Specter of Reason

Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Review: Wonder Woman 1984 - WITH SPOILERS

I would like to believe that early drafts of "Wonder Woman 1984" were quite good. They were edgy, with some irony and weight, and they had Diana Prince struggling with difficult decisions that any normal person would find insurmountable. In those imagined screenplays, Wonder Woman is an icon of truth, justice and compassion. In the movie we get, however, she is a bit less than all that.

In WW84, Wonder Woman is afraid to make things invisible because she once lost a cup--until Steve comes back and apparently restores her self-confidence. She is apparently a brilliant anthropologist, but thinks she can never understand how airplanes work. She cares for nothing more than to be with her long lost love, and would give up all of her powers to keep him alive, even if it means hijacking a strange man's body (and using that body for her own pleasure and advantage without its owner's consent--aka rape). When she finally renounces her wish, it's not an empowering moment. It's more of a, Finally! What the hell was wrong with her?!

Wonder Woman 1984 one week cume stands at ~$1.35M. Aiming for $2M total  grossing. : boxoffice

On the positive side, I think the cast was solid, given the material. I also think the film has a good point to make about politics in the era of Trump—that con artists peddling wish fulfillment can destroy the world, and that the greatest power against them is the truth—even if the script doesn’t make the point convincingly. (Are "particles" of '80s television broadcasts supposed to be a metaphor for 21st-century Tweets? I wish I could appreciate the poetry.) 

On the negative side, I feel like the filmmakers had a list of ingredients they wanted to fit into the movie, and that was given priority over any concerns about logic or common sense. The resulting mess does not establish a world that I could enjoy or appreciate. It's also surprisingly regressive from a feminist standpoint, as Jeva Lange points out at The Week.

What follows is a list of grievances (in the form of questions), some small, some big. 

The Shopping Mall 

  1. Does the mall robber think that people will let him go if he threatens to drop a girl off a balcony? Is he just insane? 
  2. Why was Wonder Woman on the roof? How did she get there so fast? Was she shopping in the mall already? Why not show us that? Otherwise, why would she be there at all? Was WW tapped into the mall's security system? Later we see that she has screens in her home so she can monitor the city. (This adds some unintentional irony to the Orwellian reference in the film's title. Max Lord may end up threatening people's freedoms with psychological manipulation and lies, but WW is operating a surveillance-based one-person police force in anonymity and outside any kind of democratic justice system.)
  3. Why does WW wink and “shhh” at the little girl she slid into the teddy bears, as if they were sharing a secret? Can’t dozens of other people in the mall see what WW is doing? Is she just gaslighting that poor kid? Does she really not want the little girl to talk about what she saw with anyone? 
  4. Does she always destroy surveillance cameras when she helps people? That’s not very nice. Also, why bother destroying them *after* you’ve swooped in and started helping? If she wants to keep her identity a secret, why not just wear a mask? 
Invisibility and the Jet
  1. How does Steve know how to operate a modern fighter jet?
  2. Did it suddenly become the 4th of July for five minutes? Why is this happening?
  3. And how slow are they flying through those fireworks? Ten miles an hour? Whatever speed, it's far slower than the minimum possible speed of a fighter jet. 
  4. How can they fly a fighter jet from the US to Cairo without refueling multiple times? It’s well over 5,000 miles away.
  5. How does invisibility mean invisible to radar? 
  6. Now that WW has an invisible jet, why doesn’t she want to learn how to fly it? 
  7. Why doesn’t she understand how flying works?
  8. What happens to the jet after they get to Cairo? 
  9. Why doesn’t WW make anything else invisible? 
Diana’s Wish
  1. Why does Steve get a new body? 
  2. Why does Steve get *that* body? 
  3. Why doesn’t anyone recognize the guy who Steve is possessing? Is his identity so unimportant? (How much more interesting would it have been if his identity was important, and if he wasn't so attractive and expendable?) 
  4. Why is it so easy for Diana to believe that the Dreamstone worked and brought Steve back in another man’s body? Wouldn’t it be easier to believe that a strange man was trying to trick her into thinking he’s Steve? Is she so desperate to believe it's really him that she loses all rational sense? 
  5. So WW has sex with a strange man’s body, and without the actual man’s consent. Isn’t that rape? And what if he has a disease? What if she gets pregnant with his child? How is any of this okay? 
  1. If Cheetah has all of WW’s powers, how is WW able to electrocute her without electrifying herself? 
  2. Why didn’t Diana offer to walk Barbara home after she was attacked? And why didn’t they call the police on the attacker?
  3. Why would Barbara want to be a human-cat hybrid? Was that her wish?
  4. She had already made her wish to become like Diana, so how does she get another wish? Or did Maxwell trick somebody else into wishing that Barbara had more cat-like powers? Who? When? How? 
Maxwell Lord
  1. Since Alistair wished his dad to be good, why doesn’t he become good?
  2. When Lord wishes to become the Dreamstone, why doesn't he just turn into stone? 
  3. Why does he want to touch millions of people all at once? If he just wants to be healthy, why not take one person’s health at a time? 
  4. If he’s taking life from people all over the world, shouldn’t they be dying? Or at least getting very sick? 
  5. What does all of that life energy give him? He gets healthier, and then what? All he seems to be doing is making things very windy around himself. What's his goal, beyond a vague "more"? 
  6. How is WW able to lasso Lord's foot when, a moment earlier, nothing could get near him? 
  7. How do “television particles” let people watching/hearing the TV actually touch him and, later, touch the lasso? Is TV just magic now? 
  8. How is Lord able to hear and respond to millions of people’s wishes all over the world? 
  9. Why does he renounce his wish? He wants to save his son, but there’s no reason to think renouncing his wish would help him do that. 
  10. When Lord renounces his wish, shouldn’t the Dreamstone materialize? Even if WW doesn’t see it, shouldn’t she assume it has rematerialized somewhere? Doesn’t she need to destroy it to get rid of the danger?
  11. Are we supposed to believe that everyone renounced their wishes? 

Flying and WW’s armor
  1. Can WW fly? She kinda does, but not really. Maybe she could fly really well with those wings, but we never see that, and now the wings are destroyed without ever serving a purpose. 
  2. Why is the new armor in the movie at all? It has no purpose, other than marketing and merchandizing.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Giuliani's theater of the absurd

Thanks to an order from the judge in the case, we can now listen to Giuliani trying to litigate in federal court (for the first time in decades). This is from the Nov. 17 hearing, where he argues against a motion to dismiss Trump's case. If you strip away all the rhetoric about voter fraud and a "little mafia" of Democrats, the question Giuliani needs to answer is, "Why are you before me in this court?"

Giuliani tries but fails.

Giuliani's argument is that Pennsylvania did not have a consistent set of standards for counting the vote, because Boockvar's instructions were "confusing," "ambiguous" and "improper." And yet, Giuliani also says that he is not questioning whether or not Boockvar's actions were legal. He only says they produced an unequal voting system across the state, because different counties responded to the instructions differently.

Giuliani is not claiming that any counties broke state election law. He is not claiming fraud of any kind (despite his many arguments here that actually do claim fraud--arguments which have no bearing in this case). He is only claiming that, because there was a lack of consistency, there was a breach of equal protection.

The fact is, all counties were given the same instructions at the same time. The defendants point out that it is okay if there are differences in how counties implement the state's election laws. Giuliani is appealing to "Bush v. Gore," but in that case, the state of Florida gave different instructions to different counties. That is not the case here, so Giuliani's appeals to "Bush v. Gore" are irrelevant. There is no valid equal protection claim in this case.

The judge's question about standing also involves another question: "What is the injury to the Trump campaign?" the judge asks, because if there is no particular injury, the Trump campaign has no standing before the court.

The purported answer: If all counties had acted consistently, the outcome of the election would have been very different. In other words, if Trump loses the state, it's because counties applied different rules about ballot curing. 

The facts do not support this claim. There is no evidence that ballot curing influenced the outcome of the election. There is no evidence of injury to the Trump campaign. In fact, it is not true that only Democratic counties allowed voters to cure improper ballots, nor is it true that all Democrat-leaning counties allowed curing, either. Allegheny county, which includes Pittsburgh, is one of the counties whose votes Giuliani wants to deny, yet that county did not allow for any ballot curing. Why would Giuliani try to reject Allegheny county's votes even though they didn't allow for ballot curing? Because he accuses them of blocking election observers--even though that accusation is not a part of this case. In other words, Giuliani is confused. He doesn't even know what case he is arguing. 

I am so glad the judge has ordered this to be released to the public domain. I suspect he did it precisely because he is going to dismiss the case Monday morning (so Pennsylvania can certify its votes Monday afternoon) and he wants the public record to show why. It will forever stand as evidence of Trump and Giuliani's theater of the absurd.

P.S. Another noteworthy point about standing here. The judge asks for any precedent that might help establish "competitive standing," and Giuliani says he just happens to have a plaintiff from a case in the early '90s that establishes just such a precedent. However, later, the judge discovers that the judgment in that case does not mention standing at all. Oops!

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Election 2020: Sky News Australia reveals its bias

 Sky News Australia host Alan Jones says, "the US Presidential election is far from over. How much more evidence of voter fraud do people need?"

The answer, I would say, is that people need a non-zero amount of evidence that massive voter fraud has occurred.  Any non-zero number should do. 

Does Mr. Jones have a non-zero amount on hand? No. He has no evidence. All he has are claims from Trump's lawyers that they have evidence. Mr. Jones would have us assume that the word of Trump's lawyers is enough, as if they represented the truth instead of their client. 

First, Jones presents Sidney Powell's unfounded claims about Dominion software. The Trump team's legal efforts on the Dominion front have failed spectacularly. Dominion conspiracy theories have spread far and wide, but none have been able to stand up to scrutiny.

Then we have Rudy Giuliani's claims about 100,000 Biden ballots mysteriously showing up at 4:30 in the morning in Detroit. These claims are prima facie absurd. What on earth is Giuliani talking about? Is it the debunked conspiracy theory that over 100,000 ballots were illegally smuggled into a Detroit counting center? It's hard to tell with Giuliani, whose penchant for implausible conspiracy theories and general shenanigans is well known. (It's worth noting that less than a third of PolitiFact's Giuliani fact checks have come up true or mostly true. Of course that doesn't mean he's lying, but it does mean we shouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt.)

We might expect Mr. Jones to mention that election officials in those key states (not all of whom are Democrats) have been defending the integrity of the elections. We might also expect him to mention that federal and state cybersecurity officials have issued a joint statement saying that this was the most secure election in US history. Yet, Mr. Jones does not consider listening to the arguments of election or cybersecurity officials or any other experts who might question Trump's lawyers. Instead, he asks Miranda Devine, a correspondent from the New York Post tabloid, to answer the question: "Is it over or not?"

Ms. Devine tries to play it safe, but her bias is clear. First, she draws attention to the fact that Trump and his supporters do not think it is over. Then she mentions the 2,600 votes that had gone uncounted in Georgia, an issue that had nothing to do with the use of Dominion software and ultimately only increased Trump's count by 800 in the state. (That is not anywhere near enough to overcome Biden's 14,000-vote lead.) 

At that point, Mr. Jones interrupts and randomly quotes attorney Sidney Powell, who said, "I don't say anything I can't prove." 

I wonder how Ms. Powell might prove that assertion. In any case, it sounds an awful lot like the hubris we would expect from Trump. Is her confidence supposed to make us think she is telling the truth? If so, it's not working.

Next, Mr. Jones and Ms. Devine discuss the fact that election observers were prevented from accurately counting the votes alongside the election officials. If they were prevented from closely observing each vote, Jones asks, shouldn't there be a recount? 

Ms. Devine does not answer, but says it is what Giuliani is counting on. However, election observers are there to oversee the process, not audit the vote. So it seems absurd to claim that the observers were too far away to clearly read each ballot. They're not there to count votes. As it happens, the Trump team dropped that part of an ongoing lawsuit in Pennsylvania.

Ms. Devine finally claims that, even with all of the questions that have been raised, they might not be enough to overturn Biden's win. She says she doesn't know. Eventually, she says it's "a very high bar" and even that she would not hold her breath. If she wanted to paint the picture a bit more clearly, she could have mentioned the widely reported fact that legal experts have no confidence that Trump has any chance of overturning the election results.

And yet, she says, Trump has a month to come up with enough evidence to make his case, because the electoral college will not finalize the election process until December 14th. Mr. Jones later says Trump has "plenty of time." 

This is very dangerous. They are saying that nothing matters until December 14th, when a group of former Homeland Security chiefs have made it clear that it would be extremely dangerous and irresponsible to extensively delay Biden's transition into the White House. 

When the 2000 election between Gore and Bush was decided by the Supreme Court in the second week of December, it damaged national security. The 9/11 Commission said the delay was partly responsible for the attacks on 9/11. Imagine what damage could be done to America if Biden's transition is delayed until the second week of December in the middle of a COVID pandemic? 

No comment on national security from Sky News Australia, apparently. Instead, they discuss the future of the Democratic Party in general and whether or not Nancy Pelosi will continue in her role as Speaker of the House--"and good riddance to her," says Ms. Devine.

They also say it's an "anomaly" that Republicans did better in the House and Senate than Trump did against Biden. (Republicans actually lost a seat in the Senate, and they could still lose even more, though they did pick up seats in the House.) All this "anomaly" shows is that many Republicans support their party more than they support Donald Trump. He is a divisive figure that has turned Republicans against each other. Indeed, while Mr Jones says he is very interested in what the next week brings for Trump's election chances, what is infinitely more unpredictable and contentious is what the next months and years will bring for the Republican Party, and by extension, American democracy. 

Can the Republican Party withstand the divisions sown by Trump and his allies? Will the Republican Party fully embrace the conspiracy theory that this was a stolen election and use it to wholeheartedly obstruct Biden's administration? While Donald Trump might not be in any condition to run for President in 2024, someone will surely be selling the Trump brand in the Republican Primary come 2024. Who could rise up to challenge them, and what might their platform look like?

A lot depends on who wins the Senate in early January. A lot may also depend on how Fox News responds to the increasing competition in the world of far-right media.

Trump Lies Against Democracy, Again

It begins with some inconsequential news for the majority of Americans: A county in Nevada will have a special election to vote again on a county commissioner seat, because the margin of victory in one district in the Nov 3rd election (a mere 10 votes) was smaller than the number of discrepancies (139 ballot discrepancies out of over 153,000 votes--a tiny fraction of the votes). If the number of discrepancies is larger than the margin of victory, it makes sense to vote again. When one party wins by ten votes out of more than 153,000, a special election is pretty much guaranteed.

Ballot discrepancies are a normal part of every election, and there is nothing unusual or suspicious about the discrepancies in this case. There is no evidence of fraud or any significant problems with the election.

And yet, of course, Trump is trying to spin the story to make it sound like fraud and to fuel anger about his own loss. He blatantly lies, calling the situation a "big victory" in a tweet (of course, a tweet) that says the race was "thrown out because of large scale voter discrepancy. Clark County officials do not have confidence in their own election security. Major impact!"

It's all lies, as usual. There was no large scale voter discrepancy. County officials do not lack confidence in their election security. There is no major impact. Nothing will come of this, except more mass confusion and demagoguery.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Checking Authoritarianism

tl;dr: Whether you are on the left or the right, if you don't make repeated and earnest attempts to listen to and engage respectfully with people on the other side of the political divide, then you are at serious risk of perpetuating authoritarian tendencies.
Politics is about power--how the authority to wield power is justified in society. Authoritarianism is one way of doing it--where power is wielded without being questioned, where subjects put all of their trust in particular authorities and do not hold them to any discernible standards. Authoritarians do not respect anyone who presents an opposing point of view, be it the media or other politicians or academics or experts of any kind, let alone random people they happen to know or meet.
It is common knowledge that right-wing governments tend to be authoritarian. Right-wing authoritarianism is a heavily studied phenomenon. Liberals and progressives find it easy to point out authoritarian tendencies on the right, but aren't so good at identifying authoritarianism in their own backyards. However, left-wing authoritarianism is also a problem. While the tendency is particularly egregious on the right, America and other democratic countries are struggling with authoritarianism on both sides.
The danger of authoritarianism is obvious: It allows political leaders to get away with anything, undermining the norms and laws that are supposed to promote justice and fairness. There may be only one solution: dialogue.
Some people are gleefully authoritarian. They openly claim that they are in no position to question or challenge certain politicians, and they resent any attempts to do so. Gleeful authoritarians proudly put all of their faith in politicians who, they believe, are on a righteous path.
Other people are reluctant supporters of authoritarianism. They believe people should think critically about the way their political leaders wield authority, but their cognitive biases prevent them from doing so. For example, they exhibit extreme cases of denial (they claim that the facts are unclear and they cannot know who to trust), selective perception (only listening to those who support their chosen authority figure) and confirmation bias (only processing information in a way which supports their own point of view).
Reluctant authoritarians claim to be pragmatic. They say they support particular politicians because it is most likely to produce desirable results. They say it is a matter of supporting a particular attitude or direction for society, and not blindly following a particular politician. That's what they tell themselves, but it is a lie. Since they are unable to think critically about the way their chosen politicians wield power, they are unable to come to rational conclusions about the effect those politicians have on society. In short, their professed pragmatism is simply wishful thinking.
Gleeful authoritarians know who they are. Reluctant authoritarians generally do not. But can they? Cognitive biases are in all of us, and the more we think we are immune to them, the more they control our behavior. If you are convinced that you can think critically about politics, but you have trouble listening to and engaging with people who disagree with you, then there is a very good chance you don't recognize your biases. That makes you vulnerable to authoritarian tendencies. 

The question is, how can you know if you are capable of thinking critically about the politicians you support?
One test is to engage in critical discussions with people who disagree with you. See if you can convince them that you understand and respect their critical points of view. If you can convince them, then maybe it's true. If you can't, then it's probably not.
Dialogue is an imperfect test, but it is an important one because the more we do it in earnest, the more our cognitive biases are weakened. The more we try to engage other points of view respectfully and openly, the less we are controlled by the biases which prevent us from seeing them clearly. You don't have to agree with a point of view to respect it, but you have to respect it in order to think critically about it.
Without dialogue, there is little to no hope for critical thinking about opposing points of view. Dialogue may be the only way to check our authoritarian tendencies.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Rise of Skywalker

This post contains spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker and other films in the Skywalker saga.

Having enjoyed The Last Jedi more the second time around, I decided to rewatch The Rise of Skywalker after only seeing it once back when it was in the theaters. I'm glad to say I enjoyed the final episode even more the second time, as well. I am quite impressed with how J. J. Abrams was able to pull it all off. Not only did he create a fast-paced, action-packed adventure story, but he also connected so many plot and character threads with abundant humor and emotional depth. I think it is one of the most satisfying Star Wars films of all and a powerful end to the saga. And yet, it is often rated as one of the worst. I'm trying to understand why.

A lot of people complain that the movie is too focused on a lot of running around trying find things that don't really matter. I don't think that's a fair criticism. It's an adventure story, after all, and every aspect of it is clearly and appropriately motivated. None of it is aimless or random. Yes, I know there is a plot hole regarding the knife that Rey finds and eventually uses to find the Sith wayfinder. There's simply no reason why such a knife would ever exist. It's an illogical plot device that gives an excuse for a lot of fun action, humor and even some drama. Are we going to complain whenever a Star Wars movie depends on an illogical plot device? Because all Star Wars films have them. In The Last Jedi, how does Maz Kanata know exactly where the master codebreaker will be, and what game he will be playing, and what he will be wearing on his lapel at the precise time they will show up at the casino? That plot hole means the whole casino mission makes little to no sense. Here's a list of other plot holes from the same film. I am sure similar lists have been created for all the Star Wars films, some longer than others. If you want to nitpick about plot holes, fine, but don't act like they are unique to this movie.

I've also seen complaints that the film doesn't take consequences seriously: specifically, Chewbacca's death is a fake-out, C3PO regains most of his memory, and Kylo Ren is apparently killed by Emperor Palpatine, only to somehow climb his way back. I have a few responses to this criticism. First, the movie does have a number of significant deaths (most notably, Leia and Ben Solo). I don't think more were necessary. It's not like we're talking about Game of Thrones here. Second, would the story be better if Chewbacca had died at that moment, or if C3PO never got any of his memory back, or if Ben Solo was simply gone at that moment? No, I don't think so. All of these reversals are satisfying to me, and none feel cheap. Finally, the use of reversals has merit. It provides for a more dynamic emotional experience. I would agree with the criticism if every negative turn was reversed, or if the reversals felt cheap and worked against the story. But that is not the case.

Another complaint has to do with who has access to the Force. A lot of people responded well to the populist message in The Last Jedi, and wanted more of the same from Episode IX. However, I don't see Abrams' film as negating or ignoring that message in any way. On the contrary, he expands on it. The Rise of Skywalker focuses a lot on common people, how they can be empowered and united, and how anyone (including disillusioned storm troopers) can be Force sensitive. Finn discusses his own Force sensitivity, linking it directly to feelings. Of course, having feelings can't be enough to become Force sensitive, because then it would be a lot more common, but feelings clearly play a role. There must be some explanation for why everyone in the Star Wars universe hasn't been using the Force. Rian Johnson's film doesn't address that question at all. At least Abrams explores it, and without invoking Midichlorians.

Now, some of the criticisms run deeper, and have to do with ideas about what Star Wars films are or should be. For example, some people say that J. J. Abrams was trying too hard to please fans, that he was playing it too safe by undoing the supposedly risky moves that Rian Johnson had made in the previous episode. This line of argument is hard for me to accept, though. Part of the reason is that I don't appreciate all of Johnson's decisions. As I wrote previously, his attempt to end the question of destiny was premature and resulted in weak character arcs for Rey and Kylo Ren, who are the two most important characters in the third and final trilogy. So, yes, Abrams walked back some of Johnson's maneuvers, but he did it in a way that feels authentic and true to the spirit of the Skywalker saga. Ultimately, the moves (in particular, bringing back Ren's helmet and making Rey a Palpatine) allowed the film to focus on the crucial question of destiny. And I think Abrams handled that question remarkably well.

After being rejected by Rey and after a humiliating encounter with Luke Skywalker, why wouldn't Kylo Ren feel the imposing weight of Darth Vader's legacy? Why wouldn't he try to hide behind his old mask again? Abrams' choices make perfect sense. Kylo Ren is not a confident, stable military leader. He is a frightened man-child who cannot come to terms with who he is. As Luke tells Rey in Episode IX, a Jedi's destiny is to face their fear. The saga has always focused on the relationship between identity and bloodlines, and the fear that can induce. That is why it's called the Skywalker saga, after all, and not simply the Star Wars saga. In the original trilogy, Luke's destiny is to face his father, whom he is afraid of becoming. Rey's destiny is to face her grandfather, whom she is afraid of becoming. And Ben Solo's destiny is to come to terms with his own grandfather's shadow. Destiny, in this sense, is not about fatalism. It's not that everything is predetermined. It's that becoming a Jedi just means that that is what you have to do. Being a Jedi means being balanced and in control, and you cannot do that if you don't face your fear and come to terms with who you are.

Abrams didn't just rehash old plot lines, either. Rey's story is unique in a number of important ways. For one thing, she breaks the tie to her lineage, giving new meaning to the entire saga. When Luke prevails at the end of Return of the Jedi, it is because he has successfully rekindled the love in his father's heart. He wins because his father protects him, and so he proudly keeps his father's name. When Rey prevails at the end of the saga, however, she does not honor her family name. Seeing Luke and Leia's Force ghosts looking over her, she chooses the Skywalker name for herself. This is a much stronger ending than Luke's. Unlike Luke, Rey wins because she is stronger than Emperor Palpatine. Yes, she basically dies in the process of killing him, and she only survives because Ben Solo repays the debt he owes her for saving his life. But that points to another key difference about Rey's story: She also prevails because of the compassion which allows her to love Ben Solo and save his life (effectively killing Kylo Ren). Unlike Luke, or any other Star Wars character, Rey's story has always been about compassion--about letting compassion guide you, even if it means leaving your biological family. That is what starts her journey when she meets BB-8, and it is what carries her through until the end.

Does The Rise of Skywalker feel more like a sequel to The Force Awakens than to The Last Jedi? If so, it is not because Abrams was rejecting Rian Johnson's film. Rather, it's because the main characters--Rey, Finn, Poe, Leia, Kylo Ren--never really changed at all in Rian Johnson's film. The Last Jedi ends with them all basically where they were at the end of The Force Awakens, except Luke and Snoke are dead, Finn is conscious, Kylo Ren broke his helmet and Rey thinks her parents didn't matter. Episode IX picks up those pieces and tells a story that threads together all the previous films in the Skywalker saga. It is a sequel to The Last Jedi and to The Force Awakens and to the six episodes that came before. That is what it should be.

Now, if you simply didn't enjoy the movie, what can I say? Maybe you weren't in the mood for it. Or maybe it just didn't match your expectations. I recommend watching it again. You might enjoy it more the second time. If not, oh well. We all have different tastes. For me, this is a lot better--it's funnier, more exciting and more emotionally impactful--than it has any right to be. I'd rank it up there with the best of the saga.

If you are interested in reading another defense of the film against common criticisms, check out what Erik Kain wrote at Forbes.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Last Jedi, Revisited

It took almost three years, but I finally rewatched The Last Jedi. I enjoyed it more the second time, which isn’t saying a whole lot. I don’t hate the movie, but I don’t love it, either. Some of it works terrifically well, while other parts are frustrating and disappointing. As a stand alone movie, I think it's pretty good, but not great. As the second part of a Star Wars trilogy, and as the eighth episode of the nine-part Skywalker saga, my view is a bit lower. The reason is the way it handles one of Star Wars’ central themes: destiny.

Like Luke and Anakin before them, Kylo Ren and Rey both have to struggle with the question of destiny. In The Force Awakens, Ren kills his father in an effort to fulfill the destiny of following in Vader’s footsteps, and Rey is confronted with the question of her own destiny when she finds Luke’s light saber calling to her. Destiny is central to both of their inner conflicts, so the second part of the new trilogy should have added new complications on their respective paths toward resolution. Instead, Rian Johnson’s film effectively puts an end to the issue altogether.

Kylo kills Snoke and, now without the Vader-inspired mask, has dispensed with all ties to the past. He is on his own, without any question about his destiny. Similarly, Rey learns that she never had a meaningful tie to the past, and so it was always up to her to create her own destiny. Thus, when the film ends, there is no longer a question of destiny for either character. The only questions are: When’s the next battle, how can the resistance win, and will Kylo Ren eventually turn away from the dark side? Those are important questions, but without the question of destiny, they are incomplete. The reason J. J. Abrams had to walk back some of the developments from The Last Jedi was precisely this: Because he had to revive the issue of destiny so that its resolution came with the final triumph of the resistance. Bringing Palpatine back in some way or other was probably the best way to do that, so Rey could choose the Skywalker path—choose her own destiny—despite her lineage.

I discussed several of the film’s character arcs at length in my previous post on The Last Jedi, but I never got to Rey. Now that I’ve seen it again, I want to finally discuss Rey’s character arc and why I think Rian Johnson’s script doesn’t do her justice. But first, I will revise some of the observations I made the first time around.

Poe Dameron
My view of Poe’s arc has not changed. His resistance to female leadership all but destroys the resistance. There could have been a compelling story about toxic masculinity here, but unfortunately Poe’s story is not developed in a convincing or satisfying way. After he goes so far as to lead an armed mutiny against Holdo, endangering the entire resistance, Leia and Holdo merely smile, calling him a likable troublemaker as if they were talking about a harmless little boy who was still growing up. Yes, Poe soon realizes Admiral Holdo was more of a hero than he thought, but that’s no reason to think he has changed. I don't understand why he is giving orders after that, or why Leia tells everyone to follow him at the end of the movie. Why should anyone trust or even like him?

Finn’s arc, if he has a coherent one at all, is about heroism. At the beginning of his story, he thinks the resistance is doomed and tries to save himself and Rey. He meets Rose, who calls him a hero, and he rejects the distinction. But suddenly he decides to go along with her to try and save the resistance. Has he changed somehow? And they and Poe decide to do it in secret, because for some unknown reason, none of them trust the resistance’s leadership. Is that also supposed to be heroic? This reckless decision ultimately costs many lives and almost destroys the entire resistance, but nobody seems to care about that in the end. Their irresponsibility is overlooked. In any case, somehow, presumably thanks to his and Rose’s casino escape and rescue success (success? not really, but whatever), Finn has decided to die a hero. He ignores Poe’s orders to call off the attack on the Battering Ram Cannon and is going to sacrifice himself to save the resistance. (Though we have to wonder why the First Order stopped shooting down the rebels when there were only one or two left.) But then Rose stops him in a move that was likely to kill them both, but survives to tell him, before practically dying, that the only way they can win is through saving what they love. This ties in with the theme of compassion, but wasn’t Finn trying to save what he loved? And wasn’t that what he was doing at the very beginning of the movie? There's no clear Finn arc at all.

Kylo Ren
We are led to hope that Ren is becoming more compassionate and turning away from the dark side through his mysterious interactions with Rey. However, as Luke predicts, that doesn’t happen. In The Force Awakens, he killed his father. Now he kills his spiritual leader. There’s no sign that killing Snoke has changed Ren, just like killing Han didn’t free him the way he thought it would. We are still waiting for Ren to grow or change in a significant way.

I will note a small arc for Snoke that I didn’t notice the first time around. In classically tragic fashion, Snoke is destroyed by his own hubris. He was so confident in his control over Ren that he created a force connection between him and Rey, knowing it would lure her to him. While his plan seems a bit too unlikely to be taken seriously, it at least gives a somewhat satisfying reason for Snoke’s death. He didn’t know Ren as well as he thought, and so he invited his own downfall. I enjoyed that outcome much more the second time.

Luke Skywalker
I still think Luke’s redemption is the only compelling arc in the film, even if it is hard to accept that he would have so easily turned his back on the Force. The second time around, I noticed a line early in the film that foreshadows his death. When Ren and Rey see each other for the first time, Ren wonders if Rey is making herself appear in front of him; he immediately rejects the hypothesis, saying that the effort would kill her. So if we're paying attention, we shouldn't be shocked when the effort kills Luke.

That’s it for the male characters. As I noted in my previous post on the film, the women in The Last Jedi don’t have compelling arcs of their own. Leia and Holdo make decisions that drive the plot forward, but their conflicts primarily serve Poe’s story. Rose also makes decisions, but the conflicts only serve to (allegedly) teach Finn about love, justice and heroism. So what about Rey?

Her arc forms part of the backbone of The Force Awakens, so I had high expectations for her role in Episode VIII. Fortunately, she does have some complexity and agency in The Last Jedi, and yet, like all the other female characters in the film, Rey is largely there to prop up the men.

For a long while, Rey has two external goals: persuade Luke to come back to the resistance and become his protégé. She is unable to achieve these goals, which apparently makes her unstable. Luke only agrees to teach her to not be a Jedi. And while Luke does eventually decide to risk his life to save the resistance in the end, this is not thanks to Rey so much as to Yoda. Rey eventually gives up on Luke and leaves (taking the ancient Jedi texts with her) so she can try and enlist Ren to her cause. This allows Ren to kill Snoke, but that is all.

While Rey does have something of an arc, it is somewhat vague and unconvincing. Unlike the independent and powerful Rey at the end of The Force Awakens, this Rey seems much more dependent on men and much less secure in her own identity. Though she chose compassion and the Skywalker path over her family ties in The Force Awakens, she now feels the heavy shadow of her unknown lineage and uncertainty about her identity. Her insecurity amplifies, perhaps because Luke is unable to properly mentor her and unwilling to help the resistance; however, Ren says the problem is that she is looking for parent figures in the first place. Either way, it's not a well-defined inner conflict. For whatever reason, Rey desperately wants to know what happened to her parents and what that means for her--she must known her destiny--and this makes her unstable. Her lack of balance is evident when we see her accidentally destroy a rock with her light saber and, less subtly, when she becomes very emotional talking about it with Kylo Ren.

All this time, she feels a dark hole calling to her from below the island and Luke fears that she is too open to the dark side. But what is pulling her to the dark side? She is not driven by hate. She seems more compassionate than anything else. Her compassion is what (surprisingly quickly) leads her to open up to Ren in the first place. It must be her insecurity about her destiny. So she descends into the hole to look for answers, but she is not satisfied with what she sees (which is an image only of herself, echoing Luke's vision of himself behind Vader's mask in The Empire Strikes Back).

Rey's questions about her lineage are only resolved later, when Ren tells her she doesn’t have one. Perhaps this moment is supposed to be a heavy one for Rey. According to Kylo Ren, she is insecure because she has been too dependent on father figures (Han and Luke) and the idea of her own family. He strips it all away when he tells her her parents were nobodies, and he says that she means something to him. In Kylo Ren's mind, he might be the only option, but we know Rey from The Force Awakens. In that movie, Rey was never so insecure. She never would have seen the dark side as an option, let alone the only one. She already chose her new family at the end of that movie, so why would she abandon them now?

Is it supposed to be a hard choice, then, when she leaves Kylo Ren to help the resistance? If so, it is not convincing. Yes, Rey is devastated--as were many fans--when Kylo convinces her that her parents were nobodies and that she is “nothing.” However, her choice to take Luke's lights saber and help the resistance does not resolve any inner conflict in her, because she was never truly tempted by the dark side. She only went to Ren to recruit him, not to find herself. She was a little unstable earlier, but not so much that it would affect any of her decisions. We never saw her truly doubt which way she should go. Thus, at the end of the movie, she is back where she was at the end of The Force Awakens. Nothing has changed for her, except now she is not troubled by questions about her family or her destiny anymore. She is only concerned about the resistance and how they can move forward. In short, we never see her making a hard choice and changing as a result of it. Thus, she lacks a strong character arc.

If Rey had been given a strong arc in Episode VIII, with her discovering she was a Palpatine, for example, we would have been perfectly set up for a new destiny-centered conflict in the final film of the saga. Yes, it would have echoed the reveal of Luke’s lineage at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, but why is that a bad thing? So many parts of The Last Jedi echo that previous film. By bluntly resolving the question of destiny, The Last Jedi ended a central pillar of the story before it was time. I believe this, and not any plot or character weaknesses, is what hurt the film the most.