Our introduction to the casino town in Star Wars: The Last Jedi is probably the happiest I’ve been all year at the cinema, starting with the fact that it’s an utter delight to look at. Moreover, the old-world-adventurous detour helped articulate the phantom feeling that had been lingering in the back of my mind since the film began: this was Star Wars through and through – not in imitation and homage, but in creative spirit. This was something meaningful and something new, born out of the familiar.
Audiences of 1977 were treated to the Mos Eisley Cantina, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” whose cavalcade of unique creatures became a benchmark for Star Wars itself. The Force Awakens had its own “Cantina scene” in the form of Maz’s castle, filled with practically rendered smugglers and scoundrels from all over the galaxy, a signal to audiences that this truly was the Star Wars of old. Only the Star Wars of old also looked forward, despite its myriad of influences from years long past, something these new films haven’t managed to embody until Rian Johnson took the wheel.
While built on the Cantina’s DNA, this updated hive is introduced not through rowdy rabble-rousers and shifty-eyed assassins, but the clinking of fancy champagne glasses aboard a flying yacht – think Jabba’s barge from Return of the Jedi, but on the French Riviera. This Monaco-esque coastal town isn’t populated by petty lawbreakers, but those rich enough to be above the law itself, making their money off galactic warfare by selling arms to both factions. Mos Eisley’s slime and scales are traded in for lavishness, with regalia drawn from past aristocracies like the Tsars of Saint Petersburg, to modern glitz of gowns at the Met Gala – fancy folks you’d expect to see at a Coruscant opera house, though rooted far less in oriental exoticism and far more in western opulence. These villains don’t hide beneath hoods; they hold their heads high and their purses open.
A polite, Joseph Gordon-Levitt-voiced high-roller alerts the Canti Bight police (an armoured squadron of glorified mall cops unlike any we’ve seen in the saga) to an illegally parked space-vehicle. Only a Rich Snitch could be that worried about having his night-time beach view spoiled by a rust-bucket several thousand feet away. Moments later we head inside the casino itself, where we’re treated to our first look at the upper echelons of this new post-Empire society. We push through crowds of wealthy patrons by traveling atop their tables a la William A. Wellman’s World War I silent picture Wings (1927), as if untethered from all reality and concern:
This façade is eventually brought down by Rose, as she exposes both Canto Bight’s animal cruelty and the source of its gilded walls, but until this happens, Finn is enraptured by its display of grandeur and we’re along for the ride. The introduction is accompanied by a new John Williams composition that, like the scene itself, has a foundational similarity to the Cantina from forty years ago, but its musical juxtaposition shifts ever so slightly away from its predecessor.
Tatooine, filmed largely in the Tunisian desert, will forever be associated with Western classical instruments: the strings playing over the setting suns, but more pertinently, the trumpets, saxophones and clarinet of the smuggler bar & hideout. Here however, the horns of the Cantina Band take a backseat, allowing the previously backgrounded Caribbean steel drums to take center stage, as if co-opted by this lap of European luxury, before giving way to a more traditional Jazz right out of the Roaring Twenties, conjuring images of a galactic Quickstep or Charleston; The Space Gatsby, if you will.
The result is arguably the most delightful piece of music in Star Wars’ four-decade history:
The town itself is both based on and filmed in the port city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, a prominent Mediterranean tourist spot littered with Baroque architecture, a style befitting an exaggerated, operatic franchise with mass audience appeal. The Minčeta Tower of the Walls of Dubrovnik is even the seeming reference point for the city-center’s casino:
Image used with permission from Wikimedia Commons
Minor spoilers to follow.
In addition to the magnificent creatures set free by Rose and Finn, Canto Bight’s stables also house an anonymous character who, both in spite of and because of his obscurity, may be the most important symbol the saga has had to offer. He doesn’t enter the spotlight until the film’s closing moments, but the setup in the towering structures above his dwelling makes that eventual payoff worthwhile. Rian Johnson doesn’t ignore the Star Wars prequels – much as the film suggests the characters ought to, he accepts the saga’s failings in order to move on from them – in fact the child in question feels created in direct parallel to the young Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, down to his enthusiastic “Woohoo!”
The Skywalker saga has lasted decades and it seems about ready to move forward, though its exploration of social ills has felt incomplete along the way – in this case, in the realm of class. Anakin was born into bondage, a situation not unlike mistreated child labourer residing in a dark corner of this one-percenters’ paradise. As the Rebellion’s spark is preserved elsewhere (amidst a war that feels all too familiar), it’s from beneath the boot-heels of decadence that the flames will rise and take back the galaxy, whether literally or symbolically, through this little boy with a broom.
We’ve been following the Skywalker story across three generations, and were it not for all that talk of immaculate conception, the Anakin of Episode I would’ve been the series’ young hero born into total obscurity. Between Rey and the new child in question, The Last Jedi feels like a proper fulfillment of that promise, a rejection of the saga’s “chosen one” narrative that comes full circle to its origins in oppressed social strata.
In effect, the city is the very apex of the Western military industrial complex, as well as a fanciful farce built on the backs of an abused workforce. It breeds malcontent (which is perhaps why its stampede scenes feel especially satisfying), but before the full scope of its crimes are revealed, it suckers you into reveling in what it has to offer just as it draws in Finn, the former Stormtrooper, reminding both audience and Imperial pawn of their complicity in the spoils of oppression.
Canto Bight is pure, unbridled fun, filtered through the imagination of a unique storyteller who eventually allows that fun to give way to a meaningful promise of something better on the horizon – just like Star Wars ought to.