The Antepenultimate Jedi

Have you seen it? Read on. If not, and spoilers bother you, stop.

The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

There’s a moment in Reign of Fire where a story is being acted out for a group of rapt children — and we in the audience should recognise the story, since it’s a version of the original Star Wars trilogy. Those first three films — episodes IV to VI — have the quality of the fairy tale, the orphan who battles monsters, who reaches the happily ever after moment and then is heard from no more, until he has to give half his kingdom and his daughter to whomever will slay the dragon. There is always another child — and it should have been more interesting than it was that Anakin was that child and grew up to be evil Darth Vader. Think reading The Magician’s Nephew after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And then there was Rey, in The Force Awakens, of mysterious birth, a wild untutored phoenix in the ways of the Force who this time was a girl (and there was a great perturbance in the Force….)

We get a similar moment towards the end of (I would say this) the rather too long Episode IX in which stablehands are acting out parts of the story we’ve just seen. There’s a broomstick that moves seemingly of its own accord, and we either have a magician’s apprentice, the Force is infectious or there’s a Disney joke. But here we have a tension — I seem to recall feeling it in reading Terry Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown — of the ending of Stories. (That was Otto Courgette as I meant “stories”, but let it lie.) We are a generation on from Luke, if not more, and perhaps it is time to the old ways lie let. Time to die.

It’s almost too neat to have a trilogy of death — and of course we don’t know how things would have gone had Carrie Fisher not died so young. The condition of children’s fiction is so often to get rid of the parents, so Han had to die at the hands of Darth Emo — and Harrison Ford could bugger off to Blade Runner, in much the same way he had at the end of Empire Strikes Back come to think of it. Now we almost inevitably lose Luke, in shots echoing the suns set in Episode IV and the death of Ben. We almost lose Leia, in a sequence which is extraordinary and definitely takes us into the realm of fantasy. But she has to get out the way so the young can do their thing, even as we demand they come out retirement for one last gig, the neverending Chas and Dave farewell tour.

We want to let go of the old ways. We don’t want to let go of the old ways.

The Force Awakens was a reassuring remix of A New Hope, showing us that J.J. Abrams can come in and do what Lucas had forgotten how to do some point after 1983. Rogue One was the same story told askew. The smart money was on this being a remix of Empire — and there were a few moments, such as the Emo, Snopes and Rey fight, a couple of betrayals à la Lando Calrissian, the young Jedi seeking training. Luke, retired to Craggy Island, has in the meantime become Father Jack, refusing the call to adventure, until Mrs Doyle has said “Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on” sufficient times. And it is dark, with Rebel tactics failing repeatedly or not actually helping. Poe Decameron, in son of Han mode, is impulsive. Bombs inexplicably won’t fall out of bomb bays in zero gravity and someone forgot to charge the batteries on the space ships….

Actually I did wonder in an idle moment where all the spaceships are made and how, and that is perhaps the moment of genius in the film in the marmite casino sequence, populated by arms dealers who sell to both sides. There is an economy underlying this universe (and it’s partly what Blade Runner 2049 nodded to in its child labour extracting rare metals sequence. Underlying the rebel actions are the deaths of millions of innocents. And ugly trade.

But Finn and Rose going off to pick up a plot coupon is a symptom of middle book syndrome, where everyone runs all over the place, not really achieving anything, delaying the real climax. Think of the structure problem that Tolkien finds himself with —even if he’s down to seven or eight members of the Fellowship, he has to generate four parallel plots. In the book, you have to put up with losing Frodo and Sam for a couple of hundred pages; the radio and film versions contradict Tolkien’s wishes by intercutting, as Johnson does here, introducing Rose to keep Finn on the straight and narrow.

And Rose tips the balance, as suddenly, apparently, People of Colour have Taken Over the Francise. Seriously. Breaking the There can be only one rule of Lando or Mace but not both at once. Poe, if you read him as Latino, makes it three. Hardly parity.

Rey, meanwhile, turns out not to be a member of the Skywalker family, if you can believe it, suggesting a natural talent rather than being another bloody Chosen One. As the sweep sequence hints, maybe the Force is democratic rather than regal those days. She only gets two of the three lessons Luke offers her of course — do any Jedi ever graduate? — so who knows if she may yet turn to the Dark Side? There were some interesting crosscutting telepathic moments with Darth Emo that are hinting at the love that Leia and Luke could never share; could Emo’s final redemption be the love of a good woman and her fate be to become Mrs Emo?

Time will tell, as we try to let go whilst not letting go, never let me go, there is always another.

I have a bad feeling about this.

And so, a film whose fan wank was less than it might be, whose seduction by the visual Marvel was greater than it should have been, that dares to rewrite holy writ and that sails past the two hour mark.

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