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STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) review

December 14, 2017

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written by: Rian Johnson
produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Ram Bergman, Pippa Anderson & Kiri Hart
directed by: Rian Johnson
rated: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
runtime: 152 min.
U.S. release date: December 15, 2017

 

When we heard Mark Hamill‘s Luke Skywalker utter the foreboding line, “This is not going to go the way you think!”, in the trailer for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, I doubt anyone thought he was using Jedi mind tricks on us. It’s clear who he’s saying that line to, but the it could easily be applied to the millions of fans who’ve been anticipating the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga proper. Indeed what stands out and will become most memorable is the unexpected tone and characterization choices; but most of all, he does things with the Force here that have never been seen on the big-screen before. Throughout the movie, expectations are subverted and intermittent surprises, offering a Star Wars experience unlike any other.  

Mind you, there are callbacks to both “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi” here, but those who’ve bemoaned how similar J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” was to “A New Hope” needn’t worry about “The Last Jedi”, since even the similarities to the original trilogy here are subverted. Writer/director Johnson may be paying homage to those classic movies for his fourth feature (following “Brick, “The Brothers Bloom” and “Looper”), but it’s how he does it that stands out and believe it or not, no one gets a limb sliced off or says, “I have a bad feeling about this.” He’s made a confident and enthusiastic movie that fits within the Star Wars universe that we know, at times changing the aesthetic, proving that producer Kathleen Kennedy most definitely trusts Johnson.

 

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Two years ago, Artoo had conveniently woke up just in time to take Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Chewbacca to a the edge of a cliff. Ironically, it was the first legit cliffhanger of the series, providing viewers with more questions and mysteries than they had at the end of “Empire”. After all, at the end of that movie, we knew the next movie would involve the search for a frozen Han Solo. Based on the very end of “The Force Awakens”, the beginning of this movie could go any which way and it does – when you expect it to zig, it zags. We got the idea that Skywalker has been in exile since he lost his nephew, Ben Solo (Adam Driver, balancing rage, intensity and vulnerability) to the Dark Side of the Force (from a certain point of view) which would turn him into Kylo Ren thanks to the influence of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), but the specifics are cloudy and questions remained.

Did Luke not sense that his friends, the same ones he left Dagobah for years ago, had just experienced a devastating loss? Did he not feel the force awaken, especially with the presence of Rey on his island? We couldn’t get any of those questions answered, because director J.J. Abrams closed the curtain before a grey-bearded, long-haired Skywalker could greet his guest.

What’s so great about “The Last Jedi” is that Johnson isn’t concerned with answering such questions or addressing theories that have developed since the last movie and even when he does, he deftly evades or only gives away certain perspectives and then leaves us with more questions. Thankfully, he’s chiefly concerned with characters and telling a good story.

What we’ve been most looking forward to is what Luke’s reaction to Rey would be after approaching him on the oceanic planet Ahch-To, where he’s alienated himself from the rest of the galaxy. Despite their Force connections, even his twin sister, General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, in her final performance) has no idea where he is, which is why she has sent Rey off to find him as she the is plagued by casualties of war weigh her down. So, something has clearly happened with Luke, but what? Leia hopes Rey can persuade him to join her and the rest of the Resistance (this trilogy’s incarnation of the Rebellion, now more rag-tag than ever), as they fight the massive hold the First Order (a more Nazis-esque version of the Empire) has on the galaxy.

 

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It was rumored that “The Last Jedi” would pick up where “Force Awakens” left us, but Johnson doesn’t bring us back to that memorable scene on the cliff immediately and when he does it’s not necessarily what we’d expect. That’s another great thing about “The Last Jedi”, it takes months of anticipation and speculations and, well, throws them off a cliff. Anything goes here and we’re never really certain what decisions characters will make or how we’ll get them. That’s refreshing for a Star Wars movie.

What becomes most notable right away though is the humor Johnson incorporates. At first, it’s kind of jarring, but it’s easy to settle into since what he’s doing is essentially loosening the movie’s collar (and, again, our expectations) and offering a lightness to the tone of the film. It also feels needed due to the pressure our heroes are under and the emotional toll some of them are under. Humor in Star Wars movies has always fared better when it wasn’t so cute (Ewoks) or corny (Chewie’s Tarzan yelp in “Return of the Jedi”, not to mention a certain Gungan), leaning rather on subtleties and character interaction, but here certain situational comedy works just right. For example, we probably thought that catching up with the severely wounded Finn (John Boyega), would prove to be a heavy moment, but how hotshot pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), finds him is genuinely comical.

The humor is needed considering the dire straits the Resistance are in as they struggle to escape the relentless grasp of the enemy, with the First Order’s General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) continuously breathing down their neck. As transport ships are running low on fuel, Admiral Holdo (a welcome Laura Dern) steps in to preserve the Resistance fleet as they scramble to find a new base of operations, in turn butting heads with Poe over her plans. When Poe and Finn discover the Resistance is unable to escape because the First Order has developed a way to track them through lightspeed, a secret plan is hatched to infiltrate the enemy and disable the device. They’ll need a hacker though and after a suggestion from Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) Finn, BB-8 and Resistance technician, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) race to the casino planet Canto Bight to try to determine if they can trust shifty underworld slicer, DJ (Benicio del Toro, deliciously chewing up scenes), while Poe covers for them.

 

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Splitting up the assembly of heroes halfway through a trilogy isn’t anything new in storytelling. It’s an opportunity to give each character a chance to shine as they team-up, instead of getting lost in the mix. Fans may automatically think of “Empire” (the best of the franchise) as the story this plays out here, but Johnson knows it’s a successful approach and what’s taking place is happening at such a brisk pace in “Last Jedi” that you barely notice it’s runtime (yes, it’s the longest Star Wars film, but who cares? If I was helming my first Star Wars film, it would be at least this long). Earlier this year, people complained about James Gunn employing this approach for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” to great effect, but little do they realize it’s a method that works and Johnson balances each storyline – the secret mission on Canto Bight, the trouble within the Resistance fleet and the complex development between Rey and Luke, not to mention what transpires between Rey and Kylo Ren.

What sets “The Last Jedi” apart from what’s come before it are the many areas in which Johnson and his longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin give us something that looks and feels different. From the earth-tones of Ahch-to to the white salt that covers the red soiled planet of Crait, Johnson and company go out of their way to offer tantalizing environments that are often quite breathtaking.

Most noticeable though is where Johnson is eager to push the aesthetic to serve the story best. It’s apparent in the first space battle, where the filmmakers are less concerned with CGI spectacle than the are closing in on the stakes and the cost of war. Witnessing a cocky Poe maneuver his X-Wing into moves that I’ve never seen before is exhilarating, but even moreso is a nail biting scene that finds us rooting for a Resistance gunner whom we just met as she struggles to drop a cache of bombs at just the right moment. These are feats and stakes we’ve rarely seen in Star Wars movies and it establishes Johnson doesn’t feel tied to a particular aesthetic that he has to maintain. He may be doing his own thing here, but he’s also enough of a fan that he wants to hit just enough nods to make his story recognizable within its environment.

It’s also refreshing to see that the strong women of “The Last Jedi” are leading the way, often in a quiet and confident manner. Oh, they hear the men around them, but the persist to their own agenda or directive, following their heart or gut instinct. These are brave and bold women, yet never afraid to show fear or uncertainty.  I’m not pinpointing one specific female character here, since this observation can be applied toward all of them. Considering Aunt Beru and Princess Leia were the only women with lines in “A New Hope”, that’s an important observation. On that note, it was disheartening to see that once again Gwendoline Christie‘s Captain Phasma still wasn’t given much to do here, leaving her to be the Boba Fett of this trilogy.

 

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“The Last Jedi” struggles slightly on Canto Bight, which should be a quick in-and-out mission for Finn, Rose and BB-8, that winds up taking entirely too long.  Timing is crucial, since Poe is relying on them in order for the Resistance to get the upper hand on the pursuing enemy, but it feels like they get distracting and turned around too many times while on this Cloud City and Monte Carlo mashup. While I appreciate that Johnson wants to introduce us to a different socioeconomic side to the galaxy – showing the upper class that populate the casinos as carefree war profiteers (who serve both the First Order and the Resistance) and the animal cruelty and child slavery that supports their entertainment – feels a bit much considering the ticking clock. Still, I can appreciate that Johnson is interested in giving his audience something more than pure escapism (and at least he’s not boring us with trade embargoes like the prequels), glancing in between and around the good guys and bad guys, in an effort to make the Star Wars universe a bit richer and relatable.

In all the commotion, there may not be enough room to include worthy moments for classic characters such as Chewbacca, Threepio and Artoo, but it wouldn’t be the same without them. Maybe Chewbacca is given too much screen time with the undeniably adorable (borderline pesky) Porgs, the puffin-like indigenous creatures of Ahch-to, but I was nevertheless on board. Artoo gets a poignant moment on the Millennium Falcon with Luke that had me choked up a bit and Hamill’s weathered Skywalker respond to Chewbacca when the reunite just about broke me. Not everyone will respond the way I did during these scenes. It probably depends on your age or what level of Star Wars geekdom you’re steeped in, but if I had to put my finger on it, it’s all in how Hamill nails these scenes.

It may be surprising to some (not for me), but Hamill winds up delivering the movie’s most potent and rewarding performance. It doesn’t feel like it at first, but the more time spent with this older Luke, the more we see just how disillusioned and wracked with guilt and grief he’s been. His reason for being on the island, for isolating himself, it all makes sense the more we learn. Skywalker was always the more optimistic and hopeful of the classic trio, but what Hamill’s portrayal – in his expressions, guttural line deliveries, the way he breathes out his choice words – reminds us the humanity underneath the reputation of a legend and how, just like we learned in “Force Awakens” with Han and Leia, life doesn’t always turn out the way you hoped it would.

 

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Fisher’s performance is right alongside Hamill as well, but it’s inevitably bittersweet, weighed by her untimely demise last year. The actress is missed every time she’s on screen, but thankfully, how Johnson has written Leia is swan song worthy material. It helps that it includes aspects of the character I’ve waited thirty-four years to see – and, yes, I did shed a few tears during some of her scenes.

That being said, what you take from “The Last Jedi” will depend on what you take in with you to the theater.  You can certainly enjoy the movie without knowing much about what’s come before it, although I can’t imagine seeing it without having seen “The Force Awakens” first. You’ll definitely get more out of if you’ve already opened yourself to the way these movies can connect to us on an emotional, even spiritual level. Fans in their mid-forties like myself, may get more out of a seeing characters we’ve grown up with, but seeing where these new characters are going is a different kind of satisfaction.

Unlike the cliffhanger Abrams left us with, I found myself kind of mystified as to where the story can go when its handed back to Abrams for “Episode IX”. That’s partly due to Fisher’s death, or it could be because of how this episode ends.

“The Last Jedi” earned several “Whoas” from start to finish as it thrilled and entertained me. Yet, what I’ll remember most is how Johnson is careful to present these characters with the right amount of humor and humanity. Even if you weren’t aware that he grew up a Star Wars geek, it’s clear this is someone with an exuberant appreciation for the job he was given. I’m definitely up for another trilogy from him.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Billy Floyd permalink
    December 16, 2017 10:20 pm

    I really did not expect any of these new movies to be this good. Incredible experience.

  2. FaithJ. permalink
    December 20, 2017 9:06 am

    This felt like an Episode IX movie to me with all the buildup, confrontations, and near-completed character arcs. Loved all the performances, and Fisher and Hamill were amazing, really a perfect return to their characters. Director Johnson needs to work on some time-issues, however, and not expect us viewers to just make those leaps. What I am referring to is:
    – the opening crawl and scene depict events that demand that months have passed (at least); however with Luke and Rey, no time has passed whatsoever. They must have been standing a long time on that cliff while the First Order rose to power and eliminated the entire New Republic.

    – the Resistance sends out a distress signal for their allies across the galaxy to help them; then waits about 15 seconds to announce that no one is responding, all hope is lost.

    – Luke has a final showdown at the end of the movie, then immediately (the same night we last saw them?) stable kids elsewhere in the galaxy are recounting that legendary tale.

    These discrepancies are really jarring to me, making the points Johnson is trying to make feel forced.

    If “Attack of the Clones” is a 1, and “Return of the Jedi” is a 10 on my personal Star Wars scale, “The Last Jedi” is a 6.5.

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