2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Dune: Part One (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

As a dedicated fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune and its literary children, I anticipated a new film adaptation with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Dune has managed to sustain a potent cult over the half-century since its publication, its influence manifest in subsequent hits as diverse as Star Wars, The Matrix, and Game of Thrones, to the point where its building blocks now seem pervasively familiar, even if its most individual and esoteric qualities remain largely untapped and evergreen in their strangeness. Herbert’s legendarium, with its encoded metaphors for mind-expanding drug use, fossil fuel dependency, post-colonial politics, nascent feminism, and religious seeking, seemed exactly attuned to gathering forces in the modern zeitgeist and so caught the imagination of three generations of dorm room dreamers, but also connected with a larger, more mainstream audience in a way hardcore science fiction rarely does, albeit also erecting a firm barrier between those who could penetrate Herbert’s odd, dense writing style and those left totally cold by it. On a more immediate level, Herbert’s preoccupation with the figure of a quasi-messianic hero who finds himself anointed the one person who can rebound from near-oblivion to lead an uprising helped connect the science fiction genre’s roots in pulp heroism and exotic adventuring with a new preoccupation with the experience of maturation as the key modern narrative, birthing the “chosen one” motif in just about every emulating fantastical epic since.

And, of course, there were earlier versions. David Lynch’s big, bizarre, contorted, but almost endlessly fascinating 1984 version became mostly remembered as a debacle echoing in the corridors of pop culture history but has since gathered a fervent cult following. Jim Harrison’s 2000 TV miniseries proved modestly popular and proficient in its indulgence: whilst scarcely memorable, it seems to have laid seeds for the age of prestige television. For myself, I love both the Herbert novel and Lynch’s film, even if they’re passions that cannot ever quite overlap: they exist a little like matter and antimatter, reflecting the image of the other but unable to touch without annihilation. Lynch’s film manages the unique task of being both maddeningly fastidious and wilfully odd as adaptation, sometimes obsessed with communicating the most finicky details from Herbert and elsewhere badly distorting and even avoiding important elements. Now comes the first part of Denis Villeneuve’s proposed two-instalment adaptation of Dune, a bombastic unit of expenditure and epic portent that seems to have been produced with a determination to avoid the heralded mistakes of Lynch’s version, by taking a leaf from Andres Muschietti’s financially successful adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017-19) and splitting the book into two movies.

It’s easy to see a dismaying motive behind the new version: present-day Hollywood’s reliance on familiar intellectual property with a hopefully baked-in audience has become so unshakeable that it would rather try again to adapt a book commonly described as unfilmable after Lynch’s version proved a massive financial failure, on the vague expectation the novel’s fans will come, than take a chance on something new. But hope for a new adaptation that would prove sufficiently balanced and coherent, able to at once honour the material’s most specific qualities and appeal to a big audience, has long preoccupied Dune’s fandom, particularly as I suspect every aficionado has long cherished their personal idea of how it should be done. Bifurcating the story promises that the novel’s meticulous construction of its imagined future 8000-odd years hence could be carefully meted out along with the strong, fairly straightforward central storyline. This approach has its own, big risks of course, as any of the three people who remember The Golden Compass (2007) can testify. Regardless, in familiar fashion, Dune unfolds in a distant future in which humans have colonised tracts of the galaxy and have developed a neo-feudal system of control where an all-powerful Emperor and the feudal houses under him administrate the many planets.

We see the House of Atreides, led by the canny and noble but world-weary Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs), assigned to take over the planet Arrakis by his Emperor, displacing the previous clan of administrators, their hated rivals the Harkonnens, and taking on the responsibility of mining the substance called spice that only occurs there. The spice is absolutely crucial to the shape and operation of the Empire, so whilst the spice mining is an incredibly lucrative business, failure to keep it flowing could bring down harsh penalties. Leto and his advisors also suspect they’re being set up for a fall, a correct assumption, as the Harkonnens are being backed by the Emperor to wipe the Atreides out and rid him of rivals. Leto and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have one son, the teenaged Paul (Timothée Chalamet): Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sect who operate at the nexus of priestesses, nuns, witches, and genetic scientists. The sect has long been dedicated to breeding a human with psychic gifts pronounced enough to see the future and actively control future human evolution, a notional being dubbed the Kwisatz Haderach in ancient prophecy, and Jessica represents the near-culmination of the project. But Paul’s birth, the result of Jessica’s desire to please Leto after she unexpectedly fell in love with him, disrupted the project, and now Paul is displaying nascent signs of being the Kwisatz Haderach. The Atreides are attacked by the Harkonnens, who break through their defences thanks to the treachery of their house physician Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), but Yueh’s complex motives also see him arrange to save Paul and Jessica from the massacre.

Villeneuve wisely casts familiar faces even in relatively minor parts, making Dune something of an old-fashioned star-studded epic, even if it resists the Lynch version’s delight in showing off its all-star cast in a long curtain call-like final credits scene. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin play the ultraloyal and omnicompetent Atreides warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, respectively, whilst Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the house strategist and “Mentat” Thufir Hawat. The three actors have the ability to swiftly and effectively make their characters interesting and palpable, even as they’re also essentially wasted. Brolin gets one of the very few jots of humour in the film as he maintains his familiar tight and stoic grimace even whilst answering Leto’s teasing command to smile with “I am smiling.” Charlotte Rampling is somewhat inevitably cast as Reverend Mother Mohiam, the stern, mysterious, haughty exemplar of the Bene Gesserit creed who nominally works for the Emperor but pushes the Bene Gesserit agenda at all times. Liet Kynes, the Imperial ecologist assigned to study Arrakis turned covert renegade and a male in the book, has here been turned into a woman for some reason or another, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster taking the role. Javier Bardem turns up for two scenes to mumble impressively as Stilgar, a leader of the so-called Fremen, the original human colonists of Arrakis who long since adapted to life on the planet and consider themselves its true custodians, but have since suffered from persecution at the hands of the Imperial and Harkonnen enforcers.

Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth peel away much of the story superstructure in digging down to the fundamental melodrama that forms the spine of the plot, which, he’s decided, is the fate of the key Atreides themselves – Leto, Jessica, and Paul, with interpersonal exchanges between the three trying for a mix of familial affection and pained gravitas, and the tragedy that presages the rise of the young scion on the path to revenge and mystical transformation. There’s an early scene in the novel, dutifully recreated in all versions, which provides a galvanising moment in the narrative, when Paul is visited by Mohiam, who insists on testing his mettle for at that point obscure reasons. She forces him to stick his hand into a box that induces terrible pain, challenging him to withstand the pain or be killed with a poisoned needle pressed to his throat, in a rite of passage designed to distinguish if he’s a true human, infinitely capable of patience and resistance, or a mere “animal,” slave to impulse and reaction. It’s a scene that, I expect, most genuinely hooks the attention of about-to-be fans, as it not only presents a thrilling situation, but also encapsulates much of how Herbert’s writing and storytelling works – the lengthy, ritualistic confrontation of strong personalities, the suspense based in the problem of a surviving a situation when hemmed in by potential checkmates of lethal capacity where cast-iron willpower must be met with the same, and the unsettling description of a teenage boy being forced to endure perfect agony without flinching as a preparation for life in a world without safe and comforting moral boundaries.

Villeneuve handles the scene as well as Lynch did, in the contrast between Chalamet’s open-faced youthfulness and Mohiam’s veil-clad and forbidding embodiment of all that’s powerfully arcane and dismissive of weakness, particularly with the added touch of Jessica able to maintain sympathy with her son from outside the room and experiencing what he experiences, reciting the famous mantra against fear. Villeneuve and his screenwriting team seem to be trying to take a leaf from The Godfather’s (1972) example in trying to communicate the relationships between the central family characters whilst they seem to mostly discuss business, as in another early scene where Paul and his father discuss the looming challenge before them whilst walking between grave markers of their ancestors on the grey and watery world of Caladan that has long been their home and fiefdom. The trouble is despite this approach I never really felt convinced by their family dynamics. Isaac and Ferguson are strong actors and are undoubtedly the right age, but it still feels a little odd seeing them cast as the grizzled patriarch and weirdly hot mother who has a perturbing dynamic with her on-screen son. It doesn’t help that Isaac and Ferguson are both forced to quell their natural charisma to fit into Villeneuve’s pinched, po-faced dramatic style. Villeneuve’s essential approach is one of characters muttering earnestly at one-another in dimly-lit spaces.

What’s surprising about Villeneuve’s Dune is that despite being given a nominal wealth of space to tell the story, it doesn’t really know what to do with it. Despite the simplifications, the script essentially settles for being an exposition machine, with very few flashes of effective and engaging interpersonal detail, like Paul being teased by Gurney whilst being welcomed for the first time into one of the House strategy meetings. It’s the sort of movie that makes you long for the day when a director would spice up an epic with a few dancing girls or something. Villeneuve takes almost exactly as long as Lynch did in telling the story from beginning to the point where Leto finds Fremen housekeeper Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) dying, signalling the start of the Harkonnen attack, and then spends the majority of the next hour and twenty minutes of running time on a listless succession of chase scenes Lynch was more effective in compressing. As a fan of the book I’m in a dichotomous position in this regard. Familiarity helps me keep up and indeed a step ahead of everything so I don’t need to expend the mental energy it will undoubtedly cost a newcomer to the material. But it also makes me susceptible to possible boredom when I simply see things being checked off rather than being truly, creatively explored. Unfortunately, that’s what I began to feel watching Villeneuve’s Dune.

The Quebecois Villeneuve emerged as a feature filmmaker with 1998’s August 32nd On Earth, a debut that immediately gained him notice as a talent screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and his French-language follow-ups, Maelstrom (2000), Polytechnique (2009), and Incendies (2010), were all acclaimed and award-garnered, with the middle film stirring some disquiet in portraying an shooting spree at the University of Montreal in 1989. Villeneuve then went Hollywood with the would-be thoughtful, moody thriller Prisoners (2013), sparking a swift rise up the Hollywood totem pole as he followed with the paranoia study Enemy (2013), the drug war drama Sicario (2015), and sci-fi tales Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I haven’t seen Villeneuve’s French-language films: if I had I might have a different perspective on his later stabs at mating art movie postures with popular storytelling. As far as they go, I find Villeneuve a largely insufferable filmmaker. But he’s one who certainly seems to be finding a particular niche in current mainstream cinema discourse similar to those held in the recent past by David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, in that his particular approach seems to impress some and dismay others through a carefully filtered aesthetic sensibility aiming to deliver chic spectacle.

Villeneuve’s mainstream works to date have been defined by this smothering aesthetic matched to storylines that are generally far less deep and intensive than the stylistic cues insist they are. Those cues, including a relentlessly drab colour palette and droning, booming music scores, seem to me hallmarks of a particular brand of modern quasi-seriousness even when, upon close inspection, there’s little substance to back them up in Villeneuve’s films. I still cringe when I remember how the plot of Arrival was explained by a randomly info-dumping Chinese general to the time-unmoored heroine, or Sicario affected to be a grim investigation of the drug war only to become a ridiculous revenge drama, and Prisoners waded through highly unsubtle character signposting and emblazoned themes even whilst affecting a glaze of knit-browed profundity. Like Blade Runner 2049, Dune sees Villeneuve being relatively restrained, but there’s still something relentlessly pummelling and joyless about his filmmaking to me. Dune has been sucked dry of all its exotic strangeness and dynamism, all its semi-surreal, florid liveliness, with a kind of dry, pseud efficiency in its place. “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” Chani (Zendaya), Kynes’ daughter and a Fremen warrior, is heard in voiceover at the very outset. This immediately evinces an attempt by the filmmakers to combine exposition and low-key genre poetry, a method that continues throughout. But the unconvincing clumsiness of the line, the lack of actual, proper expressive language and specificity apparent in it, also neatly demonstrate how this method fails.

Rather than the artists who provided beloved illustrations and cover art for the books, like Bruce Pennington and John Schoenherr, Villeneuve moves to take inspiration from more European styles in sci-fi illustration, with a particular emulation of the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Girard in the oddball costuming and weirdly-shaped spaceships, designs which, as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) which had actual Moebius design work proved, just don’t work very well off the page. But that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s in the specifics that Villeneuve really falls down. The actual uses of the spice and way the substance informs the entire social, political, and economic structure of Herbert’s universe are more or less dismissed in a couple of pithy lines of dialogue, and so we’ve subtly but firmly shifted from any attempt to convey the depth of Herbert’s text in favour of simply delivering its most basic story points. Sometimes this can be a wise move – Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked in large part because whilst it happily included much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s esoterica, it knew how to impart it in a fashion that wove around rather than interrupted the central story. The trouble is Dune doesn’t work in the same way. Tolkien deliberately structured his stories so you didn’t have to worry about the quasi-angelic background of the many magical figures including Sauron, Gandalf, and Balrog, even if to understand all that does make things more explicable: nonetheless we intrinsically grasp their function. Similarly, in Dune, it’s possible to approach it without thinking too much about the larger structure and historical meaning of organisations like the Bene Gesserit and the guild of mutated Navigators who need the spice to fuel their precognitive ability to steer colossal spaceships.

But – and this is a large but – to not understand those things means to miss what’s important and interesting about Dune as a mythos and as a work of speculative fiction. If you haven’t read the books you’ll have no idea from this movie about the Navigators; whilst the function and method of the Mentats are depicted through Thufir, just exactly what they are and why they exist is likewise impossible to properly deduce, nor why the flying machines and spacecraft are conspicuously missing guidance computers. Anyone who’s read the book knows about the Butlerian Jihad, which saw all robots and artificial intelligences destroyed and forbidden in the universe, and obliging human beings to stretch their abilities to limits unthought-of in our current time, most of it allowed by the spice. Herbert’s real fascination was with human intelligence and physical development as our vehicle, for which our machines are mere externalised devices. I didn’t sense any real intellectual curiosity in Villeneuve’s Dune, nor desire to put across Herbert’s world beyond what’s strictly necessary to the plot. In Villeneuve’s vision, the spice is reduced from a substance of vast, fantastical conceptual importance to the mere, tinny metaphor for fossil fuel it started as, combined with a kind of light hallucinogen. Villeneuve’s renderings of Paul’s visions are the most banal imaginable, consisting of lots of adolescent yearning glimpses of Chani, swanning about in flowing garb, and occasional glimpses of tussling warriors.

This tendency, to mine the prosaic from the visionary, is an awfully common failing of a lot of recent genre film and television in the contemporary obsession with grounding and pseudo-realism. With Villeneuve it’s particularly acute, having already taken Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and tapped it for straightforward plotting and self-consciously obvious thematics, reducing the original’s unique dreamlike palette and narrative density to just another plodding blend of action movie and TV commercial-like sentimentality in its odes to human qualities. Similarly, there’s a monotony to the acting and dramatic beats here. The introduction of the Harkonnens themselves, including the bulbous, infinitely malevolent Baron Harkonnen himself (Stellan Skarsgard), his henchman Raban (Dave Bautista), and Mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), takes the mumbling-in-dark-rooms aesthetic to a logical conclusion: the entire world of the Harkonnens seems to have a lighting problem. The obvious, cliché casting of Skarsgard, swathed in a fat suit, is matched by the equal, exhausting obviousness of the nods to Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now (1979), as Skarsgard strokes his greasy bald pate with monstrous meditation.

The portrayal of the Harkonnens in Lynch’s film has long seemed to me the biggest problem with that work, in trying to graft Lynch’s penchant for leering id-beasts and wild, bristling bullies onto Herbert’s material with its hypnotic fascination with intellectual evil and total amorality. And yet I found myself longing for the vividness of Kenneth McMillan’s Harkonnen and his outsized delight in obscene behaviour, compared to this drab substitution, and Lynch’s most gleefully appalling touches, like giving a poisoning victim a surgically stitched-together cat and rat to milk for an antidote daily, or Raban crushing a small animal and drinking its bodily fluids like orange juice. The closest Villeneuve gets to such twisted flavour is a brief glimpse of some genetic chimera, part humanoid, part spider that his Harkonnens keep as a pet. Yueh was played with some force by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s film, and his pathos as a man who betrays himself and his friends for the sake of one, desperate tilt at a more personal revenge was allowed to register as he screamed at Harkonnen after being stabbed in the back for his aid, “You think I don’t know what I’ve done? For my wife?” By comparison, Cheng’s Yueh is bland and blasé even as he dies, his motive not suggested until just before he’s killed, one of the many tributaries of potential melodramatic juice reduced to mere plot function in the face of the impassive-grandiose style. There is, that said, a good touch when Harkonnen has Leto prisoner thanks to Yueh’s machinations: Villeneuve has the Duke stripped naked and laid prone before his enemy, a potent little encapsulation of his sudden vulnerability before a truly evil foe. But Lynch’s crazy, disturbing imagination imbued his Dune with something by and large missing from this one. Which is one reason I’ve long felt that Lynch’s Dune is not a perfect adaptation but is perfectly itself, wielding a specificity and, most importantly, a fearlessness of creative passion almost entirely missing from contemporary big-budget cinema.

Not that I want to get bogged down in simply comparing Lynch and Villeneuve’s versions. Villeneuve goes for an aesthetic, full of monumental forms and a kind of medieval minimalism in décor and design, that’s quite different to the tangled Gothicism, Austro-Hungarian martial dress, and madcap Rococo dominant in Lynch’s film, and it’s a look that struck me as more appropriate to the material. And yet Villeneuve’s style of shooting too often has the hyper-sharp, gritty-glossy look of high-end video game cutscenes, particularly in the special effects sequences, although there’s still some genuine awe stoked by visions like the Atreides fleet being disgorged by one of the colossal “heighliner” space transport vessels. His vision of Caladan makes it look like a drizzly patch of New Brunswick – understandable perhaps for Villeneuve – rather than a watery world where the primal power of the ocean matches and opposes the similar power of Arrakis. Villeneuve swaps out a blue filter for Caladan for a grey-brown one on Arrakis, and he makes the desert planet relentlessly dingy and colourless. Villeneuve’s approach has drawn a lot of comparison to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but I can’t see why. David Lean (who was apparently approached to direct the first version at one point, whilst Herbert himself took strong inspiration from T.E. Lawrence’s story) knew how to convey the scale of the desert as well as its physical extremes through his approach to light, framing, and colour – the more brilliantly blue the skies the more relentless the sense of sun beating down, of exposure and dire physical straits. Villeneuve makes all of his shots colourless, his skies filled with omnipresent dust, and his desert looks, well, rather tepid.

One telling disparity in Villeneuve’s take on Blade Runner was where Scott’s street scenes were teeming with life carefully conveyed not just through hiring extras and costuming them but with the camera’s sense of how to pick up that life, Villeneuve’s felt stodgy and depopulated. There’s a similar lack of any real energy and sense of lifestyle in his approach here. Here everyone seems afraid to raise their voices too high or gesticulate too much lest they disturb the carefully composed symmetry of the shots. There’s genuine visual ingenuity sometimes, that said. Herbert’s cleverest touches, like the ban on nuclear weapons and the personalised force-fields that have returned warfare back to a matter of who’s best at hand-to-hand combat rather than one of projectile weapons, helped at once to give a clever legitimacy to the old-school space opera’s Wagner-in-space sensibility, whilst also feeling coherent and well-thought-through in terms of its imagined future’s construction, where the path to victory for both villains and heroes means threading a path through seemingly impregnable bulwarks of technology and behaviour. The visualisation of the fights between force-field-wearing warriors are good, but only when dealing with one-on-one fights. The big, tragic combat between the invading Harkonnens and Atreides host is oddly curtailed and lacking much dynamism in staging, the sort of moment that really makes you wish some ebullient meathead like Zack Snyder or Neil Marshall was directing rather than a hyperfussy aesthete. Herbert’s ornithopters, the usual mode of flight on Arrakis, long seemed one of those ideas easy to imagine and write but just about impossible to effectively film, are realised nonetheless with true visual élan, with Villeneuve’s take offering helicopters with side-mounted blade that beat like dragonfly-like wings. There are some truly beautiful images scattered throughout, testifying to the cinematographer Greig Fraser’s masterful talents, including the striking prologue depicting Fremen resistance against the Harkonnen spice miners during a sandstorm.

And of course there’s the sandworms, the massive beasts that infest the sands of Arrakis and provide an omnipresent threat, as well as a potential source of power, and are connected to the spice. Villeneuve handles the first scene involving a worm well, in part because it’s a strong suspense situation: Leto and his team, being flown over the desert by Kynes, spot a worm advancing on a manned spice harvesting machine and race to save the crew before the unimaginably large creature swallows the harvester up. Modern special effects are more than equal to the task of realising the worms, and there’s a nice tightening of the suspense as Paul is abruptly distracted during the rescue as he breathes in the unrefined spice and is plunged into a visionary state, demanding Gurney fetch him, the two almost getting caught in the liquefying sands caused by the worm’s approach. After this, however, in the subsequent appearance by the worms as one swallows up a team of Imperial “Sardaukar” troops after they’ve executed Kynes in the desert, and another chases after Paul and Jessica, the worms rapidly become familiar and prove a bit dull-looking: whilst obviously better-realised in a technical sense, they never register as effectively nightmarish as Carlo Rambaldi’s creations for Lynch did, particularly in the latter pursuit. Villeneuve’s versions have long hair-like teeth and perfectly round mouths and crinkly, puckered skin that make them look a bit, well, anal, particularly in a very misjudged shot when one pauses it attack and sits centre-frame. Not that this represents some lurch towards Freudian imagery. If Lynch arguably went overboard in trying to tease out the surrealist imagery and dream symbolism inherent in Herbert’s material, Villeneuve’s edition strains in the opposite direction to make everything clean and hard-edged, plunging Herbert back into the regulation techno-fascist style he broke with.

Momoa’s presence, with his innate muscular swagger and obliquely twisting grin, gives the film a thankful jolt of matinee heroism that’s also appropriate for the character, who, as his name suggests, is offered as a kind of holdover of an ancient kind of frontier grit – one reason Herbert kept reviving Duncan over and over in the books. Villeneuve gives him an appropriately spectacular end, something Lynch fumbled rather badly, as he fights a unit of the Sardaukar hunting Paul and Jessica after the Atreides’ downfall, still managing to battle on even after being skewered with a blade. Momoa’s presence is particularly vital as he offsets Chalamet. Chalamet is definitely a current It Boy on the cinema scene with his anime-drawing-of-a-young-man looks, and he’s an actor with great potential – he did, for instance, an excellent job as the compulsory stand-in for the director of A Rainy Day In New York (2020). The film tosses in a ribbing joke about his lack of muscular manhood, but it doesn’t quite cover up the fact that he feels wrong in the role, whereas Kyle MacLachlan, whatever else you can say about him, expertly negotiated the shift from eager teenager to fearsome messiah: here Chalamet kept reminding me a little too keenly of his character in Lady Bird (2018) as a gangly brat who read a Marxist text once, here with a few added taekwondo lessons. One problem is that Villeneuve’s relentless approach to the style means the only moment where Paul feels at all boyish is when he first meets Duncan on screen, displaying a smile reserved for a kind of older brother or alternative father hero figure. Later in the film when he’s called upon to display emerging grit and gravitas he falls totally flat.

A more obvious problem with Dune: Part One is there in the title. We don’t get a complete story here, and the point where Villeneuve and company choose to leave off is at once fairly natural but also tormenting only in being anticlimactic. Villeneuve ends not on a cliffhanger but at a relatively lackadaisical story juncture, as Paul and Jessica are accepted into the Fremen fold after Paul finally meets Chani, and he is obliged to kill a Fremen, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), when the offended and xenophobic warrior challenges him to a duel, a fight that establishes Paul really does have a deadly streak as well as training. This provides a solid fight scene that nonetheless caps off the multimillion dollar blockbuster about some kind of war in the stars with a knife fight. “This is only the beginning,” Chani says in a trailer-ready line, whilst looking and sounding just like a sophomore at a SoCal performing arts school. The time Dune: Part One spent on the shelf awaiting post-COVID release is telling as Zendaya still looks rather young and pouchy-cheeked, with no sign of the impressive maturity she brought to bear in this year’s Malcolm & Marie – not that she’s in the film long enough to make much impression either way. Hans Zimmer matches Villeneuve’s style perfectly in his scoring, alternating drones and ululating songstresses and throbbing-propulsive, drum-thumping cues in a succession of current scoring clichés. Zimmer’s scores are inseparable from the contemporary blockbuster scene, and more specifically from the way movies are sold now: Zimmer’s work maintains a perfect synergy with the art of modern movie trailers, and in effect his work essentially does advertising for the movie within itself, refusing any kind of lyrical invitation in an imaginative universe but instead twisting the viewer’s wrist to find it all grand and darkly thrilling.

Herbert nodded to the early history of science fiction with Dune, with quite a bit of Flash Gordon and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars tales in its makeup as well as more sophisticated concerns and investigation of mythopoeic patterns. So to a certain extent it’s fair enough that the movie emphasises this aspect, even if it doesn’t do it all that well. But Herbert deconstructed that kind of old-fashioned adventure tale at the same time, commenting on what’s often seen as the quasi-imperialist assumptions of stories where outsiders, usually white and western, become leaders of far-flung populaces, whilst his narrative both mimicked and commented upon the power of messianic mythology, uncovering links with twentieth century totalitarian movements. Herbert kept in mind things like the way Moses’ emergence as prophet and nation leader led directly to a war of extermination after the wanderings in the desert waged upon occupants of the Promised Land, and saw the way such narratives are pitched as self-justifying for aggrieved nations. He also had an evident fascination for Arabic legend and culture, appropriate considering the story’s basis in the current reality of the oil boom in the Middle East, but also tackled in a complicating fashion: Herbert’s future is a great melting pot of all past human culture and identity, where religions, creeds, and races have long since all formed into a melange as rich as the spice. The Fremen are hardly supposed to be mere stand-ins for Arabic peoples, but a society that’s retained and transmitted a classical culture as appropriate to their lifestyle. This is, after all, once again supposed to be science fiction. Villeneuve’s choice nonetheless is to hammer home the relevance and the more stolid side of the fantasy by emphasising the Fremen culture as quasi-Arabic, which manages at once to be more of a sop to emphasising contemporary parable but also more retrograde and confused in the contained politics.

As for Paul’s dread of the potential of unleashing a genocidal holy war, Villeneuve signals, at least, unlike Lynch who avoided and indeed entirely contradicted it, that he plans to deal with this consequence, but still only has Paul very quickly mutter some malarkey about holy war along with some flash-cut visions of a bloody hand. Lynch’s theatrical cut was forced to compress the second half of the novel in extremely ungainly fashion, so in this regard Villeneuve has left himself plenty of room to deal with the oncoming deluge of fresh weirdness, including Paul’s self-inflicted visionary trip to emerge as Kwisatz Haderach, the arrival of his sister Alia, the bloodthirsty adult in a child’s body, and the great battle for control of Arrakis and the Empire, as well as the bleak side to Paul’s ascension. And yet I’m also forced to ponder how Villeneuve will drain these of their perverted fervour. The ultimate impression Dune: Part One left me with was of something utilitarian, a work that seems to have finally managed, judging by the box office and general reception, the task of successfully selling Herbert’s creation to a broad audience, and indeed it’s worth celebrating insofar as it finally revives hope for franchise blockbusters more ambitious and mature than superhero movies. But the price paid for this is pyrrhic, as too much of what made Herbert’s work lasting and interesting has been sacrificed, and what’s left in its place is occasionally striking but essentially inert. Moreover, it forces me to say something I never, ever expected to say: Lynch’s version remains the superior.

Standard
2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

.

SW9-TROS01

Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriters: J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio

By Roderick Heath

And so it ends. Again. For the third…oh look, forget it.

The revived Star Wars series got rolling in 2015 with overwhelming hype and predisposed affection from an eager audience, as the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm team and its hired gun directors promised to restore the original trilogy’s legacy through a blend of straightforward cavalier fun and new-fashioned cinema showmanship following the ambitious but often-derided prequel trilogy. J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a colossal hit and Rogue One (2016) seemed to successfully augur in a strand of one-off stories. But within the space of four years, much of that goodwill was squandered. The heated, sometimes ugly contest unleashed online by partisans over Rian Johnson’s follow-up Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and the flat box office of Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), despite its being the jauntiest and most classical new entry, provoked worries the property might have been over-exploited far too quickly. As vast and rich as the Star Wars universe has proven in reams of expanded-universe literature, the cinematic experience has always been compelled by a singular subject, the fate of the Skywalker family, and its concurrent, elementary mythological motif: the search for a way to battle evil without becoming it. The eagerly anticipating crowd that gathered at midnight with me to watch the closing episode surely announced that despite all missteps, we all still wanted to see how it would all draw to a close.

SW9-TROS02

Abrams was rehired to helm the third instalment after Colin Trevorrow dropped out, and to a certain extent that was fair: whatever problems one had with The Force Awakens, Abrams had clearly laid claim to the new trilogy as his creative template. Johnson’s well-made but intensely frustrating middle episode tried oh so hard to critique and deepen the series and certainly betrayed an individual creative hand with a solid sense of dramatic architecture, but mostly only achieved a form of storytelling self-negation, neglecting some of the more germane ideas The Force Awakens set in play and sabotaging its own ones whilst dithering through some truly half-hearted plotting, whilst again killing off an original trilogy hero in an especially annoying way. On the other hand, it handled the pivotal new relationship between Daisy Ridley’s emerging titan Rey and Adam Driver’s Byronic villain Kylo Ren with a deft sense of strange attraction even in profound conflict. If The Last Jedi felt an awful lot like a Star Wars movie for people who don’t like Star Wars movies, the latest instalment, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, is likely to be just as divisive but along different lines: it’s most definitely one that’s been made in the interests of giving the audience what it supposedly wants. Abrams penned the script with Chris Terrio, with a storyline contributed to by previous creative hands Derek Connolly and Trevorrow. Many cooks, boil a lumpy broth they do.

SW9-TROS03

The often rushed and ungainly outlay of basic plot in The Rise of Skywalker betrays a trilogy forced to play some serious catch-up football in getting its essential narrative priorities oriented again just in time for a big finish. The Last Jedi left ostensible core villain Snoke (Andy Serkis) dead, the notionally powerful and impressive First Order now run by characters who barely seemed able to run a lemonade stand, and the tattered remnants of the Republic-defending Resistance escaping to fight another day with what appeared to be about two-dozen members. The Rise of Skywalker solves the problem of the first two points one fell swoop in its earliest scenes, as Kylo is provoked by a mysterious broadcast apparently sent out by the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), last seen getting shafted at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983): quite literally, he died, but got better. Kylo tracks down one of two totemic markers that can give him the whereabouts of Exogol, the planet that was the ancient seat of the Sith cult, as Kylo intends to properly finish off Palpatine just as he killed Snoke to become the unquestioned leader of the Dark Side’s forces. Instead he learns Palpatine was behind Snoke and the First Order’s creation, and has assembled a colossal fleet of Star Destroyers with new weaponry giving each planet-killing capability, ready to go into action after decades of preparation for resurgence, which Palpatine dubs “the Final Order.”

SW9-TROS04

Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) on the Millennium Falcon on a mission to an ice-crusted asteroid to pick up information collected by a spy in the First Order revealing the newly emergent threat. The heroes manage to escape a battle with TIE fighters and get back to the jungle planet where the Resistance is hiding out. Rey is currently continuing her Jedi training with Leia (Carrie Fisher). Realising they have to find and destroy Palpatine and his fleet before it deploys, Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewie, and stalwart droids C3-PO (Anthony Daniels), BB-8 (Dave Chapman and Brian Herring), and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) set out to track down the other Sith totem. They follow a lead to Passanna, a desert planet where, amongst a local festival, they encounter Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and locate a dagger engraved with information about the marker’s location. C3-PO is programmed not to translate the Sith language, so he has to undergo a mind wipe to do so. This is performed on the planet Kijimi, where Poe also encounters former comrade in disreputable endeavours and old flame Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), who like Boba Fett perpetually wears a mask. Chewbacca is captured by the First Order and the gang stage a daring rescue by boarding Kylo’s Star Destroyer to snatch him back, before heading on to the Endor system and the ruins of the second Death Star, where the totem resides. There Rey has to confront not just Kylo but also the discomforting truth of her true birthright.

SW9-TROS05

To describe The Rise of Skywalker as fast-paced – the above synopsis should give a good idea just how it careens between plot points and locations, and that’s only the first half – could be understatement. The opening scene comes on as such a fat lump of just-add-water exposition, complete with Palpatine conjuring a huge fleet and greatly increased stakes just in time for the big series climax, that it immediately and seriously tests all credulity about just how carefully Disney-Lucasfilm have planned out this series. The Rise of Skywalker makes it even plainer that the production team has tripped over its own enthusiasm in trying to do in four years what took originally George Lucas eight, even not counting early development. The salving aspect is not negligible, however. Abrams’ visual flare, always frustratingly intermittent but sometimes properly arresting, is quickly evinced too. His feel for moody Chthonic imagery and shadowy colossi as explored in the huge, cyclopean reaches of the Sith temple goes some way to restoring the aspect of dreamlike scale and fantastic density to the series after the dull, technocratic look of Rogue One and The Last Jedi.

SW9-TROS06

There’s a brief but striking sequence in which Kylo has his shattered mask restored by an alien artisan, a sequence Abrams shoots with a sense of infernal ceremony in the guttering shades of red and blue and black and working of stygian tools. Like much of the film it’s a bit too vertiginously edited to gain all the graphic force it could have wielded, and yet this sequence give me a thrill, a reach into the same place of arcane ritual as the opening scene of Conan the Barbarian (1982). Abrams also offers one great set-piece, spoiled to a degree in having been excerpted almost in entirety for one of the film’s trailers, as Rey bring down Kylo’s TIE fighter as it charges her across a desert plain, with an astounding display of her now-honed powers. Notably, this scene is also a sidelong tribute to the famous arrival of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Abrams has long embraced the bricoleur aspect of Star Wars albeit usually only in terms of the original films and others from the same era. Here he packs in several nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as well, including the hunt for the Sith dagger and a movement where, like Marion in that film, it seems Chewbacca dies in an explosion only to reveal he was on a different craft. Rather oddly, the Sith dagger which proves to be a kind of map quotes a similar device in Robert Stevenson’s Disney-produced adventure film from the antedeluvian pre-Star Wars era, The Island at the Top of the World (1974), a touch that made me wonder if the screenwriters were paying it a nod of their own or if Disney never entirely neglects a property.

SW9-TROS07

The overstuffed, fleet-to-a-fault aspect of The Rise of Skywalker is a twin-edged blade, likely to aggravate critical opinion, and it occasionaly manages to feel like one of those later Harry Potter movies that were near-incomprehensible unless you’d read the book, despite not having such a basis. I confess to finding it both messy and something of a heartening deliverance not just in terms of this series but also the general tenor of some recent franchise films, like the pseudo-grandiose yet profoundly unimaginative and lethargic Avengers: Endgame. The breathless pace and sense of excitably boyish storytelling here contrasts both its predecessors, which had significant problems negotiating their middle acts and strained to prove all this meant something despite plainly not knowing what. Much of the fan frustration with the various provocations Johnson introduced in his instalment had a trite if not reactionary aspect, but as much again was justifiable because Johnson’s efforts accidentally highlighted a lack of direction overall. Lucas was always deceptively good at alternating tones and dramatic facets in his films in quick succession, something that a lot of the current franchisee cinema he technically birthed often shows no grasp of, tending instead to get lost in lengthy episodes of verbal explanation and theatrical character interaction. The Rise of Skywalker escapes this chiefly by having a lot of stuff do.

SW9-TROS08

There’s now a piling up of eye-catching new characters who don’t get that much to do, like Zorri and Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a warrior lady from a clan of equestrian survivalists on Endor who are all, like Finn, former Stormtroopers turned deserters and rebels. Jannah’s quick-dry gluing to Finn leaves his gal pal Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) looking in turn a bit stranded. More familiar faces don’t get much to do either: Dee Williams, still a Jovian screen presence, doesn’t get anything like the screen time and vital story function his compatriots from the old series had, and even Wedge (Denis Lawson) is dug up only to appear for all of about five seconds, the sort of touch that gives fan service its bad name. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), with her wizened visage and likeably tart tongue, is also now part of the rebel band and just as neglected as ever. Disney’s arrested-development sensibility is plain as it trucks in romantic partners as beards for its heroes only to either kill them off, ignore them, or comically deflate them, as happens between Zorri and Poe at the end. Which does to a certain extent highlight the relative bravery of the perpetually simmering, transgressive passion manifest between Rey and Kylo, or rather Ben, his alter ego. There’s a likeably brusque quality to some of the touches here however, like the casual slaying of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), revealed as the spy in the First Order not for any noble cause but because he wants revenge on Kylo. Hux was always a great annoyance for me in the trilogy as the worst kind of tinpot villain, but at least Abrams sees him off with a jolt of narrative impudence as well as faint shock. His place as snooty fascist boss is taken by Richard E. Grant as General Pryde, who gets to sneer at things aplenty for a few reels until he gets his comeuppance.

SW9-TROS09

I never liked the basic premise and storyline of the new trilogy, too obviously an attempt to recapitulate the original trilogy’s readily marketable strategy with slight tweaks rather than come up with a new template. And yet it’s managed to hold my interest enough, in ways I can’t put entirely down to the Pavlovian power of John Williams’ scoring. Much of the reason to stick with the new trilogy has been for the main characters as inhabited by the key cast members. Boyega’s struggled to keep Finn relevant despite the trilogy’s uncertainty about what use his character is beyond being one character whose natural instinct is to flee a terrifying danger only to learn his heroism like a new language. Whilst Poe has never felt like a role that really needed such a strong actor as Isaac in the part, he feels most vital in this instalment as he tries to find a working equilibrium with Rey, who’s just as fiery and self-assured as he is, whilst also provoking her to live up to her potential. He gets to show off some of Poe’s swagger and romantic streak, even if the film cheats him by sticking him in scenes with a former lover who hides always behind a mask and spurns his advances at the end. Still, Isaac’s roué look of come-hither to her is worth a hundred hours of CGI. At the time of The Force Awakens my first impressions of Driver weren’t agreeable, and yet as he’s proven himself a consistently interesting and unusual type of movie actor, and he’s fleshed out a figure who at first glance seemed an each-way bet, an emo-goth take on Anakin Skywalker with an added dash of Twilight-esque bad boy mystique, with a steady accumulation of gravitas and nuance. He’s proved particularly good at twisting Kylo’s occasional displays of unexpected sympathy into one of his cruellest weapons and the opposite, his most malign acts often seeming to contain as aspect of self-mortification.

SW9-TROS10

Ridley, the ingénue nobody had heard of at the time of The Force Awakens, who showed herself a little green and yet was still very promising in that movie, now inhabits Rey and her intense existence as a creature feeling the sway of powerful feelings and instincts intensified to the point of lunacy by the tides of the Force. The Rise of Skywalker’s plot throws her a perfect curveball as Rey learns the truth of her lineage. Yes, her parents were, as The Last Jedi established, not terribly important in themselves, but her lineage is nonetheless still consequential: her grandfather is Palpatine himself, and she is the heir he’s long sought to transfer his power and the Sith hive mind into. In terms of the wider series mythology, this makes no real sense – Palpatine reproduced?! with a woman?! – and given that it’s jammed in as a revelation in this very busy instalment, it feels a bit like something Abrams and the other writers pulled out of their exhaust ports. But it does serve a strong purpose beyond mere plot in that it gives Ridley a fine opportunity to bring out extremes of her character, the ferocity of her denial of evil in the previous episodes now tinted with strong overtones of self-righteousness and repudiation that can easily turn toxic. Rey struggles with her dark side and feels the temptations to perfectly egotistical power Palpatine has always represented, even glimpsing a vision of herself as a Sith in the evil-infested Darth Star ruins.

SW9-TROS11

Despite this, The Rise of Skywalker confirms something that seemed likely from The Force Awakens onwards: the lack of a driving idea behind the new trilogy. Lucas’ original trilogy, forthright and simple as it was, built itself around Joseph Campbell’s repurposed Jungian ideas in portraying the construction of a hero figure in mythic terms that also served as a metaphor for the path to maturation instantly coherent to its audience of surrogates: one great difficulty in making a sequel to this was that the original series had already portrayed the basic experience of life. The prequel trilogy was dedicated to examining creeping political decay and rising authoritarianism, as well as inverting the hero’s journey into a story of failed character. The Disney-sponsored series finally reveals itself as lacking any true storytelling compass apart from again setting up a gang of heroic pals and a great force of evil to take on. The determination to avoid any hint of the prequels’ holistic conceptualism including the political aspect has resulted in a new trilogy that’s confused about what the political struggle involved represents all the way through. We have somehow both a Republic and a Resistance, a centre of political consensus defended by a scrappy band of outsiders, and an evil enemy that is both insurgent cult and tony tyranny. The piling up of familiar series concepts in the finale has no mighty allegorical idea to convey but simply a need to pay off its many promises and make cool shit rain down.

SW9-TROS12

The closest thing it has gained to a fresh concept lies in Rey and Kylo’s antipathetic bond, one that has perverse, ethereal erotic overtones in uniting the headspace of a man torn by urges and rendered a patricidal bully, and a gutsy, noble heroine, hindered only by a misplaced faith her identity was worth discovering. The Rise of Skywalker hints an interesting new dimension in this regard as the twists of the story see Rey unleashing a dark and hateful side as she learns who she is and Ben Solo eventually winning the battle over Kylo Ren thanks in part to Rey almost killing him in the eye of her nihilism. A good portion of the story here had to be knitted around Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing, solved with digital hocus-pocus reconfiguring some unused scenes from earlier episodes that is at least not as painful as the CGI Peter Cushing in Rogue One but still can’t quite disguise the patching. Fisher’s absence certainly doesn’t aid one aspect of the story, where Rey inherits Leia’s long-unused lightsaber, as Leia can’t be properly around to explore this aspect of herself coherently. At least the episode does give her a solid salutary act as, like Luke, she uses the last of her Force, and life, to reach out to her son and pull him back from the brink of monstrosity, albeit almost costing him his life too.

SW9-TROS13

The excellent lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo offers a notable homage-cum-reversal of the duel at the climax of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Abrams exchanges boiling lava flows for the angry ocean crashing against the rusting remnants of the Death Star to likewise offer a mimetic canvas for the seething emotion and unleashed power of the duellists. This time it comes with a coherent subtext of two cursed inheritors battling amidst the quite literal wreckage of their elders’ deeds and crises, still trying to piece together a sure sense of their identity with the lingering disquiet that perhaps this is one dance that is eternal, perpetually driven on by failure as well as success. This aspect carries authentic gravitas, and it elevates the film considerably, even if it also highlights the way the trilogy failed to develop the theme properly. Some of Abrams’ persistent flaws nonetheless start nudging insistently. He’s strong at isolated pieces of action staging, but has no facility for larger-scale business. As in the stunted finale of The Force Awakens, he has no idea how to convey the climactic battle of the fleets with anything like tactical coherence and spatial relationship, not to mention any note of originality in the conception of such warfare: it’s lots of shots of X-Wings zipping and zapping or getting zapped. The climactic plot stakes, where the whole Final Order fleet is tethered together like a drone force and therefore can be collectively foiled, represents some really half-arsed screenwriting convenience.

SW9-TROS14

More serious problems are caused by attempts to walk back The Last Jedi’s cynical touches. Luke is revealed to have been in hiding partly because of his efforts to track down Exogol. His late appearance as a force phantom, to get Rey back into action after she briefly exiles herself to Aach-To, delivers on withheld promises like the resurgence of his sunken X-Wing, but feels rushed and cheesy. Better is Kylo’s imagined but still vital conversation with his dead father Han Solo (Harrison Ford), which offers a grace note laced with foreboding. Long-time fans are also likely to be annoyed by the Force’s transformation into a general form of magic useful for plugging story gaps, complete with Rey and Kylo able now to take physical objects from each-other even when in different places, and a new capacity for healing that comes out of nowhere, first displayed when Rey heals a giant, wounded sandworm and then more consequentially when she saves Kylo. Meanwhile Palpatine suddenly has power enough to fry whole space fleets in the sky. The Force was always a fantastical idea, a breath of the mystical in an otherwise, oppressively technological universe, but this stuff seems to violate all its essentials, only partly excused by the supposedly rare nature of the young antagonists’ bond and the power it produces. Star Wars was a major influence on Harry Potter but in the past couple of movies the traffic has definitely reversed. Seemingly important story pivots, like C3-PO accepting his imminent loss of memory and identity, are introduced and then just as quickly reversed. Granted, enough old series characters had died, but it still feel redolent of cold feet.

SW9-TROS15

The Rise of Skywalker is a much less stately and self-composed effort than either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, which is also why, I suspect, I generally enjoyed it much more even whilst cringing at some of the visible seams and in spite of all the evident problems. It’s messy and regressive, but also proudly and inescapably a genuine, true-hearted hunk of pulp sci-fi fun, unconcerned with checking its own cool or critical cachet anymore and just trying to deliver a rollicking good time. It’s not weighed down by attempts to say something profound about fandom and nostalgia but getting on with delivering a good ride. That’s not necessarily a positive thing, but I also can’t really pretend it’s letting down what’s come before, which suffered from uncertainty about how to give and when; ironically, in giving sway to its scruffiest reasons for existing, The Rise of Skywalker manages to feel less calculated and constricted, and more like an act of happy, gormless conspiracy with other fans. I can’t pose much critical reasoning on this beyond simply having wanted and been delivered a pretty good time. But the best scenes here are good indeed; the only trouble is the film around insists on doubling everything up. The audience I saw it with seemed to have few scruples. They released a great groan of shock when Rey’s lineage was revealed, and a gasp of genuine surprise when the Lando-led fleet of allies finally arrived, the sheer scale of the image actually managing to impress even amidst the dulled palates of CGI-age cinema. Such virtually preternatural communal reactions feel more precious than ever on the contemporary movie scene.

SW9-TROS16

The finale comes on with such dizzy, daft gusto that it’s hard not to have such reactions, even with such ridiculous notions as Finn, Jannah and others riding alien steeds along the hull of a Star Destroyer, and twists like Kylo managing to fight his way through Palpatine’s guards only for him and Rey to present a perfect regenerative energy source for Palpatine, restoring him to, if not exactly health, then to his old, familiar creepiness. And indeed, precisely because of them. McDiarmid, who did an excellent job shading cunning and manipulative operator into pantomime villain in the prequels, here just has to leer and croak in the old style, and it’s an act he still does well. Palpatine sets up a new version of a familiar double bind for Rey as the act of killing him would transform her into the new Sith, a bind she’s able to get around as she feels her psychic real estate already filled up by generations of Jedi, and she uses her lightsaber to turn his energy bolts back at him, reducing him to dust. The effort kills her, so Kylo revives her by drawing on his own healing power; when the pair finally kissed, the audience I saw it with burst into applause only for it to die off as Kylo dies himself, having used all his life-force to restore her. I love that Abrams reaches for a note of weird and lawless liebestod here, something that might have lifted the new trilogy into an extraordinary place if it had been more compelling in terms of the whole series arc, but it just doesn’t land with the right force.

SW9-TROS17

Instead Rey is restored to her friends, and she, Finn, and Poe embrace in a way that confirms here the faith is less in the world-reshaping power of passion, a la the surrealists, than the warmth of a superfriends hug. The very ending again revolves the series back to its starting point, with Rey burying Luke and Leia’s lightsabers at Luke’s old home on Tattooine. She claims the name Skywalker as her own, now as it ever was an appended declaration of ambition for quixotic orphans, and she confronts the setting twin suns. It’s the fitting, even compulsory place to leave the saga, paying deep homage to its most fundamental image of dreamy wondering from the original that was also revisited at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But even this comes with a cost, as Rey also beholds Luke and Leia in their force forms, looking like something painted on a Franklin Mint collectible plate. Right to the end, The Rise of Skywalker sways between the sublime and the ridiculous, the earned and the gauche. Perhaps the fact that I felt little conflict this time was a symptom of having abandoned a certain aspect of my trust in the series, the feeling that I was watching Star Wars and expecting certain things from it rather than just another entertaining blockbuster. Certainly I felt more justified than ever in championing the prequels, and yet this also allowed me to simply enjoy what I was seeing. Finally it might be said that Williams, in bringing his great labour and perhaps his career to a close, imbues the unity that’s otherwise been lacking purely through the lustre of his scoring. How many dreams has his music fostered?

Standard
2010s, Action-Adventure, Epic, Scifi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

.
SW-TLJ1
.
Director/Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

By Roderick Heath

Although primed as the eagerly awaited follow-up to a hugely successful blockbuster and instant pop culture fixture, Star Wars: The Last Jedi had a daunting job of work ahead of it. If J.J. Abrams’ franchise-reviver The Force Awakens (2015) proved as tepid as often as tantalising in its effort to give fresh impetus to George Lucas’ canonical science-fantasy series, it did at least manage the task of introducing a new, appealing selection of heroes, and set them up as focal points for a grandiose cosmic drama, conveyed in lovingly produced and crafted cinema. But these exciting qualities weren’t particularly well-served by a new plotline that seemed determined to scrub the series blueprint down to its most simplistic outlines, and recycle familiar and comfortable looks and sounds from Lucas’ first trilogy without bringing any fresh ideas or conceptual zest to the table.
.
StarWarsLastJedi02
.
New helmsman Rian Johnson took on the challenge of dragging this new trilogy, laden with expectation and the inertia of franchise property protection, into richer, more novel, more genuinely epic territory. Johnson, a very talented filmmaker, turned heads with his 2005 gambit Brick, a film with the memorable conceit of having high schoolers play the protagonists of a noir film, a unique way of mediating the thrilling intensity and melancholy of teenage life. His second two films, The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Looper (2012), were entertaining but flawed attempts to expand his palette, radically different in tone and style but linked by efforts to blend his love of bygone ephemera and old movies with authentic efforts to tap the wellspring of emotions they stir in him, and his delight in telling tales of labyrinthine cunning. His best work post-debut was actually on several episodes of the TV series Breaking Bad, including “Fly,” a memorable instalment regarding its antiheroes’ efforts to catch a dogging fly in their underground meth lab, provoking all their festering anxieties to hatch out, as well as the pivotal episode “Ozymandias” where their lives actually fell to ruins. The Last Jedi actually takes on themes similar to those episodes, as it puts the Star Wars characters old and new in a pressure cooker and slowly but surely forces them to make choices regarding their lives, their beliefs, their loyalties, whilst their world topples.
.
StarWarsLastJedi03
.
In the wake of the briefly operational but catastrophically effective Starkiller’s destruction, the pulverised remnants of the restored Republic government and their Resistance warriors are forced to flee base after base, pursued by the First Order, the ruthless renascent offspring of the old Imperial forces led by the malformed but immensely powerful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Famed Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a determined attack on a formidable First Order warship of a “Dreadnought” class, sporting giant energy weapons, to give time for Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the rest of the Resistance leaders to flee. Poe ignores Leia’s commands to abort the mission, and instead calls in a flight of heavy bombers to pound the Dreadnought until the determined, self-annihilating efforts of one bomber pilot, Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), succeeds in destroying the craft. Poe is put on the carpet and demoted for wasting too many good fighters and ships by Leia, and the Resistance fleet eventually finds itself crawling through deep space with the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), in close pursuit.
.
StarWarsLastJedi04
.
Desperate to come up with a way to get the First Order off their tail, Poe and pal Finn (John Boyega), who’s just awoken after spending months in care having terrible wounds repaired, team up with Paige’s low-ranked, hero-worshipping sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who has a brainwave about the method the First Order is using to track them, and decides they need to sneak aboard their command ship and shut it down. Together, Finn and Rose take a fast, small ship to a nearby planet, Canto Bight, a playground for the super-rich, to find a codebreaker who might be able to penetrate First Order security recommended to them by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). Thrown into prison for a parking violation before they can make contact, they encounter in their cell the scruffy, nefarious DJ (Benecio Del Toro). DJ casually breaks them all out of their cell to demonstrate his own talents at subverting authority, and soon they form a pact and flee the planet after raising some hell. Meanwhile, budding Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave his hermit existence in a remote Jedi temple on a lonely island and return to breathe new hope into the Resistance cause. But Luke is filled with regret and self-recrimination after his failure to revive the Jedi order and loss of young Ben Solo to Snoke’s influence and the mantle of his assumed evil guise as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey finds herself dogged by unexpected moments of psychic connection with Kylo, whose conflicts after killing his father Han seem to be boiling over.
.
StarWarsLastJedi05
.
If the most interesting subtext of The Force Awakens was its “tell me a story, grandpa” angle in contemplating chains of storytelling and their personal meaning, be it old war stories in the context of the on-screen drama and in meta terms the movies and other artworks you loved as a kid, The Last Jedi makes it clear that ardour for things wrapped in the comforting lustre of legend and period glamour must yield to a new and often dismaying reality. So Johnson commences with a mischievous assault on Abrams’ nostalgia, as he returns to the momentous final gesture of the first film, with Rey holding out to Luke his old lightsaber, that technocratic Excalibur: Luke takes the weapon, gives it a cursory look, and then tosses it over his shoulder in contempt. This is a great moment that signals Johnson’s theme, worked on several levels in the movie that follows, that his characters and their hopes can no longer be sustained by stale myths and old paradigms, and must jettison all that baggage to start again from scratch, to cleanse their temples and reinvent their institutions. It’s an intelligent and appropriate and, dare I say it, timely theme. It’s also, unmistakeably, a message aimed at the franchise itself. If Lucas’s prequels chased the ye-olde-timey ring of courtly sagas and his original trilogy evoked ‘40s screwball spark in their romantic scenes, Johnson’s dialogue and humour style here bring the series to a more definitely current, fashionable style. A joke early in the film sees Poe mock Hux by pretending to have him on hold on a speaker phone.
.
StarWarsLastJedi06
.
This is a funny moment that also signals, a touch annoyingly, that the Star Wars universe is being more exactingly annexed by a certain glib contemporaneity. Star Wars is no longer a legend of dreamtimes past; it’s a wing of modern pop culture founded by the likes of Joss Whedon. I suppose that’s inevitable to a degree, given that Lucas’s shift to set his tales entirely in a pseudo-historical zone with the prequels was the most fascinating and most ruthlessly rejected of his efforts. The opening sequence with the bombing raid is both thunderous spectacle but also rather senseless – the series has long been sustained by the unlikely notion of WW2-style aerial dogfights in space, but Johnson takes that here to a perfectly improbable extreme by reproducing that era’s style of bombing, with bombs dropped straight down with the use of gravity that doesn’t exist in space. On the other hand, the film’s central movement involves the agonisingly slow chase through deep space between the Resistance and First Order fleets, the latter maddeningly unable to catch the former at subspace speeds but only seeming to fend off the inevitable, in a plot motif bizarrely reminiscent of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in imposing clear physical limitations and cold equations upon the spacefaring (there are many yawning plot holes in the story, but I won’t carp on those). After Leia is almost killed in rocket attack on her ship, tensions mount in this agonising situation. As there doesn’t seem to be any way out save his friends’ risky plan, Poe feels provoked to rebel against acting fleet commander Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) when she seems to be intending a dangerous evacuation upon shuttle craft.
.
StarWarsLastJedi07
.
Star Wars has always been a bricoleur’s assemblage, defined by the ingenuity with which it mixed and matched classic film and pulp literary genres and a trove of mythological motifs. Abrams clearly worshipped at the altar of Lucas’ 1977 series foundation, but that seemed to be the limit of his referential frame. Johnson, on the other hand, is the sort of creative hand hip to Lucas’ method, at least to an extent, as Looper spliced incongruous motifs – time travel and psychic powers, gangster and hitman melodramas, old Hollywood and Anime – into an impressive if lumpy chimera. His preferred modes are classic noir and expressionist dramas rather than the swashbucklers, war movies, westerns, and sci-fi flicks Lucas took most inspiration from – screwball comedy is one significant overlap in their lexicon. This new influence is immediately apparent in the scenes on Canto Bight, where the grand casino inhabited by the smug-ugly has a veneer of ritzy glamour that proves instead to be a den of iniquity in a manner reminiscent of something like Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941) or Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). A pivotal incident in the past that caused Luke and Kylo’s break and the destruction of the fledgling Jedi renaissance is seen three times in revised flashbacks, a touch that echoes many a noir film’s sublimation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and Kane and Welles are more clearly echoed in a sequence in which Rey attempts to confront her own nature as a creature of the Force and instead finds herself confronted by an endless hall of mirror selves, threatened like Welles’ antiheroes with mistaking her own ego for the state of the universe.
.
StarWarsLastJedi08
.
Johnson also emphasises the inequality and sleaziness pervading corners of this universe. Lucas’ vision for his future-past was always one of a society with a cynically profiteering sector – witness Han’s travails with Jabba the Hutt and Anakin’s lot as the slave of businessman Watto. Johnson tries to indict the forces at the centre of the Galactic community and their willingness to make money out of war. DJ highlights for Finn and Rose that the fortunes of Canto Bight’s denizens have largely been made selling arms to both the First Order and Resistance. The visit to Canto Bight finds Finn and Rose observing the brutality towards both animals engaged in racing, and the young human thralls used to prop up the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and the plucky Resistance warriors make common cause with both. The sequence in which Rose releases the racing animals is both fun but also a little too Harry Potter-esque for this imprimatur, whilst Johnson’s attempts to work up some of the sort of resurgence-of-the-repressed drama Lucas was so fond of – see THX-1138 (1971); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – manifests in offering up a few waifs straight out of ‘30s Our Gang shorts making gosh-jeez faces. Johnson wants these kids to represent the notion that the Resistance instils hope and the basis for future resurgence, blended once again with the notion of loving this fantastical material as a viewer for its uplifting and dream-stirring cache, and the film’s very ending points directly to this process taking root in the minds of these young people.
.
StarWarsLastJedi09
.
This notion doesn’t land nearly as strongly as Johnson intends it, however. He wants us to feel the illicit rush of this rebellious spirit in his tale and also the daring in his lack of cool. Given that Lucas was flayed alive by the modern cool police by his choice to move entirely into the imaginative realm of kids on The Phantom Menace (1999), Johnson’s efforts feel only crudely calculated and tacked-on in skirting the same territory. Where the film is on surer ground is Rey and Luke’s tetchy, mutually frustrated relationship, which evokes but also revises Luke’s encounters with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Luke is a shambolic, self-exiled husk of his former self, detached from the Force and subsisting with hopes the Jedi way will die with him. Confronted by Rey’s raw natural power, he’s both impressed and terrified, as he’s already seen the same abilities in former pupil Kylo. Rey attempts to prod the Master back to action provoke scorn – “Did you think I was going out to take on the whole First Order with my laser sword?” Luke questions in derision. Hamill, whose performance is often taken as a weak link in the original trilogy, nonetheless matured into an excellent character actor in the course of his spotty career. He’s very good here, better indeed than Harrison Ford’s much-hailed equivalent turn was in The Force Awakens, as he invests his aged and haggard Luke with glimmers of his old, dreamy romanticism even as the damage his life failings have done to him gnaws incessantly at his core being. Of course, the question as to whether Luke will return to the fight isn’t really a question, only how and at what suitably dramatic juncture of the story.
.
StarWarsLastJedi10
.
One sharp failing of The Force Awakens was Abrams’ neglect of coming up with any genuinely inspired new technology or alien species. Johnson is more vigorous with the aliens, particularly on the temple island where Luke takes milk from giant, lolling walrus-like creatures to drink, and the Porgs, a race of small, furry, but relatively aware critters who object with memorably abject horror when Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) proposes to eat one of their fellows. But there’s still a notable failure to do much that’s interesting or properly, dramatically engaged with the new alien characters. Even Chewbacca, who has long stood vitally on the divide between sci-fi grotesque and beloved supporting character, is marginalised here, and his reunion with Luke is a paltry scene. Johnson does offer up one lovely dollop of fan service as Yoda (Frank Oz) appears to Luke when he’s determined to destroy the last of the Jedi’s founding texts. Rather than try to stop him, Yoda brings down a bolt of lightning to do the job for him, and patiently instructs him in the film’s theme, that faith has to be in the living avatars of the creed rather than relics of the past. Kylo, confronting Rey, makes the same point, encouraging to spurn her past and claim the future as her rightful possession.
.
StarWarsLastJedi11
.
This endlessly reiterated message feels as much like a poke in the ribs to cranky old fans like me as a dramatic imperative, and it might have had more impact if the film wasn’t trapped resolutely within the resolutely unimaginative framework Abrams and Lucasfilm-Disney provided. The new series has not just paid attention to all the criticisms aimed at the prequel trilogy but taken them so deeply to heart it’s caused creative rictus, in stripping things back to essentials: although there are little flourishes in the margins here, it’s still basically just an extended chase movie. The First Order, whose resemblance to a Khmer Rouge, Taliban, or Daesh-like force of fanatical opportunism has faded to leave them purely as Empire wannabes, represent the biggest failure in this regard. There’s still no inkling given of their aims, their credos, other than being the Bad Guys. Snoke is the Emperor without Ian McDiarmid’s wit and relish in instilling dimensions of Machiavellian smarts and rancid perversity in his character; Hux and Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) are still just sneering snobs. One quality that distinguished the Star Wars series under Lucas’ hand was the way it steadily evolved, accumulating lore, complexity, and emotional heft, even whilst maintaining an open, light touch for the broadest possible audience. Yes, the original film was a fleet, glib space western, but it laid groundwork quickly and deftly to suggest greater dimensions to everything we saw and felt, and then each of the following five films added something new. But in spite of Johnson’s calls to bring something new to the table and forget the past, he resolutely avoids the hard work of actually doing this.
.
StarWarsLastJedi12
.
Johnson indeed seems plainly impatient with much of the infrastructure he inherited from Abrams and Disney’s focus groups – very early in the film, he has Snoke mock and Kylo destroy the incredibly uninspired mask Kylo wore in The Force Awakens, and the path Johnson’s storyline cleaves through the set-up he was stuck with is similarly dismissive. One great task always facing Johnson was to try and come up with a twist as memorable as Darth Vader’s great reveal in The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson does provide a twist; several in fact, but not only do they not approach the momentousness of the model, they don’t really add up to much, in large part because they eventually cancel each-other out and leave the story precepts pretty much what they were at the outset. Much like Rey in her hall of mirrors, Johnson falls into the trap of merely deflating or offering slight tweaks on familiar moments. The flight to battle in rickety spaceships proves a tragicomic joke. The bad guy who becomes a good guy proves then to still be a bad guy – not once but twice. The pivotal scene here involves Kylo’s assassination of Snoke, a gleefully nasty if not total surprise, and one that concedes Snoke was just a ranting placeholder in the role of ultimate evil. Johnson’s staging of this sequence, and Rey and Kylo’s subsequent battle with Snoke’s bodyguards, is definitely the highpoint of the film, one that seems finally to engage with the sheer swashbuckling verve and operatic swerves of human nature of the series. And yet Johnson quickly undercuts its impact by having Kylo prove to be merely calculating rather than complex, and he ascends to the status of unchallenged bad guy, one who is apparently still enough of a sucker to not notice the difference when someone is projecting themselves on the astral plane.
.
StarWarsLastJedi13
.
The major subplot involving Poe’s clashes with and eventual mutiny against Holdo is another potentially intelligent story thread that doesn’t quite work, particularly as its raises a worthy and legitimate new theme about types of leadership. Poe, used to command and chafing against his reduction, becomes increasingly angry with the taciturn Holdo, and both fail to a certain extent in arguing for their positions. Johnson seems to be pitching here to launch a thousand think pieces on female leadership and male intransigence, which feels in a way a bit treacherous to the series’ comfort with women as leader figures (Leia, Mon Mothma, Padmé Amidala), which means ironically he’s had his talking point theme at the expense of this creative universe’s established, blithe indifference to contemporary gender politics (none of Padmé’s soldiers questioned her commands). Dern also feels rather miscast in the role, too, as it seems to demand someone with thorny hauteur and icy-eyed determination along the lines of Kristin Scott Thomas. That said, Holdo’s climactic act of vengeful self-sacrifice, ramming her space ship into Snoke’s at high speed, shattering the First Order fleet to smithereens, is a great piece of spectacle, made more effective by Johnson’s removal of all sound, simply observing the surge of pulverising energy and splintering metal. Here he really grips the quasi-Biblical scale of action and destruction matched to grandiose human will in the series forebears by the throat. And yet, again, Johnson doesn’t follow through with any clear depiction of the effect this has. Indeed, it has none on the First Order hunt and core villains.
.
StarWarsLastJedi14
.
Ridley and Boyega are still real finds for this series, and both of them display a developing touch in making their roles effective audience stand-ins who nonetheless have properly defined characters. But the way Finn and Poe are handled here makes them feel increasingly like fifth wheels. Finn is proved a dupe who flits about the margins and Poe’s struggles lead him into a position of new authority by the end that feels more accidental than earned. Finn’s final battle with Phasma aboard a disintegrating Star Destroyer is effectively melodramatic, but proves a little scanty. Johnson sets up a romantic triangle of sorts between Finn, Rose, and Rey – or rectangle if one counts Rey’s fleeting if finally extinguished attraction to Kylo. But it’s a long way from the smouldering love-hate of Han and Leia or the guilty, transgressive passion of Anakin and Padmé. Now we’ve got the adorkable pairing of Finn and Rose, which does lead into a gripping sequence in which Rose performs a staggeringly risky manoeuvre to save Finn from his own kamikaze gutsiness, but otherwise feels entirely too cute. Lucas’ characters were archetypes and naïfs, but they were also solid adults who had sex and dashed and dazzled. Everyone in this seems restricted, repressed, stymied. Part of what made The Empire Strikes Back as beloved as it is in spite of its nominally downbeat narrative of calamity and mutilation, was because it was the most authentically dreamlike of the original trilogy. The cavernous spaces and hovering beauty of Cloud City, dragon-riddled asteroids, haunted swamps, and spaceships roaring through twilight skies burned with ardour in authentic fantastical horizons. Nothing here even approaches, at least until the very end when Johnson evokes Lucas’ crucial images of setting suns and dissolution of the flesh, such a state of transcendental beauty.
.
StarWarsLastJedi15
.
Rey was and remains the best new character – I’ve heard many invocations that hold her as the sole real achievement and best reason for loyalty to the new series from fans both casual and hardcore – and The Last Jedi does drag her evolution to interesting new places. She’s the voice of a new and ardent breed who craves leadership and direction, appealing to a crusty old warhorse in the form of Luke in a manner that feels true to a real-world context today where the young have looked to older voices of undiluted radical vision. Rey is also beset by her mysterious bond with Kylo, with glimmers of erotic interest and tactile communion as they try to connect psychically (including Rey being distracted by the sight of Kylo sans shirt, a funny moment that also conveys a blessed note of the erotic, otherwise desperately missing from Disney Star Wars) coexisting with fierce antipathy. The film’s ultimate solution to the raised mystery of her parentage feels like another dodge, as her parents were just wastrels who sold her for coin, and her abilities are purely her own provenance. This is neat on a symbolic level, as it underlines Rey as the embodiment of the new and of re-founding rather than legacy, but it’s also rather, well, lame and anti-climactic. Luke reiterates a belief that the Jedi must end, but what exactly what might take the creed’s place, and what Rey in particularly could bring to it, again isn’t given any thought.
.
StarWarsLastJedi16
.
The Last Jedi does give Fisher a strong last go-round as Leia, who stands alone as a figure of stature and authority for the first time, running the Resistance cause with a sinking heart and guttering fire of determination. Leia gains some appropriately great moments, including one in which she utilises Jedi gifts surprisingly to save herself from a seemingly inevitable death. She also has a funny exchange with Holdo as they both admit their simultaneous irritation with Poe but also common love for his kind of bad boy. A running joke about Rey’s belief that the Force is the ability to make rocks float builds to a punch-line at the end involving her do just that. That’s about it. And this moment crystallised the way Star Wars has been vampirised by those pretending to reinvigorate it. There’s painfully little wonderment or fantastical beauty left in this universe. Johnson’s film looks good in a way, chasing a quality of desolate, dusky beauty, but too often it looks rather too often grey, dusty, and more than a little dolorous. Compared to the astounding opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith (2005) with it monumental, intricately staged, kaleidoscopically colourful space battle, Johnson’s paltry fleets slowly chugging through space are clunky and dully pseudo-realist. Of course, The Last Jedi is supposed to be set in a different, more run-down and wearied age, but that only covers a genuine paucity of real layering and ingenuity in effects and world-building so far.
.
StarWarsLastJedi17
.
The mantle of the Jedi no longer carries with it the scent of green bamboo shoots they inherited from their wu xia and samurai epic models nor the red petals of chivalric romance, and with them goes the very element that elevated Star Wars above its rivals in the modern special effects cinema arms race. And as dynamic as these cinematic inheritors try to be in filling its place, this absence of an elevated plane to the drama, a yearning for higher ideals and the resonance of myth, never mind Lucas’ attempts to encompass his ideas on history and society and the linkages of both to identity, depresses me deeply, as does the refusal to engage in the creative universe beyond the immediate survival drama beyond canards like some of the rich are bad. I might seem to be castigating The Last Jedi more harshly than it perhaps warrants: it’s still easily the best of the three entries (which also includes Gareth Edwards’ mediating one-off Rogue One, 2016) in the reinstituted series. It boasts a handful of powerful sequences, and although it features a finale that goes on a few scenes too long and tries playing the same hand over and over again, and builds to a properly momentous confrontation of Luke and Kylo, it’s only to, once again, reveal itself as a kind of a cheat, failing to deliver Luke to a consummation even close to what he (and the audience) deserves. The universe should shake to its foundations when Luke Skywalker dies. Instead, Johnson merely has him run out of puff. The new series has closed The Last Jedi tells me the series has plateaued in terms of what it can accomplish and how it’s going to do it, and that reasons why I’ve loved this material in the past are slowly but surely being neutered. Where the prequel trilogy has only doggedly and insistently earned my admiration for their achievement over the past decade or so, these new films lay all their cards on the table instantly.

Standard