Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Walt Disney Pictures, Lucasfilm, Ram Bergman Productions, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the movie at the San Diego Public Library and saw Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. I have a curious relationship to the Star Wars saga because while I saw the first movie in theatres as soon as it came out in 1977 and liked it enough I went back to see it twice more, I missed all the rest in George Lucas’s Grand Saga and never saw a Star Wars movie again until a few months ago, when I bought the DVD of Rogue One — an interstital Star Wars movie not part of the main sequence which I thought might make a convenient way back for Charles and I to re-enter the saga without having to pick up the plot threads of who’d done what to whom in episodes 2 through 7. I was more than a bit disappointed in Rogue One, despite some interesting plot threads and the presence of a good, if rather inconsistent, director, Gareth Edwards (whose other films — at least the ones I’d seen — include Monsters and the latest reboot of Godzilla), because it lacked the quirky humor of the original Star Wars and, as I realized about a third of the way through, it was just The Guns of Navarone transposed into science-fiction: the bad guys have a super-weapon and the good guys have to send in a commando team to blow it up. At least partly because I was judging it as a stand-alone movie without reference to Star Wars episodes two through seven, I quite liked The Last Jedi even though it had its limits: it was pretty much just a high-tech space opera, and its occasional bouts of philosophizing (when I saw the first Star Wars I thought the Force was a metaphor for religion in general and Christianity in particular, but this time around it seemed more like Zen) only slowed things down. It’s also a grandly depressing movie — the good guys seem to lose just about every battle they get involved in, and in a way it’s weirdly appropriate that The Last Jedi came out the same year that two movies about the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk in 1940 were released, because that operation, too, was a military disaster but one that turned into a political success because it mobilized the Brits who were left behind to resist and ultimately win.  

The Last Jedi was both written and directed by Rian Johnson, and a lot of the criticism of the film came from nit-picky Star Wars fans who resented the directions in which he took some of the fabled characters from earlier incarnations of the series — but I quite liked Johnson’s debut feature, Brick (a contemporary-set tale of high-school kids and drugs that avoided both the noble-outlaws and just-say-no sets of clichés available to people who write and/or direct drug movies), and while his later science-fiction film Looper didn’t seem as strong, it’s still a lot better than most of the big blockbusters that come out these days. Curiously, Johnson was fired from the last film in the main Star Wars sequence, which is due to be released in December 2019 (though another prequel, Solo, just came out to disappointing box-office returns, and one of the reasons cited in today’s Los Angeles Times article about the fiasco suggested it was because the Walt Disney Corporation, which bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion largely to get their hands on the Star Wars universe and characters, went to the well too soon and released another Star Wars movie just five months after The Last Jedi), and J. J. Abrams, who’s now in charge of both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, is apparently going to take back the directorial reins himself. The Last Jedi basically consists of three overlapping plot lines: Rey (Daisy Ridley) is determined to learn to become a Jedi fighter and seeks out the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, appropriately cast as a grizzled old man after his spectacular debut as the beamish-boy Luke in 1977), but Luke has exiled himself to a faraway planet where he wants to burn the accumulated Jedi textbooks containing their knowledge and die because he thinks the Jedi and their bad-guy equivalents, the Sith, both need to die for the universe to be reborn under decent auspices. Meanwhile, the First Order, the ruling junta of the Star Wars universe in this incarnation, and its leader, Snoke (played by all-purpose motion-capture guy Andy Serkis, who’s enacted so many of his roles with computer-generated faces and bodies grafted on top of his own it’s a surprise to see his imdb.com head shot and realize what he really looks like), are determined to wipe out the Rebellion once and for all. 

The Rebellion is led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, also playing her character from the first film as she had naturally aged; though it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the mavens at Disney and Lucasfilm have enough “wild” footage of her they can recast her in the next film even though she’s dead, if this is indeed Carrie Fisher’s last film she went out on a high level: her part is a lot longer than the reviews indicated, she’s crucial to both the opening and the closing of the film, and she turned in an excellent performance), though she gets injured and turns over the reins to her second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Both the women in control have a problem on their hands: a hot-shot male underling, Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who’s constantly launching reckless attacks against the First Order’s giant dreadnoughts and star-destroyers that just get more and more of the rebels killed. Poe gets demoted from commander to captain, but nonetheless he still plots an attack against Snoke’s flagship. Unfortunately, the First Order’s scientists and technicians have figured out a way to track the rebel spaceships even when they do time-warp jumps and go into faster-than-light travel, so the good guys need a way to disable the bad guys’ tracking system — which means infiltrating a super-hacker with great skills to jam the First Order’s security system so they can get onto the First Order flagship and disable its tracking device so the rebel ships can make their escape to the original home planet of the rebellion before they run out of fuel. (Just how the spaceships of the Star Wars universe are propelled is never made clear — at least Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry came up with something faintly scientifically plausible — and one of the odd things to someone coming to the Star Wars universe after years of familiarity with the Star Trek universe is that no one in the Star Wars universe ever invented a teleporter — I had to keep reminding myself of that because my Star Trek-trained mind was wondering why the good guys couldn’t get out of the bad guys’ traps just by having themselves beamed up to safety.) 

Finn (John Boyega), a Black crew member on a Resistance vessel, meets up with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a surprisingly homely Asian person on the same ship, and the two team up to go to a casino planet called Canto Bight to recruit their hacker; the guy they end up with is called DJ (no periods) and is played by Benicio del Toro; he gets them on to Snoke’s ship and they disable it long enough for the Rebels to make their escape, but then he sells Finn and Rose out to the First Order. While all that is going on Rey (ya remember Rey?) has mastered the art of levitating objects that you acquire with sufficient mastery of the Force, and she’s recruited by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a.k.a. Ben Solo, son of Han Solo and Princess Leia from the original cycle, who like his great-uncle Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader, went over to the Dark Side big-time and is now Snoke’s second-in-command — only midway through the movie he assassinates Snoke with a lightsaber and declares himself the new leader of the First Order, sort of like Kim Jong Un and his relatives. Finn and Rose ultimately escape by stealing a First Order spacecraft, and they high-tail it back to the rebel planet base — only the First Order hunt them down and arrive on the planet with a giant star-destroyer cannon ready to blast the rebel base to pieces — only, against the advice of his field commander, General Hux (whom Poe derisively refers to as “General Hugs” and who’s played by Domhnall Gleason, who proves that they didn’t make the mold that produced Peter Cushing, who played a similarly cold, matter-of-fact, bureaucratic villain in the first Star Wars), Kylo Ren gets sidetracked into a duel to the death with lightsabers either with Luke Skywalker himself or an astral projection of him, and though Skywalker dies and virtually the entire Rebellion is annihilated in the battle, enough members of it are still alive (including Leia — one imdb.com contributor noted that of the three principals in the first Star Wars, Leia is the only one left alive since they knocked off Han Solo at the end of film seven, The Force Awakens, while Carrie Fisher is the only one of the stars of the first Star Wars who’s passed on: Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford are both still among the living) that they decide to revive the Jedi cult and keep on fighting. 

It’s true that some of the gimmicks are a bit wince-inducing — that new comic-relief “droid” character BB-8, who looks like a bowling ball with a pool ball sitting on top of it, is really annoying and I felt a sigh of relief when our old and genuinely charming friend R2-D2 made an all too brief reappearance — and some of Johnson’s cuts from storyline to storyline are so fast they almost induce whiplash, but overall I quite enjoyed The Last Jedi. I’m also fascinated by the fact that the Right-wingers who saw anti-Trump propaganda in Rogue One — and even started a (false) rumor that the film had been withdrawn from release and re-edited after Trump’s victory so the makers could insert more anti-Trump bits — didn’t come down on this one, since the First Order’s Snoke is pretty clearly an avatar for Trump and Kylo Ren comes off as a sort of interstellar Mike Pence, waiting for the idiot he’s serving to self-destruct so he can assume the dictatorship. (Adam Driver turns in a marvelous performer as Ren, a character who reminded me enough of Shakespeare’s Richard III I’d like to see him play that role; I’m sure he’d be a lot better at it than the overrated Benedict Cumberbatch.) The Last Jedi also deserves praise for a cast full of women as authority figures and enough people of color we don’t get the impression, as we did in the first Star Wars and virtually all science-fiction films that preceded it, that the future is going to be all-white!