For a film that pays so much lip service to “hope”, Star Wars: The Last Jedi sure as hell does its best to extinguish it in its audience. For two and a half exhausting, despairing hours, evil triumphs and good is thwarted so consistently, one is left longing for a river to throw oneself into. That it comes from the franchise that used to be the very apotheosis of feel-good filmmaking is just one more steel-toed kick in the balls to take home.
So let me get this straight: The New Republic has been completely destroyed, the entire rebel fleet wiped out, the entirety of the Rebellion – sorry, Resistance – can now fit comfortably in the Millenian Falcon, Admiral Akbar, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are all dead, and Kylo Ren is the undisputed master of the universe. Cue the trumpets!
No wait – I mustn’t despair: some eight-year old stableboy found a ring. Hurrah![i]
You will pardon me if I am somewhat muted in my optimism.
Now, I know you’re all going to throw Empire Strikes Back at me, so yes, let’s indeed compare the two. Early on in Empire, the Rebels escape destruction on Hoth. At the end, the Reel fleet has regrouped, and is ready to strike back (ha ha ha! Sorry.). Luke Skywalker is recovering in hospital. Lando Calrissian[ii] has joined the fight. They’re going to rescue Han Solo. Things are looking up!
By the end of Last Jedi¸ practically everyone is dead. Luke, Han, the entire Rebel Alliance. Kaput! Vamouse! The Empire – sorry First Order – control a vast fleet of planet-busting star destroyers; the resistance have at their disposal a single rust bucket spice smuggler. I think I’m with Ren on this one: the war’s over! The good guys are done for! Empire isn’t nearly such a bummer.
Perhaps that was the point: break ‘em down to build ‘em back up again. Send the audience to the pit of despair so the triumph will feel that much sweeter. It’s a standard narrative tactic. The trouble is, we don’t get the build-up, and I’ve lost faith in the triumph. The filmmakers so completely – almost sadistically – dash every hope they bother to suggest, to the point I no longer have any hope they will allow my heroes – those left – to triumph. I would not put it past them to make the Star Wars saga “dark” and “gritty”, critical code words for “violent” and “cynical”.
Let me see: in “Episode VIII” we can shave the wookie and mount his head on the wall. In “Episdode IX let’s have C3PO melted into down into dental caps. For “Episode X” we’ll open up R2D2 with a can-opener and use him as a carburetor. Who’s left? I know, let’s resurrect Jabba the Hut, and that would explain where Princess Lea went. . .
No? Well why not, if Han and Luke were fair game. . .
Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away, but do you see what I’m getting at? If Disney really felt that the only way to prolong this infinitely profitable franchise was to utterly erase what made it appealing in the first place, why should I be happy about it? Even if it is just contaminated nostalgia, what of it? Why should I be happy about it?
Furthermore, I don’t buy this stuff about the “first Star Wars film made by an artist”. Stuff and nonsense. No one who feeds me lines like “we are the spark that lights the flame!” or some fucking nonsense about “hope being like the sun” because you can’t see it or whatever, with a straight face will get artistic bon mots from me. Don’t get me started on the friggin’ plot holes. And no, Rian Johnson is not a “brave writer” (criticspeak for “fuck the fans”). Salman Rushdie is a brave writer. Daphne Galizia was a brave writer. Nazimuddin Samad was a brave writer. Rian Johnson is screen hack who found a way to prolong the life of a cash cow.
That’s uncharitable: there are good things in the film, some really good scenes (mostly involving Mark Hamill, bless ‘im). Many will forgive or forget that this is really just another Boom-Boom Blockbuster, stretched agonizingly past its natural running time. I might have done so myself, but found every great moment undermined by yet another disappointment, another let-down, another frustrated desire. It felt like a never-ending wrestling match where the guy’s constantly kicking out of pinfall; after a while, you just get tired of it. (Add to that, the guy’s your favourite, he’s getting the snot kicked out of him, and while he keeps kicking out, he never recovers, never rallies, and still loses the match).
Two years ago, I gave The Force Awakens a higher rating than it deserved because it erased the legacy of the prequels. Now, Last Jedi has erased the legacy of the main trilogy. Say what you will about George Lucas (and I have), he had an endgame in sight: he intended the story to end. Disney wants to milk the thing forever. Now they can: returning the Rebellion – sorry, Resistance – to a state of perpetual underdog in an eternal struggle against a permanently overbearing evil, the well need never run dry. Many will argue that the artistry of the means justifies the commercialism of the ends. Maybe it does. But forgive me if I ain’t on board.