Sunday, December 22, 2019

Did You Like Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker

There is a big bad. Exactly how he came to be there and where he came from is pretty much ignored. There is a dark lord on a dark throne on the planet of Exidor where shadows lie. That is all we know and all we need to know. 

There is a series of McGuffins which will eventually reveal the coordinates of the planet on which the big bad is hidden. There is a big metal eight sided dice which is very carefully not called a Holocron; and there is a magic dagger, possibly quite a subtle one. So a group of characters go off to find them. They are precisely the group of characters who have been the heroes of the previous movies. They are the only people who can undertake the mission because they are best friends. They love each other, but they only have 16 hours to save the universe. 

For two thirds of the movie, they bounce from exotic location to exotic location, falling into traps, getting captured and escaping. There is a festival on a desert planet; quicksand; sleazy backstreets; a high tech city out of Blade Runner; a possibly familiar forest moon; and an evil spaceship whose corridors feel suspiciously like the interior of the Death Star. Although the universe is going to come to an end in a few hours, and although their mission mostly looks kind of hopeless; all the player characters are clearly having great fun; bantering and scoring points of each other, laughing and joking their way to near certain oblivion. Goodies get killed off and get apparently killed off and get kind of virtually cybernetically killed off; but no-one really seems to mind or believe it. 

There is a deep heavy serious sub-plot. We have been building towards it from the very beginning. But it is sensibly kept in the background. One of the heroes is, to coin a phrase, a space wizard of uncertain and mysterious parentage; with a mysterious link to the evil space wizard who is now in charge of the evil empire. They keep kind of meeting and kind of having psychic sword fights and kind of revealing surprisingly unforeshadowed facts about each others' backstory. But none of that distracts from the Adventuring. 

The forces of evil are very much split. The evil space wizard is the enemy of the new dark lord and the evil empire contains a high level double agent passing information to the goodies. 

Two thirds of the way through the movie, all the McGuffins are secured. The good and evil space wizards go off to confront the dark lord as part of their personal development; everyone else gets into space ships to fight the dark lord's redundantly obscene stockpile of weapons. 

There is an absolutely huge battle and the goodies win. 

There is then a Jacksonesque fifteen minutes in which the film keeps doing call backs to all the previous films and completely failing to come to an end. There are brief Ewoks but no Gunganss. There is a final final scene which is really nice but which has pretty much no bearing on the rest of the movie. (I suspect it was filmed or at any rate scripted before anyone knew what Episode IX was going to be all about.) 

The best description of Star Wars I ever read was "a Saturday morning serial with Wagnerian pretensions". I don't think that the original Star Wars movie can quite support the sheer weight of Jungian psychology and fan-fictional universe building that has been piled on top of it. Somewhere along the line -- around the hundred and fiftieth minute of Empire Strikes Back -- Star Wars ceased to be about fathers and became about Fathers, or Father Archetypes. But Star Wars is and should always have been pulp adventure and space opera. Luke Skywalker is much more Flash Gordon than he is Siegfried. It should have been about heroes doing derring deeds. It's pulp. Since the Phantom Menace -- arguably since Return of the Jedi we've lost track of that. It's been too much about Darth Sidious telling Darth Vader about Darth Plagius during the ballet. 

I have argued elsewhere that a similar thing happens to Robert Galbraith's children's books. Volume 1 is a joyously ripping yarn about secret tunnels, school bullies, caddish teachers, unfair detentions and critical sporting fixtures; with just enough hints about a supremely evil wizard and the hero's mysterious heritage to give it some gravitas. By volume 7, the evil wizard has become the entire focus of the story. All the fun has gone away. 

There are some movie prequels which consist largely of elderly wizards sitting in boardrooms explaining the back story to each other, so the analogy actually works rather well. 

So with Star Wars. It isn't that the Jedi are not part of the magic of Star Wars. They are very probably the single most important element in the whole saga; the thing which distinguishes Star Wars from every other nine part Space Opera sequence you have ever seen. It isn't a coincidence that I started a Jedi Knights Club as opposed to a Rebel Pilots Club. But they are just not that interesting in themselves. The right place for them is in the background. Vader is the Emperor's henchman oh and by the way he used to be a Jedi Knight. Luke is a shit hot fighter pilot oh and by the way he wants to be a Jedi Knight. 

For many of us, the "real" Star Wars, the place where we encounter the joy and fun and excitement and exoticism and retro-nostalgia long-time-ago-ness at the heart of the saga has not been the increasingly flawed movies, but the mostly pretty good comic books, the very good cartoons, and the very, very, very good role-playing game. 

I have probably told this story before. (When nine hundred years you reach, tell the same stories again and again will you too.) Back in the day, when there were only three Star Wars movies, me and a group of gaming buddies put the video of Return of the Jedi into the VCR. (A "video" is kind of like an early version of Netflix, but with a choice of only one movie.) You remember the scene where Luke defrosts Han in Jabba's palace, and there is a brief exchange: "How we doing kid?" "Same as usual." "That bad?" All the role-players called out, as with one voice "I know that feeling"

We knew what it was like to be Star Wars characters. Luke and Han were just overgrown PCs. 

So please believe me that I am in no way criticizing Rise of Skywalker to say that it felt like a Star Wars role-playing game; like an extended episode of Star Wars: Rebels. Yes, sure, the entire universe is going to be over-run with evil, and yes, sure, the Emperor appears to have acquired a whole fleet of Death Stars and yes, one, several, or fewer beloved characters may or may not be mostly dead by the final scene. And yes, everything that Rey thought she believed about everything turns out to be wrong, again. But "Wheee----hayyyy" we're on a starship shooting along a trench and all is right with the world. 

I am totally in earnest here. The film may not survive multiple rewatchings; and I am not yet sure what it will do or has done to the Holy Franchise. But, to take just one example. When all the heroes appear to have drowned in the Lightning Sand but actually find themselves in a network of tunnels; and when they encounter a big scaly dragon Rancor thing, which Finn wants to kill but Rey wants to make friends with -- I could literally have whooped with joy. 

This is how it should always have been. Not hours and hours of Rey or Luke or Anakin talking to Luke or Yoda or Palpatine and approaching a dangerous time when they will be tested by the dark side of the Plot. Just a group of heroes. One of the heroes' Thing is that he is reckless; one of the heroes' Thing is that he is strong and furry; one of the heroes' Thing is that she is the Last But One Jedi. All together on one last adventure. Threepio gets some lines! Chewbacca gets to break things! No-one sings the Wookie Life Day Song! 

Obviously, they were going to figure out how to make Star Wars movies in the final volume of the ennealogy. That's how this stuff works.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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