Film

Fixing Skyfall

With Bond 25/‘Shatterhand’ news starting to trickle out , I felt the urge to scratch a six year-old itch and properly revisit Sam Mendes’ frustrating 2012 nearly-man of the Bond franchise: Skyfall.

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The narrow genre of “ageing franchise hero faces death but instead finds rejuvenation” includes such masterpieces as Unforgiven (1992) and Zatoichi(2003)… and, erm The Last Jedi (2017) bringing up the rear. Skyfall lands somewhere around the middle.

Daniel Craig’s Bond tenure has thus far exactly mirrored the pattern set by Pierce Brosnan: a stunning first outing directed by Martin Campbell followed by two middling entries, culminating in a catastrophically misjudged fourth film of such disastrous proportions that it nearly derails the entire franchise.

Of course, Quantum of Solace (2008) and Skyfall are still far superior to the dreck of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World Is Not Enough (1999), but the drop-off in quality (from Casino Royale (2006) and Goldeneye (1995), respectively) is just as steep. Spectre (2015) and Die Another Day (2002) are both irredeemably dreadful.

On the other hand, there’s just something about Skyfall. It was certainly good, but also almost magnificent. Skyfall frequently teeters on the brink of greatness, but always frustratingly tips back into mediocrity.

And yet… with a few tweaks here and there — and a completely reworked (and truncated) third act — I think this film could’ve been a series high watermark. With a better set-up, it might’ve perhaps even delivered one of the most rousing moments in the history of the franchise, up there with Union Jack parachute. I’ll lay out five changes (well, four tweaks and one big rewrite) that I’m convinced would’ve made for a far stronger movie.

Nitpicks first then the biggie.

Nitpick #1

The usage – or lack thereof – of Adele’s superlative theme song. If I were to rank the James Bond theme songs, Skyfall would occupy the number one slot. I absolutely love Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die, John Barry’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service instrumental and Nancy Sinatra’s beautiful You Only Live Twice, but even these lack the emotional punch of Skyfall. It’s a masterpiece, and in a different class to Thomas Newman’s dirge of a score, from which the Skyfall melody is – disgracefully – almost entirely absent.

Tweak #1

Classic Bond movies wove the theme-song’s melody into the film’s score, thereby imbuing each film with a unique musical flavour. This also had the delicious side-effect of each riff building on and further enhancing the original tune. John Barry was a master at this, and David Arnold is his natural successor. He just gets it (for any doubters out there, just listen to the Casino Royale track “Aston Montenegro”). One can only dream of what Arnold could’ve done with it.

Nitpick #2

The laws-of-physics-bending “server farm” on Silva’s island lair. The film tells us that — like He-Man’s sword (or Chandler’s nubbin) — computer-hackery and information gathering is the source of all his power. Now, if computers aren’t your thing then you probably didn’t pay any attention to this, but in the real world, servers generate a lot of heat. For this reason server farms are typically kept in artificially cooled sterile rooms, where the ambient temperature is carefully monitored. In terms of realism, Silva’s computer setup is just a little less believable than, say, an invisible Aston Martin.

Tweak #2

If you want me to buy that Silva’s operation is anything more than a bunch of boxes with blinking lights, the room should’ve been sealed, spotlessly clean and cold. I want to see Bond shiver. (Or maybe it was all just for show after all… I’ll come back to that later.)

Nitpick #3

Silva’s plan is more convenient than a 7-Eleven. Silva’s meticulous, years-in-the-making masterplan is apparently to have Q and Bond (Bond, really?) crack his computer’s ‘encryption’, and for it to release a virus which could instantly infect all MI6’s systems — and unlock the doors to his cell — at precisely the same moment M (Judi Dench) is due to give evidence to the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. He also had the foresight to plant a bomb in the London Underground – right above where Bond’s head would eventually be, no less – to be detonated at the exact moment a train is passing. Uh huh, sure. [Stay with me, we’re not finished with the plan yet!]

You see… while Silva could apparently hack into the SIS building from his armchair in Macau, he seemingly could only breach MI6’s relocated network if his hard drive was physically brought on site and plugged into it by Q. And that’s why he allowed himself to be captured. (I think.)

Except… why would Silva go to all that convoluted effort, when ultimately all he was going to do was just disguise himself as a police officer and shoot his way into M’s hearing?

Was that really as coherent as seasoned writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan could make it?

Tweak #3

Spectre retconned everything in Skyfall to be a part of Blofeld’s master plan anyway, so why not lean into that? After all, connections to Blofeld/the Spectre organisation are right in the franchises’s wheelhous: in the original go-round, Blofeld glimpses were teased as far back as From Russia With Love(1963), then in Thunderball (1965), and right up to his big reveal at the end of You Only Live Twice (1967).

So, how about…

After MI6 capture Silva (for real this time: I’m going to pretend Silva never saw The Dark Knight and therefore never intended to be caught), Bond notices a small tattoo of a black octopus on his inner forearm.

After the interrogation scene in Silva’s cell, M reveals to Mallory that she gave him up to the enemy not because he was “operating beyond his brief, hacking the Chinese” (which makes M seem too harsh and unsympathetic) but because she’d suspected he’d been turned. She says she must’ve made a mistake because the Chinese threw away the key and let him rot. She wryly remarks that she must have been wrong about a lot of things because he never struck her as very computer literate either: “more of a blunt instrument, like Bond”.

Later, Bond asks Q to run a comparison of the octopus against other known marks and symbols on file. He follows Q to MI6’s server room and comments on how different it is to Silva’s setup. When Bond describes what he saw, Q scoffs in disbelief. Then Q notices an alert flashing on one of the terminals: some errant process is chewing through its CPU.

At that moment, much to Silva’s – and the prison guards’ – surprise, his cell door unlocks and swings open.

Nitpick #4

James Bond And Chums: An MI6 Adventure” will surely be the title of Bond 26, judging by the way the series is headed. The ‘living-on-his-wits-and-cunning lone-agent’ James Bond of Dr No is a distant memory, and Craig’s Bond can’t even seem to use the toilet without someone giving him instructions in his ear.

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These days, whenever the shit hits the fan Bond invariably calls on his faithful friends Q, Moneypenny and M for help. Spectre is the worst offender in this regard, but the rot started in Skyfall. If EON Productions are uncomfortable making movies about a lone male hero saving the world, then they should get out of the Bond business and start producing Mission: Impossible knock-offs (but I’ll warn them: that franchise does it a hell of a lot better).

Personally, all I want from a Bond movie is a few minutes of verbal jousting with Moneypenny, the handing-over of a dossier from M, and Q’s thirty second advertisement spot of the latest Aston Martin. After that I really don’t need to see any of them again until the next movie.

Tweak #4

Lose the earpiece 007.

 

The Biggie

The whole third act hits a Connery-sized pothole and goes off the rails. I don’t know (but I’d love to know) if the title “Skyfall” came first, and then followed the idea for it to be the name of JB’s childhood home – or vice versa – but either way I think this train-of-thought led the whole production into a cul-de-sac.

Clearly the 50th anniversary of Bond was also clouding the writers minds. The idea of reuniting all the Bonds (or at least the most famous ones) for a final shootout in a “Home for Retired Spies” — as the Skyfall Lodge was clearly originally conceived — was too tempting a prospect to pass up. Who needs realism or logic when you can have double-o-Craig teaming up with double-o-Connery and/or Lazenby and Dalton to fight the villain? Sadly, it all fell apart.

Whether something like a ‘Battle of the Bonds’ was ever a serious prospect isn’t clear, but we do know that Connery at least was signed to play an unnamed retired agent. However, when the film lost Sean to illness (and perhaps antipathy), they were stuck with having to awkwardly recast his role. Albert Finney gamely stepped in to fill his oversized Scottish brogues, in a part that was transmuted into “Kincade” the boisterous gamekeeper of Skyfall Lodge. In the movie, the last minute appearance of this never-before-mentioned character from Bond’s past is, at best, a curiosity.

But what choice did they have? “Skyfall” was the title of the movie after all; they had to go to Skyfall Lodge, despite the fact that it no longer even made sentimental sense.

And the problems don’t stop there. In order to fit in with the Bond anniversary, Bond is written and portrayed as old, tired, jaded and washed up. Well, he has been on active duty for half a century after all. Except hehasn’t. In the Daniel Craig reboot timeline, Skyfall is technically only his second on-screen mission – following the Vesper Lynd affair and subsequent fallout. Strictly speaking, Craig’s Bond should still be a fresh-faced rookie.

Which is probably why he botches everything in Skyfall. Indeed, it’s an odd thought that for this 50th anniversary mega-budget celebration of the worlds greatest superspy, James Bond fails at everything. He fails to recover the stolen hard drive. He fails to stop the mercenary Patrice in Istanbul. He then fails to prevent Patrice assassinating an art collector in Shanghai. He watches Sévérine die in front of him. Most egregious of all, he even fails to stop Silva carrying out his plan: killing M.

Let me say that again: Silva’s plan in Skyfall is to murder M and then die himself – and he succeeds. Not exactly 007’s finest hour. In fact, while the movie ends on a triumphant note, one wonders whether 007 should’ve really been clearing his desk.

And then there’s that scene.

Bond Saves M (the ‘Tennyson’ scene):

Father, Mother and Bond-girl

James Bond’s relationship to M is perhaps the most interesting one he has in both the books and films. Since his literary inception Bond has idolised M, seeing him as the embodiment of virtue, gentlemanliness and honour. He clearly represents the father figure Bond never had. Take this line from Fleming’s novel Diamonds Are Forever (1946):

“There was a creak from M’s chair and Bond looked across the table at the man who held a great deal of his affection and all his loyalty and obedience.”

In the movies, while Bond never hesitates to risk his life to protect the various women he loves (especially Vesper and Tracy), it’s unthinkable that he wouldn’t do the same for any of the Ms. Indeed, this scene of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond rescuing Judi Dench’s M in The World Is Not Enough is uncannily Skyfall-like:

Moreover, Daniel Craig’s current incarnation has developed the relationship between Bond and M even further. It is more intimate, right from their first interactions in Casino Royale, with Dench’s M treating him more like an adopted son than an employee.

Indeed, the theme of a capricious mother at first nurturing, then coldly discarding sons permeates Skyfall: it equally motivates Silva and Bond — only in opposite directions.

So, let me get this straight: when this M is threatened by a deranged assassin, this Bond (who, lets not forget, has been known to run through dry-wall in pursuit of a villain) takes cover and… hides?

What? If Silva is prepared to die in order to kill M, then Bond must be prepared to die to save her.

The first time I watched Skyfall I felt the weight of the franchise’s fifty years building to this one moment, only for the film to fluff its lines.


So, could a better ending be crafted to fix this, as well as ticking all the boxes below?:

  1. Jettisoning the Skyfall Lodge siege entirely while preserving – or improving upon – the significance of the title.

  2. Showing Bond at his burned-out weakest, before giving us a resurgent, rejuvenated hero.

  3. Allowing Bond to do something right, i.e. foil Silva’s plan and save M’s life, while still giving the film a suitably emotional climax.

  4. Having our hero act more ‘Bond-like’ in the ‘Tennyson’ scene.

  5. Make proper use of Adele’s superlative theme-song.

  6. Having a scene of Bond doing something cool and exciting on his own, that reminds us we’re watching a James Bond movie, not an “MI6” movie.

  7. Having the villain’s plan make a modicum of sense.

  8. All the above while delivering a moment stirring enough to make the audience punch the air.

Anything else?

  • Not once in all the books or films has M properly seen 007 in action. He/she is invariably withering in his/her disdain of Bond and his propensity for violence, yet is never present at the sharp end, witnessing the danger he faces for Queen and country. That would be nice to see.

 

Fixing Skyfall

To properly set up our revised ending we first need to drop a few breadcrumbs earlier in the movie…

Immediately after the opening credits would be a scene of Q handing M and a Chief of Staff an envelope addressed to: “M’s Office, Floor 17, 85 Albert Embankment, Vauxhall”. Q is perplexed:

Q: “Whoever sent it somehow discovered which floor your office was on Ma’am.”

Chief of Staff: “Or they’d been to it before.”

Q: “Ma’am, the envelope and it’s contents have been passed by the lab: no toxins, poisons, finger-prints or anything else. It’s clean.”

M removes the letter and opens it. A single word is printed on it: “Skyfall”. M, Q, and the Chief of Staff exchange meaningful looks. Q is ordered to immediately have M’s personal security doubled.


Later, during Mallory’s meeting with M and Bond at MI6, where Bond is passed fit for duty, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells M he’s heard there’s been a serious threat made on her life.

Mallory: “This won’t do M, you know. We can’t have the head of MI6 murdered by some megalomaniac or two-bit terrorist. The damage to the reputation of British Intelligence would be catastrophic.”

M: “There’s no need to concern yourself Mallory. I have a contingency plan to prevent any such threat.”

Mallory: “Which is?”

M: “For MI6 eyes only”


[The Revised Third Act]

Silva escapes from MI6’s emergency underground headquarters, and, with Bond in pursuit, disappears into the labyrinth of London Underground service tunnels. Except, the foot chase is longer and more Third Man-esque, with Bond eventually falling behind.

Finally, Bond catches up with Silva as he approaches the long ladder in the dimly lit subterranean chamber.

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Bond: “Enough. End of the line.”

Out of the shadows steps a dozen heavily-armed henchmen.

Silva: “Make your final wry remarks or whatever – but do it quickly because I’ve been looking forward to this for so many years, and now I’m late.”

Bond opens his mouth to speak but Silva cuts him off.

Silva: “You know what, I actually don’t have time.”

Silva is handed a gun by one of his henchmen and turns and shoots just as Bond dives behind some pipes. Silva peers into the darkness for a moment, then shrugs and starts climbing the ladder, followed by his men. Bond gingerly touches his side and grimaces in pain.

The top of the ladder leads directly into the foundations of the Houses of Parliament. Silva’s men use cutting equipment to make an opening in a wall through to Parliament’s lower basement.

In the committee chamber a message flashes up on Tanner’s laptop that Silva has escaped and that M should be immediately evacuated. M dismisses the notion.

Then another message appears: “Silva believed to be moving toward your location, threat level critical.”

M nods gravely, pauses, then seems to come to a decision. She turns back to the panel and starts reading from a prepared statement.

M: “The failure of this operation, which led to the loss of highly classified information – as well as, tragically – two agents, must be accounted for. I, of course take full responsibility and hereby tender my resignation, effective immediately.”

There are gasps around the room.

M: “Furthermore, while I accept the judgement and sanctions of this panel, I would like to take the opportunity at this juncture to wholeheartedly endorse Leftenant Colonel Gareth Mallory as my natural successor.”

M exchanges a glance with Mallory, a look of dawning comprehension on his face.

Meanwhile, Bond — bleeding, bruised and exhausted — slowly climbs the ladder. At the top, he clambers through the opening made by Silva’s men and staggers along the adjoining passage.

Silva, now dressed in a police uniform, shoots his way into the committee chamber, flanked by his henchmen.

Bond lurches forward, just trying to keep upright, leaving a trail of blood. As he reaches the final corridor he hears the gunfire, but cannot go on and finally succumbs to his injuries, collapsing to the floor.

Back in MI6, an alarmed Q watches the events unfolding in Parliament via a CCTV feed on his laptop.

Silva closes in on M, exchanging gunfire with Tanner, who is making a last stand.

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Still watching the screen, Q pulls forward a microphone. His hand twitches as he reaches for a switch marked “Line on”. On another monitor the locations of all the Double-O agents in London are visible. Q clears his throat nervously, leans forward and whispers into the microphone a single word:

“Skyfall.”

He clears his throat and repeats, more forcefully:

“Skyfall.”

[Cue Adele]

~Let the sky fall; When it crumbles~

Cut to: a close-up of the unconscious figure of Bond, with the sound of “Skyfall” being urgently repeated in his earpiece.

~Where you go I go; What you see I see~

Cut to: 008 [dreamcast: Idris Elba] driving an Aston Martin as he hears the codeword in his earpiece. A console pops up on his dashboard displaying M’s location. He handbrake-turns the car across traffic, mashes the throttle and presses a button causing a gun-tray to slide out of the glove-box.

~I know I’d never be me~

Cut to: 003 [dreamcast: Gillian Anderson] bursting out of a building, looking around and then running towards Parliament.

~Without the security~

Cut to: 009 [dreamcast: Tessa Thompson] swerving a superbike through traffic, a sub-machine gun slung over her back.

~Of your loving arms~

Cut to: 005 [dreamcast: Dev Patel] sprinting desperately along Embankment toward Parliament, reaching one of the perimeter gates. But too late…

~Keeping me from harm~

Cut to: M looking up at Silva as he raises his gun.

~Put your hand in my hand~

Cut to: 007’s blood-smeared earpiece abandoned on the floor as we pan up and follow a trail of bloodily hand prints along the wall which leads us to a classic silhouette of JAMES BOND standing behind the last door, silenced Walther PPK in hand.

~And we’ll stand…~

Bond kicks open the door, then – in a single tracking shot – we follow him as he shoots the henchmen blocking the entrance to the committee room. As others turn to fire back he slips into a side-room where ministers are cowering under desks.

He strides past them and shoots out the lock of the next door, bursting through it. Henchmen fire on him from all sides but he ignores them and aims straight at the phalanx of mercenaries led by Silva, relentlessly moving toward them.

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He reloads mid-stride, kicking benches aside as frightened government officials stare up at him. Silva’s henchmen spray bullets around the room in panic, but Bond’s hand isn’t shaking anymore: the blood is once more running cold in his veins. He spins and shoots (gun-barrel-opening-style) dispatching gunmen with single, precise shots. He reloads and empties a full magazine into Silva’s chest.

Silva squirms under his bullet-proof vest as he is dragged away by a few of his surviving henchmen. An eery silence falls over the room, as if everyone is holding their breath: all eyes are on the unknown secret agent. Bond gets to M, and stands protectively over her.

Bond: “Ma’am?”

003, 005, 008 and 009 all arrive, weapons drawn, and cover the small huddle of Bond, M, Moneypenny and the wounded figure of Tanner. Bond crouches down beside M.

Bond: “So, what now?”

M: “Ask Mallory, he’s in charge now. I’m finished.”

Bond: “I’m asking you”

For the first time M notices Bond’s blood soaked shirt. She suddenly looks old and weak.

M: “Fine. As my final order… James, please look after yourself. And go to a hospital.”

Bond (harshly): “No it isn’t.”

M: “What?”

Bond: “Your final order is to tell me to go kill that son of a bitch.”

M (taken aback): “Bond…”

Then the glint of steel returns to her eye.

M: “Go kill that son of a bitch.”

Bond stands and strides purposefully after Silva, nodding at Mallory as he reloads his pistol with a flourish. The four other Double-O’s immediately follow, cocking their weapons.


While the Home Alone showdown at Skyfall Lodge is nice, I’d happily swap it for a shorter Die Hard-(or The Thirty-Nine Steps)-inspired denouement inside the iconic, hallowed halls of the Houses of Parliament. It was good enough for Hitchcock.

In this revised version, after the (spin-off friendly) secondary Double-O’s take care of the remaining henchmen, Bond dispatches Silva – preferably not with huge explosions and pyrotechnics, but a simple, cold execution:

Silva: “Alright Mister Bond, you got me. I’ll come quietly.”

Bond (shakes head): “Can’t do it. As you said: ‘last rat standing’. And this one is still licenced to kill.”

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Live And Let Connery

I’m as sentimental as the next guy – I have no problem with a classic Bond making a crowd-pleasing cameo – so long as it isn’t distracting, doesn’t interfere with the plot, and preferably happens at the end of the movie. This is how I would’ve brought back Bond-Prime…

Bond escorts M out of Parliament, past a swarm of security forces and police. In the distance she spots a familiar 1960’s silver Aston Martin DB5 passing through the security gates.

M: “Oh no…”

Bond (alert): “What?”

M: “My husband. And he’s brought that dreadful old car of his.”

The Aston pulls up alongside and out steps Sean Connery.

Mr M: “Are you alright?”

M: “Yes of course, don’t fuss.”

M’s husband looks at Bond, bloody and bruised, and nods slowly.

Mr M: “Just another day at the office?”

Bond: “Exactly”

Mr M: “And what’s your name son?”

~To hell with it, let’s just play the James Bond theme here~

M: “This is agent 007 – ”

Bond: “The name’s Bond, James Bond.”

Mr M grasps his outstretched hand.

Mr M: “Thank you, Mr Bond.”


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.

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 (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.

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.

Existential mumbo-jumbo and six-foot grasshoppers

Perhaps, while he was breaking the story for Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott thought back to his classic original (and perhaps, fleetingly, its superior sequel), and contemplated just what it was that made the character of Ellen Ripley so memorable, indelible and iconic. He obviously concluded it was because she wore a grey vest and carried a big gun.

That Daniels doesn't get lost completely in the chaos of the script machinations is entirely due to Katherine Waterston's fine performance; the fact that she is the best defined human character in the film is a definite problem.

The crew of the Covenant are, without exception, so mind-numbingly stupid, it's a wonder they didn't all accidentally open airlocks and flush themselves out into space. The film asks us to care about individuals that wander off by themselves (and get eaten), trot down the spooky stairwell (and get eaten) and refrain from shooting the baddie when they have the chance (and then get eaten). Actually, it's worse that that: unlike in Alien, where the crew of the Nostromo are visibly terrified out of their wits, this lot treat the monster as more of an inconvenience. If they aren't scared, why should we be?

Speaking of which: sadly, the xenomorph itself (or protomorph, or whatever) has been diminished to the point that it is now just as boring as its human buffet. Ridley Scott was absolutely right when he said the creature was played out. So why then did he build his third act around a xenomorph-variant that looks and acts like a brainless, slobbering, six-foot grasshopper?

Why? Well because of Prometheus. Alien devotees voiced their displeasure with the lack of xeno-action in Prometheus and clearly Ridley listened. Now it's (xeno)morphin time, all the time. However, the creature (or lack thereof) wasn't the issue: Prometheus floundered because of a bad script in which flat, uninteresting characters made increasingly idiotic decisions, and didn't stop banging on about creators and gods and existential mumbo-jumbo...

What Ridley keeps missing about his own franchise is that the androids have always been as scary (and as alien) as the assorted face-huggers and chest-bursters. Michael Fassbender's deranged Dr Frankenstein-ish 'David' is magnetic on screen. His eyes twinkle with the same cold madness as did Ian Holm's 'Ash'. All the good scenes are with David, and the best of these are when he spars (verbally and physically) with his subservient twin 'Walter'.

In the final reckoning, Covenant  was fatally compromised before the cameras even started rolling. It had the impossible job of trying to make sense of Prometheus, while simultaneously wanting to give the audience everything that was missing from that film.

The change of title from "Paradise" to "Alien: Covenant" says it all.

... 

My dearest wish would be for Sean Connery to grasp Mr Scott warmly by the shoulders and say:

"Ridley... let it go"

Cinema’s Top 10 Female Badasses

To mark the release of Alien: Covenant, featuring Katherine Waterston’s (hopefully) xenomorph-battling female ass-kicker, it seems like a good time to do a run-down of Cinema’s Top 10 Female Badasses (according to me):

 

10: M (Judi Dench)

She says:

“Your name is on a memorial wall of the very building you attacked. I will have it struck off. Soon your past will be as nonexistent as your future. I’ll never see you again.”

Dench’s MI6 chief punctured Brosnan-Bond’s swagger at their first meeting and ordered the shot which almost killed Craig-Bond, despite being his strongest parental figure. Tough, ice-cold and ruthless, Dench owns the role.

 

9: Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale)

She says:

“If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself, and even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that. When you’re finished, all I’ll need will be a tub of boiling water and I’ll be exactly what I was before – with just another filthy memory”

Before Leone, Donati, Bertolucci and Argento teamed up to reinvent the female lead in westerns, female characters had been little more than perfunctory love interests for the male heroes, and generally bland.

In Once Upon A Time In the West Cardinale’s life-hardened ex-prostitute dreams of travelling west to start a new life, “do something, what the hell”. However, her new husband and family are murdered before she gets there, and Mrs McBain finds herself being circled by a number of dangerous men with different motives.

Ever the realist about her position, she treats each with weary disdain, irritation, and barely concealed rage – and tries to kill them whenever she sees an opportunity. The film ends with all the men dead or damaged, and she is left to inherit the new world.

 

8: Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh)

She says:

“Without Green Destiny, you are nothing!”

While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is generally considered an ‘art-house’ martial arts movie, the unspoken, gently simmering love between seasoned warriors Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai makes it equally romantic.

But Shu Lien really comes alive, with fire in her eyes, in the heat of battle – such as when she squares off against the young thief that wields Li Mu Bai’s stolen sword, The Green Destiny. The fight is one of the most dazzling in cinema history, and it happens to be between two women. Shu Lien eventually prevails – despite Green Destiny shattering every weapon she uses.

 

7: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence)

She says:

“You can torture us and bomb us and burn our districts to the ground. But do you see that? Fire is catching… And if we burn… you burn with us!”

What makes her interesting?: the Hunger Games series of books & film adaptations have interesting things to say about reality television, celebrity culture and voyeurism, but their greatest achievement is the central female protagonist herself.

Independent, abrasive and a reluctant icon, Katniss is uncomfortable with her unwanted fame while being a more efficient killer than she would ever want to admit.

Katniss is in some way reminiscent of (the screen portrayal of) Lawrence of Arabia: they are individuals so obviously destined for greatness that they struggle to relate to the rest of humanity, and who ultimately find that the act of killing comes all to easy.

 

6: The Bride (Uma Thurman) 

She says:

“Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.”

The Bride/Beatrice Kiddo is not quite the feminist icon Quentin Tarantino was trying for (and the films are still waay too long), but but he does succeed in moulding Thurman into a kicking, biting, slicing, chopping, crashing, crunching, clawing and stabbing icon for the ages.

I still think Tarantino does not do enough to make The Bride sympathetic, however she is believably tough, mean, charismatic and deadly, and here I do give director and muse (“Q&U”) credit. In the years since there have been a slew of wannabe female action heroes that go around beating up armies of male super-soldiers with nonchalant ease (for example Gina Carano in Haywire) – and you never buy it for a second.

 

5: Rey (Daisy Ridley)

She says:

“You will remove these restraints and leave this cell with the door open.”

Marooned alone on a junkyard planet at an early age, Rey learned to scratch out a living from selling whatever she could salvage. Despite being fiercely independent, resourceful and self assured, she shies away from any suggestion that she is special. Compared to Kylo Ren’s confidence in his great lineage, Rey is hesitant and adrift.

But when she finally overcame her self-doubt in the heat of battle at the end of The Force Awakens, a great heroine for a new generation emerged. The best is yet to come.

The ‘Mary Sue’ (non)issue: there have been complaints that Rey is just too good at everything. Funny how that crap never got thrown at Luke or Anakin isn’t it? Both of those guys were also incredible pilots, engineers and Force users, despite living far less self-reliant lives than Rey. Anakin could win podraces and battles in Naboo fighters when he was just out of nappies, and Luke destroyed the Death Star with his first shot when piloting an X-wing for the first time. Lucky! Baby Annie could build droids out of junk, and had a higher rating on the Force-o-meter than Yoda; Luke was a natural crack shot with both a blaster and as a gunner on the Millennium Falcon. Don’t get cocky, kid.

Yes, Rey defeated a wounded Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel, but who’s to say that she isn’t more powerful with the Force than he is? Maybe she’s more powerful than Luke and Anakin and Yoda too? I guess no-one told Rey that a girl can’t be a badass Jedi.

 

4: Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace)

She says:

“I’ve never done this before. Hold still, or it’ll get messy.”

What makes her interesting? Just about everything. Forget Benedict Cumberbatch, Salander (as inhabited definitively by Rapace) is the Sherlock Holmes for the modern age. A savant-like hacker and programmer, she also displays powers of deduction to rival that of her literary counterpart.

However, there’s much more to her character than that: Salander seems at times like a train barrelling forward, fuelled by pure cold fury. She steamrollers her targets, who are – without exception – sadistic men who hate women, and deserve what’s coming to them.

Add in a compelling backstory that is revealed a piece at a time over three books/films, and you have a fully rounded character that becomes indelibly printed on viewers minds. Her chasm-deep vulnerability also allows for unconventional, yet surprisingly sweet romantic scenes.

 

3: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton)

She says:

“You’re terminated, fucker.”

Just as the T2 juggernaut completely overshadowed the original, Linda Hamilton’s remarkable transformation into a hard bitten, gun-toting, muscular warrior eclipses the memory of her as a meek waitress.

However, Hamilton proved what a fine choice she was for the role even in that first movie: she ditches the hairspray and bubble-gum sheen half-way in, learns to shoot and make bombs, and stares down the killing machine chasing her. Arnie didn’t stand a chance.

 

2: Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)

She says:

“I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you’ll do as I tell you, okay?”

Before 1977 the role of women in big budget, mainstream adventure movies was pretty well established: look glamorous, don’t be smart and don’t talk too much. Star Wars and Princess Leia changed all that.

Yes, she gets captured by the bad guys and the heroic men come to rescue her, so far, so predictable. But then the audience sits up straight: the moment she’s free she takes charge and starts giving orders, grabs a gun and leads the escape.

In Return of the Jedi she inverts the ‘damsel in distress’ trope by rescuing Han Solo, and then cradles him in her arms. Even when the film missteps and can’t resist putting her in a gold bikini, she reacts in the most Princess Leia-ish way possible, by garrotting her captor with her own slave chains (an act Fisher was always proud of).

In The Force Awakens she is referred to as “General” a change I’m actually not crazy about. Leia always owned the Princess thing, Disney should too. In The Empire Strike Back it doesn’t make much sense for a princess to be giving orders in the military control room on Hoth – unless of course it’s Princess Leia. Forget rank, everybody knows if Princess Leia’s in the room, she’s in charge.

 

Honourable mentions:

  • O-Ren Ishii (Kill Bill: Vol. 1)
  • Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs)
  • Private Vasquez (Aliens)
  • Trinity (The Matrix)
  • Mathilda (Leon)
  • Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Batman Returns, The Dark Knight Rises)
  • Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series)
  • Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter series)
  • Wonder Woman (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
  • Marion Ravenwood (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
  • Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road)
  • Ilsa (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
  • Rita Vrataski (Edge of Tomorrow)
  • Natasha Romanova/Black Widow (The Avengers)
  • Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy)

One gets the sense that (if you so deserved it) all these women could blow your head off with one shot, not feel too bad about it, and look cool doing it.

 

Which leaves us with…

 

1: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)

Duh.

She says:

“How do we kill it, Ash? There’s gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?”

She says:

“Yes. I read you. The answer is negative .”

She says:

“Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away ?”

She says:

“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

She says:

[to Newt] “I will never leave you. That’s a promise.”

Ripley obviously wins because she’s not just the ultimate female badass – she’s the biggest, baddest (and by some distance the most interesting) badass-iest hero in all cinema, period.

I’m going to say it: Ripley is what made the Alien franchise truly great, not the xenomorph. Cameron knew it; I wish Ridley Scott still did.

Why the Star Wars one-shots will protect the galaxy far, far away from the flaw in the Marvel Universe

For me, Star Wars is all about the saga. I’ve been ambivalent – at best – about the idea of doing standalone spin-offs. Sure, there will be good ones and bad ones, and I’m sure I’ll go and see them all anyway.

But, I never questioned why Disney didn’t just apply standard Marvel principles to crack the Star Wars nut; now when I think about it, it does seem rather curious.

The patented Marvel Formula consists of a number of tent-pole film events, such as an Avengers movie, that are set-up and supported by any number of ‘smaller’ interconnected stories (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Doctor Strange etc). On the surface this seems pretty similar to their plans for Star Wars, doesn’t it? But actually there are subtle differences.

As the boss of Lucasfilm as a Disney subsidiary, Kathleen Kennedy has 2 primary objectives:

  • Make great movies
  • Build a Star Wars Universe

Disney didn’t pay all that money for one trilogy. However, Kennedy has confirmed that the Saga films will be largely independent of the standalones – the first of which was 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – and even these will not necessarily connect to one another.

Why didn’t Kennedy just copy Marvel? It would’ve been the obvious move (Warner Bros/DC did after-all, and numerous others have attempted it, e.g. Ghostbusters, Terminator).

I think the reason is that Disney has seen a weakness in the MCU, one I now see myself, and more clearly with each new movie.

The flaw is inherent. The Marvel films, like the comic books they are based on, are essentially a giant soap opera: endlessly entertaining, but without ever telling a proper third act. Like soaps, the films don’t get endings, they get arcs. Characters never die, and if they do they invariably come back to life. It is all confectionary – until eventually your stomach tires of sweets and craves a more substantial meal. This is what ultimately turns me off comic books, and what is starting to grate about the movies.

Everything has to build from, connect to and set-up everything else, and because the story can never be allowed to end, you can never feel fully satisfied. This is the reason why Thanos appears for no real reason in Guardians of the Galaxy, why Avengers: Age of Ultron lacked narrative cohesion and why Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was just a complete mess.

However, a true standalone need not connect up with other elements of the IP, and is therefore liberated to tell a story that builds to a proper conclusion.

As a first attempt, Rogue One fumbles the ball, but it was at least brave enough to satisfactorily end the story it is trying to tell. Any film which features massively outnumbered and outgunned rebels trying to steal secret documents, aught to be prepared to sacrifice its heroes. Killing Jyn, Cassian and the rest was the right decision, and was only possible because of the franchise structure Disney/Lucasfilm have put in place.

Of course, characters dont have to die: the heroes are still alive and kicking at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark for example, and we can be certain that Han Solo will make it to the end of this year’s standalone. I’m just hopeful that it’s a good movie which has a proper beginning, middle – and end.

"Luke Skywalker has vanished"

Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams did not get enough credit for their work on constructing the story of The Force Awakens:

  1. As I've said before, the ending of Return of the Jedi left no story wriggle room. That ending was sewn up tighter than an Alderaan senator's hair bun - and left not a single stray thread to pull on. There was only the politics of forming a New Galactic Republic. And I'm certain that "politics" was a banned word in J.J.'s writers room.
  2. New characters; making Star Wars fun again - making it *Star Wars* again - was the only critical objective of the new movie. Thirty years of inherited story baggage is not inherently fun. The Force Awakens desperately needed a new core group of characters.
  3. Old characters. And here's the catch 22: Leia, Han, Chewie & Luke's return was non-negotiable.

That's an awful lot of story furniture for a lighthearted adventure blockbuster to deal with, before you even get to the plot itself.

That's why I'm sort of in love with that first line. The very first thing we see on screen, after the title, is that sentence:

"Luke Skywalker has vanished."

It is brilliant economy. In four words Abrams/Kasdan addressed points 1 and 3, thereby giving themselves thirty minutes of breathing room to introduce all four of our new heroes: Rey, Finn, Poe, BB8, as well as Kylo Ren.

So, what do you do if there is no leftover story to utilise? Make something new - Luke's disappearance. Yes it's a fudge, but it's a fudge that honours a beloved character. It puts Luke at the centre of everything, without him even needing to appear.

Much like Orson Wells' Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), the film revolves around the character's absence. He is spoken of constantly by others, his whereabouts and purpose are speculated upon at length, and by the time he is at last revealed he has been built up to almost mythological status.

The Force Awakens is far from perfect, but the story craft is masterful.