entire world they live in is terrible — the X-Men are all dead (most likely killed by Xavier when he first started having these attacks), the anti-mutant corporations are ascendant and hunting down anyone who is left, and one of the most beloved characters of the franchise is contemplating suicide. Everything is awful, nothing is good. 20th Century Fox brings you in with a promise of X-Men action, and you find yourself trying to eat popcorn to a Sartre play. Again, that’s part of what makes this movie so refreshing compared to the others, and it’s not like they don’t also deliver the action goods.

If you think Wolverine is violent, you should meet his daughter

This movie is not as action-packed as others in the franchise, but the little it does have really delivers. After a brief intro fight, Logan spends a lot of time just driving around, getting drunk, and taking care of Professor X. He meets his clone daughter and still nothing cool happens. She just sits in their hideout eating cereal. Just as you despair of seeing an X-Men movie at all, the mercenaries show up to take her back. They easily subdue Wolverine and send a couple men into the building to get her. You hear some screams, and she comes out and throws a SEVERED HEAD at the leader, then throws herself on the enemy with a viciousness paralleling only that of Wolverine himself. Her fighting style is acrobatic, and involves a lot of evasion, landing on people’s shoulders, and neck-stabbing. Whoever choreographed it should get a medal. It’s a joy to watch, and the incongruousness of a ten-year-old girl effortlessly murdering beefy, lumbering soldiers gives you a sensation that lands somewhere between hilarity and extreme discomfort.

Wolverine’s fighting style is more labored — less balletic but just as bloody. Laura (the clone daughter) fights like someone holding a samurai sword, and Logan fights like a guy holding a bat with nails in. He’s old, and he’s slow, and he can’t shrug off damage like he used to, but he’s still got the killer instinct. He struggles for every inch he gets, and that makes the fights more fun to watch. Too often in superhero movies, it’s hard to see how hard someone is working. Mutants with energy-based or telekinetic powers are fighting for their lives, and, oh boy, it’s time for them to really turn it up, and all they do is…grunt a little more and squinch up their face. Logan does not have that problem — he is no longer an elite fighter, but he just does not stop, and you see his determination in every muscle flex, every enemy punch deflected, and every bodyblow absorbed. It really means something when he finally sinks his claws in someone. Speaking of sinking claws in people, they actually show it. It never made sense in the other X-Men movies when Wolverine would stab someone and the guy would just bloodlessly hit the ground. Well, Logan is rated R, and holy hell it shows. His fights involve multiple amputations, buckets of gore, and lots of realistic stabbing. When he puts his claws into someone’s skull, you see them come out the other side covered in brain matter. It’s so graphic it’s uncomfortable, but it’s better than the touch football version of fighting he was using in previous movies.

Let’s talk about Logan’s feelings

I spent so much time talking about the action scenes because that’s how you approach an X-Men movie, right? How cool the fighting is, how much fun it is to watch people use their powers, etc. There’s another level to this movie though: actual character development and a real focus on the human side of things. These are people, not superheroes. Many of the previous X-Men films tried to carry the whole emotional arc of the movie on the back of the old tension between Magneto and Professor X. It gets stale. In Logan, a half-feral mute falls in love with her genetic father and learns that murdering everyone all the time is maybe problematic. A man who was one of the most powerful and respected mutants of all time is now feeble and dying, desperately trying to advise his last surviving pupil (Wolverine) to do something that really matters. An old, cynical loner who is convinced the last thing left for him to do in this world is leave it finds something to care about. That last one sounds corny, and I suppose it is, but the difference with Logan and other “heart of gold” stories is that Logan absolutely does not have a heart of gold. He’s an old, angry Canadian, and his heart is full of bitters and blue ruin, full stop. By the end of the movie, he has a heart that is maybe a bit shiny if you catch it in the right light, but that’s it.

Maple syrup on a table, only thing better from Canada is Wolverine
Maple syrup, the best thing America has imported from Canada after Wolverine. Credit: Miguel Andrade

Another good human touch to this movie is the humor. There’s not much, god knows, but it is there. Xavier and Logan bicker like an old married couple. The girl does not understand that violence doesn’t solve everything (mostly because it does solve everything). For example, they are at a gas station and she’s riding a little mechanical rocking horse. When it stops, she flies into a rage and is about to murder the coinbox to get more money when Logan just hands her a quarter and gives her a look. Another thing I found funny (and I’m not sure if this is intentional) is that almost every single mercenary chasing Laura has at least one robotic arm, which you absolutely would need if you spent your days raising a baby Wolverine. These small, almost non-existent touches of humor are pleasant in this film, and in a more general sense are what makes the Marvel (not actually the same studio as this one, but whatever) movies more successful than the DC ones — they have a sense of humor. The recent Batman/Superman movie was so terrified of looking goofy that it ended up looking like a steaming pile of gloomy, humorless garbage. There’s got to be a little humor, no matter how serious the movie, because there’s always a little humor in people, no matter how serious the person.

Logan: the rest is silence

There are plenty of scenes of mutant-fueled carnage in this film, more than enough to satisfy the moviegoer who just wants to see Hugh Jackman kill stuff, but the real focus of the movie is an assemblage of deeply broken people taking action to do something that matters, regardless of how much the sharp edges of their shattered pasts grind together within them with every step they take. The beginning, middle, and end of the movie are exercises in unremitting tragedy, which a.) might be overkill but b.) some people’s lives really are that bad. I definitely got something different than what I was expecting, but most of the unexpected was great.

In the climax of the movie, old, almost-dead Logan takes an injection of a serum that supercharges his powers. He’s finally back in form, ready to tear apart a legion of soldiers without breaking a sweat. Wolverine finally achieving full strength was extremely gratifying to the part of me that watched X-Men cartoons as a kid, but the gritty emotional realism comes through here as well. He’s not just back physically, but emotionally as well, finally ready to fight for the person he loves. In the climax, the two focuses of this movie — serious emotional piece and action-packed superhero film — come together like hydrogen and oxygen, in a way that entirely satisfies the part of me that will always love any movie that involves Arnold Schwarzenegger + guns and the part of me that makes a point of watching whichever film won the Oscar that year. I left the theater not sure if I liked the movie or not, not sure exactly what I had watched, and that is a result of the director taking a risk with this film, which is almost always better than doing a retread of a successful formula. After a week’s reflection, it’s clear that any movie that can successfully blend well-done action escapism with emotional catharsis is a great achievement.