Culture

Fishy Political Fantasies

Adam Driver in The Last Jedi (Photo: Lucasfilm)
The Last Jedi and The Shape of Water turn politics into juvenile sap.

The Star Wars movies belong in the same category as Elvis Presley movies: They’re popular yet are all but unwatchable — except that the Presley pictures evince a human touch. The new, machine-tooled The Last Jedi is sufficiently busy (action scenes occurring every ten minutes) to make you grateful that it is, at least, agreeably paced, even if it isn’t really about anything.

Only devotees can care about the on-going story that pits Rebels against the First Order, a reboot of the 1977’s film’s fantasy that was an homage to the historical conflicts of American Westerns and Kurosawa’s samurai movies — only in juvenile, movie-brat terms. The issues of maintaining civilization and taming the hubristic impulses in individual characters and throughout the universe were trivialized into kid stuff. Juvenilia has become the series’ raison d’être, and touching on the audience’s childhood affection is The Last Jedi’s special weapon. “You’re just a child in a mask” one angsty character is taunted, and, here, that mask has been modeled after the Marvel franchise — as if the child has become father to the child.

Audiences who see themselves in the youthful personages of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) complete Disney’s shift to a new generational market. Saying “Fare Thee Well” to the old folk — disillusioned Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), tired Admiral Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Han Solo (who was dispatched in the last go-round) — is a form of automatic nostalgia.

If you look past the superficial narrative and cultural continuity, The Last Jedi works like any other Millennial action film. Written and directed by indie Rian Johnson, who retires his neo-noir specialty for his own youthful fantasy of trying on George Lucas’ space boots, The Last Jedi is largely tongue-in-cheek. Johnson is incapable of taking the organic themes seriously. Sarcasm is the coinage of modern commerce, not Lucas’s corny family commitment and nationalism. So Johnson’s ironic dialogue occasionally deflates the meaning behind derring-do, while attempting to revive it. All the relationships are flip, except for Rey’s with Luke Skywalker, in her obligatory fealty as she attempts to revive his sense of mission. But as critic Gregory Solman pointed out, this isn’t reflected in Kylo Ren’s personal conflict; Kylo gets reduced to Good-versus-Evil pouting. (Hey, it was only patricide!) Instead of achieving grand operatic depth or the emotional intensity of Fritz Lang’s Die Niebelugend and John Boorman’s Excalibur, Johnson is just goofy enough to keep fans holding on, renewing their dedication to the series and leaving them, like Elvis movie fans, content with their own complaisance.

The Last Jedi follows fanboy tradition, in its Harry Potter knock-off (Rey’s concern about her absent parents); the PC, multi-culti play of Finn’s partnership with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran); the take-charge feminism of purple-haired Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern evoking The Hunger Games); and the mutant evil of Supreme Leader (Andy Serkis), tapping into Lord of the Rings CGI. Given this patchwork of bad influences, the film lacks style. Sure, the familiar space battles go click and a nighttime chase scene of heroes liberating and riding race-track beasts through terrestrial pastures is almost rousing (though photographed too dark), yet The Last Jedi falls short of the visionary excitement that distinguishes Justice League or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

This episode’s sameness might be reassuring to legions of the faithful, but had Star Wars not already dulled their appreciation of visual and kinetic fantasy (by congratulating their taste for humdrum sci-fi, cute robots, and outré creatures), they might instinctively realize that Johnson’s two best-looking sequences are not imaginative enough. Luke’s confrontation with Kylo on the red-salt tarmac only hints at the shock of bloodshed, and the centerpiece skirmish between Supreme Leader, Kylo, and Rey — the film’s visual highpoint — features only rote gymnastics. You cannot have seen any Chinese martial arts or Zack Snyder movies if you are impressed by this. Johnson’s backdrop is a stunning red cyc wall that goes up in flames, revealing nothing. Psyche.

*****

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Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water

As one who knew back in 1977 that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was cinematically superior to Star Wars, I remain unmoved by new iterations of George Lucas’s blockbuster. But the generations whose attention spans have been altered by this most vaunted of all film series should still appreciate how Rian Johnson’s geek loyalty surpasses that of Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi political fantasy The Shape of Water.

This time, del Toro moves the idiotic political allegory of his 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth (a 1930s-set Spanish Civil War fantasy) to America during the Civil Rights era. Uninterested in social realities, del Toro aims for seriousness through dark whimsy (“dark” being the preferred perspective of fanboys and critics). But what, exactly, does a mute Mexican immigrant janitoress, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, wasting the genius she displayed in Maudie), have to do with the black struggle against Jim Crow? How does her romance with an amphibious monster, captured for government experimentation during the Cold War, express the thwarted desires of U.S. citizens whose ancestors were oppressed? Why is her protective co-worker a sassy and stoic black woman (Octavia Spencer) with a Stepin Fetchit husband? Why is her best friend a gay artist (Richard Jenkins) who is scared of expressing his own sexuality? Why does her nemesis, a security official at the science lab (Michael Shannon), stand in for white supremacist bigotry?

Del Toro exploits these questions and the social and historical ignorance of Hollywood’s politically correct brigade. (His title suggests a misinterpretation of the proto-Obama metaphor in James McBride’s celebrated race memoir The Color of Water.) This mash-up of alien and immigrant hardship, in which lonely Elisa finds sexual release with a sea creature, is pervy, ridiculous, and humorless. The more maudlin this story gets, the harder del Toro presses PC buttons.

The film’s freakish sentimentality derives from Lenin’s maxim “No profit in last week’s fish.” As spoken by one character, that line sounds like del Toro’s credited allies the Coen Brothers, which exposes the snark at the base of del Toro’s left-wing sappiness.

The film’s fish-and-female premise merely combines sexual masochism with political self-righteousness and cinematic cluelessness.

Mexican del Toro ignores the politics of his own nation. It’s the same career strategy as that followed by Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu (they brand themselves “The Three Amigos”), seeking the easy approval and esteem of those who enjoy seeing American political problems trivialized as escapist fantasy — as also done in Gravity and The Revenant. Del Toro fails to give his Creature from the Black Lagoon/Swamp Thing thing any characterization. It’s just a repugnantly eroticized figure of chain immigration.

The Shape of Water hasn’t yet inspired opportunistic political interpretations like the 2005 Star Wars: Revenge of the Siths. (“So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause” a silly aphorism that actually presaged the Obama era.) This film’s fish-and-female premise merely combines sexual masochism with political self-righteousness and cinematic cluelessness (Del Toro’s movie references include a dismal Astaire and Rogers musical homage). To think this movie is just fantasy is to drown in stupidity.

READ MORE:

Star Wars: The Last Jedi | Straight Out of the Recycling Bin

The Social Justice Stance of The Shape of Water

The Deplorables Come to the Movies

— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.

 

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