Saturday, February 29, 2020

What They Grow Beyond

We were never meant to be obsessed with STAR WARS for over 40 years. These things simply happen. We were never meant to remain trapped in our childhoods. Life should take care of that by itself. But the way things played out, two years after sitting in the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard while getting a sinking feeling about forty-five minutes into THE FORCE AWAKENS, I found myself in the exact same seat watching THE LAST JEDI, overcome with a huge sense of relief and, finally, delight. This film knew what it was doing. This was a film with a viewpoint towards providing something unexpected, filled with energy and introspection, locating the soul of whatever STAR WARS is supposed to be and infusing it with a strength towards that mythos which for a long time had felt dormant in my head and giving it something new. Any obsession that I ever had with STAR WARS is largely in the past by now and no complaints but THE LAST JEDI did something no film in that series has done in a long time—it made me thrilled to live in that world again for a few more hours and reminded me of what a joy that was. Of course, two years after that viewing I found myself back at the El Capitan once again for THE RISE OF SKYWALKER although not, I should point out, back in the same seat. Anyway, that film isn’t worth spending much time on no matter what year it is.

What happens in THE FORCE AWAKENS never stays in my mind very long even during the few times I’ve actually seen it but that doesn’t really matter. THE LAST JEDI, of course, begins with the Resistance on the run from the First Order as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) encounters pushback from General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) over his hotshot tactics while Rey (Daisy Ridley) has located the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) only to discover he’s not what she expected and isn’t particularly interested in listening to her concerns about what may happen if he doesn’t come back with her to help in the fight. Back at the fleet, Finn (Jon Boyega) meets Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and they team up to hatch a plan in search of a code breaker to allow them to escape from the clutches of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). As for how much this particular plot matters, it’s almost like STAR WARS films rise or fall on how much they really understand how important the basic plot needs to be—not story, that’s something else entirely—and how to maintain the correct balance.

And all discussion of plot aside, it becomes a question of what STAR WARS is. The original trilogy began life as a tribute to old-time serials before turning into its own mythology entirely while the prequels, whatever anyone thinks of them, are at the least somewhat stodgier and less kinetic that have their own odd quirks, largely playing now as lengthy effects demos with an added, more overt political slant which certainly helps them remain interesting these days. For all the qualities those films have or are lacking at the very least they still play as experimental and attempting something new. The post-George Lucas trilogy takes an approach of streamlining that mythos to give the people what they apparently want and in rebooting the franchise THE FORCE AWAKENS discards all attempts at experimentation with pretty much zero interest in any new cinematic ideas at all. Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Academy Award nominee for the screenplay of KNIVES OUT), THE LAST JEDI, meanwhile, forces the hand on this bluff and quickly turns itself into an exploration of that approach to the modern myth, serving as a commentary on what the saga has come to represent in the world we live in filtered through characters who have mattered to us longer than we remember. The mystery of Luke Skywalker in the previous film played like it was stalling to avoid dealing with the character in any way at all, an approach that this film winds up embracing in order to use his status as Generation X icon to throw into question what the fight was really all about in the first place.

To be honest, I never wondered much about what happened to Luke Skywalker. I barely thought about whether there would ever be more sequels anyway. On the one hand, the concept of his living a totally drab, sexless life as essentially a Jedi samurai monk wandering the galaxy couldn’t sound any duller. So if his story was going to somehow continue, what we see here makes as much sense as anything, taking the characterization beyond the stasis he remained in for pretty much all of RETURN OF THE JEDI and still connecting him with what’s come before. At his most interesting, Luke was never the calm centered presence of Obi Wan Kenobi so having him serve as that figure here would have diminished the role which in some ways plays a reminder of all those things Luke still had to learn, that he never learned through the snowballing plot points of his own trilogy and, without total understanding, leading to his ultimate moment of weakness gradually revealed here in opposing flashbacks. He doesn’t have all the answers and never did in the first place which keeps his character relevant in the narrative beyond standard teacher-student dichotomy. It’s why tossing that light saber, or “laser sword”, over his shoulder which at first seemed like something out of an MTV Movie Awards sketch immediately caused me to perk up, realizing this film would be something different in directly confronting expectations and immediately questioned what was expected of Luke after all this time. Rey, meanwhile, represents the future looking to the past for answers without knowing why, searching for who she is with only a vague awareness of what this myth ever was and still needing to learn about it for herself. She’s looking for the ultimate answer to the truth behind the truth, the way she asks Luke what the Force is to try to understand and what it all means, what it can possibly mean, whatever we’ve been told in the past.

And that’s the thing. If there isn’t an attitude towards all this to help make the film live and breathe creatively in the now then it just becomes empty homage, a reminder of how nice it was to be ten years old and I can’t think of anything more depressing. In some ways Rian Johnson’s take on the universe in THE LAST JEDI is comparable to what Nicholas Meyer did with directing STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN as if to ask questions like, “What is this place? How does this all work? Who are these people?” infusing the answers with a sense of wit along with a snap to the dialogue in every scene, starting early on with the hotshot tactics that Poe takes near the beginning to get the First Order’s attention or the approach taken by Vice Admiral Holdo played by Laura Dern (Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress in MARRIAGE STORY) in dealing with him later on, no interest in pretending she has to have patience for him. The growing connection between Rey and Kylo offers added depth as well as if trying to figure out why they’re good and bad guys in the first place but it also comes down to Rey’s examination of her own self to figure out who she isn’t and never was, providing an open book towards whatever she could become in the future. Facing an infinity of her own reflection in the equivalent scene to what Luke once encountered long ago in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK makes sense since the entire film plays as sort of that film in reverse or maybe turned inside out but with its own conclusions, so even the unexpected plays out in an unexpected way but also at times much more simple than we could have ever realized. Even the presumably all-powerful Snoke, Palpatine redux but much more intriguing than in the previous film, is really just a ranting old man with little else to explain him since none of that matters, nothing more and maybe even less.

The confidence of Johnson’s direction is always in evidence, bringing a true sense of craft along with a sense of exhilaration and energy to that epic old movie feeling as well as an extra kick to the space battles which bring the right sort of punchy quality to scenes onboard the First Order ships and the clean style of the way each of them gets laid out. No matter how much is going on through all the crosscutting there’s always a balance maintained so the film doesn’t rush, all the better to pause for some fresh green milk, and the pacing of what is the longest STAR WARS film ever is always measured thanks to editor Bob Ducsay, never overly hyper and playing as totally confident. Even if a few minutes could be cut, that pacing lets the film breathe and exist inside of scenes, interested in more than just the action beats and whatever needs to move the plot forward. Like all good directors, Johnson is interested in exploring the environment that the film is set in and he loves those moments where we can feel the weight of all that has happened and, enriched by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, shots that quietly explore how the events affect the characters and their understanding, the way Luke gets Rey to understand how the Force works visualizing the very concept for the first time ever in sort of the STAR WARS version of THE TREE OF LIFE and the unavoidable darkness it leads to. The film is always enriched by those moments, the simple character beats of Rey feeling the rain as it drips down outside the Millennium Falcon or Leia standing silently outside the rebel base on Crait, the weight of all these years on her, waiting for whatever’s going to come. For once it’s a STAR WARS film that wants to explore the feel of all those worlds it takes place in beyond whatever the basic ecosystem of a planet is and how all this affects the balance of the Force as well.

That approach brings a sense of richness to every scene and even the clutter of the Canto Bight section has a purpose towards lending clarity to the universe in general, the casino playing as an update of the original cantina scene filtered through all the CASABLANCA nods, of course, but also containing another kind of wretched hive than we’ve seen before as if to answer what’s been going on with all the rich people in this galaxy since the prequels. Rose Tico sees right through that but it also helps bring out who the unformed Finn is becoming, all impulse and still learning, not yet understanding what sacrifice really is. In its commentary on how much the series seems to take for granted that these wars are going to go on endlessly it’s further challenged by Benicio Del Toro’s rogue code breaker (his best line: “Blip bloppity bloop.”), kind of a Han/Lando mashup crossed with his USUAL SUSPECTS character, tossed in with the actor playing it like he’s both unimpressed by all these massive sets yet is more overjoyed at sharing the frame with BB-8 than anyone else in the film but still with an unpredictability of the rare person in one of these movies that never really cares who the good guys are after all.

Those challenges to what’s come before blend perfectly with Rian Johnson’s filmmaking prowess which always finds a way to approach a scene to give it additional power with a clear sense of composition to make every shot matter, even providing continuity to the degree of homage not seen in these films since what Lucas did as director in 1977 from the BLACK NARCISSUS vibe found in the lived-in feel of the island of Ach-To with the fish nun caretakers to the unending red of Snoke’s chamber that seems ready to stage a darker version of Marilyn Monroe’s famous “Diamonds are a Girls’ Best Friend” number from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES so whether intentionally or not it becomes its own show stopping musical number with spectacularly thrilling choreography in this light saber duel staged just as precisely as the finest Jack Cole number imaginable. The overt homage to Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT in the layout on the main First Order ship sadly wound up in the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray but the floating camera of the establishing Canto Bight casino shot lifted directly from WINGS goes perfectly with the dynamic feel just as right as the line partly cribbed from THE WILD BUNCH at one point later on because of course that should be in there. These elements are in some ways incidental but still integral to the richness of the world and overall sense of tradition of how these films were always meant to be paying tribute to the past, the things that happened a long time ago which mattered more than anything to the person making the film and affected the world of the film they were making down to the bones. And, as I’m not the first person to point out, this is the only STAR WARS film to feature the John Williams theme from THE LONG GOODBYE, however briefly, which naturally means that if this isn’t the best STAR WARS film it comes pretty close.

But more than that it’s the characters searching for who they are within, what is found under Kylo’s mask that he destroys early on, Rey and her identity, Luke and his understanding of himself, just as Johnson even explored later on in KNIVES OUT and how much that film’s main character realizes that in spite of everything she is in fact a ‘good person’. Part of that search within in THE LAST JEDI is found in the recurring imagery of hands reaching for a connection, reaching for the Force, searching for those answers that aren’t coming, yearning for a way to understand, the connection between Rey and Kylo that gets broken by Luke before he’s able to admit the truth of what led to this. And it extends to how the film honors the memory of Carrie Fisher ever before she died so for once the character of Leia really does feel like an extension of what we think of when we think of Carrie Fisher, worn down but her humanity and flippancy never leaving her. The way the film honors Fisher even before she died is found in every moment we get of her here, culminating in what feels like the first ever cinematic moment to actually make genuine use of the character’s famous theme forever alters how we’re going to see this, how much she knows her time is passing but still with a final understanding that what she’s accomplished will somehow continue on.

All this connects to how the film feels about STAR WARS history in general, confronting and embracing that all at once, even down to the way it engages with the prequels and what happened in them as Luke explains what separates the concept of the Force from the Jedi and even now I get a rush out of hearing Mark Hamill say the name ‘Darth Sidious’ to acknowledge a past we remember that he didn’t witness. And whatever Rian Johnson actually feels about THE FORCE AWAKENS, his film wisely not only doesn’t ignore certain elements introduced there (Snoke, Phasma, etc.), it also confronts and subverts them, improves them and in the end renders each of those elements irrelevant as well as showing why they should be irrelevant in its pursuit of loftier thematic goals. The film’s view of Kylo is complex but the evil around him is appropriately hollow so the pastiness seen on the face of the likes of Domhall Gleeson’s General Hux is treated with all the contempt that he deserves no matter who’s dishing it out. But in going further back to the past, it’s the surprise introduction of Yoda, of course once again voiced by Frank Oz, and what it contains that turns into the most emotional moment of the film for me, a reminder that we all have our soft spots during certain moments that come out of nowhere in these films. What that Jedi says about failure feels like the greatest lesson for Luke ever, the sort of lesson that makes it a film perfect for this moment. It’s very much a film about failure and the lessons that come from it, the sort of failure each of these characters encounters throughout to help you understand the reason you’re fighting in the first place and why you need to keep on doing it. Failure is a hell of a thing to live with each day, a reminder which meant something in 2017 just as it means something now. Within that becomes finding that love of what we’re fighting for and we love about it. What we love about what it might be. And what we might have in ourselves to move forward.

In a way, THE LAST JEDI is a middle film in a trilogy that is itself about finding that middle ground, just as important as the balance to the Force that’s always being talked about and the search for hope that the characters find themselves in. It’s the bravura filmmaking during the best moments in this series which always mean more than the plot, when all the elements manage to coalesce into pure cinema maybe especially during the showstopper of Holdo’s final action but also when the glorious John Williams music kicks in for the climax going full throttle and the Porgs that I love so much, who I assume have finally been accepted by Chewbacca, go crazy so during those moments all that is required is to be caught up in the coolness and pure joy of it all. Part of it is also Luke at the end, seen in full spaghetti western close-up, discovering his own truth as the symbol he finally realizes he needs to be and only he knows how to be. So does Rey using the force to lift those rocks at the end as she finally understands the complexity of what she can do in simple terms, taking the lessons of the past and translating them for herself. It’s a movie that wants to find the light in the darkness that the middle chapter is expected to be, the way Rose finds joy in the Fathiers on Canto Bight in a way that no one has ever reacted to anything in this universe before just as the very uncomplicated Poe Dameron spends the film in the middle of an increasingly complicated situation. It’s Holdo who reminds him about what hope means but it’s not until the end when he repeats what her determination to serve as a spark to light the fire of the rebellion that he can understand the film’s own argument against nihilism, that it’s not about the crazy plans and cool sacrifice that Finn almost makes for nothing but what can really be done to make things better to defeat the darkness. Unlike the increasing gloom of most blockbusters (and would be blockbusters) of the past decade, many of which I feel such a growing emotional distance from, this is a film that feels alive and vibrant and, once its own cynicism has been addressed, even optimistic about what its world can be, about what STAR WARS can be, and to make the past itself remember why that mattered. It’s beautiful.

Because if the argument could be made that great films are either puzzles or dreams, that also explains how STAR WARS can work at its best. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is definitely a dream in how little it makes any rational sense and yet still works flawlessly in all its glory and emotion, just as you could argue that a failing of the prequels is that they each get caught in some sort of middle ground between the two. THE FORCE AWAKENS, not at all a great film, never feels like it’s about more than its own puzzle which means there’s nothing particularly to explore on repeat viewings. THE LAST JEDI, a STAR WARS film very much about the interpretation of STAR WARS and what we imagine it to be gloriously brings the dream back with possibilities of how we still can prove what we have. Of what the future can hold. Because you don’t let the past die, at least not completely. You grow from the past and you have to, because if you don’t then there’s just a void as empty as Kylo Ren’s hands are near the end, forever lacking any knowledge or understanding. The myth only means something if you directly confront it, using that power to turn it into something more before moving on. A few years later, after everything that’s happened in our own world to make this struggle seem all the more resonant, it’s a film that feels even richer than it has yet.

In scene after scene it feels like the actors are energized by the material in Johnson’s script and there’s always an extra kick in the air between them in scenes as they face off against each other. Mark Hamill is phenomenal, giving this taking this return to the character a power I didn’t see coming as he plays every moment with an air of regret that weighs upon the gift he’ll always have no matter what, all the stories of what led him here found in his eyes and the cumulative effect is a performance that is fearless. Carrie Fisher, in what is basically her final performance, brings an unexpectedly soulful quality missing from the previous film along with a resigned sadness while keeping the humor which is so much about the character and what we want to remember about the actress. Daisy Ridley is especially effective with the growing conflict within what she faces along with the joy that sometimes shines through while Adam Driver is flawless at capturing Kylo’s arrogance and ultimate confusion, growing increasingly unclear which side he should be on, along with the determination of Oscar Isaac and Jon Boyega with how locked in they are in their storylines along with the sense of true goodness and light that Kelly Marie Tran brings to this world. The quiet determination of Laura Dern also pays off with a bang, along with the ball that Benicio Del Toro is having every moment he’s around and Andy Serkis actually gets me interested in Snoke in this film, at least for those few minutes where it’s needed. Even the small roles pop, whether Ngo Thanh Van who is nearly silent as Rose’s sister Paige Tico or Amanda Lawrence as Commander D’Acy and the cumulative effect of these moments from the actors gives it all a humanistic quality unlike any other STAR WARS film ever seen.

Not long ago I was thinking about how the last thing Luke says to Kylo Ren in this film is “See you around, kid,” making me think that in the next film he might return as a Force ghost unlike any we’d seen before only to have him finally show up basically redoing Obi-Wan Kenobi in RETURN OF THE JEDI spouting exposition while sitting on a log and oh god why am I still going on about all this. But that’s the thing with obsession. It’s very possible that I’ll never find myself back in the El Capitan again seeing another one of these movies, just as I’m aware that this may be the final thing I ever write about STAR WARS in any form but in the best noir tradition we keep getting pulled back, like it or not so I can’t say for sure. And for all the debate over what STAR WARS ‘is’ maybe by now it’s become about the obsessions of our own past as much as anything and how it all means we have to look back, like it or not. Recalling George Lucas’ own penchant for pure cinema, STAR WARS films generally shouldn’t have any sort of last line so in its final shots THE LAST JEDI shows us a seemingly random boy who will one day have his own adventures that we’ll likely never see. No dialogue is needed to tell us this but that future is clearly destined, just as it’s destined for these stories to continue, here presented in a simple, elegant image of hope. What that image means, what it should mean, what it may always mean. Feel free to take that as an ending and maybe the final piece of STAR WARS related media I’ll ever need to pay attention to, since as it’s turned out, what followed this film wasn’t particularly interesting in any way. So let someone else have those adventures, if they even want to. It’s possible to stay in the same place forever, not moving forward and never truly finding your place in the world. That very idea has always been at the heart of STAR WARS, certainly the George Lucas version of it but maybe this film as well, the very human fear of not wanting to let go and of what the future may hold if you do. It was what Anakin Skywalker didn’t want to lose, what Luke Skywalker was afraid he might learn, what Rey can’t seem to admit to herself. But you can’t stay in the same place forever. It’s the very thing Luke was trying to avoid to begin with, a long time ago. Even then he knew that sometimes you simply have to move on.

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