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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson

CAST: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis

REVIEW:

SPOILER WARNING: I HAVE STRIVED TO NOT REVEAL EXPLICIT SPOILERS; HOWEVER IT IS DIFFICULT TO EXPRESS MY OPINION WITHOUT DISCUSSING SOME “SPOILER” PLOT ELEMENTS.

Picking up where J.J. Abrams left off with 2015’s The Force Awakens, writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper) has taken us back to a galaxy far, far away and chosen to subvert fan expectations and go in some unexpected directions, with mixed results.  Johnson doesn’t play it as safe as Abrams (who received some criticism for more-or-less remaking a tweaked version of A New Hope), but defying expectations in and of itself does not a satisfying narrative make.  The third act kicking into high gear does not entirely make up for a previous fragmented plot with flagging momentum.  The Last Jedi, while receiving general critical praise, is already proving divisive among fans.  It ultimately arrives at a (mostly) satisfying climax, but the path there is unwieldy and meandering.

Johnson foregoes the time jump between most Star Wars episodes and picks up virtually immediately where The Force Awakens left off.  Despite its momentary victory with the destruction of Starkiller Base, the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher in her swan song) is in a precarious position; with their benefactor the Republic decimated last episode and The First Order having tracked down their location, they’re forced to beat a hasty evacuation with The First Order’s more powerful fleet on their heels.  Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally come face-to-face with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but the aged Jedi isn’t exactly giving her a warm welcome, and is not enthusiastic about either training her or getting back into the fight.  There are various other plot threads: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is licking his wounds and his bruised ego after being whipped by Rey in their previous confrontation, and he and his co-commander/rival General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) have head honcho Supreme Leader Snoke (motion capture performance by Andy Serkis) breathing down their necks.  When an attack leaves Leia incapacitated, she is replaced by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), whose cautious tactics don’t meet with the approval of ace fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).  And the awakened Finn (John Boyega) teams up with lowly mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to disable The First Order’s ability to track the fleeing Resistance fleet and pursue them through hyperspace.

There’s a lot going on in The Last Jedi, and some of the various plotlines are more engaging than others.  The most obvious “filler” is the Finn/Rose mission taking them to the Las Vegas-esque Canto Bight and a meeting with shady hacker type DJ (Benicio Del Toro) that feels like a detour that takes up too much screentime and is tacked on mostly to give John Boyega something to do now that he’s not tagging along with Rey (also this casino-world would have been the perfect place for a a Billy Dee Williams cameo, and the lack of one feels like a missed opportunity).  There’s also preachy messages about animal cruelty, class warfare, war profiteering, and the military industrial complex that are laid on a little too thick and feel like Johnson shoehorning in some heavy-handed political commentary.  The pace is uneven and the narrative structure feels unwieldy.  The Force Awakens had a breezy pace that recaptured the original trilogy’s spirit of whiz-bang derring-do.  The Last Jedi is not as successful.  The first half (at least) is largely a slog, enlivened by some individual moments.  Our “yin and yang” leads, Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, are benched for too much of the movie, and it’s not until the climax that they finally get into the action.  Likewise, just as it gets tedious watching Rey and Luke walk around an island, so too is the other “main” plot with the First Order, Wile E. Coyote-style, endlessly pursuing the Resistance cruiser just barely staying out of range.  Mark Hamill raised some eyebrows by bluntly admitting in an interview months ago that he did not personally agree with the directions the character of Luke Skywalker was taken in this movie, and it’s understandable having viewed the finished product.  Luke might look like Obi-Wan in A New Hope with his grizzled beard and robes, but he acts more like a bitter old man yelling at Rey to get off his lawn.  Like Rey and Kylo, Luke spends too much of the movie in repetitive down time moping around his island (on which he’s not quite as lonely as he seems at first glance, surrounded by monk-like temple caretakers and the cutesy puffin-like Porgs, who are blatantly made with toy sales in mind but at least don’t take over the movie nearly as much as Ewoks or Gungans).  There’s some moments of prequel-esque goofiness, like Luke milking some kind of alien cow and Leia using the Force to fly through space; it’s nice to see a Star Wars movie actually do something with the Force abilities Leia supposedly has, but it’d have been nicer if it hadn’t made her look like an elderly Peter Pan.  There’s also a sense that Johnson squandered some of the possible mysteries left primed to be explored at the end of The Force Awakens.  At this point, there’s some room for ambiguity about the truth of Rey’s parentage considering the source, but if taken at face value, it’s an anti-climactic fizzle.  Also a fizzle is the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, who despite a little more screentime, is just as devoid of any development or explanation as he was in The Force Awakens.  Anyone who goes into The Last Jedi anxious to get to the bottom of Rey’s parentage or Snoke’s backstory are in for a letdown.  Suberting fan expectations and choosing to go in unexpected directions can be an admirable goal, but I’m not sure if Johnson entirely understands that defying predictable story directions doesn’t automatically make it narratively satisfying, and frankly aspects of where the story has chosen to go are an underwhelming letdown.  At the same time, while the overall structure of The Last Jedi doesn’t follow any previous episode nearly as much as The Force Awakens did with A New Hope, it borrows the Luke/Vader/Emperor throne room confrontation from The Return of the Jedi and the Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back a little too obviously.  Despite some powerful parts, taken as a whole, The Last Jedi is underwhelming.

On the positive, the third act is where things kick into high gear.  The showdown in Snoke’s throne room, and a duel with his elite guardsmen (who bear a passing resemblance to the Emperor’s red-robed bodyguards but, unlike them, actually get to do something) is intense and thrilling, as is the climactic battle on the salt-covered planet of Crait, as rebels fly unwieldy speeders against Imperial Walkers.  The moment most likely to give fans goosebumps is when Luke Skywalker himself finally marches into the fray (although the way it’s done is a bit of a cheat).  Also intriguing is the yin-yang dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren, who are connected by a Force-driven psychic bond and repeatedly have conversations from different locations.  Most Star Wars movies portray the dark and light, good and evil, in black-and-white terms.  The Last Jedi doesn’t make it that clear-cut.  Kylo Ren aspires to be Darth Vader 2.0, but he’s not half as intimidating but even more conflicted (as I said in my review of The Force Awakens, he’s a lot like Anakin was in The Revenge of the Sith).  The movie goes further with and plays up Kylo’s moral ambiguity we got hints of in The Force Awakens.  Rey has a future vision of Kylo turning back to the light, while Kylo envisions the opposite; Rey joining him to rule the galaxy.  There’s also conflicting versions of exactly what happened between Luke and Kylo to drive the troubled young man over the edge, and the movie floats the possibility that the old Jedi Order was corrupt and ineffectual and not worthy of resurrection.  To an extent, Rey is torn between Luke and Kylo, perched like an angel and devil on her shoulder (though Luke is a curmudgeonly, unwilling angel).  By Star Wars standards, that’s a lot of gray area.

The cast’s material is a mixed bag.  Daisy Ridley, who brought spark and pluck to make Rey an engaging budding heroine in The Force Awakens, doesn’t seem as lively here, but that might be because she has to spend half the movie wandering around an island.  Adam Driver’s tortured Kylo Ren wavers between two modes of watery-eyed angst and over-the-top temper tantrums.  John Boyega and newcomer Kelly Marie Tran get more to do, action-wise, but their whole storyline feels like filler.  Oscar Isaac has a significantly expanded role from The Force Awakens, and gets a meatier plotline about the hotshot Poe whose first instinct is to jump in an X-Wing and blow stuff up, learning a lesson about leadership and how the most aggressive, heroic tactic isn’t always the best one.  Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher have significantly expanded screentime from last time, and a short but sweet reunion.  Hamill wasn’t regarded as an accomplished thespian back in the days of the original trilogy, but the years have given him a measure of gravitas.  Domhnall Gleeson’s mustache-twirling, greasy-haired General Hux has been reduced, playing second fiddle to Kylo and more fatuous than menacing.  Benicio Del Toro (stuttering as one of those annoying affectations actors do sometimes) and a purple-haired Laura Dern don’t get a lot to do.  Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma doesn’t get much more screentime than last time, but at least she gets a fight scene this time.  Andy Serkis, king of motion capture, brings a menacing presence to Supreme Leader Snoke (whose CGI looks much better in the flesh here than he did as a giant hologram in The Force Awakens), but the character is basically an undeveloped Emperor stand-in.  Lupita Nyong’o briefly reprises her motion capture performance as the diminutive alien Maz Kanata (again conveniently dropping some pertinent information into our heroes’ laps).  Anthony Daniels is still the man beneath C-3PO’s costume, though the late Kenny Baker (who had been in ill health for some time and whose credit as R2-D2 in The Force Awakens was essentially in name only) has been replaced with Jimmy Vee, and the original Chewbacca, Peter Mayhew, has handed over the reins to Joonas Suotamo (with whom he shared the role in The Force Awakens).  Sharp-eyed viewers might spot  Rogue One director Gareth Edwards in the trenches as a Resistance soldier (another rebel soldier is played by fellow director Edgar Wright) and Justin Theroux as a casino gambler.  Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd, who had a bit part as a Resistance officer in The Force Awakens, has more screentime here.  The most notable cameo is a surprise drop-in by Yoda in “Force Ghost” form.  For his brief appearance here, the filmmakers reconstructed his animatronic puppet rather than rely on CGI (Yoda looks exactly the same as he did in The Empire Strikes Back), and his voice is again provided by Frank Oz.

At the bottom line, The Last Jedi is less than the sum of its parts, though some of those parts are tremendous.  The movie’s unwieldy structure and narrative pacing issues make it more of a slog to get through than the breezy, zip-zap-paced The Force Awakens, and it’s a less triumphal, enlivened experience.  Standout, signature scenes of great power are almost enough to make up for a slogging, fragmented first half, but not enough to erase it.

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