02 November 2020

Nothing to Do with Anything: The Last Jedi Throne Room Fight

 Listen, people, I know that it's Halloween and the 2020 Presidential Election, and Sean Connery just died and there's this virus going about, but brains work fast and weird in quarantine and I have been watching and re-watching something over and over again that has been analyzed to death, but I still want to put my own spin on it. Obviously relevant to our lives, I want to ramble for a long time about the Throne Room Fight Scene from Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017).

I don't really remember what the original music was. It doesn't matter, this is better. Let's back up a bit.

For most of the Fall I have been too busy to think or even do much of anything with this blog but work has had a recent bout of quarantining, so three days and a few hundred YouTube holes later this is where we are. Star Wars has come close to achieving its Disney goal, where it's really never out of conversation - there is always something on the horizon, whether it be more Clone Wars shows or The Mandalorian or whatever new trilogy whoever is coming up with. See? We are in Mandalorian mode now. That's close enough.

I love The Last Jedi almost as much as I hate Rise of Skywalker. I have written dozens of pages about this already, but it comes down to the former pushing new characters forward in interesting ways that aligns with what I believe Star Wars should be and the latter relying on nostalgia memberberries, then fetch quests, and a lack of meaningful consequences. Meaningful consequences - remember that? That's what this scene is all about. Action and reaction - a means of actually propelling both characters and plot forward to reach a coherent goal or theme. It's the building block of any good action or dialogue scene (read: all scenes) and when put together in a logical order, you end up with a pretty good movie. Okay, to set the stakes:

Kylo Ren is a big jerk, but he also has weird sexual tension with Rey. He's the bad boy for sure and he's captured her to bring to his master, Snoke. Snoke's role, origin, motivation, or place in the hierarchy of the Galaxy makes no sense in any of these films, so let's leave that there. This scene is about Rian Johnson trying to clean up JJ Abrams' mess more than anything else. Anyway, trying to keep my blood pressure low here - all you need to know is that Snoke is an even BIGGER jerk and wants Rey for...some reason. Maybe just to kill her and eat her or something to gain her courage.

In a screenwriting master class, Snoke senses that Kylo is about to kill his true enemy which turns out to be...Snoke! Oh no! It's both an unexpected turn that surprises Rey, Snoke, and the audience as well as something that fits perfectly with his arrogant, rebellious, yet maybe-a-good-guy character. It makes perfect sense for Kylo, shocking for everyone else. It's one of the greatest moments in the nine films. YES IT IS.

Now, JJ did this a little bit, pushing creatively what you could do with the Force. George Lucas is obviously one of the most creative storytelling minds in history, but there were definitely limits to his own brain. You can tell that he blossomed this amazing world and powers and the concept of the Force and everything, but he really needed some new attitude to come in and form the natural extension of what those limits could do. JJ had Kylo force stop a laser blast in the opening scene. Best scene of any of his movies (and literally, I swear he looks at Finn because he feels that Finn is force-sensitive and we get that pay-off....uhhh....wait for it....probably in Episode IX....he's about to say it....okay never). Lucas for sure never really developed the Jedi telekinesis powers. I mean, that should be enough, right? Many comic book and film legends are supremely powerful just because of their telekinesis abilities. Like Carrie or Jean Grey. Jedis should be able to telekinetically crush things, take apart doors and brains, and throw all kinds of objects around.

You see this a little bit. Mace Windu crushes General Grievous' ribs in the closing moments of Tartakovsky's Clone Wars. Vader chucks stuff at Luke in Empire. But yeah, why not just turn off your opponents' lightsaber all the time? There is actually a bit of lore explaining this and quite a bit of conversation amongst fans. I still think that Jedis should just practice telekinetically spin lightsabers around their heads. I know it's hard, but like, c'mon that's why we practice in temples all day, folks.

Back to the scene. I also want to pay attention to it cinematically. You see Rey's lightsaber moving as Snoke monologues that Kylo is about to murder his true enemy, which telegraphs the sequence a little bit, but you still don't think it can happen. Luke didn't kill the Emperor in the Throne Room. Surely you can't get away with killing the Big Bad in the middle of his Empire, much less in the middle of the movie! It peaks our curiosity. Then it happens quick, with no regrets, and we only see the lighting change as the blue glow shines on Snoke's face and we hear the telltale sound, the most recognizable in Star Wars.

Immediately there's a reaction - Snoke had been force holding up Rey, who drops to the ground as Snoke dies. She turns to see for herself. Snoke himself looks down because he also can't believe. No one can believe it. It's unbelievable mostly for story reasons. Snoke was purportedly the Big Bad of this whole new Trilogy, but Johnson wisely knew he was rubbish and Kylo was far more interesting, perhaps THE most conflicted and interesting character in all of Star Wars and would be way more compelling as a villain. It ungrounds what we had anticipated as the typical story beats in this kind of tale, but most importantly in a way that's fulfilling. Snoke wasn't going anywhere - he was just a stock character. It allows the audience to shed that baggage and fully divert over to Kylo's story, and there's this real tension here. Will Kylo become the next evil Sith Lord? Will he turn to the light side and join Rey in a fight against Hux? Will Rey succumb to her own growing darkness and anger? Will Rey remain pure? Anything can happen!

The sabre moves on a direct path through Snoke, bifurcating him and ends up in Rey's hands. Kylo is giving the sabre back to her. She stands and they look at each other. All those four scenarios play out in their heads but there is only one thing on their mind - they want to bone. They need to bone. They need to bone so damn bad. This is the only Star Wars film to have such explicit sexual tension. Sure there has been romance in Star Wars before, as much as rolling around the hills of Naboo and slicing pears and shit can be considered romantic, but the sexual tension here is ridiculous. You can cut it with a knife. What else can you do with that big beefcake Adam Driver and the adorably fierce Daisy Ridley?

This was all in thirty seconds, folks. Again, we get an indication of a lightsaber igniting through a simple red lighting change across Kylo's face. Their fate is full of possibility but for now they both have a very real challenge - Snoke's badass Red Guards! So, let's track who has been up or down and how each action pushes that forward.

At the start, Rey is down, Snoke is up, and Kylo is fairly neutral, but in an advantageous position. Let's call him up. Due to Kylo's actions, Rey is up, Snoke is down (obviously), and Kylo remains up. As the gaze sexually into each other's eyes they know that the next two minutes will be fighting but really it's just pure sex. The music swells as only Fairy Godmother can sing it, the camera presses in and the action moves from slo motion to real motion and gives the illusion of the scene speeding up.

The Guards attack first - a subtle nod to Jedi being defensive rather than offensive. Kylo deflects the first two then ducks the third, but notably the fourth crosses from Rey's side without engaging with her and nearly lands a blow. This is the first time that Kylo has been down. In perfect timing, Rey then turns to assist and kills her first guard, who had been the third one to attack, which Kylo ducked. The scene may have been pushed towards super perfection if she had killed the one that threw him off balance.

Rey notably defends three and is able to get in four strikes before turning to help Kylo. Thematically this is putting the normal aggressor more on the defensive and the normally passive Jedi more on the offensive. They are meeting in the middle! Rey then defends against a triple blow while Kylo earns his first kill. So far Rey is consistently up and Kylo has been up-down-up. As they close in for the triple blow though, Rey reacts and leaning on Kylo, pushes away and the camera finally breaks from the steady close-up.

We center our focus on Kylo. The cut is actually a little sloppy. He faces east before the cut and the camera crosses the line to feature him facing west. It's as jarring as this scene is going to get. I think they wanted to break the line and prepare the viewer to see every angle of this fight and the throne room, but I wish Johnson had maintained some kind of continuity between which direction Kylo was facing at least. There isn't a ton of motivation there. There is at least symmetry of cutting whenever Kylo has a big downswing with his blade, which leads us to anticipate the next move. He throws some elbows and kicks, which we know are necessary because the Guards' armor is thick and besides a direct and forceful slash, lightsabers aren't going to work this time - perhaps a nice lore-fueled addition that shows Snoke has adapted to a world where lightsaber users may threaten him.

The Guards have pressed Rey to the right of the screen and in an unbroken shot, the camera pans over the opening created by Kylo throwing two guards into each other and then zooms in on Rey's fight. She is able to slash at one of her opponents' sides and then in one of the wisest moves of the scene, her other opponent catches her lightsaber in his electric chain thing. The scene is able to slow down while preserving its tension as he winds it and therefore her close to him until he can choke her with his hand. He's disabling her weapon while trying to disable her while maintaining control. This is the first time in the fight that Rey is down. However, his angle is also compromising him and as she gets lose he has no way to prevent a counterattack and he's finished. Up.

Rey's blade is still carrying part of his weapon so she shakes it off and it flies into the Red Velvet, setting the whole place on fire. Now it's a party! To show how tough these things are, the earlier Guard she has slashed stands up, apparently recovering in the corner for a little bit. He charges, she screams, there is a nice match-cut and we're back to Kylo. You could maybe call this up, she's certainly energetic, but it's also a reminder that when she tried to kill him the first time it didn't work - these guards are going to keep coming. I might actually call it down, but it's less obvious.

Kylo is squaring off with a Guard when another one rushes in and he has to lower his sabre to deflect both. He has been up the last we saw him, now he's down again. The Guards push him back, he literally becomes smaller and weaker on screen before our eyes. But as a third rushes in, but through sheer will he breaks free, sending the original two off-balance and disarming the third. In a down moment for the Guards due to the surprise, that third one is caught unawares and suffers a direct lightsabre hit through the chest. Ren is up. He looks around and surveys the scene, using the body as a shield while he thinks about his next move, before throwing it down some hatch where it gets electrocuted and shredded. Electro-shredded. I don't know what the deal with that is, but it adds to the danger of their surroundings.

He's gains a good amount of confidence after that. Kylo holds up his lightsabre, taunting those who may still challenge him. They do the same, brandishing their weapons against their armor as if to say, "We're not a bunch of mindless Battle Droids that will go down with one chop!" By this point we see how much the fire has spread and we get another great shot. We track Kylo's gaze across the battlefield and as he sees Rey, the camera zooms in, transplanting both him and us to her situation right as she suffers a blow to the arm - livable but significant. It's an easy technique perspective-wise, but importantly it shows Kylo going from this arrogant moment to realizing that he's fighting for some one else on this battlefield as well. He hasn't had anyone else to fight for in a long time. Driver shows all these feelings on his face in the next shot. Rey is down which causes Kylo to be down.

Not for long, though. As another whip guard rushes him, you almost think he doesn't see it, but of course he does because he has the force. He is able to deflect two strikes, then a third. I have watched this a hundred times in slow motion and I honestly can't tell how he disables the whip guy. I actually think he maybe kicks him in the nuts or headbutts him on the ground, it's maybe another rare bit of sloppiness. But it ends with his decapitation, so that's fun. Now Kylo is full of life and solidly up. Back to Rey.

Rey is fighting cinematically through a hell of her own creation as the Guard with two daggers is besting her and the flames surge behind them. The Guard gets a good kick in and she starts swinging wildly, this is as down as she's been since this fight started. There is another wonderful match cut and we're back to Kylo. I didn't actually realize how much this fight focused on him While Rey mostly fights one enemy, Kylo is fighting three, although the fight started with Rey holding off four at once and Kylo mostly dodging.

You can see Rey in the background, but Kylo dispatches his guard with a mighty downswipe, obtains his staff weapon and uses it to block in another messy crossed line cut. It's not that awful since it actually returns to the shot angle we were used to, but it's still a little jarring. Kylo is dual wielding and spinning until another guard runs into frame both forearms ahead of his face and completely blocks his lightsabre blow with his bare armor. Kylo had been riding a significant up streak, but now he's down.

Only briefly though! He jabs the spear into his back (in a shot that's not seen well actually on camera, and then slices his throat. However, in this briefest of up moments he leaves himself vulnerable. The armor is difficult enough to penetrate that a quick jab won't do - he barely gets the job done when the other Guard he was fighting rushes in on the opening and Kylo is forced to drop both weapons. Going from dual wield to slappers only!

He is off balance, slipping, and the world is burning around him. As he tries to defend from a staff blow, the Guard maneuvers around him and puts him in a choke hold. Kylo has been down but not actually significantly down in this scene. He has had moments here and there, but this is the first time when he's significantly challenged, which is where Rey started and has found herself lately.

Okay, so at this point I will admit there are a few weird things that happen next that I had not noticed until watching in super slow motion. Rey is exchanging blows with the Dagger Guard but she is incredibly open to attack from the dagger in his left hand. I think he actually does attack, swiping across her belly, which causes her to lose her strong stance and end up in a compromised position. However, I have no idea where this dagger then goes. It is literally not in the Guards' hand anymore. It's possible that he accidentally flung it while he had a lightsabre pretty close to his face. It also looks very clever, but I'm not sure why loosening her grip allowed Rey to completely escape the Guard's grip. What is he, Rocky Richter? Rey takes out the knees and then the throat in a big move from her lowest low to her highest high.

Seeing Kylo about to die-lo, she chucks her lightsabre across the room, he catches it and then brain-fries the last guard. Then they have sex. Here is a high def version that has less ridiculous music. I don't even know why you'd want to watch: 

There you have it. The best scene ever in Star Wars history. Fight me!

It's amazing how much of this was undercut by Snoke being a...maybe clone puppet? Kylo being a bitch and not the big bad in Episode IX, Rey's temptation being based on bloodline, not genuine character development or desire, and most importantly, they never got it on on screen! What is even the point?!

What do you think? Is this too much? Just vote for Biden, please.

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