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Star Wars – The Last Jedi **


Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi: Rian Johnston **

George Lucas is the Michael Palin of movie producers. No matter how many times we poke and prod the Star Wars franchise and beat it mercilessly on a hard critical surface producing not a glimmer of life; nothing will persuade him, like Palin’s Pet Shop owner, that this is a dead ‘parrot’: done for, defunct, checked out: it has crossed the Jordan, bitten the dust, cashed in its chips. It is brown bread.

But again and again, just like the notoriously insouciant Palin pet seller, our George just keeps nailing the next episode to its hyper-hyped perch and flogging it repeatedly to a strangely oblivious public and even more mysteriously supportive body of critics.

The first thing that strikes one on viewing the Last Jedi is how old-fashioned it is: forty years on from the first film, nothing has changed: in a period when military and communications technology has advanced at a frightening rate George’s protagonists pound away with hopelessly vulnerable, cumbersome chunks of leggy metal equipped with archaic weaponry without a Cruise missile in sight; let alone laser-guided artillery. The usual long drawn out battles between massed armies, resembles more the way of war of 1914-18 than some supposed future time. So help me at one point the rebel forces appear to be defending their ‘line’ from trenches! Now I’m no aficionado of offensive hardware or military tactics but just watching our dreadful real proxy conflicts on TV; George’s protagonists would be blown away in seconds. A gun is still just a gun, even if you encase it in 3 feet of totally redundant plastic. The biggest weapons on show here are cannons and blow me down if they wouldn’t look visually at home poking through the side of Nelson’s flagship Victory.

The sense of déjà vu during the interminable pyrotechnics is overwhelming and tedious. It is hard not to believe that they spent so much money on these set piece battle scenes that they just recycle old footage to extend them; the only virtue of which is that they at least offer a brief respite from Lucas’s notoriously leaden dialogue. At least Director Rian Johnston shares the blame on this occasion for the usual farcical mix of quasi-religious mumbo jumbo and fatuous New Age mystification.

Even the plot is essentially recycled: plucky rebels opposing the tyranny of the First Order’s ambitions of Galactic hegemony. The possible permutations of who is ‘unexpectedly’ the unlikely father of whom have now been pretty much exhausted and even the arch villain with supposedly irresistible powers succumbs to a ‘look-out-behind-you’ ruse that would raise sceptical eyebrows in a provincial pantomime – from the children.

The first 2, perhaps 3, Star Wars films, though always clunkily literal visually, with latex substituting for imagination, were great fun! It was wickedly diverting to wonder whether Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford would be the first to burst out laughing at the risible dialogue or the ‘colour-by-numbers’ plot. Daisy Ridley, pretty good in her first outing in the role of Rey (Doh) in the Force Awakens demonstrates the natural law of Star Wars dialogue: to make it convincing once is worthy of an acting Oscar in itself; but the reprise is condemned to an overwhelming burden of solecistic solemnity. As Harrison Ford pointed out at the outset, George’s dialogue just won’t fly: it’s the curse of the ‘dead parrot’ striking again. Even the dialogue is nailed to the perch of a tortuous virtually incomprehensible plot.

Mark Hamill as the original Luke Skywalker had a boyish, good-looking charm that enabled him to skate lightly over the Lucas dialogue. His virtual disappearance from mainstream movies into TV after the phenomenal success of the early Star Wars films reinforces one’s sense of a professional but modest acting talent. It is indicative therefore that after all this time he is perhaps the best thing The Last Jedi. True the plot turns on him and Luke’s reluctant return to the rebellion despite disillusionment with the Force and its power for good. But the same gor blimey moral dilemma is presented – to accept the ultimate power promised by going over to the Dark Side of the Force; or use the light side of the Force to combat the Dark. That this less than Kantian moral perplexity is now felt one generation on from Obi Wan, Darth Vader et al doesn’t give any added tension or suspense: this movie, indeed the whole series resonates with the conviction that in the end taking the Dark Side is a dumb move, destined for inevitable failure.

The same fundamental problem confronts all ‘super-power-being’ dramas: how do you generate tension when as described, the super-being is invincible? The oldest and perhaps best solution to this dilemma is perhaps Superman’s Kryptonite which has the added benefit that the vulnerability generated by the loss of powers is temporary. Lucas has never convincingly resolved this problem and it shows here in the resolution of the conflict between Kylo and Snoke. Ostensibly the deal is Faustian-light: come over to the Dark Side and you will be invincible: yet of course as Vader and Snoke demonstrate – the Dark Side never delivers. And an overwhelming sense of the inevitability of this permeates the complete series of Star Wars movies. Lucas never once manages to make us seriously doubt, even for a second, the defeat of the Dark Side. Even in Superman we occasionally ask – how the hell is he gonna get out of this one?

I get why many Americans go for this conception: overwhelming, tyrannical, fascistic forces are first subverted, then undermined and finally defeated by a plucky little band of idealistic ‘rebels’ using only good intentions and more skilful personal mastery of guns and firepower. Our plucky chums are true heirs to the philosophy of Margaret Mead.* One doesn’t have to be anti-American, and I am not, to wryly observe that in actual real world conflicts, the implacable demand for overwhelming numerical manpower, technological supremacy and sheer military firepower fits quite precisely the way The First Order are portrayed in the Last Jedi and all the forces of tyranny in the series as a whole. Cast America in any of the Star Wars films therefore, and it would be the First Order; and the plucky rebels would in every case have to be America’s opponents in their ‘wars’ since 1945.

Now of course this would be an insane travesty as an account of the real world political complexity of the conflicts the US has engaged in for the last 70 years. But that only serves to emphasise that the Star Wars ethos generates an alarming mythology; itself a travesty of anything approaching real world experience. On the whole I‘d rather the American people, and by extension their allies, notably Britain, would be drawn to movies that don’t reduce the resolution of conflicts to overwhelming firepower and the good intentions and judicious use of them by the ‘good guys’.

“Guns don’t kill – people do”. The hell they don’t.

”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

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