Welcome to “Movies In Conversation,” a new Screen Beat feature at The Stanford Daily. Two writers will watch the same movie and offer differing opinions on it in open dialogue. This week, we will be focusing on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” in which our critics Elaine Kim and Isaac Vaught explore the film’s unique (or perhaps contrived) stylistic choices.
Isaac Vaught (IV): I have to say that “The Last Jedi” (TLJ) is probably my favorite Star Wars movie since “Empire.” My understanding is that audiences have been very divided because of the super risky nature of some of Rian Johnson’s decisions, but I think the fact that TLJ makes such an effort to deviate from tradition and defy expectations is precisely what makes it so great.
Elaine Kim (EK): Hardcore purist fans beware. I, too, was surprised at the direction that the movie was heading sometimes; cinematically and thematically it stays true to the Star Wars canon, but plot-wise we were in for a lot of surprises. I agree that TLJ is perhaps most unique out of the franchise — but as for the greatest, I’m not too sure.
IV: It’s a fair question — my inclination now is to say it’s probably the second- or third-best. And I think it’s that uniqueness that puts it up so high on the list. For example, the new trilogy could’ve easily played it safe and made Snoke the “big bad” and made Rey the secret lost daughter of Luke or Obi-Wan, but it would’ve been a re-hash of everything that’s been done already. I appreciated the familiarity of “The Force Awakens” (TFA) because it was the return to the saga, and I think it was good for episode VII to bring back more nostalgia and re-introduce us to the universe. But moving into episode VIII was definitely the time to show the audience what makes this trilogy different from the others. It was time for the trilogy to truly become its own story.
EK: Yet — and I’m not defending TFA — TFA set certain expectations about the new trilogy, and I do feel like TLJ is a break from continuity. This isn’t TLJ’s fault, however — more of TFA’s for presenting a tried-and-done formula.
IV: I agree that it might have led us to expect certain things given the kinds of plots we’ve seen in previous Star Wars films, but I don’t think deviating from those expectations necessarily constitutes “breaking continuity.” It’s just strong, smart storytelling and a thoughtful way of expanding what it means to be in the Star Wars universe. Nothing gave me the feeling that this was an entirely new story more than all of Rian Johnson’s amazing “fuck you” moments. Wanna wait two years to see Luke reunite with his original lightsaber? He chucks it off a cliff. Wanna see Snoke get angry and battle Rey or Luke? Kylo cuts him in half. Wanna see an epic climactic lightsaber battle between Luke and Kylo? J.K. — He’s not even there!
EK: Some of those moments did seem a bit contrived, though. There was cringeworthy humor scattered all across the movie: when Luke throws his lightsaber off a cliff in a deadpan, almost comical, face, for example, or when Luke dusts off his shoulders after Kylo Ren’s concentrated attack of fire and fury. By the end, I was rolling my eyes a bit and going, what’s next?
IV: I’m not really sure what you mean by “contrived” in this case, but I wouldn’t say that was my experience of those moments or the experience of the people in the theater with me. We all laughed out loud at those moments, but I don’t think the humor detracts from the story. I think there’s a small camp now that kind of detests unexpected humor dramatic sci-fi and goes for more of the DC Extended Universe vibe, but I think this is a symptom of taking things a bit too seriously. Regardless, seeing the film in the theater was incredible because (unlike TFA) everyone knew that no one knew what was going to happen next. It was truly unpredictable and was so in a way that added great depth to the story and made the narrative boundaries more nuanced. The reviews for “Empire” when it came out were also divisive, but I think in time TLJ will come to be revered in the same way that it has.
EK: Johnson invested so much on narrative that he seems to have let some characters slip through his fingers. For example, where was Finn until the second half of the movie? Where did Rose come from, and why did she magically fall in love with Finn after a single rescue mission? When did Luke Skywalker arrive on the old Resistance army base to become an ex-machina, and what was his motivation? For the sake of the bigger picture moving forward, he sacrificed a lot of detail.
IV: I think this is an unfair judgement of the story. The whole shtick of a movie is that it shows you the important parts. If a scene is included in a movie, it’s supposed to advance the plot, have some kind some kind of emotional/thematic significance, increase the audience’s understanding of some particular aspect of the story or all three. This is why we’ve never seen anyone in Star Wars or most films of its kind get groceries or take a shit — because those actions, although they’re inevitably going on, are not important. In the same way, we didn’t need to see Luke sit down and meditate before transmitting himself across the galaxy, and then see him appear on the planet, and then see him walk through tunnels for five minutes until finally reaching Leia. Not only would all of this be 100 percent unnecessary, but it would prevent the later showdown with Kylo from having any kind of tension because we would know Luke couldn’t be hurt, and it would prevent the twist of the whole thing from happening because we would already know what he was doing. As for Finn and Rose’s plot line, I felt that the two of them had just as many scenes as they needed in the beginning. Their relationship was well established, and I think trying to fill the first half with extraneous scenes for them would’ve detracted from the story. And given the adrenaline-inducing experiences the two of them faced on their adventure and their closeness to death at the end of it, there’s nothing really “magical” about an attraction developing between them. Facing those kinds of things together creates a bond between them that they wouldn’t share with most people.
EK: I also want to talk about Rey and Kylo Ren; boy was the force strong between them. Rey, who’s supposed to be our new wide-eyed Luke, literally flirting with the dark side? Genius move. Kylo Ren also developed as a character from this exchange; he was a sulky boy with a chip on his shoulder in TFA, but here he knows what he wants. There seems to be a genuine connection between Rey and Kylo Ren, despite the warring ambitions of Kylo Ren and the conscience that Rey possesses, and I’m excited to see how it plays out in the last episode.
IV: Absolutely. I love the ambiguity of the whole thing — the relationship shifts a little to the romantic side but then pivots to more of an alliance and then moves back to the enemy category, all while keeping us in the dark as to the force-related nature of their relationship. I think this kind of helps deepen Kylo’s character, and I agree that it’s a welcome departure from his whininess in TFA. I’m looking forward to seeing how he grows into episode IX, but I’ll admit I’m a bit worried. Carrie Fisher’s death has forced the writing team to go back to the drawing board for the final chapter’s story, and yet the film has only been delayed by about six months or so. I’m glad that J.J. Abrams is being brought back, but it’s not comforting to remember that he did TFA with the help of Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, two excellent screenwriters, whereas IX will be written only by him and Chris Terrio, who’s most recently given us some tragic flops like “Justice League” and “Batman vs. Superman.” As much as I love this Rey/Kylo development, I’m not confident that IX will have the writing power behind it needed to bring it to its full potential. I would much rather have J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson combine for the final episode and synthesize their two takes on it.
Contact Elaine Kim at elainekm ‘at’ stanford.edu and Isaac Vaught at ivaught ‘at’ stanford.edu.