Monday, February 17, 2020

The Skywalker Saga - III

Star Wars fans can never forgive the prequels. 

Everyone agrees that they were disappointing. But they were always going to be disappointing. We didn't really want to know what the Old Republic looked like. 

But we have made disliking the prequels into a bit of a fetish. We have turned Phantom Menace into a code-word for a bad film; hounding, we now know, at least one of the actors almost to the point of suicide. It's hardly possible now to go and watch the film and perceive its good points and bad points. It wasn't that great. But it was never as bad as all that. 

We can never forgive them. But we have, strangely, accepted the prequels. And the bigger fans we are, the more accepting of them we tend to be. 

If you're a casual movie goer, then the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are movies you saw nearly twenty years ago. You may even own the DVDs. But if you are a proper Star Wars fan; then you have also seen and enjoyed the Clone Wars cartoon. You are looking forward to Ewan McGreggor (as opposed to Alec Guiness) reprising the role of Ben Kenobi. And you can hardly deny then when Darth Maul appeared in the the penultimate scene  of Solo, you knew who he was. 

We take it for granted that the Emperor was called Palpatine; that the center of the Empire was called Coruscant; that trainee Jedi were called padwan; that the headquarters of the Jedi Knights was known as the temple; that the Emperor and Darth Vader were part of a secret organisation of Dark Side enthusiasts called "the Sith" and that all Sith take the title Darth. None of that was in the Trilogy. It comes out of the prequels that we all hate so much. 

Wiseacres tell us that the prequels do not form part of their "head canon" and that they are hardly more than "fan fic". But they define our understanding of Star Wars in a way that Caravan of Courage simply does not. You are free to say "I don't care about the Star Wars Universe; I only care about the original movies, or indeed the original movie." But if you are interested in the Star Wars Universe than you are interested in the prequels. 

Since the prequels were created by George Lucas, and since they represent his own long-cherished back-story they are the very opposite of fan-fiction. But if you accept the metric I proposed in my previous essay, they are Stories of the Second Kind: generated from within an established narrative; meaningful only if you are already familiar with the milieu. "How did Obi-Wan first meet Anakin Skywalker?" and "How did Palpatine turn Anakin to the Dark Side?" are without meaning to anyone without a passing knowledge of Star Wars. There will always be a small number of mainstream critics who claim not to understand them.

Episodes VII, VIII and IX are, in that sense, much less fannish that episode I, II and III. They are pitched at people who know who the Star Wars characters are, but who don't care all that much. Finn, Rey and Poe are new characters -- a hot young pilot, a reformed Storm Trooper, a scavenger with Force Powers. Only Kylo Renn really emerges from the matrix of the previous movies: he is Han Solo and Princess Leia's son, named after Obi-Wan Kenobi, trained in the Force by Luke Skywalker. But that back story only emerges gradually: he is introduced to us merely as a Sinister Bad Guy in Black Armour. By the time his identity is revealed, even a complete newbie can understand that "the guy in the scary armour is the son of the old guy who used to own the spaceship." For two films, Snoke was pointedly not "the Emperor's Son" or "a new Sith Apprentice": he was just "the big hologram bad guy." In the third film we find that he was in some sense created by the Emperor; but by that stage it no longer matters. 

What some fans wanted; and what Marvel Comics continues to serve up in an endlessly diminishing monthly cycle, was simply "What Luke and Han did next." And what fans wanted Luke and Han to have done next is same old same old: flying lightsabers down trenches and smuggling Ewoks for Jabba the Hutt, for ever and ever, may the Force be with you. 

The Last Jedi decided that "what Luke did next" was something unexpected and surprising. He ran away to Craggy Island and denounced the Jedi. Some of us regard this as an unexpected development. Some of us regard it as a personal betrayal. 


How should we watch the Rise of Skywalker? 

Does it still occupy that center ground between movie serials and fairy tales that Lucas laid claim to in 1976? Or is it primarily a new chapter in the history of the Galaxy? 

When we staggered out of the multiplex at 3AM, what did we think he had seen? Rey doing a back-flip into the path of an oncoming TIE-Fighter? Finn leading an actual cavalry charge on the back of a Star Destroyer? More lightsaber duels than you can shake a pink glowy stick at? Or the conclusion of the big war that began with the Naboo trade dispute? The end of the thousand year Sith conspiracy? A hint as to the future of the Jedi Knights? 

Well, all of the above, obviously. But which did you care about? Were you one of those who was thinking "Enough with all this silly Indiana Jones stuff: tell us the big secret of the Sith"? Or were you one of those who thought "Can we please get away from this second rate Harry Potter end of level guardian and have some more spaceships, please"? 

Star Wars is poly-vocal, and always has been. The iconic Cantina in A New Hope is logically a seaman's tavern; a place to hire a ship or sign on for a voyage; but it is manifestly also a cowboy Saloon and Han Solo is clearly a cowboy. But it's a cowboy tavern where the mysterious of Knight feel quite at home. The Rise of Skywalker understands this. The scene in which Finn and Poe tease Chewbacca about cheating at chess does not quite belong in the same movie as the scene where a shriveled old Dark Lord asks his young victim to perform a human sacrifice. The intense psychological relationship between Rey and Kylo is tonally different from the action scenes that Poe and Finn wise crack their way through. ("Is this a bad time?" asks Poe, as the two of them are up before a military firing squad.) 

Poe Dameron is no Han Solo, and Oscar Isaac is no Harrison Ford. But Kijimi -- more than anything in Solo -- is the kind of world that Han Solo would have swaggered through; dark and mechanical and poor and yet at the same time, very, very cool. In Blade Runner or Neuromancer it's the whole universe; in Star Wars, it's just a place the heroes pass through. Babu Frik -- the pint-sized mechanic who rewires Threepio's brain -- is not a Jawa; but his droid shop is in the same visual space as their Sandcrawler.

Star Wars is space ships and lightsabers and Freudian father figures; but it's also greasy droid foundries and sleazy spice runners. And Rise of Skywalker has, belatedly, remembered this. 


Does Rise of Skywalker make sense? Is Rise of Skywalker supposed to make sense? Does it matter whether Rise of Skywalker makes sense or not? 

Where did all those thousands and thousands of Sith on the planet Exegis come from? I thought Sithism was a secret teaching; passed from one single master to one single apprentice for thousands of years? 

It can be explained. Anything can be explained. Yoda lied. Yoda was mistaken. The crowd are not Sith, but Sith supporters. The death of Vader ended the rule of Two. Palpatine has spent the years since his death on a recruiting drive. But it isn't explained. No-one says "But I thought only two there were, a master and apprentice..." Are we supposed to remember? To care? 

Vader thought that technology was relatively unimportant compared with the Dark Side of the Force, but the Emperor appears to have spent the last thirty years doing nothing but amassing technology. Now he has invented from nowhere a rule which says that if, and only if, Rey kills him, then his spirit will jump into her. Mind-body transfer has never been hinted at as a Sith-power before. (Surviving physical death seems to be a specific Jedi power; we were once told it was an esoteric teaching of the Whills.) Suddenly, without warning or foreshadowing, Rey and Kylo are something called a dyad in the Force. They are especially powerful and the Emperor especially needs them, or especially fears them...because I say so. That's why. 

Are we supposed to listen to all this stuff, take notes and resolve to make sense of it further down the line? Or do we listen to it, note that it makes very little sense, and conclude that "this is not my Star Wars" and that Disney have destroyed our childhoods? If we are an entirely different kind of person, do we say that all this kerr-razy science fiction is nonsense and always has been? Or do we half-listen, and hear "mystical waffle; plot device; McGuffin; cool sounding Forcey Stuff" and just kind of accept that the Force will work as the Force will work and there's no doing anything about it? 

It is incredibly cool that nine movies and a thousand generations come down to one girl representing all the Jedi and one wizened old man representing all the Sith, facing off in a cave. It's as good a way of ending the saga as I can think of. If the plot-scaffolding required to bring us to this point is a little shaky, maybe I can live with that. 

"You mean Palpatine could have brought down the Rebel Fleet with Force Lightening at any time?" 

"No, not at any time. Only when it was funny." 


There are nagging questions, and they nag a bit harder than they used to. It is necessary for the Plot that there should be a traitor in the First Order. If there is a traitor, then it has to be someone; and if it has to be someone, then it is pretty cool for it to be Hux. But it is hard to work out a process by which he could have become a traitor. The animosity between Hux and his Stormtroopers and Renn and his Dark Side could have become a rift that split the First Order. I could see Hux attempting a coup or Renn having him assassinated. But the idea that Hux would betray the First Order to the Resistance just to spite Renn fits in with nothing we have been told about his personality up to this point. 

I am sure that this kind of thing would have been a problem in Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back if we had thought about it. But we didn't. The Empire was never more than and endless succession of Storm Troopers for Han Solo to shoot and and endless succession of admirals for Darth Vader to strangle. So we didn't do a lot of thinking. Once the characters start having names you start expecting their actions to make more sense.

But not too much. The moment when Hux identifies himself as the mole is cool; as is the moment when Withnail shoots him in cold blood. It's only after we've left the cinema that we think "Wait a minute..." Can First Order officers really just execute each other on the spur of the moment? The idea that Withnail was a follower of Palpatine in the days of Empire comes from nowhere, stays around for exactly one scene, and then goes away again. It doesn't seem to make any difference to anything. 


Don't mention the Jedi books. 

They are quite a big deal in the Last Jedi. Luke is going to destroy them; Yoda steps in an actually does the deed; but then it turns out that Rey has preserved them. Luke thinks that burning the books would end the Jedi order once and for all: they are that important. Yoda seems to think that getting rid of them allows the Jedi to move forward into a new phase. But at the end of the film it turns out that Rey preserved them. This is implied to be quite a significant twist. The Resistance has everything it needs: the Jedi can continue. 

I suppose I expected Rey to use the books to become a Jedi. "Teach Yourself How To Be a Guardian of Peace and Justice"; "The Dummies Guide to Force Mastery". One could have imagined a film in which Rey is trying to learn how to be a Jedi from the dry old texts while some other Jedi -- Luke's ghost, perhaps -- seeks to move beyond the written words and create a new, more vibrant tradition. The fourth trilogy could then have been about the theological struggle between Orthodox and Reformed Jedism. 

But the books turn out to be of no significance whatsoever. Rey is seen reading them, briefly, and they contain a clue as to the whereabouts of the Sith Mcguffin. But any other plot device would have served just as well. It is painfully obvious that "Rey saves the books" was a very, very late addition to the Last Jedi and Abrams has had to think up something to do with it. 

Rey doesn't need the books to learn how to be a Jedi. Leia teaches her. 

Ah, Leia. This is very sad. Obviously, Carrie Fisher was meant to have a much bigger part in the movie. The various bits of hi-tech jiggery-pokery with unused footage and voice-overs enables them to fake her presence fairly well. If you didn't know the circumstances you would easily believe that Carrie was present, but with a reduced role. Knowing what we do, it is painfully obvious that Abrams was left with a few out-takes of Carrie Fisher saying "Yes, I think that is the case" and "No, we are not going to do it like that" and had to build complete scenes around them. (Do actors film "noddies" -- out of context reaction shots -- in the way that TV talk-show hosts do?) 

The core plot idea survives. Leia, Kylo Renn's mum, calls him back from the Dark Side; but she exhausts her strength and dies in the process. It is not a bad resolution: Luke saved Anakin; Leia saves Ben; family love is more powerful than the Dark Side. But the revelation that Leia was a Jedi all along is painfully underdeveloped. 

This isn't just because of Fisher's absence. I can't help thinking that if Leia was a fully trained Jedi who had nipped off to Ilum and created her own lightsaber; and if she had then rejected her calling, like Ahsoka... I can't help feeling that it would have been foreshadowed. Some talk about whether she would go back to her former calling when Luke dies; some moments of introspection; some flashbacks. Or, else, the revelation that Leia was a Jedi would have been presented as a big secret that is dramatically revealed. But it is presented as something to be taken for granted; something we already knew. When Luke hands Leia's lightsaber to Rey, I didn't think "Aha!" I thought "Whoah...did I miss a bit?" 

Leia as an actual Jedi with an actual lightsaber is another of those things which is just a bit too obvious. A bit too much what I would have put into a Star Wars role-playing game. Yes, in Return of the Jedi Luke says that she will one day learn to use the Force like he can: but the idea that she positively decided that she would be more use as a politician is more interesting. And more like Leia. 

And anyway: isn't it a rather major plot-point that Jedi have to be celibate? 


Lando Carlrission was interesting for exactly fourty five minutes in 1980: an ex-friend and an ex-enemy of Han Solo, gone straight, turned traitor. "I'm sorry. I had no choice, they arrived right before you did."He doesn't get any actual scenes in Return of the Jedi; he's just a warm body; a generic rebel keeping the Falcon's command seat warm while Han is being cooked by the Ewoks. The younger version we meet in Solo is quite a bit more interesting; and I deeply enjoyed the Marvel Comics version who is perpetually rushing into adventures while dictating the text of his own autobiography. 

He pops up in the second act of Rise of Skywalker, shoots a storm trooper with a bow and arrow, passes on the next clue in the treasure hunt, and is gone. He comes back for the final final final battle, taking the Falcon and impressively recruiting a fleet of some thousands of ships from all round the universe in a matter of minutes. 

Even if hyper-drive is now conceived of as instantaneous cross-universe teleportation -- and if it does work like that it's hard to see why anyone would kill time playing chess during voyages -- surely it doesn't take no time at all to launch one of those big ships? And how did Lando come up with a million billion trillion volunteers in three minutes, when Leia couldn't muster a single one at the battle of Crait? 

But I was very happy with Lando's remarks about having helped Luke when he was chasing a "Jedi Hunter" across the universe. I don't know what a Jedi Hunter is, or what he was hunting decades after the last Jedi was dead. But I do like the idea that, as well as running a Jedi school and hanging out with puffins and amphibious nuns, Luke found some time to hook up with old mates and go on adventures with them. 

And that's the real trick, isn't it? All the stuff which fans wanted turns out to have happened. Han Solo spend time zipping about the universe doing dodgy deals in the Millennium Falcon. Luke took his lightsaber on as many Jedi missions as your heart desires. Leia was a padwan and then a Jedi. But all that obvious stuff happened between the movies and we can fill in the details as we wish. 

Lucas arguably spoiled The Old Republic by putting it on screen. Disney has very wisely left What Luke Did Next where it belongs; in our collective imagination.

We may eventually be able to forgive them.

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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