movie trilogies

Wherin I Explain Why “The Last Jedi” Kicked Ass

Okay, y’all are really starting to piss me off.

Not you, of course. I’m sure my readers, reader, potential reader is awesome with the correct opinions.

I’m talking to all the rest of you. You idiots that didn’t like The Last Jedi.

Seriously, I had just finished writing a wonderful polemic about my childhood friend, Rian Johnson, and his most recent film, which happened to also be one of the best Star Wars movies of all time. While writing it, I was unaware of a burgeoning counterpoint. Evidently, some people were deluded into thinking it did not deserve the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of all Time) designation.

I heard some initial rumblings over opening weekend. The Rotten Tomatoes fan score was middling around in the low-fifties, but it seemed a lot of those reviews had come in before the movie actually opened, and there were rumors of bots intentionally messing around with the score. Certainly, I knew, when real people took to their respective social media outlets, they’d all love it.

But as first the weekend, and then the following week, went on, there seemed to be a very distinctive backlash against The Last Jedi. The actual size of the backlash might be hard to discern. Two weeks in, I still believe it is a very vocal minority that is being given extra media attention based on how outlandish their cockamamie ideas are.

Recently, one of the yelly-yelly shows on ESPN wondered why people are still paying attention to the Balls, the basketball family whose middle kid dropped out of UCLA because they couldn’t single-handedly break him out of a Chinese prison. I remember thinking, “Who, other than ESPN, is paying attention to the Balls? If you don’t think people should be talking about the Balls, maybe stop leading with them every day.”

But considering the conversation amongst the Baby Boomers at my Christmas dinner table, I guess people are still talking about the Balls. And the Star Wars naysayers have also persisted. So now it’s up to me to defend a movie, and by extension a director, that shouldn’t need defending

The first set of people who seem upset with the movie are the political extremists. The right are pissed that Rose is Asian. The left is angry that Rose isn’t Asian enough. The right hates that General Hux is white. The left is pissed that Poe Dameron is white. The right isn’t sure if they like Kylo Ren as a bad guy, because he’s white but he kind of looks Jewish. If he’s Jewish, they’re okay with him being a bad guy, although they’re not too sure they like it when the maybe-Jew kills the Hitler-ish guy. That’s not how the Alt-Right believes Hitler/Jew stories are supposed to unfold. The left is upset that there are no LGBTQ characters. Holdo is, but it didn’t come up in the movie. Because it would’ve been so much more appropriate for her to grab Billie Lourd’s ass in the midst of the evacuation. Right in front of her dying mother, no less!

And don’t get me started on the force-sensitive little boy at the end. Both sides are whining, “Why did the slave have to be a white male?”

The fact that critics loved the movie pretty much sealed the ire of both sides, as well. Anyone who puts ideology ahead of facts hate the so-called experts who tell them things like the South lost the Civil War or that they should vaccinate their kids.

To both sides, I have a simple enough explanation: go fuck yourselves.

No seriously. Both of you have successfully ruined politics, humor, discourse, general civility, and pretty much everything else in our country. You just couldn’t leave Star Wars alone, could you? And be honest, you didn’t enter the movie with an open mind, did you? You went in looking for things that didn’t fit with your political alignment and proceeded to focus entirely on that. Were you aware that there was a movie with dialogue and a plot going on around all of those casting choices? Probably not.

Here’s something to assuage both sides. Alt-right: It was a long, long time ago, so it’s about as conservative as you can get. Socialists:  no planets were destroyed by human action this time.

Now go back into your corners of watching only war movies or Oscar-worthy dramas. And when you’re there, don’t forget to go fuck yourselves.

The other group that dislikes this movie did not approach it with an open mind, either. They are the people who have spent the last two years trolling around on slashfilm and other internet sites espousing their theories about the two great mysteries brought up during The Force Awakens, namely the backgrounds of Rey and Snoke. And if darthmaul-69-420 has based his entire online presence on Snoke being the love child of Palpatine and Yoda, and if he has Jar Jar as Rey’s parents in the office pool, he’s not going to be happy when neither answer is correct.

It’s an odd world we live in. People hate when questions are raised and they hate when those questions are answered. There were all sorts of petitions and calls to boycott The Walking Dead after they ended Season 6 with Negan killing an unknown character. HOW DARE YOU, they screamed, USE A COMMON STORYTELLING DEVICE? Would those people have been happier if the season ended with Abraham lying dead on the ground? Then the people who thought it would be Glenn would’ve been pissed, until Glenn was actually killed, and they would’ve been pissed again. The Walking Dead has been hemorrhaging viewers ever since that fateful decision to add some suspense to their story.

Westworld might have found the sweet spot, but that was helped by the fact that it was a little slow to catch on. It took a few episodes before people realized they were playing with timelines and putting clues and red herrings everywhere. By the time people started going back to re-watch the first few episodes for “clues” (aka the orgy scene), there were only a few episodes left and we had been promised it would be wrapped up by the end of the season. I’ll be curious to see how many people will be pissed off during the second season if it follows a similar pattern. Ten weeks might be a little long of a wait for the big payoff in this watch-an-entire-season-in-an-afternoon world we live in.

If Dallas aired today, “Who Shot JR?” would need to be solved the following week. Hell, if comment threads existed when Empire Strikes Back came out, the Rotten Tomatoes score would be filled with all sorts of “How can we even know if Darth Vader is telling the truth? How dare they bring that up if they’re not going to resolve it?”

Speaking of Empire, you are all aware that The Last Jedi is the second movie of the trilogy, right? Remember all of those questions and mysteries and mythologies of the first Star Wars trilogy? They didn’t really show up until the second movie, and then were resolved pretty early in the third movie. The first movie was a straight-forward, standalone fairy tale. If these people got their wish and Episode VIII started with a flashback of Snoke and Rey in a baby manger together, how satisfying would the next five hours of movie (counting Episode IX) be?

So the question of Rey’s parents was either going to be held over until Episode IX or it was going to be answered the way it was. And it’s very fitting. Anybody can be the hero, you don’t have to come from wonderful Skywalker sperm. Let’s not forget that in the original Star Wars (I know I’m supposed to call it A New Hope, but that was never really a thing until the prequels came out), Luke Skywalker was a nobody. And for ninety percent of Empire Strikes Back, too. Anakin started out that way, too, even if we already knew what he would become.

Speaking of Luke, that’s the other thing people are pissed about. They were hoping that Rey would show up, he’d say “Gosh, even though I have the Force, I had no clue my nephew is a bad guy or that the galaxy is in tatters. I had just retired here for shits and giggles. I guess I’ll come back, no questions asked.” Somehow that would have been more in line with his character?

Or maybe they just wanted Luke to sink an X-Wing into a swamp and mock Rey for not being able to raise it.

There had to be a pretty major reason he had exiled himself. To be true to the hero y’all seem to think he is, the best reason to exile himself would be if he felt he was bad for the galaxy.

Some people are pissed that the Extended Universe was retconned out of existence when Disney bought the rights. Those same people are now pissed that some of the things from that Extended Universe are being brought back into canon. In the Extended Universe, Luke briefly succumbed to the dark side, and he tried and failed to train Han and Leia’s son.

And if you think Luke should’ve been much more perceptive about Kylo Ren’s power or corruption, don’t forget he made a whole bunch of horrible judgments in the first trilogy. “I’m looking for a great warrior,” he said when he first met Yoda.

But whatever. “Not my Luke Skywalker.” Yeah, no shit. Your Luke Skywalker is now 65 years old. He’s Obi-Wan. He’s Yoda. He’s supposed to be a hermit that is not quite sure if the galaxy is ready for thenext generation of Jedis.

Back to Rey, have the people that are so pissed off really thought their theories trough? The two most prominent ones were that she was Luke’s daughter or Obi Wan’s granddaughter (which she may still be). How heroic does that make those deadbeat dads? Conflicted Luke is a bad thing, but Maury Skywalker would be great?

Sure, Anakin abandoned his pregnant wife, but a) Episode III retconned it so he didn’t even know he had done that, and b) he’s Darth fucking Vader.

Do we really want a movie where heroes with subtle mind-control powers are impregnating women and then skipping town? How awesome would that be on the heels of all of the sexual harassment and assault cases coming out of Hollywood and Washington this year? Not your Luke Skywalker? Of course not. He’s Harvey Weinstein’s Luke Skywalker.

I suppose in Obi-Wan’s case, there was the whole “hiding from Darth Vader” thing, but what excuse would Luke have? That he isolated himself on Ahch-To to avoid child support?

Again, I don’t know if the backlash is real. I hope it’s not. Everyone I’ve spoken to loved it. But everyone I’ve spoken to has an IQ and an ability to understand nuance.

A number of theaters have had to post a warning that the ten seconds of silence is intentional. People were complaining that the sound cut out, then cut back in. Really? Because in the theater I saw it in, there were a few gasps, followed by an awe-inspiring, simultaneous holding of two hundred breaths. It was probably the most collectively powerful scene I’ve ever seen in a theater of complete strangers.

I can’t imagine who saw that and thought “Hey, some shit just done blowed up, but there ain’t no big blowsy-upsy sounds. I want my money back.” These same people think that an entire theater’s-worth of speakers can go on the fritz simultaneously and then be fixed within ten seconds.

The simplest answer is that people wanted a predictable Star Wars movie and The Last Jedi was anything but. We’ve been indoctrinated, Empire Strikes Back notwithstanding, that there aren’t supposed to be surprises in Star Wars. The plot is supposed to follow a prescribed narrative. The missions aboard the First Order base of operations aren’t supposed to go sideways. The mercenary is not supposed to stay a mercenary. The bad guys aren’t supposed to realize there are cloaked escape ships. The force is supposed to have a very limited power set. And the hero must only come from an established, Eugenics-based bloodline that would make Hitler Palpatine proud.

People complained that The Force Awakens followed that narrative too closely, then they complained that The Last Jedi strayed from it. Welcome to 2017 America.

Now about that milking scene…

Great Scott!

Lots of Back to the Future posts and references the last couple weeks. So why did I wait until this week? Had to make sure that Marty McFly was back to 1985. Now we can talk about him.

On October 21, a number of my friends were proudly posting pictures of themselves holding the Back to the Future DVD, saying they were just about to watch it.  Umm, good luck finding any 2015 there, guys. Cause it ain’t in the original movie. Even a number of the news reports I watched kept getting the release date of the movie wrong. Yes, the original movie was released in 1985, and that is the year from whence Monsieur McFly traveled.  But the movie in which he traveled to 2015 was Back to the Future Part II, released in 1989.

A sequel coming out FOUR YEARS after the original? How archaic!

In fact, when the original movie was produced, there were no plans for a sequel. The “To Be Continued” at the end of the movie did not appear in the theatrical release. In what kind of crazy alternate timeline is a movie released without the next five sequels already being planned and filmed?  And they didn’t even split the last movie in two? The horrors!

Of course, they DID film the second and third movie back-to-back, so that they could be released six months apart from each other. To my knowledge, they were the first to do this now-standard practice.

These are a few of the reasons the Back to the Future trilogy is still relevant, but there are others. And no, this is not just a reaction to Marty McFly’s “arrival date” just passing. Plenty of movies have predictions of future dates, but society doesn’t go apeshit when those dates arrive.  I don’t remember the news media running vignettes on the state of Artificial Intelligence on August 29, 1997, date Terminator predicted Skynet would become self-aware.

I know, I know. Self-lacing shoes are way more relevant to our future on this planet than self-aware technology. Who cares about the future of all human life if we can’t even get a goddamned hoverboard, right?

The Back to the Future trilogy is unique for a number of ways.  Going back to that whole 2 and 3 being shot back-to-back and released six months apart from each other. Six months! Even by today’s Fast and the Furious/Hunger Games standards, that’s fast. Twenty-five years ago, it was unheard of. The standard wait time between sequels back then was a good three years. I assume the conventional wisdom was that audiences would be disinterested in going back to see the “continuing adventures” so soon.

So at least in that one sense, Back to the Future Part II was as relevant as Godfather II.  Prior to Godfather II, movies were released like theater shows. First they would premiere in New York, and maybe Los Angeles, followed a few weeks later by the other major cities. They would then filter through the less-major cities, and if you lived in Omaha, you’re probably waiting a few months for the movie to hit the one screen in town.  The producers of Godfather II, released two years after the original, said “screw that.” They knew the public was clamoring to see the sequel, so they circumvented the powers that be and just released it everywhere simultaneously. It worked, and has been the standard ever since.

So you can thank Back to the Future for the fact that the Twilight craze wasn’t dragged out for another decade.

The trilogy itself was also unique, in that the three movies are so markedly different entities. The first movie was just your run-of-the-mill teen movie. Just take out Lea Thompson and add in Molly Ringwald, and you’d scarcely notice the difference between it and Sixteen Candles. The standard John Hughes tropes are all there. Geeky boy secretly pines away for beautiful girl, who is oblivious to his existence, because girl is enamored with foxy mysterious boy. Something about underwear, and then the geeky guy is encouraged by foxy mysterious guy to stand up to school bully and get the girl. And the space-time continuum is saved.

Wait, that last part wasn’t in Sixteen Candles? I must be thinking of Pretty in Pink.

The second movie is really the one that defines the trilogy.  I remember a lot of people complaining when it came out that it was too complicated. They had taken a cute little reverse-Oedipal story and added layers and complications. All these people wanted was another simple story about a boy trying to ensure his own birth, and those bastards went and added things like alternate timelines and divergence points. And sports gambling.

“Whatever,” I remember my pubescent voice admonishing people, “I’ve been reading comics for years. Alternate timelines? Big whoop.”

The second movie also did a good job of keeping some of the original themes going, but adding a little bit more gravitas to them. Now it’s not just Marty that will cease to be, but all of society. They also make squeaky-clean, save-the-world Marty the bad guy. Or maybe not the bad guy, but responsible for everything that went wrong. After all, he was the one who bought the sports almanac with the intent to make a quick buck in the past.

Then there’s the special effects. Having Michael J. Fox play multiple roles in the same room at the same time while not looking two-dimensional was new. And the last half-hour of the movie, where they actually are added into the original movie, was spectacular. If there’s a second Deadpool movie, maybe they can have him pull the “I was there during all of the earlier X-Men movies.” He does that in the comics a fair bit.

Oh, and they re-shot the final scene of the first movie with a different actress and barely anybody noticed.

I’m not sure which is more impressive: a scene in which one actor plays three roles or a scene in which two actresses play the same role.

Then came the third movie, a Western. That’s right, we went from teen movie to sci-fi head-scratcher to Clint Eastwood. Literally Clint Eastwood, since that’s the name Marty used in 1885, when the movie takes place. Imagine the balls on Bob Gale, the writer. He just decided he wanted to do a Western and, hey, the fans are clamoring for more Back to the Future, so here you go.

Imagine if the Return of the Jedi was suddenly about elves and dwarves. Or Return of the King showed Frodo and Sam spending a day in Saturday school. Or if the final Indiana Jones movie threw in aliens.

Wait, they did WHAT in Kingdom Skull? Okay, never mind.

The point is you can’t completely change the genre in the finale. But Back to the Future did. No more sports almanacs or alternate timelines or Michael J. Fox fading out of existence. But there was still enough of the standard tropes to connect the three – the Tanners are dimwits, benefiting from knowledge of the future, the time machine has lost power so a vehicle has to get up to 88 MPH. And trains. And horses.

And you know what? It worked!

So now that Back to the Future Day has passed, let’s stop with our obsession of how much it got right. No more hoverboards or shoes or Cubs. And let’s focus on the trilogy itself, and how groundbreaking it was. They influenced how trilogies could be filmed and marketed. They informed writers that, if you have an engaging premise and characters, you can do whatever you want with them and people will follow you.

Even if the hero abandons his girlfriend on the porch of a stranger’s house in a violent, dystopian present that he himself had created.