Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi : ***1/2
Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi : ***1/2
For the past 40 years Star Wars has served as a Soap Opera for film goers; a Soap Opera complete with radical twists, occasionally wooden acting or dialogue, and many scenes purposely devised to bring people back and keep the cycle going. And, much like a Soap Opera (or, I guess, Space Opera), some installments are better than others. The Last Jedi doesn’t break from tradition so much as it tries to reinvent the purpose of the tradition. Why are we, as moving going audiences, here? What is it about the Jedi and this Skywalker family that keeps us coming back? Why, after 40 years, do we still care? Rian Johnson explores these questions in his turn as Director and manages to bring a strong, if uneven, film that will likely perpetuate movie goers desire to see more.
Picking up at almost the same moment the previous film ends, we find that the First Order is in hot pursuit of General Leia and the last fragments of the Resistance fighters. Her stalwart pilot Poe executes a mission that brings victory to the Resistance, but at a cost and that cost may have brought about an end to their hope of toppling the evil empire. Meanwhile, Rey confronts Luke who is a splinter of the man he once was. He has disowned the Jedi ways and refuses to guide Rey in her journey, just when she needs the most guidance because she and Kylo Ren have discovered a bond of connective tissue within the Force that binds them ever closer to each other.
The film offers many great, emotionally resonant scenes that are dynamic, textured and really drive the picture. The opening space battle was fun and poppy until the weight of war set in and it was this that set the tone for much of the rest of the film. It wasn’t as exciting as a Star Wars movie should be, but I was kind of ok with that because the film set out to tackle something a little bit deeper than good fun in a black and white world. Much like Rogue One, the film immerses itself in the grey and really moves to explore the nature of heroism and perspective.
The problems are relatively few…but they are glaring, and I can imagine how some will find them so unforgivable that they will not be able to over look them. First off, lets examine the run time. At nearly 3 hours, it is hella long and feels it. It would be one thing if it could be justified, but it really can’t. You have one whole segment of the film that could easily be lifted out and it would make for a tighter movie that would have about a 2 hour and 10-minute run time. Which leads to problems with the story division.
All the stuff with Luke, Rey and Kylo really gels. It is thought provoking, smart and really dissects who these characters are. The stuff with Leia, Poe and a new Resistance leader (played wonderfully by Laura Dern) works fairly well and left to these two plots, the film would have been a contender for best of the franchise. Unfortunately, there is a random, unexciting, poorly writ subplot within the Leia/Poe/Holdo story thread that grinds the movie to a halt. It follows Finn and newcomer Rose as they travel to a Casino world where they are trying to find a master locksmith…for…reasons and it leads up to a really jarring action beat with political overtones of indentured servitude that fell flat. The jokes don’t land. The politics seem forced. The writing felt overtly Prequel-y at these parts. So much so that the action scene reminded me of the opening to Attack of the Clones when Anakin and Obi-Wan are zipping around Coruscant on their speeder. It is a ground level version of that scene on alien race horses.
I am trying to picture the pitch session Rian had with Lucasfilm: “So, the movie is all about Luke, Rey and Kylo. We explore the nature of the Jedi. Are they good? Why does the dark side pull so heavily? Can someone have both light and dark within? Can you truly attain balance with this set dichotomy? Oh, and Leia is carrying the hope of the Resistance on her shoulders; a heavy burden that drives Poe to act rashly and it could spell the end to their movement.” “That sounds great Rian, but what about Finn?” “F—Finn?” “Yeah, the 3rd noob we introduced.” “Oh—uh—well, you see…there is this Casino world and he—uh—he has to get a locksmith to help Poe in his quest. Yeah, and –uh—he befriends this nobody from the resistance and we can play up a love triangle (because who doesn’t love those).” “I think you may need to work on that last bit—I don’t know, maybe tie it into his leanings as a slave to the First Order. You may be able to draw some nice parallels there. Make it work, but we are sold.”
Finn’s plot, though finely acted by all parties involved, just felt out of place, rushed and brought the film down with it and being that it took up about 45 minutes of the movie, it really was noticeable. Well, why didn’t Finn’s stuff work? I think it has something to do with J.J. Abrams approach to the character when he set out to develop this new trilogy.
That brings us to the problem of Abrams mystery box theory. Abrams often sneaks in a mystery box into his works (hell, in Lost it was a literal box with the whole Hatch subplot that took up much of the back half of the first season). His theory is that, if you have a mystery box, you have within your story unlimited potential to tap into. This is why The Force Awakens was filled with mystery boxes guised as characters. Who is Rey? Where does she come from? Who are her Parents? Who is Finn? Who is Snoke? Why did Maz have the Skywalker lightsaber? Etc. The filmmakers had a problem developing places for Finn to go because he didn’t have much character to offer. Again, this is no slight to John Boyega who plays him fabulously. It is a flaw within the writing because when you often leave so much potential to tap, you find you have little to really go on. This was very apparent in this film. It also leads to many other problems that people may not be willing to forgive. WHAT I WRITE NEXT WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!!! JUMP TO THE BOTTOM TO SKIP ON SPOILERS!!!
The other problem with the mystery box approach is that when you open the box after it has been built up, you might come away feeling underwhelmed. This film does explore many of the questions raised above. Some I am ok with. Some I am not. Rey’s parentage played well for me. I know some will be furious, but I found it refreshing that she is not the product of someone we knew from before. Not everybody has to be related. Let’s talk about Snoke? Well, he was a pointless character, was he not? I fear we will never learn his backstory. It made for a surprising scene, but made the same mistake The Phantom Menace did. Rather than developing this really rich villain, you sliced him in half. Why was he in this new trilogy? He now stands out as an eye soar. Oh, and speaking of repeated mistakes; Captain Phasma. They Return of the Jedi’d us all over again. She is the new Bobba Fett. Bad ass looking to the extreme, but profoundly superfluous. If you were gonna kill her without further character exploration, why not just keep her dead…as that is what we all assumed she was at the end of the previous film. Welcome to the land of missed opportunities. It was almost as if she was there solely to sell more of her toys. And, speaking of selling toys…the Porgs are the new Ewoks, amirite?
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With all that being said, the film works well. The largest reason for this stems from three performances. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver breath refreshing life into characters that could easily be wooden or trite. Ridley is especially captivating in this film as she seeks to unravel the truth of the divide between Kylo and Luke. And, I will just say, Mark Hamill for the win!!! This man took a character that we all know and dove deep to display something new, vulnerable and down right magnetic. This really is the performance of his career. Just as Ford owned the previous movie, Hamill and (to a lesser extent) Fisher deliver grand performances that rekindle your love affair with the series. Fisher is delightful to watch and shares a scene with Hamill that moved me to tears. But, this is Hamill’s movie. He owns it and it is he that cements for the audience why they have come to see these movies for so many years.
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