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Category Archives: Sci-Fi Movies
Star Wars: The Last Jedi Is About Making Mistakes, But the Trip to the Casino Planet Isn’t One of Them
Even viewers who loved The Last Jedi tend to point to its trip to Canto Bight — the luxurious planet full of well-heeled gamblers and wealthy libertines — as a misstep. It’s been decried as pointless, indulgent, and ultimately inessential to the other major events of Episode VIII.
But while not the strongest element of The Last Jedi, that sojourn to the casino planet is vital to Finn’s arc, to the animating ideas at the center of the film, and to the movie’s parting shot, in a way that fully justifies its inclusion in the movie, even one already pushing a 2 ½ hour runtime.
Throw away the past. The rap on 2015’s The Force Awakens, the film that revived Star Wars for a new generation, was that it was too derivative, too indebted to A New Hope, too bound to the blueprint that had launched the series. There was a sense that in its second outing, this new incarnation of Star Wars needed to break new ground, that having established this new setting, these new characters, and its new conflicts and mysteries, it was time to break from what had come before.
This December can boast the release of a pair of films from two very different franchises. The first is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the inescapable cinematic behemoth set to capitalize on the new, Disney-fueled era of Star Wars. It’s primed to tell the next chapter of the new trilogy that began with 2015’s The Force Awakens. The second is The Disaster Artist, a movie, based on a book, based on the making of another movie. That other movie is The Room, a transcendently bad, gloriously inept film that is the modern challenger for the title of “The Worst Movie of All Time.”
And on the surface, Star Wars and The Room have nothing in common. One is set in a distant galaxy, and the other is set in San Francisco (and not even the futuristic sci-fi version of the city from Star Trek). One features magical warrior monks doing battle with laser swords, and the other features (comparatively) average people, mostly tossing footballs at one another. Star Wars shows off imaginative new technologies on a cinematic scale, and The Room includes someone secretly recording their fiancée with a Nixon-era tape recorder.
But look past those surface-level differences, draw down to the core elements of each franchise’s installments, and you’ll discover something shocking — Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is just The Room in space. Search your feelings; you know it to be true.
Caution: This article contains major spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
One of the best things about storytelling is that it offers a chance to walk in another person’s shoes, to step outside of oneself and have experiences that are not possible in most people’s day-to-day lives. But films, television shows, and novels also offer fantasy; they offer escapism and the chance to live out an existence, in two-hour chunks, that is wilder and more fantastical than our own. Some of our culture’s most prominent stories present a particular, alluring version of that idea — the fantasy of the ordinary person discovering that they are, in fact, more special than they ever could have known.
When Luke Skywalker gazes out at the twin suns of Tatooine, the sight evokes his longing for adventure, the unshakable feeling that the universe has more in store for him than just the inner workings of a moisture farm. When we meet Harry Potter living under the thumb of the Dursleys, it’s to establish the lowliness of his position, the improbability that the boy who lives under the stairs could, in reality, be the chosen one. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 presents its own orphan protagonist in Peter Quill who, after a lifetime of hoping and wondering, discovers that he too is more powerful and unique than he had ever imagined.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, each new franchise and sub-franchise must add more characters so as to provide new faces for the merchandise, and each fresh sequel risks becoming increasingly unwieldy and unmanageable. While Captain America: Civil War managed to thread that needle nicely, the tyranny of “more” still threatens to hobble each new franchise installment before it’s even left the spaceport.
To that end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a follow-up to the surprise 2014 hit, does feel overstuffed in places. It introduces two new major characters, flips a pair of baddies to the side of good guys, and still needs to service the five original Guardians of the Galaxy amid a host of new locales and novel threats. But for a franchise whose first entry brought several Star Wars comparisons, writer/director James Gunn succeeds in his follow up by employing the Empire Strikes Back method.
It’s not simply that Guardians 2 reveals the identity of Star-Lord’s father or spends time in caverns that turn out to be living organisms. It’s that Gunn splits his heroes up for most of the film, only to bring them back at the end for the raging climax. That tack helps balance the many needs of a film like Guardians 2 with several overlapping storylines, all of which center on the theme of discovering who your family truly is.
So much of Guardians of the Galaxy’s story is achingly standard issue. This isn’t the first film to feature a collection of rogues and nobodies reluctantly coming together to save the world, and it won’t be the last. The tale of the dissolute young man who eventually learns to fight for something greater than himself is a well-worn one, and the motley crew of suspicious characters slowly becoming a family is a well-known cliché. In other words, when Guardians came out in 2014, it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.
And yet, it is a film full of such charm, such character, such inventiveness in ways beyond its story, that it becomes incredibly easy forgive the ways in which it obediently marches through the usual blockbuster narrative progression. The audience will tolerate, and even enjoy, all the hoary tropes in the universe if you can couch them in a world, an attitude, and a cast of characters worth spending time with.
A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are the sacred texts of the Star Wars universe. Every bit of Star Wars that has emerged in the wake of those first three films – sequels, prequels, midquels, comics, T.V. shows, holiday specials, video games, trading cards, action figures, and commemorative plates – is indebted to the franchise’s holy trinity. And each of them no matter what their claim to originality or expansion, echoes, references, and yes, even rhymes with those instigating incidents. For as wide and wooly as the famed galaxy far far away has become over the years, the creators and collaborators who work in Star Wars are forever filling in the gaps left by those all-important lodestones of the franchise.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the peak of this gap-filling mentality brought to bear. The film is inextricably tied to Episode IV, taking great pains to connect the events depicted in this movie with those of its hallowed predecessor, even when it gets in the way of telling Rogue One’s own story. Because of that, Rogue One comes off more like pandering than as a novel extension of the Star Wars universe. It’s a film desperate to remind you of what comes next in the timeline, without regard for whether any of the harbingers it presents genuinely add anything to the story being told here and now or the story we already know.
Adam Gopnik recently wrote about “Lessons for the Supreme Court from the Jedi Council.” In that article, he puts forward the idea that just as the denizens of the Star Wars universe “seem to have an undue cultural investment in the wisdom of the Jedi Council, even in the face of its ineptitude,” so to do Americans unduly venerate a Supreme Court whose inner workings appear “more like the manufacture of after-the-fact rationales designed to give the appearance of footnoted legalism to what are, in truth, the same ideological passions that have the rest of the country in their grip.” Gopnik disclaims the concept of textual interpretation, maintaining that our nation’s highest judicial body resembles its intergalactic counterpart in how it “seems to be functioning on guesswork and mutual hypnosis more than actual expertise.” Accordingly, he concludes that neither the Jedi Council nor the Supreme Court should be afforded nearly so much deference or respect.
The question becomes whether these two august bodies are enough alike to justify such a comparison or conclusion. There are certainly similarities between the two. In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council decides, after much deliberation, that Anakin Skywalker should not be trained in the ways of The Force. But Qui Gon Jin (and later Obi Wan Kenobi in his stead) defy that order and decide to teach the boy anyway. In the real world, after the Supreme Court held that same-sex marriage was a right under the Constitution, Texas’s Attorney General soon thereafter announced that despite that decision, under his interpretation Texas officials did not have to abide by the ruling. In both the Star Wars universe and our own, prominent officials have taken Gopnik’s advice to heart and feel free to ignore the high court’s decisions.
Despite a number of well-crafted elements, the success or failure of The Martian absolutely depended on Matt Damon’s performance in the lead role. It’s true that, in contrast to spiritual predecessors like Gravity and Castaway, the film was not a one-man show, instead featuring a murderer’s row of stellar supporting players. What’s more, its narrative thrills were not limited to its protagonist’s adventures on Mars; The Martian told an equally compelling story of what was happening back home.
But Damon’s Mark Watney, and his lonely trials and tribulations on a desolate planet, were the lifeblood of the film, commanding the lion’s share of its run time and focus. That meant that for much of the movie, Damon alone had to convey his character’s distress, his resolve, his humor, and his humanity, with no one but the camera to talk to. And despite that handicap, he succeeded with flying colors. Few major roles share the degree of difficulty of Damon’s here, where the main character spends much of the film in solitude, with little in the way of major plot developments or action to maintain the energy of the picture, and the performance Damon delivered with that backdrop more than lived up to the challenge.
I had a phase as a teenager where my musical tastes veered toward covers: punk rock versions of old standards, acoustic covers of hard rock classics, and even orchestral arrangements of Top 40 hits. The blend of the foreign and familiar appealed to me at a time when my taste in music was just beginning to expand. When an artist takes another’s work and puts their own spin on it, transforming what a song means or how it works at an emotional level by filtering it through a different lens, the end result can be both compelling and approachable.
The Force Awakens is, essentially, J.J. Abrams’s cover of A New Hope. That’s not a knock. It’s a superb cover, that hits the right notes while still creating something new, and it stands as a genuine achievement that’s all the more notable in light of the franchise’s prior missteps.