How Rian Johnson just saved Star Wars

This blog post has MASSIVE SPOILERS for Star Wars The Last Jedi, so if you haven’t seen it yet, please scroll no further than the porg of spoilderdom…

porg

Ready for spoilery thoughts? Here we go…

“You have to kill the past,’ says Kylo Ren in Rian Johnson’s take on the Star Wars saga. To say that this film has been divisive would be an understatement, but the film wears its themes on its sleeve, and the viewer soon discovers that this will be no ordinary Star Wars story. It opens with a comedy sketch co-starring Adrian Edmonson, followed by Luke tossing his lightsaber over a cliff, then the Resistance fleet is all but wiped out, General Leia is ejected into space, Admiral Ackbar discovers that even he can’t repel scripts of this magnitude, and no one says “I have a very bad feeling about this,” or any of its variants, which might be a first for the series.

This is an irreverent movie, and thank the Maker for that. I enjoyed The Force Awakens and Rogue One very much, though both were quick to doff the cap to tradition and tiptoed very carefully through the minefield of fan expectation. Johnson’s film streaks gleefully through the minefield, flipping the bird at any man-baby fanboy appalled at the liberties he takes (and it does seem to be all men complaining… We really have to stop getting so petulant about stuff like this, guys).

As I watched, I kept thinking; “I didn’t know the Force could do that,” and “Ooh, that’s new!” and it engaged me in a way that a Star Wars film hasn’t done since Return of the Jedi, and it’s given me a fun quote that I’ll be using on my kids for years to come: “Congratulations. Everything you just said in that sentence is wrong.”

It’s not perfect. The middle is pretty baggy, Snoke is still uninteresting as a villain. and threads are set-up and resolved a little too quickly – mainly the excursion to Canto Bight and Poe Dameron’s mini-mutiny – though one has to wonder if the latter of these was affected by the sudden passing of Carrie Fisher. (Pauses to sniff and make excuses about something in my eye)

Fisher is heartbreakingly good in the few scenes she’s conscious in, and it makes you wonder how great she would have been had she lived to complete the role. Hamill shines, giving a career-best send-off to a character that started as a callow youth, and ends a grizzled, regretful war veteran in hiding. His final vision of two suns setting is a wonderful bookend to his story, and a genuine lump-in-the-throat moment.

For me, the most thrilling part of this film is its message that anyone can be the hero now. You don’t have to be a Skywalker, or even a distant second cousin, or a collection of immaculate midichlorians, as many thought Rey to be. You can be Rose, or her sister Paige, or that stable boy and his friends at the very end. Heroism doesn’t require a special lineage, you don’t need to come from a renowned family, or be in the top percentage of society. In a time when we’re seeing the powers-that-be on their worst behaviour, that’s a very important message for any yoot watching this film. And this is a film for the young fans; giving them ownership of the series with a range of diverse and interesting new characters. Maybe that’s why the older fanboys are so distressed…? Someone else is playing with their toys and they’re not playing by the rules…

Curiously, and refreshingly, the film doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. Rian Johnson has cleared the decks and JJ Abrams now has a free reign to wind-up the trilogy any way he pleases. I hope he has as much fun with his new film as Rian did with his, and takes advantage of how Rian Johnson just saved Star Wars saga from disappearing up its own continuity. The fact that none of us has the first clue where this is going next is really exciting and I can’t wait for Episode IX.

Because what the world really needs is another blog on Star Wars… My thoughts on The Force Awakens (MASSIVE SPOILERS!)

UPDATED – SCROLL DOWN FOR JOHN WILLIAMS’ THOUGHTS ON REY’S THEME…

Okay before we get into this, let’s try a little warm-up. Get on your feet, jog on the spot a bit, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, and just keep repeating to yourself: It’s only a film, it’s only a film, it’s only a film…

I mean, obviously, in about five hundred years’ time, after the atomic wars and the mutant uprising, Star Wars will be the basis for a worldwide religion, but until then let’s just remind ourselves that it’s a story designed to entertain and delight. I mention this only because the release of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS has brought out the cray-cray in people, and not just the wonderful geeks queueing in cosplay, but the morons who tried and failed to generate a boycott of the film because John Boyega happens to be black, or the fuss over Max Landis’ assertion that Rey is a “Mary Sue” character, or my friend on Facebook who went off on a rant about how the whole series is “one huge expungement of western guilt”, which is an interesting interpretation of the films, perhaps straying from the filmmakers’ conscious intent, but it got him so much flak that he just got more ranty and it became embarrassing for all concerned (by the way, all of Hollywood is one huge expungement of western guilt… start picking at that thread and the whole system collapses!).

So, anyway, the film…

BE WARNED – FROM HERE WE’LL BE IN THE SPOILER ZONE – DO NOT PROCEED UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM!

 

YOU’RE STILL HERE AND HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM? YOU’VE ONLY GOT YOURSELF TO BLAME!

 

LAST TRAIN OUT OF SPOILERVILLE…

 

OKAY, HERE WE GO…

 

I’ve seen it twice, once in 2D, then in 3D, and I loved it both times. If anything, seeing it the second time without the weight of expectation and me being a smartarse trying to second-guess the storyline, was even more enjoyable.

It’s not perfect; essentially a greatest hits, tribute band, mash-up of the first trilogy. But with a $4.5 billion investment at stake they were always going to have to play to the gallery a bit, especially that big Chinese gallery at the back, which can make or break your membership into the billion dollar box office club, and China doesn’t have the social and historical association with the series which can guarantee a big turnout. So, the order of the day was to stick to what works and put it in a safe pair of hands… Who’s done this kind of high-risk reboot before? Hmm. That JJ guy seems to know his stuff… So let’s take all that as a given, put it to one side, and enjoy the film on its own terms. Here are my thinkings…

Things that niggled:

There is a Star Wars tradition known as the Terence Stamp Contingency, whereby they hire great actors, make a huge fuss about them in the pre-release publicity, and then not do very much with them in the finished film: here’s hoping Max Von Sydow, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Gwendoline Christie, and the guys from THE RAID can console themselves with a few deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray.

The Maz Kanata sequence: so Finn suddenly realises out of the blue the First Order can’t be beaten, decides to do a runner and then five minutes later, he’s back. Did we believe any of that? An oddly muddled chunk of the film that could maybe have benefitted from a bit of a trim.

Snoke: he’s clearly compensating for something with that enormous hologram. Maybe he’s a Jawa fed up with jokes about his height? I’m sure more will be revealed as the series goes on (a current leading fan theory is that he’s Darth Plagueis), but for the moment he seems a tad… unfinished… The CG made me think of THE MUMMY, and that’s not a good thing.

Nostalgia: I think this harks back to the “greatest hits” agenda that set the tone for the film. I love an in-joke or callback as much as the next uberfan, but I wonder if they’ll become grating with repeated viewing? New rule for the next film: no in-jokes. Not one. Make your own history.

Stuff I’m on the fence about:

The 3D: The Star Destroyer poking out of the screen was a genuinely gasp-inducing moment, and 3D conversions have come a loooong way since I last saw one, and the aerial sequences were cool in a Disney-ride way, but I’m not sure what it added to the film, and there were a number of wide shots where small buildings looked like models. Not something I noticed with the 2D screening.

R2D2 seemed to be running a Apple OSX software update throughout the story. Seems a bit of a waste of a much-loved character, but then is there room for two cute robots in the same movie?

There are GRABBERS in the film! An odd crossover, unexpected, but welcome…

What I liked:

The opening crawl: Luke Skywalker has disappeared! Wait, what?! That’s how you grab people’s attention. None of this trade embargo balls.

Rey’s theme. The score doesn’t have an immediate, bombastic theme like the The Imperial March or Duel Of The Fates, but it does have a beautifully light and subtle theme for Rey, which makes me want to gaily skip off with a knapsack on my back and have an adventure of my own.

 

UPDATE: John Williams on Rey’s Theme and the promise of adventure…

Han’s death. We all knew that they only way they were going to get Harrison Ford back was by offering him the glorious, redemptive death scene he was denied in Return of the Jedi, didn’t we? And it was pretty heavily telegraphed from the moment Han chose to go back into the lion’s den. It didn’t quite land for me the first time, but on a second viewing there’s so much going on. I love the way he touches his son’s face before he falls away. And compare the dialogue here — “I don’t know if I have the strength to do this. Will you help me?” — to Revenge of the Sith’s “The Jedi are evil from my point of view” clunk-a-thon. These are two human beings here, father and son. Kasdan does this stuff so well, and I get a bit lip-wobbly now just thinking about it.

Kylo Ren: Now this is how you do inner-torment and a young man turning to the dark side. Adam Driver is a fine actor and Kylo Ren promises to be the most conflicted and interesting villain of the series.

Skellig Michael: The first Jedi Temple is off the South West Coast of Ireland. Whoda thunk it? And which of us will be the first to swing a lightsaber there? I hear tourist trade is already booming. It’s heartwarming to see such an extraordinary location being used to great effect. And so windswept that it’s done wonders with Luke’s hair.

Rey and Daisy Ridley: Yes, the scene where she whips Luke’s lightsaber out of the snow, yes, when she flies the Falcon through the wreck of a Super Star Destroyer, but most of all for yelling “Oi, gerrof!” in a London accent in the cockpit of the Falcon… a first for the series, I think.

Finn and John Boyega: this guy is my new hero. On the press tour he’s been funny, smart and charming, and he’s the perfect mix of fanboy and actor. He’s got great drama and comedy chops in this movie, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Poe Dameron: So good they brought him back from the dead. Apparently his character was supposed to die in the Tie Fighter crash, but Oscar Isaac escaped the Terence Stamp Contingency to live again, leading to one of the lamest “I woke up and you were gone” plot hole patch-ups ever. But, who cares? I want to see him and Finn having more adventures.

BB8: the adorable bastard child of R2 and Wall-E, so expressive and done for reals as shown on this cool website.

The fun: this has more gags than most comedies, and has such a delightful tone that it could draw criticism for being too light, but man that stuff is hard to get right, and this tone is the biggest callback to the original Star Wars, and one the filmmakers should definitely keep for the remaining films.

So, yes, they played it safe with the plot, and here’s hoping they’ll take a few more risks next time, but when a film is made with so much verve, love and delight that I can forgive its minor sins and enjoy for what it is. A film. An entertainment. A delight.

May the Force be with you. Always.

The Endless River and the end of Floyd

This week sees the release of what has been confirmed by the band Pink Floyd as their last ever studio album, The Endless River.

The Endless River

I have a long history with Floyd, and to be around when they’ve called it a day is both sad and curiously satisfying. The end of a great story. Like many of my generation, my first awareness of Pink Floyd came with the release of Another Brick In The Wall (Part Two) and I was all too eager to misinterpret the message “We don’t need no edjacashun!” I also recall poring over my uncle’s copy of the album, its gatefold festooned with Gerald Scarfe’s wonderful artwork.

But it wasn’t until my teens that they really made an impact. Back then, believe it or not, I was a football referee. Something I wasn’t terribly well-suited for, not being a massive football fan and just beginning to need to wear spectacles for my short-shortsightedness. I had to quit after a couple of years when I had no real comeback to the players’ cries of, “Ref, are you blind?”

Back then Wembley Stadium use to employ referees as stewards for football games and major events. My dad – a much better ref than I ever was – would regularly attend FA Cup matches and the like in this capacity. And in the summer of 1988 he asked me quite out of the blue if I wanted to be a steward at a couple of concerts. The first was the amazing Michael Jackson Bad Tour, the second was for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

Jacko was awesome, as you’d expect, but the Floyd gig triggered something inside of me. I found a sound that I hadn’t even realised was missing from my life, but I suddenly had to have more of, immediately. The bigness of Richard Wright‘s keyboard sounds, the ‘ting’ of Nick Mason‘s ride cymbal – a pleasing acoustic noise absent from all the electronica I’d been listening to that summer – and all of this led by David Gilmour‘s siren-like guitar. And not forgetting Roger Waters‘ lyrics… Ah, Roger! Not only had I found the perfect band, but one with a story that stretched back to a tragic figure called Syd Barrett, followed by an unprecedented success forged by a group living in the shadow of a genius, then torn apart again by that very success. There were lengthy magazine articles and books chronicling this epic odyssey, including Miles’ excellent Visual Documentary.

I devoured everything, and while my contemporaries were discovering rave or grunge I was stuck firmly in the ’70s and became a boy obsessed. I made compilation tapes for all my mates and even successfully converted a fair number of them, dragging them to gigs at the ghastly London Arena, glorious Knebworth and Earl’s Court. Even the lovely, patient woman who was to become the love of my life was not immune, having to endure my guitar practice as I learned to play their songs (having all but given up on the instrument a few years earlier). I even studied the lyrics of The Wall as part of my GCSE coursework, discovering how to stretch out my thesis “It’s about alienation, innit” to 1500 words.

One of the most significant decisions in my life was dictated by a Floyd connection. At the time I was a sales rep for a publisher, driving all over the South East of England and writing plays in laybys in my lunchbreak. I was in a happy little rut. Then I bumped into a fellow rep who said there was an account manager job going at Orion Publishing, and was I interested. At first, I refused: I loved the freedom of the open road, and working in an office would mean regular hours that wouldn’t allow me to put on plays. Then something occurred to me, “You guys are publishing that Pink Floyd book by Nick Mason, aren’t you?”

“Yup.”

“WHERE DO I APPLY?!”

And so I ended up in an office job, gave up on the theatre, and started writing screenplays instead. And see where that got me.

Oh, and I got to meet Nick Mason. A lovely, lovely man who put up with my fanboyish tendencies with the patience of a saint. Tangentially, I also got to meet David Gilmour, Richard Wright, Gerald Scarfe and the wonderful Guy Pratt, whose brilliantly funny book My Bass And Other Animals was published by Orion and should be read by everyone and anyone with a passing interest in music.

I missed out on Live 8 and with the passing of Syd and then Richard it seemed like it was all over, and now it really is. I’ve played Endless River on an endless loop today. It’s arguably the boldest album the band have released in thirty years, and all those things that had me fall in the love with the band are present and correct, but now it sounds like the distant echo of something passing into time, fading into the past. A fitting farewell from a band bigger than the sum of its parts. And that’s a beautiful end to their story.