A short review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017)

I’ll never be able to love “Star Wars” the way its lifelong fans do.  After the unexpected magic of the first three films, the subsequent movies almost always seemed to me to be just space fantasies for kids, formulaically developed to hit all the right notes and sell licensed merchandise.  (The exception would be last year’s generally excellent “Star Wars: Rogue One,” which uniquely felt like a genuine, human story that a creator wanted to tell, rather than something brainstormed until consensus in a corporate writers’ room.)  With that said, I’ll happily report here that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was actually very good — as someone with little favorable bias toward the franchise, I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

The movie simply got more right than it got wrong.  It’s still a marketing-oriented space opera developed for mass appeal, but it managed to rise above that because its many elements included more hits than misses.

If I had to pick one thing that made this movie succeed for me, it’s the balance it struck between its epic war story and its narrower sword-and-sorcery central plot thread.  I like how the film began with an interstellar war — it had ordinary, mortal, relatable human characters fight and make sacrifices.  Anyone can relate to characters like that because they are interchangeable with people fighting a war in our world.  (It was also excellently rendered, in terms of fantastic visuals and some creative ideas.)  Only afterward does the movie layer in the far-out Jedi stuff, which contrasts the war story and adds complexity to it.

The second thing I liked about it was its terrific special effects — I’ve never seen a “Star Wars” movie without them, even if the prequels had a more cartoonish, toylike quality to what they depicted.

The third, I think, was the return of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker.  Hamill is actually quite a good actor, and his skilled turn here was alternately funny and dramatically convincing.  I found myself more nostalgic after watching Luke’s return to the franchise than after Han Solo’s return in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015).  (And I love Harrison Ford just as much as everyone else in the universe.)

Is there a lot to nitpick?  Sure.  In addition to some plot holes, the character of Rose was rather annoying.  (Spunky young idealists can grate on the nerves if they’re too cutesy and seem to ingratiate themselves to the viewer.)

But a far larger weakness is that “the force” has become more of a deus ex machina than ever before.  I can’t be specific here because I want to avoid spoilers, but both the Jedi and their Sith counterparts employ incredible new powers in the movie that are absolutely unprecedented.  It isn’t explained at all, and it isn’t consistent with any prior “Star Wars” movie.  And it feels like a cheat that is both sweeping and … a little strange.

Still, I’d recommend this movie — even if you didn’t love every “Star Wars” movie you’ve seen in the past.

I’ll end with a quick note about the “porgs” — those little penguinesque aliens that are supposedly dividing longtime fans into opposing war-camps.  I loved the damn things.  It makes perfect sense that Luke’s hideaway planet would have local fauna.  And I read that the filmmakers actually did include them for an understandable reason.  The island shooting location’s landscape was inhabited by puffins.  It made more sense to overwrite them with CGI stand-ins than to digitally remove them altogether.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Kenner’s first “Star Wars” toys in 1978

[Blog posts that are posted just past midnight on Thursday shall still be considered “Throwback Thursday” posts.  Thanks, THE MANAGEMENT.]

This is me hopping on the “Star Wars” bandwagon.  “Star Wars: the Forces Awakens” is almost exactly a month away today, but, more to the point, Christmas is in another five weeks.  I will always associate all of my action figures and vehicles with Christmas, as that is when I got most of them.  Seeing that little original Luke Skywalker (with his retractable lightsaber) will forever make me think of Christmas when I was six.

I had nearly all of these first Star Wars figures, because my parents were especially damned cool about being generous to a fault every December 25th.  (The only exceptions were the Death Star Commander and the Stormtrooper, and it never bothered me once.)  The Jawa was the movie adversary that most fascinated me, and the Tusken Raider was the one that actually managed to scared me a little.  I got doubles of those action figures in later years, but that was cool — both the Jawas and Tusken Raiders acted in groups.  (The latter travel single file to hide their numbers, you see.)

My parents’ largesse was especially impressive in light of what I learned from Wikipedia tonight.  These toys apparently were sometimes difficult for Santa to find, as Kenner drastically underestimated the demand for them.  (The company was wise enough to purchase the license after the strangely faux-sounding “Mego Corporation” turned it down.  I can only imagine that somebody, somewhere regretted that decision.)  What’s funny is that when Star Wars was a new cultural event, local retailers weren’t always 100 percent clear on the mythology upon which these toys were based.  I stumbled across an image of 1978 newspaper ad the other day in which Darth Vader somewhat confusingly addresses the readers as “EARTHLINGS.”  (Sorry — it isn’t the ad pictured below.)

The Star Wars vehicles I received in 1978 varied in quality.  Take a look at the “escape pod” below, poorly representing the vehicle in which C-3PO and R2-D2 absconded with Leia’s distress message early in the 1977 movie.  It’s … no more impressive than a simple tupperware cup.  In fact, it would fail as a tupperware cup because it had a hole in it.

The Landspeeder was a quality toy.  One nifty feature was that its well hidden wheels and suspension allowed it to capably mimic the hovercraft action of the film’s vehicle.  That was neat.  I can definitely remember shooting that thing across the floor.

But crowning ALL of my Star Wars toys on Christmas, 1978, was Darth Vader’s Imperial Tie Fighter.

Look at that thing.  Even as an adult, I think that thing looks fun as hell to play with.  And, for a six-year-old boy, it was PURE. UNADULTERATED.  JOY.

That black Tie Fighter was incredibly fun on a number of levels.  It was detailed.  It just LOOKED like an evil spacecraft.  Darth Vader (or any action figure, really) could fit inside the cockpit.  (If memory serves, some of my play scenarios involved having Darth getting his ride stolen by that plucky Chewbacca.)  If it was hit by Rebel scum in their X-Wing Fighters, a lever somewhere on the toy made its wings pop off dramatically.  But best of all was another button that made it fire.  The sound it made was frikkin’ FANTASTIC, and that red light in front lit UP.  The fun was amped up even further when the lights went out — I can still remember that sound and that red light reflected off the coffee table and the wrapping paper scattered around my family’s living room.

Click to enlarge:

 

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KEEP YOUR DARTH VADER.

And your Darth Maul, Darth Sideous, Darth Billoriellycus and Darth Revan.

[Puff]

The Cigarette Smoking Man is a complex, nuanced, and alternately sympathetic and frightening villain.  He’s played by an outstanding actor, William B. Davis.  And he’s a better suited nemesis for a paranoid modern America than those pun-monikered space-zen anger-samurai from a galaxy far, far away.  All those guys (save for the apparently mute Maul) always sound like a fascist Deepak Chopra when they talk.  (In fairness, though, so does CSM, kinda.)

[Puff]

Behold — the new poster for the the return of “The X Files” in January.  (I guess I was wrong in predicting we would see only a younger CSM in flashback?)

[Puff]

Fun with fandom: go up to someone who is obsessing over “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and say, with as straight a face as possible, “Man, you are REALLY into ‘Star Trek,’ aren’t you?”  Watch them implode.

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