Archive | January, 2018

Star Wars ‘The Last Jedi’ – Review

13 Jan

(I don’t write film reviews often but I felt compelled to note down some thoughts on the new Star Wars film)

There are a couple of moments in ‘The Last Jedi’ where super villain Kylo Ren gleefully advises ‘let the past die, kill it if you have to’. Despite coming out of the mouth of the film’s chief antagonist, director/writer Rian Johnson seems to have embraced the instruction with almost perverse glee. This is a complex film that takes a fizzing red lightsaber to the past, and does more than chop its hand off. In doing so Johnson has made the most divisive and controversial episode in the Star Wars Saga. He takes many risks, some of which work and many of which don’t. Some of which are devastatingly emotional and some of which are just plain devastating. It moves the franchise forward by breaking it apart from what came before. It’s failures are many and varied but it’s achievements are perhaps more significant if Star Wars is to have life in to a new decade.

The primary criticism of ‘The Force Awakens’ (a fantastic if flawed episode in the series) was that it was TOO nostalgic. But the things it was nostalgic for – classic storytelling, charm and charisma, admirable heroics, practical effects, a sense of magic, optimism – weren’t things tied to any one time period, let alone a single film. Lucas was heavily influenced by his art school colleagues, Kurosawa, Flash Gorden, War films and most importantly Jung’s theories on archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s study of myths, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. Lucas was a student of storytelling. Johnson on the other hand seems to enjoy hacking away at these established modes of expression that influenced Lucas. This is symbolised early on in the film when Luke tosses away his father’s lightsaber. It’s played for cheap laughs but the scene symbolises, either intentionally or not, the seeming disregard Johnson has for legends, trophies and conventions. Johnson is in search of something less tied to mythology and expectation, something more contemporary and complex. That means working against a legacy that George Lucas carefully created.

The whole ‘medichlorean’ philosophy that Lucas designed, and the entire concept of a ‘chosen one’ are purposefully disregarded. Rey is revealed to be a nobody. Her parents were nobody’s. Yet she can, and will, lead the revolution. And here we have just one manifestation of the politics of Johnson’s vision: the democratisation of the force, where you too could one day be a Jedi knight. Any inherited authority, either by sense of personal entitlement or through destiny or a single family dynasty, is thoroughly decried and dismissed. Of course there has always been a political undercurrent to Star Wars – it swelled to the surface in The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith – but The Last Jedi explicitly toys with a grab bag of modern political anxieties – absent parents, multi ethic alliances, feminist leaders usurping man-child upstarts, mutant dictators exploiting the weak and vulnerable, and the flaws of capitalism. To some this will seem welcome, overdue, necessary even, to other it will seem like unfortunate pandering and misplaced, self righteous posturing.

It’s not just the politics that will be divisive. On a purely cinematic level, The Last Jedi is more underwhelming than its predecessors. I’d always had Johnson pegged as something of a stylist, yet one or two memorable shots aside, nothing really strikes a note of individualism. The psychedelic scene where Rey looks down a hall of mirrors and sees… herself, is a perfect example of where a visionary director could have left a mark. Instead the scene is laboured and uninspired, as much of the movie is for its often tiresome two and a half hours. Scenes involving space dog fights and grand explosions have the potential to dazzle but the effect is numbed by sheer repetition. The most stirring of these scenes is right there at the beginning when an unarmed resistance fighter sacrifices herself to release futuristic grenades on to the enemy ship. Every other space battle after this feels emotionally empty and redundant in comparison.

Where Lucas wisely used classical structures and proven character archetypes, Johnson anarchically undercuts and undermines the same tropes. The story is deliberately sprawling and convoluted to the extreme; it dovetails in to several unnecessary subplots that ultimately fizzle out. At the end you’re left wondering – what has actually happened? What did Luke and Rey ACTUALLY do on that Island? What was the POINT of having Poe and Rose go to that casino planet? Did we REALLY need so many space battles? It makes you yearn for the relatively linear plot lines of the original trilogy.

And in that sense, The Last Jedi has less in common with The Empire Strikes Back (the film it was initially compared to) and more in common with the episodic adventure format of ‘Attack of the Clones’. But whilst that film (up until now the most flawed and disliked episode in the Star Wars series) had the zany flavour of a Saturday morning cartoon serial, ‘The Last Jedi’, feels much darker and less generous both stylistically and tonally. For example; the intrigue of the Canto Bight casino planet is only briefly utilised. Before you know it the characters have escaped, and a dimly lit, unambitiously framed chase sequence is underway. Similarly, the visually distinctive planet of Crait feels under-used; compare it to the rich and rewarding landscapes of Attack of the Clones – the water planet of Kamino, the futuristic cityscape of coruscant and the deserty Tatoine. But the prequels sleek modernism is seemingly too earnest to be of any kind of influence on this director. A shame, as their undervalued innovations were more ambitious than anything seen visually in The Last Jedi.

So the film is technically sloppy, superficially unambitious, structurally laboured, politically divisive and tonally off balance. It’s also got plot holes that will disturb the anoraks (you could argue that every Star Wars film since Empire has) but more significantly there are things about it that will alienate the film’s target audience – children. The film easily drags past two hours, and because it opens in fifth gear (with one of several space shot outs), it struggles to build any sort of momentum. It rattles from one overheated set piece to the next until they all just blur in to one frazzled mess. Children will get bored quickly and often. The emotional intensity of several key scenes, adult themes and even, at one point, swearing, may also impede a young audience’s viewing. The dialogue is also far too knowing to sound like it genuinely belongs in the Star Wars universe. The wide eyed, stumbling sincerity of George Lucas’ intergalactic vocabulary is replaced by irony, sarcasm and detachment. The jokes frequently fall flat and even his attempt at cuteness, with the porgs, feels cliched.

Snoke, the one character from Force Awakens who perhaps should have set alarm bells ringing, is a hollow cliche of a 21st century Marvel villain, and he’s mercifully, if Ludicrously, offed about half way through the film. This scene leads to one of the film’s unadulterated moments of ingenuity, when Kylo Ren and Rey team up to defeat a group of rebel guards, in front of a dramatic, blood red back drop. The choreography is slightly stilted but the drama is real, and in that brief scene the ambiguity over Kylo Ren’s future is genuinely intriguing. But by this point Johnson has blurred the lines between morals to such an extent that any kind of decisive choice would feel hollow.

But for all it’s flaws, the actors in The Last Jedi do a tremendous job, almost without exception (Domnhall Gleason hams it up a little too much as Admiral Hux and Kelly Tran has a remarkably blunted impact as new character Rose). Carrie Fischer seemed out of her depth and flustered in the Force Awakens, but she found her feet and gave a brilliant final performance as Leila (we can just ignore the whole flying in space bit). Oscar Isaac is typically charismatic as ‘fly boy’ Poe, Daisy Ridley delivers a moving performance as Rey, and Adam Driver is truly exceptional at expressing Kylo Ren’s inner conflict.

The true star though is undoubtedly Mark Hamil. For all his dogged enthusiasm, he never really impressed with his acting ability in the original trilogy but here he is more than convincing as a reclusive, weary Luke Skywalker. Hamil should be praised even more considering he was essentially asked to butcher his own character’s moral code and optimistic outlook. The Star Wars saga, fundamentally, has always been the personal story of the Skywalker family, and so every scene involving Luke (except at points involving awkward, winking gags) feels like the convincing and necessary continuation of an old journey. The emotional push and pull feels real and moving. After all, Luke has been through a whole world of pain borne out by a constant cycle of loss. The despair he feels in the Last Jedi is a logical end point for a life of disappointment.

The final shot featuring Luke, looking out at, then collapsing under, the twin sunset, poetically mirrors a classic early scene from Episode IV. That initial shot was an expression of optimism, desire and hope. Here it’s used as a sigh of exasperation. I don’t think many fans would have wanted such a sorrowful end for one of the most beloved characters in cinematic history. Yes he’s being heroic and brave but he dies deflated, if not totally defeated, his belief system shattered, with a former pupil bringing the galaxy in to chaos. Essentially all the good work Luke and the rebels did in defeating Vader is undone. It’s convincing but there is the obvious argument that Star Wars has never been about realism, and Luke, the archetypal hero, was meant to be above all that. In fact, the whole world, or Galaxy, of The Last Jedi feels more human and relatable, which is one of the reasons it’s winning plaudits from the critics and perhaps one of the reasons proper fans feel so conflicted. Is it too trivial to say that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a George Lucas film? That sometimes it doesn’t even feel like it belongs in the same universe? These characters are relatable, their choices understandable, and their depictions believable but the shades in which they are drawn are perhaps too realistic, and therefore undesirable. In the trailer, Luke warned the audience ‘this is not going to go the way you think’. He was right.

But there is one more scene after Luke’s demise, one that restores some of the mystique. Two slave children, glimpsed earlier in Canto Bright, are staring at the stars, playing at being Jedi. Specifically, playing at being the legendary Luke Skywalker. By sacrificing himself, Luke has secured his future as a mythic hero; someone who didn’t bring balance to the force but whose hope, optimism and sacrifices influenced future generations who perhaps could. By putting this scene at the conclusion, Johnson shows that he does have an affinity for the same myths and legends as Lucas after all. He is a dreamer as well. For all its unnecessary moral, political and narrative complexity there is a pretty simple idea at the heart of this story; with persistence and a little belief, good will triumph over bad. In that respect it isn’t so different from A New Hope after all.