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MediaDecember 20, 2017

The new Star Wars: a battle of good vs bad, in so many ways


Simon Wilson wanted to like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and some of it he really did. But then there was the rest. And, yes, there are MANY SPOILERS.

You can read The Last Jedi as the story of two sisters who, if this were not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, would be Earthlings of Vietnamese origin. The sisters are members of the Rebel Resistance. Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo) is a combat pilot, whom we meet at the start of the film, mid-battle, as she strives against impossible odds to blow up a spaceship belonging to the evil empire, now known as the First Order, pretty much defying gravity and various other laws of physics in the process, even though she does not have superpowers. Paige succeeds but dies in the process.

Some aeons of film time later, we meet her sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Rose is morally centred, courageous, skilful and smart, and the story elevates her from spaceship maintenance worker to active combatant, sending her on a dangerous mission with one of the blocks of wood they use instead of actors for most of the lead roles. I don’t know, are they cheaper or something? It’s so unfair on Tran, because she shows us she really can act.

Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega.

In the end, Rose stops the block of wood, whose name is Finn, from flying directly into the mouth of the First Order’s giant ray gun, an act of intended sacrifice he hoped would save the rebels. She does this by flying her own fighter into his, knocking him off course. George Gregan performed the same manouevre on Jeff Wilson once, in an All Blacks game, and it was more dramatic, if a little less incendiary.

Rose, says Finn, why did you do that? I was going to save the galaxy, or words to that effect. She kisses him, chastely, and says don’t you realise, the way we will save the galaxy is by saving the ones we love?

Rose is one of the great creations of The Last Jedi, although sadly she is not actually the last Jedi. Viewers may recognise her selfless act as having been filched from the opera Turandot, in which the boorish hero has eyes only for the cold-hearted princess and does not realise his slave Liu is in love with him and has sacrificed her own happiness, and her life, so that he can fulfill his own selfish wishes. I liked the operatic allusion. I think Star Wars would be better with Puccini, but I should probably mention I have long wished for its real composer, John Williams, to be exiled to some desert moonscape, perhaps with a colony of Wookiees to bellow endlessly at him.

Bellow? Moan? What is that noise Chewbacca makes? It’s always been a good joke that his communications sound like someone who has taken on himself all the pain of the universe, even though roughly translated they seem to mean yes you Nabooist nitwit I do know how to fly this thing. The new movie updates the joke, with irritating little penguin-parrots that squawk in imitation.

I thought the other new animals were pretty good, too: a friendly pack of dogs with icicle fur, which could not happen but that doesn’t matter; toadish washerwomen (a slyly complex nod to Kenneth Graham); giant loveable flop-eared llama horses.

The old machines look great but why aren’t there any new ones?

But the wilder reaches of the imagination are not breached. Although the movie looks fabulous there is no Jabba the Hutt, no Death Star, nothing as outright hilarious as the bar on Tatooine, no awe-inspiring lair of the principal villain – Snoke’s throne room is just a big empty room. There is a casino which seemed it might be rich in character and detail, but it flashed past so fast, with no memorable moments, so I couldn’t say for sure. Quite a feat, to do that in a movie whose defining characteristic is that it slows down the very passage of time.

Also, no new machines, no new spacecraft, no new ways of fighting. Really? Turns out that a long time ago in that galaxy far away, technological progress just froze, and we are watching the endless aftermath.

Although, to be fair, there are some new lightsabers, brandished by Snoke’s red-robed and helmeted imperial guards: nunchucks, curved swords and other Asian-inspired fighting weapons. I get that there’s money to be made in merch, but does it have to be so obvious the purpose of whole scenes is merely to create new action figures?

Snoke’s guards: conceived for the merch?

Of course, these guards, presumably the pick of the galaxy’s elite warriors, are no match for the heroes of the moment, even when they’re fighting three to one. Isn’t that always the way. Remember the Uruk-hai in Lord of the Rings? Supposed super-fighting orcs, they turned out to be completely useless too.

Such a long film, 152 minutes in Earth time, it felt like weeks upon weeks in the cinema, and still they couldn’t resolve the internal contradictions of the plot. How is it the mighty armies of the galaxy, with superpowers at their disposal, have failed and will fail again to snuff out the bedraggled, underpowered and plainly unsophisticated rebel remnants? And wasn’t that the plot of the last movie?

Why doesn’t the rebel command ever conceive a battle plan or a defence plan that isn’t just going out to fight the enemy and hoping they won’t all be killed? Manuals in guerrilla warfare they have not read.

Also, although the empire has a device that allows it to track the rebels through hyperspace, that device can be incapacitated by the simplest bit of breaking and entering. Also, how come the mighty Snoke has the telepathic powers to give our hero Rey and her nemesis Kylo Ren Facetime from one end of the galaxy to the other – but doesn’t notice (unlike, I’d be prepared to say, every single person  in the audience) that Ren is planning to kill him. “Now is the time to kill your true enemy,” says Snoke to Ren, with Rey standing there. Gosh, Snoke, you should hear yourself. There’s a big scar on his forehead and it’s a moot point whether they took some of his brain out or added more in.

Also, while the Force is strong in Rey and Ren, they are weak people: he is riddled with doubt and driven by childish envy; she is morally pure but kind of stupid, apparently incapable of ever working anything out for herself. Also, are we really okay that Rose and Finn can time-warp themselves around the galaxy, playing very fast and loose with Einstein’s space-time continuum? Also, why does the acting rebel commander Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern, spend the entire movie in a full-length jersey silk ball gown? Whose fetish is this anyway?

Laura Dern dressed for war, apparently.

None of it matters. I know that. It doesn’t even matter than Adam Driver as Ren takes his top off, for no reason at all, to reveal that he has bulked up and he still waxes, just like he did in his Lena Dunham days. Rey tells him to cover up with a towel or something. A towel? That is totally a thing dark lords of the universe do.

But maybe the problem with Commander Leia Organa does matter – the former Princess Leia who has become boss of the rebels. So how did she get transformed from a feisty princess, albeit a profoundly patronised and harassed one, into an older woman of supposed wisdom who, in two movies now, has had absolutely nothing to do except stand there in a cape and say “it’s good to see you”? Carrie Fisher deserved better than that.

The movie has women from top to bottom in important roles, but it finds far too little for most of them to do. Gwendoline Christie dies before she even gets the chance to take off her helmet.

As for Mark Hamill, George Lucas discovered the sad truth about him in another galaxy long ago: there is no force in the universe capable of turning him into an actor worth watching. Why do you think he’s been stuck on a distant island these last 40 years?

Hamill approaches his role as Luke Skywalker, reluctant sage, by hiding behind his fringe, hunching into his cloak and constantly walking away from the camera. It’s not that humility masks deep wisdom, simply that there’s nothing for us to see, despite the icy blue stuff they use to make his eyes gleam and an unkind number of closeups.

Structurally, Luke Skywalker has inherited the role of Obi Wan Kenobi, except Alec Guinness didn’t have a problem projecting moral authority. Hamill plays Luke like he’s auditioning for a bit-part in The Hobbit – I kept trying to see if he had hairy feet.

Daisy Ridley as Rey meets Mark Hamill as a hobbit, or something.

Alas, he is far from alone. One of the signal achievements of Star Wars is to have conjured the most wooden performance of their career from almost every actor it engages. This time, not just Hamill and Fisher, but Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega (the aforementioned block of wood), Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, Domhnall Gleeson … and you can easily add Ewen McGregor, Liam Neeson (and that’s saying something) and many others to that list. I used to blame George Lucas, but I see now the problem may be deeper than that.

Not every actor suffers so. Andy Serkis has fun with Snoke, although wouldn’t you know if he gets help from the prosthetics. But is anyone ever going to tell Adam Driver he can’t save himself by pouting? And then there is Benicio del Toro, whose performance as an opportunist code-breaker makes him the Jedi Knight of outrageous hammy excess. Boy does he go for it. Good on him, though – someone had to do something.

Andy Serkis as Snoke: did they take part of his brain out or stuff more in?

This, predictably enough, is all the result of killing off Harrison Ford, which they did in the last proper Star Wars movie. Han Solo held this frigging universe together – even when he wasn’t in it – but you try telling the filmmakers that.

It’s all deliberate, right? The utter dedication to hackery, signalled by the opening title crawl, that receding text which cobbles together the essentials of the story so far. It’s always slightly clumsy, with little jumps in grammar, logic, meaning and narrative flow, like a working draft before they polish it up.

There’s never a subtext to anything anyone does or says. The dialogue clunks like a rusty chain. You’re never surprised by the storytelling, and just in case they always tell you what’s going to happen and what is happening. We’ve got to help him! No! He’s distracting them to give us time to escape! There’s no way out! Yes there is!

Such insistent mediocrity has its own purpose, I’m sure, though it’s disheartening to think what it might be.

Yet with each new movie I return. Why is that? It’s not because I expect any of this might have changed. Not at all. So what do I like? It’s the story itself, and the origin story as presented in the first movie, though not its prequels, and it’s the universe of the story: the galaxy. It’s fun.

Also, I like that the themes are mythic and that the movie clings with religious intensity to its central conceit. Which is that the struggle between good and evil for control of the universe is won and lost – and endlessly renewed – through the struggle between good and evil inside each of us. Star Wars tells us what Harry Potter tells us, and Homer, and Outrageous Fortune, James Cameron with Titanic and don’t forget the Bible … It’s in good company.

And, this time, the franchise has nudged that theme along in a couple of intriguing directions.

First up, there’s Oscar Isaac’s Poe, the Han Solo character replacement, an individualist who hates taking orders. Admiral Holdo calls him Flyboy and excludes him from the action. Han Solo got treated like that too, but he was a hero who would find a way round it and save the day. This time, Poe is actually wrong. The message is: forces of resistance can’t be anarchists.

The second thematic push involves the rise of humanism, or whatever they say in a galaxy far away without Earth-humans, when they want to talk about the inherent value of ordinary folk.

Rey and Kylo Ren are not the first weak vessels for the Force: we know this from Luke Skywalker himself. Yoda even turns up in The Last Jedi to admonish Luke for being stupid you always were. The point is, you don’t have to be special-born to become a hero: maybe we can all do it. In fact, being ordinary, and choosing good, is the whole point of the exercise. It’s a straight steal from Tolkien, but that’s not a criticism.

Luke tells Rey that the Force is not a magical superpower commanded by Jedi Knights and Sith Lords, and nor is it a power for good or evil. He says it is present in all things, and therefore accessible to everyone, and that its purpose is to maintain harmony in the universe.

As for Rey, what churns her up is wanting to know who her parents were, although the filmmakers can hardly expect us to care because they never give us any clues. But then Kylo Ren tells her he knows the answer: they were nobodies. She comes from trash.

So that means anyone can be a Jedi! And remember Rose’s life lesson? We will win not through a few grand sacrifices but by looking after the ones we love. Rose, like Rey, embodies the new humanism. Star Wars, like Shakespeare, knows how to deliver its themes through the characters of both its first and second tiers.

That’s reinforced by something else quite important about Rose: in the universes of both regular astronauts and space adventure blockbuster movies, she would normally be regarded as not having the right body type to be on a spaceship. But not being muscularly thin does not make her a figure of fun, or the official jokester of the pack. It plays no part in her character. I don’t know if that’s a first, but it feels like it, and it’s certainly central to the humanist theme: we’re all in this together, and all means all.

Right at the end, we return to a small boy, a stablehand in the terrible empire, to whom Rose gave the signet ring of the Rebel Resistance, and guess what? The Force is strong within him, too! He casually makes a broomstick jump into his hand and we see him in silhouette, staring at the stars, his broom the lightsaber of his imagination.

One day the people will rise up.

It would be quite good if they could just get on with that, because if I have to sit through any more eternities watching the moronic mighties of evil fail to snuff out a tiny band of plucky but impotent rebels, pretending that’s a new or interesting storyline, I might start scream-roaring like Chewbacca.  @simonbwilson

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