Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' (2017) directed by Rian Johnson

After the nostalgia exercises of The Force Awakens and Rogue One, Star Wars was in dire need of a kick up the arse. And here's Rian Johnson with a pair of steel-toe capped boots. It's not that I didn't enjoy Disney's last two stabs at the franchise but wallowing in the past can only take you so far. Sooner or later you need an infusion of new ideas, and The Last Jedi provides them in spades.

It does this by subtly altering the way Star Wars works. Traditionally these movies tell a tight and propulsive story that adheres to Campbell's hero's journey. It's a solid framework in which events drive the narrative and character arcs are reactive. It's the template for pretty much every modern blockbuster and hey, most of the time it works.

The Last Jedi is different. Here the narrative is a merely a vehicle for the themes which are then explored through each major character in different ways until they converge in the finale. The events of the film are not just narrative for the sake of narrative, they're designed from the ground up to support the film's ideas. It's a much more literary style than Star Wars has ever seen before, with ambitions to evolve beyond the franchises' pulp roots.

Johnson's most successful tactic is to dissemble, criticise and move beyond the pulp serial inspirations for the franchise, with a particular focus on the role of a hero within them. Throughout the film characters have their perceptions of what a hero is shattered, comparing the ideal to the grubby reality. For example, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) encounters Resistance hero Finn and is briefly starstruck at meeting the war hero, before realising he's trying to desert and tasering him. Then you get Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) a square-jawed flyboy who plays by his own rules.

In any other Star Wars movie (and, indeed in The Force Awakens), Poe would be the guy whose instincts, bravery and luck save the day. In The Last Jedi, these qualities just screw everything up for everyone - much as they do in real life. In the opening action sequence his lust for glory decimates the Resistance bombers and during the outer space 'siege' his short-lived mutiny concludes with him idiotically leaking the secret escape plan to the villains, resulting in hundreds of needless deaths. To be fair, it's difficult to blame Poe: in any other Star Wars movie his plan would probably have worked.But The Last Jedi is a Star Wars movie about ideas rather than events.

The real kicker is how the film treats the franchise's most iconic hero, Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker. Once the saviour of the galaxy, protagonist Rey finds him living in ascetic seclusion, spending his days sucking green milk out of weird alien tits and grumpily hauling giant fish across cliffs. Over the course of his scenes, Luke explicitly deconstructs what a hero is and what an individual can do, scornfully shooting down the idea that he can just “walk out with a lazer sword" and save the day.

Rian Johnson beats this thematic drum repeatedly and loudly throughout the first two acts, to the point where you genuinely begin to feel a sense of despair about the state of things. The good guys are all but wiped out, the baddies are knocking at their door and nobody cares about their distress beacon. Everything is fucked.

Then Luke Skywalker turns up waving a lazer sword and saves the day! Except he doesn't. He just gives the Resistance (and the audience) what they want, the triumphant return of Luke Skywalker: complete with a confident swagger, a retro 70s hairdo and an official A New Hope branded lightsaber. But, in keeping with the rest of the film, the legendary hero is an illusion, an inspirational symbol and, most importantly, something a pissed off Kylo Ren quickly realises he cannot kill.

Through Luke, Rian Johnson is imploring audiences not to overthink the nuts and bolts of escapist fiction and realise that its true utility as a source of inspiration. A couple of moments after the Luke illusion sequence we see a child inspired by this story realising his revolutionary potential and resolving to stand against fascism. The moment crystallises The Last Jedi's ambitions: to take the audience's love of Star Wars and use it as a catalyst for personal and political growth rather than to obsess over trivial minutia and nitpicking 'lore'.

That, in combination with the takedown of individualistic heroism tells us to connect and trust the people around us and fight back against selfishness. This isn't an especially radical message, but when we're faced with so many political, environmental and social problems that can only be fixed with mass cooperation and understanding ourselves as part of a larger whole it's on the ball. This collectivist motif appears repeatedly in The Last Jedi, reaching its climax when Luke becomes one with the Force and surrenders to a spiritual gestalt afterlife.

Considering that the Original Trilogy was lauded by Reaganite Conservatives as representing a battle by individualists against the uniform collectivism of the Empire (they read them as an allegory for the Soviet Union) this is something of a turnaround for the franchise, despite Disney CEO Bob Iger claiming that the films are not "in any way" intended to be political.

You can call this inversion a lot of things, but it's seriously impressive that The Last Jedi launches an all-out assault on the dated philosophies baked into the franchise while simultaneously being a fun, dynamic and eye-catching Star Wars movie in its own right. Before its release, many had concluded that Disney's 'new' trilogy was going to be a simple rehash of what came before. Afterwards, nobody can predict what's going to happen in Episode IX. 

Where The Force Awakens looked back, The Last Jedi looks forwards. The view ahead is of weird and uncharted territory - the best possible place for Star Wars to be.

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