Thursday 28 December 2017

The force: "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

Some mornings I think the problem is that we have too much escapism. Harder to push back against our present-day dystopias, to mobilise and organise, when there's a shiny new fantasy tempting us into the multiplex every second weekend; to those still clinging to the power of social realism or documentary to open eyes and win hearts and minds, I would say look at the listings for your local independent or arthouse cinema over the festive period, and ask yourself what the free market has ever done for you. Instead of revolutionary texts, great art, films to change the world for the better, we've ended up sitting credulous and uncritical before a run of movies that have continually paid lip service to our current struggles (alighting upon superheroes of both sexes, seeking out warriors of colour) while facilitating no lasting or meaningful real-world difference save to transfer a further ten-to-fifteen pounds or dollars from our pockets into the coffers of one corporate empire or another. Some of these diversions have passed the time entertainingly enough; many more have seemed like unfocused sound and fury, designed to keep us in a wide-eyed, infantilised state, so that we fall for their every trick - and keep returning to the same teat.

Of the 136 minutes of 2015's The Force Awakens, second (or third) coming of the Star Wars series, only three story beats - amounting to ten minutes of screen time tops - have persisted in the memory. Firstly, there was the touching reunion of old warriors Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher); then, the unexpected death of one such oldtimer at the hands of Adam from Girls; then, the climactic meeting between young Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a late-arriving master of the Jedi form. The remainder of its two hours were filled with a variant of that playground runaround best left behind at the school gates, and while some of those doing the running (Ridley, John Boyega's Finn) displayed a vigour and newness that allowed them to distinguish themselves from all this frenetic make-believe, several more (most prominently, the usually sly and skilful Oscar Isaac) simply got lost behind the bike sheds. The Last Jedi runs to 150 minutes, which would be cause for renewed concern were it not quickly clear that incoming writer-director Rian Johnson is less of a slavish fanboy than his predecessor JJ Abrams - hence the deviations from canon, and the time wasted by furious virgins in the Internet's muskier corners - and, in fact, a far better storyteller. For two thirds of the new film's duration, scenes click together to form material that seems to be heading somewhere halfway interesting - a bonfire of this franchise's vanities.

Episode VIII, such as it is, is a complicated shot at simplification, setting out by telling two stories, one macro (the usual business of duelling spaceships in the sky), the other (Rey's personal journey to learn and use the Force) appreciably micro. The complications follow from the way Johnson himself uses the Force, to set up what appear to be interplanetary crossed lines: so Mark Hamill's Luke, grounded in exile on some rocky outcrop, can temporarily be reunited with Fisher's Leia, commanding one of those ships in space; and Rey can cut in on Adam Driver's Kylo Ren as he's pottering round the house with no top on. These connections, both unexpected and unexpectedly charged, register more forcefully than the explosions; throughout, Johnson has more skin in the scenes between the setpieces than Abrams ever did. One consequence is that the actors suddenly appear to have been directed, rather than moved into position like action figures. Isaac's Poe Dameron reemerges from the back of the toybox as a forceful, impulsive personality, straining at the leash; Hamill finds hidden depths within the cardboard cutout role of Luke Skywalker, a feat that becomes doubly impressive upon learning the actor is basically playing an idea; and Driver begins to do something oddly fascinating within the framework of series bogeyman, allowing vivid flickers of doubt and ambiguity to ripple across the widescreen frame. (Johnson here reveals himself as a far savvier imagemaker than George Lucas: when your bad guy has a face as compelling as Driver's, you don't stick it under a helmet.)

It's still recognisably a Star Wars movie, a statement I intend to wield as a double-edged sword (or lightsaber). For something with Saturday-morning serials in its DNA, The Last Jedi is way too long, with transitional patches you forget about even as you're sitting through them. (Hence the number of times you find yourself wondering "why's he going there?" or "where's she gone?") The dialogue remains Kryptonite to anything that might be taken entirely seriously by grown men and women: its pre-eminent casualty is the generally capable Domhnall Gleeson, stuck once again in the role of interstellar Gordon Brittas, an awkwardly uptight functionary most often found wrinkling his nose in impotent disgust whenever the Resistance sneak beneath the Empire's defences. And for all its new manifestations, the Force continues to resemble American cinema's waftiest get-out-of-jail-free card, as great an enemy to real jeopardy as the X-Men or Avengers' collected, base-covering superpowers. (Another reason for keeping us infantilised: to lull us into believing there's something - anything - at stake in these films beyond the successful delivery of stock bonuses.) Still, accept the limitations of Star Wars as an eternally two-sided coin - bland goodness on one side, 12A-rated evil on the other - and there are scenes in The Last Jedi that do stand up as drama, where you can't quite tell which way that coin is going to fall, or become aware of the element of chance or why-notness in Johnson's plotting.

Gambling is established as an organising principle the moment Finn diverts to an alien Monte Carlo to recruit a famed safecracker (Justin Theroux, left hanging in this instalment as a face at a casino table, Lily Cole on his arm: nice work, if you can get it). Big narrative punts here include Rey's decision to strike out alone in the hope of turning Kylo Ren away from the dark side; supporting imagery includes a jettisoned lightsaber that revolves on the floor mid-duel, like a roulette wheel, and a set of bronzed dice one character gifts to another. Johnson's most self-referential gambit, however, is Luke's second-act decision to torch a repository of old Jedi texts, the insinuation being that their essence can be crystallised and passed on to a new generation. I don't believe that knowledge is anything like as complex as fanboys insist, but in as much as anything associated with a Star Wars movie opening on a gazillion screens worldwide might be considered a risk, this mid-cycle attempt to rewrite and streamline the canon is it: it explains why those mewling shut-ins, who just want to experience the same reassuring emotions their seven-year-old selves had, have spent the holidays getting their Chewbacca underpants in such a knot. Despite this high-profile online griping, another example of social media amplifying entirely the wrong voices, The Last Jedi is - at time of writing - well on its way to surpassing one billion dollars at the international box-office, a landmark that suggests that, for all its travails over the past twelve months, the Hollywood idea of capitalism seems to be doing fine as we check in with it at year's end. The question we should ask ourselves - and make time to ask ourselves - is this: how are those of us in the cheap seats doing?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

No comments:

Post a Comment