1.09.2021

Stand together, die together


Where was I...?

Oh yeah! The rebellion (and the franchise, and film) was in BIG TROUBLE! And since then, I've had a lotta time: to rewatch old stuff, to experience new stuff, and to contemplate this pop art empire that's continued to fascinate me with its puppets and its strings. 

I'll admit: I was prepared to share all my mixed feelings on Episode IX upon its release, but before I was able to ignite any kinda "hot take," it just felt really obvious - y'know, like a disturbance in The Force - that no one gave a shit. No one cared about the movie, ergo no one would care about whatever the fuck I had to say about it, that was fer damn sure. Even as I write this, the mood in the room is still a resounding "no thank you." And isn't that weird? More STAR WARS happened, and people didn't really hate it like they usually do, but instead just ignored it like white noise. But, that's the kinda stuff I wanna address here; I'm not gonna write a big long poem about the movies - I've already done that - but if this final (for now) numerical installment gave us anything, it was an abstract challenge to, yet again, take a step back and assess the weight and sustainability of this cultural phenomenon. I, for one (and maybe I'm the only one), accepted the challenge.
 

Per usual, I'm gonna talk about it like you've all seen it, so there'll be plenty of shorthand (and spoilers) throughout this hopefully very short cinematic evaluation. I mean, I'd love to be able to just say "I liked it" and walk away -- it really should be that simple. But these movies never really leave an opening for a *mic drop* situation; in this current climate, you're expected to die on your choice of hill, or at the very least crawl out of the flames with the use of your one remaining arm. That being said, I really don't feel the need to be that aggressive: STAR WARS is religion now, and no amount of flowery prose is going to swing any given viewer's opinions either way, and 2.) my feelings weren't that strong for this installment. My expectations (which were in a good place) were met, and I felt satisfied - just like most trips through the drive-thru. And just like fast food, you get home and look in the bag and they forgot something or they didn't hold the pickles or you didn't get the toy you wanted, but you still eat what they gave you and it's fine and you move on.

One thing this movie did was left me wanting more - which was both a debit and a credit. It took all three movies in this Trilogy to fully warm up to these characters and find myself in a place where I really wanted to see where Rey & the gang were going next; it was just unfortunate that - to reiterate - it came at the very end-end of all we were gonna get. Some of this desire was due to writing I suppose, but really, I never had any complaints re. the performances - particularly Adam Driver, who was, by and far, the 'driving force' (yikes) of this set. And you know, it's funny: this was the first time in all of STAR WARS that I found myself more caught up in character development than in lightsabers and plot twists. But, it should be noted (and I think it has been noted quite a bit) that, in order to function properly, they need all three of these elements (and then some). And that's where it gets a little shaky.
 
 
This isn't a digression, so stay with me... The Prequels were largely an overwrought, clinical exercise in story development that were spread too thin and ultimately weren't that interesting of a story. But I suppose they served their purpose -- mostly because they had a purpose to serve. This Sequel Trilogy - no matter what they made them about - categorically, definitively had no purpose; it was built on the ashes of a broken Fantasy Serial over which we were still mourning. It was all they could do to sell us a rough remake of A New Hope to get us back on board (not just with our wallet, but our spirit). Once they landed that, they were free to dick around in any direction they wanted -- and by God did they ever! I don't wanna talk a lot about Last Jedi because I've covered it, but to give you an idea of where I'm at, I continually think of a Hunter Thompson quote: "It never got weird enough for me." The Prequels were predicated on passion and decades of planning and precision - and we got what we got. These new films were born out of cash and unlimited power, and those brushstrokes are just as visible. So what does that mean for us? Well, I'll tell ya...
 

Initially, I was mildly surprised by the way fans sucked the marrow off this last movie, detailing and demonizing every skipped beat, every missed opportunity, every failed resolution that didn't fulfill the fantasy that they'd already cancelled, and I thank the Maker that I went into it (and came out) with my own sensibilities and beliefs. There was no way in hell that this was going to be the literal or metaphorical STAR WARS movie to end all STAR WARS movies -- you knew that, and you know you knew that. My hope rested in the idea that, like it or not, Last Jedi was a wholly original left hook that acted in the service of no one - not even STAR WARS movies. The less-definable setup TLJ left us with was such an intoxicating aroma of ambiguity that I really wasn't able to predict which direction the final episode would lead us. But did I care...?
 

I love, love, loved the spooky stuff: the dusty heat lightning of Exegol, the 1940s mad scientist laboratory, the zombie Palpatine with Pinhead dialect - it was all really working for me. No lie - I've fantasized about an Episode starting this way: intimate with big motifs and dark tones. Oh, and the Star Destroyers resurrecting from the ground into stormy skies? *chef's kiss* It was like a Super Nintendo commercial directed by a young Tim Burton: cute, but menacing. Rey wandering the corridors of the ROTJ Death Star was an even cooler, more ghostly bond to the Original Trilogy than Anakin putting on the mask at the end of ROTS. The final confrontation between Rey and The Emperor may've been familiar and by-the-numbers, but there was nothing routine about the gothic coliseum populated with hissing Sith cultists standing in the shadows. Frankly, all of these movies were most interesting to me when they found ways to be a little scary.
 

But, like every interesting thing in this movie, it was rushed for time. And that's probably the biggest complaint (though that's a long list to choose from) that you'll find in any review: compromised pacing due to a sprawling narrative composed by multiple storytellers with an unreasonable deadline. And this - this - is just one of several reasons why TROS and all other STAR WARS movies will continue to captivate me forever; this 9-Episode series was produced over five decades / five specific specific eras of Cinema, helmed by five different directors, ten (credited) screenwriters, however many producers, all playing to very different audiences. This has been Film History in motion. They all have a "story," but they also have a story; to me, the production side and the critical and viewer response has been just as compelling as these wars amongst the stars. 

It's less frustrating and more amusing to me to hear things like:
  • "Uh, they didn't really explain why Palpatine is still alive."
  • "How did Kylo Ren get his mask back?"
  • "Why are there still pieces of the Death Star left after it exploded?"
  • "Only one Star Destroyer controls all the others?"
  • "Is Han a Force Ghost?"
  • "Why do I care about anything if no one's ever really gone?"
  • "Rey and Finn didn't get together?"
  • "So, Snoke was like a Frankenstein monster? How does that work even?"
I've mentioned time and time again that I never really played with action figures, but rather displayed them for my viewing pleasure -- they required no contrived adventures or labored dialogue put upon them. I just wanted to see them. And I think this sort-of-subconcious desire and gratification is achieved with a movie like this. I wasn't bogged down with the logic of "how" or "why" The Emperor returned - I was just happy to see him. I didn't let Shredder's inexplicable presence ruin Secret of the Ooze. Same with numerous revivals of Freddy and/or Jason. The endless resilience of one Wile E. Coyote never bothered me. But for the Science Fiction Space Opera about talking frogs and giant dogs and swords made from an encapsulated length of laser, the reappearance of a magic wizard was too much for some folks. If it didn't make sense - if nothing in this movie makes sense - that's fine. Actually, that's great! I find that infinitely more enjoyable than the expository stereo instructions that was Attack of the Clones.
 

One could call it a half-hearted mess with too many ideas and no real structure. But without any effort, I went into it cold with very few preconceptions, and I absorbed its stammered pace and abrasive set pieces and information overload as one big, long, abstract mosaic of STAR WARS textures. With some amount of optimism, you could accept it as the Mulholland Drive of the franchise. I mean, I sorta say that jokingly... (and if you know anything about the making of Mulholland Drive, the comparison is apt) but all I really took from it were the visuals. And I know that sounds silly -- J.J. isn't exactly Tarkovsky, and a lotta the more striking images were born in a render farm -- but just take a quick glance at this handful of frames:
 










Look familiar? Some of these images were in the trailer, or in magazines, or on the internet, or even on the poster. I pulled them straight from the movie - which all but guarantees that this was 2 1/2 hours of production stills set to music. It's not a significant source of nutrition, and I never expected (or wanted) it to be. I love the lightsaber duel with Maul at the end of Phantom Menace, but I was never for a moment emotionally invested in it. How could I be? I barely knew what the hell was going on! ("oh man, I sure hope Renton avenges Oskar Schindler!") And this has nothing to do with the bar being set too high or too low - my only concern in regards to bar placement is its proximity to the whole STAR WARS vibe that was put in place by the Original Trilogy. It was lacking in The Prequels and they suffered for it. Rogue One and The Mandalorian have it and they benefit from it. Solo didn't have it and so we don't talk about it. This Sequel Trilogy, for me, has it in spades, and I'm thankful for it.

I trust you've seen this:

Isn't it amazing: this goofy space movie from the 70s about fictional folklore has become actual folklore. And as the universe continues to expand beyond the furthest regions of the outer rim, the strict dogma of "canon" will hopefully begin to loosen up. People applaud the rigid and cohesive framework of the new Marvel Universe because it's as smooth and comprehensive as the picture on the puzzle box. STAR WARS has been like the puzzle pieces: flawed and organic, fully assembled in parts, the cracks and grooves clearly visible up close, a fascinating work in progress from a distance, but with no discernable border. Lucas literally started in the middle, and as we continuously move outward in concentric circles, we can, one day very soon, look back from the 50-year mark(!) and continue to appreciate (and argue about) this very strange evolution of storytelling.
 

In conclusion, I thought this was the best one since Return of the Jedi. A

- Paul

4 comments:

Luke said...

I feel ike you feel with Doctor Sleep, I always felt like I was on the outside looking in in regards to the whole saga. Not for lack of trying. I participated in a few pieces of SW culture around the time of Phantom Menace and saw the prequels, Awakens and Last Jedi in theaters. I just couldn't connect to it.

P and J said...

that's not uncommon, and I'm always fascinated when people aren't on board with otherwise popular stuff (and not for the wrong reasons). do you have any strong feelings for the Originals?

Chris Holt said...

Spot on

Luke said...

The originals- I knew about the major twist in Empire before I could watch them. Being given the name of Luke, I might as well as had "spoil the Vader twist" tattooed on my forehead. I do remember watching all 3 at a sleepover and being most drawn to Empire. Having even known about the big plot point, it still had the introduction of my favorite character in Boba Fett, the aesthetic, and landscapes (the snow scenes specifically) I preferred over New Hope and Jedi.

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