Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Last Jedi at the First of the Year

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened on Thursday, December 14, 2017, and so far has made a big bucket of money, as you would expect. It has also earned plenty of controversy. Some people--especially non-hardcore fans--really like it. Some--especially hardcore fans--really hate it. Four of us saw it on opening night in a small town in Indiana. The theater was pretty well full. We had to split up, two by two, because there weren't four adjoining seats left. There was expectancy, though, and when the main title came up and the opening blast of the fanfare sounded, people whooped and cheered. They laughed and cheered during the movie, too. And at the end, they clapped, as people used to do when they went to the movies. Many stayed all the way through the very long closing credits. If anyone at the theater that night didn't like The Last Jedi, we didn't know about it. It seemed that most everyone there was happy to have seen it.

There are, of course, serious problems with The Last Jedi, but then I don't know that anyone these days is capable of making a movie--or at least a big-budget movie--without serious problems creeping in, or actually built in to the thing. I have written before about the seeming contempt moviemakers have for their audiences. They must think that no one will notice when a plot hole the size of a space slug's maw opens up in the middle of their masterpiece. On the other hand, maybe the moviemakers themselves don't realize when these holes open up. So who here is stupid exactly? Anyway, I was going to leave the controversy alone, but I have decided to write on The Last Jedi to begin the new year. We will return to our regularly scheduled programming after this not-so-brief interruption.

One of the complaints against The Last Jedi is that it is too politically correct, meaning, there are too many women and minorities in positions of power and prominence, while men, especially white men, are relegated to minor roles or roles as villains. The complainers might have a point. You could make the same complaint about The Force Awakens and especially about Rogue One. Political correctness might be one explanation--Star Wars is owned by Disney after all--but there could be a simpler reason for the preponderance of women and minorities in these new Star Wars movies, namely, that the series is playing to a different audience than it did in 1977 or even in 1999. The original movie was made in Britain employing British and American actors and crew, and it was intended for an American audience. (Star Wars wasn't released in Britain until seven months after its American premiere.) Today the series plays to audiences worldwide, where the potential viewership may be ten to twenty times greater than it is here. You might as well put in some characters who look like the people who will see the movie in Turkey, Pakistan, India, and China. Maybe that will win new fans and help boost box office receipts.

That's just speculation on my part. More to the point, moviemakers seek more and more to appeal to girls and women by casting females in strong, leading roles. Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, is a case in point. She is, more or less, a female version of Luke Skywalker. The Force Awakens makes that obvious. The story so far is mostly her story, but at least in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, there are male characters who act independently of her. In Rogue One, the lead character, Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, ends up calling all the shots. The men in the movie, minorities or not (including the all-male crew of the eponymous spacecraft) are merely her helpers. Cassian (Diego Luna), who is so active in the first part of Rogue One, is reduced to a supporting role, just as Max (Tom Hardy) in Mad Max: Fury Road is merely a helper to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This is what movies--or popular culture in general--are now. Male roles are passing to women, and movies are made more and more to appeal to a distaff audience, perhaps, too, to weak or feminized men. It's no wonder that boys and young men stay home to play video games in which they can act out traditional male roles. This is the beginning of a negative feedback loop.

Related to all of that, I heard a complaint about The Force Awakens when it came out, specifically about Daisy Ridley. The complaint had to do with her physical appearance. The word ugly was used. I don't think Daisy Ridley is ugly, but I'm not sure I would describe her as beautiful, either. But physical beauty is not the point now among actresses and the characters they play, and it's precisely for the reason that female characters no longer play traditional female roles. They are not meant to be beautiful. They are meant to be strong, in command, in control, in charge. In short, they are meant to be men. To be beautiful might actually be an undesirable trait among actresses and the characters they play these days. It's more important for them to be able to throw a punch or effectively wield a weapon the size of a table saw.

Another complaint against The Last Jedi has to do with its use of humor. Maybe the complainers have forgotten how funny Star Wars is, but this is something I have noticed among fans not only of Star Wars but also of science fiction and comic books. You're messing with their fantasy world here. They take their fantasies very seriously, and they don't like it when you make light of them. I understand the feeling, but is it really that important that everyone in Star Wars be so stoic and humorless? Can't there be some humor somewhere? Can't anyone in this universe enjoy anything or take any pleasure in their lives? Or is everything always supposed to be heavy and grim?

A related complaint comes from people who hate The Last Jedi so much that they want it to be withdrawn, even remade, and struck from "the canon" of Star Wars movies. "The canon," they say. Not the Biblical canon or the canon of the Catholic Mass or some religious belief, but the canon of a popular entertainment. This overly serious way of looking not just at Star Wars but at other bits of popular culture is, I think, a real problem with fans, for if you think there is or should be a "canon" of Star Wars, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes stories, or any other franchise, you really should get a life. All are simply fantasies or entertainments. Yes, they're fun, and escaping into fantasy may help you get through the rough patches in your life, but there is nothing sacred or untouchable about them. Nobody's mortal or spiritual life depends upon whether one spacecraft can or cannot track another through hyperspace. And if you're so worried about "the canon," what about the hundreds of Star Wars comic books, novels, short stories, children's books, and installments of television shows and daily comic strips that have come out? Have you placed your imprimatur on those things yet?

A chief complaint about The Last Jedi and about the other new Star Wars movies has to do with the expectation among moviegoers that they are going to experience what they experienced when they first saw Star Wars as children (in whatever form that might have been). I was there in 1977, just like many of you were. We remember what it was like to see Star Wars--the real, unadulterated Star Wars--for the first time, when it was fresh and new, like nothing we had ever seen before. It was exciting, exhilarating, even life-changing. But those days are gone, and they will never be brought back, no matter how hard anyone tries. We live in a different world now. We will never have that experience again, and it is unreasonable for anyone to expect, let alone demand, that we will.

But there is still a chance for Star Wars to be new and exciting. There is still a chance for children--real, chronological children--to enjoy Star Wars, and we should let them. My nephew is twelve. When we saw the preview for The Last Jedi in November, he told us that he felt goosebumps. After we saw the movie, he said it was awesome and put it in his top three of Star Wars movies. He wanted to talk about it for hours and days afterwards--What was your favorite part? Who are your favorite characters? And on and on, just like we did at that age. This movie and its predecessor were made for kids like him, kids who don't notice plot holes or illogical behavior on the part of the movie's characters or that certain things, like gravity bombs in space or spaceships that slow down and go adrift when they run out fuel, defy the laws of physics. They notice other things, like thrilling chases, well-staged fight scenes, and young characters experiencing emotions that they, the children watching, can understand. The children watching know what they like, and they like the new Star Wars movies. Rey and Finn are to them what Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia were to us. We should let them have that pleasure and that experience.

Related to that is the idea that the current trilogy appears to be geared to a younger audience than the one that saw Star Wars in 1977. To be sure, the original Star Wars appealed to kids, but the prime audience seems to have been teenagers and young adults. It's worth remembering that those born in the peak year of the baby boom--1957--were twenty years old when Star Wars was released, the same age, by the way, as Carrie Fisher. (Although she was born in 1956, Carrie was still twenty in May 1977 when Star Wars came out.) There was no larger cohort born in the United States until 2007--and those children were ten years old when The Last Jedi was released last month, the same age, by the way, as Temirlan Blaev, the young actor who played the boy who uses the Force to gather a broom into his hands at the end of the movie.

Notice the name: Temirlan Blaev is not American or British but Russian by nationality and perhaps non-Russian by ethnicity. (He is, however, Caucasian--literally.) So he serves two--actually three--purposes in the movie: First, he is a child of ten, perhaps close to the median age for the target audience of The Last Jedi. Second, he is an ethnic minority and hails from central Asia, thus he covers two additional parts of the potential target audience. And third, he acts as a surrogate for the children watching the movie, for he is like them, and if he is like them, then maybe they can be like him. Maybe they can imagine themselves into the Star Wars universe in his place. From there, they can imagine a limitless future in store for them. Moreover, if he, a mere servant and stable boy in some dirty, remote place--a "nobody" as Kylo Ren describes Rey's parents--possesses the Force, then it shows that a person doesn't have to be a Skywalker, a Darth, a Count, or an Emperor to so possess it. In short, anyone can be a hero. Anyone can have great adventures and even save the galaxy, just as Luke Skywalker, a nobody who hails from a backwater planet called Tatooine, does in the original movie.

Still the complaints keep coming. Next is that Luke Skywalker's character is misused somehow, that his self-imposed exile doesn't follow logically from preceding events, and that there is violence done to the idea of the Jedi themselves. First, I would say that reducing Luke Skywalker to a crabby or curmudgeonly hermit doesn't work especially well in The Last Jedi, but remember, he redeems himself and saves the Resistance by doing something no Jedi has ever done before. And after so doing, he joins Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda as Force-ghosts. (Let's not talk about the Anakin Skywalker Force-ghost.) And maybe his situation doesn't follow logically from preceding events, but I for one thought that Anakin Skywalker's turn to the Dark Side as depicted in the second trilogy was also not very convincing--that he could not have been sufficiently motivated by the depicted events to make the turn. In other words, the turning of characters in the Star Wars universe is often not very convincing or logical, but that might be a built-in problem with the Star Wars universe anyway. (More on that in a minute.) Finally, the idea that the Jedi are basically kicked to the curb in the current movie is a moot point, for if The Phantom Menace is part of the Star Wars "canon," then it's already too late for the Jedi to acquit themselves well at all. The reason is this, and it's something that really bothered me when I saw The Phantom Menace at the theater: Qui-Gon Jinn, a Master Jedi, an exemplar of the order, walks right by the slavery on Tatooine without a word of objection and without taking any action against it. I'll say it again: If the Jedi can countenance slavery, then it's too late for them to make any claims to being a force for good in the galaxy.

That brings me to a point, again regarding the original Star Wars versus all of the movies released since The Phantom Menace in 1999. In Star Wars, the Force is explained in mystical or quasi-religious terms. In 1977, we accepted, even embraced and marveled at, that explanation. Then, for whatever reason, the Force became a merely material force. Mysticism and quasi-religion were banished from the Star Wars universe, and with them, seemingly any moral objection to slavery. This, then, is a kind of stoic or Roman society, in other words, a pre-Christian society. The galaxy is a harsh and unforgiving place. People die. Others suffer. Some are enslaved. There is nothing to be done about these things. Life is indeed grim. Further still, in this universe, those things that are judged necessary or expedient in attaining the objectives of either side are also judged to be good and proper by that side. The opposite is improper. Both the Empire and the Rebellion, the Sith and the Jedi, have their own versions of what is good and proper. The other is merely the opposition which must be fought or pursued, oppressed or resisted. And so the conflict goes on, not between good and evil but between the two possessors of a materialist Force, a force separated from any moral or spiritual possibilities that might entail. And there is one of my complaints--not that the Star Wars universe needs Christianity but that it needs some positive moral order, some absolute conception of good and evil. Anakin Skywalker's turn to the Dark Side is not convincing because there is no real evil in the Dark Side, nor is there any real good or positive moral force on the side of the Jedi. Anakin's motivations in turning are inadequate because no great moral question is at stake. He flips like a pancake from one side to the other. He does it again (or for the first time) as Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Yes, his son's life is at stake in that movie, but there isn't any run-up to Vader's conversion. Nothing that we have seen has happened between Darth Vader's first appearance in Star Wars--a movie in which he is shown to be hard, cruel, unfeeling, implacable--and the final scenes of Return of the Jedi, yet he turns after only a moment of silent thought, consideration, or indecision.

Nor is Luke Skywalker's conversion from a Jedi to a non-practicing hermit especially convincing because there is no great precipitating struggle within him, or at least no struggle that is adequately depicted in the movie. Luke's decision to kill should have been a central event in the Star Wars saga, like Abraham's decision to sacrifice his son before Yahweh, or even Meursault's actions in shooting the Arab on the beach in The Stranger. There could have been a whole movie built around Luke's struggle and decision, yet it's all disposed of in two short flashback sequences. What are we left to think about a man who would kill, in cold blood, his own nephew and the last of his line, without his first having gone through any great torment? Why did he not try to correct his mistake? Why has he fled from all responsibility? And what are we to think of a moral order, the order of the Force, in which a man like Anakin Skywalker or Kylo Ren might just as easily and justifiably choose one path as another, in which there is no battle between good and evil because there appears to be in the Star Wars universe no such things as good and evil? If the Force is what binds together all things in the universe and yet is ultimately a mere material phenomenon, how can there be? What do Midi-Chlorians care about the moral and spiritual state of men?

But here's the thing: As far as I can remember, Midi-Chlorians are not mentioned in The Last Jedi. But the word God is, for the first time in the entire series, again, as far as I can remember. (The word is actually godspeed, but close enough. How can you say godspeed without invoking God to speed you in your journey?) So Midi-Chlorians are out, but God is in (though only by the skin of his teeth). That leads to yet another point about the movie. Rian Johnson, the screenwriter and director, is a creator, but it's also clear that he is a destroyer, and he did a lot of destroying in The Last Jedi. Like so many creators in popular culture, he seems to have been shooting (to mix metaphors) for a reboot. He seems to have decided that there are certain things in The Force Awakens and previous movies that he just wasn't going to put up with, and he decided to get rid of them in spectacular and devastating fashion. Snoke? Sliced and diced. (I say, good, the story is more interesting with a more mature Kylo Ren on top.) Captain Phasma? Dropped into a flaming pit. (Is she all dead or just mostly dead?) Any budding romance between Finn and Rey? Flattened. The Jedi? Extirpated. Midi-chlorians? Not even mentioned. Mr. Johnson goes further still in his laying waste to the past. (Remember that Kylo Ren keeps telling Rey to forget the past.) Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill, who I think is the most watchable of the original three in this new series) is first a nutcase, in no way noble or stately or good, and though he saves the day in the end, he is now a Force-ghost, fated to reappear in future movies--if he appears at all--only as a faint, blue haze. Admiral Akbar dies offscreen and is soon forgotten, like Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific. Even the Rebel fleet from The Empire Strikes Back is utterly destroyed. (A good move, I think, as now future moviemakers are free to come up with new designs instead of using those from nearly forty years ago.) Finally, in an unexpected development, the death of Carrie Fisher, hence of Princess Leia, will have to be dealt with in the next installment. I'm not sure how they'll do it. Can it possibly happen in the opening crawl?

(By the way, I'm not happy that Carrie Fisher died, but her performance in this movie is odd, awkward, and uncomfortable to watch. She was no longer a very good actress, she looked at least ten years older than she was, and she talked like she was wearing dentures. I only hope she doesn't show up in CGI next time, and this is coming from one of her fans. RIP, Carrie, but you should have laid off the drugs.)

It's clear from all of this that there isn't a senior story editor in the new Star Wars series, no one to make the big decisions about where it's going, what's going to happen, and which characters get to live and which ones have to die. J.J. Abrams, who is set to direct the next installment, likely stands ready to destroy everything he doesn't like about The Last Jedi, and there will be no one to stop him. So look for another reboot, and if Mr. Abrams' previous movies are any indication, look also for plenty of holes in the plot, swipes from previous movies, and things that don't make any sense at all. In any case, complain or no, we should all realize that, again, the next movie and all of the movies after it will be made for new generations of children and not for us. Like I said before, 1977 is gone forever and there isn't anything anyone can do to bring it back. As the saying goes, that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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