Saturday, 23 December 2017


(aka ‘Should We Screw With Star Wars Lore, That Is the Question’. Another Not A Proper Review At All, which includes PLOT SPOILERS, not just for this film but dragging in some from ‘Rogue One’.)

First the confession – I was never that big a Star Wars fan. True, when the original, recently rechristened ‘A New Hope’, came out I lapped it up. But I was ten at the time. Such a long time ago it might as well have happened in a galaxy far away. I later came to put away ten-year-old things. Truth be told, every time I see it top a film poll I cringe.

So, before seeing ‘Force Awakens’ I was convinced it would be terrible. Bizarrely, the film that pioneered today’s deluge of marketing campaigns and multi-media tie-ins did have an innocence at it’s heart, which would not be easy to recapture. Star Wars might have been simple, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. It soon had a welter of copycats, and I’m guessing only the most obsessive fan could now name even a couple of them. Years down the road? Of course it’s going to end up a mere re-enactment, something which looked like Star Wars but felt nothing like it.

Star Wars isn’t just an adventure story, it’s like it’s made up of adventure story concentrate. If I call the series the Coca-Cola of cinema I’m not actually being snarky. Well, not entirely snarky anyway. Like Coca-Cola it’s about being bright and iconic, about being instantly classic, about the experience rather than the taste. And like Coca-Cola the actual taste doesn’t vary much from serving to serving. The very problem with ‘Phantom Menace’ was that it attempted to rebrand Coca-Cola as a drink for sophisticates. Which it wasn’t, and bringing up the notion just spoilt what taste it had.

So the chief criticism of ‘Force Awakens’, that it was just more Star Wars, is actually not it’s weakness but its success. Yes it does deliver the beats of the first trilogy with slight variants, but that’s the thing that makes it Star Wars. After the prequels it was was like bringing back the old Coke. And the result is probably my personal favourite Star Wars film.

Then, before seeing ‘Rogue One’, I was convinced it would be terrible. It ticked all those boxes which were better left unticked. It’s ostensible purpose seemed to be to solve a continuity glitch. How did the rebels get the plans to the Death Star? A question which no-one has ever asked, so it seemed unclear why we needed a whole movie devoted to answering it.

Plus it was clearly applying the Snyder formulation – more grimdark = more mature = better. Well, Snyder formulation, everything you just said was wrong. We have the news for grimdark. Try to make a more mature ten year old and you just lose the ten year old. How to tell if it’s a Star Wars film... Ask yourself the question “can you feel the Force?” In ‘Rogue One’ only one, quite minor, character uses the stuff despite it supposedly being in and around everything.

And truly, it was strange watching a film tesselate so neatly against ‘New Hope’, as if continuity links had been elaborately yet pointlessly made between ‘The Never Ending Story’ and ‘Game of Thrones’.

But what it really was, was a war movie in Star Wars clothing. In the way you could re-use the sets from a sitcom for a brooding Ibsenesque psychological drama. Characters see themselves as parts of a larger struggle, and are not only willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good but actually die as a result. Rather than leaping from the jaws of defeat at the last moment, because the physical laws of their universe reward good deeds. (Jedi don’t count, as they “go to the Force” or some such, and show back up for cameos.) And as a war movie in space it was highly successful.

Whereas Star Wars draws quite a deep line between starring and supporting characters. Ultimately it’s about family not society, even if its stories are galaxy sized. Its leading characters are treated like royalty, even the once who aren’t actually given titles. Like a cosmic version of the pathetic fallacy, the outer world just exists to externalise their thoughts and conflicts.

Hence when Luke opens a Jedi “school”, for all we see Ren is his only pupil. (Though maybe that was just for the funding applications.) Hence when Poe says to Finn “you must have a thousand questions” he simply replies “where’s Rey?” Hence why, when Rey tells Luke she’s bringing him a message from the Rebellion, he responds “why are you here?” Personal motivation is all that counts. Rebellions are just pegs to hang it on.

When Finn tries a dose of ‘Rogue One’ style noble self-sacrifice, he’s derailed by Rose and told in no uncertain terms “I saved you, dummy. That’s how we’re going to win — not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” It’s true she doesn’t specifically use the Force, but it’s so consistent with a Force-centred universe. Finn has simply forgotten the place he’s in, and has to be reminded.

So far, so Star Wars. Yet, bizarrely, it comes shortly after Admiral Holdo has sacrificed herself for the greater good! While it’s a direct sequel to ‘Force Awakens’, ‘Last Jedi’, also comes after ‘Rogue One’. And, like a student of two masters, it struggles to find the balance. Tonally it shifts, caught between a levitating rock and a hard place.

Take the introduction of the arms dealers, one per centers who’ve grown rich by supplying both sides. Before this, weapons were either highly significant heirlooms or stuff which just happens to be lying around at opportune moments. Money is just there so we can have a visual symbol of greed; it’s use is accumulating into riches, no-one needs it for living expenses. Now, suddenly, it’s revealed guns and spaceships have to be manufactured and sold.

Sometimes the film seems to be setting up this tonal clash to exploit it. The key line in ‘Force Awakens’, trailered in the trailer, was Han’s “it’s true, all of it”. The key line this time, trailered in the trailer, is Luke’s “this is not going to go the way you think.”

Poe first thinks Admiral Holdo is a gutless coward who’d rather run than fight, whereas in fact she’s brave when brave is called for but also smart when that’s required. Hence his adventurous but uncomprehending plot to go to the place to get the thing with the symbol on it then bring it all the way over there to throw it into the fiery pit at the heart of evil Mordor or whatever it was this time… anyway, that plan… that’s why it goes awry. They get the wrong thing with the wrong symbol, don’t carry it out and make the whole thing worse. A bit like a crazy, half-cocked plan like that would actually work.

Similarly, Rey’s brave plan to bank everything on the good in Ren goes awry. Rey’s parents are just who she thought they were all along. Ren’s claim here might seem suspect, it’s a convenient argument for him to make at the time. But the underground scene, where instead of answers she sees only reflections of herself, suggests he’s telling the truth. 

Contrary to Star Wars, contrary to every fairy story ever, the poor orphan girl isn’t a secret Princess at all. As everything up to now has been to suggest being a Jedi was a hereditary position, this above all things seems deliberately intended to screw with Star Wars lore. (At times it feels like the parallel storylines are channelling ’Force Awakens’ and ’Rogue One’ respectively, allowing us to have both. Yet this structure is set up only to be scuppered.)

But at others the film seems to be being made up from moment to moment. Overall, it feels like, with rival hands from two rival predecessors tugging at the wheel, the car’s going to be careering hopelessly, so they might as well capitalise on that and tell us to hang on for the ride. Necessity becomes innovation, bug becomes feature. As Rey says, you can sense the conflict in it.

I suppose I could finish this non-review by saying I expected ‘Last Jedi’ to be a worthy successor to ‘Force Awakens’ but actually found it terrible. Just, you know, to be neat. But that’s not really the case. I didn’t bother writing about ’Force Awakens’ and did about this film, which says something in itself.

And in fact those arguing the drawback of ‘Force Awakens’ was that it was too neat, too safe, and that this sequel is more compelling…. well, they have a point. Some elements work well, such as the ‘connection’ between Ren and Rey, both assuming they can bring the other over to their side. But ultimately if ’Force Awakens’ worked better ’Last Jedi’ is more interesting. Star Wars may be less classic but livelier for ’Rogue One’ chucking a live grenade in its midst.


  1. Truth be told, every time I see it top a film poll I cringe.

    I'm not sure that's really necessary -- at least, no more so than it is when any film tops a poll. (Can any film be "the best ever"?) Revisiting the original Star Wars with fresh eyes, it has a delightful and compelling narrative inevitability and many, many absolutely striking, resonant visuals. You can argue about the worth of the Star Wars canon as a whole, but I think the original film stands up astonishingly well.

    I'm not quite sure what you can mean about The Phantom Menace being Star Wars rebranded "for sophisticates". It is surely by some distance the least sophisticated, in tone and substance, of the nine canonical films.

    Now, suddenly, it’s revealed guns and spaceships have to be manufactured and sold.

    That didn't quite sit right with me. If both sides are buying their gear from the same source, why don't the First Order have X-Wings, and why don't the Resistance have TIEs? I'd always implicitly assumed that the clear distinction between the two sides' ships was because each side was manufacturing its own, just as the Allies and the Axis did in WWII.

    Contrary to Star Wars, contrary to every fairy story ever, the poor orphan girl isn’t a secret Princess at all.

    That was perhaps my single favourite thing about the film (which is saying a lot, as I loved it.)

    Necessity becomes innovation, bug becomes feature.

    In other words: they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally, they became heroes.

    Overall, I'm in agreement that The Last Jedi's willingness to go off at 90 degrees to what we now think of as standard Star Wars ideas is its great strength. It feels like the closest that universe has ever come to producing, or at least attempting, art. It may be my second favourite Star Wars film.

    1. ”I'm not sure that's really necessary -- at least, no more so than it is when any film tops a poll.”

      I have a very, very unadvanced plan to wirte about all my top 50 albums on this blog. I’ve achieved three so far in a decade, and I keep changing my mind about what the other forty-seven might be. In the unlikely event I ever accomplish such a thing, I have toyed with an even vaguer plan to start the same thing for my top 50 films. (The current record there is one.) But I do know it won’t include any of the Star Wars films. It’s true that (bar the prequels) they do what they do very well. But they just do fairy stories! They’re highly iconic, it’s true, but that’s just another way of saying they’re poster ready. I don’t bregrudge people watching them or liking them. Just people claiming they’re something they’re not.

      ”I'm not quite sure what you can mean about The Phantom Menace being Star Wars rebranded "for sophisticates". It is surely by some distance the least sophisticated, in tone and substance, of the nine canonical films.”

      Yes, which makes that rebranding a pretty dumb move. ’Phantom Menace’ promised to delve deeper into the politics of the Republic and the inner workings of the Jedi order and all that. But when it claimed to do more than what ’Star Wars’ did it couldn’t even do what ’Star Wars’ did. It was like the worst sort of fanfic, a neither/nor shambles.

      I think the half-full, half-empty thing about ’Last Jedi’ is that it knows it doesn’t want to be a standard ’Star Wars’ film, just serving up audience expectations. But beyond that it seems to have little idea what it does want to do. Andrew Rilstone’s not wrong to call it “a mess”. I mean, I’d call it a “hot mess”, which is a bit more involving, but still a mess.

      Classic example, which few people seem to have commented on. Luke turns out to have astrally projected to fight Ren. He can be light sabred without ill effects. But then he dies anyway. Huh? If the strain of that astrally projecting was going to cause him to expire, what was the point in doing it? Why not just show up himself?

  2. Well, then, we are approaching the point of arguing about taste in films, which is not likely to be fruitful. I have a less ambitious blogging plan than yours: my top ten films. The original Star Wars will be one of the ten, because it's perfect. But that's not something I'll be able to persuade you of.

    1. I’m not sure I think ‘taste’ is the word, though I’ll admit I’m struggling to fix on the word I want. There’s only so many hours in the day, and a film like ’Wings of Desire’ I find so much more involving than ’Star Wars’.

      But it’s hard to talk about without sounding like one of those guys on movie message boards. You know, the ones who say “if you didn’t like my personal favourite film you should stick to Michael Bey flicks, you popcorn-munching ignoramus!” It’s more complicated than saying ’Wings of Desire’ is better. Brian Eno said we shouldn’t see symphonies and pop songs as in a hierarchy but in an ecosystem. And I think the same is true of films.

      ”I have a less ambitious blogging plan than yours: my top ten films. “

      In which case you should get there in a fifth of the time. I bet it’s quicker than that, though.