Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017) / Fantasy-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
Running Time: 152 min.
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, Andy Serkis, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, Joonas Suotamo, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels
Cameo: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (voice), Justin Theroux, Lupita Nyong'o (voice), Warwick Davis, Gareth Edwards, Frank Oz (voice)
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Review published December 21, 2017
Rian Johnson (Looper, The Brothers Bloom) takes over the reigns of the venerable franchise for one film in between the two helmed by J.J. Abrams and crafts a successful outing, continuing from the last moment of The Force Awakens to what is essentially a sight gag. That deviation between taking its mythos seriously on the one hand then playfully showing that its all a bit of a lark will likely polarize longtime Star Wars fans, some of whom will see any deviation in tone or characterizations as something that is not welcome as a "Star Wars" film, much in the way some Trekkers reject the newer big-screen efforts that are also produced by J.J. Abrams. Some things are held sacred by the fans and wry self-mockery is not going to be received with universal embrace.
As for me, as a near lifelong Star Wars fanboy, I'm generally on board for trying a new approach, and, by and large, I do think that Rian Johnson delivers when and where it counts with The Last Jedi, even if I do believe it contains a few too many story threads and sometimes feels a bit choppy in its approach to storytelling to make for a turbulent-free ride. In other words, it tastes great going down, but it does carry a bitter aftertaste.
Carrie Fisher (Fanboys) gets a sizeable final role as General Leia Organa, who commands a seemingly overwhelmed Rebellion against the powerful galaxy-wide force for evil, The First Order, headed by Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis, War for the Planet of the Apes) and his henchmen, Kylo Ren (her son, who has disavowed her and just about everything he once was as Ben Solo) and General Hux (Gleeson, American Made). Meanwhile, hot-dog pilot for the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Isaac, X-Men: Apocalypse), helps their cause in gaining the upper hand on powerful First Order battleships while former stormtrooper buddy Finn (Boyega, Detroit) assists the cause, along with new member of the integral team, a crew member named Rose Tico (Tran, Untouchable), in order to break into a First Order ship to temporarily deactivate a powerful tracking device. All this while, Rey (Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), visiting the ancient Jedi island on Ahch-To, receives reluctant training from reclusive and haunted Luke Skywalker himself (Hamill, Brigsby Bear) in how to harness her prodigious affinity with The Force into becoming something akin to a new Jedi.
Adam Driver (Logan Lucky) emerges as the most interesting of the new trilogy characters, portraying the conflicted Kylo Ren with enough sympathy to not outright hate him, even though he commits some truly reprehensible acts, which gives his actions a certain degree of unpredictability that is refreshing for a series that sometimes seems locked down to its 'Hero's Journey' trappings. Daisy Ridley is fine as the heroine, Rey, though hints suggesting that she might easily turn to the Dark Side seem immediately worthy of rejection given her set-up as the truest and most lawful 'good guy'. The only true question is whether her attraction for Kylo Ren will cause her to stumble when trying to protect the Resistance from his attacks.
As for the old guard, Hamill is, of course, a welcome presence to sell Star Wars fans on the continuity of the series with a recognizable face, even if the presence of Harrison Ford is sorely missed in upping the 'coolness' factor. It's nice to see the late Carrie Fisher in her final role, playing the character that would define her popularity. A scene in which both of them play a prominent role is rewarding not only for fans, but also due to Fisher's recent passing. Though their screen time has been bolstered in this entry, the new trilogy, and whatever lies beyond, is meant to sell us on the new characters and their story arcs. As Kylo Ren suggests, in order to find out what you truly be, you need to let the past die, something which rings a certain truth in terms of the series' ability to grow, but also something that will no doubt rankle those who carry a great deal of nostalgia and ascribe great importance to the stories they grew up cherishing in every detail, not wanting to let those stories or characters go.
Along these lines, The Last Jedi is a mixed success, as we genuinely are intrigued as to where things will go with Rey and Kylo Ren, but the storyline regarding Finn seems to have 'arced out' with The Force Awakens, while Poe Dameron still doesn't have enough meat to his character to make us care one way or another about his actions on the screen outside of admiring Oscar Isaac for all that he brings to a relatively thinly developed role. The original series was built up making it the Luke Skywalker saga, even though the side characters may have been more interesting. This entry blurs the line too much in terms of where it thinks its main story arc should be, with the most obvious hero, Rey, having her significance reduced in order to accommodate Kylo Ren's story in humanized villainy, as well as continued progression of separate threads involving Finn, Poe, and now Rose, along with Luke and Leia's continued existence and their backstory. At two and a half hours, the longest film in the Star Wars universe, there's something wrong when the story feels like there's not much breathing room.
If there are knocks against The Last Jedi, they will likely come from how the characters portrayed from the Original Trilogy, particularly in their powers, and in how much use of The Force is a factor in this entry and the relative ease to which the newer characters seem to harness it. We also see some of those powers displayed by Luke and, in a twist, Leia, who showcase abilities never before seen, or even hinted at, in the previous seven entries in the saga, which further makes the film seem like it is going to directions that don't quite feel like "Star Wars" any longer. Also, my biggest personal gripe with the film is that its attempts at goofball humor don't jibe with the tone of the rest of the film, and worse, the series at large.
That said, while some die-hard Star Wars fans will likely deride the film for breaking out of tradition, I'm actually on board for most of the deviation, feeling like the series will need to break out of its tendency to remake the same film over and over and become something altogether newer and more dynamic, even if it doesn't always succeed. So, while there is a part of me that begins to question whether the franchise is in the hands of creative forces who don't quite seem to understand "Star Wars" in the way that many lifelong fans have always understood it, there is also a part of me that struggles, Kylo Ren-style, with a light side to this argument in knowing that things could use a little expanding and shaking up, if we want future entries to actually not continuously be remakes and Easter Egg hunts meant only to appease rather than inspire. The best thing one can say about The Last Jedi is that it shakes things up in a way that the future seems hard to predict at this vantage point, which, after a prequel trilogy in which we virtually knew everything that would play out, is refreshing to observe.
If there's one thing that can be universally commended about this entry in the Star Wars universe is that it looks and sounds amazing. You always expect stellar work from John Williams (The BFG), particularly in this franchise, and he delivers another phenomenal score yet again, blending iconic passages with new ones befitting the introduction of themes for its more recent heroes. The cinematography from Rian Johnson favorite Steve Yedlin (San Andreas) is superb as well. When these two elements blend in with the story, it does create some stirring emotional elements, particularly as the climax draws closer. Perhaps the only detriment to the overall aesthetic is the continued persistence of CG characters and aliens, not quite learning from the mistakes of the Prequels and the Special Editions of the original series that, while we all enjoy a bit of eye candy from our space operas, CG animated characters are best used sparingly.
While The Last Jedi delivers some fine sequences, fans who might have been hoping that the new series of "Star Wars" films would soar to old heights once the world building had been completed with The Force Awakens will likely not be championing this entry as a revelation -- this is not quite the expansion of mature characterization that The Empire Strikes Back brought to the original Star Wars trilogy. It feels overly long, occasionally unfocused, subdued in scenes where there should be great suspense and intrigue, and introduces a tone, characters and plot developments that don't quite feel like the "Star Wars" as Lucas had intended, as he is no longer the main guiding force on the property that spewed forth from his imagination. It's good enough to recommend, as there are a number of sequences worthy of the price of admission alone, especially in the final act, but, taken in its totality, it's hard not to come away feeling like the film is always striving for a greatness it falls short of achieving.
©2017 Vince Leo