Star Wars Eats Itself

The decidedly uneven reaction to The Last Jedi, combined with the dismal box office performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story leads to one inescapable conclusion: Star Wars is in the midst of an existential crisis.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

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When Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, George Lucas agreed to hang up his laser sword and the original trilogy cast signed on to return, the future of the saga looked assured. Under Kathleen Kennedy’s confident stewardship as the most successful movie producer of all time, it seemed an inevitability that the series would once again crush the box office underfoot with the ease of an Imperial Walker trampling Rebel snowspeeders. Indeed, the first film out of the gate — 2015’s The Force Awakens — did just that. Yes, some fans had nitpicks here and there, but overall it did exactly what was expected, i.e. engage wide audiences, smash box-office records and make Star Wars cool again. But, with the benefit of hindsight, were there signs of trouble right from the start?

Burying the Prequels

The Force Awakens is as much a critique of George Lucas’s prequels (the Star Wars films that immediately preceded it) as it is a return to filmmaking values of the original trilogy. In many ways, it’s the exact polar opposite of the prequels, for better — and for worse.

It is lazy (and incorrect) to think of The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) as universally terrible, with no redeeming qualities whatever. Yes the writing is comically wretched, the acting (mostly) wooden, the direction workmanlike at best, and the special effects simultaneously too rich and too cartoon-like — any one of these would be enough to sink a franchise blockbuster, even one aimed at children. And yet I must give Lucas credit for his world-building, and for trying to tell a completely different story than before, with a different aesthetic. For many fans of the 1970’s originals, these just didn’t feel the same — which is because Lucas didn’t intend them to. He took a big risk and it didn’t pay off, but he was still brave enough to try.

When the tide of public opinion turned against him after the much hyped debut of Phantom Menace, Lucas (perhaps understandably) became outwardly defensive:

I see my audience and my audience is me, you know? I make these films for myself more than I make them for anybody else.

— George Lucas

He repeated this mantra so often that I wonder if he began internalising it, to the point that forgot about the audience entirely. The fundamentals of storytelling (the art of which he had once been an absolute master) started to slip, and he became apathetic, to the point of laziness.

His successor J.J. Abrams wanted to show the world that yes, it was possible to make new Star Wars films that felt right, and that the original classics weren’t lightning-in-a-bottle one-offs. In doing so he reacted strongly against the prequels and strove to put as much daylight as possible between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. Perhaps too much:

I have a thought about putting Jar Jar Binks’s bones in the desert

— J.J. Abrams

Abrams already had one eye on the previous films, whereas his one and only objective should’ve been to delight an audience. Unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens was light, funny, character-driven, engaging, favoured practical effects, and wasn’t overly concerned with franchise baggage. However, it also diverged from the positive aspects of Lucas’s second trilogy: the galactic politics were muddled and confusing; the story was unoriginal and repetitive; the visual aesthetic (particularly the ship design) was unambitious.

The saga was starting to furtively eye its own tail.

Let the Mystery Box Die

The production of Disney’s 2017 sequel to its own The Force Awakens is an account of a franchise starting to self-harm. Rather than the exercise in close collaboration that one would expect from writers Abrams & Kasdan handing the baton on to Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi (2017) feels more like the result of a stuck-up prom queen being handed a love letter by a geeky kid, who relishes the prospect of ripping it to pieces in front of his face.

What I said before about the powerful cannon about to shoot it into the Earth, I’m feeling the reality of that. I guess now it’s just hoping to God that I’ve loaded a decent cannonball into the gun.

— Rian Johnson

Episode VII left us with several questions that needed addressing somewhere down the line. Instead of coming up with interesting answers (or at least deferring them) Johnson contradicts the previous film by insisting they’re not important questions at all. Expectations subverted? Definitely. Contemptuous? Sure looks like it.

Eyebrows considerably raised.

  • Who were Rey’s parents? “Nobody”
  • Why does the lightsaber call to Rey? “No reason”
  • Who is Snoke? “Not important”
  • What are the implications of the Resistance’s victory in destroying Starkiller base? “None”
  • What will we learn of Finn’s origins? “Nothing”
  • How will Finn & Rey’s relationship develop? “It won’t”
  • Who are the Knights of Ren? “Not important”
  • Why was it so important for Luke to return? “It isn’t; he won’t”

The more you look at it, the more Johnson’s effort appears to be a disdainful dismissal of everything Abrams and Kasdan set up in Episode VII, as well as a direct contradiction of what Star Wars meant to those guys. This is a film with very little interest in appealing to a general audience or satisfying longtime fans. Quite the opposite: it was clearly written with the express intention of tearing down everything that came before. The more angry and upset fans became, the more Johnson was satisfied, as is evidenced by his social media posts.

Star Wars has become self-obsessed and navel-gazing, while trying to appeal exclusively to people who don’t like Star Wars. The tail may taste good for now, but this is a franchise in its death throes.

Character Traits, Character Arcs, Throne Rooms and Italian Restaurants

The fallout from The Last Jedi has brought to light a fundamental misapprehension among some fans, critics and even filmmakers themselves. Interestingly, it seems to be a reliable indicator of how a person responds to the movie itself.

 Decisions, decisions

Decisions, decisions

In the film we see Luke Skywalker sneaking up to his sleeping nephew—an innocent boy—lightsaber drawn, about to commit murder. Sensing terrible darkness in him, the old Jedi Master momentarily succumbs to the temptations of the dark side.

At that moment, millions of fans cried out in horror, “Luke would never do this!”. But countless others replied, “What? Yes he would, he’s done it before! It’s his character flaw!

So the question is: are Luke’s flirtations with the dark side a character trait or his character arc?

Trait-ers:

Yoda was unable to teach Luke Skywalker how to pay attention to the living Force instead of giving in to fear and doubt.
Then Luke goes to Ben Solo’s hut and sees that future all over again. And, as before, his saber ignites. [...]

I’ve heard it argued that Luke would never consider this again, but facing the Dark side of yourself isn’t a “one time and it’s over thing.” It’s a constant.

Arc-ivists:

And thus the Fan Wars began. But which side is correct? How are we to know the good side from the bad? As Yoda says:

You will know, when you are calm, at peace.

Well, the fandom is pretty far from peace, but I think I know what the issue is here. The confusion arises from the conflation of character traits and character arcs.

As audiences, we love watching arcs play out because we get to see a character struggle with a character flaw, and ultimately either overcome it, or succumb to it. The arc serves to permanently—and fundamentally—change them, and, (unlike in real life), the pivotal moment is usually encapsulated in a single, defining event. In contrast, traits are intrinsic parts of the character and are unaffected by the arc.

Generally speaking, audiences need neither know nor care about this technical distinction—nor should they: well told stories work on an instinctual level. But certainly it is easier to distinguish in some characters more than others. 

The Man-cub

For example, if we look at Mowgli from Disney’s 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book: he is determined to stay in the jungle, despite the jungle animals’ best efforts to return him to the the man-village for his own safety. Like another co-opted Disney character *Peter Pan*, he is trying to preserve his childish innocence forever. This is reflected in Mowgli’s character traits: he values his freedom, independence and the his forest home above all else. He stubbornly rejects human civilisation. Just as the animals have all but given up trying to send him back, he happens upon a girl collecting water and is transfixed, “Just a minute, I’ve never seen one before”, and then happily her into the village. This deftly (and amusingly) resolves his character arc. But we don’t for a second think Mowgli will *always* be reduced to a babbling fool every time he sees a girl. We instinctively understand this moment to be transformative: Mowgli is entering adolescence and it’s time for him to move on. Much to Baloo’s disgust, he *is* a man after all.

The Space Trucker

One of cinema’s all-time great character arcs is the one that transforms Ellen Ripley from deep space cargo haulier to gun-toting heroine. It miraculously spans two films (Alien & Aliens) by different writers and directors, while being entirely cohesive. In Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, Ripley battles a terrifying alien creature which wipes out her crew. Her character traits – such as clear thinking, steely determination and an iron will – enables her eventual triumph. While these traits keep her alive, it is also clear that she remains absolutely terrified of the monster. Indeed, in the famous final scene she is literally paralysed with fear.

Likewise, at the start of James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Ripley is still suffering from nightmares and refuses point blank to return to LV-426. However, Cameron’s marvellous script gives her a surrogate daughter to care for and protect, and when that child is threatened, Ripley’s maternal rage is so powerful that it entirely consumes her terror. In a brilliant third act reversal the tables are turned: now it’s the monster that is afraid of her. The creature will never again disturb her dreams. But this still isn’t a character trait: it doesn’t mean that Ripley is now a killing machine who isn’t afraid of anything.

Archaeologists, Writers and Regional Managers

Some more examples picked at random:

David Brent, The Office (UK)

  • Character traits: socially awkward, clumsy, self obsessed, cowardly.
  • Character arc: at his lowest ebb he finally forms a romantic connection with a woman and then finds the courage to stand up for himself.
  • Defining moment: in the final episode of the series he challenges the behaviour of his erstwhile idol, the loathsome bully Chris Finch.

Edward Lewis, Pretty Woman

  • Character traits: afraid of heights, shrewd businessman, socially reserved.
  • Character arc: he finally discovers someone (and something) he loves more than the empty pursuit of money.
  • Defining moment: he defends Vivian from his abusive lawyer and announces that he’s going into the ship-building business.

Amy (Amy Schumer), Trainwreck

  • Character traits: career-focused, ambitious, dismissive of relationships
  • Character arc: she overcomes her fear of commitment
  • Defining moment: she participates in a cheerleading team as a demonstration of her willingness to change and her desire to commit to a relationship with Aaron

Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark

  • Character traits: adventurous, academic, grizzled, worldly
  • Character arc: his secular, scientific worldview is challenged by the presence of a genuinely divine artefact and he discovers his latent faith
  • Defining moment: “Shut your eyes Marion, don’t look at it”

Leave the lightsaber, take the cannoli

In many ways, the closest comparison to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is to be found in another famous – but much more grounded – sequel: Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II (1975). Micheal’s arc, which began in 1972’s The Godfather – as well as its defining moment – exactly mirrors Luke’s, except with the inverse outcome. Both Luke and Michael struggled with the temptation to resolve their crises by doing evil.

After retrieving the gun hidden for him in a restaurant bathroom, Michael returns to his table and wrestles with his conscience as he tunes out of the conversation. It is a battle he is fated to lose. When he looks up he is a changed man: cold and resolute. He calmly stands and guns down his enemies, and so begins his downward spiral into the abyss. By the end of the second film we are left in no doubt that he has fully descended into hell; the internal conflict has long since been resolved.

To demonstrate just how far Michael has fallen, the sequel shows us a replay of his original sin, as he orders the killing of his own brother. This time there is no struggle, no hesitation. The killing of Fredo is horrifying because we are watching evil incarnate at work. The full, terrible consequences of Michael’s actions at Louie’s Restaurant have been realised.

In his turbulent youth Luke Skywalker could’ve gone that way, for sure. Hisexistential crisis played out not in an Italian restaurant but in the Emperor’s throne room on the Death Star II, in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Taunted by the prospect of the final defeat of the Rebel Alliance and the death of his friends he struggles to keep his composure.

Luke is trapped in a devilish paradox: to save the galaxy he knows he must kill the Emperor (and perhaps his own father), but Yoda’s teaching is crystal clear:

A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, NEVER for attack

The Emperor also wants Luke to go for his weapon, to choose the quick and easy path and condemn himself to the dark side.

You’ve failed your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

“So be it, Jedi

Luke had been trying to convince himself he was a Jedi for three movies, and each time Yoda told him, “Not yet”. Now, he no longer needs to ask the question: he is a Jedi.

Luke experiences a spiritual transcendence and achieves a kind of enlightenment, an inner calm (reminiscent of the protagonist’s arc in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha). Luke finally understands what Yoda has been trying to tell him; that the Jedi Order is about attaining inner peace, not magic tricks, levitating rocks or lightsaber skills. Like Michael Corleone, Luke Skywalker’s struggle is definitively resolved – but in the opposite direction.

Luke is still courageous, reckless, and willing to risk everything to save his friends, but his character arc is done. His battle with the dark side is won, and – like Harry Potter’s scar after the vanquishing of Voldemort – it will not trouble him again. All is well.

Sadly, the one person who evidently didn’t understand any of this, is also the one person who really needed to:

It’s that glimpse of… and Luke has never been… it’s not like Luke is a Superman who’s impervious to that. Having just, even the brief moment of temptation of it,” Johnson said, “because that’s what that moment is. He doesn’t give in to the Dark Side, it’s a moment of temptation to the Dark Side.”

Johnson continued, “It reminds me very much of when Vader is tempting Luke, when Luke is underneath the stairs in [Return of the] Jedi, lit with that very beautiful half-and-half, the duality of these two sides of him being pulled. And that’s really what that moment is for me, it’s a moment of temptation to the Dark Side for Luke.
I at one point had to say to Rian, ‘I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character.’

When Star Wars fans say Johnson ‘ruined Luke’s character’, or that this Luke ‘bears no resemblance’ to the character they know and love, it is the literal truth, not sour grapes.

Not only has Luke’s arc been reversed, his traits are also now different: he’s resentful not courageous, reclusive rather than reckless, and won’t risk anything to save his friends. He’s just going to sit on his rock damnit. He has also become an unreliable narrator and a liar. This Luke Skywalker (Luke Skywalker!) is definitely not someone you’d trust around your kids – or Princess Leia’s kid. The only connection to the character we know is that Hamill is playing the role again (which he agreed to on trust, without being given the opportunity to read the script in advance, unlike Fisher and Ford).

Once again, The Godfather: Part II is the touchstone. Michael’s decadent descent is brilliantly contrasted with his father Vito’s scrappy rise to power 40 years earlier. A much younger Robert De Niro takes over the role from Marlon Brando, posing a real danger that audiences would not be able to connect the two performances. However, the writers took pains to ensure that Vito’s character traits were fully present and correct (i.e. he is cunning, loyal, ruthless, honourable and devoted to his family), and so the magic trick was pulled off with aplomb.

For Hamill, the situation was very different: there was nothing left of Luke to hook on to or reconnect with:

I almost had to think of Luke as another character. Maybe he’s Jake Skywalker. He’s not my Luke Skywalker

Denial is running wild at the House of Mouse

I've got a bad feeling about this.

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Speaking with THR, Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis expressed his concerns at Solo: A Star Wars Story’s box-office nose-dive into the Sarlacc Pit:

We have a lot of work to do in trying to understand this. We are all over it and will spend a lot of time digging into why things happened the way they did in various markets… There’s a question of frequency, and how many times people will go to the movies. Is this too much and too soon

While they’re digging, they might want to think about why Disney’s other mega-franchise – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – seems to get bigger, draw more fans, and bank increasingly humongous box-office with each new film.

Why is their immediate presumtion that Star Wars films are – like Tie Fighters around a moon-sized space station – coming in too fast? Frequency doesn’t seem to be an issue with their galaxy of superheroes. Quite the reverse.

Anecdotally, most people I know (who couldn’t have told Iron Man from Doctor Strange ten years ago) can’t wait to see Infinity War Part 2, while die-hard Star Wars fans are apathetic of even catching Episode IX when it’s released on DVD.

Apparently, denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, it’s also the Star Wars executive comfort blanket.

Episode 8 is so slight it feels more like Episode 7.5, and that’s a big problem for the trilogy

Movie trilogies can generally be categorised into two distinct groups. However, The Last Jedi breaks the newest Star Wars trilogy off into uncharted space.

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In the first group are those trilogies that consist of three self-contained stories which are only loosely connected, and (usually) weren’t originally intended to be trilogies at all. Examples include:

  • The Toy Story trilogy
  • The Dark Knight trilogy
  • The Godfather trilogy
  • The Dollars trilogy
  • Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy
  • Star Trek II – IV

The second kind is arguably rarer, in which the films were either conceived as a single story spanning three movies right from the beginning, or were refactored as such immediately after the first film became a hit:

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • The Hobbit trilogy
  • The original Star Wars trilogy
  • The Star Wars prequel trilogy
  • The Matrix trilogy
  • The Back to the Future trilogy

It is inconceivable to imagine that the new Star Wars trilogy (if it is a trilogy – more on that later) wasn’t likewise intended to be the latter. The problem is that Episode 8 achieves the mind-boggling feat of being so slight that hardly anything of any consequence actually happens, while simultaneously wraps up all the loose ends, leaving the last film nowhere to go.

But hey, that’s not Rian Johnson’s problem.

 

A DVD Extra

On the one hand The Last Jedi feels utterly perfunctory – a big budget dvd extra on the The Force Awakens disk – yet it ends on a note conclusive enough to wrap up the entire saga.

We’re forced to ask: did this story really need to be told at all? And, now that it has been, is there still a need for Episode 9? Weird.

It’s the equivalent of Rian Johnson using up a saga movie to show us the story of Han, Luke and Leia running into the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell. It’s a minor adventure that would’ve worked better as a one-liner from Poe, in the midst of our heroes getting on with the real story:

Poe: “I dunno General Leia, this plan is risky. Remember when we were holed up in that base during the Battle of Crait? We were lucky to make it out alive.”

Leia: “You mean, we were lucky Rey rescued us. She’s going to be a fine Jedi someday, I can feel it. She reminds me of my brother.”

It is background colour, not the main event.

While it’s true that the events of The Empire Strikes Back did little to advance the larger-plot of the Rebels fighting the Empire, but it’s crystal clear why we absolutely needed to see them. Empire showed us the critical moments in the lives of the characters that defined their relationships. We see Leia & Han’s spark of attraction blossom into a love affair; the ‘Mary Sue’-esque Luke Skywalker learned the price of failure as he is left beaten and maimed by his father; secrets are revealed and themes of betrayal and loss permeate the story.

By contrast, in Episode 8 we discover absolutely nothing about our protagonists, and the plot barely advances at all. Sad to say, in terms of the saga, Episode 8 is skippable.

It entirely fails as the middle entry in a trilogy even in the most basic terms of setting up the next movie. I would give Johnson credit for being gutsy enough to break all the rules of narrative, if it weren’t for the fact that he knew he wasn’t going to be making the third movie. That shit is someone else’s problem to figure out: specifically, it’s J.J. Abrams’ problem. Again.

Imagine James Cameron leaving Aliens the way he did if he knew Alien 3 was planned to immediately go into production to complete the story. Indeed, part of the reason why Jonathan Mostow’s 2003 Terminator follow-up T3 was so abysmal was because Cameron’s 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day conclusively ended the series, leaving nowhere to go.

 

Breaking the Rules

We only have to look at the famous examples cited above to understand the job any middle film is supposed to accomplish. It boils down to this: put the heroes through the wringer, leaving them at their lowest ebb, but still with the faintest glimmer of hope of achieving their ultimate goal (which should be crystal clear to the audience by now).

Will Frodo reach Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring before he’s caught?

Can Bilbo and his friends slay the mighty dragon and restore the Dwarves to their homeland?

Can Luke defeat Darth Vader and the Emperor? Will Han Solo be rescued from Jabba the Hut? Can the Rebel Alliance finally overthrow the Galactic Empire? Will Han and Leia get together at last? Is Darth Vader really Luke’s father?

Will that boy-band-reject somehow become Darth Vader and kill all those boring monk-guys… or something. Will any of the cast learn how to convey a convincing human emotion?

Can Neo destroy the Matrix and free all the trapped slaves, while also saving Zion?

Can Marty McFly rescue Doc Brown from the Old West and restore the timeline to its proper order?

In each example there are clear problems, clear stakes and clear goals. As audience-members we need to know what happens next, and how the story gets resolved. (Or in the case of the prequels, we just need it to be over.)

Now let’s look at where The Last Jedi leaves us: Rey is strong with the Force and is destined to become a Jedi. But then, we already knew that at the end of Episode 7. Finn’s situation is the same: just like at the end of Episode 7 we understand that he has chosen to fight against the First Order. We have also learned more about Poe - rather too much actually. Inexplicably, it seems he is going to be the new leader of the Resistance... whatever. Meanwhile, his opposite number – the equally unlikeable Ben Solo – has also usurped the evil throne to become leader of the First Order. Boo. Hiss. Yawn.

So, what is there left to be done in the Star Wars universe that necessitates yet another movie? Do we need to check in on the Ewoks? Does a second Starkiller Base need blowing up?

There are no romantic tensions left to be resolved (at least, I dearly hope so for all our sakes. Let’s just pretend the icky romantic ‘tension’ so awkwardly hinted at in Episode 8 never happened). Nor are there any doubts about whether Rey will become a Jedi – she continued to connect with the Force as easily in Episode 8 as she did in Episode 7. Not to mention that – one way or another – our beloved original trilogy heroes are all dead now (or just forgotten).

All that’s left is to get to the big battle where the Resistance (or are they Rebels again?) defeats the First Order forces (or are they the Empire again?). Except, that’s definitely not going to happen folks, because Disney still has a few hundred Star Wars movies in the pipeline.

What is Episode 9 actually going to be about? Beats me. Episode 8 is so flimsy I actually can’t think of any way that a satisfying trilogy can be made out of this mess, just by bolting on another film. There’s just too much heavy lifting required.

Good luck J.J. – but something tells me we’ll all be back again in a couple of years for Episode 10.

Would all the misogynists and racists please shut up, you’re ruining my hatred of The Last Jedi

If the latest Star Wars saga entry has taught us anything, it’s that the legitimate complaints of huge swathes of fans can be dismissed, ignored and ridiculed if a small number of morons shout loudly enough.

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The Last Jedi was easily the most polarising film of 2017, with the division most prominently demonstrated on Rotten Tomatoes, which — at time of writing — has a critical approval rating of 90%, compared to a mere 47% of audiences.

That clearly translated into a lot of column inches praising of the film, and a heck of a lot of dissatisfied cinema-goers grumbling on social media. By contrast, The Force Awakens did stellar business at the box office, by-and-large winning over lifelong Star Wars fans, the general public and critics alike. So what was it about Rian Johnson’s followup — which featured largely the same cast and plot-threads introduced by previous writer/director J.J. Abrams — that led to such apathy for that galaxy far, far away?

The principle of Occams razor tells us that the simplest explanation is usually the most likely: while critics are likely to be impressed by the film’s artistic merits (The Last Jedi is undeniably visually dazzling, is directed with panache and boasts fine performances from its committed cast), devoted fans will be far more concerned with the the film’s place in the broader story and signs that the filmmaker truly ‘gets’ Star Wars. Put simply, fans want to check under the hood and kick the tyres before getting carried away admiring the bodywork.

Indeed, up to now, critics and fans have largely been in agreement about Star Wars. Neither would deny that the original trilogy was spectacular entertainment, imbued with iconic characters, dazzling spectacle and moments of brilliance. The prequels were universally reviled, not just for their considerable artistic failures, but also for horribly botching Anakin Skywalker’s backstory. Similarly, when critics noted that although The Force Awakens was somewhat lacking in narrative ambition, it still delivered the classic Star Wars ‘feel’, with great new and returning characters, and none of Lucas’s ear-scraping dialogue — fans nodded their agreement.

However, The Last Jedi was very different. Ambitious? (Arguably) yes. Beautifully shot? Undeniably. A fully realised directorial vision? I guess.

But: beloved characters were not honoured. Storylines were muddled. Important Force Awakens characters were pushed to the side. Star Wars lore was fundamentally misunderstood. To many, it seemed as though Johnson didn’t really understand Star Wars. It was all very odd.

Inevitably then, the reaction from long suffering, prequel-scarred fans was swift and brutal. This was not at all what they’d waited four decades for.

I bet the back of Kathleen Kennedy’s neck prickled a bit when the negative reactions started appearing on social media from the (supposedly) revered fan-community. Just a couple at first, before becoming a steady stream, then a torrent. While critics were sold on the film, and it did work for a chunk of the audience, it landed with a dull thud for a great many others — perhaps the majority. I’m sure Kennedy was scrambling to figure out what went wrong.

Fortunately, detailed, extensive and thoughtful critiques were not hard to find. Complaints of weak characterisation; plot threads abandoned; jokes that seemed out of place and just didn’t land; mysteries set up by The Force Awakens summarily dropped; character arcs repeating themselves; contradictory, muddled storytelling; the film telling us it was charting a bold new direction while simultaneously pushing the big honking reset button; dubious racial stereotyping; and, worst of all, a beloved hero from the original trilogy inexplicably dragged through the mud.

Surely, just for a moment, Kennedy must’ve wondered if she had a stinker on her hands. Had she sunk the reborn franchise before it even got off the ground?

Crisis averted

But then, just as serious concerns perhaps began to creep into her mind, some stupendous moron gifted her with the release a re-edited version of the movie in which all the female characters were removed. This emboldened a bunch of halfwits to scream sexist vitriol across twitter.

Phew! What a relief! The movie didn’t have problems after all; everyone who hated it was just a racist misogynist. Thank the maker! Crisis averted. All-hands meeting with Disney’s top brass cancelled.

All that was left for Lucasfilm to do was put the word out there that the vast majority of the franchise’s formerly beloved fanbase were actually disgusting, sexist racists. You can probably picture the type without much effort: middle-aged, fat, white men still living in their parents basements. These countless millions of dorky mouth-breathers had suffered in silence through the long dark years of Princess Leia (the least distressed damsel in cinema history) and Lando Calrissian (the black leader of a technologically advanced utopian society four decades before Black Panther’s cinema debut) not to mention Mon Mothma, Padme, Captain Panaka, Mace Windu, Captain Phasma, and Rey and Finn. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Rian Johnson cast two additional women in the seventh sequel. They could hold their tongues no longer. These guys knew deep down that The Last Jedi was a masterpiece — but a couple more female/non-white characters in Star Wars? Over their dead bodies.

And so Abrams, Frank Oz, Mark Hamill, Johnson himself and just about anyone else they could round up were wheeled out to make statements praising the Disney franchise entry, all repeating the mantra that to hold a contrary opinion was to align yourself with human excrement.

The conversation around the film was no longer over its artistic merits, but whether sexism and racism are good or bad things (spoiler: they’re bad things): if you’re in favour of diversity and representation then you must defend The Last Jedi; if you dislike the film then, be honest, you just hate women, right?

This shift actually placed Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself — in a tricky spot, since he was the first to voice his displeasure. His concerns — related to the crass, dishonourable way Johnson had written his character — precisely mirrored the fan reactions to follow

“I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character”

- Mark Hamill

To be clear, Luke Skywalker is not a character in the original Star Wars movies, he is the character. He is not a protagonist, he is the protagonist. Fans do not demand that his character shouldn’t be challenged, or put through the emotional wringer, but there should be respect, and, dare I say it, a degree of reverence. At least as much as was afforded Han and Leia and Yoda and Chewie. There was certainly never a question of making any of them child murderers. Of course, Hamill isn’t movie-star royalty like Ford, nor a feminist icon like Fisher. But to Star Wars fans, he is everything. I wonder if Disney really understood that, or indeed ever will.

So, once the tide began turning against dissenters — once the massed artillery of Disney’s marketing divisions started working on reinforcing the narrative that the outrage fans felt was really only a front for their insecurities — Hamill faced a choice: retract and repent, or risk being lumped in with those guys.

Naturally, he changed his mind (at least publicly). Who could blame him? Sure, Star Wars is important to Mark, but not nearly as important as his commitment to promoting equality and diversity — as it should be for everyone. It was an easy decision for him: he just buried his criticisms and got on board with the film. It is only a film. Luke Skywalker is only a character in a movie. But a part of me will always be sad about what they did to him*.

As for the rest of us? Disney and Lucasfilm have made it clear exactly how much they care about fans. So long as we’re shelling out cash for the next unasked-for origin flick and Darth Vader soap dispenser they love us, but the second we show a hint of dissent they’ll call us the sort of names that would make your mother blush.

 

*True fans will always be able to hold on to Hamill’s delicious act of sabotage during production. If the actor playing a role decides in his own mind that he is portraying someone else, there isn’t a damn thing the writer or director can do about it. May the Force be with you Jake Skywalker. The adventures of Luke Skywalker are free to live on forever in the minds of those who know him best: the fans.

Does The Last Jedi have a Diversity Problem?

There’s something off about this new Star Wars film. Far from the giant leap forward for diversity the film supposedly takes—in terms of Star Wars, it could be seen as a step backwards. I’m calling bullshit.

 Above deck / below deck

Above deck / below deck

Why are all the figures of authority in The Last Jedi white?

Rian Johnson’s movie opens with an extended sequence in which we cross back-and-forth between First Order Generals (hot on the heals of the Resistance fleet), the Resistance leadership, and below-decks saboteurs hatching a plan of their own.

There are lots of powerful figures on screen all at once, probably as many as there ever have been in the series — which normally tends to focus on the plucky underdog. Let’s break down what Rian Johnson shows us:

First Order Leaders:

  • General Hux (white)
  • Kylo Ren (white)
  • Supreme Leader Snoke (a white special-effect)

Resistance Leaders:

  • General Leia (white)
  • Vice-Admiral Holdo (white)

Resistance workers below-deck:

  • Rose Tico (Asian-American)
  • Finn (black)
  • Poe Dameron (Guatemalan-American)

Hey, that’s odd.

Worse, Leia references a handful of unsavoury stereotypes while reprimanding Poe, such as “get your head out of your cockpit”, and goes so far as to actually slap him across his face. The worst she ever did to Grand Moff Tarkin was give him a dirty look, but then again, all he did was blow up her home planet. Poe though, he was out of control.

And what of the other figures of authority dotted around the film’s ensemble cast? Well, we have Rey (white), Jedi Master Luke (white) and Captain Phasma (white). Hmm.

On the flip side, Benicio del Toro (American-Spanish, Puerto Rican-born) was seen as the ideal choice for the part of DJ, an untrustworthy thief and jailbird. Hmm.

Later, our intrepid band of non-white bunglers (Poe, Maz, Rose, Finn and DJ) manage to completely screw-up their mission before returning to the protection of their stern-but-forgiving white leaders. Also, somewhere along the way mechanic Rose and “I need a pilot” Finn learn to be fighter pilots, then, despite Finn’s best efforts to follow in Holdo’s noble footsteps and sacrifice himself to save his friends, his attempt ends in failure (again), and he gets another lecture for his trouble.

By comparison, thirty-seven years ago The Empire Strikes Back was released, with Princess Leia similarly in a leadership role and giving orders on Hoth, but the film also introduced Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Baron Administrator of Cloud City. If The Last Jedi is notable for its depiction of (white) women in positions of authority, then it’s nothing compared to the sight of a black character in 1980 as ruler of a technologically advanced utopian world; a figure of such status that he was seemingly one of the few civilians in the galaxy who could converse with Lord Vader as a peer.

Lando would go on to be “General Calrissian” in Return of the Jedi, and was “Gold Leader” in the Battle of Endor, where he served under Admiral Ackbar (a non-human) and Mon Mothma, the new (female) leader of the Rebel Alliance.

Likewise, the wise Jedi Master of those films was also a non-human, in the form of Yoda, our beloved, diminutive, green alien. (And heck, even a giant slug got his own palace.)

How does The Last Jedi treat these non-human characters? Sadly, not well. Yoda is made to regress back to putting on the pantomime cackling-frog act from Empire, which he used to get Luke to reveal his prejudices. However, he got off lightly compared to Ackbar, who wasn’t even granted the dignity of an on-screen death.

The Last Jedi deserves some credit for getting Laura Dern in the movie… but that’s about it.

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (10/10)

Luke’s character is thrown away

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There are two views on Luke’s nature (and character flaws) in the original trilogy, which can be summarised as:

a) Luke always had darkness in him, like his father. The fact that he almost killed Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi shows how the dark side of him is always there, lurking beneath the surface.

or

b) Luke always had darkness in him, like his father. The fact that he almost killed Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi — under utmost provocation , but then pulled himself back from the brink, turned off & threw away his lightsaberis the defining moment of his life, and indeed of the entire saga. Luke was able to walk the knife-edge that his father never could; in the end he faced his fears, overcame them and in so doing finally became a Jedi. He achieved the inner calm and aura of peace that is the mark of a true Jedi.

[As an aside, and disregarding the prequels nonsense, it has always been my contention that Anakin Skywalker had never actually ‘qualified’ as a Jedi Knight, and only became one in the last minutes of his life after conquering his own personal demons, in the form of the Emperor. For all their physical strength and power in the Force, both father and son were crippled by deep rooted fear and weakness, which they resisted confronting for years—or decades. It is this test—rather than making things float or prowess with a lightsaber—that a padawan must pass to become a Jedi Knight.]

Regarding Luke, clearly Rian Johnson is firmly in the first camp, while I’ve always been in the second. (If I wasn’t, I doubt Star Wars would even mean that much to me.)

But that’s fine, people see things different ways. However, as I’ve said, you can have Luke be a ruin of a man — wracked by shame and failure — without needing to write a clumsy child-murdering flashback scene.

I also have an issue with the veneration given to Yoda, which in turn regresses Luke back to the juvenile kid that couldn’t lift his X-Wing out of the swamp in Empire. Johnson is so intent on remaking The Empire Strikes Back that his Luke must be Luke from Empire, forever fixed at that point. I think it would’ve been far more interesting if the Luke/Yoda dynamic was reversed. If J. K. Rowling was willing to deconstruct Albus Dumbledore—the greatest wizard-mentor character ever created, with more depth than Obi-wan, Gandalf and Merlin put together—why is Yoda untouchable?

 

FIX 10:

The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

-Darth Vader, Star Wars (1977)

Really Darth? That’s a quite a boast. We’ve never seen a Jedi power in any of the films that remotely justifies such a statement. Maybe this is our chance…

 

AHCH-TO: 

After Rey has set the Jedi Tree-Temple on fire and departed, Luke watches it burn, slumped on the ground. Through the flames Yoda finally appears, although he is looking abashed. Luke tells Yoda that he now understands why he went into hiding on Dagobah. He understands the shame and remorse he felt. Yoda replies that yes, Luke now knows that same sickness that infected both Obi-wan and himself.

“But”, says Luke, “the galaxy needed you. I needed you. Out there in the fight, not hiding in your hovel.”

Yoda looks at his feet uncomfortably. “I didn’t know what to do. I had allowed the forces of darkness to spread across the galaxy and I couldn’t defeat them by myself. I didn’t have the answers the galaxy needed Luke. I was old, much too old. You were our hope.”

Luke shakes his head. 

“Yoda, it has taken most of my life, but I finally understand something: you don’t always have to have all the answers, the kids will figure it out for themselves. Sometimes, you just need to be there: to make the struggle a little easier; to tip the odds a little in their favour.”

Yoda looks up at Luke contemplatively, and with pride. His student has outgrown him.

Luke gets up.

“I’m done hiding.”

[…]

THE BATTLE OF CRAIT:

The massed armies of the First Order — ground troops, Walkers, Tie Fighters, Tie Bombers, Star Destroyers and more are pummelling the old Rebel base. The great shield is cracking and starting to crumble. Newly instated Resistance leader Holdo is facing total defeat. Poe is blinded and near death in his cockpit, following the explosion that brought down his X-Wing.

Rey tries to talk Ben into fighting by her side [she had managed to pursuade him to escape the First Order with her]. However, he refuses and, terrified, tries to hide inside the base. Rey takes to the battlefield alone, lightsaber raised. She is their last hope.

Rey cuts through a barrage of laser fire, bringing down Walkers, First Order troops and Tie-Fighters in great swathes. Her aggression turns into anger and rage. Suddenly a stray laser bolt slices through the lightsaber and into her chest. She falls back, finally defeated.

Through half-closed eyes she sees thousands of First Order reinforcements march ever onward.

Then, through a gap in the red dust clouds she sees a solitary figure standing before them…

For a moment, her eyes meet those of Luke Skywalker, before he smiles, takes a deep breath and raises his open hand to the night sky.

[cue a John Williams theme to make your hair stand on end]

Every laser blast stops in mid air. The Walkers move as if in slow motion, as do the troops on both sides, First Order and Resistance. Their guns fly out of their hands. Tie Fighters spin slowly, gracefully through the air; high in the sky Star Destroyers tumble out of orbit. Silence.

Rey holds her hands over her eyes as the light emanating from Luke (that only she can see) is unbearably bright and fills the universe. She is able to raise herself up and finds that her wounds are healed. Then Ben emerges from the base, takes a step toward Luke, and stops.

All around, Stormtroopers remove their helmets and stand around with Resistance fighters.

Luke winks at Rey, then glances at Ben just as another dust swirl sweeps over him, and he’s gone.

#ThatsmyfuckingLuke

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (9/10)

Supreme Leader Snoke is little more than a wasted opportunity

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In The Last Jedi Snoke is a nothing character — he’s a joke. Like a spoof of The Emperor, he’s a scarred, wrinkly old man on a throne in command of the true, dynamic villain. However, unlike The Emperor, he has no backstory, he’s unthreatening and uninteresting, and he’s lopped in half to get him out of the way so Johnson can focus on the character he’s actually interested in: Ben Solo.

However, the true value of Snoke is not as a character in his own right, but as the lynchpin between Luke and Ben. Somehow Ben met Snoke, turned away from Luke and became Kylo Ren. That bit of the story is fascinating, at least to me, and we get none of it. Johnson has said there was nowhere to insert an expository bit of dialogue explaining Snoke’s backstory… which is a worrying comment.

Because this history is left untold, we don’t know how Ben diverged from the light side of the Force, so, to fill the gap a second, unnecessary ‘inciting incident’ is inserted — that of Luke contemplating slicing up his nephew in his sleep. It was at this point someone should have realised just how badly Johnson had gone off course.

 

FIX 9:

Jettison the entire wrong-headed idea of Luke unravelling his character arc of the original trilogy to the point where he would consider murdering a child. Good lord.

Instead, invert expectations by having Snoke as a shadowy, predatory, revolting old creature who lingered at the gates of Luke’s Jedi temple, and who crucially does not have any Force powers [little in The Force Awakens proves he does]. Rather, he is a reptilian individual who craves the company of young Force-sensitive children, and succeeds in grooming young Ben.

Luke, following his Jedi oath — and showing the flip side of his refusal to fight in Return of the Jedi — can not just attack Snoke and is somewhat powerless to get rid of him and his influence. Ben later feels betrayed by Luke for not defending him, and putting his Jedi principles above his nephew’s wellbeing.

When Luke witnessed Ben Solo’s return to the school as “Kylo Ren” and how he butchered his former classmates, Luke was paralysed by guilt and hopelessness. He told Leia that he failed as a Jedi teacher, and went looking for the first Jedi temple and original texts, but also let Leia and Han believe that Snoke was entirely to blame.

Snoke taught Ben what he knew of Sith-lore and set him free to indulge himself and build the First Order from nothing into a grand army.

Meanwhile, Luke just wanted to run away and hide his shame — just as Yoda and Obi-Wan had done.

This brings us to the film’s biggest issue, which I’ll cover in Point 10.

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (8/10)

Holdo’s noble death directly contradicts Finn’s ignoble rescue

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Holdo’s (wish-it-was-Leia’s) brilliantly conceived and executed third-act sacrifice of ramming her ship at lightspeed into the First Order fleet... is sadly punctured moments later when Rose prevents Finn doing the same thing, for exactly the same reason. Rose then caps it off by telling him — the way one explains to an infant that two plus two equals four — that they’re going to win by saving what they love, not destroying what they hate. Err… tell that to Holdo.

It’s things like this that leave me utterly baffled when defenders of the film say it isn’t a muddled mess.

How does Johnson want us to interpret this? What’s his message meant to be, other than “follow your whims”? Are we not supposed to connect these two near simultaneous-and-contradictory events?

Perhaps we’re meant to think Rose is right, and Holdo’s noble death was actually pointless? Or, maybe we’re to think that Rose put her comrades in danger by not allowing Finn to save them? Or, are we supposed to understand that Finn’s sacrifice would’ve failed to cripple the giant laser and Rose saved him from a pointless death? If so, it didn’t read that way in the film—especially as Finn was the one who knew about the “Death Star tech”, and so presumably also knew its weaknesses better than anyone else.

If Rose had allowed Finn’s sacrifice to happen, the battering-ram-laser may have been destroyed, which would have protected the Resistance fighters (“Rebel fighters”?) inside the base long enough for help to arrive. Then, Luke wouldn’t have needed to sacrifice himself. Don’t forget, Luke’s sacrifice, like Holdo’s, was clever, brave and noble. Do only white characters get to possess these traits in Johnson’s Star Wars universe? Luke’s noble act supposedly also inspired the whole galaxy, didn’t it? (Don’t ask me how or why.) Ultimately, there are no answers. Events happened in The Last Jedi because the script said so. Poor Finn just couldn’t catch a break.

 

FIX 8:

Just let Finn die. Johnson obviously has no interest in him anyway, nor any idea what to do with him.

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (7/10)

Holdo teaches Poe a lesson

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Let’s take a look at one sequence that everyone seems to agree is utterly nonsensical — even fans of The Last Jedi. You know the one.

What Johnson wants to convey is a power struggle between Holdo and Poe in Leia’s absence. Poe, the cocksure hothead that he is, needs to learn to follow orders, and that sometimes doing nothing is the wisest course.

These are fine ideas in and of themselves, no issues so far. However, the way the message is delivered is highly problematic, bordering on idiotic.

First, lets dispel the notion I’ve heard from some fans that Holdo was written as an arrogant, aloof character who is herself meant to be at fault, and it is she who learns leadership isn’t as easy as Leia makes it look. No. Johnson’s script and direction makes it perfectly clear: Holdo is the misunderstood hero and Poe is just plain wrong. There’s no grey area here.

So, Holdo has a clever plan to do x, y, z which will save everybody if they would just trust her, hold their stations and do nothing. Except she gives no-one any reason to trust her, least of all reckless Mr Dameron-who not twenty minutes earlier ignored a direct order from Leia that got a bunch of people killed.

Just tell everyone your damn plan Holdo! Or at least, tell them you have a plan.

What she does is akin to pointing a loaded gun at a child’s face in front of a crowd of onlookers and start squeezing the trigger—all the while refusing to explain why. Then, when Poe intervenes, she gets to say:

You fool, the child has the rare Bullshitius Bacterius disease, and shooting him in the head is the only known cure — now he really will die, you reckless flyboy!

And we’re all supposed to nod and cluck our tongues and think “Poe really got taught a valuable lesson there”.

And I suppose the secondary message that Disney wants to convey to all its young fans is that you should always blindly follow orders, no matter how insane/suicidal they might seem, and never ever question your leaders…?

Screenplays have second, third, fourth drafts for a reason, and films regularly spend years in development hell because often a writer’s first ideas are not their best. Obviously, Star Wars franchise tentpole movies are not going to tolerate any such delays, which must account for a lot of the sloppily writing in The Last Jedi.


FIX 7:

Off the top of my head… the Resistance fleet scatters and Holdo’s ship is drifting alone in space, nearly out of fuel. Poe insists they use their very last jump to get to a nearby Resistance-friendly system where they they can repair, refuel and rearm. Holdo considers his idea, then rejects it and dismisses him—bluntly telling him she knows what she’s doing.

Poe ignores her and goes to the engine room, forcing the ship to jump to the previously allied system. When they arrive — to Poe’s shock and dismay — the leaders there tell him that word has reached them of the Resistance’s crushing defeat in the Ileenium System, and they’re scared of retaliation by the First Order. It is just as Holdo predicted. The balance of power in the galaxy has shifted quickly and without Poe fully appreciating it. At that moment, as the spent ship drifts in space and all eyes look accusingly at Poe, an urgent plea for assistance comes in: the First Order has found Leia…

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (6/10)

’Iron Man 3 syndrome’

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What does the Batmobile attack on Axis Chemicals in Batman (1989) have in common with Iron Man’s rescue of the passengers of a stricken private jet in Iron Man 3 (2013), and Luke Skywalker’s showdown with Kylo Ren/Ben Solo in The Last Jedi (2017)?

Well, they’re all deliriously exciting, iconic scenes — that fall flat on their faces moments later when audiences realise they’ve been tricked. If the hero never places himself in jeopardy then it’s just empty spectacle.

The sequences need not be altered in any way to have Bruce Wayne be driving the Batmobile, or for Tony Stark to be wearing the Iron Man suit, or for the real Luke Skywalker to actually be on Crait, risking his neck.

No.

In each case the filmmaker made a choice: trickery instead of emotional investment. Gags over heart.

I hate this trope. I always feel cheated by the film not entertained, and it forever tarnishes the film in my memory.

My biggest complaint with The Last Jedi is that at almost every turn Johnson does choose the cheap trick over heart and character. Luke tosses his father’s lightsaber aside for laughs; Virtual-Luke ‘comedically’ brushes dust off his shoulder; Virtual-Luke ‘defeats’ Ben Solo using a very Loki-like trick.


FIX 6:

Um, Luke actually goes to confront Ben Solo, and face his demons… you know, the way the the real Luke Skywalker always did in real Star Wars films. This stuff isn’t that hard.

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (5/10)

Slow, credibility-stretching chases are slow and credibility-stretching

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Let’s be honest, The Last Jedi is a fairly straightforward remake of The Empire Strikes Back, with a bit of Return of the Jedi spooned in. It’s a packet of instant mix. Therefore, because Empire had a long spaceship chase involving Star Destroyers hot on the heels of the rebels, we must get one in The Last Jedi… because Johnson has no other ideas.

The chase in Empire focused solely on the rebels we knew and cared about (Han, Leia, Chewie and C3PO — and the Millennium Falcon), while affording the characters ample time to bond and deepen their relationships. It was also an extremely tense and exciting sequence: they fly through an asteroid field, hide inside a slug-inside-a-cave on an asteroid, launch a head-on attack on a much bigger ship and even attach themselves limpet-like to a Star Destroyer.

It’s inventive, clever, thrilling, varied and always believable.

How does The Last Jedi accomplish the same story beat? Well, the Resistance ships fly just a little out of range of the Star Destroyers in pursuit - until they run out of fuel. That’s it.

You know that feeling when you’re struggling through a bad remake and you wish you were just watching the original...


FIX 5:

After the attack on Resistance base in the Ileenium System, the Resistance fleet jumps to hyperspace and is promptly found again by the First Order. Suspicions run rampant through the fleet as people turn on each other — do they have a traitor in their midst? General Leia orders ships to scatter in all directions, without giving a rendezvous point. None of the ships know the fate of the rest of the fleet as they each try to find safe harbour somewhere in the galaxy.

We follow Leia’s command ship, but each time it jumps, the First Order quickly finds it. Leia orders them to make for the planet Crait, which is orbited by a known ship graveyard, filled with debris. There, she gives the order to abandon-ship and get to the abandoned rebel base on the planet below.

However, Leia stays on-board and hides the battered ship amongst the debris of a thousand others. Snoke’s Super Star Destroyer arrives, and, when Leia ascertains that Ben Solo is no longer on board, she flies the ship at lightspeed straight at Snoke’s throne room (ala the Holdo manoeuvre).

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (4/10)

Leia’s character is poorly handled

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Obviously, no-one expected Carrie Fisher to pass away during post-production, thereby sadly also scuppering plans for a Leia-centric Episode IX. Still, I can’t help but be exasperated by the script for The Last Jedi putting Leia in a coma for the bulk of the movie.

I was equally perplexed by the decision to essentially replace Leia with a barely distinguishable Leia-clone, in the form of Resistance leader “Admiral Holdo”.

However, when top-drawer actor Laura Dern was cast for the part, hopes rose once more: was this to be a fitting passing of the torch, from one tough-as-nails broad to another? It certainly seemed that way, until Holdo herself died heroically at the end. Did Holdo steal Leia’s part — and her exit? If so, to what end?


FIX 4:

I can scarcely think of a more heroic, bittersweet and fitting send-off for Leia than staying behind on her ship in order to ram it down Snoke’s unsuspecting throat at lightspeed.

Personally, I wanted less stoicism and more rage from General Leia. I wanted to see her burning with anger and desperate for revenge against Snoke for what he‘d done to her son. I wanted the cathartic moment of watching her target his ship with relish (echoing the way Ben had targeted hers — except of course Leia would actually have the balls to go through with it).

Indeed, it would then have been natural for Holdo to take over leading the Resistance into the final chapter, and a much better fit than that chump Poe Dameron. Holdo would've been unsure of herself in full command, and perhaps her first act would've been to oversee another crushing defeat on the planet of Crait. We could've seen her leadership skills put to the test, and her mettle under extreme pressure. Perhaps we could've even seen a different side of her than the arrogant, aloof dismissal of the concerns of her subordinates that we got in Johnson's ham-fisted script.

[As an aside, if someone had asked me before the movie which would be the more impressive Force power — Force-flying through outer space or Force-projecting an image of yourself, I’d have said the former by a mile. Odd then, that Leia (who as far as we know was never trained, her latent Force-powers dormant and untapped) appeared to have better command of the Force than Jedi Knight/Master/Scholar/Teacher Luke?]

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (3/10)

Finn is also reduced to a minor character

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The original trilogy had a central trio of heroes — Luke, Leia & Han — who became a foursome in The Empire Strikes Back with the addition of Lando. The Force Awakens was conceived differently, with Rey and Finn as a twosome unburdened by any franchise baggage or complex lineages, who would guide us through this new trilogy. Poe Dameron was a one-note addition who wasn’t originally supposed to survive the first act, but ended up getting promoted to third-wheel on the strength of Oscar Isaac’s charisma.

Personally, I still think writers J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had it right. While I don’t dislike Poe, or Holdo or Rose or DJ, I found that any moment Rey and Finn weren’t on screen dragged. Worse, when Finn was allowed to do something, he was largely overshadowed by the terminally bland Rose. Kelly Marie Tran is a fine actor, but she was saddled with the thankless task of portraying ‘honest’, ‘principled’ and ‘sweet’.


FIX 3:

Certainly cut or revise Rose’s character (at least make her more compelling) and, as outlined in Fix 2, give Finn a proper adventure of his own. I suggest giving him what he said he wanted in the first movie, i.e. a chance to escape. I would happily watch him wrestle with his conscience for a good chunk of the movie. Would he attempt to rejoin the Resistance? Or would he try to find Rey? Or would he just run away? And who else might he bump in to on his travels… perhaps another beloved scoundrel from the past…

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (2/10)

Rey and Finn are separated for the entire movie

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Perhaps the rarest phenomena in all cinema is the magic of on-screen-chemistry. It is an elixir impossible to generate artificially, even between gifted and accomplished actors. Filmmakers either get it, or they don’t. Luckily, the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher jumped off the screen in Star Wars in 1977, and The Empire Strikes Back screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan made the simple and obvious choice to glue those actors at the hip for their 1980 sequel.

However, lightning rarely strikes twice — no two actors in George Lucas’ entire prequel trilogy displayed even the faintest fizzle of a spark. So it goes. But, due to some miracle (and great casting), it happened again in 2015’s The Force Awakens, with Daisy Ridley’s Rey and John Boyega’s Finn making a wonderful, sparky on-screen pairing. Would they end up as a romantic coupling, a brotherly/sisterly team or as warriors-in-arms-buddies? Who could’ve said, but it was clear that the prospects for this new trilogy depended greatly on how much screen-time Daisy and John shared together.

Bafflingly then, Rian Johnson chose to keep them apart for the whole of The Last Jedi, the characters barely exchanging a word—or backward glance. The movie, and the saga, is immeasurably the poorer for it.


FIX 2:

The First Order are tracking the fleet through hyperspace, causing the Resistance to turn on each other as suspicions run wild. Is there a First Order spy in their midst? While under attack, Leia orders the dozen cruisers and smaller ships to scatter in all directions. Meanwhile, on her ship Admiral Holdo believes the First Order are somehow tracking one of the two new Resistance recruits: either former stormtrooper Finn, or Rey via the cloaked transponders connecting Rey and Leia. Secretly — and against Leia’s wishes — she puts the transponder in Finn’s medical pod, then ejects his pod and the entire medical bay into space. 

[The real explanation for how the First Order are tracking the fleet need not over-complicate matters: it should’ve had nothing to do with some sub-Star Treknobabble. Ben is simply using his Force connection to his mother to find her.] 

Finn, unconscious in his medical pod, tumbles through space, eventually crashing onto a strange new world where he’s lost to everyone — except Rey.

When Rey abandons her Jedi training with Luke the first person she should find is Finn, and they’re therefore together for much of the rest of the movie.

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (1/10)

Oh, I am going to complain. A lot. Actually I’m starting to wonder if Rian Johnson’s real aim in writing Episode VIII was to give me an aneurysm. However, point taken, I am going to endeavour to throw out a “fix” for each of my complaints. I’ll let you, dear reader, be the judge of whether any of them are up to snuff.

Now let’s start cutting through those gnarly weeds…

 

Rey doesn’t drive her own story 

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The character of Rey was hands-down the best part of The Force Awakens. She is front and center throughout the film, events are seen through her eyes and she propels the story on at lightspeed. She discovers the Force by herself, frees herself from captivity and fights her enemies single-handedly. What I wanted most from The Last Jedi was more Rey.

So, what went wrong?

While Daisy Ridley is as wonderful as she was in the first film, she just doesn’t have enough to do. The Force Awakens was her film, whereas she’s just in Last Jedi. Heck, I would’ve been happy if Johnson had made the film a series of skits involving her antagonising the Ahch-To caretakers. Alas, we take far too many lengthy sojourns off to follow much less interesting characters — namely anyone who isn’t Rey or Ben Solo.

Unfortunately, while Johnson’s remake/reimagining/reboot/whatever of The Empire Strikes Back hits all the same story beats it also completely misses the point. 

Empire isn’t special because it features a training sequence with a Jedi master, or because it has a thrilling spaceship chase, showcases a spectacular land battle with Imperial Walkers on snow, or because its themes are of failure and loss. Well, not just because of those things. While Rian brings all this stuff over to his version, what he misses is the why. Why did Empire approach Star Wars 2 the way it did?

Let’s take the character of Luke Skywalker, i.e. the character that was re-moulded in the form of Rey in the remake. In 1977’s Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was the golden-haired-blue-eyed-farm-boy-hero-messiah who could do everything:

  • Incredible pilot? Check.
  • Great shot with a blaster? Check.
  • Great shot with a gun turret? Check.
  • Saviour of the rebellion? Check.
  • Nascent lightsaber skills? Check.
  • Super-Force-sensitive Jedi prodigy? Check. 

As many have pointed out, the Rey in The Force Awakens is similar to Luke in these respects, and I think it’s an entirely fair comparison to make. Also like Luke, Rey is a bit too competent, and could do with a challenge or twenty.

In 1977 Star Wars was the biggest blockbuster ever made - it was more than a movie, it was a phenomenon. How do you make a sequel to the biggest movie of all time? Play it safe, surely. The standard expected way to have made *Star Wars 2* - and kept those tills ringing - was to essentially do Star Wars over again. Indeed, that was what audiences were expecting. Something like:

A new evil superweapon threatens the rebels!
More boo-hiss Galactic Empire villainy!
More desert planets!
More heroics from Luke and Han!
Our hero Luke avenges his father’s murder at the hands of dastardly Lord Vader!
And maybe, just maybe, Luke will finally win the heart of Princess Leia.

Boy did The Empire Strikes Back confound expectations. Luke is physically, mentally and emotionally put through the wringer. He fails and flounders his way through events and ends up a bloody mess: shell-shocked, humiliated and defeated.

First he’s nearly killed by a monster and has to be rescued by Han; following this he crashes his snow-speeder, and then his X-Wing; next he’s shown to be dismissive of ‘lesser’ creatures; fails raise his X-Wing from a swamp; fails to control his temper during Jedi training; fails to rescue Han and Leia; is humbled in a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader - losing his hand in the process - and learns just how ignorant he is of a universe vastly more complex than he imagined. Most painful of all, he’s forced to put his friends in danger by begging Leia to rescue him.

It’s quite a journey for our farm-boy. 

By contract, in The Last Jedi Rey has no such ordeal to contend with, and is in fact given little opportunity for her character to grow. She starts the film as we left her in The Force Awakens as a Jedi hopeful: like Luke she initially stumbles on a few of the Jedi challenges. However, she then shows her teacher the error of his ways, berates him for his past mistakes, goes on to defeat her enemies in combat (again) before successfully escaping the clutches of the First Order (again). And again - though she disappears from the narrative for a while - her story ends on a note of triumph: she lifts a pile rocks (yes, seriously) to save her friends.

When I hear people talk of The Last Jedi being the boldest, riskiest entry in the series so far my eyes have a tendency to roll in their sockets so fast I worry they may plop out and spin away like little BB-units. Remaking the best film in the series is the opposite of ‘risk-taking’.

Aggravatingly, Rey is also now strangely passive.

For example, when Rey finds that her mind is being invaded by the murderer of her father-figure from Force Awakens, rather than immediately demanding that “Master Skywalker” show her how to block the connection, she just engages in some ‘Force-Time’ small-talk. 

When Snoke implants in her mind the idea that she can turn Ben back to the light side, she immediately rushes off to fall into the trap. Then, after she watches Ben kill his 'master' Supreme Leader Snoke (can Star Wars please get over the whole ‘master’ thing already?), he tells her that her parents are nobodies, which she accepts unquestioningly.

There's a lot of stuff going on in Rian's movie; it’s just a shame that Rey gets a bit lost in the mix.


FIX 1:

Rey sorely needed a personal struggle, a personal failure and a moment of realisation. And the camera should have been pointing resolutely at her face for 95% of the running time. Allow me to offer an alternative vision of her journey: 

After she hands Luke his father’s lightsaber he contemplates it for a moment, but then hands it back to her. [Mere Jedi Knights carry laser-swords, but Luke (like Yoda) no longer needs one.]

Initially rebuffing her, Luke relents and tries to teach Rey about the spiritual nature of the Force. [Johnson’s scene of Luke tickling Rey’s hand was actually rather good, if an obvious rehash of Yoda's lessons in The Empire Strikes Back.]

We learn that Rey has little patience for this mystical mumbo-jumbo. Indeed, we saw in Force Awakens that Rey is essentially practical by nature, while also handy with a staff. What she really wants is to learn how to fight like a Jedi - spiritual, ethereal stuff is a much bigger struggle for her. However, Luke tells her that being a Jedi has nothing to do with waving swords around. But, as Luke has permanently shut himself off from the Force [another great addition by Johnson], he cannot properly connect with her or demonstrate, and Rey is disbelieving and frustrated. Finally, Luke tries to get through to her by telling her that the word ‘Jedi’ literally means ‘open handed’ in the ancient language of the Whills [that one's mine].

An open hand cannot hold a weapon. An open hand is a greeting. An open hand comes in peace.

This is a temple not a school for fighting.
— (my) Luke Skywalker

Rey takes to training alone with the lightsaber hoping to impress Luke with her skills. Luke watches her and sighs, telling her she won’t find what she’s looking for with him. 

Rey feels rejected by him, by the Jedi order - by the Force itself. She observes that his main obsession is translating the ancient Jedi texts by candle-light, but that it also brings him no solace. He endlessly dwells on the failure of his Jedi school and says perhaps it is time for the Jedi to end. He sinks ever further into despair, not able to understand how his school collapsed despite his best efforts, and why his nephew turned away from him. Luke eventually throws down the old books and cries out for Yoda and Obi-Wan, but they seem to have also abandoned him.

Seeing that the old Jedi texts are like anchors weighing him down, Rey goes to the temple in the dead of night intending to burn it. Luke realises what she’s about to do and chases after her. However, at the entrance Rey can’t bring herself to do it and drops the flaming torch. Then, in a sudden moment of realisation, Luke himself picks up the torch and hands it back to her. His mistake was failing to ever let go and trust his students. He tells her to burn it all.

Luke slumps to the ground, watching the flames, hopelessly lost. Rey finally sees Luke as he really is — a pathetic, frightened old man, and she knows she cannot stay. She departs on the Falcon with Chewie, following the signal of the cloaked transponder beacon, which leads her to Finn, who’s having an adventure of his own...

Why the Trump Presidency isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Allow me to pose a question:

How do you test the strength of a pane of glass?

For most people the first and most obvious answer might be: “Why risk breaking it in the first place?”. After all, our virgin pane is beautifully clear, smudge-free and – seemingly – fragile. The temptation is to treat it with kid-gloves, to carefully wipe it with a feather duster, not subject it to abuse. Why risk damaging it? Surely if the glass fails the test and shatters you have a disaster on your hands; your carefully formulated glass compound has been found to be imperfect. Back to the drawing board. 

However, there are degrees of disaster. In this case, it would be much worse to fit out all the windows of your house with the untested glass, only for the calm of summer to end and a winter gale reduce to your home to a pock-marked tapestry of brickwork and jagged holes. 

You should test your glass: you should want to know that it can survive bombardment by a variety of blunt objects. It is a mistake to assume that just because a certain projectile hasn’t hit your window before, that it never would. Learn to embrace pebbles, sticks and other destructive elements, cherish them in fact, because only they can tell you how strong your glass really is.

Many people treat the United States constitution and democratic system as if they were also something fragile that should be wrapped in cotton wool and shielded from harm. While that way of thinking is understandable, it is ultimately self-defeating. The democratic institutions that underpin the government of the United States of America were not set-up to rebuff, divert or disallow individuals hell-bent on subverting them. Instead, they were designed to smother such people, to frustrate their ambitions through robust checks and balances. The constitution exists to limit their ability to wield power; an ever watchful free press stands ready to expose lies and deceit. 

But what if an individual was elected who was determined to undermine that system? Wouldn’t it be a step too far to allow a natural born dictator to be President? Could an American incarnation of Adolf Hitler be subdued by such a system if he were elected to the highest office in the land (as the real Hitler was by German voters in the 1930s)? The answer is that a perfectly constructed democracy should allow such people to assume Presidential authority, contain and neutralise them, then disgorge them at the end of their term leaving the system intact and essentially unchanged. If this doesn’t happen, then at least you’ve learned that your system is flawed. 

American democracy is a pane of Gorilla Glass, and voters have chucked a giant Trump-shaped rock at it. Let’s see if he’s able to scratch it. 

He will try.

A Country In All But Name

Let's play a game: can you guess which country I'm describing?

Is it:

a) the United States of America

b) the European Union

(Of course, the EU isn't really a country, it is a trade agreement, so this should be easy.)

Here we go. The country I'm thinking of has:

  • A flag
  • A national anthem
  • A national day

 

Have you got it yet? No? Okay let's continue.

It has:

  • A constitution
  • A President
  • A legislative body comprised of directly elected representatives from each member state
  • Founding Fathers
  • A foreign policy and foreign affairs representative
  • A supreme court whose authority supersedes that of individual member states
  • A populace who self-identify as its citizens, carrying passports bearing its name

 

Still struggling? Shout it out when you know.

It has:

  • Its own currency
  • Its own central bank
  • Clearly defined national borders
  • Laws allowing the free movement of people across and between member states
  • Laws controlling the movement of people coming from outside its borders

 

Nobody?

Hmm. Okay I'll give you a big clue:

  • It has its own standing army.

 

That gave it away. The answer is of course the USA. While the EU now has integrated defence initiatives, such as EU Battlegroups, it does not have its own army... yet. However, since the only real objections to total integration came from the UK, it is surely only a matter of time before troops are marching under the banner of the EU (or perhaps USE  ?).

And all this makes perfect sense. The EU is a new country; its institutions openly speak of a "united Europe" as a founding aim; the majority of its citizens seem to be very much in favour of it. I say, sincerely, best of luck to them, and I have a good feeling that the project will be a success.

It is only in Britain that politicians wrestle with language to avoid saying the obvious. I imagine this must seem strange to our European neighbours as they enter the home stretch of nation-building.

Inevitably, as part of that process, reluctant nations have to step back in order for the others to keep stepping forward. It is natural, and shouldn’t be misinterpreted as anything else. We think it’s great that all the other families on the street are moving in together, but ultimately we feel more comfortable remaining in our own house. It doesn’t mean we have anything but warm neighbourly feelings toward them, and of course we wish them well. 

The EU may have started life as a series of trade agreements, but its course was set right from the beginning, and it is a journey with only one destination. The mosaic of small, quirky and overly warlike kingdoms that used to make up the continent is history. A bright, peaceful, unified (and uniform) future surely awaits.

After all, as the voiceover proclaims when you step through the doors of the EU 'Parlamentarium' in Brussels: 

 

“National sovereignty is the root cause of the most crying evils of our times….The only final remedy for this evil is the federal union of the peoples.”

 

But I would humbly suggest – risking the inevitable accusations of jingoism – that Europeans are not sorry that Britain existed as an independent sovereign nation in 1939. 

On Idris Elba as Bond

Actually, I have an issue with his (potential) casting.

But let me start by contradicting myself: I think Mr Elba would make a great Bond, and I would very much look forward to seeing his take on the character.

He’s certainly ticks all the 007 boxes:

  1. He’s a great actor.
  2. He’s got bucketloads of charm.
  3. He exudes an aura of quiet toughness, which is very much James Bond.
  4. He’s English. Although, Englishness is almost irrelevant at this point. Lazenby, Brosnan, Connery – none were English.

He’s also not white, but really, this is a non-issue.

However. I do have one specific reservation, and I’ll be honest, it does involve him being black. Damn, contradicted myself again. To explain what I mean, I’ll have to venture down a Bond-universe rabbit-hole…

 

Like Dr Who, Bond is bad at regenerating

To date, James Bond has been portrayed on screen by six actors; confusingly though, the Walther PPK has been handed on seven times:

  1. Sean Connery
  2. George Lazenby
  3. Sean Connery (again)
  4. Roger Moore
  5. Timothy Dalton
  6. Pierce Brosnan
  7. Daniel Craig

The first transition was the most awkward. Filling Sean Connery’s mighty loafers was a near impossible task, even for a cocky young Australian called George. Lazenby had barely hopped on screen in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before he gazed down the barrel of the camera and spoke the immortal words:

“This never happened to the other fella.”

Clunk.

This was followed immediately by an opening credits montage that served to visually ‘sum up’ the Connery-Bond era. Next, Lazenby-Bond is at MI6 headquarters rifling though keepsakes from his/the-other-fella’s past adventures. I’m confused already – is he the same guy or not?

The audience is supposed to collectively tilt their heads, squint, and buy-in to Connery-Bond and Lazenby-Bond being simultaneously different people, and the same person. They’re both tall, white, square-jawed, muscular, brown eyes, dark hair… close enough.

This ‘squint your eyes… close enough’ trick became a never-spoken-of pillar of the Bond franchise for over half a century. It may be both the oddest, and most successful way to handle a change of actor. (Numerous other properties* have used this approach, for example the "Aunt Viv" switcheroo on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air).

The question of whether or not all subsequent Bond incarnations are actually supposed to be the same character has never been directly addressed since (save for the odd oblique reference, like when Moore-Bond put flowers on the grave of Lazenby-Bond’s wife).

Think The Simpsons; a reset button is pushed at the beginning of every episode and Bart stays a ten year old boy forever. Likewise, James Bond battled Cold War Russians in the 60's, the Star Wars franchise in the 70's, drug dealers in the 80's, media tycoons in the 90's, and the laws of physics in the 00's.

Speaking of Die Another Day, never has a title been so unfortunately chosen. The film managed to out-Moonraker Moonraker for sheer cartoon ridiculousness, and the series finally died the day it was released. The Connery-Lazenby-Connery-Moore-Dalton-Brosnan era was at last slain, not by Blofeld but by buffoonery and terrible puns.

The franchise then lay in wake for a few years before making a triumphant return with the very best film in the series so far, Casino Royale.

Fittingly, this was also Fleming’s first Bond novel, and it had never been filmed as part of the official Bond canon before. It was the perfect way to begin a new Bond adventure. The series entered uncharted territory as it attempted a complete reboot: new, pre double-O status Craig-Bond, followed by a new Q, new Moneypenny, and then a new sort-of brother for 007: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Err… what? Nevertheless, it was finally a complete break from the past and promised a fresh new beginning.

Except not really. Inexplicably, Judi Dench’s M returned as Bond’s mentor/boss. Strangely, the character never commented on the fact that the last 007 she managed also happened to have the name James Bond. What are the chances? The ‘squint… close enough’ thing also sort-of returned, as, like the other Bonds, Daniel Craig is tall, white, square-jawed and muscular. He only lacks the dark hair & eye colour (and you better believe that was controversial at the time!).

If I’ve taken a circuitous route coming to my point, it’s because I know this is a sensitive area, and the potential for a knee-jerk reaction is great. I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for my quibble as clearly as I can, before I proceed to insert foot-in-mouth.

What it boils down to (for me) is this: I don’t think a - potential - transition from Craig-Bond to Elba-Bond passes the ‘squint… close enough’ test. I’m aware some might find this notion offensive – I don’t mean it as such, I’m just being honest.

However, I always like to sense-check things by playing them out in reverse: let’s suppose Bond had always been portrayed by black actors (after all, there’s not much worth repeating in Fleming’s books that makes his race or ethnic background particularly important. Bond would certainly die for England, but a whole load of non-white people have and would do that). Were this the case – and were we meant to believe he was the same person – I equally doubt I’d be able to buy Sean Connery taking over the role.

So please Barbara Broccoli by all means cast Mr Elba as our next great JB incarnation, or John Boyega – or Dev Patel for that matter. Just make the passing of that licence-to-kill clearer this time.

 

*Another example is everyone in the Star Trek reboot. All the new cast members happen to be the same race and gender as the original crew, with the exception of Mr Sulu, who is now played by John Cho, a Korean-American actor (as opposed to Japanese-American). I think Trek could have been much more radical here, especially as the Battlestar Galactica reboot had already recast Starbuck as female without a great fanboy apocalypse.

Much more egregious is the case of Dr Who: an alien being who regularly ‘regenerates’ into new human forms. Notably, this Time Lord has only ever adopted white, male, British/Irish personas.

Now he’s got issues.

Rogue One proves Star Wars Stories don’t need the Force

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a mixed bag, and largely a missed opportunity. However, it conclusively answered the biggest question hovering over this new wave of spin-off movies: Star Wars doesn’t need the Force.

It’s really a question of “what makes Star Wars Star Wars?”. The galaxy far, far away is bursting at the seams with imagination and rich storytelling possibilities – but all the cinematic adventures to date have featured Force-sensitive individuals (Jedi and Sith): does a movie without this element still have that essential Star Wars magic? What does a Force-less Universe look like anyway?

An easy comparison is to the Star Trek universe, which is entirely free of magic; but I think a closer fit is the Guardians of the Galaxy universe – or that of either Battlestar Galactica incarnation. Thankfully the Jedi-free (and until the last few minutes, Sith-free) Rogue One doesn’t feel like any of these properties. It absolutely feels like Star Wars.

This bodes well for the future of the franchise. The flaws of Rogue One (and there are many) are due to muddled storylines and inconsistent character motivations – not a paucity of Jedi action. Vader’s last-minute rampage was a definite highlight, but the film worked well without it.

In fact, I think the right approach for the non-Jedi stories might be to make the audience feel the absence of the Force. This worked particularly well in Rogue One.

Gareth Edwards’ tale of the Rebellion’s darkest hour, and first victory, gives me new hope (yuk yuk) for the upcoming Han Solo flick; indeed, I’d be happy if the spin-offs hold their nerve and leave the light of the Force for the saga films.