Sunday, December 17, 2017

That divisive new Star Wars movie

Have you had enough time to see this movie?


Then stop reading. I will SPOIL. And I won't repeat the spoiler warning like five more times in the next three paragraphs, because if you haven't seen it, you are intelligently on the lookout for spoilers and don't need to be told twice. If you do need to be told twice, well, I have no sympathy for you.

Here goes.

This may happen every time a new Star Wars movie comes out, and if so, the premise for this post is off base. But I can't concretely remember the last time I heard people arguing that the new Star Wars movie was either their favorite in the series, or their least favorite -- with equal vigor on both sides, and about as many voices.

Critics don't seem to be very divided, as the Metascore in the high 80s would attest. But audiences are a different story.

In the past few days of discussing this movie in various formats on Facebook, I have heard both of the following comments:

"I hated it."

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi > A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi combined."

That second comment is patently ridiculous and probably should be thrown out as an outlier lacking in credibility, but it does say something about just how passionate some people feel about this movie. As does the word "hate" when describing the others' equal passion in the opposite direction.

Me? Glad you asked.

I gave it a 3.5 stars. I felt inclined to give it four. But when I talk about it, my words are more like a three.

Simply put, I am far more compelled to talk about the things I didn't like about it than those I did. That should not be mistaken with standard internet negativity or holding the film to an impossible standard. I'm a guy who felt like I was walking on air after The Force Awakens, my impression of it only tainted by the fact that I was depressed over Han Solo dying. I can be just as forgiving of a Star Wars movie as I can be critical of it. Since I am actually a critic, what I hope emerges is my genuine feelings toward a movie's strengths or weaknesses.

Here I am more focused on the weaknesses. I did not laugh much in this movie. I did not feel swept away by it. I felt two of its three plots had serious momentum and relevance issues, with only the Kylo/Rey/Luke plot feeling like it truly grabbed me. However, that plot also contains the film's most bold choices, including the deaths of Snoke and Luke, which both felt premature to me. So even while that plot was the most interesting to me, it also contained potentially the most problematic developments in the larger story. (A piece I read suggested that by getting story beats from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi out of the way now, it free up Episode IX to be truly original -- though I'm still struggling with whether I think that's exactly what I want.)

And yet I'm giving this movie 3.5 stars, and seriously toyed with four. Any given Star Wars movie is doing so much and has so much going on that within the context of cinema at large, these things are worthy of celebration. They suffer more within the context of Star Wars.

At least I'm not as bad as that guy who said he "hated" it. I noticed that on Letterboxd he gave it four stars, as, presumably, he could not bear to give a Star Wars movie any less. ("Marge, this gets my lowest rating ever: seven thumbs up.")

I guess I have to consider that I am a person who has trouble letting go. This weekend we packed up a lot of the books we used to read to the kids when they were babies, and only the most insipid could I really bear to part with. A hoarder wants everything he has ever had to remain accessible to him. Therefore, a hoarder wants Luke Skywalker to still be around, should he need him.

I guess I'm struggling with the idea that the old Star Wars needs to be purged to allow for a new one, which is one of the most direct themes of this movie. I like the old Star Wars. I'd like to keep it in the attic so I can take it out and look at it whenever I want. But that's not good for me, this movie says.

What I'm struggling with is this: Purge the old Star Wars so we can have what kind of new Star Wars? Isn't the next movie the last "new Star Wars" anyway? Oh, they'll keep exploring the Star Wars universe forever, of course, but are these characters we're going to keep following beyond the next movie? Daisy Ridley has said she's done playing Rey after the next movie, but did they plan to keep following Rey anyway? Something like that makes sense to me in a movie like Star Trek Generations, where Kirk had to die to pass the baton on to a new cast who were going to go make another three movies. But as far as I know we're not getting three more movies with Rey, Finn and Poe. So why do I have to purge the old Star Wars at all?

At this point I don't think this post can be anything more than my disconnected thoughts. I'm obviously still processing the movie, though the big difference between this and The Force Awakens is that I don't feel compelled to have a second theatrical viewing be part of my processing. It doesn't feel particularly likely that I am going to like it a whole lot better.

But there are still plenty of arguments I am undecided on, decisions in the movie that are not clearly either strengths or weaknesses. You'd think that a second viewing would help decide those, but to be honest, watching The Last Jedi was not a fun experience for me. I never gave myself over to it like I did with The Force Awakens, and the things that were good about it felt good for me, like medicine. They felt like they were supposed to be good for my soul, but I want a Star Wars movie to be more than medicine. I want it to be an upper in parts, not a downer throughout.

When I started writing this piece I felt an urge to catalogue some of the things I liked and some of the things I didn't like, the way everyone does on the internet all the time, just to be on the record about those things. But I think I'm going to leave off without doing that. I'd like to say how good I thought Mark Hamill, Adam Driver and Ridley were, or how wasted I thought Finn and Poe were in side plots that weren't worthy of them. Or how I feel like characters like C3PO, R2D2 and Chewbacca are being kept around specifically to be given the short shrift as a way of further differentiating these films from their forbears.

But I'm not going to. You've seen the movie and either liked it or not liked it -- more likely loved it or hated it -- and you know where you fall on those topics, whether they play a role in your feelings or are things you overlooked because of everything else you loved about it. I don't bring you to The Audient to repeat everything you can get everywhere else.

So I guess I myself didn't love or hate it. Even the movie I did sort of hate, Rogue One, I could bear to give no lower than 2.5 stars. I love Star Wars, and I hate not loving any particular movie. And sadly, I don't love The Last Jedi.

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