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Film Review: “Star Wars: Episode VIII–The Last Jedi” and the Aesthetics of Resistance

For me, a new Star Wars film is always a cause for celebration. I would consider myself a casual fan, someone who both takes pleasure in the franchise and recognizes its tremendous cultural impact and value as a text worthy of examination. While I was happy with The Force Awakens, to my mind The Last Jedi is like a breath of fresh air, taking the series in some new and very interesting directions.

Picking up where the previous film left off, The Last Jedi continues detailing the struggles of the Resistance, recently decimated and on the run from the First Order. In this film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince Luke (Mark Hamill) to return from self-imposed exile to help his sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the other resistance leaders. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) grows increasingly frustrated with the seeming complacency of the Resistance, particularly when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over after Leia is seriously injured. Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on an effort to break the tracking device the First Order is using against the Resistance.

In its thematic concerns, Last Jedi carries on from the first film in the new trilogy. The First Order is ascendant, and throughout the film the Resistance trembles on the brink of utter collapse. The pacing accentuates this, as we are constantly led to sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for the dreadful final bomb that will wipe our heroes from the galaxy. Of course, the narrative tension is supplemented by the action-cinema aesthetics, the numerous explosions, whip-crack camera movements, and bodies in perpetual motion. Through this narrative, cinematographic, and editing patterns, the film leads us to feel how imperiled the Resistance is, how all it will take is one more death, one more catastrophe, and the First Order will succeed in rebuilding the totalitarian state.

These patterns are undergirded by universally excellent performances, and I continue to be totally on board with the increasing diversity on display in the Star Wars franchise. Kelly Marie Tran is the film’s breakout star, and her fierce portrayal of Rose Tico is both off-beat and touching.

Though she is only on screen for a very few scenes, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo is also one of the film’s great stars. Dern has always managed to capture a peculiar mix of strength and vulnerability, and she brings that to bear in this role. Though our perception of Holdo is largely skewed by the perception of Poe, who thinks that she lacks the initiative to help the Resistance survive, her ultimate sacrifice was one of the film’s most beautiful, heartbreaking, and exhilarating moments. As with any great movie about resistance against tyranny, The Last Jedi makes it clear that there can be no victory without sacrifice.

On the “evil” side of things, Adam Driver continues to blow me away as Kylo Ren. This would be the easiest sort of role to do badly, in that he is essentially a spoiled man-child who thinks that the universe should bend to his will. Driver, however, makes the most of his own gifts to endow this character with a certain tortured beauty. Somehow, Driver manages to be both graceful and awkward at the same time, a tension that perfectly captures Ren’s profound inner conflict. He feels abandoned by everyone who he thought cared about him, and this has become key to his ruthless drive to bring the galaxy into order.

This reflects Rey’s own inner turmoil but, unlike him, she turns away (for the moment) from both the dark side represented by Kylo and the isolationism represented by Luke. Though she was similarly abandoned by her parents–whoever they are–she has given herself completely to the Resistance, and she recognizes, in a way Kylo does not, that attempting to force an order on the universe will only replicate the cycle of chaos and destruction.

What I’ve always loved about the Star Wars universe is that it tackles the pressing philosophical questions of our time. Is it really so bad to have a world that is firmly ordered in order to curtail the dangers of contingency and chance (as Kylo wants)? Is there value in the sort of exclusionary religion practiced by the Jedi, one that relies on genealogy and a select priesthood? (A friend of mine referred to this film as the Protestant Reformation of the Star Wars universe, and it’s an apt metaphor). The film has a philosophical heart, and that’s a refreshing thing to see in an action/science fiction/space opera film.

Though it risks finding resonance everywhere (as a friend recently pointed out to me), it seems to my eyes that the recent spate of Star Wars films has intervened in our contemporary moment. With the forces of tyranny, authoritarianism, and toxic masculinity in full flood, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair, of wanting to just put your head down and hope that you survive. The Last Jedi, however, tells us that this is the way of the defeated, and that if we accept the brutality than we are complicit in the destruction of both ourselves and what we love. We must fight with every breath of our being, even though it is sometimes exhausting to do so (and even though it looks as if we might lose anyway).

This resonances stems in part from Carrie Fisher, who continues to exude a frail but resilient strength as an aging Leia. It was hard not to tear up every time she came on the screen, exuding her force of will and speaking in that faintly hoarse, slightly whispery way that is a hallmark of her recent performances. This is a woman who seems to know that she is fighting a rising tide but is determined to go down fighting.

In the end, The Last Jedi does give us hope that, even in the midst of great darkness we can still find the resilience and the strength to go on. And in these dark days, that’s a very heartening thought, indeed.

Film Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the Pain of Endings

Spoiler:  Full plot details for the film follow.

As anyone who has read this blog is well-aware, I am a filmgoer who is fascinated by the endings of films. To my mind, the ending of a film can tell us much about not only how the narrative of the drama works (or doesn’t), but also how the film understands the world works (or doesn’t).

Thus, I was particularly compelled by the ending of Rogue One, which tells the story of the group of rebels who undertake the perilous journey to steal the plans for the Death Star. Among them are the young woman Jyn Erso, the Rebel Captain Cassian Andor, the defected pilot Bodhi Rook, the reconfigured droid K-2SO, and Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen, a pair of warriors. While they succeed in beaming the plans to a waiting Rebel fleet–thus enabling the destruction of the Death Star that takes place in A New Hope–the entire brave troop is killed, either in direct battle or by a focused

I have to admit, I was rather stunned–overwhelmed, even–at the ending, in which Jyn and Cassian hold hands as the power of the Death Star is brought to bear, overwhelming them in a cataclysm. How was it possible, I thought, that the two main characters in a Star Wars film would perish? Wasn’t this supposed to be the franchise in which all of the good guys survive? (One would have thought that the death of Han Solo in The Force Awakens would have disabused me of this naïveté, but apparently I forgot that valuable lesson).

Further, the atomic overtones of that destruction, with an enormous cloud of debris and fire rising into the sky, are acutely terrifying. This is particularly true in this era of renewed nuclear threats (witness Trump’s tweet about the possibility of a new nuclear arms race). As anyone familiar with the 1950s and 1960s will know, the threat of atomic annihilation is an acute one in the American unconscious, dovetailing as it so often does with America’s penchant for eschatological fantasies and Christian doomsday prophecies. Given this deep history, and Trump’s happy-go-lucky attitude regarding nukes, it’s no surprise that such a bleak and terrifying ending should appear in a Star Wars film.

What are we to make of the fact that the film ends with the death of the entire cast of characters that have grown to love and respect during the course of the film? On the one hand, certainly, it is meant to fill us with a sense of mingled fulfillment and unease, as we recognize the terrible blood price that has been exacted on those who have engaged in the struggle against tyranny. This is, after all, a war with tremendous consequences, with the Rebellion’s success hanging on a knife’s edge, struggling with its own internal dissent and the fact that the Empire has resources–both military and technological–that they lack. After all, if the Death Star can destroy even a sacred space (which it does, obliterating the capital of the moon Jedha), what hope can the members of the Rebellion have if the Empire should bring its full powers to bear upon them?

The ending, therefore, helps us to understand that this is a full-scale war and, like all wars, it exacts a terrible price in bodies and lives. Freedom, to use a cliche, is not in fact free. Furthermore, there is no guarantee, diegetically at least, that the sacrifices made by this (blessedly diverse) cast of heroes is going to actually do anything to bring about the destruction of the Death Star. We, in the audience, presumably know this, but the characters do not (and I would even go so far as to say that we might even be able to suspend our knowledge of this fact at least temporarily). There is something disquieting about this fact, that the characters perish without the knowledge of whether their sacrifices will ultimately bear fruit.

At a deeper level, it’s hard not to read it also as the expression of the ethos of those who have been dealing with the reality of a Trump victory and what that means for the future of the world that they had envisioned. Is their only hope to be as suicidally obstructionist as possible, in the hope that one day their sacrifices will come to fruition in the fullness of time? Must we continue to work and fight, not knowing whether there is to be any reward for what we do?

As Gerry Canavan noted in an exceptionally astute reading of The Force Awakens, the recent spate of Star Wars films are significantly more pessimistic in their view of history than the original trilogy. That is certainly the case here and, in my view at least, this has as much to do with the rise of Trump and his ne0fascist allies as anything else, as those of us who have embraced the ideals of Western secular democracy find ourselves faced with a very real manifestation of the same dark impulses that brought Palpatine to power and allowed him to maintain it.

As such, Rogue One, despite the claims of studio executives to the contrary, cannot but be seen as the natural product of a world in which the forces of “order” (remember that Trump declared himself the “law and order” candidate”) are in the ascendant, threatening to bring about an end to to everything the Obama Era has come to stand for. However, as Rogue One almost makes clear, while the end of one era may give rise to a darker one, there is still an imperative for those of us who value justice to fight on, even when all hope seems to have vanished.

Coda

At an extra-diegetic level, the film also raises some quite unsettling questions about the nature of endings and the life of the actor. There has, of course, been no small amount of consternation about the fact that Grand Moff Tarkin (played in the original film by the late Peter Cushing) has been reanimated through digital technology, with Guy Henry playing the actual part and the rest being added through CGI. There is something (not entirely unpleasantly) uncanny about seeing this re-created Tarkin onscreen, a reminder of both the character from the first film and the actor who played him (both of whom are, it should be remembered, dead for those of us currently sitting in the theater). At a larger level, such a manipulation of both the digital image and the living body of the actor raises significant questions about whether, in fact, any actor’s performance is ever truly dead and passed, since it is now clear that any actor can be resurrected through digital performance.

As it always does, motion-capture continues to raise ethical and aesthetic questions about the role of animation and technology in the way we experience cinema and the world around us.

Film Review: “Star Wars Episodes VII: The Force Awakens” (2015)

I debated about writing a review of this film. After all, the internet is literally full to bursting with thoughts, speculation, reviews, and box office analysis. But, since this is my own little corner of the internet, I thought I’d share my thoughts (I’ll largely eschew rehashing the plot, both the avoid spoilers and also because the internet is full of synopses).

First off, it is immensely satisfying to see the reunion of the key characters of Luke, Chewie, Han Solo, Leia, and of course the droids C-3PO and R2-D2. It’s hard to describe exactly what lends this series of moments their power, other than to say that it’s like seeing old friends that you haven’t seen in 30 years reunited once again.

Aside from the nostalgia factor, the four strongest appeals of the film were:  the reunion of the principle cast members from the original trilogy; Adam Driver’s portrayal of the broken and tragic Kylo Ren; the introduction of the most kickass heroine yet to appear in a Star Wars film; and the budding (b)romance between Finn and Poe.

I’ve always been a fan of Adam Driver’s, ever since I first saw his Byronic/Heathcliffian turn in Girls. Here, he brings that experience to good use, and his slightly elfin good looks lend an almost tender appearance to this torn and fractured character. Yes, it’s clear that he has begun his inevitable spiral into the horrors made possible by the Dark Side, but in the Star Wars universe there is always hope for redemption, and Driver’s particular brand of charisma makes me hope that there may be some for him when the trilogy reaches its conclusion.

For her party, Rey emerges as the film’s center. While she slides neatly into the role of the brave young hero (Joseph Campbell, anyone?), she is also a character in her own right. No small amount of digital ink has already been spilled debating whether she is the feminist character that Star Wars fans have been yearning for a long time, and I think that she is. She is resourceful and clever, independent and also complicated, yet driven by friendship and compassion. In that sense, she serves as the light to Kylo’s tortured shadow, the hope that perhaps, he can attain the redemption that eventually saved the grandfather that he so desires to emulate.

Lastly, we have the obvious romance between Poe and Finn. Okay, maybe it’s not obvious to everyone, but I certainly noticed a bit more than friendliness between the great pilot and the escapee from the First Order. The sharing of the jacket, their unalloyed joy at being reunited after a separation, all just seemed to contain more than mere friendliness. Do I think that the filmmakers will go full-on and make the ship a reality? Probably not. But still, they’ve given us more than a little to work with (the fact that it is two men of colour makes it even better).

But of course, no review of The Force Awakens would be complete without mentioning the soon-to-be iconic droid BB-8. He is definitely one of (if not the) most endearing robot I have ever seen (with the possible exception of WALL*E). I’m still not sure how those beeps and clicks can make the heart melt at their cuteness, but they do, from beginning to end.

There were a few rather unfortunate CGI moments, both of which raised the unfortunate spectre of the much-maligned prequels. While Supreme Leader Snoke has some potential as the successor to the great Emperor Palpatine, the CGI used to render him made him almost too-cartoonish. The same goes for Maz Kanata, who was just a bit too CGI for my own taste. While motion capture really does allow for a flexibility of facial movement not attainable with prosthetics, something about it just doesn’t quite work in The Force Awakens.

While The Force Awakens didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel when it comes to plot (even a cursory look at any synopsis will raise more than a few echoes of A New Hope), through some strange alchemy it manages to make itself stand out. I would say that this has a lot to do with the increased diversity on offer, as the powers that be seem to have finally recognized that both women and people of colour comprise a large part of the sci-fi audience. Whatever the cause, The Force Awakens is a delightful way to experience the Star Wars , both for those inhabiting it for the first time and those who have been there many times before.