Friday, December 22, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth part of the nine episodes in the series, is as operatic as this fantastic franchise has ever been. In the hands of a new writer and director, Rian Johnson, this is a film that enjoys embracing the formulas that have made these films so endearing for so long, while also taking risks unlike any of its predecessors did. It is possibly one of the reasons why fans reportedly have been more turned off by this film than critics, even though the reverse is usually true for blockbusters. Despite this, listen to the critics. They're definitely right this time.

Why are they right? The movie looks fantastic, the actors are having fun, the dialogue ain't perfect but there is no crying about how coarse sand is. There are a variety of surprises throughout -- most good, some not. This is a franchise that has been around for forty years. It's about time they start spicing things up.

The Last Jedi starts immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, in which the First Order (the remnants of the Galactic Empire defeated in the original trilogy) took a few mighty strikes against the Resistance, a militarized offshoot of the Republic, which practically was destroyed in the last film. While the Resistance and the First Order engage in a fierce battle among the stars, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks out the assistance of Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has forced himself into exile on a remote island far away from anyone. Even after having the stakes explained to him, Luke is not interested in the slightest. His guilt over training Ben Solo (Adam Driver), his nephew who turned to the Dark Side and became Kylo Ren, has led him to believe that the Jedi must end. Luke may no longer be a whiny teenager bellowing about power converters, but now he's an cagey old man complaining about kids on his property.

Rey will not give up in her pleading with him to help. Meanwhile, the First Order is chasing down the final ships of the Resistance, picking them off one by one. The sibling rivalry between General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ren continues, and they have a tough father in the form of the Supreme Leader, Snoke, to please. Snoke is played in yet another motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis, whose voice is menacing. Hux and his fleet hunt down the Resistance while Kylo Ren searches for Rey and Skywalker.

These actors and the characters they play are as enjoyable to watch as they've ever been. Some have become more interesting, even if that also means they've become more problematic. Poe Dameron, for example, the hotshot pilot for the Resistance (played by Oscar Issac) is more three dimensional here than he was last time around, probably because in the last film's script he initially was meant to die, which is why he just sort of disappeared for the second act. Here, he's charming and adventurous, but also stupid. It's hard to like him while he does a lot of mansplaining to his superior, Admiral Holdo, played magnificently by Laura Dern. Only several years ago, a studio would have set up this dynamic to get the audience to sympathize with the male; now, it's impossible to do that, and for good reason. Holdo is a calm, reasonable, and brave presence on the ship as the First Order chases them, and yet Poe, a cowboy who demands action, is too short-sighted. Poe thinks he's Indiana Jones in space; Holdo knows that "bitches get things done." But often throughout their confrontations, Dern displays a persona that expresses a lifetime of having to listen to men push their way into battles and risk everything. There's a reason the Rebel Alliance, the Republic, and the Resistance are led by women like Mon Mothma, Holdo, and General Leia Organa.

The villains are all much more enthralling to watch this time around. If you were disappointed in the wasted opportunity in how little screen time Gwendolyn Christie got last time, well, you'll still be disappointed by her short time in this film, but not by what she does with it. Driver plays Kylo Ren as a sociopath, and yet like most sociopaths, he contains at least a tiny of drop of qualities that make him at least somewhat sympathetic. In this case it's his very apparent behavior, temper, and anger issues, and the fact that he's bullied by his teacher and leader Snoke doesn't help. (In the reverse, teachers disappointing their students is a common theme throughout.) Gleeson as General Hux double-hams it up with that ridiculously fake accent, which you'll either love or hate. Benicio Del Toro also joins the cast, and he looks like he's having as good a time as he did when he was in The Usual Suspects and Guardians of the Galaxy, though it's so similar to those performances that it might disappoint you. The addition of Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico helps make The Last Jedi feel like it's the most diverse Star Wars movie ever; even the First Order is more diverse. Tran, the daughter of refugee migrants from Vietnam, plays Rose as a tough fighter in the Resistance. The death of her sister only gives her further stamina and motivation to take them down.

Mark Hamill, returning as Luke Skywalker, his most famous character, is actually kind of funny here, as Harrison Ford's Han Solo was before him in The Force Awakens. But be warned, apparently fans are angry that there are a few laughs in this film. (People who do not like The Last Jedi do not like laughing.) And then there's Carrie Fisher. What else can be written about the acting legend that hasn't already? Her character, Leia, the princess who became a warrior, is war weary; she remembers how many they've lost, and that was basically how we felt upon learning that she was the latest celebrity in 2016 to pass away (and only a day before her mother, Debbie Reynolds, also died). In her long career, her final performance is one of her truly best, and it is awfully unfortunate that the world will not get one more performance by her as Leia, for Lucasfilm had planned on her having a larger role in the final part of the trilogy.

As a director, Johnson is amazingly talented at shooting fight scenes. The other well-known features in which he helms (Brick, Looper, and several episodes of Breaking Bad) do not have this kind of staccato action; indeed, these scenes here are filmed in a way different from those directed by George Lucas, J.J. Abrams, and others. In fact, the entire pacing of this movie is different. Whereas The Force Awakens started off quite strongly, it fizzled out as it got closer and closer to the end (a common problem in movies directed by Abrams). Here, there's a big bang in the beginning, but other than a far-fetched and dull sequence involving a casino, this movie never lets our interest wane. With few exceptions, The Last Jedi gets better with each passing minute. When The Last Jedi starts, it is evident that it will probably be a better ride than The Force Awakens, but half-way through it is more than obvious it will.

As a writer, Johnson is pretty good, too, and there are two or three scenes in The Last Jedi he and his team came up with that ideally would be worth writing about, but it's virtually impossible to do so without spoiling them. Spoil I shall not. At first, I thought I could simply use a noun to get the idea across, but even that would be revealing too much. Perhaps an adjective could be used instead, and the one used would simply be: wonderful. Still, another adjective that could be used for another scene would be "ridiculous"; it comes early in the film and involves floating (or flying, or something like that). It's stupidly written and while containing a certain meta quality, looks goofy. Additionally, Johnson includes a few shout-outs to the original three films, and many of these are unnecessary, but it doesn't seem as if the film is oozing with nostalgia like The Force Awakens did. Finally, to address one of the largest concerns fans had going into this movie, let me say that if you like the porgs, these adorable owl-penguin hybrids won't disappoint you. If you hate them, rest assured they're hardly in it.

Sure, this film is not without its problems. Isaac and Gleeson starred in a sci-fi movie two years ago called Ex Machina, and yet that old-fashioned devise is employed so liberally here that it feels like it would be a better title than The Last Jedi. This is the longest Star Wars movie, and while for the most part it doesn't seem too long, there are scenes that could have been scrapped (mainly the casino part). Needless to say, I feel happy after watching this movie that Johnson will write and direct a new Star Wars trilogy that apparently won't have anything to do with the previous movies Lucasfilm has made. Fans will run out of patience with this franchise eventually. Star Wars is not Marvel; it cannot last forever. But for the time being, after the immense success of The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, why stop now?


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