I noticed that the Facebook "Like" buttons on my blog got messed up somehow or other - the ends were cut off - so after an hour or so of painful struggle, I think I've got them fixed so you can see them properly again. It's been a while since I had to do front-end web design, and man, I forgot how frustrating fighting with css can be! Good times.
Anyway, as always, let me know if you see anything around here that looks weird, or you find something broken, and I'll see what I can do. Thanks!
I hadn't seen The Black Hole since I was a little kid, but I had powerful, positive isolated memories of it. Recently somebody online mentioned that it was available on Disney+, so I fired it up.
Oh my god, this movie is bonkers.
It came out in 1979, long before Disney owned Star Wars, and was apparently the studio's attempt to copy the success of A New Hope, which had just been released two years previously. It features cute little droids with goofy names, just like Star Wars, although they star alongside far less cute robot villains. The cast is pretty crazy, with Robert Forster as Captain Dan Holland, the hero and skipper of the starship Palomino; Anthony Perkins (!) as Dr. Alex Durant, the Palomino's lead scientist; Ernest Borgnine (!!) as journalist Harry Booth (who I guess tagged along to document the mission); Yvette Mimieux as psychic scientist Dr. Kate McCrae (who doubles as sort of a last minute love interest for Captain Holland); Joseph Bottoms as Holland's brave young first officer, Charlie Pizer; and Roddy McDowall (!!!) and Slim Pickens (!!!) as the voices of the two cute robots, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B.
The guy with the meatiest part, however, is Maximilian Schell, who plays Dr. Hans Reinhardt, a mad scientist and the only remaining (sort of) crewmember of a gigantic spaceship called the Cygnus. I'm convinced that it is not a coincidence that Reinhardt's deadly robotic lieutenant - a floating blood-red enforcer armed with lasers and spinning blades - shares its name with the actor who plays Reinhardt: Maximilian. Their twisted relationship is one of the more interesting things in the film.
On its way home from an exploration mission, the Palomino comes upon what appears to be the abandoned hulk of the Cygnus floating perilously near an enormous black hole. The Cygnus had been on a similar mission of exploration, and had been ordered to return years ago, but never did. McCrae's father had been on the Cygnus, so the Palomino takes a closer look. Suddenly the Cygnus comes to life, its lights all flipping on at once. So the Palomino docks and the crew begins to cautiously explore the seemingly empty ship, doors opening and closing to lead them toward a particular destination...
The first half or so of the movie is basically gothic horror, but set on an enormous haunted spaceship next to a black hole, instead of an enormous haunted mansion on the moors. Reinhardt is the tall, dark stranger with the mysterious past who presides over the vast structure. He gives off a kind of Captain Nemo vibe - educated, intelligent, but with something dark and savage underneath. He'll subtly threaten you, then serve you a nice dinner off china plates.
Reinhardt claims he sent the rest of the crew home and expresses mild surprise that they never returned home. He stayed because his work was too important to leave. He puts the moves on Dr. McCrae, who is perhaps slightly charmed, but it's Dr. Durant who's really starstruck. Reinhardt strokes his ego and presents him with an opportunity to be part of amazing discoveries. Reinhardt claims he's worked out a way to pass through the black hole and survive, and he expects to find on the other side the answers to everything: the face of God, life everlasting.
It's clear to everybody but Durant that something is not quite right with Reinhardt, and that his story about what happened seems a bit fishy. As they continue to explore the vessel, they see more unsettling things that don't seem to jibe with Reinhardt's explanations. The tension and creepiness heighten steadily. The visuals are very effective. The special effects are certainly not up to modern standards, but the vast corridors of the haunted ship and the mirror-masked faces of the humanoid robots, who stand silent sentinel at control panels like mindless zombies, really get into your brain and stick there.
Eventually the tension is broken and the gothic horror gives way to Star Wars-inspired action sequences. Our heroes exchange laser fire with evil robots and then end up running from gigantic meteors that show up without warning seemingly just to pad the film out with even more destruction and drama. This part of the movie feels like Disney floating some ideas for a new theme park ride.
One really strange and fascinating moment in the film comes in this section: Maximilian kills somebody, Reinhardt kind of halfheartedly scolds him for it, then he steps up close to Dr. McCrae and says, "Please protect me from Maximilian." He's been giving orders to Maximilian throughout, which the robot has followed, but maybe he's not as in control as he appears. Indeed, when Reinhardt is crushed under a piece of wreckage in his crumbling control room, and pleads with Maximilian to help him, the robot ignores him and leaves him to die.
The very end of the film is where things really go off the rails, in a psychedelic, 2001: A Space Odyssey kind of way. Everybody goes through the black hole and the trip becomes, not so much metaphorically, but actually literally, a passage into the afterlife. Maximilian and Reinhardt tumble into each other on their way into the hole and a strange merging occurs. A closeup on Maximilian's red visor reveals Reinhardt's eyes inside. A slow zoom out reveals that Maximilian/Reinhardt is standing above a rocky, flaming, Bosch-esque hellscape peopled by long lines of shuffling humanoid robots. Meanwhile, our heroes travel along a crystal corridor to a heavenly alien world ringed with light.
I'd like to point out here that this was a movie made by Disney for kids! They even sold toys of the robots! I know because me and my brother had a couple.
Anyway, the point is, I love this movie. It's ridiculous and crazy and amazing. If you're looking for something to watch on Disney+, drop some acid and check it out.
I could have sworn I'd read Dan Simmons' Hyperion before and been disappointed by it, but maybe I was thinking of some other book. The overall story was vaguely familiar, especially "The Priest's Tale," but most of it was entirely new to me. And I'm still not sure how I feel about it. But I did read the whole thing, and now I want to read the sequel, so I certainly didn't hate it. It's a really interesting book, with some fascinating ideas and moving stories. Plus it ends on a damn cliffhanger, and I have to know what happens next!! But for a famous entry in a genre that is meant to be so forward-looking, it's an oddly backward-looking book.
I should note, I was going to try to leave spoilers out of my write-up, but I ended up... not doing that. So beware!
Hyperion is a sci-fi version of The Canterbury Tales, set in a future when humanity has left its dead home behind and formed an interstellar web of societies known as The Hegemony of Man ("Man"? Really?). Like The Canterbury Tales, it's about a small group of pilgrims on a religious journey who spend their travel time each telling a tale of how they came to be on the pilgrimage. The tales are used to critique modern society and religion. There's a twist, though: we're informed at the beginning that one of the pilgrims is a spy and a traitor to the Hegemony. Which is it?
Taken together, the tales also tell an over-arching story about a mysterious, monstrous, and possibly wish-fulfilling Lord of Pain (also known as the Shrike) that lives among time-travelling tombs on a haunted, alien world. That world, Hyperion, is the destination of the pilgrimage, and it's also become the center of an interstellar conflict that may very well flare up into a war that will end humanity. The combatants in the conflict include Hegemony military forces, a nomadic space-bound group known as the Ousters (sort of outerspace Vikings), and a group of artificial intelligences known as the TechnoCore. Each of the pilgrims has their own secrets - most of them quite horrific - and their own perspectives on the Shrike.
"The Priest's Tale: The Man Who Cried God" is first, and is unabashedly a horror story, even making use of the epistolary format that Stoker leverages so effectively in Dracula. The horror of "The Priest's Tale" is religious, existential, and physical. Unfortunately, it also relies a bit on ableism. The story is told at a remove, as our narrator is presenting the journal of another character who he knew only slightly years ago, although he does eventually become caught up in the tale himself. The journal slowly reveals the horrific details of an awful parody of Catholicism that exists in secret on Hyperion, and which seems to have some distant connection to the Shrike (although the nature of that connection remains unclear). This tale is the least connected and the most unnecessary to the overarching story of the novel, but it is disturbing and effective. What it's trying to say about religion I'm not totally sure. In the face of this twisted mimicry of his religion, one character actually finds his faith is restored. But he also ends up crucified on an electrified tree, dying over and over again in horrible agony, so maybe that changes his mind.
Next is "The Soldier's Tale: The War Lovers." That title can be taken in two ways, and both are accurate to the story: it is about those who love war, but also about those who love each other in the midst of war. An infamous colonel tells the secret history of his love affair with a dream woman, and her connection to the Shrike, and to his own transformation from a military man to a man who fights for peace. The sex scenes are graphic and pretty gross. This book is very much a straight white man's book; even the one story told from the perspective of a woman (which we'll get to in a bit) feels weighted with a male outlook. For a book about cultures on alien worlds in the far future, it's also stubbornly heteronormative and really rather conservative in its descriptions of culture, gender, and sex. I don't think the existence of gay people is even mentioned in its entire length. The woman in this story is a kind of succubus; a feminine embodiment of war. Violence and sex are blended together until one final act of love looks likely to bring about a galactic apocalypse. How exactly, it's unclear. Although this is science fiction, a lot of what happens in it feels more in the fantasy vein, with monsters and magic and maidens struck down by terrible curses. But more of the overarching story is revealed in this tale: the Shrike appears to be seeking the end of the universe through some ultimate conflict, and is trying to use the Colonel as its instrument.
The third story is "The Poet's Tale: Hyperion Cantos." This story would seem to be particularly important, as the series of which this novel is the first entry shares its name (Hyperion Cantos). It's meta in more than just that way, too; the main character here is a famous poet who has come to believe he wrote the Shrike into existence and is in some sense responsible for the death and destruction it's caused. He even seems to believe that as he continues to write his Hyperion Cantos, he is writing the future - creating reality. It's possible we're meant to think of him as the author of this book - as if he has somehow written the story he's a character in. But again, for a character in a book about the future, he is very traditional, to the point of being almost antiquated. He's a bawdy, grossly male and heterosexual hedonist. He's constantly compared to a satyr, and most of his references and quotations (in fact most of the references and quotations in the book) are to very old works of art. Admittedly, references to made-up future works that the reader doesn't know about wouldn't have as much of an impact, but this book was published in 1989. Why have your poet quote Shakespeare, the Bible, and John Keats? Why is the only movie referenced The Wizard of Oz? Other art was made in between The Wizard of Oz and 1989! Our poet does admit he is very backward-looking, and his most famous work, The Dying Earth (which shares its title with a famous series by Jack Vance, a fact which Simmons slyly mentions in the book) is an elegy to "Old Earth," humanity's now dead (murdered, in fact, by an event known as "The Big Mistake") home planet. And later in the book, a character decries this civilization's increasingly desperate and violent attempts to hold onto old ways. But is that just lampshading, or is the backward nature of these characters and their society a legitimate theme of the novel? I'm not sure. I know I really disliked the Poet's Tale until its narrator's mind is destroyed by cheap suspended animation, and he has to rebuild his vocabulary from nine words (most scatological profanity). This section is poignant and funny. I was also fascinated by the idea of the poet writing the Shrike into existence, and the drama and romance of him haunting the ruins of the Poet's City on Hyperion, and his fiery confrontation with Sad King Billy and his Muse.
The most effective and moving story is definitely "The Scholar's Tale: The River Lethe's Taste Is Bitter." As you might have guessed from the ancient reference in the title, it also features some of the most traditional, conservative characters and societies that we've yet seen in the book. It's hard to believe a family unit and small town this traditional could exist in the future; it wouldn't be out of place in '50s America. The husband calls his wife "Mother," and the wife calls her husband "Father," and they bought their little girl a bike for her birthday, and the couple met at a college party where the man spilled something on the woman. The man is a scholar and researcher, but his research topics are things like a story in the Bible, and a writer who would be even more ancient in his time than he is already in ours. The scholar's name is also an extremely traditional Jewish name: Sol Weintraub. He is even dubbed The Wandering Jew in the tale. Why is this future so old?
Still, maybe it's partly because this setting and cast are so familiar that this story is so effective. Weintraub's daughter (who also has an incredibly traditional name: Rachel Sarah Weintraub) ends up traveling to Hyperion to perform research there for her graduate dissertation. While she's alone one night in one of the mysterious structures called the Time Tombs (structures that are somehow moving backward through time, and that appear to be connected somehow to the Shrike), she experiences a paranormal-like event that infects her with a unique disease: Merlin syndrome. She begins living backwards, becoming younger and younger each day, and each time she sleeps, her memories reset to what they were when she was originally that age, and she forgets everything she experienced since then. What follows is a brutal, heart-rending tale, as her parents try desperately to help their daughter while she fades slowly and inexorably away from them. Weintraub begins to have a dream where he is ordered by a God-like figure (possibly the Shrike) to bring his daughter to Hyperion and sacrifice her, and he becomes obsessed with the story in the Bible where Abraham is ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Weintraub ultimately decides that any God who demands obedience before all else, any God who would expect a worshiper to be willing to execute his own family member, is an evil God that does not deserve worship. This is a deep and powerful story and probably the best in the book.
The next story is "The Detective's Tale: The Long Good-bye." Yes, it's really called that! And indeed it's very much in the format of an old-school film noir murder mystery/detective story, complete with a rough-and-tumble private dick armed with her father's automatic (his death by "suicide" inspired her to become a detective, natch), a mysterious femme fatale client who becomes a romantic interest for the detective, and a labyrinthine case that ultimately uncovers a gigantic conspiracy and brings to light the evils of society. The interesting bit (as you might have guessed from the pronouns used above) is that the two main characters are gender-swapped: the detective and narrator is a woman, and the femme fatale is a man. Well, "man" is a bit misleading; he's actually a male avatar for an artificial intelligence modeled on the poet John Keats. Oh, and the detective's name is Lamia. Yeah.
This one is rough. I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at all the detective story tropes, even though I actually like a good film noir. We also get some cyberpunk tropes thrown in for good measure, as this story explores the seedy underside of the equivalent of the internet that's envisioned by the novel. There are definitely some fascinating ideas here, though: the warring factions of AIs, their Ultimate Intelligence project, their attempts to fully predict the future by taking into account all possible variables (that reminded me a little bit of Asimov's Foundation novels), and the way the inexplicable, incalculable variable of Hyperion and the Shrike keeps frustrating their efforts. There's another weird religious thing going on in this story, as our detective ends up being revered by the Church of the Shrike as the future mother of some kind of messianic figure. (Yes, somehow she is having the John Keats cyborg's baby, like you do.) I haven't mentioned the Church of the Shrike before, but they're an interesting bunch who show up again and again throughout the novel. Adherents of the religion are often broken, suicidal people, but not all of them are. There's definitely something creepy and mystical going on with them. What it is exactly is - like so many other things - not explained in the novel.
The final story is "The Consul's Tale: Remembering Siri," and it's definitely one of my least favorite. Like "The Priest's Tale," it's also told at a remove, with a grandson presenting the journal of his grandfather, and then adding his own story onto the end. The journal jumps back and forth through time in a confusing fashion. This is probably an attempt to mirror the time-fractured nature of the relationship that is at the center of the story. The author of the journal is a "shipman" named Merin Aspic (Aspic? Really?) who, as part of his work to build the farcaster portal that will bring the Maui Covenant colony into the Hegemony, is constantly traveling between the stars at relativistic speeds, and so incurring enormous amounts of "time debt." Against orders, and in search of "nookie" (ugh), he mingles with the natives while on shore leave and ends up in a relationship with a (criminally young!!) girl who is unfortunately named Siri. (Constantly being reminded of Apple's voice-activated AI assistant made it hard to take her seriously as a character, although that's hardly Simmons' fault.) She's only 16! I mean, he's only 19 at the time, but still. It is very hard to like Merin, and very hard to understand what Siri sees in him, especially after he ends up murdering her cousin (!) at the end of their first meeting. But their time-fractured romance becomes legendary among her people. Each time he returns to meet her again, he's aged maybe a year or two, while she's aged decades. She has kids by him and raises them into men while he's off working on his spaceship. It's pretty gross. The tale very much follows in the tired vein of the "civilized white man is converted to the side of the primitive natives by their charming culture as personified by a sexy young girl" story (although in this case she doesn't remain young for long). The most recent example of this genre is probably John Cameron's Avatar, but there's also Dances With Wolves (which came out only a year after Hyperion), and I'm sure plenty more, much older examples. What we come to realize, as we jump back and forth through Siri and Merin's very strange relationship, is that the culture of Maui Covenant, and many of the people and animals that live there, will be utterly destroyed by the Hegemony when it takes over. It's old school Imperialism in its purest form. Which, okay. But the way the native culture is exoticized and romanticized, while we are given almost no details about it, is clumsy. And, again, it's hard to understand how a culture so traditional, archaic, and without technology would exist in this future universe. I appreciate that you're telling a story about how Hegemonic Imperialism is bad and destroying aboriginal societies is bad. But why does it have to be from the perspective of one of the White Imperialists, a dumb young jerk who's having lots of sex with the young native woman?
At the end of this story, the Consul - grandson to Merin and Siri, and high ranking official in the Hegemony government - reveals that the way the Hegemony treated Maui Covenant is the way it treats pretty much all colony worlds. It shows up, wipes out the natives, and takes control. The Hegemony, in other words, is pretty awful. We have learned almost nothing about the Hegemony's enemy, the Ousters, in the rest of the book; they're just kind of a barbarian boogey man banging at the gates. The Consul now gives us a rough sketch of the beauty of their culture, and reveals that he is the spy and the traitor. However, he is also a traitor to the Ousters. A kind of triple agent. His goal seems to be to eliminate everyone, to end the conflict by letting the combatants destroy each other. To let the Shrike loose on the universe to wreak whatever retribution it sees necessary on all of humanity.
Interestingly, his fellow pilgrims react by hugging him and absolving him. Then they all walk together down to the Shrike and the Time Tombs, hand in hand, singing "We're Off to See the Wizard." And that's how the book ends.
I'm not even kidding!
I've almost talked myself into hating the book by writing about it here. It's got a lot of ridiculous tropey bits. And I find it hard to take a book seriously anymore that is so stubbornly traditional and stereotypical and heteronormative. It definitely made me think a lot about my own novel and its own flaws, and how I should probably revise it again to include more minorities and more queerness. White hetero male stories are pretty dull and old anymore.
All that being said, the book is well written, with some great ideas, and I really would like to know what the Shrike does when the pilgrims show up, and who lives and who dies, and what the deal is with the Time Tombs. So I'll probably read the next one eventually.
Avengers: Endgame - Perfect. The Infinity Saga is just an incredible cinematic achievement, and this is the triumphant capstone. I spontaneously cheered multiple times, I cried a lot, and I laughed. It finds clever ways to revisit all the characters and major events of the saga. It's brilliant, thrilling, rounds everything off in a really satisfying way, and paves the way to the future. I can't wait to see it again.
Glass - The third in Shyamalan's superhumans series, along with Unbreakable and Split. The concept underpinning Split - that trauma can somehow provide you with superhuman abilities - is problematic, but there's no denying these are all effective thrillers with great drama and action, and clever twists and turns. Glass takes what's come before, mixes it all together, and takes it all one step forward. Shyamalan is paving the way here for his own superhero cinematic universe. I'm curious to see where it goes next. Plus, I want to know what that girl's powers are. She's gotta have powers, right?
John Wick - Took me a while to get to this one, but yeah, it's as good as people say. It's a revenge story coupled with a "hitman tries to get out of the life but is dragged back in" story, but manages to rise above the cliches of both with some fascinating world-building, a dark sense of humor, fun performances, and ridiculous, over-the-top action. Also, it references Baba Yaga, which I always support. And sad Keanu encourages you to adopt shelter dogs! Beware, however: a puppy dies (along with dozens of people, but come on, it's the puppy that hurts).
Suspiria (2018) - A remake of Dario Argento's 1977 bloody horror masterpiece. This one features an eerie soundtrack by Thom Yorke, and Tilda Swinton perfectly cast as Blanc, a combination dance teacher/den mother/coven leader. She also plays two other parts in the film (one of whom is an old man!), which I only realized when looking at the cast list afterwards, as she is completely unrecognizable in the other two parts under piles of makeup. The movie is set in 1977 Berlin, with the backdrop of a hostage situation and associated political and civil unrest lending tension and menace to the proceedings. Though it features powerful visuals and interesting camera work, it lacks the rich colors of the original and is sometimes so dark you can't see what's happening, which is always frustrating. But it does leave you as shaken and slightly bewildered as the original. The cast is almost entirely women, with only a few bumbling tertiary characters played by men, and it is at least in part about mothers and daughters. But mostly it's about sensual violent dance magic and naked Satan worship. Good times.
John Darnielle is better known as the heart and brains of a band called The Mountain Goats (who are great, by the way), but he has also written two novels, both of which are freakish, bizarre, puzzle-like, and completely unclassifiable. The first, Wolf in White Van, is about a man named Sean Phillips with a debilitating disfigurement that he acquired during an incident when he was a teen, an incident which the whole book revolves around. What happened, and why? You will eventually discover the answer to the former question, but the latter is more complex and is never explicitly answered. You have to provide the answer yourself from what you learn of Sean, through a non-chronological series of scenes from various parts of his life, both before and long after the incident. In between these moments from Sean's life are inserted scenes from a post-apocalyptic play-by-mail text adventure game which the main character designed and runs. The game ends up figuring largely in another tragic incident that happens later in his life.
Wolf in White Van is about the secret pain people carry in their hearts and the inexplicable and horrific acts that pain can lead them to perform. It also looks at life as a complex web of interconnected choices, each one shunting you off into a new story. Sometimes every choice is a terrible one, and all you can do is try to choose the least terrible.
Universal Harvester seems at first as if it's going to be a piece of straight genre fiction - namely, horror. Customers of the Video Hut in a small Iowa town in the eighties begin to return movies with odd complaints. They say there are other movies on the tapes. In fact, strange, disturbing footage which seems to involve torture has been spliced into the middle of bland Hollywood fare. And some of the scenes include recognizable landmarks from nearby. Jeremy (an employee of the video store who lost his mother in a car accident some years ago), his father, his boss, and one of the customers of the video store (who Jeremy has a bit of a crush on) are all drawn into the mystery of the sickening, suggestive footage and eventually find its source: a lonely farmhouse, and the lonely woman who lives there, who has her own tragic past.
There are many deeply disturbing and chillingly suggestive sequences in Universal Harvester, and for most of the book you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for a twisted religious cultist to leap forth and start dealing out grisly death. But if that's what you're looking for, don't read this book. What Universal Harvester ends up being about is (like Wolf in White Van) the secret pain that people carry in their hearts and the strange rituals they can find themselves engaging in to try to assuage that pain, to fill the hollow place inside them. It's about the ways people deal with life-destroying losses. It's about the deep and complex bond between parents and children and the awful scars that are left when that bond is suddenly snapped. It's also about the deep currents that can run just underneath the surface in small towns. Although there are plenty of creepy moments throughout, it's ultimately a very sad story about broken people. This does make the book a bit frustrating and disappointing; it feels like you're being promised one thing, and then the curtain is pulled back and what's actually there is something quite different. But it's still a very powerful story masterfully and beautifully told by Darnielle, who has an incredible way with words. Darnielle's books are gorgeous, intricate, grotesque mazes that you have to navigate carefully, lest the minotaur that lurks in them find and devour you.
I don't know if you guys heard, but a new Star Wars movie came out recently. Rian Johnson is the director this time. I was excited to hear he'd be in charge, as I've enjoyed his work on Brick and Looper. There's some controversy over his film, however - critics love it, but many fans are angry about what he's done to their beloved Star Wars.
The odd thing is, in a way, the film itself addresses these criticisms. It's a Star Wars film that's at least in part about Star Wars - about legends and stories, and the difficulty of telling them well: of knowing what to keep of what's come before, and what to change. It's about how we deal with the past, how we lead, how we fight our battles. It's about finding the balance we need to make our way through life. It's also got space battles, silly jokes, lightsaber fights, blue milk, rock lifting, and cute little bird-things called porgs. It's long, and perhaps it doesn't quite succeed at striking the balance it seeks between the new and the old, but it's still a pretty great Star Wars movie.
Be wary! From here on out, there be spoilers.
We open with one of those big Star Wars space battles - and a very familiar one, too. The Resistance, the location of its base having been revealed to the First Order at the end of the last movie, is evacuating, and the First Order is trying to blow its ships to pieces before they can escape. It's the start of a chase that will last basically throughout the whole rest of the movie.
In a tone-setting scene with some goofy comedy of a type we're not entirely used to seeing in Star Wars, hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) essentially prank calls General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) before singlehandedly wiping out the main cannons of a First Order dreadnought cruiser (the first appearance, I believe, of such a ship in a Star Wars movie, though it's not terribly different from the ridiculously massive, heavily armed, triangular spaceships we're used to seeing Star Wars bad guys tool around in). General Leia (the irreplaceable Carrie Fisher) is satisfied that this stunt will buy the fleet the time it needs to escape, but Poe wants more: he sees a chance to destroy the dreadnought completely, and he refuses to give up that chance. In an act of defiance that will setup his character arc for the film, as well as establish the continuing tension between him and the Resistance leadership, he demands, despite orders from Leia to the contrary, that his fellow pilots make a bombing run against the dreadnought.
We're used to seeing anonymous pilots explode in fireballs left and right in Star Wars space battles, but in this film, those deaths feel more real and more traumatic than usual. In part this is due to great performances, especially from Fisher. It's also due to the extraordinary number of heroic self-sacrifices in this movie, and the drama inherent in such acts. The gunner who sacrifices herself to make the bombing run a success is Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), and her act will have a strong effect on her sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), whom we'll meet later and learn a lot more about.
Though the bombing run is a success, the cost is high, and when Poe gets back, Leia rewards him with a slap in the face and a demotion from Commander to Captain. He protests that there were many heroes on that bombing run, and Leia replies, "Dead heroes. No leaders." As the story goes on, we realize she is grooming Poe for leadership, and is disappointed that he can't, as she says, "get your head out of your cockpit." The rest of Dameron's arc is him learning, slowly and painfully, the balance needed to be a true leader: knowing when it's time to retreat from the battlefield today so you can fight again tomorrow. Knowing when not to go in with all guns blazing. Knowing when to trust that your own superiors know what they're doing. Poe is rather annoying in this film actually, not least because he is a man constantly explaining to women in authority what it is he thinks they should do, with the implied assumption that they aren't capable of figuring it out on their own. It's never been a good look, but is particularly grating in 2017. In one scene Poe even tells the pilots of an escape craft to fly as fast as they can away from the people shooting at them, as if they weren't already obviously doing that. Thanks for your input, Captain Mansplainer! Eventually he gets so annoying Leia has to wake herself up out of a coma, drag herself off her sick bed, track him down, and stun him with a pistol to get him to stop. It's actually kind of a satisfying moment.
Before Poe gets that slap in the face, he's reunited with his bromantic partner Finn (John Boyega). Finn was, you'll remember, unconscious at the end of the last film, recovering from injuries sustained in his duel with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In a deliberately silly scene, he awakens suddenly in the middle of the space battle and goes wandering through the halls of the cruiser, naked except for a bag that's leaking (presumably healing) fluids. When Poe finds him, Finn's first question is, "Where's Rey?" so naturally we then cut to Rey (Daisy Ridley) right where we left her, handing that lightsaber to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). This time the scene continues, with that same unexpected lack of solemnity the film often has for its subject matter, with Luke taking the saber, tossing it casually over his shoulder, and stalking off wordlessly.
Thus begins a sequence familiar to any fan of martial arts films: the eager and irrepressible student pleading with the reluctant old master again and again to teach her, and enduring any and all hardships in her quest for knowledge, while the master steadfastly refuses her, until finally he's worn down by her persistence and agrees to teach her. It doesn't go exactly the way it usually goes in martial arts movies, but that's to be expected.
Luke, we learn, has come to this island - home to the first Jedi temple - to die. After his failure with Ben Solo and the destruction of his school, Luke has sentenced himself - and the Jedi order itself - to a slow and lingering execution. He has closed himself off from the Force and - as Rey discovers after following him about the island for a day or so - now spends his time fishing with a ridiculously long spear, milking a weird alien creature (in a scene that's funny in a really uncomfortable way), and brooding, not only on his own personal failures, but also on the failures of the Jedi as a whole. All of Luke's visitors try to convince him to return and help them defeat the First Order: first Rey, then Chewie, and finally even R2, who, in a deeply nostalgic and emotionally powerful scene, replays the original holographic message from Leia that first pulled Luke out of the desert backwater of Tatooine and out into the larger world. But Luke only refuses over and over, insisting that he cannot and will not help. He does finally agree to give Rey three lessons in the ways of the Jedi, but only so he can also explain why the Jedi must end.
He tells Rey that the Force is all about balance - the balance between extremes of life and death, of light and darkness. But he himself has become utterly unbalanced, wallowing in the past and dwelling on his failures, shutting himself off from all his friends and loved ones. He claims he wants the Jedi dead, but he's chosen their first temple as his place of banishment, and he reverently protects the resting place of the original Jedi texts. In a fit of pique, he threatens to destroy those texts, but cannot bring himself to actually do it. Luckily, an old friend appears and does the job for him. It's great to see Yoda again, taking on the guise of the silly, wise, prankish oldster we remember from our first meeting with him on Dagobah. He returns now to teach Luke yet another important lesson: that although there are things in the past worth keeping, dwelling on the past to the expense of the present and the future is foolish and destructive. And when we teach, we must pass on not only our strengths, but also - and in fact most importantly - our failures, so our students may learn not to make the same ones, and may eventually surpass us. We must find a balance, in other words, between the new and the old, between weakness and strength.
The thematic opposite of Luke in the film is Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo. When we see him first in this movie, his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (professional motion-capture-suit-wearer Andy Serkis), is supremely unimpressed with his student's performance in the previous film, and calls him "a child in a mask." Shamed, and still twisted and torn by his recent patricide, Ren destroys his mask and jumps into his starfighter with his face uncovered, to take his anger out on the Resistance fleet. But when he senses his mother in his crosshairs - and she in turn senses him - he finds he cannot pull the trigger. Unfortunately, the TIE pilots to either side of him have no such compunctions. They obliterate the bridge of the main Resistance cruiser, killing most of the leadership of the Resistance (including Admiral Ackbar, alas), and sending Leia spiraling out into space. Apparently this threat to her life triggers some innate, heretofore unknown Force ability that allows her to fly herself to safety. It's kind of a goofy visual, but also pretty neat, and makes me wish we could have seen more of Leia as a Jedi.
Although Leia survives, she's left in a coma, so the command of the Resistance falls to Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, in a rather disappointingly small role - although she does have great hair). Poe seems disappointed he's been passed over, and less than impressed with Holdo as a person, so it's not surprising that the two of them get off on the wrong foot from the very start. Poe pulls his old mansplaining act, giving Holdo plenty of unsolicited advice, demanding to know her plan, and even pretending to a higher rank than he actually has. Holdo's reaction is understandably negative, and my sympathy is almost entirely with her, although it is frustrating that she keeps secret from him her plan for saving the Resistance fleet. Why not tell Poe and the other pilots what she's doing, instead of making it appear that she's sitting idly by and allowing the fleet to be slowly destroyed? It seems to be a secret kept merely to create drama later on; a fed-up Poe even goes so far as to lead a mutiny - for which, I'd like to point out, he is never punished. Leia even seems to promote him before the end, ceding command to him during the final escape.
But we were talking about Kylo Ren. Internally, he's clearly still in turmoil, but outwardly he is determined to gain back Snoke's regard and to become the monster Rey accuses him of being. Rey and Ren seem to develop a mysterious connection that allows them to see and speak to each other even across the vast distances that separate them. So while Luke teaches Rey about the Light and pleads with her to reject the Darkness, Ren is there, too, to tempt her to the other side. Beneath the hatred there's definitely an attraction of some sort between Rey and Ren (as many shippers have noticed). At one point Rey psychically intrudes on Ren while he's shirtless and, in another unexpectedly funny moment, asks him if he could find anything to put on.
Ren is Luke's opposite in more ways than one. While Luke is trapped in the past, Ren wants only to charge forward into the future, forgetting the past entirely, killing and leaving behind all parents and teachers and leaders, to take the reins of control for himself and forge his own destiny. And he wants to take Rey with him.
And so Rey finds herself caught between Luke and Ren, desperately seeking balance and a place for herself in the world. She is still obsessed with her own past, so desperate to know the identity of her parents she will even dive into the domain of the Dark Side when it teases her with the possibility of that revelation. But she finds its promise empty and hollow. And she looks also to the future, just as desperate to find help to save the Resistance and destroy the First Order. Who will be the one to guide and help her - Luke Skywalker or Ben Solo? And which one of them is telling the truth about the night Luke's school was destroyed? Luke says Ben turned on him, and Ben says the opposite. But as with all other things, the truth lies somewhere in between.
As if this wasn't enough story, the movie follows yet another set of characters on their own adventure of discovery. Finn, after waking up to find Rey gone and the fleet in a desperate and seemingly hopeless retreat from the First Order, falls back on his old habit of running away from his problems, and tries to sneak off in an escape pod. He's caught in the act by maintenance worker Rose Tico, who feels doubly betrayed by his cowardice and treachery, given her sister's recent sacrifice, and that she looked up to Finn as a hero of the Resistance. In his attempt to convince her of the uselessness of remaining with the fleet, he reveals that the First Order has somehow found a way to track ships through hyperspace. But then the two of them, with their combined technical knowledge, manage to work up a theory, not only of how the tracking works, but of how it might be defeated and the fleet successfully escape. They come to Poe with their plan and Poe, still convinced he knows better than any of the women actually in charge, decides to secretly move forward with the idea without telling anybody. The problem is, they need a hacker to do the job right. He asks Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) for help, but she's busy with a "labor dispute" which involves a lot of shooting and flying around, so she recommends somebody else, an expert that Finn and Rose (with the help of Poe's droid, BB-8) will have to seek out in the casinos of Canto Bight.
Finn is at first dazzled by the riches and charm of Canto Bight, but Rose tells him to look closer. The splendor and beauty of the planet are built on the backs of a poorly treated, slave-like underclass, and the upperclass who enjoy the casinos make their money through arms dealing and war profiteering - selling death and destruction. It's a side of the Star Wars universe we rarely see.
Unable to connect with the hacker Maz recommended, Rose and Finn find themselves forced to accept the help of the shady thief DJ (Benicio del Toro). DJ has an interesting perspective on things. He points out to Finn that those arms dealers don't just sell to the "bad guys" - they sell to both the First Order and the Resistance. It's all a machine, he says, and his advice is not to pick one side or the other, but to simply not join at all - to be only on your own side. Finn and Rose will learn to their cost that DJ follows his own advice. He's found a middle way that works for him, but is devoid of morality, honor, and compassion. I find DJ's character pretty fascinating (despite his slightly irritating speech impediment), and I've always loved Benicio del Toro's acting, so I'm hopeful he will return in the next film in some capacity.
Before escaping back to the Resistance with Rose and BB-8, Finn gets to have it out finally with his old tormentor Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, who we will, to my disappointment, apparently never get to actually see act outside of her armor in the movies, although we do get a glimpse of one of her eyes in this film - before she plummets into a fireball). Cornered in an old Rebel base and faced once again with the prospect of destruction at the hands of a pseudo-Death Star (this time a battering ram cannon), the Resistance looks at last defeated. But Finn refuses to run or to give up anymore, and tells the others it's time for a last ditch attack. So the few Resistance fighters that are left jump in some crummy old speeders (which are in such bad shape Poe literally puts his foot through the bottom of his) and charge a very intimidating First Order army.
It feels like one battle too many in a very long movie full of battles, and, what with the walkers and all, it also looks a little too much like the Battle of Hoth (even if one rather odd Resistance fighter helpfully points out, after tasting it, that the white stuff on the ground is not snow, but salt), but here we go again!
At this point, Poe has finally learned his lesson, and when he sees the tide turning against him and his fellow pilots, he orders a retreat, rather than pushing forward with another desperate suicidal attack. But Finn has not learned that lesson yet. He's not only found the courage not to run away, he's swung to the other extreme. He ignores all orders to retreat and aims himself right down the cannon's throat, determined not to let the bad guys win. But Rose has lost too much and flies in from the side at the last minute, knocking him out of the way of certain death. She tells him they'll win, not by destroying what they hate, but by protecting what they love. Then, just to make clear what it is she means, she kisses him.
So not only has Finn's love life just gotten a lot more complicated, he's also learned the same lesson our other heroes have: that life is about balance.
Rey, unable to convince Luke to come back with her, decides her last hope lies in turning Ben to the Light, and in the hopes of doing that, leaves Luke behind and surrenders herself to Ben Solo. He in turn gives her over to Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke rips the secret of Luke's location out of Rey and is confident he and his student will now at last see an end to the Resistance and the Jedi, beginning with Rey. He sets a last test for Ren: kill the girl.
Of course, Snoke has also just revealed that he manipulated both Ren and Rey to get to this moment, and the tormented Ren is thoroughly done with treacherous teachers. In a spectacular battle scene, he and Rey make an end of Snoke and all of his laser-weapon-wielding personal guard. It seems for a moment then that Ren will in fact turn and join Rey, but instead he asks her to join him in destroying everything - Resistance, First Order, Jedi - and taking over the galaxy together, just the two of them. But that's not a path she can walk. After a satisfyingly symbolic fight over Luke and Vader's old lightsaber, which ends with them splitting the weapon in half, Rey leaves Ren to rush back to Finn and the Resistance.
During this sequence, Ren answers a question that has been tormenting Rey - and many a Star Wars fan - for a long time: who are Rey's parents? He reveals what she's always secretly known: that they were actually nobody at all - just junk traders - and that they're never coming back for her. It's devastating, but also freeing. She can leave that part of her past behind. And I for one am deeply relieved. I like this revelation very much, especially insofar as it is not at all like the parenting revelations in previous Star Wars movies. Thank God Rey is not a Skywalker! We've had enough of the stories of Skywalkers and their surprise progeny. It's time to move on.
It's a little surprising and even disappointing (despite the thrilling nature of the death scene) to see the big bad, Emperor-type guy go down in the middle film of the trilogy, especially when his character and backstory still remain such a mystery. But perhaps this is setting up Ren to be the big villain in the final movie, and/or we'll learn more about Snoke in flashbacks.
I already enjoyed the bitchy, contentious relationship between General Hux and Kylo Ren in Force Awakens, and in this movie it gets even more entertaining. They've never agreed which one of them is really in charge, and when Hux finds Ren unconscious on the floor of Snoke's throne room, with Snoke's dismembered corpse lying nearby, he reaches for his pistol, hoping to decide things once and for all. When Ren wakes up, Hux puts the gun away again. Then Ren starts shouting orders. Hux objects, but a Force choke from Ren quickly changes his mind. I look forward to more of their squabbling in the next movie. Long live the Supreme Leader!
As Rey returns to her Resistance friends, she shows that she's learned enough about Ren to know how to push his buttons. Rey and Chewie fly the Millenium Falcon down into the middle of the final battle and draw off most of the First Order fighters, giving the Resistance a chance to attack (even if ultimately that attack fails). Ren just cannot resist sending his fighters after his father's old home. He needs to kill all the history embodied by that ship.
Of course, Luke also knows how to push Ren's buttons. In the final sequence of the film, Skywalker finally does come back into the world to save the Resistance - in a way. We're given a number of clues that he's not entirely what he seems. His face is younger than we've seen it recently - it looks more like the way it did the last time Ren saw him, the fateful night the school was destroyed. And the lightsaber Luke carries and duels Ren with is, impossibly, the blue-bladed one Ren and Rey have just destroyed, and not the green-bladed one Luke himself constructed and has wielded for years.
What Luke has decided to do is to give the world back the legend of Luke Skywalker, because he has realized it has its uses after all. It can give hope to the downtrodden, and maybe it can even "light the spark that will burn down the First Order." It can also give the Resistance time to escape out the backdoor of that old Rebel base - as well as royally piss off Kylo Ren. So not Luke himself, but a Force projection of Luke steps out and faces down not just Kylo Ren, but the entire First Order. When the enraged Kylo orders all guns to fire at his old master, the untouchable Luke steps out of the smoke and brushes dust off his shoulder in one of the more mythically bad-ass Star Wars moments.
Luke has found his balance, his middle way. When Ren insists that soon the Resistance and the Jedi will all be dead, Luke can confidently state that no, he's wrong. The Resistance will go on, and Luke will not be the last Jedi. Rey carries with her both Luke's strengths, and the knowledge of his failures, and armed with those, she and the Resistance have hope. Plus she can lift rocks like a bad-ass.
The Force-projected duel against Ren costs Luke more than he has to give, and he vanishes shortly after, becoming one with the Force. In the final scene, the little stable boys on Canto Bight are telling Luke Skywalker's story, reenacting, with their own homemade action figures, his mythical standoff with the First Order. Interrupted in this play by his master and tormentor, one of the boys steps out into the night and picks up a broom (or does the broom jump toward his hand, as if called there by some force?) and stares up into the starry sky, full of hope and wonder.
It's a beautiful scene, and I see it as Rian Johnson's love letter to the story of Star Wars itself - the legend of a farm boy who flies out into the stars and discovers he's much stronger than he ever knew; that maybe his actions can help save the galaxy from evil. It's a story that can give hope to people even during the worst of times.
The new trilogy so far has indeed been making some small progress in killing the past. We lost Han in Force Awakens, and now Luke (and Admiral Ackbar) in Last Jedi. And with Carrie Fisher gone, we will have to lose Leia, as well - a loss that will presumably have to be explained in the next movie, as Johnson decided to let her performance stand as it was in this film. That's all three of the classic trilogy's main heroes gone. The baton must now be passed to the new heroes - Rey and Finn and Poe and Rose and maybe even Ben/Kylo - and I feel confident they will carry it well.
Before his final duel with Ren, Luke has a quick scene with Leia, where he gets to apologize for failing her and her son (it's about time!), and to give her a little hope. In the film, Luke is referring to Han when he says, "No one's ever really gone," but the fact that it's also Mark Hamill talking to Carrie Fisher gives the scene even more power than it would otherwise have had. Our Princess and our General, she will indeed never really be gone. She lives on in these great films, for one.
Johnson sought balance in the way he told his Star Wars story - taking what was best from the old films, but setting aside their mistakes and learning from them - focusing the story more on POC and women, for one thing. There were maybe a few more story elements taken from the old films than was totally necessary, but all in all, I think he struck a pretty fine balance, and told a great story - a Star Wars story. It will not be the last story told about Jedi - not by a long shot. And thank God for that.