Star Wars: The Last Jedi – progress, this is

Staaaar Waarrrs, na na na, Staaar Waaars. So sang my partner Saturday morning as we strolled down to the rather lovely Olympic studios cinema in southwest London to catch the latest in the franchise, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson.

This film continues events from The Force Awakens, one which saw the return of old characters that many of us loved so dearly from the original films: Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill); although the latter only appeared in a single scene.

It also ushered in a new generation of heroes that mixed it up well with the golden oldies: scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), Stormtrooper turned rebel Finn (John Boyega), X-Wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) and a few others. Plus, a new bad guy, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), taking on the heavy burden of Darth Vader’s mantle, but giving us a more layered, nuanced and conflicted antagonist than Vader ever really was.

At the end of The Force Awakens, (SPOILER if you’ve not seen it) Rey, realising she was naturally strong with the force, went off in search of Luke and found him living as a recluse on a windswept island, the spiritual home of the Jedi.

So, logically, we pick up (with a brief detour with prequel Rogue One) where we left off and The Last Jedi’s focus, in part, is Rey’s quest to find out why Luke has hidden himself away, and what happened with Ben that caused the young apprentice to bat for Team Evil; causing Luke to blame himself and ultimately retreat to a corner of the galaxy, Obi-Wan/Yoda style, to live out his days.

The Last Jedi is also very much Rey’s journey – who is she, really? Why does she have such power? Who are her parents? What connection does she have to Kylo? What can Luke teach her? Does he even want to teach her? For me, this exploration of character is the most interesting part of the story.

Alongside Luke’s holiday island getaway storyline we have the usual cat and mouse back and forth space tangles across the galaxy, with the First Order chasing rebel scum. Big ships, little ships, cardboard boxes. Although, cleverly, Johnson turns this into a slow burn strategic battle, with the rebels staying a safe (ish) distance from the First Order as they inexorably run out of fuel.

This chase is led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hamming it up and spitting venom with every chance he gets. On the side of the rebellion we have General Leia, but also a new addition, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, with tremendous purple hair). She lends an air of calm, warmth and gravitas to the impulsive rebellion. Leia version 2.0, in a way.

Her addition helps the gender balance too, with all the big swinging light sabres around the place – something her character directly addresses when putting Isaac’s flyboy Poe in his place, following Leia doing much the same to him in an earlier scene. Both women criticise him for acting the hero no matter the cost, saying that true leaders are less cavalier with the lives of those they’ve said they’d protect. Which is actually a pretty refreshing shift in character for a blockbuster to take.

Moreover, this could be a giant flag planted in terms of where Disney want to take the franchise, reinventing and progressing it and moving it away from the Alpha male Han Solo types, to perhaps a more considered protagonist. Which can only be a good thing for future films. If it works with Stars Wars, it’ll work with most big movies they put out.

So, Johnson has written and directed a film that’s in keeping with – and respectful of – existing Star Wars canon, but also paves the way for the future, with an engaging, progressive story and compelling (largely modern) strong characters (that are both men and women) and feels logical, in terms of a narrative, in that the first film, The Force Awakens, is Han’s story, therefore The Last Jedi becomes Luke’s, with Leia the glue between the two.

(As one internet meme suggested, it’s basically the galaxy’s most dysfunctional family inflicting their woes on everyone else, resulting in decades of war).

Roughly a week since the film’s release it’s also a funny thing because there has been massive backlash, much more so than The Force Awakens, with some have accusing it of being ‘too Disney’, whatever that means. These were always kid’s films, so yeah, odd. Moreover, there’s a lot of adult material in them, but they’re fun adventures. I mean, Wikipedia describes them as ‘epic space operas’, so we shouldn’t really hold them to a higher bar than that.

Then there’s the diversity criticism: all these women, shock, horror, where did they come from? Or a black guy and an Asian woman in such prominent roles? Who the hell signed this off? People of colour can’t be Stormtroopers, women can’t be rebels, admirals, generals, blah, blah, whatever. These people can crawl back under the rocks from whence they came. I mean, honestly.

Hey, listen, this is progress. Whatever the film, however one interprets it, this is all moving in what, presumably, is the right direction in terms of modern cinema. Unless you’re some sort of misogynist, racist, luddite, who considers a ‘modern’ hero to be Harrison Ford leering over Carrie Fisher’s Leia, not letting her escape, then forcing a kiss. Or the fact that the original films had one person of colour, Lando; the satisfaction of a diversity box ticked and a job well done at the time.

Anyway, digressing. To put things in perspective, this film has had the second biggest opening weekend in movie history, $450m worldwide. So, someone is watching (and enjoying it), yet online trolls have loud voices, so we just must remember to take them with a pinch of salt. And not feed them.

For my part, the cast (the new lot) looked much more settled in their roles. The comedy largely works, despite what backwards fanboys/man-babies cry about on the internet. There’s a lot more flesh on the bones of characters, in particular Kylo Ren and Rey and the dynamic between them both. The way their relationship plays out is one of the most interesting things about the film.

And Luke. Good old Mr Skywalker.

In all honesty, Mark bloody Hamill is perhaps the coolest character to make a return to this franchise. Whilst Leia, Han, Chewie and others left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, Luke returning was actually just hands-down cool. Particularly one or two scenes in the film’s final third, which basically cemented Luke as one of the most compelling (and bad ass) heroes to grace the franchise. Straight out of a Western, in the best sense.

Thinking back, I found him a fairly straight arrow hero in the original films, but here he’s so much more layered. Taking a leaf from Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan in the originals, here Hamill gets to showcase a lot more of his acting chops, and it’s a delight to see.

I’ll need to see Rogue One again to be sure, but I think this might possibly pip it to the post as the best of the new Star Wars films yet. Simply because it’s trying a few new things, which is, frankly, what this franchise needs if it’s going to stay relevant to a modern audience.

Dammit Christensen, you ruined Star Wars!

You know how these days Google predicts search terms as you type based on searches others have made? The reason I mention this is the other night Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was on TV. I found myself watching despite the fact that disappointment lurked around the corner.

I am, of course, talking about Hayden Christensen. Now this film was released in 2002 and I cannot believe that, despite the amount of time passing, Christensen’s performance still bothers me. Enough to motivate me to write this piece at least.

Straight after the film I fired up my laptop and began to type ‘Hayden Christensen c…’ and you know what Google predicts? (Get your minds out the gutter for a second.) As soon as you hit the last ‘c’ it gives you, ‘can’t act’, ‘career over’ and ‘criticism’. Seems I’m not alone in my assessment of his performance.

Lukesaberanh

Star Wars – the original trilogy – was massive, huge, so influential it became ingrained in modern culture and it’s stood the test of time and remained popular from the first film in the late ’70s to the present day. The world George Lucas created was captivating… the Force, the Jedi, the Sith – all of it so richly drawn out but – and this is a big but – above all, it was human.

The characters he created were human ones, they were flawed, they struggled and fought and loved and lost. For example: Luke to understand where he came from and what his power was; Leia, in part, the same; Han to get his rocks off with Leia and prove to himself he wasn’t as selfish as he first came across. And so on.

That is why if you’re going to do a bunch of new films it’s essential you cast Anakin Skywalker as well as you possibly can. All the background about separatists, the republic, the senate, political power plays – that’s all it is, background. These films have always been about the Jedi and the Force and the whole story arc (in this case) revolves around Anakin and his journey from light to dark. It’s what we all want to see and have paid our bucks for – everything else is window dressing, to a degree.

Anakin

So why couldn’t he deliver?

Now I know it’s easy to condemn and hard to create but honestly, how did Hayden Christensen get the part? He had been in precious little before Star Wars and his career after has been sparse to say the least. I know some say these films are career killers; for example in the Family Guy version Peter Griffin (playing Han Solo) introduces himself by saying ‘I’m Captain of the Millennium Falcon and the only actor whose career isn’t killed by this movie’.

I suppose this was more true of the original trilogy than these modern prequels, established actors like Ewan Mcgregor and Liam Neeson all fared well post-Star Wars, but then they didn’t have the heavy burden of being the lead. They propped him up as best they could, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

Just to put things in perspective: I didn’t buy the way Christensen attempted to portray inner conflict as he wrestled between the two sides of the Force; I felt his delivery of dialogue was stilted and forced; I felt he lacked chemistry with Natalie Portman’s character; I didn’t like his stupid haircut; I didn’t like the fact that a number of his scenes had a homoerotic undercurrent, he had more chemistry with Ewan Mcgregor’s Obi-Wan for Christ’s sake.

To be serious for a second, one of the few scenes in which he actually convinced was his final battle with Kinobe on the river of lava. Much closer tonally to the original films… dark, brooding, dramatic and intense. In that respect maybe their bromance helped, ‘I loved you Anakin!’ (Ahem, like a brother.)

Who else?

It would be fascinating (or infuriating) to know which up-and-coming actors auditioned for the role at the time and were rejected. Given Attack of the Clones came out in 2002 guys breaking out then included: Jack Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, 2001), James Franco (Spider-man, 2002), Christian Bale (American Psycho, 2000) and Ryan Phillippe (Way of the Gun, 2000).

Christian Bale wasn’t right as he was probably too old and just doesn’t seem the right fit, however there’s a few scenes in American Psycho that make you think maybe he could have done something pretty interesting with the role. Ryan Phillippe is similar in appearance to Christensen and showed great inner conflict in Way of the Gun with a surprising level of emotional depth. (Incidentally, it’s a great film and worth a watch if you get the chance.)

Then there’s Jake Gyllenhaal. He would have been a brave albeit unconventional fit – his creepy and tormented downward spiral in Donnie Darko showed he could have handled the character’s journey from light to dark. And James Franco may have been an interesting choice too, as he’s since showed in his career he likes to take on alternative types of roles, such as 127 Hours and Spring Breakers.

attackoftheclonesbdcap8_original

In a galaxy far, far away

Anyway, none of this matters. We’re stuck with Christensen as Anakin – so as a rule of thumb, if you’re bored one day and fancy a Star Wars fix, one that has classic scenes, tension, dread, adventure, joy and wonder – stick with the originals. If you want glossy CGI action aimed at kids, Jar Jar sodding Binks refusing to shut up and Samuel L. Jackson flashing his purple light sabre around the place, go with the modern prequels.

But then, if you’re reading this blog you’re most likely film fans (you clever lot) and know this already. In fact, maybe I’m just taking this all too seriously and had better go watch the Family Guy version to lighten up. May the farce be with you.

PS Read my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens here.
http://mikeysfilmreviews.com/2015/12/22/star-wars-the-force-awakens-review/