Letter From The Editor - Issue 63 - June 2018

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Jedi, mastered

On durable franchises, the psychological poetry of heroes and villains, and a brilliant build-up to war draped in dazzling, bloody red

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 32 minutes / 2.39:1
December 15, 2017
(out of four)

By now, Star Wars should, at best, be settling into the routine predictability of middle age. More likely, it should be running on fumes. There's a reason why serialized storytelling doesn't usually endure for this long. And yet here we are, having just passed the franchise's 40th birthday, and The Last Jedi - the eighth chapter and ninth (live-action) entry overall - makes a strong case for being its crowning achievement.

The Empire Strikes Back has held that title unchallenged for so long that it seems premature to assign it elsewhere without letting more time pass, but The Last Jedi is just that good - and every bit as surprising, challenging and idiosyncratic as Empire was. Which puts this series in the rare company of franchises to peak in their later years - the difficulty of which is compounded by an expectation of narrative continuity, with no built-in mechanism to regularly reset. Bond has a decade and a half on Star Wars and triple the titles, but those movies are almost entirely episodic - and the series gets to reset with a new Bond and a new world every decade or so. (Plus, for every Skyfall there's a Spectre or two to follow it.) The Mission: Impossible series began peaking with its fourth and fifth entries, but it, too, is generally built on standalone stories with only minimal connective tissue. Mad Max, Planet of the Apes and Star Trek all essentially rebooted to find new inspiration. Meanwhile, just look at what's happened to the Terminator, Alien, Die Hard, Halloween or Jason Bourne franchises.

The best analog is probably 2015's Creed, officially the seventh movie of the Rocky franchise - released nearly four decades after the original - and for my money the best of the bunch by a not-insignificant margin. And even that was more a next-gen spinoff than serialized installment.

But back on topic: The Last Jedi, masterminded by writer/director Rian Johnson - who immediately vaults to the shortlist of filmmakers who deserve near-carte blanche status with big-budget projects - triumphs because it both loves what Star Wars is and ingeniously wonders what else it could be, where else it could go. Whereas J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens looked toward the past (however charmingly), this one looks beyond. Having been around as long as it has, and being practically landlocked by its corporate apparatus and its broad mainstream expectations, it should have stopped being able to surprise us by now. In fact, The Force Awakens was almost a declaration of that fact. Abrams delivered the most Star Warsy of Star Wars movies, wrapped in a shiny new package; its very ethos was its familiarity. It was a calculated, almost beat-by-beat return to a particular comfort zone.

With Episode 8, Johnson has delivered not a continuation, but an answer. He enthusiastically embraces what's been established and proceeds to complicate it, question it, turn it around and look at it differently. This is not a reinvention, by any means - but it does welcome risk in a way Abrams didn't (and wouldn't). With the way its predecessor so openly paralleled the 1977 original, there was more than a little speculation - bordering on flat-out expectation - that The Last Jedi would be a similarly direct companion piece to The Empire Strikes Back. Although it contains some purposeful nods to its corresponding middle chapter - indeed, one of its most daring narrative choices makes for a nice refraction of one of Empire's best moments - it thankfully doesn't try to follow in those footsteps. (That approach to the new trilogy would get old fast.)

From the moment that picks up immediately where the previous entry left off, it's clear Johnson has no interest in simply fulfilling expectations*. That dramatic moment of Rey (Daisy Ridley), having finally discovered the whereabouts of the long-lost legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), presenting him with the lightsaber that led her there? A perfectly quick pause, and then he flippantly tosses it over his shoulder, uninterested in whoever this girl is, whatever it is she wants, or anything related to his Jedi past.

* Nor indulging fan theories, for that matter. Since The Force Awakens' release, online communities have tripped all over themselves speculating about two major questions in particular. On both counts The Last Jedi openly defies such speculation, in the process revealing itself - mercifully - as a movie that sees those mysteries as either incidental or counterproductive to examining the characters in actual depth.

It's a funny and surprising moment, but mere precursor to the more profound ways in which Johnson maneuvers within the rules and ideas native to this cinematic galaxy. That he's genuinely interested in those ideas is obvious, and his is a good-faith interrogation of them. He takes the things we may have taken for granted and digs into them. We've heard "May the Force be with you" so often by this point that it's become an almost meaningless platitude, but here Johnson refocuses on the Force itself - namely what it even is. When Rey begins an (ill-informed) description of The Force with "It's a power that Jedi have ...," that more or less represents how a good segment of the audience would understand it or describe it themselves. But the film uses that misdiagnosis as a lead-in to a questioning of the way it's been used and interpreted across these nine movies.

Part of Luke Skywalker's lament - and why he's marooned himself on a remote island, abdicating all responsibility that would have once been sacred to him - is that the Force has too often been treated as a tool for only the powerful few to share, with those few neatly split into two sides**.

** Though the film certainly keeps things split along the same dark side / light side lines that have defined the franchise, it also leaves noticeable room to play in the grey area, exemplified most notably by DJ - the thief, picklock, mercenary, and all-around scoundrel played by Benicio del Toro - who stoically reports that the war profiteers selling weapons to the First Order are also arming the Rebels themselves. "They blow you up today, you can blow them up tomorrow. It's just business." On a similarly grey note, the film questions the very need - and/or prudence - of the kind of cowboy heroism long revered by our Rebel and Jedi heroes alike.

In re-emphasizing that it's an all-encompassing energy that binds everything together - rather than a toy you get to play with if you have enough Midichlorians - Johnson's film begins to democratize the Force in a way that touches various corners of his expansive story. Not incidentally, he takes the opportunity to open up the possibilities of it - to show it being used in ways we haven't seen on screen before, but which make an elegant, intuitive kind of sense. Two such moments in particular achieve a sort of visual majesty the Force has rarely been able to achieve since we first got used to the concept decades ago.

Jedi keeps its primary focus on the contrasting rises of Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who in one of the film's earliest moments smashes his helmet for good after Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) mocks him for wearing it ("Take that ridiculous thing off"). Johnson takes the time to explore the psyches of both characters - individually first, and then, in a development that's mysterious to even them, in recurring moments in which their consciousnesses merge. Two young, confused, terribly powerful figures feeling themselves and each other out. These sequences, in their quiet and their fury, collectively make for a lovely extended bit of introspection, self-discovery, therapy, even companionship. They may be on opposite sides - no matter how much both may want to persuade the other to cross over - but they're still, together, alone. Amid loss and failure and tyranny and vengeance, the movie finds its soul in the emotionally unresolved.

The two actors make a striking pairing. Ridley's burgeoning movie heroism is at loggerheads with the character's uncertainty, her tendency to keep her strength in reserve. The increasingly obvious power she possesses is held back only by the lingering doubt that she really has it - or, more tellingly, deserves it. And her opposite, Driver's Kylo Ren, his ambition an envious, primal scream - his power and his doubt exploding with equal, complementary force. By now it's been written often that modern movies are bereft of great villains, but in Kylo the Star Wars franchise has given us another possible all-timer - less the walking personification of cold, powerful darkness that Darth Vader was, but much more a fascinating, genuinely anguished megalomaniacal tangle.

In juxtaposing their stories and personalities the way he does in this movie, Johnson begins by keeping them visually separate - cutting from one location to another, using sound cues to connect them in a way that feels internal, unconscious. Gradually he brings them closer, then finally together for a brilliant (and, like many of his other sequences, red-dominant) axis-shifting setpiece set in a manic, Holy Mountain-inspired (with a Kubrickian polish) palatial chamber. It makes for a vivid backdrop for what builds to an elaborate fight scene designed with a level of visual wit and psychological tension that's been largely absent from this or any other cinematic universe in recent years.

That energy is all over the film's 152 minutes. There's another setpiece that takes place at a new location - Canto Bight, an absurdly wealthy coastal resort town - that has more creative energy than most entire movies. The segment basically amounts to a simple reconnaissance mission, but comes memorably alive by sheer force of the inventiveness by Johnson and his great production design team. (We also get an intro to Canto Bight's lavish casino centerpiece via a tracking shot lifted marvelously from William Wellman's silent classic Wings.) Back in space - among General Organa (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Co. - there's a breath-stealing moment of staggering, silent beauty. And later on, Johnson brings out his Kurosawa for a climactic duel that is as surprising and playful as the rest of the movie has, by that point, prepared us to expect. Even in a studio machine that has proved troublesome for some of its chosen directors thus far, Johnson's pinpoint craft and inventiveness within genre (thoroughly proven in Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper) are on full display. The Last Jedi delivers everything that a Star Wars movie can and should - but it's got more than a little rebel in it, too.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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