The Last Jedi, Ready Player One, and Infinity War

It’s been a while, but I’m still here!

Recently, I mentioned to some friends and acquaintances that I really liked The Last Jedi.  I received some light abrasions for my unpopular opinion, but that led me to the realization that I have a lot to say about a handful of recent movies.  Tonight, I’m taking a break from my working on my current novel to talk in depth about The Last Jedi, Ready Player One, and Avengers: Infinity War.  I’m going to get into spoilers for all three movies, so if you haven’t seen them and you don’t want anything spoiled, this is your warning.

Last chance.  Beyond this point, there will be spoilers.

 

The Last Jedi

It’s been long enough that I don’t believe I have much new to contribute to the conversation about this controversial movie, other than my own experiences.  I’m a long term Star Wars fan.  One of my oldest memories involves laying in the back of a car at the drive-in while the original Star Wars played.  I was young enough that the only thing I can remember from that viewing was that the stormtroopers were scary.

I saw The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the theater.  I remember those movies.  They were bigger than life!  They captured my imagination and expanded what I thought was possible.  The original trilogy became a permanent part of my life, just as they became a permanent part of our culture.

Based on that, it would be easy to assume that as a Star Wars fan, I have an unlimited amount of forgiveness for the movies that came after the original trilogy.  The prequels proved that assumption wrong.  Certainly at first, I looked for ways to justify The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.  I wanted those movies to be great.  But they weren’t.

Star Wars movies are flawed.  All of them are.  I expect a certain level of campiness, and maybe a few plot holes large enough to fly an X-Wing through.  That’s part of the experience.  The prequels weren’t that.

Rather than bash on the prequels, let me spell out as succinctly as I can what a Star Wars movie should be.  A Star Wars movie should be a larger than life adventure that touches both the technological and the mystical while centering around a band of heroes that care for each other.

Using that idea as my guide, when I look at the original trilogy, I see Han, Luke, Leia, Lando, Artoo, and Threepio as people that I care for, and that care for each other.  The Force is mystical and mysterious and supernatural.  I care most about the original trilogy because I have a strong emotional connection with the characters, above and beyond the spectacle of the special effects.

The prequels don’t do so well under that kind of scrutiny.  There is little chemistry between the main characters, and many of them are not only unlikable, they’re unrelatable.  The prequels attempted to make The Force quantifiable, measured in microscopic organisms.  Here’s a question: if midichlorians exist in the blood and give a person Force ability, wouldn’t Anakin get less powerful as he becomes more and more machine?  Shouldn’t Darth Vader be weak once he becomes more machine than man, twisted and evil?

I think I’ve said enough about my background with Star Wars and what I expect from a Star Wars movie.  Allow me to look briefly at The Force Awakens before talking about what you’ve probably been waiting for, The Last Jedi.

From the beginning of The Force Awakens, I believed that Poe and Finn were friends.  I didn’t go so far as to put them together romantically as many have, but in the first three minutes of their relationship, I believe that there was a bond between them that I didn’t ever see between Anakin and Obiwan.  As the story progressed, I believed Finn and Rey cared for each other, too.  And that BB-8 cared.  And that Han and Rey had a connection.  The Force Awakens established some new characters along with the old, moved the story forward, and gave me a reason to care about all of the characters involved.  At the same time, it made the Force mysterious again.

Finally, let’s talk about The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi expanded on what The Force Awakens established.  The Last Jedi continued to lean on the relationships established in The Force Awakens.  And all of the characters involved grew.  Finn came to embrace The Rebellion, and not just look at it as a way to run away from an enemy he thought too large to face.  Poe learned to get past his ego and to not take for granted the lives of those that have volunteered to serve and die.  And Rey.  While learning the lessons of a binary view of The Force, she was forced to look at the world beyond simple black and white.  I think that’s going to inform her decisions going forward, not just with The Resistance, but with the way she deals with The Force.

The Last Jedi delivered what I wanted from a Star Wars movie.  Beyond that, it advanced the story.  It upset expectations.  It expanded the depth of Kylo Ren, a Star Wars villain more complex and with more depth than any other Star Wars villain we’ve ever seen.  That’s a hill I’ll die on, by the way.  As much as I want to overlay Anakin/Darth Vader on top of a Macbeth story structure, I know that Kylo Ren is a deeper, more complex character, and I sympathize more with Kylo more than I ever did Anakin or Vader.

Honesty time.  When I first walked out of the theater, I didn’t think I’d liked The Last Jedi.  On second viewing, I still wasn’t completely sure.  It took me three viewings before I could appreciate the story, and it all had to do with grief.

Luke Skywalker, my childhood hero, died.  I could not get over my feelings of grief the first two times I watched the movie.  I understood him fleeing the pressure of living as a legend.  All the things that Luke did or didn’t do, I understood.  I just had trouble letting him go, because I wanted to be him.

The Last Jedi humanized Luke Skywalker at the same time remaining true to previous stories.  He followed in the footsteps of the only Jedi masters he knew.  Obiwan exiled in the deserts of Tatooine, Yoda exiled to the swamps of Dagobah.  Of course Luke would exile himself, especially after his blunder with Kylo Ren.  He had touched the dark side, and as Yoda had warned, it dominated his destiny.

Once I was emotionally able to deal with the death of Luke Skywalker, I was able to appreciate The Last Jedi.  The movie works for me.  It’s a Star Wars movie.  It had its flaws, its campiness.  I could probably nitpick some of the details around the long chase with the ships, or Finn’s trip to the casino planet.  But I could nitpick any Star Wars movie in the exact same way.  It’s okay.  It’s a Star Wars movie, and I loved it.

 

Ready Player One

Compared to The Last Jedi, I only have a few things to say about this movie.

It was… fine.

Ready Player One could have been great.  It should have been great.  But it wasn’t.  It was just fine.  Popcorn fluff with heavy pop culture references.  Kind of forgettable after just a couple of months.

It should have been more than that.  I listened to Wil Wheaton read the book to me, and I know how good the movie should have been.

The problem is that the people that made the movie didn’t understand why the book was so good.  It wasn’t the pop culture references that plumbed the depths of nostalgia like an army of dwarves descending on a rich mine.  What made the book so great was the emotional punch delivered with each event Wade endured.

When The Stacks were destroyed in the book, we felt for Wade.  He lost his home.  When he met Aech, Wade took us through a whirlwind of emotions.  Relief, betrayal, confusion.  Very human emotions, and understandable.  All of the events of the book further connected us to this character that was flawed in all of the most human ways.  The pop culture references were just icing on a cake made from the ingredients that go into good storytelling.

Maybe I’m just taking the long way to say that the book is better than the movie, but I don’t think that’s it.  Spielberg has told powerful stories in his movies.  Movies with emotional impact.  He should have been able to do that with Ready Player One, because the material was there.  Instead, we got a movie that was just… fine.  Forgettable.  A little bit empty.

 

Avengers: Infinity War

The latest Marvel movie delivered on everything I just described in the previous movies.  Like The Last Jedi, Infinity War is part of a larger franchise, full of characters that feel real, with human emotion and motivations that are understandable, if not relatable.

Infinity War is not forgettable.  It advanced the story in unexpected directions, with real consequences.  I went in thinking that Captain America or Ironman might die.  Instead, bunches of other characters I thought somewhat safe turned to dust.

The Russo brothers took chances with this film.  In fact, it took the same kind of chances that The Last Jedi took.  So far, I’m not seeing Infinity War receive the same kind of backlash that The Last Jedi did, and I wonder why.

Every new Star Wars movie is compared to The Empire Strikes back.  Empire is held in high regard now, but when it first came out, it didn’t receive the same level of praise.  We didn’t live in a social media feeding frenzy back then, which helped to reduce the level of backlash.  But it did interesting things.  It fundamentally changed the story.  It effectively killed Han.  The good guys lost.  It ended on a down note, much the way The Last Jedi ended.  Much the way Infinity War ended.

I’ve talked to a few people about this.  Infinity War gave me an Empire Strikes Back moment.  Where are things going to go from here?  I’m excited to see the next movie.  So many characters I care about appeared to be destroyed.  How will they be brought back?

 

A good story should involve the consumer emotionally.  Spectacle can entertain for the short term, but a story that survives the test of time does so by grabbing the hearts and imaginations of the people receiving it.  Once it has you, refuses to let go.  It’s the lesson that I’m trying to take away from all of the movies I’ve talked about tonight.

I hope the stories I’m writing succeed in reaching people.  More than anything else, that’s what I want to accomplish.

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