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A Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review – The Burden of Expectations

TITLE: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
STARRING: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega
DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson
STUDIOS: Walt Disney Pictures, Lucasfilm Ltd
RATED: PG-13
RUN-TIME: 152 min
RELEASED: December 15, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

I had to sleep on this one. That’s partially why I waited a week before releasing my review. When I came out of The Last Jedi, I wasn’t sure what to think. That wasn’t the reaction I expected. When I walked out of The Force Awakens, I knew I loved it. When I left Rogue One, I knew I hated it. This one was in a weird “What did I just see?” zone.

In hindsight, the mountains of advance praise heaped on The Last Jedi harmed it in a way few seemed to anticipate. Not just praise from critics mind you, but from Disney themselves when they put director Rian Johnson in charge of the next Star Wars trilogy. That’s a hell of an endorsement. The biggest entertainment company in the world put this guy in the driver’s seat for the biggest movie franchise in the world. All signs pointed to: “Rian Johnson is great! The Last Jedi is going to be amazing and perfect in every way!” What else were we supposed to think?

Sometimes hype hinders. Just ask George Lucas. He learned that the hard way with a little movie called The Phantom Menace.

That’s actually an apt comparison, as The Last Jedi could be the most divisive Star Wars story since The Phantom Menace. Obviously, a portion of the adult Star Wars fanbase has been perpetually butthurt since before butthurt was even a thing. But even the even-tempered and reasonable among us have taken issue with the film.

So allow me to serve as a voice of the middle-ground. A life-long Star Wars buff who isn’t among those that creates petitions to make certain movies non-canon. For the sake of organization and simplicity, let’s make this a simple pro/con list…

Pro: Rey’s parentage
The Force Awakens left us with a lot of questions about Rey’s parents. There were plenty of candidates. Was she Han and Leia’s daughter? Was she Luke’s daughter? Was she somehow Ob-Wan’s daughter? Could she be Snoke’s daughter?

As it turns out, she’s nobody’s daughter. Nobody we know, anyway. In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren (Or are we officially calling him Ben Solo now?) reveals that Rey is the child of junkers from Jakku who sold her off for “drinking money.” They’re almost trolling us with that one. The franchise with the most famous family revelation in cinematic history sets up another one, then gives us an anti-reveal.

But here’s the thing: It’s the right call. Not making Rey a descendent of Luke, Leia, or someone from the original trilogy gives her a refreshing independance. It makes her a self-made hero. I can also appreciate them not repeating the “I am your father” beat again.

Con: Snoke’s identity
Snoke was every bit the subject of speculation that Rey was, if not more. Who was this mysterious Force-wielder that taught Ben Solo the ways of the Dark Side? Why was his face so messed up? Was he even human? Was he the infamous Darth Plagueis?

The truth of Rey’s parentage may not have satisfied everybody, but at least we got an answer. With Snoke we got nothing. Nothing. Ben turns on him halfway through the movie, ultimately taking his spot at the top of the First Order food chain. While killing him off isn’t necessarily an issue, not addressing who he is, even if it’s just another non-reveal, is the movie’s biggest letdown.

You can make the argument we knew next to nothing about Palpatine in Empire and Jedi. Hell, they never even said his name. He was just the Emperor. But they then proceeded to make three movies chronicling his rise to power. Snoke’s identity is also wrapped up in the backstory of the First Order, of which we know so little.

I suppose there’s a chance we’ll learn a little more about who this guy was in Episode IX. But this was their big opportunity to explore him, and they missed it. That’s astounding. It’s not as if they didn’t know we were curious…

Pro: Mark Hamill as grumpy Luke.
There’s naturally a warm and fuzzy nostalgic quality to seeing Mark Hamill come back to Luke Skywalker. But he’s also perennially underrated as an actor. So to see him in a major motion picture again is very satisfying. He more than holds up his end of the bargain.

People have had mixed emotions about what they’ve done with Luke in these new movies. The execution hasn’t been perfect. But the idea itself isn’t bad. The events of Return of the Jedi happened more than 30 years ago. A hell of a lot can happen in three decades. People change. Luke has changed. I like that none of us were expecting grumpy old Luke Skywalker. It opened some interesting doors, and allowed Mark Hamill to turn in a different, more nuanced performance than he otherwise might have.

Con: Overstuffing the plot
The Last Jedi is so bloated that it may be the first Star Wars movie that overstays its welcome. It struggles to give both Finn and Poe Dameron something to do. As Rey, Finn, and Poe are supposed to have essentially the same level of importance, they all have their own plot threads. This leaves the story overinflated and less focused. As much as I like Oscar Isaac as Poe, he’s the one who needed to be scaled back.

While Finn and his new ally Rose are off on their big mission to a space casino, Leia is incapacitated. So Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) is put in charge of the Resistance. When Poe doesn’t like her more reserved and passive strategy, he stages a mutiny. We later learn Holdo is trying to be discreet while moving the Resistance to an old Rebel base on the planet Crait. She ends up sacrificing herself to buy them time.

While I enjoyed Laura Dern’s presence in the film, this whole subplot was unnecessary. I understand the lesson Poe is supposed to learn about seeing the bigger picture. But the movie already has so much going on, and they could have saved time by simply having Poe and Holdo work together in Leia’s absence. Then, inspired by her sacrifice, he can take charge and lead the Resistance forward into a new era.

Pro: New Planets
The planets in both The Force Awakens and Rogue One left something to be desired. None were particularly memorable other than Jakku, which is essentially the same world as Tatooine.

Crait isn’t a particularly interesting setting, at least not that we know of. But it does make for a unique visual during our climactic battle. You’ve got a thick layer of salt on the surface, with the red mineral content underneath. It’s a new kind of environment. That’s not an easy thing to give us after eight Star Wars movies.

The casino city of Canto Bight, which Finn and Rose travel to, is memorable as well. It doesn’t blow you away in terms of creatures or visual spectacle. But the novelty of basically seeing Star Wars characters go to Vegas is amusing.

Con: The Era
Here’s a little something Disney doesn’t want you to realize: We’re never going to get another universally beloved Star Wars movie ever again. Hell, we haven’t had once since The Empire Strikes Back, and even that’s debatable in some circles. The phrase “everyone’s a critic” has never been more true than it is in 2017. The advent of the internet, blogs, YouTube shows and the like have allowed for pop culture to be analyzed and re-analyzed to the point of absurdity. (And yes, I am indeed saying that on my own blog.) You can’t find something more heavily ingrained in our pop culture than Star Wars.

You also can’t find a more opinionated fandom. These movies and this universe connect with people on such a personal level. So something that’s perceived as wrong or harmful can spark a tidal wave of emotion. The prequels taught a generation of geeks (myself included) how to pick a movie apart and spit it back at its creators. We love Star Wars, but we are forever on guard from being burned again. As such, any and all future Star Wars films will be under a microscope as long as fans can access the internet. 

The Bottom Line
The Last Jedi does not live up to its hype. But that hype was so ridiculous that you almost can’t fault it for that.

Almost.

There’s a lot to like in this movie, and I appreciate that they surprised us, and are trying to avoid doing the original trilogy over again. But the plain and simple truth is that they tried to do too much with too many characters. As such, the movie’s focus is spread too thin. It almost feels like they shot their wad, and won’t have anything left for Episode IX. We’ll find out in two years, when thankfully JJ Abrams will be back in the director’s chair.

Help us, JJ. You’re are only hope… (No pressure.)

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A Star Wars: Yoda’s Secret War Review – Size Still Matters Not

TITLE: Star Wars, Vol. 5: Yoda’s Secret War
AUTHOR: Jason Aaron, Kelly Thompson
PENCILLER: Salvador Larroca, Emilio Laiso. Cover by Stuart Immonen.
COLLECTS: Star Wars #2630Star Wars Annual #2
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $17.99
RELEASED: July 5, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

I’ve referred to the “Journal of Old Ben Kenobi” issues of Star Wars the highlight of the series thus far. I stand by that statement in terms of the one-off tales we got in issues #7, #15, and #20. But they went a little too far here. A five-issue story from the journal? Which features Yoda instead of Obi-Wan? I can understand the temptation to try it. But no. This falls in the “too much of a good thing” category.

As Luke Skywalker ponders a current predicament involving C-3PO being captured by the Empire, he opens Ben Kenobi’s journal and begins reading. Ben weaves a tale of a Jedi being called to a remote planet not on any star maps. A world inhabited only by children, who speak of a mysterious “stonepower.” Little does Luke know that the Jedi unraveling the mystery of this planet is Yoda, the former Grand Master of the Jedi Order who will soon continue his training in the ways of the Force.

Our artist for the main story is Salvador Larroca, whose work I’ve talked about in great detail previously. Long story short: His art is largely based on stills from the Star Wars movies, and it’s incredibly distracting. You want to be into the story, but the art keeps reminding you of scenes from Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, etc. It works for characters like Darth Vader or C-3PO, whose faces never change. But for just about everyone else it’s a problem. It’s a shame, because otherwise this is pretty good stuff. Edgar Delgado’s colors really capture the magic and wonder of the Star Wars Universe, especially once Yoda is sent on a question inside a mountain. And we get a big monster toward the end that’s are a lot of fun.

To his credit, Jason Aaron gets Yoda right. He’s not afraid to play with Yoda’s ironic size/power ratio. In issue #26, we see him walk into the lair of a bunch of space pirates to save a Force-sensitive child. As one might expect, they initially laugh him off. But he dispatches them, and gets a pretty good line in: “Something more precious than wealth have I brought you. … Wisdom.”

During our story, Yoda becomes the student of a boy named Garro, who teaches him about the stonepower. Seeing our little green friend as an apprentice instead of a master is always a fun role reversal. Star Wars fans obviously know that he instructs very young Jedi at the temple on Coruscant. So the fact that he’s on a planet full of child warriors is a great little twist. We get some cool visuals of Yoda and Garro with the glowing stones, and the blue light reflecting across the Jedi Master’s alien skin.

But despite what Yoda’s Secret War has going for it, it’s simply too long. They could have trimmed at least one issue off of this and been absolutely fine. In issue #29, we see Yoda face a rock monster that’s as tall as a building. That’s a great match-up, and a perfect illustration of the grand yet unassuming power this little guy possesses. In terms of a grand finale for a Yoda story, it’s tough to ask for more than that. But as we move through issue #29 and into #30, we jump back to present day and see Luke mix it up with an adult Garro. Thus, a story that was already starting to feel it’s length officially overstays its welcome. I understand the impulse to connect the story to Luke. But the reader already knows Yoda eventually trains him. It’s needless filler.

We also have to endure the narrative convenience that, in telling this story, Ben Kenobi never identifies Yoda by name. This is a continuity hoop Aaron has to jump through so Luke doesn’t recognize Yoda’s name in The Empire Strikes Back. While I appreciate the attention to continuity, it’s just a little too convenient for my taste. Logically, why wouldn’t Obi-Wan use Yoda’s name?

We also get the obligatory scene at the end with Yoda on Dagobah, talking about how Luke will be ready soon. Again, needless filler.

Also contained in this book is Star Wars Annual #2, in which our creative team shifts to Kelly Thompson and Emilio Laiso. We meet a character named Pash Lavane on the planet of Skorii-Lei, which has been devastated by the war between the Empire and the Rebellion. While she’s an immensely talented former engineer, with the physique of an Amazon to boot, Pash opts to stay out of the conflict. But when she rescues Princess Leia from a stormtrooper attack, she’s irrevocably drawn in. She may have no choice but to pick a side.

I appreciate the story Thompson tells about how one can’t always stay neutral when it comes to what’s happening in their world at large. But what I came away thinking about was the Pash character herself. The juxtaposition of a big, muscled up character who’s also technically savvy is intriguing. Pash is almost the She-Hulk of the Star Wars universe. Laiso strikes a lovely balance, as he makes her both facially expressive and imposing in stature. Between Doctor Aphra and Sana Solo, Marvel hasn’t been shy about creating new strong female characters. Pash makes that list as well, and it’s a shame we haven’t seen her since this issue.

I’ve drifted in and out of Marvel’s main Star Wars series since its debut. As big a Star Wars geek as I’ve always been, this title has had trouble holding my attention. Sadly, Yoda’s Secret War is my latest exit cue. Hopefully I get a reason to return sooner rather than later.

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A Star Wars #27 Review – This Looks Familiar…

star_wars_27TITLE: Star Wars #27
AUTHOR: Jason Aaron
PENCILLER: Salvador Larroca. Cover by Stuart Immonen.
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: January 25, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

We haven’t seen much of Yoda since Star Wars returned to Marvel. He’s been around, of course. But to my knowledge this is the first story we’ve seen that’s actually focused on him.

Framed, oddly enough, as an entry in the diary of Ob-Wan Kenobi, part two of “Yoda’s Secret War” sees Yoda travel to a planet of primitive warriors. Warriors that also happen to be children. The planet’s society revolves around it’s strange blue mountains. The ore from these mountains is somehow strong in the Force. The Jedi Master is quickly caught up in the feud between the tribe that controls the ore, and the young outsiders. As a Jedi, Yoda’s mission is to bring peace. But as he’ll soon find out, peace is not on the table.

The artist here is our old Darth Vader buddy Salvador Larroca, who I’ve criticized for making it blatantly obvious that he’s duplicating movie stills. I’ll repeat that critique here, as you can tell exactly where he hit the pause button during Attack of the Clones. You’re into what’s happening in the book, and then these familiar images of Yoda pluck you out. Larroca is a very talented artist. It’s such a shame he waters down his own work like this.

star-wars, Yoda, Salvador Larroca, 2017Putting Yoda in a story with kids is obviously fitting. Star Wars lore tells us he teaches a lot of the “younglings” (a la that scene in Clones) before they’re assigned to a master. There’s an opportunity here for insight into how Yoda relates to children, and what makes him an effective mentor for students that age. It doesn’t have to be anything big or monumental. A small moment would do. Maybe even something as short as a sentence. We don’t get anything like that in this issue. But the door is wide open for it next issue.

Jason Aaron’s handle on Yoda has impressed me. In neither this nor last issue did we see a lightsaber, or any sort of flippy moves from him. What we have here is wise Empire Strikes Back Yoda, as opposed to CGI dancing Yoda. For that, I’m thankful. What we’re getting here seems that much more authentic as a result.

Jason Aaron came across something really cool with these “Journal” stories, as it allows him to take a break for a month and tell some cool stories with Obi-Wan. This is the first time he’s gone a little more long form with it, while also journeying away from Obi-Wan’s life on Tatooine. I much prefer the single issue stories (see issues #7, #15, and #20), but what we’re getting here with Yoda is still pretty good. But with at least two more issues, most likely three, left in “Yoda’s Secret War,” I’m just hoping our little green friend doesn’t overstay his welcome.

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A Review of The Making of The Empire Strikes Back – The Incredible Journey

The Making of The Empire Strikes BackTITLE: The Making of The Empire Strikes Back
AUTHOR: J.W. Rinzler
PUBLISHER: Lucas Books
PRICE: $85
RELEASED: October 12, 2010

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Though he has his critics, me being one at times, I could listen to George Lucas talk Star Wars for hours, specifically the in terms of plot evolution. So that was probably the aspect of The Making of The Empire Strikes Back I found most appealing.

Released for the 30th anniversary of the film, this coffee table book chronicles the movie’s creation and release, starting in May 1977 (when the first film was released) and ending in December 1980. It features old and rare interview content from the film’s cast and crew, a variety of photographs, unseen concept art by Ralph McQuarrie, and more.

The really cool thing about this book is that Rinzler more or less presents the content in chronological order. It almost feels like you’re reading a production journal that includes interviews with the cast and crew. That’s likely in part because the book borrows a great deal from Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire Strikes Back by Alan Arnold, which was published in 1980.

Irvin Kershner, The Empire StrikesThe book will likely tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the making of Empire, mostly looking at it from a director’s perspective, an actor’s perspective, and a special effects perspective. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, because if you’re reading this book from cover to cover, chances are you’re going to get bored at times. As I said, I love hearing George Lucas, and in this case Irvin Kershner, talk Star Wars. But as amazing as the special effects in the film are, their formative process doesn’t interest me as much.

But you can certainly argue that this book doesn’t need to be read to be enjoyed. For Star Wars buffs, the photos alone might just be worthy the hefty $85 price. We see some fantastic candid behind-the-scenes shots. For instance: Kersnher showing Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) how he might hold C-3PO’s severed head, Carrie Fisher sitting in the carbon freezing chamber alongside numerous stormtroopers and Ugnaughts (pig men) during a break, Mark Hamill in the swamps of Dagobah with Yoda…along with Kermit and Miss Piggy. Plus, there are lots of shots from the set that just show the actors being themselves. Those are fun to look at.

The detail on some of these photos is amazing. There’s a tight black and white shot of Yoda on Mark Hamill’s shoulder, and you can see not only the sweat on Hamill’s face, but a lot of the little details on the puppet. The creases in its face, the detail in its hands, how life-like the eyes look. It’s almost breath-taking.

Yoda, Luke SKywalker, The Empire Strikes BackThe book provides some insight into the behind-the-scenes tension that went on during the film. Apparently, Hamill was worried that Luke Skywalker was bring written out when he read Yoda’s “There is another” line. Also, Empire was way over budget, and we read about Lucas’ fear of having to turn the film over to 20th Century Fox in order to finish it, as opposed to owning it himself.

The only real drawback to the book is its price. For casual fans, $85 is a lot to ask for a book, and I consider myself more than just a casual fan. You get your money’s worth, but you might have to save up for it. Or you could always try the library.

Though the book in its entirety didn’t interest me, I can’t deny The Making of The Empire Strikes Back is a gem for both die-hard collectors and casual fans of the movie, by virtue of the sheer volume of content it contains. It’s a fitting tribute to one of the greatest films ever made. In a recent interview with StarWars.com, Rinzler said he’d do a book like this for Return of the Jedi if sales justified it, which I’m sure they will. Star Wars is recession-proof that way.

RATING: 9.5/10

Image 1 from grantgould7.tripod.com. Image 2 from curiousintentions.com.

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