Archive for the ‘action/adventure’ category

Papillon (2018)

November 11, 2018

papillonWhen I was eight or so, I had a brief fascination with the story of Henri Charrière, or “Papillon,” a French thief falsely accused of murder in 1931. Subjected to years of brutal and/or solitary imprisonment, Papillon kept escaping and being locked back up, until in 1941 he finally made it off of what was meant to be his final jail, the inescapable Devil’s Island. In all versions — Charrière’s bestselling memoirs, the 1973 film based on them, and now the remake — this material is intended to be the inspirational saga of one man who refused to let his soul be caged, and so forth. It’s a real “triumph of the human spirit” tale, with a repetitive freedom/capture/punishment, lather/rinse/repeat structure. What appealed to an eight-year-old about it? Maybe the guillotine. That was pretty cool.

The guillotine makes its appearance in the new Papillon, along with an upped quotient of bloodshed and nudity. The original film, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, very nearly got an R rating for its brutality but won a PG on appeal. The new one was never going to get a PG, from the looks of it. I’m not sure why someone felt the time was right to retell this story, except maybe that Unbroken, which shares Papillon’s high regard for masochistic endurance, had some success four years ago. Despite the advances in technology, the guillotine’s work is less convincing here than it was in 1973. The earlier film, thanks to a jump cut, gave the illusion of a man going from alive and terrified to dead and decapitated instantly, with his head tumbling down towards the camera. In the remake it happens at a distance from the camera; it might as well be a mannequin getting beheaded.

Everything else seems to happen at a distance, too. Charlie Hunnam, the new Papillon, and flavor of the month Rami Malek, as Papillon’s forgery-artist friend Louis Dega, make kind of a lackluster team compared to McQueen and Hoffman — who wouldn’t? A decade-spanning adventure  needs outsize personalities, grand gestures. These two aren’t bad — they turn in human-scaled, naturalistic performances, which would be fine in another kind of movie. But it’s not enough to carry a movie for two hours and thirteen minutes or to engage us for that long. Our attention shifts to broader supporting actors like Roland Møller as a violent, desperate inmate who wants in on Papillon’s escape, or Yorick van Wageningen as the Javert-like warden at French Guyana, where Papillon is kept. Aside from Papillon’s girlfriend in the early Paris scenes and a Mother Superior who sells him out, the movie is also quite the sausage-fest, which I guess is a trap of the material.

I don’t imagine this Papillon will transfix any eight-year-olds, even ones as weird as I was. It’s too grim, too poky and dreary. Which may be another trap of the material, or the prison-escape genre. You have to spend a good long time establishing the prison as a place our hero must escape against all odds. We feel trapped right along with the hero, and when he finally leaves the prison, so can we. I can’t be the only one who feels the deep urge to walk out when we get the montage showing how long Papillon spends in solitary confinement. He doesn’t want to be there, why should we want to sit there with him? A movie like Brawl in Cell Block 99, with no hope of escape at the end but with plenty else to distinguish it, is far more engaging and even exhilarating than an old-school lockdown fable like Papillon. It’s ‘30s pulp elevated to wannabe-poignant Chicken Soup for the Soul fare. As for the 1973 film, much less the books, I haven’t wanted to revisit them. Better to let that memory stay gold.

Advertisements

Solo: A Star Wars Story

September 30, 2018

solo_edited The best performance in Solo: A Star Wars Story, as is often the case in these things, comes courtesy of someone playing a droid — Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of L3-37, who navigates the Millennium Falcon for its pilot, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). L3-37, who has a clever ambigrammatic name, has a revolutionary spirit — she’s always agitating for the freedom of any droid she happens across. She’s passionate about her cause in a way that nobody else in this overlong movie is — mostly everyone’s out for themselves.

Which might seem like the proper tone for a spin-off movie about the smuggler and scoundrel Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), but it seems like a regression coming after the rather more complex view of heroism over in the current sequel trilogy, where Luke Skywalker just brushes the saga’s Joseph Campbell worship right off his shoulder. And we know Han will grow and deepen as a character, so Solo can’t help coming off like “Come see Han before he became interesting!” Ehrenreich doesn’t ring many bells as Han — he neither looks nor sounds much like Harrison Ford, the character’s previous steward — and the grinning lightness of his performance makes us think he’s trying to ape not Ford but rather George W. Bush trying to play Jack Nicholson.

God help Lucasfilm if they try a young Indiana Jones movie and miscast it this badly while missing the appeal of the character so wildly. To be fair, some of the side casting works. Donald Glover is as charismatic as you’ve heard as Lando, and has a better grief-stricken scene than does Woody Harrelson as Beckett, a thief Han falls in with, when someone close to Beckett dies. The loss of that person also means the loss of one of the movie’s better actors before the film is a half hour old, but what are you gonna do? The movie, which was started by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) and then given the directorial equivalent of a page-one rewrite by Ron Howard, moves fast (for a while, before bogging down somewhere in the second hour) and is “plotty” in a hectic, meaningless way I don’t enjoy. Ultimately, I couldn’t see how a movie like this could have been any better, either.

Like many prequels, Solo often seems more like a checklist than a movie. We gotta have the Kessel run in there somewhere, so let’s make that front and center instead of leaving it to the fans’ imaginations. And we know Han wins Lando’s ship in a card game, so let’s do that, too, but leave it till last, so the audience waits the whole damn film for something they know has to happen. These supposed stand-alone Star Wars movies (Rogue One was the first) are still chained to the larger narrative and events of the core Star Wars films. I think Lucasfilm, which apparently wants to take the movies in another direction away from Luke and anyone he knew, is going to find to its dismay that nobody outside the fandom cares all that much about stories that veer too far from Luke, Han, Leia and so forth. And, judging from this movie’s embarrassing status as the first bona fide Star Wars flop, they don’t even care about Han that much unless Harrison Ford is playing him.

Ron Howard does his usual proficient, zero-personality job of work. There are at least four in-jokes in the casting as it pertains to Howard’s past as a director — you start looking for Henry Winkler in there somewhere. It makes Solo play more like an Arrested Development episode than like a Star Wars movie. Han Solo has always been a hero in spite of himself, someone who could just as easily have been bullshitting the whole “made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs” thing. George Lucas even originally saw Han’s boast as a blatant lie meant to impress Luke and Ben Kenobi. What if the Kessel run had actually been a complete shambolic comedy of errors? Not in this movie, it isn’t — so it turns out Han’s claim is legit and not some bullshit meant to get Han a gig he needs. Solo doesn’t just make the young Han boring; it reaches back and retrospectively makes the older Han more boring, too. That’s some trick.

Deadpool 2

August 19, 2018

deadpool-negasonic-teenage-warhead-girlfriendThe Deadpool movies are more or less the only superhero films I’ll sit still for these days. Filthy and irreverent, splattering the camera lens arterially with great gusto, these are not remotely elegant examples of what the medium can do, nor are they conceived as such. They’re parties, all winks and grins and farts and jostling elbows. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) their raunch and gore and in-jokey tone, the movies occasionally achieve real pathos, as in Deadpool 2, when the eponymous anti-hero (Ryan Reynolds) mopes around suicidally after his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) exits the picture early on, or when new antagonist Cable (Josh Brolin), a grim ass-kicker from the future, reveals his true motivation for trying to kill burgeoning, unhappy mutant teen Russell (Julian Dennison).

Some deaths and agonies are a lark; others are to be mourned or avoided. Hypocritical? I prefer to think that Deadpool 2, despite its meta clownishness, has a grasp of conflicting priorities. The plot demands that a bad character not be murdered by a character poised on the line between good and evil; however, there’s nothing saying the bad character can’t die some other way, preferably abruptly and hilariously. That’s not really a spoiler, because at a Deadpool film you know anyone who deserves an ignoble reduction to a fine red mist will get one. Because nothing in the movie is actually real, and because the moviemakers (Reynolds gets a cowriting credit along with original Deadpool scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) know this, there’s a freedom to play, to bend reality.

Director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) uses the CG palette to turn the movie into a roughhouse live-action Looney Tunes romp. It’s easy to create amusing chaos with a character cursed with bad luck, but how about a hero — Domino (Zazie Beetz) — whose superpower is good luck? An entire concussive sequence follows Domino as she casually sidesteps certain death at multiple turns, and it’s a lot funnier than misfortune plaguing someone relentlessly. (Unless it’s the lottery winner in Final Destination 2. Nothing will ever be funnier than that.) Deadpool himself has a healing power that renders him pretty well unkillable, though the same can’t be said for other members of Deadpool’s team X-Force, including regular guy Peter (Rob Delaney) — whose function here is similar to the comically bland human Stu in What We Do in the Shadows — and an invisible hero called the Vanisher, who brings us one of the film’s many cameos, references, and gags. (A subtle one is Deadpool’s fixation on a song from Yentl, a musical by Barbra Streisand, who’s married to Josh Brolin’s dad.) I’m sure I didn’t catch all of them, and Deadpool 2 may well be funnier for viewers who get the joke about “a guy who can’t draw feet” (a common fan complaint about Rob Liefeld, the original Deadpool’s co-creator). But as in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the fun here doesn’t depend on a grounding in nerd trivia.

Famously, Reynolds hungered for years to play Deadpool, even settling for playing a ridiculously muted version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Now that he’s on his second outing with the preferred iteration of Deadpool, Reynolds still seems grateful and happy to be a part of this unexpectedly lucrative franchise, which, being a 20th Century Fox enterprise and not helmed by Marvel/Disney (well, until this past July, when Disney slurped up Fox), is off to the side with the X-Men, playing in a goofball backyard far away from Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America and the rest. Deadpool seems to take place in a reality where people watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the DC Universe movies, or maybe it’s just Deadpool, whose powers might include the ability to comment on all entertainment, including that which features himself — or features Ryan Reynolds. (Keep watching through the end credits.)

The movie spreads its fun around; not only white hetero males get to bring the pain. Aside from Domino, there’s the very welcome return of the deadpan-hostile Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who turns up with her new girlfriend Yukio (I assume a variation on Yukio from The Wolverine). The casual and, dare I say, mature way the movie handles NTW’s sexuality — there are neither jokes nor hubba-hubba leering — is refreshing and good-hearted. And despite all its hip mayhem, directed both at anonymous thugs and at well-thumbed pulp tropes, Deadpool 2 is also good-hearted. It doesn’t strike me as nihilistic or even cynical (the way some parts of the Kick-Ass movies and, God knows, their source comics did). It doesn’t want to punish you for enjoying the boomies and the splats and such spectacles as an enormous prisoner-transport vehicle tearing through cars like a bullet through wet Kleenex. It just wants to have a disreputable doofus good time and share it with us.

Ready Player One

July 29, 2018

rpoI lasted about two pages into Ernest Cline’s geek-friendly novel Ready Player One. The book’s voice was just too obnoxiously steeped in trivia, with nothing really to say about the pop-culture landmarks it referenced and/or used. I remember thinking “There are so many good or great books yet to read, and I’m going to spend my dwindling sentient time on this?,” and back to the library it went. The movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, promised to be the same only flashier and louder, yet Spielberg has performed an act of alchemy similar to the upgrade he administered to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The voice is still there, but here it just serves to help Spielberg move the story along. As with the Jaws novel, Spielberg keeps what works and circular-files what doesn’t.

The result is a juicy wad of bubblegum entertainment, visually antic and immersive without feeling assaultive, fast-paced without feeling rushed. If Spielberg is using the pace so as to deny us time to think about the flaws, he certainly does it successfully. The many pop references from the ‘80s (and some from later, like the Iron Giant) are merely part of the background fabric; you can conceivably not be familiar with any of the cameos, callbacks and in-jokes at all and still follow the basic throughline, which is that young protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) seeks to win a contest that can buy him out of his poverty and prove he’s somebody. Reading that description, you wouldn’t know that the story is set in 2045 or that much of the action takes place in a virtual-reality game world.

Ernest Cline might be high on the underarm fumes of his childhood, but he lucked into one of the basic satisfying narratives, and Spielberg zeroes in on it. Of course, Spielberg is part of the pop culture that Ready Player One and most of its characters lionize. His perhaps unavoidable acknowledgments of this fact are limited to eyeblink images. Wade, aka Parzival in the game world OASIS, must find three keys relevant to the sad past of the late game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the cocreator of OASIS and author of the contest. Rylance files yet another ace performance as a man who speaks haltingly and has complex emotions and feelings of guilt and waste. Some have read Spielberg’s friend George Lucas into Halliday. I don’t disagree.

Most of what we’re looking at in Ready Player One is computer-generated animation mapped onto greenscreened bare sets, but Spielberg manages to suggest it all exists physically and gives it heft, the sound of weight. Editor Michael Kahn (assisted, as on Spielberg’s The Post, by Sarah Broshar) gets the constantly moving images and compositions to click together into action sequences with momentum and even poetry; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drops his usual desaturated muck and helps the movie look like one of the sleeker examples of the ‘80s blockbusters it wants to be. I’m a sap, but Ready Player One won me over right out of the gate — Van Halen’s “Jump” ushered me back to the summer of 1984, to an age (thirteen passing into fourteen) at which I would most have appreciated the movie. (’84 was also the summer of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) The soundtrack is a mix of I-love-the-’80s Spotify playlist and Alan Silvestri’s sweeping score — Silvestri was around back then and knows what an ’80s fantasy should sound like.

Can nostalgia be trusted? It’s as valid an emotional response as any other, and you’re free to take or leave it. Steven Spielberg is still probably the most powerful director in Hollywood, but he’s lost a step or two — he almost couldn’t get Lincoln made. So Ready Player One is partly a trip back to the era where Spielberg was truly master of the universe. Back then, not many people questioned why the hero should be a white male and not a female (Olivia Cooke as Wade’s teammate and love interest Art3mis) or a black lesbian (Lena Waithe as Wade’s best friend Aich) or Asian (Daito and Sho). That aspect of the narrative makes the movie feel retro in annoying ways, but that’s also the cost of watching actual ‘80s movies.

Aich, Daito and Sho almost seem like Spielberg’s stab at atoning for The Color Purple (a movie he would not get to make today, and rightly so¹) and Short Round. Look at the movie long enough and close enough and you might start to imagine it’s as much about apology as celebration. The director who shot Jaws in the ocean because a studio tank would be too fake now makes movies almost entirely on a digital canvas like every other blockbuster director, and he’s partly responsible for why we’ve wound up in a place where our eyes no longer believe reality in movies. Tom Cruise risks his neck doing stunts, and we shrug now because it can just as easily be faked with CG. It’s really him, it’s not really him — who cares? This movie’s message, “Reality is real” (to be fair, a Cline-ism), comes to seem less a bromide than a plea.

——————–

¹But in 1985 it could hardly have been made by a Cheryl Dunye or even an Ava DuVernay, so Spielberg at the height of his powers got the thing made, to the joy of some and the dismay of others, and he didn’t do all that bad of a job of it, considering he was not many readers’ first or hundredth choice to adapt it. But in 2018 there’d be no excuse not to give a new film based on the Alice Walker novel to a gay woman of color to direct.

Die Hard

July 1, 2018

diehard2Die Hard, which turns thirty on July 12, is a big, beautiful, excessive action machine with a thousand moving parts. It’s a jumbo platter; it was somewhat unusual at the time for a summer action film that was relatively real-world grounded — i.e., didn’t involve spaceships or superheroes — to run north of two hours, and somewhere in the third act, when the hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) has that desolate moment in the bathroom picking shards of glass out of his bare feet, the movie begins to feel its length. For a couple of minutes, the film goes soft, as we witness that hoary exchange “Tell my wife I’m sorry”/“You can tell her yourself.” But it’s only one scene, and soon the tension ratchets up again.

Directed by the ill-starred John McTiernan (probably his peak) from a Swiss-watch script by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart, Die Hard feels loaded with high points — it’s as though the filmmakers approached each scene (aside from the aforementioned one) by asking themselves how entertaining they could make it. So many little bits of business have later payoffs (the Rolex! fists with your toes!) that the movie has inspired tons of internet theories (why does McClane pause so long on the line “These guys are mostly European judging by their clothing labels and their [eternal pause] …cigarettes”?). Almost every character with dialogue has something to add to the overall tapestry — Die Hard is full of strictly unnecessary but wholly enjoyable personality.

It helps, of course, that the movie offers Willis (in only his third movie, aside from a couple of early bit parts) at his most vulnerable, relatable, and hungry. Willis has something to prove, that he can be a credible action hero while keeping sight of McClane’s humanity. In opposition to McClane, the meat-and-potatoes cop from New York, Die Hard gives us a cosmopolitan villain — Alan Rickman in his first film, as failed terrorist turned “exceptional thief” Hans Gruber. I generally preferred Rickman when he was able to shoot other, gentler arrows in his quiver, as in Sense and Sensibility or Truly, Madly, Deeply; but there’s no denying the craft, wit, and sheer fun of this, his unofficial Bond villain, a cold-blooded reptile except for when he smiles disdainfully to himself. One of those grins, a quiet response to a bit of snark by team member Theo (Clarence Gilyard), almost seems like a tribute rendered generously by Rickman — if Theo can make this suave scorpion chuckle on the job, he must be funny.

And that’s how it is with everyone in the cast; people constantly pair off and grouse or commiserate. (For a movie with such a rep for brutal action, it derives a lot of its juice from little actor moments.) At times, Die Hard is an L.A. movie the way, say, Taking of Pelham 123 is a New York movie, in that it expresses the soul of the city — many of the supporting characters are out for themselves, capitalizing on the growing crisis at Nakatomi Plaza, where Hans and his polyglot posse invade and take hostages as a cover for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bearer bonds. The movie features not one but two iconic ‘80s assholes, William Atherton as a jackal TV reporter and Paul Gleason as a deputy police chief who stomps onto the scene and immediately gets everything wrong. In the middle of all this is the moron cokehead Ellis (the great Hart Bochner), who swaggers into a meeting with Gruber thinking he’s gonna set all this Eurotrash straight. He won’t. Essentially it’s all down to McClane, the working stiff in a dirty tank top.

The FBI are represented by two combative idiots both named Johnson. The Huey Lewis lookalike on Gruber’s team has the same bland L.A. look as the Nakatomi front desk receptionist he’s replacing. McClane’s estranged wife, Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia), is written and played as a strong woman who doesn’t scare easily (even though the ending strips her of her Rolex and reasserts her identity as wife). Die Hard has so many little throwaways it could qualify as a comedy as easily as an action bonanza or, as many fans insist, a Christmas movie. It generously writes a redemption-through-violence for desk cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), but also includes a smaller one for good ol’ limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White). I’ve used the word “generously” twice now, and that seems to sum up Die Hard as much as any word can. It’s larger than it needs to be (considering it’s practically a one-location thriller), funnier, louder (Michael Kamen’s score bites off big chunks of Beethoven), more human, and sometimes more painful. People get shot and blown up all over the place here and it’s spectacle, nothing to do with us, but we all know what a piece of glass in our flesh feels like.

Black Panther

May 13, 2018

blackpantherThe entire bloated, interlinked, resource-eating Marvel Cinematic Universe may have justified itself by having made possible Black Panther. It’s a rich and shining tapestry, in deep African reds and golds and purples. Being a Marvel movie, it is unavoidably corporate and Manichean — might makes right in the eternal war of Good and Evil. Fortunately, the artists behind Black Panther are interested in how one defines good and evil. Is it that hard to be good if you’re a royal, a member of the warrior elite of a technologically advanced society (Wakanda)? And if you grow up the resentful, brutal product of living in a much poorer society that resents and brutalizes you, can you truly be described as “evil”?

Director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole make Black Panther a battleground of philosophies — isolationism vs. generosity, revenge vs. justice, even vibranium (the element that gives Wakanda its power) vs. Jabari wood. It is never at any point black vs. white, or African vs. Caucasian, even though one of the villains is white (he is shown to be an equal-opportunity slimeball who will ally with and then betray whoever can most benefit him in the moment). Unlike the unredeemable adversaries of the DC universe — the unreachable anarch the Joker, the megalomaniacal Lex Luthor — the rogues’ gallery at Marvel tend to have some shading, some humanity, even if appalling humanity. And the heroes are often impeded by guilt, doubt, hubris. Thus, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly crowned king of Wakanda, represents a kind of naïvete born of privilege; his opposite, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), came up outside Wakanda’s embrace and has a more bitter view of the world. Erik often makes good points, and T’Challa sometimes sounds fatuous.

Wakanda represents what the whole of Africa might have been without colonizers — an African-American’s warming daydream of a black Shangri-La, unmutilated by whites. It’s a dream of superiority, too; Coogler and his artists take command of a medium that has spent far more of its history demeaning people of color than not, and they make sure this example of the medium gives us people of color who are demonstrably smarter and tougher than anyone else. (There’s a white CIA agent, played by Martin Freeman, who is generously made a brave and competent fighter.) That an empowerment fable on this level — a $200+ million sci-fi fantasy opening in 4,000 theaters nationwide — is only thinkable due to its association with a larger, otherwise pretty pale-skinned corporate concern is probably not the sort of irony Marvel fans would appreciate. Yet Black Panther may ultimately stand apart from its wider mythos the same way Wonder Woman did.

Considering the strain he must have been under — here you go, a massive blockbuster all your own; try not to disappoint Marvel or the black audience; no pressure or anything! — it might be too much to have expected Chadwick Boseman to manage anything other than a noble performance, with occasional brushstrokes of rage and grief and one or two fleeting bits of humor. (I look for the sequels — don’t worry, there’ll be some — to let T’Challa and Boseman have more fun.) Michael B. Jordan, on the other hand, knows he has a juicy wounded-martyr role and rips into it with gusto, thoroughly enjoying playing a large-scale villain on an enormous canvas. Boseman more or less gives the movie to Jordan and to the many beautiful, brilliant women surrounding him: Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright. The Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, could give the Amazons in Wonder Woman a rough time of it.

Wakanda is heaven, a dream of unity and equality of all kinds — though I imagine we’d have to wait for Black Panther 3 or 4 to find out how LGBTQ people or the disabled are treated there. Wakanda feels like the perfect land we all should have had, a utopia (though one ruled by a techno-warrior class). The place has great beauty, but it doesn’t look like much fun, truth to tell; it looks like a stolid land of solemn traditions and tests of strength, its loyal subjects pledging to defend its borders from the outside world. (And a benevolent monarchy is still a monarchy, no?) In a much-discussed quote at the end, T’Challa tells the United Nations, “In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” It’s hard not to hear in that a rebuke to … well, you know. Somebody.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

April 1, 2018

jediSo much happens in these new Star Wars films, and at such a ferocious clip, you’d think Lucasfilm had enough material for another whole trilogy. (Many stand-alone “Star Wars stories” are planned, including Solo in May.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi is also, at two hours and thirty-two minutes, the longest of the nine movies thus far, and deep into the second hour it can feel a little draining. There’s some stuff that feels extraneous (the whole Canto Bight sequence, which seems to exist to set up a new Lando-like character played by Benicio del Toro), and the cycle of attack and retreat — mostly retreat — gets a bit monotonous. But writer/director Rian Johnson pulls it together for the finale, unfolding on a planet with white salt coating red soil. The tracks of vehicles and feet scoring out crimson marks in the ground, as if slicing and drawing blood, has a poetry that matches the binary sunset of Tatooine, an image stirringly echoed here.

In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) returns, only to tell us and his student Rey (Daisy Ridley) that he and everything he once stood for deserve to die. This is a real “there are no heroes” movie, although not in a nihilistic way. I was amused to see that Luke, all these years later, is excoriating himself for the hubris — the smugness, really — he showed in Return of the Jedi. Hero myths of the sort that fed Star Wars in the first place, we are informed, are lies. There are only flawed people (or aliens, whatever) trying to resist tyranny. Luke says to us, in effect, “You grew up looking up to me. You were wrong, but I was more wrong to accept that reverence. The fact is that I am a failure.” He’s wrong there, too — one of the movie’s gentler points is that someone who fails (meaning all of us) is not a failure. A failure is a failure, and victory proceeds by small and not always satisfying degrees.

The plot has what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher in a moving swan song), running from the relentless forces of the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his soul-divided apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), son of Leia and Han Solo, one-time student of Luke. There’s an awful lot of back and forth, people hopping into ships and revving off for here and there, a good amount of pew pew and lightsaber hum, but the meat of the movie is a young man torn between good and evil, a young woman who feels he can turn to the good side, and an old man who has been there, done that, and takes a lot of convincing that any of it means anything. Johnson and his team (cinematographer Steve Yedlin, editor Bob Ducsay) stage the action cleanly and sometimes with a cathartic swoop of exhilaration, but a good deal of it is the same pew pew and hum we’ve been seeing for forty years.

The currency here is the people. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) taunting First Order General Hux (“Hi, I’m holding for a General Hugs”) is a risky but gratifying way to open the movie; returning stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), zipping around trying to crack into a tracking device, make a fun team in perpetual motion. The Vietnamese-American Tran is one of many women and/or people of color taking their places at the foreground of these new Star Wars movies, upsetting racist fanboys but pleasing everyone else. A most welcome addition is Laura Dern as purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, whose command is gentle but firm — she bats away the indignation of hothead Poe without raising her voice. Whoever decided to bring the warmhearted, levelheaded Dern into the Star Wars universe deserves a good cigar.

Ultimately, The Last Jedi speaks for the strength of a united front against imperial aggression, and forget about elevating a few people to godhood — and that includes the villains, too. The final image leaves us with the assurance that young people tired of injustice will pick up the ball their elders dropped; the movie was filmed and released before the Parkland shooting and its subsequent students’ movement, but seems to anticipate it. The Star Wars universe is starting to mirror our own in that it is re-evaluating its holy trinity of heroes — Luke, Leia and Han — and advising their worshipers to look to themselves for rescue, redemption, and faith. The Force (whose power no longer seems to depend on the “midichlorians” of George Lucas’ doofus prequels) shares with Zen Buddhism a cleansing disregard for icons (foreshadowed when Rey hands Luke his father’s lightsaber and he tosses it over his shoulder): If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.