Thursday, 14 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Off to the cinema to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest instalment in the long-running Star Wars space saga. You wait thirty-two years for a Star Wars film and then three come along at once. To paraphrase Howard Hawks, The Last Jedi has three good scenes and lots of indifferent scenes. It's overlong and repetitive and, as is the fashion with modern Star Wars films, it feels like a combination of bits from other Star Wars films. Did I enjoy myself? I did, although I would have enjoyed myself slightly more if the film had been half an hour shorter.

Now that Disney has its hands on the franchise the films have become an annual event. Next year there will apparently be a film about space rogue Han Solo. The year after that, who knows? Something about the bounty hunters, probably. Or a variation of Fifty Shades of Grey starring sadistic torture droid EV-9D9, and hopefully Maggie Gyllenhaal. Or the swashbuckling adventures of Lobot, which will be both an action film and a poignant exploration of autism. I don't know. I don't work in Hollywood.

I saw the film at London's The Science Museum. The Last Jedi was shot on good old-fashioned 35mm film with 70mm IMAX inserts. The Science Museum is the only place in the UK and perhaps all of Europe screening an actual film print. I went into the film without preparation. I haven't see any of the trailers or read any of the reviews. The film was released in the UK on 14 December 2017. I saw it on 14 December 2017. I was of sound mind and body.

For Force and Rogue the Science Museum introduced the film with cheaply-animated graphics of Darth Vader and Chewbacca. This time they have persuaded one of the staff to do a little filmed introduction in which he is strangled by Darth Vader. Mid-way through the screening the fire alarm went off, and we all walked out into the street, and then we walked back into the theatre and the film resumed. The end.

I've written about Star Wars before. The first film, just called Star Wars, was released in 1977. It was an enormously popular space adventure notable for its striking special effects and its sincerity. Although director George Lucas was an arty film school hipster, he treated Star Wars as if it was a real film, like Lawrence of Arabia, even though it was set in space and had laser swords and spaceships and robots. Audiences worldwide were eager to be distracted from Gerald Ford and punk music and William Friedkin's Sorcerer so they lapped it up.

The long-awaited sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was released in 1980. Although Lucas took the risky decision to finance it from his own pocket he didn't compromise his artistic vision; Empire had a peculiar structure and a downbeat tone. Our heroes spent the whole film running from one catastrophe from another. The film ended on a bleak note, with one of the heroes maimed both physically and mentally and another imprisoned in a block of stone.

On both an artistic and technical level Empire remains the high point of the series and one of the best science fiction adventures of all time. Even today it looks and sounds awesome, all blue and orange, with cool stop-motion models and a rocking soundtrack by top orchestral mastermind John Williams. It has class; very few films have class.

The original film trilogy came to an end in 1983 with Return of the Jedi, which threw all the flaws of the Star Wars series into stark relief. The first film had been assembled from things that inspired George Lucas. There were bits of Dune, Buck Rogers, Dambusters, Japanese Samurai films, old westerns, Lensman and so forth. The sci-fi treatment felt fresh and new, but by the time of Return of the Jedi the series had begun to cannibalise itself. Jedi is by no means a bad film; at the very least it resolved the original trilogy in the most efficient way possible that didn't result in people asking for their money back.

The fundamentally derivative nature of the series hurts The Last Jedi. Instead of drawing inspiration from outside the series, the filmmakers have remixed a collection of elements from the original films and from the flood of media that followed them. Yet again there is an evil superweapon which, yet again, has a weak point. For what must be only the second or third time, but feels like the millionth, our heroes easily infiltrate a heavily guarded military base by wearing captured uniforms. Again, the good guys attack enemy vehicles that can only fire forwards by approaching them directly from the front, instead of for example the sides. There is a technical problem that can only be resolved by plugging in some fuses, or opening a circuit board, at which point a door opens. Our heroes run for safety towards a spaceship which is blown up just before they reach it. And so forth.

The film picks up the story from The Force Awakens, which was released two years ago. I remember being impressed that it didn't suck. The new young cast could have been irritating but were instead charismatic, even Daisy Ridley with her plummy BBC English accent, and BB-8, the cute new robot. The treatment of homosexual love between dreamy space ace Poe Dameron and reluctant Imperial Stormtrooper Finn was sweet; the characterisation of the chief villain was unusually complex for a Star Wars film, although the absence of a truly hissable baddie left the film's drama feeling surprisingly low-stakes.

On the other hand John Williams' score had one good new theme but was otherwise weak, and the plot felt like a rewrite of the original. Two years later I barely think of The Force Awakens, but then again there are very few things from 2015 that I think about, indeed I can barely remember 2015. It was the year in which no-one died. Sometimes I worry that all the sealed Force Awakens merchandise I bought might not pay for my retirement after all. The crate of Sphero BB-8 toys in particular cost a fortune. What if the batteries wear down? I'll have to pay someone in China to make new batteries.

The Force Awakens was overshadowed by last year's Rogue One, which was a prequel that filled in some of the storyline from just before Star Wars, using CGI to recreate some of that film's original cast, in the process returning Peter Cushing to the silver screen over twenty years after he died. Now that Christopher Lee is dead it would only require some deft legal manoeuvering to reboot Hammer's Dracula films with CGI versions of the original cast, perhaps including a CGI Ingrid Pitt, who is also dead. Madeline Smith and Gabrielle Drake are still alive. I hope there is a CGI model of them somewhere. I would pay money to borrow it.

Before you write in to complain, I am fully aware that Ingrid Pitt did not appear in any of Hammer's original Dracula films. I merely hope that some part of her is preserved so that she may continue to entertain audiences forevermore, even as whatever remains of her soul begs for the sweet release of oblivion. This may seem cruel and self-centered, and it is, but if this world was not created for my amusement, what was it created for? Or is the universe merely a byproduct of physical processes, created by no-one, for no purpose? Write your answers on a piece of paper and then throw it on the fire, because whatever answer you chose was wrong because there is no answer and we are all doomed.

The Force Awakens was overshadowed by last year's Rogue One, which despite production problems that resulted in a sometimes disjointed narrative - and another weak score, recorded in a rush when the original composer had to drop out - was possessed of some gripping and surprisingly brutal action sequences. The decision to make a darker film than its predecessor seemed self-conscious, and the two lead heroes were a bit dull, but overall the two films distracted me from the horror of life for a few hours, and for that I am grateful, but also resentful because they gave me hope in a world where hope is a lie.

But what about The Last Jedi? Is it any good? Is stoic hero Luke Skywalker a virgin? Sadly the film doesn't answer that. Did the audience applaud when space-princess-turned-military-commander Leia Organa appeared on the screen? No, they didn't. Leia is played by Carrie Fisher, who died almost a year ago to the day. The main credits end with a dedication to her; the audience applauded at that point. 2016 was the year in which everyone died, culminating in George Michael (25 December), Carrie Fisher (27 December) and Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds (28 December).

At the time it felt as if 2016 was Muhammed Ali and we were Sonny Liston; the year knocked us down in round one and then dared us to get up so it could knock us down again. Ali himself died in 2016. Sonny Liston was lucky. He died in 1970. If he had lived until 2016 he would have died as well, so it's perhaps lucky that he died earlier. The people who made The Last Jedi have access to a CGI model of Carrie Fisher - it was deployed briefly in Rogue One - but they have promised not to use it. Nonetheless it sits on a hard drive somewhere. Waiting.

Back to the film. Without wishing to spoil it, The Last Jedi borrows an awful lot from Empire. It begins and ends with an evacuation against seemingly impossible odds. The middle section has a training montage in which Daisy Ridley's Rey apparently teaches herself how to be a Jedi Master, while Luke Skywalker moans a lot; Yoda makes a cameo appearance, here rendered with CGI that's supposed to look like a foam puppet.

However it's not all Empire. The middle section also has a bit of James Bond with John Boyega's Finn and Kelly Marie Tran's Rose, a spunky space mechanic, who infiltrate an alien casino. This is, incidentally, when the fire alarm went off, so I missed a teeny-tiny bit of the action. The film has a bit of politics at this point. Our heroes turn into Jeremy Corbyn and decide to liberate the serfs and their livestock, although it's plainly obvious that just after our heroes escape the livestock is either rounded up or killed and the serfs are put back to work. A short scene at the very end of the film suggests that the serfs were however inspired by Finn and Rose, so perhaps at some point they will rise up and slaughter their capitalist masters. Also, does that little kid use The Force to move a broom, or what?

I have to wonder. Do Islamic terrorists see themselves as freedom fighters? Do they see us as the evil empire, and our society as a den of rich parasites? Are they are in fact morally right, if legally wrong? As before, if you have any answers, keep them to yourself or write them on a piece of paper and burn it.

This section of the film has one of the three good scenes that I mentioned. A short but exciting chase on the back of an alien horse. What are the other two? There's a very short fight involving Luke Skywalker, in which it becomes apparent that all is not what it seems - the audience applauded this part, and I was impressed with its chutzpah. The highlight however is an extended light sabre battle involving a pair of unlikely allies. There's something audacious about it because it materialises out of thin air. It was the film's only punch-the-air moment.

Sadly however the second half of the film bogs down. The Rebel fleet becomes involved in a long chase with an Imperial squadron that seems to go on forever. Poe Dameron leads a rebellion against the Rebellion that goes around in a circle and leads nowhere. Along the way Laura Dern single-handedly destroys an Imperial Star Destroyer fleet with a tactic that made me wonder why it hadn't been tried before.* I found myself wondering why they gave her purple hair, and what happened to Laura Dern anyway? She was in Wild at Heart and Jurassic Park, and then seemed to fall down the same hole as Juliette Lewis and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

* EDIT: Now that everyone has seen the film several times, I'll elaborate. In a last-ditch effort to shake off the Imperial fleet, Laura Dern hyperspaces her frigate directly into the Imperial flagship. There is a soundless explosion of light. It's super-effective. Why didn't the Rebels try this against the Death Star? Why did the Empire bother with a Death Star, when the same destruction can be wrought by an asteroid fitted with a hyperspace drive? A more elegant dramatic solution hit me a few weeks later. Laura Dern is aware that her ship is being tracked by the Empire through hyperspace; in which case, why not hyperspace away, and then emerge directly into a black hole, or an enormous supergiant star? The Imperial fleet would follow her - and realise too late that they were being led to their doom.

By the final battle, which again borrows a lot from Empire, I found myself becoming bored. There are only so many times you can watch a bunch of attack craft speeding towards another bunch of vehicles before your brain starts to melt. My hunch is that the director had more of a handle on the physical action than the space battles. The fight scenes are exciting, the space battles dull, except for one short sequence in which the Millennium Falcon takes on some TIE Fighters and leads them through a crystalline tunnel. This was the film's fourth good scene. It was obviously a homage to a similar sequence in Return of the Jedi, but it worked.

Overall The Last Jedi passes the time but suffers badly from padding, especially in the second half. If every scene involving Laura Dern was cut it would have been slightly better. Not because Laura Dern is bad but because her "arc" is compartmentalised and pointless. The end.

What else? The toys this time are called Porgs. They're little bird things. At one point the chief villain uses the word spunk, in the old-fashioned way; the audience laughed. The film has a short cameo from Benicio del Toro, who plays a wasted variation of Han Solo. He's terrific but sadly only it in for a few minutes. Once again Gwendoline Christie is completely wasted behind a metal mask, although as before it's ambiguous whether she dies or not. A sequence in which a beloved main character survives certain death by floating through space is either heartwarming or ridiculous depending on how drunk you are. Andy Serkis is terrific as a motion captured CGI character, this time the evil Supreme Leader Snoke. I was surprised to learn that he voiced the character as well. His performance - with lots of close-ups of leering and bad teeth - is probably the best acting in the film. Lupita Nyong'o has a one-scene cameo that was presumably filmed in a shed somewhere. I missed her; her character in Force was entertaining.

Neither Mark Hammill nor Daisy Ridley can act, in a conventional way, but they both have charisma and Daisy Ridley has gusto, so I don't mind. Do you remember Anjelica Huston? She was a better actor than Daisy Ridley, but she didn't have charisma, so no-one remembers her nowadays. The cast of Star Wars were, for the most part, very limited actors, but they had charisma, and that goes a long way. Half of them were acting behind masks and they had more charisma than Anjelica Huston.

The Star Wars films take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, which means that the writers have to be careful with language. The characters can't talk about miles or kilograms or hours or New York, because those things don't exist in the Star Wars universe. In this film a character uses the word "god", and another character uses the word "bastard", which surprised me; the Star Wars universe is usually very po-faced. A gag in which one character pretends to have a bad mobile phone conversation with another character feels un-Star Warsy, and Yoda's cameo involves what may or may not be a metatextual dig at the masses of Star Wars books and merchandise that has appeared since 1977, or might not. I don't know. I just don't know, the end. Until next year.