Star Wars: The Last Jedi, An Abandoned Hope

Spoilers for The Last Jedi below

Let me start by saying I really liked this movie- Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher put on amazing performances and I liked the double twist with Kylo Ren.  The catdog racing sequence felt a little out of place but it wasn’t bad- The Last Jedi had some rough edges but it felt fresh while still being Star Wars.

What I do not like is that everything achieved in episodes 4, 5, and 6 has been turned to ash.  Luke’s sole surviving student is someone he knew for a few days,  the Republic and Resistance Leia worked so hard for have been crushed, and both the Solo and Skywalker families will likely be extinguished with Ben Solo’s death since I don’t see him getting a 3rd shot at redemption.

Everything was not going to be ok after the original trilogy, or what would the plot of the new trilogy be?  But I find it harder to like Star Wars when all the characters I cared about have been purged from the universe.  It’s too much to the point of being grimdark when you stop and think about it.  It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and while I will stick it out for the rest of the trilogy it has really dampened my enthusiasm for the whole expanded movie universe.

Disney and Rian Johnson have succeeded in making that universe their own, and some very good movies, but they have done this by killing what I, and judging by the very polarized audience ratings, many of the fans were anchored to the franchise by.  I like Finn, Rey, and Poe, but I don’t care about them the way I did about the original trio.  I went into Episode 8 wanting to know what Luke was going to do, not whether Finn would recover from his wounds.  This isn’t a fair comparison, the new leads have had to share the spotlight with the previous cast.  We haven’t had the same chance to get attached.  It doesn’t change the fact that I won’t go see a new trilogy to find out what happened to them unless Episode 9 really steps it up.

Kylo Ren is probably the character with the most development, and I’ll go see Episode 9 to see how his arc turns out.  But I’m less sure about episode 10.  Maybe he’ll live through this trilogy and go on to be the villain of the next as well, betrayed by his own children in turn.  That might keep me around but I don’t think it will happen.  It wouldn’t have been hard to let the original characters pass something on, maybe just a montage scene of Luke and Rey training for more than a few hours so that he would have some connection with the new Jedi going forward; but that isn’t what happened, they went for the clean break intentionally.

Feeling dissatisfied, I started looking into some of the original expanded universe books.  The Thrawn Trilogy was nothing special in my opinion, I read it over a weekend on a library app- Thrawn himself was interesting and there were some good moments, especially in the 3rd book, but it was a continuation of the story that was not as well executed as Episode 7 and not as interesting as Episode 8.  Yet Han, Leia, and Luke hadn’t had their lives ruined off screen.  So while it’s not as will written I’m planning on reading the next trilogy of books as well.  Disney may have kept up the quality of the Star Wars movies but the original Star Wars was something special, a hopeful movie in a time of bleak sci-fi, a hit that everyone saw, the kind of shared cultural moment that is happening less and less frequently in the United States as media fragments.  Luke, Leia, and Han were a connection to that moment, and I fear in losing them we have lost what made Star Wars special.


Review: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower is the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s epic fantasy/western/weird horror series of the same name.  It fits a plot converted to fit an action movie’s run time into King’s flavorful setting for a quick & fun action/fantasy movie, but some of the magic of the books is lost given the relatively small budget and short run time.

I went in with low expectations despite being a fan of the books after looking at the reviews.  It didn’t blow my mind but the movie is much better than the currently 18% on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest and is a good fantasy/action movie in its own right. It is a complete story on its own and feels like the movie could have happened in the same universe as the books.

Matthew McConaughey captured the menace of the Man in Black beautifully, stepping up into the villain’s role that was a great expansion over his often behind the scenes approach in the books.  His was the best performance of the film, transforming a secondary antagonist into a charismatic villain who dominated the movie, giving it clear direction.

Idris Elba feels a little stiff at first as a kinder version of Roland but won me over before the end of The Dark Tower.  Ultimately Roland takes a backseat to the Man in Black and Jake despite being the main character in the books, there just isn’t enough screen time for him.  I enjoyed the addition of the supernatural to his gun play- it fits with the setting and there are no clumsy attempts to explain it or the other strange occurrences in what is obviously a world alive with magic.

Tom Taylor does a good job as Jake, whose role like that of the sorcerous Man in Black is greatly expanded over that of the books, absorbing several side characters.  He is relatable without being annoying and has a good character arc, growing to the point that it makes sense for him to accompany Roland on his quest.

For the most part exposition is handled well; it is obvious that Jake is harried by his dreams, The Man in Black is evil and that Roland is exhausted by their actions rather than because they say so.  The rules of the setting are well established before the finale; no deus ex machina resolution.  Things do slow down in the middle, with the consequences of the Dark Tower falling being told rather than shown.  The action was very well done- Roland’s final gunfight was what Deadshot should have been in Suicide Squad.  His clever use of ricochets and the environment made him seem like a seasoned and intelligent warrior.  The sets are well done, beautifully capturing the post-apocalyptic nature of Midworld without being overly dim.  The Dark Tower works well as a stand alone action movie, hitting the points it needs to and giving us an interesting taste of Stephen King’s world without burying the audience in exposition.

There will be more meaning for long time readers- bits are borrowed freely from throughout the 8 book series and I enjoyed nods like the 13 Bends of the Rainbow in the Man in Black’s office, which would look like crystal balls to a non-reader.  The Dark Tower is loaded with similar references to all of King’s books, so keep an eye out.  It felt comprehensible to me but I know the background well, and it appears based on the movie’s poor box office that people didn’t feel invested even if they did understand.  I enjoyed the new story line which took inspiration from but was not a copy of any of the books, the more positive tone, and seeing elements from the books used in new ways, but I can see why other fans might be upset at the extensive edits and hopeful ending which contrasts sharply with the darkness of the books.

At 1 hour and 35 minutes the movie is tiny compared to the series it is adapting which dwarfs the Lord of the Rings with double the number of books and triple the word count.  In contrast the first Harry Potter movie had double the budget and an extra hour of run time.  The movie was as good as it could have been in the time allotted, and I think it was a good movie, but it didn’t have time to develop Roland fully as a character or dig into the weirdness that makes the Dark Tower so distinctive as an epic fantasy series.

The failure here is a lack of ambition; a lot of love clearly went into some parts of this movie and the acting is good but the script meanders a little while the movie wasn’t given the time to recapture the full glory of The Dark Tower book series.  I’m a little disappointed but I can see why they cut back some- the scene where Roland visits Maine and criticizes Stephen King for the way he wrote him was probably a bit much, and after what happened to Eragon I’ll take what I can get.

TL,DR: A decent fantasy action movie that’s worth a viewing.  If you aren’t a huge fan of the books or genre give it a look once it hits streaming.

Review: Spectral

Spectral is a 2016 Military Science Fiction & Action movie released by Netflix.  The premise is US special forces have been getting picked off by an insubstantial creature that can only be seen on their new night vision goggles- the designer of said goggles gets called in to help figure out what is going on, and things develop in standard action-movie fashion that if not ground-breaking is not stale or too predictable.

The plot is not noteworthy but serves ably as a vehicle for some impressive visuals and well shot action sequences.  The pacing is flawless, it never feels like this movie is wasting your time.  There is a fair bit of exposition dump but the movie goes to great lengths to keep it brief and have things moving quickly afterwards.  Character development doesn’t really happen but the acting is good and the characters have enough personality to engage you with the movie.

The science is mostly technobabble but with a thicker veneer of plausibility than usual, and the film is at least internally consistent- solutions are foreshadowed in a satisfying way even if they aren’t very well grounded in actual science.  Spectral has no aspirations to complex plots of motivations and instead devotes its energy to good cinematography, actions scenes, and a fresh monster concept.  The setting is very reminiscent of recent shooter games- bombed out industrial spaces in a ruined city, but the movie does a good job making it feel eerie in a way a lot of games can’t.  It’s not a horror film but it has elements of one in the beginning, giving the movie some good flavor.

It’s nice to have a fun movie without any of the baggage attached to most theater releases these days- no complex franchise to be familiar with or an add campaign that spoils the major plot points and cost more than making the thing did.  It can just be a popcorn movie, and not compromise itself as a unit like Suicide Squad.  And that is what Spectral is, a well executed popcorn movie.  It isn’t going to win any Oscars but it is entertaining, well paced and works well as a stand alone unit.

No time is wasted teasing a sequel, all the effort in this production is simply put into making the movie good.  I have avoided spoilers in this review because in a movie market overrun with sequels and remakes Spectral retains an ability to surprise.  There’s no “What a twist!” moment from the blue but the start of the movie leaves you genuinely unsure of the creature’s origin or exactly how things will develop, and since it’s not obviously borrowing from a prequel or another film you don’t know the script going in.

Rossatron(minor spoilers in link) makes some good points in his review, though in my opinion he is a bit harsh on the movie itself.  It’s fresh but doesn’t have enough spectacle, intricate plot, or franchise investment to justify a theatrical release, but fewer and fewer movies are hitting that bar these days.  I was disappointed in Under the Dog after the hype and the cost of the Kickstarter, but it was an entertaining short film.  Spectral is better and doesn’t have any of the baggage.

TL,DR; A standard but well executed action movie with some good military science fiction flavor, give it a watch if you have Netflix and have any interest in action movies.