Star Wars: Episode VIII : The Last JediReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/21/17 11:56:28
Although I enjoyed the last two films in the “Star Wars” franchise—“The Force Awakens” (2015) and “Rogue One”(2016)—more than any in the history of the saga since the 1977 original and the followup “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), it cannot be denied that a great deal of their appeal is inextricably tied to the accomplishments of those early entries. “The Force Awakens” was essentially a remix of the original film and while it may not have broken new ground in any way, it did invest the material with an energy that had been lacking in the series for decades and helped remind older viewers why they got excited by George Lucas’s original vision in the first place while at the same time introducing it to a new generation of moviegoers. “Rogue One” was even better and more inventive than its immediate predecessor but as a direct prequel to “Star Wars,” it too was somewhat beholden to its past even though it told a story that did not necessarily require an intense knowledge of it. That approach was probably the right move for those films but if the new films continued to focus so intently on the past glories of the saga, they threatened to run the franchise into the ground even more completely than such missteps as “The Phantom Menace” and that “Clone Wars” animated feature. There are many great things about the latest film in the series, “The Last Jedi,” but arguably the best thing about it is that not only is it not a slave to its occasionally storied and occasionally embarrassing past, it actively sets about blowing up that history and the expectations engendered by it in order to move forward into something that is identifiably “Star Wars” without merely coming across as a rehash. The result is the best film in the series since “The Empire Strikes Back,” one that is satisfying both in terms of its predecessors and as its own individual thing.Because there may still be a few of you out there who have yet to see it, I will tread as lightly as possible regarding plot details. Picking up more or less exactly where “The Force Awakens” left off, this one starts with the heroic Resistance, having had their whereabouts discovered by the forces of the malevolent First Order, attempting to evacuate while under heavy fire in the hopes of finding a new base of operations. Fending off the assault is a squadron led by the recklessly heroic Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and while he pulls it off, his tactics led to several death and a demotion from General Leia (the late, great Carrie Fisher in her final role). The Resistance is not out of the woods yet as they continue to be pursued by the First Order forces led by the vile Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his chief underling, General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson). When the escape plan conjured up by new Resistance leader Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) doesn’t satisfy Poe, he sets out to devise his own plan to save the day once again. This plot requires former First Order member and current Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega) to slip away to a nearby casino planet along with brave techie Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to find a master codebreaker who can help them infiltrate the enemy computer system and allow the Resistance ships to get away. While all this is going on, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has just tracked down the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote planet and is hoping that finding him will help her become a true Jedi and figure out her place in the grand scheme of things and inspire him to come out of self-imposed exile and once again lead the rebel forces—let us just say that things do not quite work out as she expects in any of those cases, especially in regards to her unexpected connection to the evil-but-conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)
One of the problems with the later “Star Wars’ movies is that they have tended to become so weighted down by their own mythology that you get the sense that the chances of them shaking things up and risking the wrath of overly entitled fanboys are about as likely as improvising during the asking of the Four Questions at a Passover Seder. Even George Lucas himself succumbed to this with his attempts to tie everything in the films together in increasingly tight knots as far back as “Return of the Jedi” but within a few minutes of “The Last Jedi,” it becomes apparent that writer-director Rian Johnson (the filmmaker behind such brilliant and off-kilter works as “Brick” and “Looper”) is not going to be utilizing an overly reverential approach. Take the opening sequence, for example. It starts as the other films have—a title crawl leading into a battle scene—but instead of the usual slightly stiff heroic yakety-yak, there is genuinely funny dialogue that inspires laughs both from the sheer nerve of its presence and because it is handled so nicely. That alone may come as a shock to many observers but it is hardly the first because as the film proceeds, Johnson pulls off an interesting trick by telling a story that structurally and emotionally more or less follows the beats laid down by “The Empire Strikes Back” while at the same time turning his back on the overtly nostalgia-driven narrative similarities that Abrams had baked into the storyline of his film and which had been expected to play out over the course of this film and the next. By summarily disposing of many of these without even batting an eye, is striving to make a film that has classics of the genre in its DNA while still daring to be its own thing. You know, the same kind of thing that George Lucas did when he took the old “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers” serials and used them as building blocks for the original “Star Wars.”
Of course, to explain how he goes about doing this is pretty much impossible to do without revealing any number of plot developments that are best left under wraps in deference to those who have not seen it. What I can say in virtually every case, Johnson has made the right decision. If he had gone in the direction that Abrams was headed, it would have offered moviegoers little more than the experience of watching a story playing out in all the expected ways. Here, Johnson not only short-circuits that problem throughout but has some interesting ideas about the most basic underpinnings of the entire saga—ranging from the devil-may-care heroics of people like Poe (not to mention their ultimate costs) to the very nature of the Force itself that show that he has actually given the ideas that Lucas introduced some real thought and is not content to merely service the rabid fan base. He has also expanded on one of Abrams’s best ideas—making the universe a more inclusive one in terms of the casting—by making women of various ages and ethnic classes into character of true bravery and power instead of sidekicks to the usual white male hero types.
As a welcome byproduct of this new direction, the actors have been given roles with real meat to them and they respond in kind with strong performances. Ridley, Issac, Boyega and Driver are all very good at developing believable characterizations with recognizable emotional beats amid all the effects-heavy chaos. Of the new characters introduced this time around, Laura Dern steals the show as an admiral whose motives are not always as they might seem and Benicio del Toro, fresh from his gig directing “The Shape of Water,” turns up as well for a few scenes and is an amusing presence in them. As for the old-timers, Mark Hamill has been given the most fleshed out and dramatically significant scenes for the character of Luke Skywalker in the history of the series and is more than up to the challenge of them—in his depiction of Luke’s conflict about the entire Jedi way of life and his place in it, he turns in what may be his best performance to date. With Carrie Fisher, it is, of course, impossible to watch her without feeling the full weight of her tragic real-life demise last year. There are a couple of times where that does towards moments that flirt with bad taste but for the most part, her work her should be seen as a celebration of both Fisher and of Leia, a character who pretty much single-handedly upended the notion that the sci-fi genre was a boys-only playground.“The Last Jedi” has a couple of minor flaws—the casino junket runs a little too long and while those much-ballyhooed Porgs are not quite as obnoxious as the odious Ewoks, I still could have lived without them—but it is the best and most innovative “Star Wars” film to come along in a long time and you would think that this would inspire celebration in the streets among longtime fans of the franchise. And yet, there has been much whining amongst a number of them who are upset by the changes that Johnson has wrought and how they have allegedly done untold damage to the saga as a whole. I could spend a paragraph or too decrying such people as narrow-minded and overly entitled twerps who only want their “Star Wars” stories to be told in a very specific manner and who pitch online fits if there is even the slightest deviation from the norm. However, I would instead like to point out one little thing to these people, many of who may not have even been running around in short pants when “The Phantom Menace” came out. Nowadays, “The Empire Strikes Back” is generally regarded to be the high point in the series but I am old enough to remember both seeing it the weekend that it originally opened back in the summer of 1980 and the original reaction to it back in the day. Although we more or less loved it (it was a new “Star Wars” film, after all), it felt a little disappointing in comparison to the original—it had a darker and less heroic tone, it had a storyline that split up the heroes for nearly all of the running time and ended on an ambiguous note that shattered a number of the preconceived notions that we had about where the story was headed. Of course, once the shock wore off, people began to recognize the strength of the humor, the plotting and the way that it built on the original without merely repeating it (as “Return of the Jedi” would disappointingly do a couple of years later) and eventually regarded it as the best of the series for the very same reasons for which it was once decried. I have a sneaky suspicion that history is going to repeat itself with “The Last Jedi” and the very same people issuing online petitions calling on the film to be removed from the official “Star Wars” canon (this is not a joke) will one day appreciate just how good it really is.
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