Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Star Wars -- The Last Jedi

The new installment in the Star Wars franchise is fairly awful.  This is not surprising.  The films have generally been mediocre to bad.  In this regard, it is well to remember the lineage of the films.  George Lucas' first episode was intentionally bad -- the director invoked campy movie-serials made thirty or forty years before producing the first picture in the series.  Lucas was capable of powerful dystopian sci-fi, as witness THX1138 and could construct and effectively direct a character-driven film like American Graffiti, a serious film that can compete on some levels with Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show.  But he turned away from those models and, indeed, serious science fiction when he ransacked tawdry movie serials for the cardboard characters and effects in the first film.  I recall seeing Star Wars and John Boorman's Excalibur in the same week -- Boorman's movie, as badly flawed as it was, struck me as thrilling, profound, and moving; by contrast, Star Wars didn't aspire to be anything other than amplified kitsch.  The movie wasn't bad by accident -- it was bad by design.

The Last Jedi continues in this tradition -- except that, after almost a half century, the film has forgotten its humble origins and aspires to grandiosity.  The picture is interminable and exceedingly complex.  Three plot lines are intercut ingeniously, action or a sound in one story edited to match an action or effect in the parallel narrative.  In the first plot-line, the virtuous rebels against the evil New Order flee through space, suffering constant attrition through attacks orchestrated by the monstrous Admiral Snoke (pronounced "Snook").  In the narrative, the principal characters are Kilo Ren (a sort of poor man's Darth Vadar, played by Adam Driver), poor Carrie Fischer acting the role of the superannuated Princess Leia and her auxiliary, Laura Dern, in the part of another fleet commander.  There's an obnoxious "fly-boy" who is so irritating that I don't know his name and can't recognize the actor playing the part. 

The second narrative involves a dark-skinned former fighter with the New Order (now defected to the Good) and a Korean (or possibly Chinese) girl.  These two characters are on a quest to locate a crack "thief" with the ability to smuggle them onto the flagship for the evil New Order.  Their mission is to destroy equipment that is tracking the retreating rebels through warp-speed space.  This narrative features an exciting chase involving camelid-like creatures through a gambling hell that seems to be modeled on Macau.  This plot goes nowhere:  the thief, also played by an ethnic character -- he's like the Frito Bandito -- sells out the heroes and they are captured by the bad guys.  This story is insistently "ethnic", involving people of color who are trapped in a thankless, dull, and ineffectual narrative.

The third narrative takes place somewhere on the Orkney Islands in the North Atlantic. On a crest of raw stone rising out of the turbulent waves, Han Solo, the last Jedi knight, has withdraw to brood like Achilles in his tent (Solo is played by Mark Hamill who has grown into a odd bard-like beauty).  A young woman who aspires to Jedi status has sought out Han Solo and tries to return him to the field of battle.  In the course of this tale, the young woman develops super-human powers that later involve her in a duel with Admiral Snoke and her "brother" -- the evil Kilo Ren, also, apparently, an apprentice Jedi. The island sequence is so totally inert that the director had dream up some cute little puffin-birds and some strange-looking mole-like laborers to keep things amusing. 

These three stories all lead to noisy climaxes.  Then, the characters from the separate narratives all gather together in the last half hour -- there is a huge battle in outer space and, then, another huge battle in the desert.  In effect, the film has no fewer than five climaxes -- this is exhausting and gratuitous and, by the last half  hour,  you are praying that the film will come to an end.   The film's emotional structure is one hour of loud fighting and, then, another hour and a half of continuous climax.

On the plus side, the film is fantastically inventive and, often, thrilling.  The first space battle is literally breath-taking.  The images in the film are crammed with strange creatures, odd machines, and curious details.  If we are shown a sea, you can expect that a sea monster will rear up -- even though this is wholly gratuitous:  the film is not about sea monsters.  (Similarly, when someone plunges into a Cenote-like underground cave, we can see the bones of Pleisosaurus-like sea creatures in the murk.)  In some of the battle scenes, the combatants are posed against fully articulated and spectacular fighting between armies of droids and storm troopers -- we see the principal characters burnished by the halos of huge explosions in the background.  The last space battle ends with an apocalyptic explosion so huge that it has a thermo-nuclear aspect about it -- the screen goes white and the figures and machines appear to wither to ashes in a sea of acetylene fire and there is no sound at all; this is a spectacular image.  The final battle is also almost absurdly beautiful -- the opposing armies face-off on a huge salt-encrusted playa and when their treads or boot scuff the surface, the terrain underneath is blood-red.  The fighters extend skids down into the lake surface and cut scarlet wounds into the earth and, a final shot of the battlefield, shows a huge, gory-looking abscess cut into the white salt, a smear of scarlet littered with burning equipment and corpses. 

But these wonderful things are outweighed by the sheer ridiculousness of the project.  Like Grand Opera, a film of this sort requires all kinds of fashion decisions and, about half of them are grotesque or idiotic:  Laura Dern has purple hair and the New Order commanders wear little hats with a perky brim that make the allegedly fearsome enemy look like alert terrier dogs.  Admiral Snoke looks like a giant and elderly Jack Palance with a deep fissure in his brow -- he is dressed like Hugh Hefner in a kind of gold lame smoking jacket.  There's is nothing even approximating acting in the film -- the characters just harangue one another or shriek commands.  (In the opening scene, the acting is so transcendently bad that it's hard to avoid giggling -- later, you get used to the constant screaming and shouting.)  Laura Dern looks prim and proper and seems totally baffled by her lines.  Carrie Fischer must have been drunk or drugged out of her mind for the shoot -- around the middle of the film, she begins to slur her lines so badly that the camera has to shoot her from behind.  (Maybe she lost a tooth -- she literally can't say her "s" sounds.)  The movie relies way too heavily on vast, inexpressive close-ups -- I can't recall a film more infected with close-ups.  But the close-ups don't show us anything because this would require acting and acting, as a matter of course, is prohibited in a picture of this sort.  (There are odd little moments that are endearingly self-critical -- in one shot, we see a strange space ship levitating as it spews steam:  it turns out to be an iron pressing a New Order uniform that will be stolen by one of the characters.  In another scene, Kilo Ren gives an order that is repeated by being bawled at 150 decibels by Domnall Gleeson -- Adam Driver cocks his head and looks at Gleeson with undisguised horror and contempt.) 

My fundamental criticism is that we just don't care about the outcomes of the interminable light sabre duels and battles that we are shown.  First, there is no element of suspense; we know exactly how everything will turn out.  Second, since we don't care about the characters, we don't care about who wins the fight.  Everything is weightless and wholly inconsequential, although the sound and fury tries to argue for the opposite.  By the end of the film, almost all of the rebel forces have been killed -- there's only tiny number of rebels surviving; perhaps, about 20.  But there's no sense of mourning or sorrow for all the hordes slaughtered.  Homer's Iliad is about thirty percent funerals and grief and fury over the death of comrades -- indisputably the epic form has space for appropriate displays of grief.  But there's simply no trace of any recognizable human emotions at all in this film.  A good example is when Kilo Ren inexplicably kills his master, Admiral Snoke.  Why does he do this?  We don't have a clue and huge shots of Driver's saturnine features convulsed in weird grimaces don't tell us anything. 

It's a bad movie, one of a series of bad movies that commenced with an awful movie.  And this seems to be what the audience wants. 

3 comments:

  1. Laura Dern gave Carrie Fisher what she wanted and we are all the worse for it.

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  2. I am a Laura Dern fan and will be curious to see her performance in this. Its my understanding this film has been generally well received.

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    1. Most critics have had a favorable reaction to this film. Curiously, I've heard that real Star Wars fanatics don't particularly like this film because it seems too much like a conventional movie. Laura Dern is always great -- she was fantastic in Enlightened, one of the best TV series I have ever seen, and very scary in Twin Peaks.

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