Monday, December 18, 2017

Film Review: Star Wars Episode VIII - The Last Jedi

"I'm still processing."

That is the statement I heard from many different people when trying to sum up their feelings about this movie.  Writer/Director Rian Johnson has made a Star Wars movie unlike any other that is more polarizing than any in the series, including The Phantom Menace.  Even Episode I's biggest supporters acknowledge its flaws.  But there seems to be a widening gap between those who think The Last Jedi is super or sacrilege.

The story begins in a different way than any other in the saga.  The Last Jedi takes place immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, with no time jump in between like the others in the series.  The advantage of that is that the audience won't miss any part of their development, but that also means that a lot more screen time must be devoted to the building of these characters.

When the story starts, the evil First Order attacks the base of the Resistance as the freedom fighters, led by General Leia (the late Carrie Fischer), are attempting to flee.  What follows is one of the most exciting space battles in all of Star Wars and it lets Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) shine with heroic charisma.  Meanwhile Finn (John Boyega) finds himself entangled with socially awkward engineer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) in attempt to save the Resistance from the First Order onslaught.

Meanwhile back on Ahch-To, the hero of our story Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally hands Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) his lightsaber.  This has been a moment that fans have been waiting for since the end of The Force Awakens two years ago.  What follows is an insight into the entire rest of the story (but I will not spoil it here).  Rey continues her quest to bring Luke back to the Resistance and learn the ways of the Force.  But Luke is insistent that the time of the Jedi has past.  And all the while Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) manipulates the people around him like the sniveling General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). 

This is a difficult movie review without getting in to spoiler territory.  One of the reasons for this is that The Last Jedi has more unexpected twists and turns than any Star Wars movie to date.  Luke has a line towards the middle of the film where he says, "This is not going to go the way you think."  I believe that was Rian Johnson letting the audience know not to rely on their expectations.

I believe that this is one of the sources of frustration for members of the audience.  Rian Johnson comes from a significant background in television having directed three episodes of Breaking Bad.  One of the things that modern TV has done is shatter old formulas and expectations.  How often have shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, or Game of Thrones thrown audiences for an unexpected and emotional loop.  This tends not to happen as much in film as more money is on the line, but Johnson has taken this ethos and placed it into the Star Wars Saga.

The biggest criticism of this movie is one that I have never had of a Star Wars film: it is too long. 

Keep in mind that I am the type of person who will very happily sit through the entire 4-hour cut of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  The length is not the issue in The Last Jedi, but how the narrative uses the screen time to tell its own story.  And for a significant part of the movie, it uses it very poorly.  There are plot threads and digressions that could be completely lifted from the movie and they would not have been missed in the slightest. 

Say what you will about George Lucas, but he knew how to construct a tight narrative (at least in the final product).  Even when the narrative is fractured like in The Empire Strikes Back, they are woven in a way that necessarily moves the story forward.  Luke may fail in defeating Vader, but because he comes to Bespin with R2-D2, the heroes are able to escape in the end.  Johnson does not seem to understand that there must be some kind of narrative payoff if the audience is going to invest its time and interest in a story.  Otherwise we feel like we do not get big enough cathartic return on the investment.  For the first half of the film I began to think, "This is the greatest Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi, but the lack of narrative economy derailed this thought.

The second problem with the movie is something that cannot be discussed in detail without giving spoilers.  Suffice to say that I don't think Johnson realized the potential negative impact one of his major story decisions.

But the unexpected nature of the story is also one of The Last Jedi's greatest strengths.  It was incredibly thrilling to not know where the narrative was going and it led to some truly great moments and literally made me cringe and cheer in the theater. 

In terms of dialogue, Johnson's script is one of the best in the entire series.  It is alternately funny, dramatic, and profound.  Having seen the movie a second time I can see all of the forshadowing and subtext spread liberally throughout the movie.  I laughed more in the opening scene than I expected to.  And during even the most serious scenes, Johnson was able to insert humor without it losing any of the dramatic strength of the scenes.

There are a lot of thematic elements that are at play in the movie.  And what is fascinating is that many of them are opposed to each other.  In most movies, this would be the sign that the writer is confused and cannot hold together a cohesive philosophical outlook.  In this case, Johnson is able to pit the different points of view against each other.  This puts us in the position of some of the characters who could be drawn to one side or another.

Much has been written about the strong women roles in this movie.  In addition to Rey, Leia, Rose, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), and Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), we have Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dearn) who takes a commanding role in the fight against the First Order and clashes heavily with Poe.  I didn't find that this particularly helped or hurt the story but it deal feel like overcompensation for the original films.

There is also a subplot that occurs on the casino planet of Canto Bight.  While not poorly done, this is where the writing is the least artful and begins to feel like a lecture on rich/poor relations.  Whenever Star Wars preaches on politics (as it did in the prequels), it always feels like a person's individual political perspective intruding into a timeless story.

This movie may also be the most spiritual and philosophical since The Empire Strikes Back.  Luke's interactions with Rey lead to some fascinating insights and debates on the nature of legends and choice and legacy and courage and the future. 

Johnson's skill as a director are on full display.  Not only are his shots bold and exciting, but he knows how to use the story action to create beautifully lit and emotional moments.

In terms of the performances, they are fantastic.  Hamill's turn here as Luke might be the best acting performance given in any Star Wars movie.  He is layered in pain, regret, and cynicism, but they have not completely removed the hopeful hero underneath.  At times he comes off as wise as Yoda and then as wide-eyed and lost as he was in the originals.  I couldn't help but feel a kindred connection as I have grown into an adult and at times I feel like I've learned from the lessons of my years but I still sometimes feel as lost as a child.  Hamill adds layers of depth to everything he does and I would not be surprised if he received an Oscar nomination for his effort.

Ridley and Driver each take their characters to new depths and reveal layers and show that they have the chemistry and charisma to hold the franchise aloft.  I am completely invested in these characters even when I don't like them.  Ridley and Hamill also work incredibly well together.  Every scene these two share is fantastic.  Unlike Luke having to be schooled by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, Rey not only learns but challenges Luke's wisdom in a way that feels right for the character arc.

Isaac brings more fire and maturity to Poe than in The Force Awakens.  Boyega and Tran have a fun chemistry, but they don't do much to pull you to greater depths.  Dern is fine as Holdo but she is no Mon Mothma.  I especially like the charismatic Serkis with his scenery-chewing turn as Supreme Leader Snoke.  He exudes confidence and power in a way that the Emperor did not.  His physical size was intimidating and Serkis puts just the right amount of menace into everything.  Even Gleeson's Hux, who I thought was one of the weaker parts of The Force Awakens, is just as over-the-top, but he is used to much greater effect in this movie.

The Last Jedi feels like a bold departure from the comfortable moorings of past Star Wars films.  Whether or not you believe this departure is a good thing will be completely up to you. 
image by Yasir72.multan

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