Star Wars is a personal journey for most. The loyal base, which is considerably larger than it used to be, internalize this franchise unlike any other. It’s because of this reason I’ve heard compelling arguments in defense of every film being the best or close to being the best. Some of these arguments generally are futile (The Phantom Menace) and some are just preaching to choir (The Empire Strikes Back). But they are impassioned nonetheless in a way so few things are and I love and respect every single point of view, as long as it’s tasteful and non-offensive of course.
So here we are with a new Star Wars movie, which used to be a rare occurrence but it’s an annual tradition now. This time it’s writer/director Rian Johnson’s turn to shock and awe us. That is an apt description actually as I was shocked several times and in awe many others, and not always for the better. This is not a perfect Star Wars movie, heck, at some points it’s not even a Star Wars movie at all. It’s a space adventure akin to Buck Rogers or Battlestar Galactica. And that was really more shocking to me than any specific moment in the film.
Tough to discuss plot without spoilers but if you’ve seen The Force Awakens you’re off to a good start. This one doesn’t pick up where that one left us on the island of Ahch-To but it doesn’t take long to get there. We have a quick space battle first which sets in the motion the general momentum of the film. You can easily find the plot online now I won’t spend any time on that. It’s essentially the universe’s slowest chase movie with the First Order hot on the heels of the resistance who are a splintered group and trying to escape. In the meantime Rey is on the island with Luke, and some other creatures, trying to convince him to join the fight once again.
One thing I do like is this film very much has a point of view where I felt The Force Awakens and J.J. Abrams did not. That makes me a little uneasy about Abrams coming back for Episode IX but perhaps he’s learned a few things after watching The Last Jedi and is willing to go out of his comfort zones. Comparisons to Empire were inevitable but I’m happy to say they are comparable in only that they use a tandem narrative scenario and the “good guys” take a beating. Beyond that its a standard second act in a three act structure, that’s just storytelling not plagiarism. It actually reminded me more of Return of the Jedi at times but I can’t say why without spilling anything.
The length of the film bothersome for many seemed reasonable since almost every character got a “moment” and growth, something the previous film was lacking. All the returnees had plenty of screen time save a few (poor Chewie) with obviously Rey, Finn and Poe doing the heavy lifting on the good side and Hux and Kylo for the villains. Surprisingly after all the fan reaction and hoopla, Captain Phasma played again by Gwendoline Christie was short-changed again in my opinion. The biggest gains were Kylo Ren and Poe Dameron to me since they saw significant character growth, each learning hard lessons which will no doubt help them as they’re being positioned to lead their respective sides.
Since this is essentially Rey’s journey she gets all the juicy bits and does well. I feel like we’ve seen upset emotional Rey before so I’m thinking it’s time to assert herself a bit more. We see some of that by the end but it takes too many gullible scenes to get there. Her scenes with Luke are awkward at times and I much prefer her mixed in with the rest as she plays a strong leader very well, a student not so much. It was odd to rush her skill set in Episode VII only to have them almost grind to a halt here, especially her intuition. She survived on Jakku all by herself most of her life in harsh conditions but blushes at the sight of a shirtless Ren at one point? Not buying it.
And Kylo easily does the most “growing up” in this film. Adam Driver is strong in the role and I look forward to the next installment to see just how far he pushes his performance. There’s talk of accolades for Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher but for me Adam Driver has been the most solid throughout and with the toughest part to play.
For the newcomers Vice Admiral Haldo (Laura Dern), DJ (Benicio del Toro) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) they all do what’s asked of them by the end. Tran does all the heavy lifting and is great in the part. She’s sympathetic and hopeful in spite of having hardened through a less than ideal upbringing and through losses she’s suffered since joining the resistance. Del Toro’s character is really kind of wasted and seems ripped from the pages of a Star Wars mystery novel, the stranger with no name. He’s a classic trope in high stakes adventure films it’s just a crowded room and someone’s got to go. Dern’s Holdo has a limited amount of screen time but is very impactful and actually has one of the film’s best moments in the end, I only wish we would’ve seen more of her. I’ll say it here, if Carrie Fisher had died prior to production being over, Dern would be a central figure in Episode IX.
As for the old guard, Carrie Fisher disappointed me greatly in The Force Awakens but is great in this film. She’s calm and patient with the young rebels and there’s a scene which I won’t spoil but let’s just say the force runs strong in that family.
Hamill really has fun in this version of Luke Skywalker. I say “version” because you’ve never seen this Skywalker before and it’s a bit jarring at first. If your last memory of Luke is Return of the Jedi then you’ll be thrown off by his new sense of sardonic humour. If you’ve seen Hamill in one of his many appearances, less so. This is a new role for Luke, teacher, master, guardian of the whills. It’s not until he’s humbled by an old familiar friend from the past is when he snaps out of it. But then we get some very high quality stuff from Hamill.
Visually speaking, you don’t spend a lot of time on the planets in spite of the heavy marketing levied at Cantonica (Canto Bight) and Crait so you don’t see much. Most of this film takes place in space, aboard cruisers and on Ahch-To. Technology being what it is, the film is marvelous to look at and the physical sets and locations were a wise choice to offset the heavy riffing done against the cold backdrop of space. The camera is busy, too busy at times, but you are whisked away several times as you follow the tandem narratives and there is enough close-ups to get you in tight.
John Williams of course is on point with his score, no surprise there. With new additions to the now classic score he managed once again to keep it fresh while old favorite melodies are held for the key emotional moments.
This Star Wars film has something for everyone and it goes beyond lip service at times. It has enough historical context to please the cynics (me) but keeps the momentum clearly on the side of the new cast which is just good business on the part of Disney and LucasFilm. The problem is there’s so many red herring’s that the true test of the film won’t be known until Episode IX. And like I said it’s not a perfect film. The first half does drag at times and the spotty dialogue has me wondering what were they thinking.
But it’s very much a forest through the trees situation here. Look past all the flash and bang and you’ll likely find the resolve you’re looking for. It’s not always obvious but good storytelling rarely is.
The humor didn’t always work for me but I prefer plot derivative humor so that’s just personal taste rather than execution. The meta humor approach works in some atmospheres, for me, Star Wars is not one of those atmospheres. That was something that really bothered me about The Force Awakens. I was the kid in the theatre not laughing at C3-PO when he would land one of his famous gripes. But you’re forcing humor from characters who are not historically known for it, that’s a recipe for disaster tone wise and you feel it. Oh and the Porgs? Too useless on their own to be plot mechanisms and too many of them to be anything but Disney product placement. However, the Porgs along with other space creatures seem to serve a larger purpose as this new universe seems to treat all living things with disdain and the pleasure they derive from their pain is obvious.
And that is where this film breaks from the others. It successfully instills a risk versus reward mentality, literally at times, and teaches like all good things they are worth fighting for. The lessons Luke is trying to teach Rey about the Force not belonging to anyone or Leia trying to install good leadership skills in Poe are essential and cathartic, which leads me to believe Johnson has the right knowledge and tools to carry his own trilogy forward. Philosophy is dripping from this movie and Johnson doesn’t sacrifice the action to get to it, he embraces them both and intertwines them in a wonderful way at times. His daring to expand on Jedi mythology is a scary proposition for some but treading into new territory is what made Star Wars great to begin with
Talking about this movie in detail would be much more fun but as it stands its difficult to do without spoiling anything. The pay off is infinitely higher if you go in cold on this one. I will say this, while the first half left me feeling a little cold and numb, I cried three times in the second half so sit tight and be patient. There are things that occur near the end which will be the topic of arguments for decades to come but no one will argue the impact on-screen. Johnson, like the film, saves the best for last.
So, where does the Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi fall on that list? For anyone to declare something definitive is likely premature. Even the mighty Empire Strikes Back was initially met with raised eyebrows and took time to make its way to #1 on most folks rankings. Like most things it’ll take time and multiple viewings to decide plus like I said this trilogy was mapped out back in 2012 so while you may have a favorite, realize its how you feel about the three collectively is what matters most.
But I’ll tell you this. Rian Johnson was working under a narrative template and already conceived main characters. He pushed them and Star Wars to the edge in the best way and all the while under the watchful eye of Kathleen Kennedy and company. That takes guts and is fraught with a bevy of error likely situations. Some of the decisions failed and some of them worked, and that’s okay.
He’s really testing the limits and redefining what it means to be a Star Wars fan, forcing the old guard to embrace the modern age in a way. Imagine what he’ll do with his own trilogy? I for one can’t wait.
Till next time…MTFBWY.