Reviews: Books & Film
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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

I caught the 9PM showing of The Last Jedi last night. I left the theater with mixed feelings. It’s a good Star Wars installment, continuing on with all of the themes that we know and love. It’s getting great reviews, and gosh darn it, people like it. So whatever mixed feelings I may have had, as I pondered my Star Wars experience from last night, I felt like I could say one thing for certain: I had a good soak in the Star Wars Universe.

Even so, there was something about the film didn’t quite feel entirely satisfying, at least to me. To continue with the water metaphor: I may have had a good soak, but I’m not sure that I swam anywhere. 

Another positive reaction: I love the Rey character. She’s certainly one of the most compelling characters from the 8 main films. It was her character, more than anyone else, who carried The Last Jedi, even at that, though, I feel like her character had/has a good deal more potential. This was true, I think, for other characters as well.

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Rey: def the best thing this trilogy has going for it

The Last Jedi did a good deal with character development, and by and large, that was a positive thing, especially since we are at long last starting to see a little gender and ethnic diversity in the main characters; but I felt like they stopped just short of doing some really interesting things. This was most clear, I think, with Luke Skywalker.

I won’t give away any spoilers, but I didn’t make any real psychological or emotional connection with Luke. He was the reluctant teacher whose past failure is holding him back, but he’s also an advanced Jedi Master, at this point in his life, and I was left quite dissatisfied on this count. Luke just lacked substance, at least for me. Yoda, by contrast, never fails to deliver, and his brief appearance sort salvages things, a bit, so far as the Luke character is concerned. Even Mark Hamill said that he didn’t like the direction of the Luke character.

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Use the Force, Luke!

HBO’s Game of Thrones proved that epics can blaze new trails, artistically, so why can’t Star Wars? To be fair, I think Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) pulled it off, but Rogue One was not officially part of the ongoing films, but this seems to have been to their advantage. [SPOILER ALERT] Rogue One could do unorthodox things like killing off the heroes at the end of the film. By being at a bit of a remove from the official films, Rogue One seems to have had the option to flex some creative muscle. [end spoiler alert]

Comparing Star Wars to Game of Thrones prompted a question in my mind: Is Disney just playing it safe with the trilogy so that they can use the tride and true tricks of the Star Wars trade to churn out some blockbusters? Watching The Last Jedi feels, in retrospect, like it was driven by algorithms.

Yes, they can do that with algorithms these days. Algorithms can be used as a part of the writing process to ensure that a book or movie pushes all the right buttons.

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Use the Force, Ned!

An algorithm operates by command, to perform complex problem-solving operations. This often occurs by analyzing data in extreme detail. To put it simply, an algorithm takes data and breaks it all down to its basic atomic elements, then recreates it and rebuilds it. It rebuilds the data into something useful, some kind of information to analyze from a new perspective, or as is the case for something like Facebook, an algorithm can take data (i.e., your data) and then set in motion a particular operation, like putting up an ad or a news story that Facebook thinks will be stimulating to you.

We’ve all done a sort feature or a filter feature. An algorithm does many, many of these kinds of operations, hundreds or even thousands of them, dicing and splicing the data then putting it back together again according to the way it’s programed.

Okay, so that’s an algorithm, in a nutshell. Now let’s apply that to The Last Jedi.

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Use the Force…all of you!

Artistically, the elements of a book or film can be broken down to their atomic elements and then scored against a set of criteria to see how strong it is, i.e., how popular it might be, given all of the elements of the plot structure and all the features of each of the characters and how they relate to each other, etc. The Last Jedi has all of the most interesting and successful elements of the prior films. Every scene has multiple points of reference to prior films and characters, etc. — and as such, it makes me feel like I’ve soaked in the Star Wars Universe for nearly three hours, which feels really good, but has The Last Jedi really broken any new ground?

The Last Jedi is fun and stimulating in all the ways that we want Star Wars to be, but to me, this film doesn’t feel like it is its own film. That’s vague, I know, but the first two films in this most recent Star Wars trilogy just don’t seem to have their own voice, instead I feel like we go from one Star Wars Moment to the next, as if the algorithm was there at every turn to ensure that each moment was an authentic Star Wars Moment.

So we soak, but we don’t swim. And that’s not really a bad thing, in and of itself. Sometimes a good soak is just the thing to hit the spot.

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Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy; I pass the winters in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. I'm working on a memoir-based nonfiction book on the American Dream. I blog, quite frequently, and I also have a novel in process, set in Alaska.

5 Comments

  1. Would you say that the swimming is the story, the characters’ intentional movement through the water, whereas the soaking refers to the water — the world in which the characters are immersed?

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    • Hmmm…..That’s not quite it…….I thought about it, though, and it’s hard to define beyond the metaphors. I looked up Vivian Gornick and her work on the situation vs. the story. Here’s what she says:

      “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

      Of course these terms (“situation” and “story”) are artificial, and in reality there’s overlap and areas of grey, etc. But to stick w/ Gornick’s “situation” and “story” division, I’d say that I’m not sure The Last Jedi said anything. So there was plenty of “situation,” many authentic Star Wars Moments, but I’m not sure there was a true “story” — or more specifically, I don’t think that the film developed the greater Star Wars “story.” That’s the “swimming” that I was referring to. In and of itself there was probably a story, taking the film in isolation, but The Last Jedi is the eight installment in a greater saga, so there’s a greater burden to develop that greater saga, to deepen and widen the story — at least that’s my opinion and my expectations. Not everyone is looking for that, though. Some appreciate a good soak in the “situation” of the Star Wars Universe.

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  2. I also had mixed feelings about The Last Jedi. I wanted to love it, I really did, but there were elements of it that just didn’t ring true enough for me. I mean, I enjoyed being in the Star Wars universe again, but it didn’t feel wholly satisfying. Kylo Ren isn’t scary enough, I wanted to know more about Snoke, I didn’t like Leia flying through space, I didn’t understand why the destroyer simply couldn’t blast the rebellion ships to pieces… I guess the whole thing felt a bit lame, which sounds silly, because in this movie so much happens… Maybe I should watch it again and give it another chance.

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    • I’ll watch it again, too, at some point. At this point, I just didn’t feel drawn into the film, but maybe my feelings will change after a second look. As it stands, I’m more looking forward to what they will do in the third installment. The last film in this trilogy seems like it’ll make it or break it.

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