Probably at least The Penultimate Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)
Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.
© 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.


Well, that was fun. It starts as a retread of The Empire Strikes Back, then suddenly fast forwards to the end of Return of the Jedi, and then goes off in a whole new direction (with a brief reprise of the Battle of Hoth from Empire again). Brilliant. It does not kill off Leia, though the temptation must have been strong. It does kill off two prior villains, one minor and one major, both quite unexpectedly, obviously clearing the stage for the Grand Redemption of Kylo in the next one.

And Kylo finally becomes a threat. As ordered by Snoke, he takes off that ridiculous mask. After The Force Awakens, I observed that he is about the same height, if not shorter than General Hux: he certainly lacks his father’s ability to loom. He seems to have made up for that.

Meanwhile: a new hero to root for steps forward unexpectedly from the ranks of supporting characters, and is comfortably outside the usual Hollywood parameters of race, gender and physique for lead characters. Our heroes are in an even tighter spot than they were in the middle of the first trilogy. There are familiar faces that we will probably not see again, even allowing for the marvels modern CGI can perform for dead actors. This is the movie where Star Wars formally moves on.

Yes, yes, yes, but is it any good? I actually have to think about this. I got into it because I knew the back story. Does it actually take care to introduce itself to newcomers? I’m not so sure that it does. You’d have to ask a newcomer. Rogue One remains the best of the “other” movies, for many reasons, one of which being that it is a standalone story: you can come to it sight unseen and still be captivated.

The payoff to the climactic closing scene between Rey and Luke at the end of The Force Awakens is unexpected and hilarious.

And bits came dangerously close to being cute. Not Jar-Jar levels, but cuter than The Force Awakens. The furry penguins that serve no purpose at all apart from cheap laughs. BB8 mugging it up much more than before. Just watch your step, Disney.

On the other hand, as pointed out by my friend Jonathan Oliver, the first major line of dialogue is a toilet joke from Adrian Edmondson. Genius.

I don’t think there have ever been so many people on board the Millennium Falcon. Hope the toilets can cope.

Snoke is still a bloody stupid name. East End gangster, maybe. Evil Galactic overlord – nah.

Leia’s hair continues to challenge. In fact it does more than challenge. It throws down the gauntlet and looks you in the eye, daring you to respond.

I’m honestly surprised more fans don’t make a fuss about JJ Abrams’ notion of astronomical physics, because they are original-series-BSG-level insulting to the intelligence. We’ll allow the swooping and soaring of noisy spaceships: that’s par for the course. But previously we’ve just had it on general principle that things in space are a long distance apart, and you need hyperspace to get there at the speed of plot. Fine. But: in The Force Awakens, we had the planet-busting beam from Starkiller Base being visible across the entire galaxy as a line in the sky; the Millennium Falcon coming down from faster-than-the-speed-of-light to subsonic in the blink of an eye, guided by nothing more than Solo’s reactions; and an apparent unawareness of the fact that planets rotate. Now: out of this window is the planet we are approaching. Out of that window is the interstellar fleet pursuing us. Neither are getting noticeably closer. There are also repeated reference to hyperspace jumps as “lightspeed”. On the plus side, they do use parsec as a unit of distance, which is a first for the Star Wars universe.

I have developed a new Theory of Relativity based on the size/blast power of explosions and the speeds with which space fighters fly past the camera. They are always exactly the same to the audience. TIE fighters scream out of their hangars towards the Resistance: they must be going pretty darn quick. TIE fighters fly in formation above the massed ranks of stormtroopers in their own hangar deck: they must be going slower than the Wright Flyer. Alternatively, an X-Wing’s laser cannon takes out a highly armoured gun on an interstellar dreadnought, or blasts a hole the size of a small car next to a human on a planet who emerges unscathed: to the audience, the explosions are exactly the same size. See? Relativity?

The ending could never pack the emotional wallop of the last five minutes of Rogue One, because nothing can pack the emotional wallop of the last five minutes of Rogue One. But it packs a softer wallop of its own. The message that there will always be a little light, flickering in the darkness, even if it’s just a spark. That spark can still ignite things. The little boy gazing up at the stars, unconsciously holding his broom like a lightsaber, will become an icon.

And quite possibly the hero of another movie, further down the line.

For an excellent review exploring other aspects of the movie, see Paul Cornell’s take.


Goldfinger! (wah-WAH, wah)

goldfingerI’ve been re-reading the original James Bond novels, for the first time in about 30 years, in order of publication. Entering the Flemingverse gives an interesting glimpse of the post-war world. Austerity Britain comes off worse compared to just about everywhere else. There is still a mix of common technologies where a man who drives a 1933 4½ litre Bentley can do battle with a man intent of firing a nuclear warhead at London. It’s an exercise in culture-specific attitudes, brand snobbery, gross sexism, surprisingly less racism than I had expected, occasionally poetic insight into the ways of the world, and very wry humour. And it’s all great fun.

I’ve just finished Goldfinger. It was made into the third Bond movie, so it comes from that time when the movies stuck reasonably close to the original plot. This is the seventh novel in the series, but for some reason it’s the one where I was particularly struck by the similarities and differences between novel and movie: what stayed the same; what changed; and which (allowing for the fact that two different art forms will always have differences) is better.

The book is by no means perfect. For example, I’ve never understood the allure of Pussy Galore. She comes in on page 167 of a 224 page novel, and is a lot more interested in Tilly Masterson (still alive at this stage in the book; in the movie she is killed off about five minutes after appearing) than in Bond. She is happy to go along with Goldfinger’s plan, until she decides on page 216 to switch sides, with no discernible impact on the plot at all other than giving Bond someone to have sex with shortly after the last page. The interaction between her and Tilly is cringeworthy and you have to wonder if Fleming had actually met any lesbians. (I suspect the answer is: in fact, yes; knowingly, no. Note also: “She said, not in a gangster’s voice, or a Lesbian’s, but in a girl’s voice, “Will you write to me in Sing Sing?”” In the Flemingverse, gangsters, lesbians and girls all have distinctive voices. It’s fun to imagine Honor Blackman saying novel-Pussy’s lines.)

However in the Flemingverse a lesbian is only a woman who hasn’t met the right man yet and on the last page she sure enough melts into the right man’s arms.

Half the denouement is in flashback, thus giving it the excitement of a strand of wet spaghetti. Bond, Goldfinger at al are on a plane, as per the movie. It’s Oddjob who gets sucked out of the window. Goldfinger just gets throttled. The plane doesn’t have fuel to reach land, so Bond holds the crew at gunpoint and orders them to ditch the plane in the sea near to a weathership. And that is the bit in flashback – one moment the plane hits the water, the next Bond and Pussy are safe on board the ship, remembering how the plane snapped in two upon impact and took the crew and its cargo of gold to the bottom of the sea. The final special effect of the novel, so to speak, relegated to memory. Come on! The movie probably couldn’t have managed it within the budget, but the effects budget of the imagination is unlimited. I just have the feeling Fleming got bored at that point and wandered off.

But on the plus side …

The novel opens with Bond having a one-corpse-too-many angst attack, having just had to exercise his double-0 licence yet again. It’s a flash of vulnerable humanity that none of the screen Bonds have been allowed to show. The plot continues, recognisably similar to the film, though Jill Masterson’s death by gold paint occurs off stage. The golf match between Bond and Goldfinger is just as tense and just as funny, but Bond is invited to a post-match dinner with Goldfinger, and only just avoids giving himself away as a spy by setting up Goldfinger’s cat as the guilty party who has interfered with all the hidden internal cameras in Goldfinger’s home. Goldfinger gives the cat to Oddjob for dinner, raising the utter bastard score to 15-all.

Bond sets off across Europe after Goldfinger, in a chase that is much more exciting on paper than on screen. On screen, Bond simply uses a beep machine overlaid on a map. On paper, he has to use his own judgement as to Goldfinger’s route, based on only on the strength of the homing signal, and gets it wrong on a couple of occasions, requiring quick thought and fancy driving to rectify. His journey across Europe is lovingly described – the landscapes, the weather, the food and wine sampled en route – and again the grey 50s Britain that the readers knew comes off much worse by comparison. Then Tilly Masterson enters the story and royally screws Bond’s plans up, and both are captured. This is the “no, Mr Bond, I expect you to die” scene from the film. But this is where the really interesting difference sets in. Goldfinger spares both Bond and Tilly because he suddenly realises he has need of them.

The set piece, Goldfinger’s magnum opus, is to knock off Fort Knox. Between the book and the movie, someone worked out that shifting Fort Knox’s gold reserves would be impossible in the time allowed, so the movie plot was changed to make Goldfinger want to irradiate America’s gold supply and ruin its economy. Either version is a major logistical challenge which means that Goldfinger has to recruit several different American crime syndicates for their resources and coordinate a very large operation. In the movie, he tells the crime bosses about his plans, kills the one who won’t play ball, and then kills the others anyway – I never did understand that. In the book he fully intends to recompense them for their work, in gold, so they all survive apart from the one dissenter. And he decides at the last minute – as a whizzing circular saw draws ever closer to Bond’s whizzing apparatus – that he needs Bond and Tilly as respectively an administrator and a secretary to make the whole complex operation run smoothly.

You have to wonder why this didn’t occur to him at any point in the planning stages. Maybe he’s just not a details man. Anyway, this is the first and I think only time that a Bond villain acknowledges the administrative and logistical overhead of running a major villainous operation. It appeals to me as a writer and as a science fiction fan, wanting to know how things work and make the fictitious world internally coherent. Of course, the movie would have ground to a halt if it had tried to include this point, but in the novel it just ups the tension as Bond is drawn in, becoming an unwilling part of the machine he is trying to destroy. To stay alive, he has to do his job, which means make it work, because Goldfinger will kill him in an instant if he starts to slack off.

One more example of why Books Are Better.

The Force Awakens, turns over and thinks about getting up

As with Star Trek, JJ Abrams took on an inheritance that had lost all its creative spark and re-energised it. He has done this more successfully than with Trek – as long as you concentrate on the characters and not on what’s going on around them. He doesn’t add much that is new but he takes the existing shapes in the toybox and rearranges them into fun new patterns. The Force Awakens was fun to watch, those two hours passed very quickly, and I can still remember the plot, which is a lot more than I could do less than 24 hours after any of the the last three.

We have a fantastic female hero with her own agenda that does not include saving the galaxy; we have a pretty good flawed male hero who is a deserter and just wants to get away. Personal agendas just happen to collide into galaxy-saving goodness. The end of Return of the Jedi was not a happy-ever-after for everyone; we can understand how Han and Leia have drifted apart. Sadly, that is how many couples very easily react to heartbreak. In short, our good guys manage to be good and flawed and interesting, which prevents them from being overshadowed by the bad guys (a flaw of episodes 4-6) and makes us care about them (one of the many flaws of episodes 1-3).

The bad guys are less successful, but they are bad enough to swing it. Kylo Ren is a nice try at a new Vader but … not quite. He just walks up to people. He doesn’t stride, loom, or possess a scene just by being there. He is not the biggest guy in the room. This may be deliberate: he is young; he still has his grandfather’s tendency to tantrum (though unlike his grandfather, he does something about his grievances instead of just whining about them); his reach exceeds his grasp. The most memorable baddie to me was the carpet-chewing, implausibly young General Hux. On the one hand, I like to see a senior bad guy officer who obviously considers himself the equal of the Vader-figure and doesn’t live his life in fear of Force-choking. On the other hand, that fact alone diminishes the impact of the Vader-figure.

These are quibbles. Take home message: characters good.

But when you look at what is going on in the background …

Okay. Abrams simply does not get planets. This became apparent in his first Trek movie where the entire destruction of Vulcan thing made no sense whatsoever. It becomes even more apparent here. The death planet draws its power from its sun; we see some kind of solar filament extending out through space to do just this. (It is fully charged when the sun goes out. Does the sun recharge? Does it find a new sun? We see it fire once, then start to recharge prior to a second firing, so something must have happened.) The filament does not wrap itself around the planet; therefore, the planet does not rotate on its axis. (It would wobble badly if it tried.) Despite this, it is always facing the right direction for wherever it wants to shoot at. (Which could be anywhere in the galaxy. Maybe it’s at the end of the galaxy? Is this why its death rays are visible wherever in space you happen to be? Is it on Terminus? Is the First Order in fact the Foundation? Discuss.)

Next, the Republic was the political successor to the Empire, so it ought to be the one that inherited all the Empire’s resources: the star destroyers, the TIE fighters, the stormtroopers. So why is the Republic (well, okay, the Resistance but they seem contiguous) the one that is just as ragtag as the Rebel Alliance of old and the First Order is the one able to carve out entire planets into death weapons?

I suspect Abrams is drawing on the audience’s experience of the real world in which the Soviet Union fell (hooray!) and was replaced by something almost as big and unpleasant (boo!). So, in The Force Awakens, the Republic ought to be the one with the death planet while Leia’s Resistance continues as before.

These to me were the two biggest things that just did not make sense, and if I chose to dwell on them they would spoil the memory. So I won’t. I’ll just remember Rey and Finn and Poe and BB8 and look forward to seeing where their paths take them in the next movie.

Some final thoughts presented as bullet points:

  • Leia’s hair continues to defy. Never mind what – it just defies.
  • Stormtrooper armour keeps out smoke but not gas, so it is therefore slightly less good than the standard NBC battle kit available to modern NATO forces.
  • The lightsabre that belonged to Luke and his father before him was lost in The Empire Strikes Back when his father cut off the hand that was holding it, over a very long drop. Luke then made himself a new one.
  • Jakku is Tatooine by any other name – they could have varied it slightly.
  • The supreme evil behind the First Order, the next Palpatine, is called … Snape? Scrope? Scrote? Hang on, I’ll just look him up: Snoke. For crying out loud. “All hail the power of Snoke!” Really?
  • X-Wings and TIE fighters are capable of hyperspace travel, but fly not much faster than WW1 biplanes when engaged in atmosphere combat.
  • Max Von Sydow is still alive?! Good grief, how old is he?