The title of Rian Johnson ‘s directed new film ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ superbly sums up the core and content of movie: it’s a ‘return’ of wars and stars to screen, of super successful ‘space’ story unfolding in seriatim, and now virtually cine ceaseless since all its prequels and sequels fail to fail on the Box Office. By Sushil Kumar, senior IAS officer.
Star Wars has a unique advantage of a backdrop of eternal galactic space where stars and galaxies are still being discovered; and projection of countless stories and drama of human civilization in outer space has limitless potential to provide ceaseless combination to weave endless stories. Matching backdrop of timelessness and ever changing galaxies and emerging/ dying stars, Hollywood stars can easily replace aging and dying ones (Han Solo, Luke and Leia); new characters could similarly emerge and old characters could always return to screen as Luke Skywalker does in this film. In fact, the last two instalments seem to show that a new generation is replacing the old stars to match the concomitant change in newer generation of audience.
Due to this, Star Wars may be the first marvel comic to mimic paper back endlessness on screen, making it (already)a ceaseless commercial cine-franchise series. Actually, Star Wars series has a unique advantage: its galactic backdrop has some connect with current real world as it is witnessing rapid technological breakthroughs and is living with realistic possibilities of imminent space travel. This advantage is unavailable to other famous marvel comics like Batman, Spiderman etc. as they can’t narrate realistic storylines time and again.
Star Wars serial evolution shows an interesting progression: on debut in seventies, its storyline and characters connected easily with children and child-like fantasies- amply evident in characters like Chewbacca, R-2D-2, C-3PO etc.
Star Wars mythic universe got reinforced with reality boost SDI or Star Wars of Reagan era. And realistic possibility of colonizing outer space for living and mining has added to the growing adherents to Star Wars series.
First Star Wars film capitalized on tremendous curiosity and cine success of Spielberg’s 1977 hit ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Star Wars was instant hit with children and since films in that era were still seen in theaters, escorting parents, in parallel, also imbibed cine portrayal of new mythic space Star Wars universe. In fact, an entire generation grew up internalizing this world view and when Star Wars series were reborn in nineties, one had in hand an assured audience of two generations – of parents ready for a retro revisit for a refresher course and childlike regression; it also facilitated easy absorption of ‘Star Wars Space World’ by their off-springs. Besides, children of nineties growing up with 24×7 satellite TV, that fed ceaseless appetite of space movies including animation, helped easy socialization with Star Wars’ Universe. 2017 seems to be a bumper year as we have a ready-made audience of small children, adolescents, youth, middle age and even old, ever ready to devour the ceaseless story of evolving wars between ever changing characters and context. This is a jackpot that even the genius of George Lucas couldn’t have possibly conceived of – a clientele that could continually feed the franchise forever.
One could say that the film incorporates a multi layered metaphysical as well as physical world that contains the best specimen of sayings and material objects. However, the latest film’s nuanced meanings would need some measure of intelligent quotient to grasp multi-dimensional messages and meanings. This film is a wonderful package catering to all levels of audience: children would be fascinated by C3PO, R-2D-2, space ships and fight sequences, sound and special effects; adults would also be satisfied comprehending connections with mythology, spirituality, universal human condition and salvation.
Film narrates an imaginary tale with elements emanating from reality and cross-cultural consciousness combed from religious tenets, moral sayings, spiritual thought, philosophy simplified as life’s maxims. Mythic and pathos element of film’s universe incorporates certain universal themes governing human evolution and existence across globe specially about philosophy, wisdom, morality, belief systems.
Like all successful films, this film incorporates numerous symbolic motifs/metaphors that carry universal appeal across all socio-cultural contexts. Consider some : like Yoda’s advice about learning from failure ( while burning the Luke’s retreat) ; Luke’s advice to Rey on all pervasive ‘Force’ and its connectedness governing both outer and individual’s inner universe while teaching meditation ( Prana/Prakriti of Hinduism, Qi in Chinese, Mana in Pacific Island cultures, Life Force of Energy in West, Reiki ) ; Luke’s meditation in lotus position and levitation and eventual merger in cosmic consciousness ( Padmasan in Yoga, Samadhi and Mahesh Yogi’s claim of levitation in meditation) ;invocation of ‘ Force be with you’ ( like Christian one of God be with you) ; like Kylo Ren character, individual constant battle within between dark forces and wise counsel ( Chinese ‘s symbolism of interplay of Ying and Yang; Indian one between Satvik and Tamasik , biblical mythology too – present in virtually all religions), individual heroism and ultimate sacrifice to save another or group or society ( Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo’s ramming into Snoke’s main spaceship) ;Luke as reclusive sage in seclusion for spiritual pursuits and living in mountains for reaching peaks of human consciousness (universal Asian symbolism be it Sufi, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity ), protective shield over space ship ( protective shield motif in virtually all mythology be it Greek, Christian, Islamic, Chinese, Indian (kavach) ; Kylo Ren’s parricide( Greek tragedies), familial and filial obligation ( issues of parental duty, obligation raised by Luke in context of Ken Rylo); ESP and communication through mental waves ( communication between Kylo Ren and Rey ); fight and pursuit for cracking computer codes ( Western world worries in re-writing computer codes to over Y2K problem); Western hedonism (casino , haute vie and couture);robotics ( R-2 D-2, 3-CPO), sword fights ,shields, saber (laser) symbolism of all civilizations and last famous film displaying these in The Gladiator).
Great sacrifice and heroic act remains the core of cinema as depicted in Vice Admiral Holdo running straight into space ship to protect the Resistance forces (much like the acts of pilot and civilians depicted in recent cine classic Dunkirk).
Luke as Last Jedi, coming back from the dead almost to save the near vanquished, represents a ubiquitous phenomenon seen in all societies and civilizations. All of them show presence of priestly class (be in Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Judaism) providing intellectual basis of society – first for emergence and then defense. (remember even Hinduism was intellectually defended by Sankaracharya successfully).
Film depicts a protracted war between good and evil- ubiquitous, universal thread, running across all human evolution and civilizations, available aplenty in historical records including epic literature. Star War movie series depict this recurrent and ceaseless motif in cyclical patterns in realistic terms where stronger is the evil, bigger is battle and greater is specter of victory of evil at a particular time and space. Evil always is a step ahead and appears to have an edge but is edged out eventually in the end, every time. Star Wars films truly reflect this motif of reality and for these reason, it sequels and prequels can continue forever.
Film is an interesting illustrative case of demolishing, at least in artificial reality of cinema, the old Rudyard Kipling maxim of East is East, West is West and never twain shall meet. It is an interesting amalgam of Eastern mystic-spiritual tradition and Western materialism; in other words, of integrating ever present dual quests of man’s quest for inner peace pursued in the East and of conquest of outer world of nature and matter pursued by the West. Film incorporates both sides of human existence – of life’s spiritual questions and alignment of man’s compass in moral universe as well creation of matter – exemplified by creation of ultimate machines of space for travel, control and waging of war to control the world. After all, the world can’t be controlled by wise sayings alone.
Film’s vast canvas of storyline facilitates liberal use of landscapic shots, shot liberally through extreme wide angle lens. Film’s backdrop of infinite galactic space (Galactic Empire) having eternal galaxies and star systems give extreme leeway to producers to weave endless mutations and combinations to create new plot lines. Producers can go laughing to the bank as these series could be eternal due to these reasons. This is main reason, why so far eight films have been made and ninth one would release in 2019. This is in contrast to films like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter who despite resorting to sequels and prequels reached a dead end.
Films cinematography is simply outstanding specially in capturing scenic natural beauty to convey seclusion, renunciation, retreat of a recluse (Luke) seeking spiritual salvation. Star Wars trilogy gripped people’s imagination for a decade and same storyline of struggle between good and evil, suffused with moral questions and universal truths, revealed in scriptures and mythology, were narrated in two other series of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings for a decade and a half. Their success led to J. K. Rowling writing a prequel in ‘Fantastic Beasts’ and even Batman and Spiderman franchise resorted to making prequels too. Star Wars doing the same is not surprising; after all, who wants to kill a golden goose. Don’t forget, even sci-fi variant films like Godzilla, Jurassic Park, Species, X Men, MiB, Thor, Avengers, Iron Man resort to making sequels and prequels.
In ‘Space”, war between First Order and Resistance (allusional to French one during World War II) sees much mayhem destruction, annihilation, obliteration of objects and people – in total disregard to gravity and sound effects (clearly forgetting film ‘Alien’s tag line ‘In space, no one can hear you scream’.
Seems that western films have run out of plot lines derived from Biblical themes and due to political correctness now avoid depicting historical wars between European powers or between western and non-western powers. Moreover, war between European powers are virtually absent in this century except for occasional posturings that occurred between Russia and US over Crimea annexation. The endless wars within Africa, Latin America are also almost over and few ones that rage are now fought in distant lands of Syria, Iraq, Yemen. Unlike wars of Vietnam and Iraq earlier, and later Afghanistan, that caused body bags to come home in the West, formal direct war between countries have greatly reduced. As stated above, distancing of war from direct action and direct theatre of war has dehumanized the war experience from western common consciousness.
But has this taken war off the minds of western consciousness? No, the western world is presently preoccupied with wars of minds raised by the bogey of clash of civilization and war on terrorism at their doors. One must remember that despite not fighting direct catastrophic wars, the western civilization still produces almost the entire war arsenal going around the world fueling wars and causing destruction (see images of Aleppo, Basra, Mosul).
Due to its history, tradition and philosophical orientation (derived from Cartesian principles), western civilization still perceives the real world in dichotomous distinction of either or or, for or against, right or wrong, good or evil, darkness or light. Though wars have phenomenally diminished, these battles have been pushed from real to virtual world where these wars are waged and experienced on screens of their smartphones, tabs, computers, and cinema.
What better than to see these wars being waged on a wide canvas of outer ‘space’ with little fear of responsibility or accountability to anyone. In other words, generation growing up gaming in virtual world experience what they shun in real world in virtual world created by CGI imagery (as in Star Wars).
Occasionally when real shots of wars waged in Mosul, Basra etc. are shown, they come with a warning of visuals being graphic. It is indeed a strange reflection of our times that one doesn’t want to see the images emanating from results of war, yet one wants to see a war of extreme annihilations of world and people, on screens big and small.
The film’s multi-racial star cast is intended to win cross cultural, cross national adherents and definitely has enhanced its international appeal and identification. No wonder, film has achieved cult status internationally and has spawned successful commercial franchise selling toys, dresses and other memorabilia. (Last year, Indian super hit Bahubali did attempt to create a franchise in selling objects and toys but the effort didn’t yield that much dividend).
Though film emphasizes the essential unity of universal energy or Force, within and without, yet the duality of good and evil and right and wrong is persisted with in all instalments. Hope the film’s storyline progresses to logical conclusion of depicting non-duality or advaitism, where both good and evil are seen as extreme ends of same spectrum of energy. Western science is anyway awaiting validation of a Grand Unified Theory and, sooner or later, realization of good and evil being part of same reality would dawn amongst common consciousness and cine creators. One wonders what story lines the film establishment would come up with, as for nearly a century, only duality depicting fight between good and evil, right and wrong, at individual or societal or even galactic level, has dominated cine stories. However, is understandable that a film must essentially depict duality of good and evil on opposing sides; after all, audience don’t want to see pure philosophy in action.
Interestingly, Star Wars series contextualizes the fight between the First Order and the Resistance amongst star galaxies and depicts attacks in light-speed and lasers. But, it simplifies speed of light, distance deciphered in light years, dangers in handling lasers etc. Film’s depiction of modes of space travel is still a screen variants of space ships shown in original Star Trek TV series of sixties, with updating of technological innovations used in present day travel to Mars and Moon.
The future world would be so wired and interconnected that creation and ownership of codes could be the way to crack keys for domination and survival- as Y2K problem showed when world struggled with re-writing codes for smooth transition into current millennia.
Hollywood’s depiction of a sage or a man of wisdom is in conformity of universal image of all civilizations- generally of an old man (though Matrix burst this stereotype with a woman and that too a Black one much like Morgan Freeman playing God in Bruce Almighty) and is in keeping with reverence shown to elders in all societies. Accordingly, this film also shows Luke Skywalker as an old man with flowing grey beard (similar to Ian Mckellen enacting similar role in Lord of the Rings).
The film also reflects the current generation’s battle of gender equality in profusion of ladies playing plenty of parts (be it Rey, Leia, Rose or Holdo – all in prominent roles).
Beauty of films like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars is that they tell timeless tales of trials and tribulations involved in fight for right against wrong or good against evil at multiple levels – individual, society, world- and that battle needs to be waged both in the silences of the spiritual realm and amidst mayhem of the material battlefield. These films allow audiences to take the piece of the pie they like and chew on it on way back home or later.
The inhabitants of Luke’s world of Ahch-to are combo of ET and small Godzilla like and in that sense is indirect déjà vu of those characters. This film also uses similar imagery in riding of unusual animals in chase sequences, much the same way similar animals were used in Avatar and is also similar indirect déjà vu.
Western world’s pursuit in materialism is seen in creation of perfect objects (spaceships, armoury et al). It’s motivation for individual heroism is seen in nearly all the characters and its hedonism is seen in depiction of casino (slot machines, card games et al) even in the outer space.
Film’s CGI VFX is really commendable for creating a believable world specially of space ships, laser beams and shields, collision, obliteration etc. Original Star Wars world of miniature special effects stands upgraded with virtual reality created by CGI to such an extent that it becomes difficult to distinguish between reality of objects per se and or their existence in virtual reality.
In Star Wars series, there seems to no problem in discovering newer planets/galaxies and seeking refuge on a clear assumption that only one type of Force or energy field is governing going on in the universe -clearly forgetting that majority of space is composed of dark matter and layers of space and dust and different energy fields.
Most of the imagery of Star War series comprise of fight between space ships and armory fired by computer controls, yet the series miss the community of people maintaining such systems. And none depicts this gap more than Finn and Rose’s perilous journey to find one code comprehender and cracker to cut off tracking device. Its rather unusual that Star Wars have generals, Storm and clone troopers, fighter planes and bombers and not maintenance staff of such a Galactic Empire. Perhaps, the role of maintenance is left to the keepers of franchise. After all, the details are of a virtual world and all can be done virtually in that virtual world. Bravo Stars of the Star Wars.
One should always remember the famous quote of Carl Sagan about earth as a blue dot while watching such Space films.