Saturday, 6 January 2018

Movie review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, dir Rian Johnson (2017)

Since its beginning as the brain-child of an independent filmmaker, George Lucas, Star Wars has been bought by giant entertainment company Disney (for $4.06 billion in 2012) so audiences are guaranteed new films in the franchise on a regular basis. The irony of a major US corporation cranking out new episodes to profit from the story of an intrepid band of inspired rebels combating the forces of evil in a fictional universe embodied in its corrupt and self-interested rulers, has not occurred to anyone at the enormous Disney Corporation, it seems.

This movie purports to continue the story of the victory of the underdog in the face of the forces of darkness, and the hope of the rebel fleet is embodied in the film in the person of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman who had been introduced in an earlier film. In this one, she is attempting to help the rebel fighters by conscripting the retired Master Luke (Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, who had played Skywalker in the original 1977 film) by tempting him to emerge from his remote fastness on a rock surrounded by sea on the planet Ahch-To and bring his powers to bear against the dreaded Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a suitable Star Wars bad-guy who suffers from some sort of facial disfigurement that makes him clearly unappealing to the know-nothing youngsters who lap up the kind of bland nonsense this film delivers in truckloads.

Princess Leia is here as well, as a rebel general, but her meeting with Skywalker at the end of this creaky film is devoid of any drama and constitutes hackneyed pabulum. This is cookie cutter writing and the scene is flat, with no real emotion evident in the viewer as a result. You furthermore have the equally reliable ratings-maker Chewbacca (who roasts some of the local fauna on Skywalker’s island while sitting outside the Millennium Falcon, and who then goes on to whimsically adopt some of the critters inside the ship, to serve the interests of comedy in the film), in addition to C-3PO and R2-D2.

The main line of the plot is dedicated to the emergence as a power in her own right of Rey in opposition to the dark side embodied in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In a series of scenes and communicating telepathically over vast distances, Rey and Kylo Ren (actually the son of Leia, evicing in another way how the film reflects the crude enthusiasms of Americans, one of which is their endless search for authenticity within the limited parameters of a culture saturated to the brink of incoherence by the unreliable products of Big Capital) talk about their pasts and their powers. This kind of chatter on the subject of history serves to prop up the superstructure that the franchise relies on for some sort of coherence in the absence of good plotting and sound narratives.

Coming together toward the end after Rey has been captured by the First Order and brought before Snoke, the two of them orchestrate the obligatory light-sabre battle and defeat the decrepit ruler together. Kylo Ren then cements his bad-guy credentials by declaring to the vacuous General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, whose plummy English vowels punctuate action on the bridge of the First Order’s biggest ship), who questioned his authority, that he is now the supreme leader.

Music is used well in this film, however, with the franchise’s widely-recognised, gentle and lyrical theme punctuating the story at key moments in order to progress the narrative. This kind of editing works well and is the product of close scrutiny of the progress of scenes in the post-production process. No effort has been spared, it seems. A minor highlight was the appearance of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who seems to go some way toward embodying the original audacity of the creators of the franchise from back in the day. Isaac’s forthright US wise-guy accent is suitably plebeian. Poe’s sparring with the incompetent Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, who had appeared in the revolutionary Jurassic Park back in the early days, before it, too, became merely a money-making vehicle) injects some real drama into the film.

For me, the relationship that best embodied the spirit of the Star Wars franchise (if you can be rewarded for pointing out something as self-reflexive and ingrown) is that which develops between Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, the Asian) and Finn (John Boyega, the black guy). Rose, a shipboard techie, inherits an emblem (that she keeps with her on a string around her neck) that had been owned by her sister, a bombardier killed in an action that takes place at the beginning of the film, and with Finn sets off on an adventure within the confines of it in the Canto Bight casino to find a code-breaker to help the rebels escape the vessel-tracking powers of the First Order. They are ultimately unsuccessful but Rose manages to capture the imagination of a boy there who works in a stable (Temirlan Blaev). A shot of the child dreaming of freedom while looking up at the sky, the ring of the Resistance that Rose has given him on his small finger, is the last memorable scene of the film. Thus the filmmakers make a final, tired promise to their supine audience that more of the same kind of junk is already on the drawing boards.

What the film does do by giving young people the kind of stuff they obviously crave is prove that there is no accretive tendency in culture. Each generation makes the same discoveries independent of those of the men and women who had gone before. There is no mere addition involved in the progress of a culture. Each new generation of people has the same thirst for the real as its parents had, and will make its own heroes and villains to embody the values that shape its efforts to reach it. With Star Wars, those young people look past the achievements of their parents – whose generation had first moulded the outlines of the franchise – and mark out the lines of their own aspirations on new horizons. But there is little that is fresh and independent in this film to justify the effort made to reach them. Any value in it derives merely from the fact that the product can be shared.

UPDATE, Saturday 6 January 2017, 11.20am: It was brought to my attention after this review was posted on Facebook by someone there that Vice Admiral Holdo was tactically correct to withdraw the troops to the base on the planet Crait and that Poe Dameron was simultaneously headstrong and incautious. I accept the correction but everything else in my review stands. I would add however that a willingness to make mistakes was something that Poe shares with Han Solo. This is what can happen with journalism: people pick holes where there are minor errors and ignore the broader context.

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