What we grow beyond: THE LAST JEDI and the burdens of the past

Note: SPOILERS rise and light to meet them. Look, I don’t know. Just, don’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie.

The Last Jedi 2

THE LAST JEDI is not the most tightly structured STAR WARS film,[1] nor the most emotionally resonant,[2] but as the complex reaction to its release perhaps suggests, it has quickly become the most interesting.[3] It has, for instance, been deemed in various quarters both as disrespectfully iconoclastic in its treatment of previous STAR WARS characters and lore (including not just the original trilogy, but the groundwork put in place by JJ Abrams and his team in THE FORCE AWAKENS), while simultaneously being dismissed as too bound up in the tropes of the series in general. This apparent contradiction does not necessary prove the film fits into some brilliantly nuanced middle ground, but it is significant that the emergence of such concerns is not an accident; this is all, in fact, territory the film’s themes and characters grapple with directly and deliberately.

Indeed, if there is one superlative the film does deserve, it’s that, more than any other entry in the franchise, THE LAST JEDI attempts to press all of its obligatory blockbuster action and spectacle directly into the service of its character arcs and thematic concerns. No clearer is this than in the set-up and execution of the final battle sequence on the mineral planet Crait. Though obviously evoking the iconic Hoth sequence from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with its imagery of secret underground bases, trench warfare, and speeders racing across a dusted landscape towards an implacable armoured foe, the narrative beats nevertheless fall very differently here. The first half of this confrontation builds purposefully to the moment where Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) calls off the attack and former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), disregarding the order, embarks on a suicide run to try to take out the ‘battering-ram laser’ that threatens to expose our heroes’ last redoubt. In one clear beat of action, director and screenwriter Rian Johnson (of BRICK, BROTHERS BLOOM, and LOOPER) demonstrates a precise reversal of these two characters’ behaviour from the beginning of the film, where Poe recklessly embarked on an attack that cost many Resistance lives, and Finn’s first reaction to realising the extent of the danger the fleet was in was to make an escape.

Even here, though, there is some shading to their actions. Finn doesn’t just want to save himself; he wants to prevent Rey (Daisy Ridley) from falling into the same calamity as the rest of the Resistance.[4] Poe isn’t just in it for the glory; he truly believes in the Resistance and will do anything to save it. This is where the film’s (relatively) nuanced approach to heroism lies. Sometimes the heroic thing to do is make a stand. Sometimes it’s to weather the defeat, regroup, and live to fight another day. Intentions are important, but so is context. And context, here, is rendered in stark and simple terms: the effects of your actions on those around you – hence the foregrounding of various members of the Resistance throughout the film who aren’t fortunate enough to be protagonists. This also, of course, is precisely the burden which hangs on the apparently eponymous last Jedi: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

This version of Luke is, explicitly, not supposed to be the one we want to see. He is a disappointment to Rey and, just as importantly, to himself. He not only failed to prevent his nephew from turning to the Dark Side but, in a moment of weakness, spurred him on towards it – and Hamill brings all the weight of the intervening years since THE RETURN OF THE JEDI to lend substantial pathos and horror to Luke’s regret here. As he must, then, Luke only achieves peace and purpose in ceasing to run away from past mistakes, and instead turning to confront hem. This, naturally, is the foundation for the second half of the final battle sequence: a showdown out of a classic western or samurai flick (genres with a substantial influence on each other and, of course, Lucas’s original STAR WARS) between Luke and his former student, the son of his sister and his best friend. Luke Skywalker is, of course , not the only one to confront the embodiment of his personal history and trauma. Finn, too, is on the run from the past, and finally confronts it in facing down his former superior Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). Here Finn explicitly rejects one future – the possibility of becoming an ambivalent, amoral drifter like Benicio del Toro’s DJ – and, rather than simply remaining a First Order deserter, he finally takes ownership of his newfound identity as a rebel, loyal to a cause larger than himself.[5]

Clearly the film’s attitude towards history is neither Luke’s mournful wallowing nor the solipsistic nihilism of its true villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).[6] Rather, the film’s approach to the lore of the series, its place in our culture, and (if this is not too much of a leap) the weight of history in general is articulated in the moment when the spirit of Yoda (Frank Oz) burns down the old shrine, containing the original Jedi texts, with lightning and fire. “Those books held nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess”, Luke’s old master tells him. But this is, indeed, a true return to form for the trickster we met in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (and haven’t properly seen since). Both during her departure from the Luke’s island retreat and at the end of the film we glimpse, briefly, that Rey has already taken the ancient texts and stowed them on the Millennium Falcon. A place of shelter, become a tomb, the shrine has survived past its purpose and must be torn down (the tree that marks the entrance is noticeably desiccated). But this does not mean the knowledge and meaning contained within has no value. Luke’s attitude towards the past has become mired in resignation, preventing him from moving on from his failures, while Kylo Ren’s egotistical desire to supplant those who have gone before him inures him to actually caring for others. Yet for Rey, the actual hero of this story, the past has much to offer and learn from – as soon as she, too, stops letting it define her.[7]

There are still problems. The film’s narrative structure is somewhat distended, particularly in the use of a lengthy chase (which is really more of a running siege) between Resistance and First Order spacecraft as a narrative backbone for a good chunk of the running time. At the same time, though, the editing between the three main plots is clearly and classically composed throughout, judiciously deploying visual and verbal cues to make clear connections between each strand.[8] There remain other fascinating incongruities in the film’s technical and tonal composition. The humour, of course, and the way it to walks a tight-rope between absurd and discomforting to leaven but never undermine the grim stakes of the story. Indeed, at certain key moments the movie indulges in shameless populism in its appeal to its audience, but all the while weaving a (not-exactly-subtle, but still complex) narrative about disappointment and frustration and coming to terms with failure.

THE LAST JEDI is hardly perfect, but it remains an intriguing feat of cinematic storytelling not because of its apparent contradictions but, rather, because of the deliberate attempt to engage with contradiction. Not just a remix of the greatest hits, or a dismissive rejection of what came before, Johnson synthesises the fundamental appeal of the series’ themes and iconography with a new approach to its mythology that foregrounds aspiration and self-actualisation over destiny and bloodlines. Most of all, though, THE LAST JEDI understands that letting go doesn’t mean forgetting. That looking forward and looking back don’t have to exist in opposition. No coincidence is it that, to a greater extent than any other chapter in the series, the film ends on a note of open and endless possibility.

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[1] That would be the ’77 theatrical cut of the original STAR WARS due, legend has it, to the editing efforts of Marcia Lucas.

[2] It’s EMPIRE. Of course it’s EMPIRE.

[3] Certainly, the Prequels are fascinating in their own … special way.

[4] Throughout the film, Johnson is, in fact, paying close attention to what happened in THE FORCE AWAKENS. Here, he notices that Finn’s motivation for fighting the First Order in the previous movie was entirely founded in protecting his first real friend. A fine reason as far as it goes, but throughout THE LAST JEDI, Johnson deliberately pushes these characters in new directions, testing their assumptions and beliefs. Hence making Rey’s hero a cranky old man who refuses to be the legend she wants him to be, or taking Poe’s starfighter and his established role in the Resistance away from him.

[5] Of course his journey doesn’t end there, as he remains more interested in beating the First Order than protecting either the ideals of and individuals belonging to the Resistance – thus the importance of the intervention of Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and her final line: “That’s how we win. Not by attacking what we hate, but by saving what we love.” Not all the beats in Finn’s story entirely land, but there is a clear thematic consistency that chimes with the rest of the film.

[6] Andy Serkis’s mo-cap performance as Supreme Leader Snoke is typically capable, but the character is largely important in terms of his role in Kylo Ren’s story, and removing him so that story can grow in a new direction is simultaneously audacious and makes complete sense. His death is also somehow both a satisfying follow-up to, and diminished reflection of, the killing of Han Solo in the previous film. Stoking parricide is a risky move when you’re trying to become grand patriarch of an entire galaxy.

[7] There’s much more that can be said about Rey’s story, and this silly thing is already too long, but the way the twin disappointments of Luke’s failure and Kylo Ren’s selfishness fuel her realisation that she can be the hero she’s been looking for all along is both sad and inspiring.

[8] This movie is also, with some frequency, stunningly beautiful aesthetically. Both the visual and audio design offer a range of striking moments, notably in the transition from the vermillion sumptuousness of Kylo Ren and Rey’s battle with Snoke’s Praetorian Guard, backed up by John Williams at his best, to the ethereal monochrome and silence of the hyperspace crash. There is the occasional misjudged effects shot, such as the dramatic use of the Force by Leia (Carrie Fisher) to save herself from a cold death in space, or the first full wide shot of ghostly Yoda, but the stuff that works more than balances out these rare missteps.

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Brave new worlds: STAR TREK BEYOND and FORBIDDEN PLANET

Note: Incoming SPOILERS, captain. Or whatever.

O brave new world / That has such people in’t! –  The Tempest, Act V, Scene i

The early destruction of the starship Enterprise, at first glance just a repetitive stunt, is in fact Star Trek Beyond’s boldest gambit.[1] Narratively and thematically, it destabilises the character dynamics just enough to put the ship’s crew in a position where seeing them work together when re-united has an additional impact. This forms the core (the ‘warp core’, if you will … no, I’m not sorry) of the filmmakers’ approach to pushing their version of Star Trek forward.

Visually and iconographically, however, the stricken ship’s descent into the atmosphere, having been torn apart at the neck by a swarm of alien drones, recalls all those flying saucers of the early science fiction films of the 1950s (and the sci-fi pulp art which preceded them) from which artist and designer Matt Jeffries took inspiration in imagining the Enterprise. Like an archaeological excavation, its ruin reveals something of its origins.

star trek beyond enterprise

Eight years before Gene Rodenberry pitched a sci-fi television show called Star Trek to television executives, and a full ten years before the first episode aired on CBS, Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet was released in American cinemas.[2] Famously riffing on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the plot of Forbidden Planet follows the crew of a saucer-shaped spaceship from Earth who, arriving on the desolate world of Altair IV in search of a missing colony, discover that the only intelligent inhabitants on the planet are an elderly scientist named Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and a friendly robot named Robby.

The boisterous but well-meaning spacemen, led by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen in an earlier, more serious role than the comedies he is now mostly known for), nevertheless undermine by their very presence the prolonged innocent girlhood of Altaira, and threaten to disrupt Morbius’s investigations into the hyper-advanced technology of the Krell, a long-dead alien race native to the planet. As tensions rise between the scientist and the crew, a series of inexplicable and increasingly violent attacks are mounted against the visitors and their vessel by an unseen entity.

Forbidden Planet C57D

Then, in a final act twist, this entity is revealed to be Morbius’s own subconscious id, actualised by the advanced alien technology hidden in the depths of Altair IV into an unstoppable force of destruction, lashing out against those who threaten Morbius’s peace of mind, attempting to destroy the crew just as it did the scientist’s fellow colonists. “This thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine”, says Prospero of Caliban in the last act of The Tempest; the Monster from the Id is only disarmed when Morbius acknowledges his subconscious actions and desires, his animal and base self, and rather than denying it exists, repudiates it consciously and with clarity of thought and vision.

Separated by sixty years though they may be, more specific resemblances between the two films, deliberate or accidental, are apparent.[3] Following its alternately melancholic and bombastic opening, the second act of Beyond’s plot finds the crew of the Enterprise marooned on the desolate world of ‘Altamid’, struggling to prevent an ancient and deadly technology  constructed by a long-dead alien race from falling into the hands of a dangerous, barbarous foe named ‘Krall’ (Idris Elba).

star trek beyond krall.jpg

Then, in a final act twist, Krall is revealed to have once been a human Starfleet officer, Balthazar Edison, a starship captain like the Enterprise’s James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), but from a more violent era of interstellar wars and interspecies conflicts. Edison resents the utopian Federation not only for failing to rescue him and his crew from Altamid, but also, on a more fundamental level, for making lasting peace with the alien enemies he spent his life fighting against.

This revelation does come, perhaps, too late for the film to fully flesh out Edison’s character in the same way that Forbidden Planet does for Morbius. The nature of and expectations for what constitutes a science fiction spectacle has, of course, changed greatly over the last sixty years, and the fast-moving action-adventure of Beyond will invariably have less time to spend on character work than the dialogue-laden atmosphere-building drama of Forbidden Planet.[4]

forbidden planet morbius.jpg

Unfortunately, despite the fascinating ideas behind the character and Elba’s performance, the lack of definition early on means the character never becomes as central to the narrative as he is to the film’s themes. This is a particular shame, since the parallels between Morbius and Edison are, on paper, quite fascinating. Both men become the thing they hate: Morbius, the rational scientist, is revealed to be a territorial beast, a Faustus whose passions overwhelm his intellect; Edison, once a heroic defender of humankind, is transformed into a monstrous, inhuman brute – a Kurtz who has lost his moral compass in the darkness of space.

The scientist is the more complex, developed character, but the soldier is (in theory at least) the more tragic. A fallen Faustian magus he may be, yet Morbius is able to reconcile with the beast within him, and even though it costs him his life, he is able to save the lives of his daughter and Commander Adams, as well as ensuring that the Krell technology will not be misused by anyone else in the future.

forbidden planet adams altaira

Edison is faced with a similar moment of self-realisation, at long last seeing clearly not his depravation, but rather his humanity. He ultimately rejects the epiphany offered to him, however, and makes one last nihilistic attempt to kill Kirk and destroy millions more lives. Beyond being the earnest, optimistic film that it is, he fails, dying alone in the vacuum of space, consumed by the very weapon he hoped to use to render his vengeance on the Federation, while Kirk is saved by the efforts of his faithful crew.[5]

Morbius was a tragic figure for the Atomic Age, a scientist who had tapped into a power too great to control, a father figure whose attachment to his daughter unambiguously recalls Freud, who needs a good, sensible, down-to-earth military man like Command Adams to fix his mistakes and bring his daughter into Adams’s own ‘household’ (or spaceship, in this case) as, essentially, husband and wife. Beyond, equally, is in small ways and large, very much a film conscious of the current historical moment. In contrast to the bridal Altaira, the alien survivalist Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who the Enterprise’s crew encounter on Altamid, is not primarily defined as any other character’s daughter or love interest and is instead accepted into the crew and Starfleet on her own terms.[6]

star trek beyond jaylah chair.jpg

Moreover, that Beyond’s themes of tolerance, unity, and mutual cooperation seem to strike a particular chord in light of the current political situation in both Britain and the United States has already been remarked upon. Not only is Edison ultimately shown to be an embodiment of xenophobic hatred (an unusually layered example, in fact), but when Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) praises Kirk for saving the day once again, his humble but honest response that “It’s never just me” comes across as an astonishingly direct rebuke to Donald Trump’s conceited, dictatorial line from the Republican National Convention of “I alone can fix this”.[7] The film’s stubborn adherence to the principles of teamwork and, yes, togetherness, is emblazoned by its stirring final moments in which whole crew, for once, gets to follow Captain Kirk in uttering each a part of the original series’ iconic opening narration:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Of course, Star Trek’s progressive credentials have always been somewhat qualified and even compromised – leaving aside the original series’ Sixties sexism (trying saying that three times fast), the oft-acclaimed ‘first interracial kiss on television’ occurred when both characters involved (William Shatner’s Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura) were under the influence of mind control. Never particularly adept at dealing with issues of sexuality and gender, even the recent revelation that the character of Sulu in the new films is gay – partly to further diversify the crew and partly to honour the original actor and gay rights activist George Takei – encountered controversy when Takei objected on the ground that this interpretation of the character was not accurate to Rodenberry’s original conception.

Rodenberry himself has been suggested to have used his show’s ideals to further his own commercial interests, and his invention of the Vulcan ‘IDIC’ insignia (standing for the very Trek-like mantra of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”) was accused by none other than Leonard Nimoy as an example of blatantly fan-exploitative merchandising. Even Trek’s famed celebration of the frontier is fraught (except for the excellent and underrated Star Trek: Deep Space 9) with mostly un-interrogated colonial baggage and primarily Western assumptions about discovery and exploration.[8]

star trek beyond yorktown

And yet. Star Trek is, at its best, a cultural manifestation of a wistful yet vital dream – one which has ebbed and flowed alongside the last fifty years of American and world history. It dramatizes the belief that better institutions, better ways of living, the discovery of our better selves, are all, in fact, possible. Though it may be a bit rough around the edges, Beyond exemplifies the best of Star Trek in ways Into Darkness and even the 2009 reboot only managed to hint at. “How far you’ve come,” Edison murmurs when he beholds the Yorktown – a complex, colossal, yet ethereal space station on the edge of the known galaxy; a strikingly imagined symbol of ingenuity and inclusiveness. Perhaps he is merely being ironic, or just maybe, despite his disillusionment, he can’t help but be a little impressed.

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[1] The ‘original’ Enterprise was also destroyed at the end of its third cinematic outing, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, directed by Leonard Nimoy.

[2] Star Trek Beyond thus managing to mark both the 50th anniversary of the franchise itself, and the 60th anniversary of one of its most notable pre-cursors.

[3] Given, at the very least, co-screenwriter Simon Pegg’s well-documented fondness for sci-fi history, the former is perfectly plausible.

[4] Seen as light fare in its own day, of course, but positively contemplative in comparison to its modern descendants.

[5] Not that the precise nature of the threat is particularly important to the plot (we’re firmly in MacGuffin territory here), but where the technological fears manifested in Forbidden Planet focussed on nuclear power, in Beyond the threat has been updated to a biological weapon, matching more modern fears of what scientific manipulation of the natural world can do.

[6] It’s just a shame she and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura never have an actual conversation, at least as far as I can recall.

[7] Which is doubly remarkable given that Simon Pegg and Doug Jung must have scripted the film long before Trump was even the de facto GOP nominee.

[8] And don’t talk to be about the Prime Directive, the sloppiest narrative conceit outside of Doctor Who’s ‘fixed points in time’.

June, 2016

Sometimes I feel my dual nationality pretty keenly. There are times when I am fortunate to feel proud of being a citizen of both the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The recent strides taken in both countries for marriage equality, for the right of gay and lesbian men and women to have their love for each other be enshrined in law on equal terms with heterosexual marriages, seemed to me a precious cause for hope in this world.

But then there is June, 2016. The UK tacking towards international isolation and a potentially massive economic crisis entirely of its own volition largely based on the lies and half-truths of a mob of brazenly self-interested politicians, a compromised media establishment, and, I can’t help but feel, a deeply ingrained, jingoistic sense of national superiority. Then in America, a presidential candidate and election campaign  bringing out the worst aspects of the nation’s character, and in the middle of it, a tragedy like there’s never been.

Forty-nine innocent people, members of the LGBTQ community gunned down in one of the few places they were supposed to be able to come together and feel completely safe. Killed by one man and a weapon of war that has no business being sold to anyone in the civilian population.

So there follow the same old arguments. The same denials of a basic truth, that America’s obsession with guns is not, and cannot be, worth the terrible price. The blind insistence that the kind of regulations which have been successful elsewhere in the world are not even worth trying in the United States. And again the media response, distracted by xenophobic fear-mongering and a bizarre compulsion towards taking mainstream ownership over the persecution of (astonishingly resilient but still vulnerable) minority groups, whose ongoing struggles in connection with this tragedy must be acknowledged, not put to one side.

Much has already been written about the initial reactions of the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president, and I have little desire to dwell upon the subject at this moment, but the self-aggrandising and corrosive message is all too familiar by now, and again I can’t help but feel despair at the support this charlatan still receives.

This year, however, I find myself in a pretty rare and, yes, privileged position, even beyond the usual social, cultural, and political advantages of straight white hetero Anglophone dudes. Earlier this week, I sent off my voter registration and absentee ballot application request to the town clerk of New Castle, New Hampshire. It’s the first time I get to vote in an American federal election, and it is a right (if all goes well) I look forward to exercising. And in case there was somehow any doubt, yes, I’m with her. Before that, however, a week tomorrow, I’ll also be voting for the UK to remain in the European Union. The circumstances surrounding them aside, I feel fortunate to be able to take part in both of these momentous decisions.

At the risk of conflating two separate, but equally complex, political situations, to me these nevertheless feel like voting for the same cause – or, rather, for the same hope. Yes, perhaps in both cases it’s voting for a compromise, for an imperfect candidate and an imperfect institution. But it’s also voting for the first woman president and, I believe, for mutually beneficial co-operation rather than a self-imposed exile. For communication rather than conflict. For building bridges rather than building walls. For tolerance rather bigotry. For empathy rather than callousness. For hope rather than fear. And, yes, love rather than hate. These things I believe in, they are at the core of my values, and my choices are, I hope, in great part the result of reasoning them out as best I can.

But that’s not all. Because I have brilliant, talented, extraordinary friends from other countries in Europe who we are fortunate to have contributing to our cultural and intellectual life, whose own lives may be upturned, or at the very least made unduly stressful and pointlessly more complicated (more so than this whole situation has already inflicted) by the UK deciding to spurn its neighbouring allies and trading partners out of, it increasingly seems, wilful pride.

I have friends in the LGBTQ community, whose heartache I cannot imagine, whose struggles I have not had to endure, whose kindness and bravery is inspiring to me. I’m lucky to have them in my life. So, yes, in both America and Britain, I will be voting with my heart, as well as my head. On both sides of the Atlantic, those who disagree will, I’m sure, be doing the same.

It’s hard not to be hypocritical in such matters, hard not to respond to what feels like an onrushing tide of anger and fear with more anger and fear in return. It’s hard to know when to call it like you see it and when to step back and re-evaluate. It’s hard to disengage when it’s healthy to and, when defeats come, hard to re-engage when it’s important to. I don’t know how much of any of that I’m able to achieve.

But I still believe that it is imperative we keep trying. I believe that change, even if it’s incremental change, can be realised, and that it can make a difference. That people’s lives can be saved and improved by our actions and our votes. That we actually can work together to build more perfect unions and better worlds. Because, if nothing else, it’s necessary.