This Lousy Beautiful Town: Canto Bight Book Review

If Stewart Gardiner were a gambling man he would be tempted to spend some real time in Canto Bight, but as it stands he’s more than happy to read about it instead

***Caution! Contains spoilers from The Last Jedi***

The Canto Bight sequences in The Last Jedi may seem like diversions from the main action, but they serve important narrative functions. For one thing another planet had to be introduced so that the spark of rebellion and the future of the Force could be shown by movie’s end. That would have lost impact if it had occurred where the fight was already happening. It needed to be away from all of that, yet not on a random planet only introduced in the final scene. The mission itself has a believable purpose within the story and is notable in that it fails. Failure is of course a theme that runs through The Last Jedi and Rian Johnson is able to get a lot of thematic mileage out of what could have simply been a series of set pieces around Canto Bight.

Strange Comedy

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I love Rose’s dialogue where she sums up her feelings about Canto Bight:

“I wish I could put my fist through this whole lousy beautiful town.”

It’s a line that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the classic cinematic studies of Hollywood – think of a picture such as The Bad and the Beautiful. This is punchy, heightened dialogue which taps into a history of hard-edged melodrama. Rian Johnson knows what effect he wants to achieve and does so brilliantly throughout the film. The Last Jedi sees a master director operating at the height of his powers, which once again proves why Star Wars is much more than a franchise.

Perhaps my willingness to go along for the ride through Canto Bight in The Last Jedi was assisted by reading the collection of novellas beforehand. I had already spent time in that town and I must admit that I didn’t mind going back there. The four story collection itself turns away from the major events taking place across the new canon. But in refreshing ways. The stories have a lightness of touch and odd flourishes about them. There’s strange comedy and inconsequential events that are of major consequence to the characters involved.

Easy Target

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Saladin Ahmed’s “Rules of the Game” revels in its own alien silliness. The tone sometimes recalls the “A Sunny Day in the Void” arc of TCW, which took a detour into territory where slapstick droids met Samuel Beckett. It’s a fish out of water tale where Kedpin Shoklop, VaporTech Salesbeing of the Year, arrives in town on vacation and quickly becomes a target for every lowdown swindler he crosses paths with. He’s the very definition of an easy target; soft, gullible, and naïve. To say Kedpin is taken advantage of would be an understatement.

He goes from one humiliation to another until matters get considerably more serious. An assassin picks him out from the crowd and identifies him as more than a fall guy: “Anglang needed a mark. Someone new to Canto Bight, stupid enough to be turned into a living bomb and hoodwinked into jail for the night.” There are noirish elements to the story, of the lighter variety granted, but they are there nonetheless.

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Kedpin may be a little one-eyed alien, but I couldn’t help but think that he would have been ideally played by Elisha Cook Jr. Out of his depth and bound to come to a sticky end, the sad eyed, failed and melancholy characters Cook played are a perfect fit for Kedpin. It brings to mind Cook’s role in The Maltese Falcon, a film which Rian Johnson paid homage to in his debut feature Brick. Jabba the Hutt was based in part on Sidney Greenstreet, who also features in The Maltese Falcon. All of which makes sense in a town called Canto Bight.

Personal Mythmaking

“There is so much good work yet to be done,” thinks sommelier Derla Pidys, “and so many good stories yet to be bought and sold.” Indeed, what follows may be ostensibly about buying and selling wine, but it is at core about the value placed on personal mythmaking. Truth and lies are two sides of the same coin; it’s a currency that exchanges hands in the highest circles of Canto Bight. Mira Grant’s “The Wine in Dreams” dials the tone down and away from the enjoyably ridiculous and towards something more dramatic, while still being idiosyncratic.

The Grammus Sisters have a magnetic presence both within and outside the pages of the story. They claim they hail from another dimension, which is an interesting notion to even be brought up in Star Wars, but is obviously one that isn’t followed through on. Nobody believes the story, everyone is fascinated by it.

The Lucky Three

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“Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing” by Rae Carson takes a glimpse at the Canto Bight underworld which is simply the business of the town. Animal cruelty, mistreatment of the kids looking after the fathiers, arms dealers selling to both the Resistance and the First Order, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Canto Bight is bright and shiny and rotten at core. These aren’t exclusively political ideas shoehorned into The Last Jedi or indeed here (as some shouty internet voices have claimed). It’s all a matter of looking after each other and the world we live in; hardly bad ideals to live by and surely in line with Star Wars since the beginning. (Hint: you’re not supposed to identify with the fascists, folks!)

Fan favourite Star Wars author John Jackson Miller heads straight for the casino and gambles everything he’s got in “The Ride,” which closes the collection. He takes the offbeat humour, personal mythmaking, and high stakes of the previous stories, and tells a story that is comfortable in its own skin and resists being pinned down. The Lucky Three are a particularly endearing creation and I found myself looking for them in The Last Jedi. Suffice to say that they are in the casino still and one of them is portrayed by a certain Ewok legend. (My favourite Canto Bight cameo has to be Justin Theroux as the master codebreaker though. Connecting Mulholland Drive and The Leftovers to Star Wars is delicious!)

“The Ride” goes against the grain by finally considering the worth of that town called Canto Bight: “When there’s so much bad going on, it helps to know that there’s a place where none of that matters.”

So Many Good Stories Yet to Be Told

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I heard someone say that while entertaining, these stories didn’t need to be Star Wars stories. Yet the fact remains that they are. What actually defines Star Wars now is more than it once did. The stories are expanding and along with it the possibilities. Canto Bight presents different points of view from the sidelines of a galaxy far, far away because not all stories have to be about the eternal battle between light and dark. There’s plenty room for the little stories too.

Star Wars: Canto Bight by Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, Mira Grant, and John Jackson Miller is published by Century in the UK and is available now.

Stewart Gardiner

Co-editor-in-chief at Future of the Force. Writer at 25 Years Later. David Lynch nerd. Star Wars fan. Unreliable narrator.

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