Friday, 22 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Firmly estranged from creator George Lucas, the third Star Wars cycle has struggled to beat its own, distinct path. The two films that precede Star Wars: The Last Jedi have cannibalised Lucas' entries, remixing and rehabilitating ideas to generate new material. Disney's contribution to the series seems to be focused on safety; incremental product that recycles past successes so as not to upset their lucrative apple cart. Star Wars: The Force Awakens plotted out a familiar heroic journey with characters that struggled with dead-end jobs and post-traumatic stress disorder, all the better to appeal to millennial spenders.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story proposed a desperate war story told with a visual language indebted to the interlaced buzz of an NTSC LaserDisc, then reverted to type with your standard three-front battle. Given Rogue One's well-documented reshoots, not to mention Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's ejection from the Han Solo film for termination catch-all 'creative differences', there's an expectation that Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi would have to play it safe, spinning the galactic wheels just enough for Colin Trevorrow or JJ Abrams to swoop in with a satisfying (rhyming) conclusion. If Disney demand a specific tone and structural stranglehold for their side-stories, then surely actual saga installments don't stand a chance?

Watching The Last Jedi it's immediately obvious that this is not the case. Johnson's film is playful, irreverent even. The opening crawl has barely faded before we're straight into something resembling a skit - hot shot pilots prank calling the fascists while Vyvyan from The Young Ones paces the deck of the feature Star Destroyer. As the film unfolds it becomes clear that Johnson's approach to Star Wars isn't a bit cautious, it's impulsive and sweeping. The Force Awakens isn't treated as a holy text to be slowly decoded. Johnson instead positions the predecessor as a jumping off point, a platform that allows the writer-director a natural point of conflict when steering the characters into situations he finds exciting. Rian Johnson is having fun.

Unlike your standard middle chapter, The Last Jedi hasn't been written to signpost a route to an eventual outcome. The film races straight into conflict, arriving at moments that push resolution then demand a wider re-evaluation. Rather than write to please the kind of episodic drip-feed you might expect, Johnson has constructed his film around Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. The film moves on their decisions, using their mounting sense of uncertainty to posit routes and solutions that lie outside the strict binaries their masters are selling. Even an important, legacy character like Luke Skywalker is examined and deconstructed in ways that predominantly cater to the needs of Rey and Ren's arcs.

Since this isn't his trilogy, Luke Skywalker is played at arm's length, his failure rationed out in short, contradictory recollections that hit like confrontations. Johnson and Mark Hamill propose a Skywalker struggling to reconcile his status as an intergalactic messiah with the knowledge that he wasn't strong enough to protect his pupil. This Luke hasn't been defeated by the resurgence of a galactic dictatorship or the dark lords that steer it, he has chosen to remove himself because, just for a moment, he couldn't shoulder the burden of another family member hurtling deeper into hate. Luke is presented in strictly human terms in The Last Jedi. Specifically, he's an anointed one deaf to the hubris his achievements should arouse.

Johnson and Hamill's skill is that The Last Jedi's Luke doesn't feel dissonant when compared to one we saw in Return of the Jedi. Given the circumstances, it's the only Luke Skywalker that could exist. The details of Skywalker's interim years may be disappointing in terms of a promise unfulfilled but they are instantly understandable. Luke's inability to dredge up the compassion that saved his monstrous father when faced with a corrupted innocent would undermine his sense of self. Johnson puts the dour Jedi we met in the prequel trilogy to good use too, using Luke's knowledge of their dogmatic thinking to exacerbate his sense of personal failing. What use is the most powerful being in the universe if he can't even take a child in hand?

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