The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi cements a move towards a new kind of Star Wars film that began with Rogue One. It’s a move that understands that what worked for the original trilogy was the mysticism of a galaxy far, far away. While the prequel trilogy focused on the tragedy of one man, the success of the originals stemmed from their depiction of a people about to be crushed beneath the jackboot of a regime about to gain absolute power. The Last Jedi returns to those ideas, and while it flounders, it’s a beautifully-imagined, refreshingly-different take on what Star Wars can be.

There are things The Last Jedi does that are not wrong, but feel quite strange. The most obvious, and sometimes jarring, is the humour. In a way that the series has never tried to be before, The Last Jedi is funny. Smart-ass flyboy quips seen from Obi-Wan or Han return with Poe, but there’s also slapstick, fan service, parody. There are actual jokes, moments played for laughs that otherwise would have been played straight, and might have seen John Boyega or Daisy Ridley consigned to the same Hollywood grave as Hayden Christiansen. These moments, for the most part, do not feel very Star Wars, but they are actually funny, and illicited genuine laughs from the audience each time I saw them.

There are also some flaws with the story-telling. Never has plot armour felt so thick as in a scene when the entire main cast are fleeing a cannon bombardment from the First Order. After that, some helpful Deus Ex Machina kicks in to make sure everyone is in the same place at the same time, despite spending most of the film deliberately apart. A wonky performance from Daisy Ridley seemed in part due to a desire to portray her as the pious Jedi that clogged up some of the sequels. Her early scenes needed some significant course-correction, but thankfully she seemed to settle into her role more later on.

A lot of The Last Jedi struggles because it spreads its wings extremely far across the galaxy, and despite its nearly 2.5 hour running time, it doesn’t quite have enough time to develop its three major arcs as much as it might have liked. After a magnificent opening sequence, Poe remains aboard a fleeing rebel transport vessel, while Finn and Rose head to the capitalist Utopia of Canto Bight to find The Master Codebreaker. While all that’s going on, Rey is learning about the Jedi from Luke on a remote island.

Poe’s story tries to tell an escape story, but the central thrust of it is that while the Rebels can’t run away, the First Order can’t catch them up. They can’t be destroyed unless they run out of fuel, which would always have been a pretty lousy way to wrap the story up, so Poe seems in little danger, and I feel more could have been done to add to the tactical intensity of his story. While Finn and Rose have a cool plan, they’re nearly constantly sidetracked, meaning they don’t succeed in hitting the checklist style of Rogue One, but nor do they ever really settle on the anti-Order, pro-resistance (and anti-capitalism) message they set out on. Rey’s scenes with Luke mostly revolve around him trying to avoid teaching her anything, and there’s none of the impact of the latter’s training scenes on Dagobah. Instead, we’re supposed to accept that she just sort of knows how all this works. Other than finding a way to bring Luke back into the story, you have to wonder what he really adds here. He’s no Yoda or Obi-Wan – instead, he simply has to ride the wave of the fact that he’s the Luke Skywalker, and we have to accept that that’s why we have to care.

When it all comes back together though, it’s a masterpiece. Much like Rogue One (which I hope not to mention again), the fumbles of the first half are entirely forgiven by the visual mastery of the second. For what must be an hour or more, The Last Jedi throws some simply incredible moments at you. Many of these were so stylish, so brilliantly-realised a portrayal of what Star Wars can be, that they caused the audience at my first screening to literally burst into spontaneous applause. A lengthy scene on Snoke’s ship between Rey and Kylo Ren reaches its climax with a moment of instantaneous brilliance. The red earth beneath the salt plains surrounding a rebel base are used masterfully throughout the course of an entire battle. An experiment with hyperspeed concludes with what may be one of the best shots I’ve ever seen on the big screen. The Last Jedi is the best-looking Star Wars film there’s ever been by an absolute mile, and that’s what I mean when I refer to the mysticism at the heart of the series. A New Hope gave so much on this front that the prequels never did, and while The Force Awakens moved in the right direction, The Last Jedi captures the space epic like nothing I’ve ever seen, despite the best efforts of the prequels.

It’s a film that conjures more questions that answers, but as the mid-point of a trilogy that’s probably ok. There’s some stuff to work on too – too long was spent on things that, especially on a second showing, felt relevant but overstretched, and while the new intergalactic brat pack do well, it’s a shame we don’t see them offered more power; many of the film’s greatest moments stem from the organisations built around them, not the characters themselves. But while The Last Jedi feels not quite right, it’s a brilliant set of experiments, and while they do so with varying degrees of success, each one largely comes off. After the relative safety of The Force Awakens and the surprise success of Rogue One, it’s exactly what the series needed, and I can only hope for more with Episode IX.

 

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Other People’s Christmasses

Christina’s family do Xmas 2.0 on Boxing Day. This seems to stem from a lot of things – lots of family, extreme proximity, and narrow London townhouses. This year, I came to Hackney for the day, while Mum, Dad and Logan went to Neil and Hazel’s.

I commented to Rhys, Megan and Liam when we went to Cambridge that it wouldn’t be long until we had to start planning where we spent our Christmases; for our entire lives, that’s been the domain of our parents, but now, partners mean conversations have to be had about who’ll be hosting who. We were lucky enough to be able to reach something of a happy medium this year, but it was hard work.

Other people do different stuff with Christmas, that’s a given. There’s that entire Peep Show episode about it, for one thing. But today was hard work. Pippa is a very excitable creature, and the other’s all had colds. I was also knackered, so spent a big chunk of the day vegging out in the corner. Like I said yesterday though, an important part of Christmas for me is spending time with my family, and I missed them today.

Christmas

I am content. I have had good food, I have good books and a trip on a steam train to organise, and have hung out with family. While the steam train thing isn’t necessarily an annual occurrence, the rest of that list is what I normally hope for from Christmas, hence my contentedness.

I think I’m past caring what I get or how Christmassy everything feels. That used to be something that mattered a lot, but past my early teens it was so difficult to keep up the majesty that so many people seem to want Christmas to be that had I stuck to it, each year would have fallen pretty flat. I think that ever since leaving for uni, Christmas is more important as a day to just relax, over-indulge, and chat a bit. I wasn’t spending much time at home, Dad would be busy at work for most of the run-up, and Christmas Day itself, while hectic in its own way, comes with a lovely payoff where you get to eat and drink lots in a warm, quiet, homely cocoon.

The next few years will probably adjust what Christmas comes to be. Logan will go to uni, I plan to move in with Christina, Granny and Grandad and Grandmere will be in different places at different times. Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to be in an industry/company that lets me not have to work around Christmas, so I get to have something of a proper holiday every year, which in turn lets me do and see more over the break. But to be quite honest, as long as I get to spend a quiet evening with people I love, it won’t matter how it manifests itself.

7 Days

I only have the briefest handfuls of these left to do, and other than one on New Years’ Eve, they’re reasonably likely to be garbage. Tomorrow’s might be ok, but for the most part, what I’ll spend the next week doing is watching TV, eating, and playing Hearthstone, so don’t expect much from here.

For tonight, it was nice to chat with Logan for a bit. It’s not something we ever used to do much, but now that I’m on one side of uni and he’s on another, we have more in common that I think we have done in quite a few years. Given the age gap and lack of common interests, it’s cool that we now do actually have something meaningful to talk about.

Travelling

I was full-on expecting today to be an utter nightmare. I thought I’d wake up and rush around finishing my packing, and then just about make it to the train on time. I thought once I got there, everyone would be squashed in like sardines on one of GWR’s horrible old trains (I even reserved a seat in advance, something I deem to be the height of train-related-nobbery). I thought I’d get to grandmere’s, bedraggled and knackered, and wishing plague upon humanity.

Bath was busy, which I thought was about to confirm my fears. But when I got to the station (20 minutes early), it was pretty empty. I got a nice seat on one of the fancy new Intercity trains that have only been running for 2 months. It was quiet, and pretty empty, and there were dogs on the seats around me and lots of birds of prey out of the windows. Even the Tube was weirdly empty. It was the Saturday before Christmas, London should have been full of desperate, angry people travelling home or doing their last bits of shopping.

I have to go back into London tomorrow and on Sunday, so I doubt I’ll get this lucky three times in a row, but having started to adjust to the hideously busy trains that I so frequently find myself on in the West Country, it was nice to have such a calm journey.

 

End of Term

I forgot to do this before I turned my PC off, so while I was actually going to do something a bit more in-depth, I’m now going to do something small instead, out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

Nearly all my presents are wrapped, my packing is basically done, and now I get some nice days off before Atlanta. Tomorrow’s train promises to be hellish especially with three bags to deal with, but I have a seat booked which should help abate the chaos, at least for a while.

#AmberPrice

amberprice

I don’t know that I’ve ever added a photo to one of these, but there’s a first time for everything I suppose.

Something arrived at work for me yesterday. It was a package from Square Enix – a Life is Strange box with a headphone splitter, a friendship bracelet, and a pack of tissues. And this card.

On its own, this isn’t much of a thing. It’s some adorably cute artwork, yes, but on the back is a pre-written message thanking players for joining Deck Nine on their development journey. I’m so proud of it.

To me, this isn’t just a casual thank-you note. I loved Life is Strange, and I loved Before the Storm even more. I wrote about the former for The Boar and GamersFTW, and Before the Storm is the first thing that really feels like its mine from PCGamesN. I got to go on a trip to not only cover a game I love, but with exclusive early access to it. I wrote my first professional review for Before the Storm, and I’ve been able to spend most of the last week working around it with stuff I’m really pleased with.

Tomorrow (today) is the last day of my first year as a games journalist (allowing for at least a little bit of poetic justice). The first thing I’ll do next year is fly to Atlanta to cover an event all by myself. Hopefully, in the summer, I’ll get to go to E3 or Gamescom. This little thank-you card is pretty minor in the grand scheme of some of that, but it’s the first thing that’s made me feel like I’ve found myself a place in the thing I want to do.

 

Crafts

I’ve spent a large proportion of this evening making something for Christina. I’m not going to say what it is on here, just in case she’s reading, but while it’s simple, I’m pretty proud of myself.

What was particularly nice about it all, though, is that spending an evening largely away from the computer doing something very different with my time was really nice. I watched telly while I put it together, and used some photos for reference, but spending a few hours doing something completely removed from what I might normally do of an evening was really nice. So nice, in fact, that I’m genuinely considering doing more of it in future – while I’m not sure what that might be, there’s something to be said for having a different outlet.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

When I did my ‘professional’ review of this the other day, I thought it would be better to leave comparisons to the original Life is Strange to a minimum. Obviously it’s incredibly difficult to separate a game and its prequel entirely, but I think I did a good job of considering Before the Storm in its own right.

In my opinion, Before the Storm is just better than Life is Strange. Some of the levels on which that opinion is founded are relatively superficial, such as the fact that a few years on the art style has matured and updated. But some of those changes come down to tweaks to the fabric of what I thought Life is Strange was; Max’s story is more supernatural detective drama, while Chloe’s is a tale of a teenager struggling to find her place in the world. It’s more tender, it’s more understandable, more real. While I won’t criticise Dontnod for the story they told or how they chose to tell it, a side-by-side comparison of the two games shows Before the Storm to be a much more interesting, human tale.

Some of that comes down to who Max and Chloe are. On one level, Max is a wallflower while Chloe is a rebel. But it’s not as though the latter was the life of the party – she was an outcast for years, and to some extent remains one during Life is Strange. Interest in Chloe stems from the fact that she’s able to be louder and bolder in situations Max would shy away from. But when it comes to Before the Storm, Chloe is also one degree of separation closer to the action than Max could often be. In Life is Strange, Max gets to know David Madsen through Chloe, reconnects with Joyce through her daughter, and even Frank Bowers would slip under the radar were it not for Chloe’s involvement. The characters that Max knows are less interesting, and while they might have more impact on the story in some cases, they become oddly forgettable at times. In Before the Storm, Chloe is the showrunner in more ways than one; she’s swept along a little, particularly when she meets Rachel, but she knows these characters herself, often in a way Max doesn’t have access to, and that serves to make her story more compelling.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that Chloe’s story is a happy one. Before the Storm is full of pitfalls, but they’re ones that actual teenagers might have to deal with, and as such there’s a chance for a meaningful, positive resolution. Max doesn’t have that, and, to Life is Strange’s credit, it serves up some real gut-punches throughout, often ones that you don’t have the opportunity to avoid. But the fact that Chloe’s story means more, with its themes of family and grief and friendship, means that it feels as though it can do more, and its high points absolutely soar.

Both Life is Strange and Before the Storm are wonderful games, and while they occupy the same timeline there is an element to which it’s a little unfair to judge them side-by-side. As I said earlier, one is a detective story with time travel, and one is about a girl coping with the loss of her father, rebelling against authority, and making new friends. I still struggle to put my finger on exactly why I think Before the Storm is so good, and a big part of it is that it happens to appeal to me – a nice high school drama with a love story that feels important that fills in gaps in the past of a story I’m already invested in. It’s almost like Lovesick all over again. I think what’s also important, however, is the fact that Before the Storm represents a minor milestone for me personally – it’s the first thing I knew and loved that I got sent to, and the first review I’ve done for PCGamesN. that work is something that I hope people will really enjoy as it unfolds over the next few weeks, and the series as a whole is something that Christina and I have enjoyed together. I think for those reasons, Life is Strange will always hold something of a soft spot, and I’ll miss it when it evolves into something new.

Writing at Night

I think the first time I stayed up deliberately late to write an essay was in Year 12. Dad had turned off the internet, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to bed yet. With an essay on T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland due at some point in the not too distant future, I stayed up to write.

That essay helped me fall in love with that poem. I loved it, and I was so proud of what I came up with that night as I poured over individual lines of Eliot’s masterwork. Thankfully, that late night paid off, as Dr Palmer, in true overblown fashion, gave me 40 out of 25 and said that the essay was so good that if Cambridge didn’t accept me off the back of it he’d burn the place down.

He never came good on that promise (not that I ever asked him to), but it helped me realise how nice writing at night is. There are no people around to bother you, it’s dark, and quiet, and you can properly lose yourself in something at that time of night that I feel like I just can’t do to the same extent in the daytime. At uni, I would wait until evening fell before locking my door, putting some headphones in, and shutting out the world for a few hours. I don’t know that it was my best work, but it’s some that I enjoyed doing the most.

Tonight, I sat up for a while writing my review of Life is Strange: Before the Storm. I’ll do my own thing tomorrow, after the embargo lifts, that’ll lean more on its relationship to the first game, but that’s not important. So much of my writing now happens in the day, under fluorescent lights, with the chatter of 40 other people around me. That’s fine, and I love my job, but it’s nice to dig into something big and meaningful in the light of a single lamp for a change.