Tag Archives: review

The Last Jedi Without BS (Spoilers)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has been called the most polarizing Star Wars movie to date. At least I’m pretty sure I’ve seen someone say this on the internet. It is undeniable that people seem to either really love or hate this film, or perhaps people with access to publishing platforms or who just happen to be unbearable loudmouths do. However, it has got bad reviews from some pretty serious voices (at least serious to me) like Red Letter Media:

 

Over Twitter and Facebook I have gradually spooned out a few opinions on it, but I never got around to writing a full review. Well the day of judgment has come. Here is my Last Jedi review.

Summary

If you want my short opinion with no analysis, here it is. I would say that Last Jedi is a film that tried to do bold things and break with some of Star Wars’ sequel/prequel weaknesses such as fan service and rehashing plot points from the more acclaimed originals. However, these bold moves are somewhat mitigated by some really dumb ones, although I wouldn’t say they ruin the movie. If you think about it, there are some really dumb things even in the original trilogy, but they don’t necessarily wreck the entire plot. The dumb things in Last Jedi are awkward and cause issues with pacing but I don’t see them destroying the overall story arc or ruining anything like the prequels or Rogue One did.

 

Proper thorough review (Spoily bois ahead)

I’m just going to jump into this with a pros versus cons approach, starting with what I liked.

The Good

First off the bat is porgs. Porgs are awesome. Porgs are life. If you don’t like porgs there is something fundamentally wrong with you. No, they didn’t become the new Ewoks. They were mostly benign and used sparingly. I can forgive Chewbacca for roasting one porg and seeing the error of his ways, but if he harms one more he’s done. Yeah I know wookies can pull arms out of sockets, but can he fight on the ground? Probably not. Ninety-five percent of fights go to the ground, Chewie.

 

Moving on to main positive points, I like the way the movie tried to break with traditions and formulas. The biggest complaint about The Force Awakens was that it was a direct copy of A New Hope. You can’t really make similar accusations against Last Jedi; it is genuinely different from other Star Wars films. Of course what was different in this film wasn’t always necessarily good, but here I’d like to concentrate on what I feel worked.

For me, the best innovation here was the theme of letting go of the past, even killing it if necessary. Believe me, when your whole life revolves around Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, the idea of killing the past is veeeeery attractive. One of the biggest problems with modern Star Wars is of course fan service. I’ve already mentioned TFA, but some people felt that Rogue One  was nothing but fan service as well. The prequels can also be looked at as fan service in the way they incorporate characters from the original trilogy that never needed to be involved in that story. Why, for example, does Boba Fett (a young clone of his father Jengo) have to be involved with such a monumental event in the history of the Republic? Remember how we meet Boba Fett in Empire? He’s there with a bunch of other bounty hunters. He’s not singled out except when Vader tells him “No disintegration.” Is that how you’d treat the son of the guy whose DNA built the whole clone army that you used to fight with for years?

Some of the complaints about Last Jedi are basically whining about how different everything is. “But Luke Skywalker is old and cynical and he’s not heroic anymore!” Excuse me what did you expect? Was he supposed to hop in his X-Wing and take out the First Order forces with a well-placed pair of proton torpedoes? Wasn’t copying things from A New Hope the reason you whined about Force Awakens?

Luke being cynical and jaded makes perfect sense. He was involved in this great victory and tried to continue his study of the Jedi arts. Meanwhile the remnants of the Empire pretty much swept right back into power and his student, his own nephew and son of his best friend, got seduced by the dark side on his watch. He was on top of the world and through arrogance or some other failing he managed to fail at the most important thing in his life, you know- like Obi-Wan failed with his father? Yeah I’d get a bit cynical after that too, especially if I had to live on an island drinking blue milk. If you want happy-go-lucky Luke Skywalker, go watch the first film.

The biggest advocate of slaying the past is, in this film, at least, Kylo Ren, who literally voices this exact concept. Indeed he does “kill the past” when he kills Snoke (Spoily boi!). If you were expecting the series to be exactly like the original trilogy with the older Emperor and his younger apprentice, Kylo subverted that expectation for better or for worse. He does invite Rey to join him similar to Vader in Empire, but it’s not entirely clear what he wants to rule over or how. He wants the resistance gone because it’s part of that past, a past of never-ending war, but it seems like he has radical plans for the First Order as well.

Now I can’t bring up killing Snoke and the scene with Kylo and Rey together without mentioning how many people were pissed off about this. First there’s the killing of Snoke with no explanation as to who he is or why he’s so powerful. A counter-argument to that is “Well the original trilogy just introduced the Emperor with no backstory or explanation of his powers and you bought that just fine!” Let me just say that both sides have compelling arguments here. I was a bit taken aback by Snoke’s death. It would have been nice to get at least some explanation as to his backstory or how he got to be so powerful. I really don’t care if he came from the original trilogy or the prequels, but we’re introduced to this extremely powerful dark side force-user who has somehow become leading this First Order and we know nothing about him. What’s worse is that since he’s dead, we’ll probably never find out what his deal is.

As for comparisons with the original trilogy Emperor, yeah this argument works at first glance. Hell, the name “Palpatine” is never uttered in the original trilogy. On the other hand, from the first film we know there’s an Empire, and Empires are typically headed by Emperors and Empresses. We were expecting an Emperor. When he finally, appeared it didn’t matter too much for the story. We already knew the Empire exists. When he revealed his powers we didn’t need any explanation. It was clear he was in tune with the dark side, he was senior to Vader and obviously much older. He also looked like an evil wizard and he clearly wasn’t carrying a light saber, so while some people might have been surprised to see him turn on the lightning, it wasn’t breaking any rules of the universe, nor was it inexplicable or confusing. What else would he do?

Snoke is a character for an entirely different era, an era in which Star Wars is this massive expanded universe based upon a foundation of six films. Backstories became a thing as soon as the first prequel dropped (dropped being a very good word for it). Remember the original Star Wars was never intended to be part of a trilogy. They “save” Vader strictly to leave the possibility of a sequel open but other than that it’s a standalone story. More importantly, that film came from an era when movie plots were much less complex and it was also inspired largely by the Second World War, a struggle which many people of the time saw in very simplistic, black-and-white terms. There’s nothing particularly subtle about the A New Hope– the good guy and the princess wear all white while Vader is in all black and the rest of the bad guys dress like space Nazis.

So to sum up that point- yeah, it kind of sucks that we get no Snoke backstory, if only because it would also form part of a rise of the First Order backstory. But this is counter-balanced by the fact that the series trope of master and apprentice, emperor and enforcer, is quite literally slain.

Now the other element of this scene that led to serious butt fury was Kylo telling Rey that her parents were nothing but dirt farmers who sold her for booze money. I find this complaint amusing because one of the biggest gripes against the prequels was midichlorians and the implication that your sensitivity to the force has a lot to do with your bloodline, since, you know, midichlorians are in your blood, like antibodies or the HIV virus. Thus Lucas had supposedly “ruined” many a childhood because some die hard fans fell in love with the idea that anyone could attune themselves to the force, whereas George was reducing it to some physical, quantifiable thing. And yeah, I get that. Midichlorians are dumb. But The Last Jedi’s reveal about Rey’s parents subverts that very idea.

When Force Awakens came out, I heard a lot of speculation about Rey and how she just had to be Luke’s long lost daughter. And to be fair that kind of made sense. She seemed to have a connection to him and was very adept at the force almost immediately. Now, if we are to trust Kylo’s word (and why would we do that, exactly?) Rey’s bloodline is, in itself, entirely worthless. Everything she’s done she has done on her own, through belief, will, and so forth. Isn’t that cool? Is it at least interesting? Don’t you want to find out just why she is so talented with the force?

And as I alluded to above, I must ask why fans are so adamant about taking Kylo’s claim at face value. Remember, this scene takes place as he’s asking Rey to join him, to rule the galaxy, and of course let go of the past. Don’t you think he might just be lying to manipulate her? How would he even know about her parents? The force? Or what if he knows that her parents are really important people and thus is definitely lying because he’s sure she would refuse his offer if she knew the truth?

I should also point out that I’ve read or heard somewhere that J.J. Abrams never had any particular plan for Snoke’s backstory or Rey’s parents. If correct, he basically just passed the buck to Rian Johnson. Maybe Johnson just didn’t want that burden and thus felt forced to either come up with a half-assed backstory (which probably would have angered some fans anyway) or just do away with both threads entirely.

To wrap up this point, I would say that I can get over my disappointment in regards to Snoke, and I have no investment in Rey’s parents. If they turn out to be dirt farmers it just means that Rey is special for other reasons that we will discover later. Or maybe we’ll find out Kylo was lying and her parents are in fact very important. No need to declare the film heresy over this.

And while we’re speaking about characters, Kylo really shines in this film. As I said earlier, Star Wars tends to revolve around very black-and-white villains and protagonists. But in this movie Kylo is a mystery. Is he turning good? No? But he turns against Snoke, right? Does that mean he’s good? Oh no- it doesn’t. But he’s “bad” in his own way. In other words, we spend a fair bit of this film trying to figure out which way Kylo is going to go. Having his story about Jedi training with Luke differ from Luke’s own narrative was also interesting. Here we have a follower of the dark side suggesting to us that we might not be entirely able to trust Luke Skywalker, which would be a novel concept.

To conclude the overall topic of breaking with the past I also don’t buy the complaints about Skywalker wanting to see the Jedi die out. To fans that seems inexplicable, but it’s very believable when you think about it. As others have pointed out, the Jedi aren’t so great. Their whole order got duped and nearly wiped out by villains who were often right under their noses. They were dicking around teaching younglings how to block lasers with tiny light sabers while the clone army was being built. They thought Sith Lord Count Dooku was just a “political idealist” even though he was a guy wearing all black played by Christopher Lee. If you can rescue any coherent, genuinely interesting plot out of the prequels, it’s that the Jedi Order got complacent and weak, leading to their downfall.

And what a downfall it was. Remember that Anakin Skywalker turning to the dark side in many ways basically led to the rise of the Empire, which in turn would lead to the destruction of an entire planet. Luke knows all about that. If he was wrong about Kylo, you could imagine that he was just afraid of unleashing another Sith on the galaxy. He knew full well what that could lead to (plus the First Order also nuked a few planets into dust so Luke would have been right).

We are now entering an era when we can expect to see two Star Wars feature films released every year. Think about that for a second. Personally I think it’s a huge mistake that is going to eventually wreck the brand by flooding the market. I’d like to think that Johnson or someone else in charge has figured out that Star Wars will need to evolve in order to survive. We can’t just have more Sith lords battling Jedi knights with light sabers, bigger and bigger Death Stars, and AT-AT walkers with six legs or something. The format of a Star Wars movie must change, and to be fair Rian Johnson definitely took big risks. The whole space chase thing was kind of weird, but very original for this sort of film.

I respect Johnson’s boldness in this film. It was a big risk and some of it doesn’t pay off so well, but some director had to do it eventually. If you can’t handle it, just stick with your original trilogy.

The Bad

Before I get into this part, I have to point out one thing that kind of ruined my viewing experience. When I got to the cinema there was only one seat available, right in front of the screen on the far right of the theatre. In other words, literally the worst seat you could have. I went with it because the showing was kind of late and I didn’t have any other plans but I almost immediately came to regret that decision. Apart from the extreme discomfort, things on the left side of the screen get very distorted. Obviously you can appreciate a film visually a lot more if you are sitting comfortably with a full view of the screen.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what didn’t work. I think I’ll start in a sort of semi-chronological order here, which means I’m going to have to call out what I felt was a significant plot problem in the opening text crawl.

It may not seem too crucial to the film, but the text crawl, at least for me, reveals a problem with the overall narrative. Basically the overarching plot doesn’t resemble a war. At the end of Return of the Jedi, the Emperor and Vader are both dead. Second Death Star is destroyed. For some reason this immediately leads to the collapse of the Empire if you’re watching Lucas’ special edition. Thirty years later, the First Order is so powerful it has a “Resistance” against it (you think the Resistance would just be the Republic), and they are in possession of a weapon much stronger than the original Death Star. So far not too bad- they had thirty years after all. Hitler rebuilt the German war machine in about twenty. But at the end of Force Awakens the First Order has taken a serious blow and lost their superweapon. Of course they could still recover, but the opening text crawl in Last Jedi tells us they did that and much more. They’ve basically reduced the fighting rebels to a force that fits on a small armada of ships, and by the end of the movie the entire movement fits on the Millennium Falcon. And all that happens after the First Order loses yet another capital ship in the beginning of the movie.

Suffice to say this is not how wars tend to go. About a week before the Red Army’s counter-offensive at Stalingrad, the Germans had suffered a decisive defeat at El Alamein in North Africa. Then they lost at Stalingrad the next year, in the spring they lost in Tunisia, they lost Kursk, then Sicily, and so on. While the Germans were occasionally able to mount counter-offensives and on some occasions even recapture some territory on both fronts, 1942 was a turning point from which they could not fully recover, and then it was all downhill from there. But with the First Order it’s as if they fail upwards.

Moving on from the text crawl, I have to say that the scene with Poe in his X-Wing “prank calling” the First Order was a little bit too funny, too soon. It created a tone problem especially when it’s followed up with a battle where dozens and eventually hundreds of people get killed. Humor in Star Wars is usually witty dialogue, rejoinders, etc. This was different. This was a bit.

Also it’s rather strange seeing him just floating in front of a heavily armed starship during this scene. You would think that in the First Order officer’s academy there would be a lot of required reading about the Battle of Yavin, when a single X-Wing was able to blow up the Death Star due to it being designed to withstand a large starfleet attack. You would think that in thirty years the First Order’s designers would devote a lot of attention to developing defensive systems that would protect large ships from small fighters.

Moving on- yes, Leia’s survival in space was kind of dumb. I don’t usually complain about physics or science in Star Wars. It is pointless to do so. Ignoring that there’s no sound in space, every time you see a spaceship in Star Wars do a banking turn or anything else like a fighter jet- that is completely wrong. You can’t maneuver a space craft that way. For me, Star Wars is a series where you ignore all the laws of physics and relatively. In a way you could say it’s more comparable to fantasy than sci-fi. Or you could call it sci-fi fantasy. The fantasy element is basically stuff not working the way it usually would according to the laws of physics. But still, Leia’s survival was pushing it. One way or another, this should have been the film where she died, because after all, she did die. That scene with the bridge getting blown up would have been a perfect spot to end the character, with dignity.

Now we get to one of the most annoying parts of the film. Since Force Awakens there has been a tradition of alt-right losers loudly declaring that “the SJWs have ruined Star Wars!” Some of them were so angry that they apparently made an edit which literally removes every major female character from the film. I have no idea how they managed to do that and keep anything resembling a coherent story. It reminds me of this time I saw a Mormon video rental store which had titles such as Die Hard and The Usual Suspects in it. Such movies couldn’t possibly make sense if you edited out all the profanity, extreme violence, etc.

Obviously the “anti-SJW” crowd is full of shit, but I think it’s hard to pretend that pandering, corporate feminism didn’t have an influence on at least part of the film. Yes, you probably guessed I’m speaking about Holdo (Laura Dern) and Poe. Vanity Fair praised this interaction, pointing out that Poe is a brash shitbag who gets lots of rebels killed because he doesn’t follow orders, whereas Holdo is a strong woman in authority who knows what she’s doing, just like a certain real woman who is referenced later in the article!

I’m very sorry but while Leia was totally justified in criticizing and demoting Poe, the Poe/Holdo interaction is incredibly stupid. Holdo withholds vital information from a subordinate and deliberately makes herself look incompetent during a crisis situation. When someone is asking about a plan and the commanding officer can’t offer any answers, it looks like they’ve frozen up. Anyone remember this scene from Band of Brothers?

 

Now I’ve seen some people defend Holdo by saying that she didn’t need to tell him the plan since he fucked up and got demoted. Sorry but no- competent leaders brief their subordinates about the mission. Sure, Poe went off on a wild goose chase that got more people killed, but he only did that because the person who was in charge, the person who was supposed to have a plan, deliberately pretended not to have any plan at all. And that same person actually told almost everybody else on the ship about the plan, possibly before that same scene where Poe is asking her what her plan is. What possible good reason would there be to keep the plan only from Poe and a few of his compatriots while telling literally everyone else? When the plan is actually enacted, he’s not too opposed to it.  Again, he went off and did his own thing because the person in charge feigned total incompetence.

This isn’t feminism; it’s corporate, liberal, pandering feminism. It’s the type of feminism that sees progress as female ICE agents kicking down doors and dragging family members away or female CEOs in charge of tech firms that work their no-benefits employees 80 hours a week and deny them bathroom breaks for minimum wage. In this case, women and girls are supposed to look up to the idea of being an unaccountable authority figure who is not to be questioned. What a great message!

Here’s a tip, Disney. If you want a positive message for girls, young women, and pretty much anyone, cast the scene differently. Have an old male officer demanding deference to his by-the-book, cookie-cutter plan, perhaps one that’s already been tried and failed before. Then you have a young female  character challenge him using logic, which is contrasted with his conventional, outmoded thinking. You get two messages in one- don’t automatically defer to authority; think for yourself, and if you’re a girl don’t be afraid to question a confident man. Instead what we got in this movie is “Hey guys, if a woman is in a position of authority just shut up and do what she says even if she appears to be utterly incompetent. Listen to mother!”

The same scene could have been better written even if we use the same characters. Holdo could reveal her plan, and Poe could argue about it or whatever reason you can come up with. Holdo makes rational, cogent arguments, but Poe is too wreckless and up his own ass to pay attention. Then he gets a bunch of people killed the same way he does in the actual movie, and we expect Holdo to say “I told you so” right before she kamikazes that First Order ship, but instead she says something that makes Poe see the error of his ways while retaining the high ground. Poe is changed. Arc achieved.

In conclusion on this point, no, feminism is not ruining movies. What’s happening is monopolistic corporations see a marketing angle. First, you pander to the feminist side by acting like every female role in your film is a blow to the patriarchy. Some marketing that portrays your movie as having a “girl power” message helps as well (see Wonder Woman). What this inevitably does is create volcanoes of buttrage from the internet’s alt-right/Nazi/incel/MRA/human refuse population. Now you use the male backlash to garner more support from pro-feminist people, who will want to see your film more and maybe even convince themselves that they like it just to spite the fedora-wearing demographic. I’m not saying this is specifically the case with The Last Jedi, but the whole Holdo/Poe conflict really seems to have been influenced by this kind of underhanded marketing strategy. And if you think this isn’t really a thing, check out this trailer to the last Transformers film:

 

I have listened to reviews that say this girl barely has any role in the film, meaning that whole “fight like a girl” thing in the trailer was almost certainly an attempt at pandering to feminism…by Michael Bay…the man who in the same series of films would often shoot scenes with Megan Fox from practically inside her vagina. Girl power, indeed, Mr. Bay.

Next on the bad list we have the infamous Casino Night Zone scene. The biggest complaint I’ve seen in connection with this is about pacing. I totally agree. I’d describe it this way- here we’ve got the rebels running from the First Order. It’s a chase. Then they decide to send some people to another planet to get this guy and somehow catch up with the space ships that were chasing each other presumably at top speed the whole time. The movie already establishes that fuel is an issue and that the ships go different speeds. Just imagine a film with a car chase where two characters bail out of the escaping car to go do something else, then they have to somehow get back to the car chase. It would be weird. It’s weird in this movie.

Another thing that sucks about the Casino Night Zone scene is that Rose and Finn don’t really accomplish anything here. They bumble their way through the whole thing and only manage to get lucky because the code-breaker they need happens to be in the jail at the same time. What about the guy they were initially looking for and seem to find? Nah, forget him. They just get caught and either the guy they’re looking for is already in jail or there just happens to be another master code-breaker in this place. Okay.

As bis as these problems are, the Casino Night Zone scene did bring up some interesting points. I liked the idea that there was a class of people profiting off of the sale of weapons to both sides. I like the idea of someone challenging the idea that the Rebellion is inherently good. This is breaking with the past, with simple black-and-white good-and-evil storytelling. It would be good if they could follow up on this, like show how the lack of a legitimate Empire or Republic has led to chaos in the galaxy that is fueled by a 90’s Somalia-like glut of arms. The most awesome thing I could think of is the Rebellion turning evil, perhaps forcing Rey and Kylo to really join together to bring it and the First Order down for good, perhaps solving the galactic governance problem via Abdullah Ocalan’s ideology of Democratic Confederalism.

apo

‘Help me, Ocalan Kenobi, you’re my only hope!’

All that having been said, this all could have been executed better. It really did hurt the pacing.

Next I’ve got to talk about Rose. I don’t really understand Rose hate. She’s fine. The only sticking point is that she does something really, really dumb near the end of the film. You probably already guessed if you’ve already seen the film. Finn is about to do something incredibly heroic, just like Holdo. Actually he’s more heroic than Holdo because Holdo lets several transports get blown to pieces before she finally decides to go Mohammed Atta on the First Order’s flagship. Finn, however, sees what he must do and aims his speeder at the giant cannon, only to be knocked out of the way by Rose in her speeder. I’m sorry but that’s a total dick move, Rose. Finn is a soldier, only he gets to make that decision to self-sacrifice or not. Watch Four Lions some time. But the worst thing about it is that there was no guarantee that her crashing into his speeder would have saved him as she intended. They could have both been killed, or just disabled so he couldn’t do anything. Basically she could have brought the worst of both worlds. This was dumb. There’s no other way to say it.

rose

Luckily, Rose survived her incredibly stupid deed, so perhaps she’ll be able to redeem herself in the sequel.

Conclusion

Weighing my pros and cons here, a certain big picture develops. It may seem from this review that the good and bad either balance out, the latter outweighs the former. But there is a major qualitative, not quantitative difference between the positive and negative aspects of this film. True, the things that are dumb are really glaring. That’s what dumb things in movies do- they stick out, knock you out of the film, confuse you, anger you, and so on. But the positive aspects of this film have more depth and substance, and they cannot be easily torn down by a character’s stupid action or a half-assed attempt to appear woke.

The theme of change, evolution, breaking with the past is intriguing as it necessary if Star Wars is to avoid stagnation as we approach full year-round Star Wars saturation. With the Luke and the Jedi sacred texts gone, with the Rebellion whittled down to a handful of people, everything must begin anew. Rian Johnson has removed the audience’s floaties and tossed them into the deep end. This series isn’t going to be neatly wrapped up by Luke Skywalker suddenly dropping in and saving the day by taking out everyone with a light saber.

Of course this film does set up a very difficult task for the next director. With the Rebellion in such dire straits, its hard to imagine how the next film will tie up all the loose ends. Perhaps the Rebel message to the galaxy, which seemed to garner no support, was in fact well-received, and the First Order will suddenly face a massive revolt in every system. Maybe there will be a split within the First Order. Perhaps, due to some understanding between Rey and Kylo, the First Order and the remnants  of the Rebellion will team up against the real threat- the arms dealers who have been growing fat off the war and could have been using the profits to start a new political faction…like…some kind of federation…that is based on trade. A Trade Federation, if you will. But seriously, this film’s conclusion means the sequel’s director will have their work cut out for them, but it might also free them up to do something really revolutionary. Hopefully Rian Johnson will be working with closely with J.J. Abrams on Episode IX in order to tie up everything in an epic way. Of course knowing Star Wars fans, we might see another wave of buttrage at that film too. I’m sure there are many people who, upon seeing Last Jedi and hating it, cynically concluded that this series is already dead in the water and nothing can redeem it. I have some advice for such viewers.

You will never see a Star Wars film that recaptures the magic of the first films you saw as a child. Never. You’re an adult in an increasingly ugly world. You are simply chasing the dragon. At your age magical feelings don’t come from space fantasy movies. They should come from things like the birth of your first child, passionate sexual encounters, scenes of incredible humanity in the midst of war, petting a really nice dog, eating a delicious burrito, or owning people on Twitter.

anakin

One day you’ll try to introduce your kids to the original trilogy, and they may very well think it’s lame. They may think The Phantom Menace is awesome and you’ll seriously considered abandoning them in the woods across state lines, but you’ll have to face the fact that time, technology, and generations change. In a few years there will be over a dozen feature-length Star Wars films in existence, not to mention the countless comic books, video games, TV shows, and novelizations. If you truly love this series so much you’ll learn to enjoy the the stories you love and just ignore the ones that are mediocre or just disastrous. You don’t have to let other films or stories ruin the ones you love just because some nerds accept them as “canon.” Canon is essentially religious dogma. Let go of the past. Kill it, if you have to.

Some people have been ranking Last Jedi in the whole series so far, and this is something I can’t possibly do. I don’t think it can beat any of the original trilogy; it’s definitely not “the best since Empire Strikes Back,” but I’d definitely put it above any prequel film. I say that Force Awakens and Last Jedi  cannot possibly be worse than the prequels because the prequels (including Rogue One) actually undermine the original trilogy, whereas anything that happens after that doesn’t necessarily mess with that story line. If you don’t like the new films you can just act like Star Wars ended with Return of the Jedi and go on and enjoy the books, comics, or video games.

Of course my own opinion on the best Star Wars film has changed radically in recent months. Whereas up til then I would say for me it’s a toss up between the original New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, now I’ve come to realize that the greatest Star Wars film currently in existence is, of course, Star War the Third Gather: Backstroke of the West. Get your popcorn and watch the whole masterpiece right here!

 

 

Advertisements

Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe – A Great Introduction to Ukraine

I wanted to do a short post that was positive for a change, so I thought the book review I’d been planning to write for months would naturally be the most appropriate.

Some months ago I finished Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe – A History of Ukraine, and it is absolutely masterful. It’s strongest features? First, it is written by a Ukrainian historian. No, I’m not saying this like Viatrovych fanboy who says “Ukrainians should write Ukrainian history!” But when studying a country it helps to spend some time reading the work of that country’s historians to get their point of view. While outsiders’ detachment may help free them from potential biases, that same detachment can also cause them to miss or devote less time to those things in the country’s history which don’t necessarily catch their interest. A native historian can give you an idea of what local people find significant about their country.

Secondly, Plokhy strikes a good balance between detail and pacing. One thing about general histories is that they can sometimes be either too light, not delving deep enough into some important events or phenomenon and lacking crucial nuance, or they do the opposite, forcing you to slog through excruciatingly-detailed descriptions of sometimes minor events over the course of centuries. Naturally when I saw the book opens with the region of Ukraine during Antiquity I feared it would be the latter. Yet the author moves at a lively pace, moving more quickly over those parts which aren’t as crucial in the history of Ukraine. And speaking of crucial parts in Ukraine’s history, the book is also very recent, giving the reader key details about events such as the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity,” the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion and occupation of the Donbas region.

Having deliberately saved the best for last I can now tell you the greatest feature of Plokhy’s book- it truly brings the Ukrainian people, stretching back to the ancient Rus, to life. It does this by properly reclaiming Ukrainian historical figures whenever they lived, even if they died long before the ethnogenenis of the Ukrainians. Plokhy shows the Ukrainian people, particularly from the early modern era onward, as a coherent nation even though it lacked its own state.

Another great aspect of this portrayal is agency. For much of my life I’ve noticed the tendency of some Ukrainians or well-wishers to portray Ukrainian history as one of victimization and domination. In Plokhy’s history, different groups of Ukrainians act, and sometimes it doesn’t go well for them, but they are responsible. They are not simply acted upon. Even in the Soviet era, a period of Ukrainian history that some nationalists like to declare totally invalid, Plokhy shows that Ukrainians could be both victims and perpetrators, ruled and rulers via their dominance of key cadres after the Stalin era. Rather than treating the centuries of foreign domination in Ukraine as a black hole in which Ukrainians were simply objects and not subjects, he presents the long march toward Ukrainian statehood in a progressive way, from possessions of the Commonwealth and the Russian Empire, to a short-lived series of states in the revolutionary interwar period, to a unified Soviet republic and founding member of the UN, to an independent state suffering from Russian neo-colonialism, and finally to a state up in arms to overcome that neo-colonialism. Regardless of nation state status, Plokhy’s Ukraine has never died.

If I had to note some flaw I could say the book does skimp a bit when it comes to pointing out the role of the OUN-B nationalists and their role in the Holocaust (it does, however, clearly mention the ethnic cleansing of Poles), but if you look at the actual amount of text dedicated to those nationalists in general this is not particularly surprising or egregious. I think sometimes some of my Ukrainian readers infer that I insist every mention of interwar Ukrainian nationalists must necessarily include the laundry list of atrocities committed by some nationalist groups. I suspect this is because of the legacy of Soviet propaganda plus the Yanukovych administration, which often put up monuments to “victims of the Banderites” in places where no Banderites or any other nationalists even operated, such as the Crimea. This is simply idiocy.

Beating the dead nationalist horse is not my aim at all; I don’t really see them as being very relevant to Ukraine today. I’m far more opposed to the whitewashing, glorification, double-standards, and pseudo-history concerning the OUN and UPA. I’m sick of seeing them shoehorned into Ukrainian politics and Ukrainian history whether as heroes or villains. Thus Plokhy’s book truly shines because he gives the nationalists exactly the amount of text they deserve for a movement which never attracted more than a minority of Ukrainians as a whole, many of whom joined only under duress and not out of ideological fervor. The legend of the nationalists, which has been inflated by Soviet and Russian propaganda on one hand and the Bandera cult on the other, gets deflated to its proper place in Ukrainian history by Plokhy. So in the end, the one “flaw” really isn’t a flaw at all, or at least it is a totally defensible one.

In conclusion I highly recommend The Gates of Europe as an essential introductory general history of Ukraine. I think any Ukrainian or person of Ukrainian heritage reading this book would be proud to see that Ukrainians made important contributions in the history of the region and even globally despite lacking a nation state for much of their history.