At Last, Jedi

Spoilers, spoilers everywhere. I am assuming you’ve seen it and am writing this as a discussion, rather than a recommendation (although I do recommend it, highly).

Even though I love Star Wars (even the crap ones), I left it until yesterday, a good couple of weeks after the film’s release, to see The Last Jedi. Blame J J Abrams, not because of The Force Awakens, which I loved, but for Blade Runner 2049, which cost £25 for two tickets and was a real disappointment. Cineworld, the multi-screen chain cinema on the Island, is the standard modern McCinema, and I have had enough of it, not simply because they charge insane prices, but because the experience of watching films there is not always good: when we saw The Force Awakens, within a week of its release, we were shuffled into a secondary ‘screen’ which was barely larger than some people’s home televisions. Worse, the sound overwhelmed the system within the room, which had at least one blown speaker that hissed throughout. They also keep the interior lights on far too brightly throughout the films: a real annoyance.

However, in Ryde, there is an old cinema and bingo hall, The Commodore, which has struggled bravely on, showing films a few weeks after their release, keeping the old, seventies-era carpets dry with buckets to cope with the leaky roof, and charging under a fiver for a newish release, except on Wednesdays, when you can see any film on show for £2.00. It is staffed by people who seem to care about what they are doing and it has the air of a business that knows it relies upon its customers: there is a plaintive but endearing notice requesting that you do not bring in your own snacks, as they need the revenue to support the ticket price. Our friends, Iain, Jo and Frank, live in Ryde now, and we went to see Paddington 2 last month with them. The screen was large, the sound very good and the film enjoyable.

Had The Last Jedi been a dud, I would not have felt too aggrieved. £4.00 each, plus about £5 for a cup of lemonade for me and a cup of pick ‘n mix sweets for Amanda seems a reasonable price to pay, even if the seats are, at best, hard work (if you choose poorly, you may get one that has collapsed through overuse and suffer horribly, as one gentleman along from us did).

However, it was not a dud. In fact, I think it’s better than The Force Awakens and was as satisfying, and as thought provoking, as Rogue One. I could have done without quite so much of the Luke Skywalker story. Beautiful as the Island temple is, it is not Dagobah, and Yoda’s appearance came too late to stop me getting fed up with that strand, despite the comforting pleasure of watching Mark Hamill play my favourite ever film character with passion and dignity opposite the powerful and apparently effortlessly perfect acting of Daisy Ridley. These sequences were enriched by Rey’s encounters with the absent Kylo Ren, which could easily have been confusing nonsense but were carried by the simplicity of the visual device used to show them and clarity of Ridley’s performance and, to a lesser extent, that of Adam Driver as Ren. Although it all got a bit tedious at the time, after the viewing I can appreciate the importance of Rey’s spiritual journey, and the way in which Luke’s reluctance to teach her, and the eventual destruction of the Jedi temple, signals a Jedi new covenant: an acknowledgement that we are moving into a new jedi era, shaped by a wider understanding of the line between the Force and the Dark Side. “We are,” Yoda tells Luke, “what they grow beyond.”

Meanwhile, however, the wider universe pelts forward, in traditional Star Wars style. The opening battle is a doozy: a pastiche of world war two aerial bomber movies in which a wonderful hero, Paige Tico, played by Veronica Ngo, is introduced and thrown away in a matter of minutes, dying to save the day. The lead character through this adventure, however, is Poe, the X-wing pilot from The Force Awakens, whom I have struggled to like. His ‘anti-establishment’, standard Hollywood hero role grates on me. He’s supposed to be the light relief, but the film seems to stop for his set-pieces: whereas Han Solo’s humour always felt embedded, Poe’s seems somewhat tacked-in. Where we always knew that Solo’s heart was in the right place, Poe could be simply a demagogue and a show-off.

His arrogance, however, becomes a theme. The leadership of the withered rump of the resistance in this film is almost entirely female. After the death of Admiral Ackbar, and Princess Leia’s injury in the same attack, Vice Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern, takes over. She’s an odd character, and for a while, I thought she might be a traitor, as the Empire’s ability to track the Resistance fleet through hyperspace hadn’t been explained. Ultimately, however, she is justified and her authority is shown to be that of a fierce, intelligent woman, fighting fascism and tolerating the boyish heroism of Poe’s histrionics.

This chimes with my thesis that Star Wars is political, and on the right side of politics. Indeed, such an idea is now explicit in the U.S. where images of Leia as a part of the resistance to Trump have been prominent on women’s marches. Mark Hamill has supported this in his prolific tweeting: here is a typical post:

Rose and Finn: a beautiful pairing.

How can it not be so? How can The Empire, and The First Order, not be a representation of the fascist tendency in western capitalism? In this film, it is even more explicit than before: The First Order is shown to be a cash cow for arms dealers who pass their time away on a vulgar casino planet, enjoying the torture of animals for sport and supported by child slaves. A libertarian opportunist (DJ, played by Benicio Del Toro) betrays Finn and his new partner, Paige Tico’s grieving sister, Rose (my new Star Wars crush, played by Kelly Marie Tran with the same joyous brio and frightened determination as John Boyega gives Finn) and the intriguing soul-torment of Ren never escapes his alt-right monomania, contrived self-pity and clueless vanity.

While Rey is most certainly the heart of the new trilogy, and is filling the role beautifully, Finn remains my emotional access point: the side of Luke Skywalker that first grabbed me. He is the reluctant hero, who fails and gets back up, and he is, above all things, loyal: his first question, upon waking from a coma, is “Where’s Rey?” His clay feet are developed in this film, as he is rescued from his own cowardice by Rose, who then rescues him from his heroism at the end. When he asks her why she stopped him, she speaks the line that made me feel this movie has a real-world heart beating within the children’s film spectacle:

“We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”

I suspect that that line will become a mantra over the coming year, for everyone of courage and good will.

The Last Jedi was worth waiting for.