Tuesday, December 19, 2017


STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is the second instalment in the new trilogy of films, that sees the aftermath of the Rebellion's defeat of The Empire in the original trilogy.  In THE FORCE AWAKENS we saw a weakened Republic under attack by the newly resurgent remains of the old Empire, named The First Order.   The Emperor was replaced by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), with General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) as his military leader, Starkiller Base as his Death Star, Coruscant as its target, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) aka Ben Solo as his Vader.  

In response, Republican Senator Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) was running a covert militarised Resistance starring a dashing pilot called Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his droid BB8.  The droid happened upon a young girl called Rey (Daisy Ridley), abandoned on the desert planet Jakku, waiting for her parents, and an instinctive force user. They in turn happened upon a stormtrooper defector called Finn (John Boyega) who seemed to exist mostly for comic effect, but also to have an antagonistic relationship with his former boss Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). A largely redundant but popular side character was cantina owner Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyongo) who served to give Rey Luke Skywalker's old lightsaber.

The main questions set up by the film were whether Ben Solo would or could be turned by Rey to the Light Side of the Force having killed his father Han (Harrison Ford) in a test of loyalty to Snoke; who Rey's parents were, thus explaining her exceptional Force strength; and whether Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), living as a hermit, would be willing to train Rey to that task having failed in training Ben. Ancillary questions were how the First Order has amassed such tech and power so quickly (largely answered in the EU); and who Snoke was (which wasn't.)

And so we get to The Last Jedi, familiar with the grammar of Star Wars movies and the role of the middle chapter in a trilogy as a bridge of sorts, and eager to see if director Rian Johnson (BRICK, LOOPER) could move beyond the excessive fan service that was the only serious flaw that JJ Abrams (STAR TREK) made in his otherwise flawless and joyous The Force Awakens. Additionally, if we read the EU, we might have thought we would see some serious character development for Phasma (given the standalone book).

What we got was a film that has many strengths but also many weaknesses - one which we probably shouldn't judge until we see whether many of those controversial decisions pay off in the final film - but which left me feeling deeply unsatisfied and unengaged with the Star Wars story.

The broad story of THE LAST JEDI has four strands, all to do with learning from failure.  The first story takes place in space, with a vastly diminished Resistance fleet being chased by an Imperial fleet, and running low on fuel. The fleet's compromised position is partly the result of insubordination by our one-dimensional hero Poe Dameron, and this continues through the film has he stages a military coup against Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), unimpressed by her lack of plan for survival.  The first lesson is then for Poe - he must learn that true courage lies in humility and sacrifice. 

Originating within this story we get the second plot strand: Poe sends Finn and Resistance engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to casino planet Canto Bight to find a master codebreaker called DJ (Benicio del Toro) to get them onto a First Order ship and stop it tracking the Resistance Fleet so that it can safely jump to hyperspace. Finn and Rose are betrayed by DJ, who tells them that nasty arms dealers sell to both the First Oder and the Resistance. This makes Finn cynical and he reacts by trying to launch a hate-filled revenge attack until Rose almost sacrifices herself to stop him.  The second lesson is then for Finn - he must learn not to let darkness and death rule his motivation, but light, and love, and living. 

The third plot strand concerns Rey and Luke. Luke refuses to train Rey on the grounds that Jedi have always failed to train their mentees to resist the Dark Side. Accordingly, he believes that he should be the Last Jedi, ending the religion.  He thus commits what catholics would consider the sin of despair - cutting himself off from the Force. Rey therefore leaves, potentially having stolen the Jedi texts, although Luke may well have placed them on the Falcon too. Yoda then makes a timely appearance to teach Luke the third lesson of the film - that failure is itself, to use modern parlance, a "teaching moment" and not just for Rey but for Luke himself.

The fourth and most important plot strand concerns the Force battle between Rey and Kylo. She deliberately enters a First Order ship with the aim of turning him, because she has seen a vision of him killing Snoke.  Snoke is similarly excited because he feels Kylo wants to use the lightsaber to kill his "greatest enemy".  Snoke believes this to be Rey but Kylo actually kills Snoke and becomes the new Supreme Leader. Thus Rey and Snoke both misread the runes of the Force, looking for confirmation of their hopes, and not the facts.  Kylo hates Snoke because Snoke humiliated him.  Snoke did this to cause conflict in Kylo that Rey would mistakenly perceive as an opportunity to lure him to the Light Side.  Snoke effects this by bridging Rey and Kylo's minds. The lesson here is for Rey: that the Force is slippery and that one needs humility in reading others' feelings. She cannot turn Kylo (yet?) and so must be his balance. 

So that's the plot. Here's what I liked about its execution.

First, Rian Johnson introduces great new tech in this film  - specifically the might Dreadnought First Order ship.  Star Wars tech should keep evolving and this is a great example of it.

Second, the pacing and intercutting of the first act is superb.  I have seen this film twice and each time was on the edge of my seat in the opening space battle, particularly during the final Bomber scene.  

Third, the cinematography and production design is exceptional.  The use of the naturally stunning Skelling Michael is superb - with aerial shots that capture it's spectacular topography.  But two scenes surpass this for pure design brilliance. The first is the scene where Rey and Kylo fight the Supreme Leader's hands against a pure red backdrop in a fight that could've been taken out of Kurosawa. Kudos to all involved. The second is the final "Helm's Deep" scene at the old Rebel base. The decision to have a white planetary surface break to reveal red earth underneath the white salt makes for a superb visual depiction of the carnage of war. A pristine white surface becomes a bloody slush. And this is a great visual metaphor for the wages of war - which is one of the major themes of this film.

Fourth, the acting is great, and Rian Johnson often gives us long-held close-ups to capture the emotional strain. This is particularly true of the conflicted Kylo, but is most effective with scenes starring Carrie Fisher. In extended holds, we see Luke and Holdo hold hands with Leia and say goodbye, in scenes that resonate because we are still grieving Fisher's death. 

Fifth, the use of cameos is superb. Bringing back Yoda is a masterpiece, especially because he's the old puppet rather than CGI. He adds levity that comes from long-experienced and authentic character, rather than being forced in a Joss Whedony-Iron-Man style superficial wit.  I also loved the brief interlude with Maz - her action, energy and the fact that having been after Chewie she also has a fond memory of the codebreaker!

Sixth, I like the ambiguity of what split the First Order ship in half. Was it Kylo and Rey fighting over the lightsaber? Was it Holdo jumping into it? Brilliant! I also love the ambiguity of Rey's parentage. I like the idea that she isn't a Skywalker. But I also love the ambiguity of whether her parents really are nobodies or whether that was just Kylo exploiting her weakness.

Seventh, I really liked the theme of exploring Failure As A Lesson. It's something that's always been there in the original movies with Yoda reluctant to teach  Luke. And this seemed like a wider and more nuanced application of it - entirely suitable for a middle film. I liked that Luke was in despair - it would be bizarre if he weren't. And his mistrust of the Force is profound and provocative, as it should be. But I did have problems with the means and tone of how it was executed, which brings us too....

Here's what I didn't like about its execution.

First, the pacing and story choices in the second act were odd.  Do we really need such a long and convoluted trip to Canto Bight and then the Imperial Ship, just so Finn can get a love interest, and a lesson in the light side, and a fight with Phasma? (Also, side note, are we meant to think Phasma is dead now?)  Canto just felt like it was in a different movie - took me out of the film - and dragged. I wanted to be back with Luke or Leia or Kylo or anywhere but there. 

Second, while I love the content of the lessons, and I love that Star Wars has always had strong female characters, it seemed like a regressive step to have two of them taught by self-effacing, self-sacrificing women who exist as characters solely to teach dumb men and make them better heroes. And that's exactly what we get with the Rose-Finn and Holdo-Poe dynamic. 

Third, Star Wars has always used humour well, organically and carefully but that seemed to fall away here. It established a mythology that we were went to take seriously and so it's discussions were typically serious.  Humour was comic relief provided by side-kicks - Han and Chewie, R2 and Threepio, the Ewoks. The only major exception to this was Yoda, but was intrinsic in the puppetry, in the voice by Frank Oz, and the fact that he was subverting our exceptions of a Force User.  I really liked some of the humour here too. John Boyega is genuinely goofy as Finn - I like the Poe-BB8 goofy love affair - I love BB8 crashing into stormtroopers under a First Order rubbish bin and BB8 piloting an AT-ST. I even liked Luke brushing dust off his shoulder after Kylo's adolescent over the top bombing raid.  I love Yoda still being a mischief-maker because it's organic to his character. What I didn't like was the sudden forced humour of Luke Skywalker - as if he had been taken over by Robert Downey Junior's Iron Man - all that tossing of lightsabers and "Ok Jakku is a backwater but why are you here" stuff. For me, it undercut the genuine angst he is suffering.  He SHOULD be revolted by the lightsaber, but throwing it over his shoulder caused the audience I was with to laugh AT the film, and for me to cringe. It felt so forced. That despair could've been expressed far better. I have the awful feeling that Disney (and indeed DC) has decided that movies will sell better with some fast-paced Whedony wit, and they're shoving it into places where it doesn't belong. Star Wars was always funny in its own way - just go with that.

Fourth, we have no genuine Big Bad. In the original trilogy, and even in the hated Prequels, the Emperor was genuinely petrifying, and so was Vader. They carried real threat and peril. But Snoke barely exists in the TFA, and is soon dispatched in The Last Jedi, with barely a mention of where he came from or why we should care. Poor Andy Serkis - piloting the most forgettable Big Bad in the SW EU.  And then there's Hux, played explicitly for laughs.  Grand Moff Tarkin was petrifying. Hux is laughed AT. He's a pathetic caricature Nazi. Again, a waste of Domnhall Gleeson's acting skill. And so we are left with a universe with no real peril. Because we all know that Kylo will eventually be defeated. This massively reduces the emotional stakes. 

Fifth, and most damagingly, The Force Awakens ignores the Star Wars grammar and cannon regarding how the Force operates.  For instance, we always knew that Force Users killed in anger could come back as Force Ghosts. Fine. But we never knew that living Force Users could mind meld, or indeed Force Project. If that were the case, Luke needn't have left his training to help Leia in Empire. Or risk his actual life to face Vader in Jedi. It's just a nonsense. (Not to mention the awkward adolescent stupidity of Rey fancying Kylo with his top off.)  This combined with the mis-used humour subverts the profound mythos of the Force and I can't forgive that.  Let's also talk about Leia surviving space and force using her way back to the ship. That was, for me, a totally Jump The Shark moment. If Leia can do that, then she's a more serious Force User than we were always told, and frankly doesn't need Luke to come back. 

Sixth, lots of characters are mishandled or mistreated. This is less serious but gives the overall film a sense of clutter.
  • With Han and Luke dead, do we really need R2, Threepio, or Chewie - who are merely sidekicks?  Or even the Falcon? Time to pension them off. Chewie is particularly ill-served here - basically existing to fly the Falcon, which does what the Falcon always does, draw away fire in a final battle.     I guess he also gets that Leia grieving hug the fans wanted in TFA too.  Would we have missed Chewie, R2 or Threepio if they weren't here? No.
  • Phasma gets an EU book with particularly nuanced and fascinating back story and yet nothing much in the film - is she dead? Do we care? Would we have missed Phasma if she weren't here? No.
  • Porgs seem to exist to sell young kids merchandise and give us all an unneeded lecture about vegetarianism. Ewoks got shit from fans but they were actually crucial to how the Battle of Endor went down. If Porgs didn't exist would we miss them? No.
  • Finally, my personal favourite minor character was always the badass Admiral Akbar.  I get that they need to pension off a whole bunch of minor old characters and that he gets nixed on the bridge. But I personally feel that he deserved to go down at the helm of a ship, in an act of courage befitting his career. So why not have him at the bridge of a fleet ship offed by the First Order? Or better still, what did Holdo do that Akbar couldn't have done?  I take the point that because of the rubberised mask, Akbar can't express as much as Holdo, but maybe then make him a brave commander of another fleet ship?
So there you have it - my long and complicated reaction to a long and complicated film! It didn't slip down as easily as the baby food that was THE FORCE AWAKENS - it's a more balanced, provocative, tough film to process, and maybe that's no bad thing. I look forward to seeing how some of the decisions taken here manifest in the third instalment, after which we'll truly be able to review and reassess this film's place in the canon. 

STAR WARS is rated PG-13 and is rated 152 minutes. It is on global release. 

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