So, anyway, it was...a Star Wars flick. Things blow up. There are lightsabers. Plot holes big enough to drive a dreadnaught through (after one part of the climactic starship-chase scene my Bride asked "Why did Laura Dern have to stay on the ship? Did I miss something?"). She wasn't okay with my explanation that it was so that Dern's sacrifice could be moving and poetic and tragic. She wanted to know why the hell Laura Dern had to stay on the cruiser? After all, all it was doing was going in one direction, and kinda slowly.
What, it's the Twenty-jillionth Century, they got starships and man-made moons and they don't have cruise control?
Hell, my work truck has fucking cruise control.
But, hey. Star Wars. The tech works around the plot, not the other way around.
Overall it was fun, good popcorn entertainment. There's some genuinely clever bits, like this wonderful exchange within minutes of the opening credits. The scene is set with the Imperials in their big-ass starships facing off against the rebels in their little fighters and light bombers, just like always. But in this case before doing the Trench Run one of the rebel pilots - Poe Dameron, our "Han Solo" scoundrel character - opens hailing frequencies to the Imperial flagship:
Poe Dameron: This is Commander Poe Dameron of the Republic fleet, I have an urgent communique for General Hugs.
General Hux: This is General Hux of the First Order. The Republic is no more. Your fleet are Rebel scum and war criminals. Tell your precious princess there will be no terms, there will be no surrender...
Poe Dameron: Hi, I'm holding for General Hux.
General Hux: This is Hux. You and your friends are doomed. We will wipe your filth from the galaxy.
Poe Dameron: Okay. I'll hold.
Poe Dameron: Hello? Yup, I'm still here.
General Hux: (to his flag captain) Can he hear me?
Poe Dameron: Hux?
Captain Canady: He can.
Poe Dameron: With an 'H'? Skinny guy. Kinda pasty.
General Hux: I can hear you. Can you hear me?
Poe Dameron: Look, I can't hold forever. If you reach him, tell him Leia has an urgent message for him...
Captain Canady: I believe he's...tooling with you, sir.
Poe Dameron: ...about his mother.
That's perfect. That's the sort of thing a fighter jock who's a bit of a dick and scared shitless would come up with to take his mind off the fact that in about thirty seconds he's going to do a Trench Run suicide mission.
It's Star Wars, so, yeah, he does, and things blow up, and improbably he gets away with it. But somebody on the screenplay team thought a little about the situation and came up with a nifty little piece of dialogue to make a point about it, and it tickled the hell out of me.
Here's the thing about this post, though; it's really not about The Last Jedi, but a bit of Lucas' universe that came out earlier this year; Rogue One.
Because a fair piece of what I really enjoyed about the latest outing started there.
The Last Jedi continued the exploration begun in Rogue One, that of the idea of the "force religion" as, well, an actual religion.
Peter Cushing as Moff Tarkin tells Vader: "You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion."
But after that, well...there's not a lot of "religion". The Force, as we see it in the original and the next six flicks seems to be just an excuse for magic tricks, and for Frank Oz and Alec Guiness to get all sententious and aphoristic. There's an occasional detour into what it is - some sort of universal connector, a sort of Internet for the universe only with less porn (one supposes, probably erroneously) - and some sort of vague connection between clearing one's mind and having psychokinetic powers. But it's not really a "religion". Not to Vader, and not really to anyone else in the first bunch of flicks.
Until Rogue One and Chirrut Îmwe.
Seriously. We meet him as our plucky band of rebel heroes are gypsying through the galaxy and he helps them fight their Imperial enemies. He's a sort of itinerant preacher and an out-of-the-monastery-work-brother, but I thought that the importance of the character is not that he's a mad monk with crazy bo-staff skills. It's that he actually believes. That's his little mantra in the title. He believes that the "Force" really IS with him. It's an inspiration, not a series of magician's tricks or choking people out when they piss you off.
Chirrut is one of the first SW characters that actually treats "their religion" as an actual religion and, in so doing, makes the point so typically elided in Lucas' canon that this "Force religion" thing IS an actual religion, and as such that inspires people to acts of faith.
And, of course, those acts don't have to be noble. Just like Buddhism can throw up the 14th Dalai Lama and at the same time the murderous monk U Wirathu, just like Christianity can inspire Francis of Assisi and Arnaud Amalric, like Islam can mold the peaceful kindness of Sofyan al-Thauri, the gentle Sufi saint, and the murderous anger of a bin Laden, the "Force" can inspire Îmwe to sacrifice, and Vader to cruelty.
Îmwe can't choke people with his mind, or toss heavy object across the room. But he can choose the hopes and lives of others over his own because he does, indeed, believe that he and they are all one with the Force, and the Force is with them.
Chirrut. He's a true believer, and that's a pretty deep dive for somebody as addicted to pure visual effects as George Lucas.
For another, it's a straight-up tragedy. Our heroes "win", but in so doing pay an unbearable price. That's war. That's all wars, "good" wars, evil wars...it doesn't matter. For someone, for lots of someones, even victory in war comes at a horrible cost, a cost that is more than some can bear. It was good to see, in the Lucas world where carnage is usually so casually thrown about, the unbearably intimate agony of that cost.
But the last reason, and the most immediate, is that it's Star Wars told from the grunt's POV.
(well, except at the end, where we revisit the "rebel ship corridor" scene from the original. Remember that? Vader wades into about a platoon of rebel troops blasting the hell out of him and just kills everyone. Thing is, by this time we're so used to Vader stalking around choking people and dueling only with his peers that it was easy to forget why he was so damn scary to the good guys.Lance Mannion saw that and it made him think that Rogue One was a "pointless" story because it was a hero story without the hero.
To a peer foe like Obi-Wan or (eventually) Luke he was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, sure. But to a regular grunt he was like a goddamn human wrecking ball; trying to fight him was like trying to fight a tank with a wiffle-ball bat. That scene reminded you why he was such a frightening enemy and why having Luke as the Rebel Arthur was so important...)
And, yes, the whole Star Wars magilla is Luke's King Arthur story. Okay, well, with the prequels the Othello story with Anakin/Vader as Othello, but that's a whole 'nother thing and poorly handled, at that.
The piece of worthwhile art at the center of Lucas' tale is Luke and his coming-of-age, his ascent to the hallow kingship. That's the important, central portion of that story, and all the stories, in Lucas' universe. It's the Hero's Quest, and as such the Hero is in the center.
But...those stories are also war stories. I mean, goddamn, the word is right in the title. And wars, whilst they may be led by the Hero are fought by Joe and Molly, whether they're carrying a spear or a sword or a crossbow or a blaster or a thermal detonator. But from all the other SW tales you'd never know it.
(As an aside...don't get me started on the Lucas version of combat; the fact that his land battles were staged purely for visual effect always makes the old drill sergeant in me come up out of my seat roaring "Cover? Concealment? Fire and movement, you stupid $#%!#!@!!??? What the hell is your malfunction? Lemme see your squad leaders right this goddam minute..!")But this time, for the first time, we get to see how hard those mob-handed battles would have been on the rebel grunts. No wonder the Rebellion was so demoralized; the Imperial troops were good at being bad guys (and another thing I appreciated about Rogue One was that for the first time the stormies in particular and the Imps in general came off as genuinely dangerous as individual troops; like American troops in Iraq, they have all the high-tech goodies and all the firepower and all the logistical support in the galaxy.)
So I appreciated this one as an individual GI's version of all those other Star Wars battles. Pointless? Sure. Pointless because to the person behind the blaster-rifle it's all pointless. When you're fighting for your life there's no heroes, no kings or jedis, no glory and no glamor. You do your best to accomplish your mission and you do or don't, you live, or you die.
And, if even in dying, you do your duty and accomplish the mission...well, that's the point, and was the point here; the rebels do their jobs, do their duty and, even in dying to do so, they end up giving the rebellion "hope"...at that horrible cost.
Was that hope worth the cost? That's for each and every one of us, and them, to decide.
But, for the first time in a Lucas-universe flick, Rogue One actually forced us to stop and think about it.
Well done, troopers.