[This planned series of blog posts ballooned way out of hand. There’s no way it’ll ever get finished. I’ll probably circle round to doing something about Star Wars in a few years — but as far as this particular dissection of Episode VIII goes, don’t expect it go anywhere.]
So, I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi on Tuesday, December 12th, while visiting my friend in Amsterdam. That’s three days before its US premiere.
And so I thought to myself: “Haha! That’s quite a coup! I could spend three whole days writing up my thoughts, and (thanks to a quirk of the international release schedule) have them out just in time for the glut of people googling reviews right after they’ve seen it because they, like me, don’t have anyone around to discuss it with!”
And then I proceeded to… not do that. Because… you know. I was busy visiting my friend in Amsterdam.
And then some other stuff happened.
And now here we are. Monday, February 26th. About to release the first batch of my thoughts on one thin sliver of the film.
How did we get here? And how on Earth did we get here this late?
Well, some of the other stuff that happened involved… more thoughts. And a crucial one of those was this one:
“This film came out a year or two too early. Because I’m just getting started writing blog posts. And by then, I hope to have plucked a lot of the low-hanging fruit. I’ll have polished off some basic expositions of the main components of my political, spiritual, and aesthetic thought — as expressed in dialogue with the artists and thinkers who initially influenced them. Basically, I’ll have published some blog posts about basic left-wing thought, about basic Eastern and Middle Eastern philosophy and religion, and about basic beauty. Then I’ll be able to link to those ideas when they come up in my review of Star Wars, if anyone wants more explanation about them, and proceed along with a review which, while longer than most, should not stretch much past 3 or 4 thousand words.”
But the film did not come out a year or two from now. It came out two and a half months ago.
And as such, if I wanted to explain my thoughts with any degree of comprehensiveness, I knew I would have to take the time out mid-way to explain my main ideological commitments, aesthetic stances, and interpretative manoeuvres.
…and that, kids, is how my 4000-word first draft for a review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi stretched out to a nearly book-length project of self-sufficient but mutually-interlinked blog posts, the full scope of which you can see from the master page here.
This larger project is divided into three main parts.
The first, which you’re reading now, concentrates on Style, or film Form. On the way the content is expressed — in terms of film-making technique, narrative approach, and other aesthetic strategies and tactics — rather than the content of the film itself.
The second will concentrate on one aspect of content: its politics. Lots of people seemed to think that was important. I do too. In this essay, I’ll say why, and explain how the film’s political subtext works, and what lessons we can draw from it.
The third will concentrate on the bit I most want to talk about: its big ideas about the nature of narrative, humanity, and the universe. Specifically, I want to say that it’s the best Star Wars film so far in this respect. And a good way of understanding why… is that it gets much closer than any of the others ever did to the core of the real-world traditions of Eastern mysticism and philosophy which served as the inspiration for the film series’ most notable spiritual driving Force: the Jedi religion, and their beliefs and practices.
But back to the main point — which I just realized I only got around to saying just now. I’ll put it more explicitly, then:
I really liked the film. I think it is far, far away the best Star Wars film to date, in each of the three aspects I described above. Like, easily the best one. That mostly rides on the third thing — even if it sucked politically and aesthetically, if it got the big ideas right, I’d’ve probably been sold. But even the first two aspects on their own should suffice to set it above all its predecessors.
So let’s get right to it. Allow me to explain why (to me at least) this newest entry in the Star Wars film franchise is its best achievement of Film Form.
Table of Contents
|1.0. The Elements of Star Wars
—1.1. Westerns and Samurai
—1.2. Swashbuckling Space Opera2.0. The New Balance in The Last Jedi
—2.1. Maintain the good shit
—2.2. Streamline the plot
—2.3. Change up some details
1.0. The Elements of Star Wars
Star Wars is famously a patchwork of mythological and pop cultural influences.
This is genuinely not a criticism; one way or another, everything is influenced by something. What sets Star Wars apart is just how precisely it does this… and how little it tries to hide it. When hammering out the plot of the 1977 original, George Lucas inspired himself directly from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. You know — the one which tried to condense every myth ever into one, creatively called the “Monomyth”, and nail down their plot progression to one dynamic: the “Hero’s Journey”.
When your first thought in seeking to create what will become the late 20th Century’s greatest mythic cycle is to use the single most conventional condensation of a thousand previous myths as your jumping-off point… it’s no surprise if it’s easy to pick out your influences. That’s like starting a dictionary by quoting the definition of the word “dictionary” from an earlier dictionary.
And this is — to reiterate — neither good nor bad. What it is… is extremely standardized. Which is, by definition, not unique — lots of other things are standardized too. But Star Wars is at least remarkably forthright about it. And that, ironically perhaps, sets it a bit apart from its competitors.
1.1. Westerns and Samurai
So we have a film franchise defined by a near-slavish obeisance to its amateurish (or auteur-ish; one of the two) interpretation of the great works of the past. And this effect is readily visible in its filmic influences, as well as its literary-theory ones.
So, say you want to show us lonely frontiersmen on a remote desert planet, and you take shot-for-shot inspiration from The Searchers. You know what — great. I do love me some Westerns. Hit me up.
But, say you want your action scenes to be more noble and heroic than a chaotic gunfight. You want something less… clumsy and random than a pistol or a rifle or a plasma blaster.
You know… a more elegant weapon, for a more civilized age?
Well then, yeah man. Give me some of that good ol’ two-handed single-sword without-a-shield stuff! Make them duel in relatively slow, stylized fashion! Follow the trail of John Ford’s influence (that paramount director of Westerns) to Japan, all the way to quite possibly the greatest of all motion picture directors of all time.
In other words: come on, George — samurai me up!
This is, for my money, the quintessentially correct move in action-adventure cinema — and quite a few other things as well.
Basically, you take a Western kid who just wants to be entertained for a little while. But the stuff that’s on offer just stops doing it for them, pretty darned quickly. Something in the kiss-kiss-bang-bang Hollywood blockbuster style starts to wear on them — politically and spiritually, of course… but let’s just stick with its aesthetics for now. It all begins to seem so cheap, tawdry, and trashy; immersion can no longer be maintained; the scales finally start to fall from their eyes.
And so, their tastes shift. With a melancholy sigh, they put away the toys of youth, and look to serious, grown up cinema for a flavor that better fits their maturing palate. Entertainment is no longer the order of the day. From now on: Art.
…but then, they start to notice something funny. Reading about the art cinema directors they’ve come to respect, some familiar names keep cropping up. Whether it be Bergmann, Tarkovsky, Fellini… all of them near-worship this guy called Kurosawa. Who, funnily enough… seems to have been the by-word for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorcese as well — the best examples of the kind of cinema you started to grow tired of!
And so, we take a gander Eastwards… and oh Lord, what do we find. Films which are as aesthetically and technically accomplished as any art film, but rip-roaringly entertaining as well! You venture into action-comedy, and find the old Drunken Master: Jackie Chan! You move from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero into older, classic wuxia… and there, you find The King.
…but that’s a whole mega-essay of its own. For now, I’ll cut a long story short:
Much better to take inspiration from the samurai and their swordfights than some ‘roided-out Rambo-a-like mowing down gook mooks with double machine guns — that’s for damn sure.
I… I……. ugh.
So let’s go ahead and grab ourselves a drink at that wellspring of inspiration, shall we?
In 1958, Akira Kurosawa releases an adventure film called The Hidden Fortress.
It… is a really good film. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Take George Lucas’, instead.
Or, better yet — take Admiral’s Motti’s word for it. Though he gets cut off a little bit at the end there. This Vader character gets so touchy, when you make snide comments about his “sad devotion to that ancient religion“…
I find your disrespect for the Dao and my fidelity to its ways both tiresome, and borderline annoying.
And speaking of taking someone’s word for things… So, you know the word “Jedi”, right? Know where it comes from?
From Jidaigeki — the Japanese word for samurai films (literally, “period drama”). You’ll have likely come across it before in the term “Sengoku Jidai” — the Warring States Period of Japanese history. In other words, that time where all the samurais come from.
I’m not shitting you. It’s literally spelled that way too. The official Sith term of “Dark Jedi” is “Jen’jidai“. And I’m sure as hell they didn’t mean take “jidai” to mean “Dark”… though why they plumped for “Jen” instead is momentarily beyond me, but nevertheless amusing.
Anyway. The plot of Hidden Fortress is pretty straightforward. There’s this Princess, you see. And her clan has just been destroyed by another clan, and she’s on the run for her life with nothing but a few retainers.
So she must first enlist the help of a veteran general from the old wars, who will, through wisdom, strength, and guile, help her escape through enemy lines back to allied territory.
Saving her life is not enough, though; simply surviving will not let them continue the war effort and get revenge for her murdered family and destroyed land. And so, they attempt to smuggle her clan’s entire fortune in gold with them — past enemy patrols, all while they’re deep within enemy territory.
Sound…familiar at all?
Are you ready for the world’s most tongue-in-cheek spoiler alert? Well, there you had it.
Princess Yuki is Princess Leia.
The gold is the plans for the Death Star.
And that famous, veteran general from the old wars? Well, buddy. Well well well well well…
Alec fuckin’ Guinness, my main man? Meet Toshiro motherfuckin’ Mifune.
Did you know Toshiro Mifune was offered the role of Obi Wan Kenobi early on? I could link you to some newspaper articles about it. But I think I’ll make the point with…
…some fan art…
You know it, brother.
And it’s not just a general, structural inspiration. The parallels are there, scene by scene.
In Hidden Fortress, General Rokurōta sneaks past a guard patrol with all their gold by disguising his crew as woodcutters, hiding the gold in sticks, and playing clever, reverse-psychology tricks on the guards.
In Star Wars… Obi Wan Kenobi… literally just hand-waves it away. A wizard did it, you see.
And you know what I think of that?
Yup, you guessed it. I love it. Usually, these kinds of situations are extremely tense, and require tremendous effort or luck to get through unscathed. Ever been pulled over by the cops when you had something to hide? Well, exactly. It ain’t easy. You can’t just handwave the cops away.
Except… you know… that time you have an actual wizard in the passenger’s seat. In that case, he can just handwave it away. And do you know how much pleasure that occasions in me? Do you know how happy I am every time I see that scene? Way happy. Way, way happy. It’s like that bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy is confronted by a swordsman who shows off his wicked skills, and then you expect an involved, highly choreographed, whip-vs-sword fight scene to ensue… and then he just shoots the dude.
Wonderful. Wonderful. Give me the old trope… and then humorously subvert it. And have it make perfect sense in the plot, and develop character and worldbuilding, all in one. Sweet as.
Anyway. Remember that scene right afterwards, in the cantina, where we need to establish that Obi Wan is a major badass (because he’s going to get offed in the next fight scene anyway), and so he gets threatened by some violent, idiotic goons, strikes them pre-emptively, and lops one of their arms off?
Well… that doesn’t happen in The Hidden Fortress. No no. We’ll have to fast-forward a whole three years, to Yojimbo, for that one…
And speaking of that next fight scene, where he gets offed by Vader… ever wonder why it looks the way it does? So strange and awkward — so hesitant and overdramatic, for such occasional and flitting movement?
Well, that’s cus it took straight inspiration from the duel in Hidden Fortress, and its unique pacing.
But the real bit of ingenuity Lucas pulled off by dipping into Hidden Fortress — the thing that sets Star Wars apart from virtually every comparable Hollywood blockbuster before it, and almost every one after it — is in the other half of the central, 4-person cast. Here’s Lucas, quoted from the clip I linked to earlier:
The one thing that that really struck me about Hidden Fortress, and I was really intrigued by, was that the story was told from the two lowest characters. I decided that that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, is to take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view — which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.
Cus before we had R2-D2 and C-3PO… we had Tahei and Matashichi.
And what a brilliant storytelling ploy this is. It just accomplishes so many things.
It allows you to leaven the seriousness of the war plot with some perfectly-embedded comic relief, as this odd couple bicker and bumble their way through the challenges of a quite alien genre (comedy slapstick vs. war drama). It allows you to contrast the high-flung political ideals of the two main characters with a more down-to-earth motivation of good ol’ greed (Han Solo, eat your heart out). It grounds you in the more grimy logic of the real world, grafting it straight on to superhuman dignity, forbearance, and heroism of our gallant general and fairy-tale princess. And it provides so many twists to the plot! Bored of having the main characters struggle against the enemy? Have them struggle with the bumbling peasant droids, and their very different notions of what constitutes bravery and common sense!
And so Lucas just said “I’ll have that”, and ripped it right out. Scene for scene. Shot for shot. Right from the beginning of the film.
We start with the iconic title crawl and the establishing shots of Tatooine and the Imperial and rebel ships. Then one boards the other, and a battle ensues between the two sides. Weapons are fired back and forth. Chaos reigns. There’s smoke everywhere. In the midst of it, the two bumbling droids try to make their way through it all without getting killed.
…all straight from Hidden Fortress.
Then there they are, wandering through a desert landscape, blaming each other for what’s gone on. They get into a fight, and end up going their separate ways. Don’t worry though — they’ll both be captured soon by slavers, and reunited at their work camp.
And it’s great. This is what gives Star Wars the bulk of the charm which differentiates it from other American action-adventure hits. The comic relief characters aren’t just tacked on uncomfortably — they’re what the whole plot fundamentally revolves around. And this gets you some of that Jackie Chan special sauce — making you not just admire the action lead for their impressive feats, but love and sympathize with them for their ridiculous faults!
What a tasty combination.
…at this point, the plot and story structure starts to diverge, though. Here’s Lucas again, picking the quote up right from where it left off earlier.
The fact that there was a Princess trying to get through enemy lines, I think, was more of a coincidence than anything else. Because in my film, the Princess is more a stand-and-fight kind of Princess. In the beginning, in some of the first drafts, I had a little bit more of her and a Jedi, an older Jedi, trying to escape and that sort of thing. But then it evolved, eventually, into the story of Luke.
There’s a couple things to unpack here. So, I think the “more of a coincidence than anything else” might be a little bit too strong a way to phrase it. But yes, the two films are very different in some key respects.
What’s the first thing he mentions in that vein, though? That the difference is his Princess is more “stand-and-fight”. And on that, I kinda call bullshit. There’s literally just one moment in which that’s true. She’s just been rescued by Luke, but emerges from her cell to find they’re trapped in the corridor by Storm Trooper fire. The boys insist they’ve got it under control, but she takes one of the guns, fires at the enemy, blasts a hole in a sewage chute, and jumps straight in.
And yeah. Don’t get me wrong. That’s hella cool.
…but that’s it. That’s the only point in the film in which the Princess definitively leaves the damsel-in-distress role and takes true charge of her own destiny; the rest of the time, she’s mostly being dragged along by the actions of the swashbuckling men. And I’m obviously glad it happened — it’s one of the best moments in the film. But… there’s not much more to go on than that, in terms of female agency or forcefulness of character beyond the merely token.
In the Hidden Fortress, meanwhile, Princess Yuki takes on a much more central role. Along with the General, she is the sole driver of the main plot — and everything he does is in direct service to her. She takes the lion’s share of character development too; she’s the only one who really learns and grows through the film — coming to understand the difficulties of those not born into her aristocratic power, and learning the limitations of that power when your regiments and armies are taken away from you. Furthermore, the central thematic thrust — the Princess and the Pauper story, of bridging the class gap between Master and serf — is explored entirely through her. That’s a level of conceptual and political depth pretty much unparalleled in the original Star Wars series, all expressed through female characters (Princess Yuki and the servant girl she rescues).
Yes, that servant girl.
So just because she doesn’t pick up a sword for the first time, with no training, and suddenly start mowing down the most elite troops in the galaxy doesn’t mean she’s any less powerful a character. Quite the opposite, in fact. When Leia and Luke do it in Star Wars, all it does for me is break the sense of verisimilitude (more on this in the next section).
Besides — why would she need a sword?
She’s got her famous stick — and it’s as fearsome as any lightsaber.
So, I’d disregard that bit about Lucas’ Princess being dissimilar in a particularly positive way. The interesting stuff is what he says right after: in the original drafts, it was just her and an old Jedi — Princess Yuki and General Rokurōta.
But things did evolve a lot from there.
Firstly, the General character is split into two. The core character maintains his nobility and wisdom, and becomes Obi Wan. But then his more rogueish, deceitful, and angry moments get sectioned off into Han Solo — the other seasoned vet helping our innocent young protagonist to get through the rough-tough world which has suddenly whirled into existence around her.
And speaking of that young protagonist… Lucas nails it in his quote. The reason why Hidden Fortress is a significantly more progressive film in its gender roles, and a considerably more elegant film in its plot and character design… is that it accomplishes in 2 roles what Star Wars needed 4 for. Princess Yuki remains good ol’ Princess Yuki, leader of the resistance and co-protagonist of the film.
But in Star Wars… she too splits off. And we what do we get from that?
And my question is… why?
What’s the point? What do we gain?
Now we have two young, innocent protagonists looking for help from the wise old master. Only this time: the main one is a boy. Just in case you thought a woman could be trusted with this task alone. Phew! We really dodged a bullet there, folks!
And now, we have two heroic, magic people to save the day. Only this time, the main one is some white kid. Just in case you thought some Asian guy might know how to swing a fucking sword around, or pilot a jet fighter in a suicide run to blow up the galaxy’s most advanced floating death stations.
Yeah man — Asians have no track record of doing that…
So for my money, the major changes Star Wars makes to Hidden Fortress‘ central plot do not fundamentally improve it. They add more characters to accomplish a comparable amount of plot and personal development, and with significantly less interesting gender and cultural/racial undertones.
(And before anyone even begins to think of starting in with “here comes the PC brigade, bringing their lefty politics into my lovely, inviolate nerd culture”… You do realize that it’s entirely the other way around, right? It’s almost always the other way around… but this time, the point’s been laid out HD: the film with the strong female and Asian male leads… really, truly came first. In every possible sense. Surely, after all this exposition I’ve just done, no one would dream of contesting that. Right? …good!)
But the fact remains. The plot and feel of Star Wars begins to diverge from its blueprint in The Hidden Fortress. And as a result, George Lucas had to turn to something else to give body to his ideas.
…I mean, I guess he could have just made shit up. But that, let me tell you, is fucking hard. So, fair play to him. Pick out another genre to inspire yourself. No problem there.
…what did he turn to, though?
White guy shit.
The purest, triplest-A white guy shit in the fucking galaxy.
(Mind you, we haven’t even started talking about Seven Samurai. There’s a book to be written about how deeply it influenced the whole approach to action framing and editing and staging, in Star Wars as well as virtually all late-20th Century cinema. And you know, maybe we’ll get to that someday. ...but this is supposed to be a review of 2017’s The Last Jedi, and we’re still mucking about two decades before the 1977 release date of the original Star Wars. So, for the moment, I’mma just leave you with the final shots of both films, where the main characters line up to receive their reward from the Princess..)
1.2. Swashbuckling Space Opera
You see… at the end of the day, all the Western and Samurai and mythological influences pale in significance before the elephant in the room of Star Wars inspirations.
When it comes right down to it, Han Solo is not literally a gunslinger, and Luke is not literally a samurai — no matter how much they may resemble them. They may be heavily inspired by samurai and gunslingers… but Star Wars is not technically set in the American Wild West or feudal Japan. It’s set in… well, the title gives it away, really. The official genre of Star Wars is a very different, well-established, and highly specific one:
…welcome to the Swashbuckling Space Opera, folks.
And you know what? I have pretty much always hated swashbuckling space opera.
Dunno if you’ve seen any Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. I kinda hope you haven’t, because I have. And… well… OK. Fine. They’re fine. I’m not gonna rag on it if that’s your bag. But let’s just say… it’s definitely not mine.
I mean, it starts right at the racism. The primary antagonist of the Flash Gordon serials is the Yellow Scare-inspired Emperor Ming, of the planet Mongo (a shortening of “Mongol”). As you can see from my samurai hard-on, and as will be made painfully obvious by the time I get around to talking about Daoism, I’ve got a slightly fanatical devotion to East Asian history, thought, and aesthetics; and my first novel (which I’ve been poking at, on and off, for about 6 years) is set entirely on the Mongolian steppe, circa 1200. So to see this all cast into the easy, villainous shade of an Oriental Despotism to be vanquished by the sun-like rays shining from the lamp-like jaw of your beefhead American protagonist du jour just turns my stomach upside down.
This Chinese guy, Emperor Ming the Merciless, from the planet Mongo(l), spread the Purple Death in the wake of all those wars he was doing.
Oh — did we mention he’s a dictator? Yeah, he’s an Emperor Dictator.
Guess we’ll just have to send a white guy with a gun to go shoot some Asian people.
That’s the fix this problem needs!
And it just keeps going from there.
See, I generally like either realism… or surrealism. I like my plots plausible and internally consistent… or so wildly implausible and inconsistent that I can recognize that that’s the point.
…plausible…and internally consistent…?
So while it was never really my main course (which has always been fantasy and mythology) I did grow up on a nice side dish of classic, hard sci-fi.
The kind of space stuff I was into might play a little fast-and-loose with the basic physics sometimes. And the style might not be stellar, exactly. The prose will be quite dry, and the characters a little one-note, and the overall feel will be extremely mechanical and workmanlike (like an industrial product fresh off the assembly line, ready to be replaced by next month’s offering — rather than an ancient tome pieced together and maintained painstakingly over generations by crooked-nosed bibliophiles).
It will have been written by practicing scientists and pulp magazine writers, usually from a working class background, rather than a French or Russian aristocrat with all the time in the world to obsess over details of prose style and literary history. People like Asimov, and Heinlein, and Clarke. But even then, its high-culture credentials were hard to miss.
Bester got his start “mostly because I’d just finished reading and annotating Joyce’s Ulysses and would preach it enthusiastically without provocation”, to his editors’ great amusement.
Blish “was among the first literary critics of science fiction, and he judged works in the genre by the standards applied to “serious” literature.”
And Gene Wolfe? Jesus Louise-us, Gene Wolfe…
And… I mean, come on, man. Asimov’s favorite of all his sci-fi novels was named after a Schiller quote, and deals face-first with the heavy-dutiest of theological and (literally) universal existential questions. And speaking of theological questions, check out his favorite short story…
Long story short… the sci-fi I grew up on was pretty good stuff.
- At the price of being a little dry, its flights of fancy still maintained a rigid sense of logic and realism. Its science made sense. Its plots made sense.
- It tackled pretty deep questions head-on. There was always a fascinating social, political, philosophical, or theological issue at play, which the eager mind of an imaginative child could really sink their teeth into.
The Swashbuckling Space Opera, on the other hand…?
It has none of that.
The technology fundamentally doesn’t make sense. And that can’t be a criticism, because that’s very much the point. It’s a different genre, with different rules. It doesn’t matter what you established in the previous film, or the last ten minutes: if the serial phlebotinator could only transport short voice transmissions last time, but now we’re being attacked by the Thugaloids from Planet Blackface in the Chingchong Empire, at the orders of their dictatorial Overlord, Lord Squintyeyes, and his evil vizier, JewyJewJew the Jewish Jew… well then, now it can teleport you all to your secret base, where you’ll be handed napalm handgrenades and a mimosa, just in time for the climax.
Because the inevitable next step, once you take the rigid logic out of the science, is that you take the rigid logic out of the very fabric of the world. You now have ad-hoc plot devices which can come out of nowhere and save the heroes, entirely independent of anything you set up before. So it’s a straight line from bad physics to bad metaphysics to terrible, terrible storytelling craft.
And it just keeps getting worse from there. Because if you can just solve problems willy-nilly like that, then your solutions end up being deeply uninteresting. Not just unsatisfying narratively, but stultifying intellectually.
So let’s say you set yourself a problem. Like… we’re literally leeching the energy from another universe to run our industrial civilization, and we need to stop doing that or we’ll both die. Well then. If your logic is shit, you can just have Ace McLampface go out and shoot the other universe in the balls. But if you don’t allow yourself to do that… then your scientists need to come up with interesting science, your theologians have to come up with interesting theology, and your politicians all have to get together and negotiate a world-wide consensus on energy policy. You know. Interesting shit, for a kid just starting to read real history and real political theory, in a time of real-world issues like neocolonialism and climate change and a supposed “Clash of Civilizations” (excuse me while I fake-vomit into my hand).
But if you can just do that… well then, Flash Gordon just goes up to Emperor Ming and shoots him in the face, and the Purple Death is averted, and our nice white people are spared the evil, Asian plague.
And as you can well imagine… child-David-Leon hated that. It just drove him up the wall. Every bit of it. From the science to the plot illogic to the way they would touch on heavy issues with empty-headed levity.
Long story short… as a kid… I really, really hated almost everything about Swashbuckling Space Opera.
An interesting angle on this is to take these three key words:
It refers, as I’m sure you know, to bad writing. It’s when the characters are faced with a problem that is not solvable within the established logic of their universe, and so something comes out of nowhere and saves the day… purely because these are the heroes, and they have to win, and that’s about it. It is the most unsatisfying way to resolve a plot possible.
…but let’s take a closer look at the words themselves. It’s “god out of a machine“.
And all of a sudden… everything makes sense.
Cus there’s a genre of fiction in which gods suddenly swooping in and changing everything totally makes sense. In which it makes all the sense in a self-consistent view of the world.
(Obviously way too well-photoshopped to be my own work.)
And that’s religious texts.
No one goes “wait, so God just comes out of nowhere and tells Abraham not to kill Isaac, and makes a random ram just randomly appear? That’s such a bad solution! It makes no sense!”
No one says that… because this is fuckin’ God we’re talking about. That’s the whole point of God. That he can do literally anything, and often does, because he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe and everything in it.
So from that angle… this makes sense. It’s cool that your plots work the way they do, Space Opera. You’re not a failed attempt at hard sci-fi. What you are… is religious fanfiction.
…but then… you have to have the grace to admit it. You should really have to call your techno-wizardry “miracles”, and the underlying, benevolent logic which keeps your characters alive “Providence”. And if some super-powered alien comes out of nowhere and rescues the cast… well… that’s a god, brother.
And this opens up one last problem. If what you’re doing is making texts in the religious mode… then if you do it badly, or I don’t like it… you know what that means, right? It means that I get to consider your bad fiction a low-key form of blasphemy. Cus that, as we established… is very much the game we’re playing.
So there you have it. Those are the basic elements of Star Wars. And those are my basic reactions to them. And so, when they are remixed in different ways in Star Wars, you can make a careful catalogue of the nature of each aspect of film form (shot to shot, scene to scene, plot cause to logical consequence), trace back where it comes from, and have a perfect understanding of what it’s like for me when I see it.
Long story short:
- Everything that comes from good Westerns and Samurai films… I’m over the moon about.
- Everything that comes from the Swashbuckling Space Opera tradition… is a little more difficult for me.
And that, friends, is the central point here. I’m not saying I necessarily dislike it. Just… that it’s work for me. That is the major point people have to understand, when they accuse someone of snobbery or pretentiousness. It’s that the work goes both ways.
A super quick interlude here, to inject one more angle into this dissection of film form.
So far, I’ve been silent on the issue of sound, especially music. But Star Wars is most certainly not a silent film.
And it could have sounded like literally anything. Just two years after the release of the original film, Andrei Tarkovsky released Stalker, which did absolutely amazing things with every single hiss and crackle you can hear, being one of the first films to truly meld the musical and effects tracks of the overall soundscape. You want a sci-fi film with a truly innovative and interesting soundtrack? One which reaches back into the most distant past, and revamps it with the most cutting-edge electronic technology of the not-too-distant future? Then Stalker’s the film for you, bub.
Needless to say… this was not the approach Lucas took. Instead, he went for the safest, most traditional route he could. He asked John Williams to imitate wholesale and with remarkable faithfulness the soundtrack of the swashbuckling films they grew up on.
And what was that soundtrack?
The classic American Hollywood sound. The late Romanticism of Wagner, as interpreted by Korngold, Steiner, and Newman.
Basically, these were Jews who fled from Germany and Austria, and rehashed the German and Austrian music which was already considered kind of fusty in their childhoods into the simplest, most direct little snippets they could, to appeal to the widest possible range of 1940s and 1950s Americans.
So basically, your space opera sounds like hyper-dumbed-down versions of 1890s opera… and specifically, the kind of 1890s opera which fans of 1890s opera generally consider a little on the lame side.
Mind you — it could have sounded like anything. The hyper-techno-traditionalism of Eduard Artemyev. The stonking genius of Toru Takemitsu, melding so well the essentials of the ancient Japanese sound to his own, idiosyncratic take on musical modernism.
If the only thing you take away from this essay is how good Toru Takemitsu is…
then I’ll be a happy, happy, happy blogger.
It’s John Williams’ hackneyed copy and paste of Korngold’s hackneyed copy and paste of Wagner’s frankly fairly hackneyed re-spinning of French Romanticism as some quintessentially ur-German sound.
And that’s cool. Don’t get me wrong. Great soundtrack, bro.
It just means that the most interesting use of musical form in the entire series is the fact it uses fucking leitmotif.
So like, every time Vader and some stormtroopers or badguy battleships appear, we get the sinister and militaristic Imperial March.
And when Skywalker looks out at the horizon for that first, iconic time, dreaming of the adventures he hopes to someday have… we get the New Hope theme swelling up.
And, you know… swell.
…….but color me slightly underimpressed. As soon as you become aware of your other options… it’s hard to avoid feeling slightly nonplussed with the music.
So, say you don’t like arthouse cinema. That’s cus it causes some friction in you. You’ll watch one of those nigh-on-interminable shots, and get bored. You’ll come across some major ambiguity or lack of top-down narrative direction (THESE are the main characters; they want THIS specific thing; and they are doing THIS to get it), and you’ll get frustrated. There will be a minimalism of style (muted colors, limited movement, lack of a soundtrack), and you will get restless.
Fine. Fine. I get it. Obviously I get it. I’ve sometimes felt that way too. But all it is… is a question of work.
You have to work at it. These things don’t come for free. You have to get used to it; learn a new language; figure out how it functions. And that shit takes time. And it takes effort.
And if you’re not willing to put that in… no problem. We have different tastes. We’ll get over it.
…but understand that exactly what’s going on for you when you watch arthouse… is going on for me when I watch Star Wars.
Everything which conflicts with my basic disposition, I have to work to get through. If there’s a plot hole in the story, that jars me out of the experience like a pothole in the road. I have to fill it in before I continue… and then I proceed along the road with my shoulders all tensed up, awaiting the next, unexpected jumpscare ruining my vehicle’s finely-tuned suspension of disbelief.
And every time the director cuts the shot and moves the camera less like Kurosawa, and more like a cheap 1930s space opera serial… bang. Out of the car. Adjust the windshield. Meditate a bit, to get over the system shock. And back to the film we go.
And every time the screenwriter says some fuckin’ heretical bullshit about the ideas I love most in the world… well. Put Time on pause for a second. Reread the Gospels in your head. Re-memorize the Zhuangzi. Cleave tight to the Book of Five Rings, and do everything you can to re-enter the Void. OK. Now we’re good. Continue with the story.
You see what I mean? The original Star Wars trilogy is pretty tough going for someone like me.
And don’t get me wrong. I love it. …but it ain’t easy.
Star Wars, to me, is like a little brother. Clumsy, a lot of the time. Straight up wrongheaded, on occasion. But it’s still your brother. You’re fundamentally on the same team. So you bear with it, through all the tribulations you two are put through. …but you have to stay on your toes.
And staying on your toes, for 2 hours straight… that’s pretty hard work, man.
So yeah. You’ll be sitting there, watching Star Wars. And they’ll say they have a million-to-one shot to fire the missile into the chute which will destroy the Death Star. And Luke will turn off the computer, trust in the Force… and make the shot.
And you’ll cum. You’ll start crying. You’ll be so pleased. Your little brother joined your weird Nature cult, and it helped him calm down enough to make a million-to-one shot under pressure. What a beautiful thing to be able to experience, personally.
And everything will make sense. It’s not some bullshit deus ex machina, out of nowhere. He’s Luke fuckin’ Skywalker. The boy who will become the greatest Jedi Master in history. Son of Anakin Skywalker, the most powerful Force-sensitive the galaxy has ever known. He’s just started his training under the legendary Obi Wan Kenobi, and is being guided by his voice beyond the grave. Everything makes sense here.
But… before then? What was going on then? How come every harebrained, half-assed scheme Han Solo comes up with ends up working out, no matter the odds? Is this some lazy, Swashbuckling Space Opera horseshit?
Nono, surely not… OK, it just means he’s a Force Sensitive too. OK. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the film. But let’s shoehorn that in there. Now it works.
And what about Leia…? Oh, yeah. She’s Luke’s twin, it’s later revealed. So of course she’ll headshot fuckers on the first try. Yeah, OK. That makes sense.
But… how come all the bad guys keep missing them? I’m seeing them take their shot, I see where they’re aiming… it’s all in the same shot. They’re trying to hit something maybe 10, 20 feet away. I’ve fired guns, like, three days in my whole life… and I’m pretty sure I could shoot better than them. And these are cloned hyper-warriors — the most elite troops in the galaxy. Why are they missing?
Well… uh…… Force……shit? I guess?
You can see how this goes from here.
Watching Star Wars, for me, is a race against my better self. Every time something I don’t like comes up, I have to deal with it intellectually or massage it away emotionally. And sometimes that’s hard. Sometimes you just have to throw your hands up in the air and say “no matter what angle I take to this, this still smells like ol’ Buck Rogers shit to me. OK. So, this won’t be your favorite film in the world. No big deal. Let’s just hold your nose closed until something more interesting happens. But let no one — no one — come round to my place and tell me this is gourmet dining I’m eating. I will eat it. But I won’t lie to myself, and say this isn’t shit.”
But that’s all about the original trilogy. What does all this mean for the new one?
Well, when a new Star Wars comes out, I’m looking for:
- More of the elements of style I like.
- Less of the elements of style I dislike.
The better that’s carried out, the less (toilsome) work I will have to do during it, and the better I’ll be able to enjoy the movie.
That, in a nutshell, was the whole point of this exercise. These are the elements of Star Wars. Here are the ones I like. Here are the ones I don’t. Here’s why.
So when bloody Disney bought the rights to it and duly trotted out The Force Awakens, I told myself my expectations could not be lower, and I risked betraying nothing in watching it. They’re gonna double-down on the Buck Rogers shit, excise all the cool Japanese stuff, and add in some fuckin’ fairy-tale Disney logic, just for good measure. OK, good. I’m going in to this with my eyes open. I’m prepared. Nothing can shock me now.
I left the cinema feeling violated deep inside.
The issue was almost purely one of Form.
The basic story of the original Star Wars (now stylized as Episode IV: A New Hope) never did much for me. The Bad Guys build a big fortress and the plucky underdog protagonists find a way to thread through the defences, Dam Busters style, in a million-to-one suicide mission and blow it all up, just in the nick of time. Typical space opera pulp. And, whatever, fine. I’ll take it.
My patience with this rather silly plot was already spread thin by the time I saw The Return of the Jedi. My contempt towards the filmmakers reflected with perfect precision my contempt for the antagonists: so your big plan is to do EXACTLY the same thing as the first film? That’s it? Build another Death Star, only bigger, so that the plucky, underdog protagonists can once again execute a million-to-one suicide mission to blow it all up in the nick of time? You deserve everything you get, guys.
So imagine my incredulity when I saw the same exact cinematic car crash in 135 minutes of hyper-produced Hollywood slow motion.
Another Death Star. Another million-to-one-suicide run. Another unlikely protagonist from a barren, desert planet. Another Obi Wan father figure slain by the hand of his son/disciple. It was stale the first time, borderline offensive the second… by the third, it is simply sickening.
…and then they released The Last Jedi.
Only this time, they changed up a couple things. They rearranged and remixed the constitutive elements which make up Star Wars, maintaining a lot of the old ways wholesale, tweaking and updating others, and injecting a little bit of fresh (if inky-black) blood on the side.
Let’s get into it.
2.0. The New Balance in The Last Jedi
A feature film is very much a collective project. Just stick it out til the end and look at the credits — there’s a heck of a lot of names on there.
But still. For the sake of simplicity, let’s pick out just one of those, to start with.
The film was written and directed by one man. And as such, I think we’d be pretty safe in saying he had some degree of influence on how the final product shaped up.
That man is Rian Johnson.
I like Rian Johnson. I have seen one film he wrote, directed, and edited, as well as a couple of TV episodes he did.
The film was called Brick.
I liked Brick.
It is a neo-noir film, set in an American high school. Probably the best neo-noir film I have ever seen. The best, for two reasons.
- It keeps most of the things I really like from classic noir (and I really, really, really like classic noir). Mainly: the plot structure, a lot of the tropes, and most importantly, the general feel.
- But it also puts a fairly new spin on it. It adds to the old formula. The visual style is very distinctive, and the modern-day setting extremely well-realized.
Pay attention to that: one of the most distinctive parts of classic noir is the visual style and setting, and yet I was not one bit disappointed to see those changed.
In case you haven’t noticed, this is not the 1940s. There’s little point beyond nostalgia to make a film set in the 1940s. And the world of today is not black-and-white. Obviously, the world in the 1940s was not literally black-and-white; but black-and-white film was the premier technology of the day, and it was part of the collective consciousness, and noir put that to use perfectly to reflect more diffuse elements of the general zeitgeist in a stylistic way.
But the world today is… very much in color. Color comes at us from every angle of our media — whether bombastic (like in superhero comics and cartoons and advertising and advertising and so much advertising)…
…or oddly drab and monotonously standardized (like in the slew of modern first-person shooter video games like Call of Duty, or our war films, or our more-clever, high-culture advertising, and other advertising, and so much fucking advertising).
And so Brick is very cleverly in color — mostly in the latter mode. The shades are muted and metallicized, to give it that same cold, clinical noir feel without straight-up reproducing the good ol’ black-and-white.
Long story short: take a deep tradition of storytelling and filmmaking, and do it again, but a bit different, in ways that you want to, and can, and respond to the aesthetics and themes of your time and place.
So then Rian Johnson comes in… and does the same thing to Star Wars. Keeps the things he wants to keep. Doesn’t keep the bits he doesn’t want to keep. Injects some new ideas that will fit in well with the stuff he kept. And he does all that in a fairly original and idiosyncratic way, the basic contours of which can be almost immediately inferred from his approach to his previous major feature film.
That’s all that’s going on, folks. And the cleverness, decisiveness, and specificities of exactly how and why he did that is the basis of the entire conversation anyone’s been having about the film. Every rant and review and blog post you’ve heard or read has, in various registers, been reacting to that process in varying degrees of amazement, curiosity, and disdain. This is a process which would have been true of any director making a Star Wars film at any point. Even George Lucas himself had to adapt and innovate and reconfigure the elements of style when he set about making the prequel trilogy (once again, to general shock; one wonders when people will ever learn). What’s astounding to me is how few people seem to realize how extremely obvious and predictable they’re being while they’re doing it. They’re not just saying “he chose to do this way, while I would have preferred to do it this way”. They’re almost always saying “oh no — now we’ve killed the spirit of Star Wars“.
Which is pretty damned ironic… when you consider that the major theme of the film — which might as well have been emblazoned in all-caps, neon letters at the top of every shot — is how to deal with a deep tradition while staying staying true to yourself and doing something different.
And yet, all I’ve seen in the two months since its release are people being real fuckin’ surprised about such a basic and inevitable fact about filmmaking in general (indeed, all media and all life), especially sequels in a long film franchise.
Kylo Ren’s angle on it?
And that covers some of what Johnson does. It’s sometimes a little brutal. The past dies a little hard sometimes. But it’s hard to fault the dude for. He was, at least, pretty damned honest about it.
But that’s not the only angle on this notion in the film.
A certain Master Yoda has a pretty hot take on this question, too.
…because we all remember how this place ends up by the end of the film, right?
So yeah. The basic, universal philosophical question of how to — standing in the present — take what’s handed to you (or forced down your throat) from the past, in order to begin taking steps into the future… is what it’s all about, at the end of the day. And we’ll get to that — as a spiritual and philosophical question — in the third mega-essay, about the film’s big ideas.
For now, though… let’s finally get back to how this relates to film form. What, stylistically, does he keep? What does he change? How? And why?
2.1.: Maintain, or crank up, the good shit from the original Star Wars
This one section could justifiably take up the whole length of this blog post.
But… why do that? This is the most obvious point.
Basically, everything you liked in the film that bears resemblance to something you liked from the old Star Wars — whether you noticed it or not — …is stuff Rian Johnson and his host of collaborators chose to maintain.
If we wanted to list it out, that’d take a while. There’s a lot of good stuff. A lot of good stuff. If you want, I could run through it. But you now know how long that’d take.
So, I’ll just give you an example instead. What’s one thing we like about Star Wars? Having a war in space. Fighter pilots and ships shooting at each other. That shit’s cool.
Well, take a look at the bombing scene at the beginning of the film.
First big scene of the movie. And, as it happens, a very good scene.
So, what’s going on here? Well, some dramatic story stuff (Rebels v. First Order, in a battle for all the marbles). And some exciting action stuff. But also, cinema technique. Playing with how exactly things look, and how they move.
And how do they look? Well, a bit chaotic — especially on a first viewing. Which makes sen. This is war, which is fairly chaotic.
But nevertheless, this cinematic portrayal of it is fairly clean, so that the eye can smoothly make out what’s happening.
So in the first slice we see there, there’s the Rebel fleet advancing from the right, and the First Order coming in from the left.
So what does someone like me see here — intuitively and immediately? Well, they see the layered sequence of objects. The rebel fleet takes up almost the entirety of the shot; on the leftmost bit, the bombing ships are far away from the ‘camera’, so they’re small. On the right, they’re close, and big. So, you just appreciate the neatness of that well-ordered image.
But then, it’s more interesting than that. The bombers vary vertically as well. So that’s nice to look at.
But that’s just the bombers. Alone, that would make for a pretty shot. But let’s add more layers to it, to make it even more visually arresting. We’ll add in some fighters! At the start of the shot, we see the Rebel fighters. They’re quite small, so they don’t add or take away that much from the fundamental visual building blocks of the shot — the bombers. But then, as the shot goes on, the First Order fighters arrive. They flit by, very close to the camera, obscuring the shot — blocking the stately, serene, silent progress of the Rebel bombers.
…and that’s the basic idea and execution behind the shot. Big things, in a nice order, moving slowly right to left. Little things accompanying them. Then little things going in the opposite direction, to oppose them. But these little things look much, much bigger, because they’re close to the camera. Nice idea. Looks cool. Makes the enemy feel threatening. Does a bunch of other things as well. Tells the viewer that the action keeps going like this behind the camera, too. That this is just one tiny slice of the action — even though it’s quite a grand sweep itself. But mostly, it just looks cool, in and of itself.
So, let’s add in some background. Not too much — that’d make everything too cluttered. The eye wouldn’t be able to read it at speed. So, make it real simple. Make most of it black. But then, on the bottom right, we show where the Rebels come from. A nice, blue and white planet. That shot alone looks cool. It has taken humans the entirety of their existence as a species until the mid-20th Century to get that kind of viewpoint. But here, it’s just a footnote. Just the backdrop. But still. Cool backdrop, bro.
Oh, yeah. And then there’s a war on. I forgot to mention that. They’re shooting at each other the whole time. That really starts to make the shot a little messy. But, you know. War is messy. That just comes with the territory. Even if the territory is in space.
…but let’s not make things too messy. Let’s color-code their lasers, so we can read the shot more easily.
That’s the first shot of that gif explained. 2 or 3 seconds of a 152-minute film, dissected to a very, very basic standard. There’s also a whole big story behind it about Rebels and fascists and stuff. But in and of itself, it tells its own story. A story of big things moving slow, and small things moving fast, in certain patterns and colors. That is, at its very fundament, the core nature of filmic storytelling; everything else is extra.
But you may have noticed that, of all the characters we spoke of, the ones who got the least attention were the Rebel fighters. And they’re supposed to be the heroes! Those very X-Wings were what the Big Dam Hero of the whole franchise, Luke Skywalker, rode in, after all! So let’s get those in on the action too.
So what’s the story of the next shot? I’ll skip the details, but basically:
- It’s about a very, very, very little thing.
- This very little thing comes from the endless black void of space. In other words, from the bottom-left corner of the screen.
- The plot is: the very little thing becomes a very, very big thing. And in so doing, completes its mission, saves the day, beats the bad guy… none of which need be told in dialogue or even in sound. Just in visuals.
- It becomes a very big thing by doing two main things.
- It goes from the bottom left corner of the screen to the top right corner.
- And it comes closer to the camera.
- That’s the main, fundamental storyline. Underdog, coming from behind, saving the day, becoming a big damn hero.
- In pursuit of that main plotline, it comes across an impediment (an enemy fighter, as it happens). It shoots some lasers at it. The thing explodes. The hero passes straight through it, completes its trajectory, and everyone in the audience is like:
Oooo. That looks cool.
They’re you go. That’s the story of two shots of the film, from the angle of film form and style. I could compare it to a similar scene in the original trilogy… but meh. You can do that bit on your own sometime. It’ll be homework. Write it out as a blog post, send it to me, and I’ll give you an A for effort and an F for fake.
So, if you’re into film form and style, you notice what I just pointed out up there, but in the peace and quiet of your head, without all these words getting in the way — just visual pattern recognition. For. Every. Shot. Of. The. Film. Without even meaning to. It just kinda happens. Not every shot every time you watch it, of course. There’s all this sound and story and stuff to pay attention to. But eventually, that’s what you end up doing. You should try it out sometime. It’s good fun.
…but we’re gonna call it quits right there. I’m not going to go through every shot.
…but even if I did, there would be fairly little point to it, in terms of the main flow of ideas of this essay. If we’re just gonna pick out “things that were cool and are still cool”, we wouldn’t have much to go on when trying to contrast the films — which is what you’re doing when you say that Last Jedi was better or worse (or more or less enjoyable and stimulating) than the other entries in the franchise.
And, absent any argument or insight more complex than “look how cool all this stuff looks, and how”… nothing will be learned other than some detailed intersection between axiology (what has value?) and object permanence (turns out some things stay basically the same over time). Now, that “detailed intersection” is called film studies, and it’s pretty fun. But… we’ll do that some other time.
Super, super long story short, though: on this level, in my humble opinion, Last Jedi holds its own against any Star Wars film. Any Star Wars film. Easily. Handily. I mean, it has much better technology available, for one thing. And an equally virtuous technical team, led by an equally competent director. Johnson can make things move around the screen and get bigger and smaller just as well as Lucas and Kershner and Marquand. Let you in on a secret, too: I think he can do it considerably better. But, you know, that may just be the variance of taste.
So that’s that line of inquiry done.
…but who am I kidding here. Obviously, I have stuff which I think is especially cool, and which I thought was especially important for RJ to maintain or crank up in this film.
You all saw the angle I took when I broke down the elements of Star Wars earlier. You know what I’m really in this in for. By now, it should be obvious to you that the only thing I really, really had in mind — consciously or subconsciously — in terms of film form when coming in to this film was…
I hope we get some good Samurai shit in this one.
And what did I get?
Just what I wanted.
A whole scene entirely built around the traddest samurai shit this side of the space age.
So that’s me done. I got what I came here for. Past that, part of me doesn’t particularly care whether or not you did.
Which brings us to the other half of the equation. What shit does he change up?
2.2. Streamline the plot
So, if Force Awakens was a pretty straightforward remake of A New Hope…
…then Last Jedi was a pretty straightforward remake of Empire Strikes Back.
We’re not gonna do a play-by-play for the Forced Hope. Suffice it to say, they both end up in the same spot: the plucky heroes take out the Death Star and retreat to the hidden Rebel base on a wooded planet.
So, what’s the main sequence of events in Empire Strikes Back?
- Pitched land battle on an ice planet. Empire invades the Rebel base.
- The battle is lost tactically but won strategically — the Rebels escape, and so the war can go on. The party now splits:
- The bulk of the party (Han, Leia, Chewie, droids) spend a while longer escaping (cf. asteroids). Then they go to a luxurious techno-city in search of a rogue-ish character who can help them (Lando).
- The young Jedi (Luke) goes out and seeks a Master (Yoda) to help their cause and carry out his training.
- Everyone comes together, lots of fighting happens…. aaaaand, once again, the battle is lost tactically but won strategically — the Rebels escape, and so the war can go on. Back to the same position we were at the beginning of the film. Hero’s Journey complete.
So. What’s the main sequence of events in Last Jedi? Well, we pick up from where the last film left off: with the Empire is invading the Rebel base on its wooded planet. So, here we go:
- Empire invades the Rebel base. They try to escape. The rest of the film is them making good on that. The party splits:
- The main fleet runs away, Battlestar Galactica-style, for the entirety of the film.
- The bulk of the party (Fin, Rose, droids) go to a luxurious techno-city in search of a rogue-ish character who can help them (DJ). Their plan fails.
- The young Jedi (Rey) goes out and seeks a Master (Luke) to help their cause and carry out her training.
- Everyone comes together. Lots of fighting happens. Pitched battle on an ice planet. The Rebels finally make good on their escape, and so the war can go on.
Same story. One major difference:
- The Last Jedi is a bit cleaner.
Rather than run the same plotline multiple times, it is generally considered more elegant, more compelling, and more masterful to boil it down, streamline it, condense it into the tightest core possible… and then spend an equal amount of time and effort exploring that.
So, rather than do “escape, get recaptured, escape again”, they just do “…escape”.
Now, you can have whatever opinion you want on this adjustment. But I find it very difficult to understand how this adjustment is discernibly worse.
This is something I’m particularly sensitive to, because was the single greatest fault with the first draft of my novel. I really learned a lesson there; or rather, it was beaten into me by external expectations of storytelling form and their much crueler internal manifestations. And it’s not one I’m liable to forget anytime soon.
So when a new Star Wars film comes out, and beats the Man at his own standard story-managerial operating procedure… I’m like:
Otherwise, the basic story’s basically the same.
So what’s different? Two things. The details, and the tone.
2.3. Change up some details
So RJ’s big thing with Brick was his masterful mix of playing half the genre tropes straight and violently subverting the other half, leaving the savvy watcher feeling pleasantly played with — offered a familiar favorite while still being titillated and surprised. We hinted at the massive scope of things he played straight earlier. Now — what did he tweak?
- Climactic battle on an ice planet? Check. But… wait. This time… it’s salt.
- What’s the major trope of the plot and action of the original series? Someone reasonable (almost always C-3PO) points out that the chances of this succeeding are miniscule — typically, a million to one. They are ignored. The plan goes ahead anyway, and succeeds wildly.
So… what happens this time? It fails. They get caught trying to infiltrate the enemy base; the rogue they’re with betrays them (again). Not only that, this infiltration clues the enemy on to the real plan (escape stealthily onto the mining planet), and they start firing at the unarmed evacuation vessels, killing scores.
Great plan, Poe. Good going, hotshot pilot. Thanks for that one.
What did I think of this adjustment? 10/10. Love it. So happy to million-to-one gamble finally fails. Would watch again.
OK, so what’s the major trope of the plot, as it relates to character, in the original series?
- Family drama.
What launches the action of the whole franchise, from the point of view of the main character?
- His stodgy uncle and aunt get killed.
- He steps into the footsteps of his father: the fabled hotshot pilot and samurai extraordinaire. That’s film 1.
- What about Film 2?
- Well… turns out that your father is the bad guy. What were the chances that, of all the people in the galaxy, the main political and plot conflict of every sentient being will boil down to some snotnosed American kid’s daddy issues with his absentee father? Seems a little weird to me. Makes me roll my eyes just a little bit, folks. But hey. You roll with it.
- What about Film 3? Do we get past the family drama, or at least maintain the current levels and go about trying those off?
Nah man. What’re we, grown ups? What better or grander things in the galaxy do we have to concern ourselves with than who fucked whom twenty years ago? Maybe it might be worthwhile to take a minute or two to develop insights into the nature of the Force, the basic constitution of reality, and the praxis of how we, as temporarily living subjects, relate to it?
Yeah nope. Let’s have the wisest being in the known universe spend the last moments of his life telling Luke Skywalker that there’s another Skywalker.
Then let’s summon his student, the second wisest being in the known universe, back from the dead, and have him talk with Luke about the fact he has a sister. OK sure….we’ll get to this more in the essay on religion. But I can’t go on until I give you a taste of how outlandish this should be to you, if you know the first thing about any tradition of Eastern mysticism, philosophy, or religion. Like, the whole point is to step outside of the cycle of karma — of cause and effect — of attachments to the contingent and arbitrary facts of a world pretty much designed to make you miserable. So, just imagine that, in the last moments before his second and final Nirvana (extinguishing), the Buddha turned to his disciples and started talking about sacred bloodlines and family ties. To, you know, Buddhist monks who are celibate and just trying to remove themselves from the world for good. That’s fucking insane. That is so wildly implausible — so totally counter to everything they are working for.
I’m telling you — the only way you can possibly think that the issue of crowning existential importance is family drama… is if you had inadvertently fallen under the influence of the weirdest cult still claiming a modicum of respect in the modern world: Christianity.
In Christianity, it matters who precisely begot whom, in order for the spiritual problems of the world to be solved. Jesus has to be the literal Son of God.
For every other sane religious tradition… ugh. Who gives a shit. That’s not what the sages spend their time talking about.
Point is: Star Wars is big on family drama, to the detriment of everything else it probably should be really big on.
So what does RJ do with this?
Stuff it up the series own ass, as it rightly deserves.
All those hints about Rey’s parentage?
Into the waste basket.
What’s her family drama have to do with anything?
It’s barely of interest or influence even to her, let alone anyone else in the bloody galaxy. Some people fucked, and she happened. Who cares? She does, for a bit. But then she gets past it, and onto more important questions. Like the nature of reality. And what the fuck to do about fascists trying to kill and oppress everybody. You know — like a grown up.
This bit satisfied me so much. I was made so happy by this. That one moment, where Kylo Ren confirms that they’re just some random people — not pure inheritors of the sacred bloodline of the Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth of the Holy Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader — is worth more to me than every second of family drama in the 7 previous films. Thanks RJ. You’re the best.
And it just keeps going.
- What about the Big Bad Guy of the new series? This Snoke fellow. Who is he? How strong is he? All these questions. Do we get answers?
- Nah. Just summarily off him with a surprise attack, and provide no explanation for where he came from and why.
This is a less a rejection of the original film series, and more a ten-mile-high middle finger at the previous film, and everything its director represents. All those classic JJ Abrams “mystery boxes”, making us wonder the specifics of Snoke’s identity (and Rey’s parentage)?
Yeah, we’re just gonna ignore those. Lol, fuck you. You don’t get to direct the second film of the franchise. You don’t get to define its concerns just cus you did get to direct the first film. I’mma just cut that off and do my own thing.
10/10 stuff, RJ. 10/10.
The list goes on, but what’s the point. You get the picture. You let the past die, and you kill it if you have to. The far-gone past is well and truly dead. I mean, George Lucas is still alive, but he’s sold off the franchise, and no longer has any say in how it’s proceeding nowadays. So you can just let that stuff die quiet. But JJ Abrams is still very much alive. His film entirely defined the starting points of its direct sequel. So his stuff, you have to undo quite brutally. And what a fine, fine display of brutality that way. Mr. Johnson — chapeau.
So those are all specific plot details.
But RJ also tweaked some more amorphous, not-so-easily-pinned-down elements of the film franchise. Basically, he changed the general feel, pace, and spirit of the film.
And here’s where things get really interesting.
Because here’s where the central divergence of aesthetic opinion enters the fray.
But before we get into that, let’s take a step back and establish what the consensus opinion seems to be, amongst people whose aesthetic opinion is really important to them, and (apparently) to other people.
Rotten Tomatoes is the premier aggregator of film opinion. It’s the single most dominant and respected go-to source for what other people think of a particular film. And it published a reviews-review: a compilation and distillation of the major mood among critics.
Click here to take a look at it yourself.
What is the title of the piece?
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI REVIEWS: CRITICS SAY EPISODE VIII IS HUGELY SATISFYING
Here’s a sample of quotes from it, as they relate to film form and style. Check the original link for precise sources.
- “Like many before it, The Last Jedi has already been hailed as the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, and while that’s true, it’s too faint a compliment.”
- “Cinematographer Steve Yedlin has made the best-looking Star Wars movie.”
- “From a design point of view, this newest film is the slickest and most gorgeous in the entire series.”
- “One of the strongest aspects of The Last Jedi is its writing. [Johnson] shakes the foundations of the force and puts everything we think we know to the test.”
- “Nostalgia can only get you so far. The real success of The Last Jedi lies not in the affection it clearly holds for George Lucas’ original trilogy, but the way it manages to move the story forward.”
- “Pulls off the biggest mind trick ever. In a pop culture universe teeming with derivative reboots, Jedi actually feels unique.”
- “This series has never had a director as good with actors as Johnson.”
- “He has more visual style: He shoots space battles with a mixture of freewheeling fluidity and hushed grandeur, and lightsaber battles with both hothouse fervor and graphical mischief(…)”
Long story short: it’s really good.
And yet… a lot of people seem to disagree.
Virtually everyone I’ve talked to about the film has had the same reaction — one which truly surprised me. They’d hum and haw and say they didn’t really like it, but wouldn’t really pin down why. I wouldn’t press them, because I don’t see much of a point to in-person debate most of the time — and if they wanted to have a full, robust discussion of it, then they could read the blog post I was planning to publish, and have we could proceed from there.
So instead, I sought out other people’s opinions — people whose aesthetic stance I respected, and who would be more willing to elaborate unprompted on the specifics of their misgivings to the film.
And I found two major interlocutors through that process.
The first was some dude named Matt Colville. He may be an extremely obscure reference to almost everybody — a minor internet celebrity in the quite specific world of Dungeons and Dragons fandom. But — for various reasons I may go into in another blog post — his is an interesting philosophical and artistic and social stance. And besides, his video on the topic has over 180,000 views. So I reckon should qualify him, in your opinion, as someone that I can take seriously in mine.
The second was some dude named Richard Brody. He’s the main film critic at the New Yorker. And the New Yorker is generally considered the highest-quality source of English-language art and art criticism short of the full, long-form style of various literary supplements (which rarely tackle blockbuster films). So, society would generally consider him and, and the institution he speaks for, to be a pretty big deal.
He also happens to be one of the few film critics whose opinion I regularly find myself respecting. Unlike many English-language critics, the range of films he talks about is about as broad as the range of films I’m interested in. And when he does talk about film, he seems to see quite deeply, accurately, or interestingly. So there you go. A good film critic. There’s not exactly a million of those lying about — and if there are, I certainly don’t care enough to find them. Here’s his review of the Last Jedi.
Now, these two compadres seemed to distil all the misgivings about the films which seemed, to me, genuine, intelligible, and justifiable.
And they didn’t seem to take issue with virtually anything I’ve mentioned so far in this essay. Instead, the bone they had to pick was related to this issue we’ve put on pause for a few paragraphs: the general feel, tone, and spirit of the film.
And I found their misgivings particular revealing, and worthy of deeper study. They seemed to encapsulate everything that the world needed to know about Star Wars: The Last Jedi… or rather, about the deeper questions and answers which The Last Jedi relies on and reveals.
And so, it’s mainly in dialogue with them that this extended essay shall proceed.
If you’re paying close attention, you’ll realize just how limited the progress we’ve made has been. We’re now 12,000 words into this, and have only now come to the first major point of interest: a difference of opinion between people equally savvy and knowledgeable about film form. Everything preceding this has been basic observations which every informed observer would find quite obvious. And sure, I threw a joke or two in there, to keep us all entertained as I laid that foundation. And yeah, I coloured it with my own personal aesthetic angle. But basically, all that’s been accomplished is that I’ve told you a bunch of things about Star Wars that people who share their opinion on Star Wars all already know (or really, really should already know).
And then you’ll realize that film form is just the first of three points of interest I picked out from the film. And we haven’t even gotten to any really juicy bits there. So far, no debate, no strong and original assertions… just some fancy groundwork.
So if, after all that, you’re still keen to proceed down this rabbit hole… wow. I am extremely flattered, and not a little surprised.
But in any case, you’ll have to wait until next time. Because 12,000 words is long enough for any essay. So take a break, do something else, decide nothing else is as worthwhile as reading more of this, and then proceed to:
The Last Jedi is The Best Jedi: Episode 1.5. – The Politics of Style.
One thought on “The Last Jedi is the Best Jedi – Episode I : Style”
This is one hell of a review/analysis of The Last Jedi, hats off to you!