Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: "Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi"

This past weekend, I went to see "Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi" in 3D.

Having been born around the time of the original Star Wars, my love for this series has been one of the constants in my life. It has inspired my love of science & technology, my sense of spirituality & view of the nature of Reality, and my approach to understanding myself. It is definitely the most influential creative work in my life, so it's hard not to get excited when a new story from this fictional world is told. Most adults who have grown up with the Star Wars universe don't just get a taste of nostalgia, but an actual child-like feeling of awe at the imaginative scope of these movies.

These are modern myths, and they are like guides for the individual and our culture on how to understand and approach the world. "The Last Jedi," although far from perfect, continued the Star Wars mythos in an amazing way. I can (& will) nitpick the things I didn't like, but overall I really enjoyed the movie and am ready to see it again. Many of the familiar tropes were turned upside down, and some of the deepest additions to the lore since "The Empire Strikes Back" were introduced.

My favorite aspects of the Star Wars saga are the mystical elements surrounding The Force. The ideals of spiritual development and transcendence are presented to the mass audience in a way that no other work of art has been able to do.

I had written about some of my thoughts & hopes for the movie when the trailer came out:

I tried to avoid spoilers beforehand, but I still saw some details online that gave away some of the key plot points. Despite knowing a few secrets going in, the movie still gave me some really surprising moments with some "WOW!"-inducing developments.

If you haven't seen the movie, I'd recommend to stop reading now. I'm going to talk about a lot of the details that you may want to be surprised with.

******SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!********

First of all, although I really liked it, there was alot in the movie that wasn't so great... Fortunately, the best scenes in "The Last Jedi" were some of the most awesome parts of the entire saga.

I think the biggest wasted opportunity was the lack of development of Supreme Leader Snoke. There was no contrast between his Dark Side training of Kylo Ren with the Light Side training of Rey by Luke Skywalker. It is one of the biggest complaints I'm seeing online- that all the buildup and show of power by the enigmatic Snoke is left hanging by his unceremonious death. We have no context to where he's from, how he became powerful with the Dark Side, how he corrupted Ben Solo, or almost anything about him. I was hoping there would be a comparative sequence of Kylo & Rey training with their respective masters, but there was no glimpse into the Dark Side whatsoever. Snoke is an evil jerk with a lust for power & control, who has impressive Force abilities... other than that, we got nothing. I'm sure his character will be fleshed out in expanded materials, but they should have given him even a little more background.

However, the fact that Snoke was killed by Kylo Ren, after so cruelly and arrogantly antagonizing him, was one of the really shocking moments. Kylo basically did what his idol & grandfather Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader couldn't do- kill his master and take control of the fascist military regime seeking to rule the galaxy. He succeeded where Vader failed, but I think he'll find that he still has feelings of fear & inadequacy that cannot be cured by gaining more temporal power.

Star Wars is obviously about war & the battles that are fought in the world. There was some excellent commentary about the business behind war, and military contractors who get rich from profiting off death & destruction from both sides. However, I would have instead liked more focus on exploring the mystical elements of the Star Wars galaxy & The Force. We got nothing from the Dark Side, and although there were some great nuggets from Rey's time with Luke, it felt like the Jedi history and ancient knowledge wasn't explored as extensively as I would've hoped.

Part of the reason is the way that Luke Skywalker's character is treated, which appears to be another major point of contention among fans. Instead of the super-powered Jedi Grand Master many were hoping to see, we initially meet Luke as a grumpy hermit who has actually cut himself OFF from The Force! His failure with his nephew Ben, whose dark nature resulted in the complete destruction of Luke's new Jedi academy, was the reason for Luke's exile. Right from the beginning, when he casually tosses aside his father's lightsaber after Rey hands it to him & walks away, you know he was right when he said "This is not going to go the way you think!"

Failure is a theme in this episode, with most of the characters failing in some way or another.  This is emphasized when none other than Yoda appears to Luke, late in the film. I was hoping for a whole council of Force ghosts to appear, including Obi-wan, Qui-gon, & Anakin, but maybe that's for the grand finale in Episode IX. When "young Skywalker," as Yoda calls him, is ready to burn down the ancient Jedi tree & sacred books (which he didn't know Rey had taken with her), Yoda appears as a Force ghost to drop some of his crazy wisdom on the disillusioned Jedi. He states that failure is the greatest teacher, and helps Luke come to terms with his own shortcomings.

Although some fans are outraged at this portrayal of Luke, it makes him more human and reveals that even the greatest heroes in the galaxy can have flaws and insecurities. As for his contemplation of murdering his nephew when he senses the evil within Ben as his student, it is no more unbelievable than any of the other times Luke was tempted by the Dark Side, his own anger, & fear.

I like the idea of Luke going to the first Jedi temple to be a hermit, living an ascetic life of humble daily toil like a simple monk. However, the cynicism and downright disdain for the Jedi way was a bit jarring. I was satisfied with how he taught Rey that the Sith & Jedi were just human conventions, and the living Force that permeates all creation was something that was beyond ideology or any organization. It was a little strange, though, to have Luke teaching these lessons if he didn't even want anything to do with it. However, I really liked the scenes of Luke finally taking on Rey as a student, in the mode of a kung-fu movie. The focus on meditation, breath, and spiritual introspection were exactly what I hoped would be included in her training. He tried to convey the "grey" principles that I was hoping would be discussed in this movie. The idea is to move beyond false dichotomies like "light" & "dark" to find balance- embracing the totality of existence to live a life of spiritual purpose and deep understanding.

To this point, there was a mosaic in the simple stone structure of the first Jedi temple that was visible, but not in detail. It represented the Prime Jedi, the first Force user to form the religious order that would last for millennia. I wanted to see a better image of it, so I found this scan online from The Art of The Last Jedi book. It shows the first Jedi in meditation pose, with the lightsaber creating the division between alternating light & dark in a yin-yang style design. I wish they had shown it & explained it briefly... but like so many other intriguing details, it was left in the background.

Luke's progression through the movie leads to the climax of the story, where he re-connects with The Force after finally forgiving himself for his past failure. Jedi Master Skywalker then exhibits one of the most powerful displays of The Force ever seen. During the final battle on Crait, as the First Order (led by the new Supreme Leader Kylo Ren) is about to destroy what's left of The Resistance, Luke suddenly appears. After facing down the line of walkers and ships on the battlefield, Skywalker emerges unscathed from a barrage of artillery fire ordered by a furious Kylo, who lands his ship to face his uncle & former teacher. After dodging Kylo's attacks (with moves that I thought were cool, but a little too reminiscent of The Matrix movies) something strange happens... Kylo seems to slice him in half, then pokes him right in the chest with his lightsaber in disbelief, as Luke stands there unfazed. Channeling his old friend & Kylo's dad, Han Solo, Luke says "See ya 'round kid," & disappears! Still physically back on his island, Luke had used a remote Force-projection of himself to distract Kylo & allow the Resistance, including his sister Leia, time to escape.

“The supreme art of war 
is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

-Sun Tzu

During the confrontation, the scene cuts to an awe-inspiring view of Luke meditating & levitating on a ledge at the island. He is trembling & obviously exerting an immense effort to project his astral form across the galaxy, so clearly that it fools everyone. After the confrontation when Kylo realizes he's been bamboozled, we cut back to Luke collapsing onto the ground & crawling back to his feet. Facing twin suns like those seen in the first appearance of Luke on his home planet of Tatooine, Luke finally looks serene and in harmony with himself and the world. Then he achieves the ultimate state of being, dissolving his physical form and becoming one with The Force. He has become an ascended master, similar to stories in our world of Tibetan Buddhist monks who are able to transition into "light bodies" and transcend this physical realm.

It was an absolutely epic sequence, and my favorite part of the film. It showed how powerful Luke Skywalker was, and was an awesome send-off for the greatest hero character of the modern age. Those who wished they could have seen Luke tearing up legions of stormtroopers with his green lightsaber and over-powered Force abilities missed the point completely. By playing the enlightened trickster and using his powers to save his friends & not destroy his enemies, Luke had reached a refined spiritual state that was the ultimate expression of Force mastery.

"Greater in battle than the man who would conquer a thousand men, 
is he who would conquer just one- himself." 

-The Buddha

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was the perfect way to end Luke's story. It was a great contrast between the humble Jedi who passed on gracefully, full of purpose, in peace, & on his own terms- vs. Snoke who, for all his grand power, was cut down in a pathetic & meaningless death. The best part is that now Luke will be a Force ghost who can continue to teach Rey, maybe haunt Ben, and be an influence that he could never have been in life!

So yeah, that was my favorite part. Both Rey & Kylo were also amazing in this movie. Rey is an excellent character, embodying the light side in a way that is pure, yet full of emotion and intuition. By making Rey's parent's nobodies, it shows that anyone in this world can be powerful and a catalyst for positive change. You don't need to be a Skywalker or a specific lineage to be of consequence. This is further emphasized at the very end, when a slave boy on the casino planet subtly levitates a broom to his hand, looks to the stars, and holds up the broom like a lightsaber. This is symbolic of the new generation of Force users who will emerge and be taught by Rey.

Because redemption is such a major theme of Star Wars, I have a feeling that maybe Ben Solo will eventually come back from the Dark Side- and either have a romantic connection & a family with Rey, or will join her in teaching the new Force sensitives. Before, I would have thought the "Reylo" love possibility was ridiculous, but this movie shows a connection between them that is difficult to brush off. Their fight together against Snoke's guards after Kylo killed him was intense & awesome. Kylo Ren really grew into a complex character that is completely unpredictable and has a future of limitless possibilities. Whatever happens... as Luke said, he will definitely NOT be the "last Jedi"!

Speaking of ridiculous, I do feel like Leia's "big scene" was a bit out of place, or at least could have done better. We know Leia is also Anakin Skywalker's daughter, so she is obviously strong in The Force. During the First Order attack on her ship, her conflicted son Kylo/Ben can't pull the trigger to destroy her ship's bridge. It doesn't matter because one of his wingmen do it anyway & blow up the bridge, with Leia, Admiral Ackbar, & others in it. Leia's seemingly lifeless body is floating through space, but she wakes up... & flies Superman-style back into the ship! When I was watching it, this really took me out of the movie & made me go "Whaaaat?!?" I guess it is neat to give Leia powers, but I feel like the way the scene was filmed was kind of weird. Otherwise, it is great to see her character, along with the other characters from the original trilogy continuing their stories along the new faces in these sequels.

Like any of the Star Wars movies, there are plenty of details & plot points that I could pick apart to criticize. At least the dialogue didn't reach the cringe levels that the Prequels did, especially between Anakin & Padme. The interactions between Rey & Kylo in this movie were much more compelling and dramatic.

People have been complaining about the whole mission on the casino planet of Canto Bight & the new character Rose- a mechanic for the Resistance, animal lover, & Finn's fangirl. I would've preferred all this & the space battles be cut back to make room for more of the Jedi history and Force training. Unfortunately, every Star Wars movie has these side quests and seemingly tangential aspects.

Overall, I really enjoyed "The Last Jedi", and could keep talking about it, like people around the world are already doing. Because the good scenes were so jaw-droppingly awesome, and it delved back into exploring the mystical & philosophical concepts that I love- this movie is now one of my favorites of the entire saga. It has set up some really wonderful potential for the final Episode 9 of the series.

I look forward to experiencing the culmination of a lifetime of being a Star Wars fan, by watching the conclusion of this epic & timeless story. Like the legend of Luke Skywalker in the movie, the Star Wars story will continue to inspire me and countless generations in the years to come.

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