Star Wars – The Last Jedi – a film review

The Last Jedi - dolby posterIn 2015, the seventh official installment, The Force Awakens, took the cinemas by storm, riding high off of initial popularity and good feedback. Later, a bit of a kickback began, with those pointing out the shortcomings of what many saw as a recycled story with an overuse of call backs. But the movie succeeding in attracting a new generation of fans to the story of Empires, Republics, Jedi and Sith – and at the centre of it all, the saga of the Skywalker family. Except that would begin to change with the new installments. Now under the studio ownership of Disney, George Lucas now has a largely hands off relation to the new films, with the previous film under the directorship of the popular J.J. Abrams. For the second installment, the less well known, and arguably more experimental Rian Johnson has stepped into the chair. Johnson’s catalogue has ranged from the critically acclaimed Looper (a time travel story) to his early, more kitsch offering, Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!! (sic). And so it falls to this respected, but sometimes niche director, to helm the longest cinematic Star Wars installment thus far – clocking in at two and a half hours.

Episode VII introduced new protagonists, Rey (Daisy Ridley) a desert scavenger separated from her parents, but feeling the first stirrings of the powers of the Force – and Finn (John Boyega), a disenchanted Stormtrooper from the newly arisen First Order, a military junta run by fanatical supporters of the fallen Galactic Empire that the infamous Darth Vader once symbolised. Also in the cast was Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), heir to the Dark side traditions of the Force, and whose surprise parentage was revealed by about the midpoint of the movie. His identity, and the compounding of his shocking betrayals, added an unexpected bite to a generally breezy and lighthearted opening installment to the new trilogy. Other supporting cast members included the charismatic Oscar Isaac as wisecracking fighter pilot, Poe Dameron, and the returning Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher as Han Solo and Princess Leia respectively.

The rest of this review will feature extensive spoilers, but for those daunted, this cave contains only what you bring with you…

Reeling from the shock death of Han Solo, and having just scraped a victory against the First Order’s suspiciously Death Star-like superweapon, the new Resistance movement, led by now General Leia Organa rushes to escape from their base, as enemy forces arrive. Drawing from the similar humour style of recent Marvel comics movie adaptations, Oscar Isaac’s Poe (now in a larger role) supplies some mocking banter as he winds up General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) with what is effectively a prank phone call, before leading a strike on an enemy battleship. A group of spaceships resembling WW2 bombers deliver the killing blow, in what turns out to be a pyrrhic victory. The cinematography delivers impressively during this scene, but to some it has an air of contrivance, with space turned into a more 2D seeming environment than usual. Meanwhile, the First Order is already well advanced in overturning the happy ending of the original trilogy, having shattered the unstable Republic government.

The Resistance escape by the skin of their teeth, and John Boyega’s Finn awakens from a coma, into another scene of mixed humour. He is eager to learn what has happened to his new friend Rey… who is already in the presence of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) the hero and former protagonist of the original films. Stung by his failure of his prize pupil, Luke has retreated from the galaxy, hiding out on a remote world thought to contain the founding place of the Jedi religion, and the warrior monk order that would grow from it. Accompanied by Chewbacca (Joonas Viljami Suotamo – replacing Peter Mayhew) and the robot R2-D2 she is able to convince a reluctant Luke to grant her an audience, and some advice about the new powers she has discovered. The cliffhanger ending of the previous movie becomes a near literal throw away moment, as Luke dismissively tosses his old lightsabre away when Rey gives it to him – a laughter-inducing moment from many in the audience,  but polarising for others. The stunning location of Skellig Michael, a barren island off the south coast of Ireland, fills the screen, with both bleak majesty and a certain forlornness. The mood is livened up by a bunch of computer animated Porgs, looking like a cross between puffins and snowy owls, who add moments of charm and comic relief.

Meanwhile, the small and ragtag Resistance fleet of spaceships is confronted by a huge battleship – a dark coloured flying boomerang even bigger than anything Darth Vader had valet parked for him previously. Concluding they are being tracked during their faster than light escape jumps, they are forced to endure a strafing run by Kylo Ren, who has been given a severe dressing down by his master Lord Snoke (an underused Andy Serkis, once again lending his presence to a heavily computer animated character). Shorn of his distinctive mask and visor, Kylo shoots up the Resistance’s ships effectively, but hesitates to fire upon General Leia – his former mother. His wingmates are not so reluctant, leading to a harrowing scene shot mostly in silence, as the bridge of a star cruiser is shattered and opened to outer space.

While apparently the end for Carrie Fisher’s princess (and the actress having passed away months after filming had ended) the Force comes to the rescue in another visually distinct scene, but which has received mixed feedback – as Leia propels herself back inside her vessel, using the same powers her brother Luke has previously shown to varying effect. Meanwhile, recurring fan favourite and meme generator Admiral Ackbar is not so fortunate to survive (and actor Tim Rose having also passed away recently). With Leia hospitalised, command falls to Laura Dern’s character, Admiral Holdo, who has been polarising in her own way. Finn, meanwhile, has been introduced to new cast member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) a mechanic and bomber crewmember who is initially star struck by the new hero, but then suspicious at his apparent willingness to jump ship. Another character some have found divisive, Tran gives a decent performance as more of an everywoman trying to find her place in a conflict.

Luke unveils more of his recent history to Rey, whilst giving her a few basic pointers on the Force. Having sensed a growing darkness in his nephew Ben Solo, he found himself betrayed and his new school burnt to the ground – but the truth turns out to be more complex, and arguably ambiguous. Luke has blocked himself from the Force, full of self-doubt and regrets, and grown skeptical about the flawed nature of the Jedi Order itself, who he has come to see as complacent, arrogant and short-sighted. His lessons take on a more openly Taoist and Daoist take on the Force and it’s associated mysticism than has previously been depicted onscreen – the Force having been presented as a more general amalgam of many religious and mystical concepts. Good and evil are far less sharply seperated in Daoism, being tightly connected with cycles of natural creation and destruction. Luke emphasizes the universal nature of the Force, and how it cannot belong to a single group or affiliation. A balance exists between life and death, fertility and predation upon the island, but there is also a forboding cave, a blowhole down the bottom of a secluded bay. Lured into it by her own quest for answers about her past, Rey encounters a cryptic vision of herself reflected near endlessly within mirrors, but able to influence each image. Perceiving it as a chain of perceptions about herself, she tries – but fails – to find her parents at the end of it. What is said to be a Dark Side location also hints significantly here at the realm of the unconscious. She also has to deal with the sudden appearance of Kylo Ren – aka Ben Solo – who is becoming mysteriously connected to her, appearing as if in the flesh, as a hallucination-like spectre. Offering her knowledge and power of his own, Kylo also projects his own loathing and bitterness about his past, and sense of outcastness. Rey counters that she senses other things about him, and perhaps his future.

Laura Dern takes to the command podium of the Resistance as Admiral Holdo, who’s unmilitary attire and demeanour has raised some… hackles among many fans. In an era of increasing polarisation within both American politics and culture, Holdo has been seen by many critical fans as a symbol of extreme Liberal Left culture and of an aggressive New Feminism, critiquing a demoted Poe Dameron, who had previously disobeyed Leia’s orders to withdraw his forces. Offering some significant disrespect and a patronising tone to Poe, she refuses to reveal her own plan for escaping from the nearby enemy fleet, in what amounts to a long and somewhat awkwardly paced car chase down a galactic motorway, with occasional gunfire sprinkled in. Honked off, Poe devises a new plan with the help of Finn and Rose, who are sent to recover a hacker from the planet Canto Bight, a Monte Carlo-like playground for the rich and corrupt, in what is generally agreed as the most superfluous-seeming subplot from the movie. Whilst allowing more development for Tran’s character Rose, and allowing Boyega’s character Finn to display more wide-eyed wonder at the larger cosmos, there is also some clunky commentary about capitalism, animal abuse and child labour, and a later look at war profiteering. Whilst arguably a little too long, the scene is visually sumptious, peppered with exotic aliens and background finery, as well as the first Grand National horse-style race in the franchise! The subplot also plays into a recurrent theme in the movie – about making mistakes…

Hearing a new version of Kylo’s story from his own lips, Rey accuses Luke of betraying his own apprentice, prompting him to reveal additional details – of how he was briefly tempted to pre-meditative murder, to prevent what he saw in a vision as a dark future. Whilst declining to do the deed, a terrified Ben Solo would strike back and flee the scene, later bringing a shattering downfall to Luke’s new class of students, splitting them apart and ending the lives of others. Whilst arguing that Kylo has been blinded and corrupted by his new master, Rey claims he has a chance to return to the light. A more pained Luke remarks (ala the trailer) ‘This isn’t going to go the way you think!’ thus driving another wedge between him and his new potential pupil. Rey will soon leave on a dangerous quest of her own – like Poe, Finn and Rose, starting off with noble intentions, but soon encountering unexpected complications…

And whilst Finn and Rose depart with the disreputable looking DJ (Benecio del Toro) who claims to be able to help them infiltrate the First Order flagship and sabotage it’s systems, things continue to deteriorate for the Resistance, as their ships run out of fuel (and obliging appear to obey Newtonian physics – in a no-gravity environment!) and only the flagship lumbers on. Finally snapping at the thought of soon having to abandon ship and trust to some vulnerable lifeboats, Poe Dameron stages a mutiny, seizing control of the ship from a still aloof Holdo. The audience’s sympathies are played with, having been given little reason to sympathise with her thus far, and many are sure to take Poe’s side at this point, with the tension rising. And it continues to rise as the main plots begin to converge, with Rey being taking inside the immense flagship of the bad guys, (which would daunt even the Top Gear team to perform a three-point turn in). Being brought before both Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke (his disfigured, asymmetric face contrasting oddly with his fetching gold lamé robe) she endures a lecture from a smug and in control overlord, who reveals how he has driven the two Force users to this confrontation, bridging their minds and helping to continue the downfall of the Jedi. Andy Serkis delivers his brief scenes engagingly, despite playing such a broad villainous role, portrayed mostly as a cipher (to the disappointment of fans of his previous scene in the last film) Director Rian Johnson once again moves to divert audience expectations in a sudden turnabout that propels Kylo Ren into potentially new dramatic territory, but still comes across as a cheat to many.

At the same time, as Finn and Rose are abruptly betrayed by a thin-skinned DJ, who had already hinted at his opportunist nature, Poe is apprehended by a revived Leia. Knocked out, he awakens aboard a lifeboat with assorted crew and other survivors, only to be told by Leia how this has all been a shared – and frustratingly secret – plan between her and the admiral all along, hoping to sneak people unnoticed to a nearby planet as a temporary bolthole. Things go from bad to worse as even this plan is betrayed – again by DJ – completing the collapse of a trail of dominoes set up by the traditional scrappy, improvised plan that usually tends to work in other such movies – leading to even more twists and subverted expectations of the audience.

Rian Johnson is definitely accomplished at this trick, but weaving multiple such events into one already packed plot risks audience fatigue. He follows up with a crowd-pleasing lightsabre battle between Rey, Kylo, and a bunch of red-coloured Praetorian Guards with a variety of distinct weapons, before revealing Rey’s past as he deduced it from her own faded memories – her parents were nobodies – paupers and drunks who abandoned her. Whilst far from being a crowd-pleasing reveal, this does create significant dramatic weight for Daisy Ridley’s role going onward. It remains to be seen how much potential will be followed up, given an already major fan backlash to several decisions within the script. With this direction, the idea of dynasties and heritage is no longer so binding for future Jedi heroes, allowing more audience relation – perhaps. Then again, in the era of identity politics and stormy debates over heritage and privilege, who can say?

A stunning visual sequence concludes this ‘collision’ of plot threads as Admiral Holdo – having remained on her ship – offers her own ‘impactful’ rejoinder on this very bad day. Spared from execution by the chrome-armoured Captain Phasma, Finn engages her in a short, and somewhat perfunctory battle, that seems to quickly waste the actress Gwendoline Christie (a stalwart on HBO network’s Game of Thrones series) in only a few brief appearances. Time will tell if she makes an unlikely re-resurgence. Once again, scene-stealing new ‘droid BB-8 – already a template for many Christmas toys and electronic gifts – comes rolling to the rescue, possessing significant cute factor within what are effectively two beach balls clamped together. But perhaps the little robot is just a little too fortunate at times. Meanwhile, a dejected Luke has had a surprise conversation with fan favourite Yoda – the little green Jedi master modeled on a muppet crossed with Albert Einstein. He appears resembling his original puppet self, albeit with a slight CGI overlay – and now as a Force ghost. Imparting some last lessons – after cheekily destroying an old temple, in what is hopefully a bit of catharsis for Luke – Yoda (Frank Oz) informs his old friend of the importance of passing on life lessons – not just the victories and successes, but the failures and mistakes as well.

Having refused Kylo’s offer to rule the galaxy alongside him, Rey escapes to rejoin her friends as they all flee to the salt-flat planet of Crait – it’s stunning colour contrast of red rock and white surface crust having dominated various film posters, as well as the trailers. The colour palette resembles a Japanese pop art poster at times. Here the Resistance attempts to conceal themselves within an old mine – one with a very large and conspicuous front door – to hold out against attack and await hoped for reinforcements – again, this plan seems doomed to bear no fruit, and so a hasty defence is concocted with trenches, cannons and some truly ramshackle aircraft, against an impressive army of huge walking and rolling war machines. Even this plan has a certain futility to it, as pilots fall out of the sky, and a defiant Finn plans to ram himself into a huge laser cannon preparing to carve into the base’s door. He is saved at the last moment by an impulsive Rose, motivated not only by an emergent crush, but an awkwardly timed remark about winning the war by ‘saving what we love, not destroying what we hate.’ As the two often go together in war, or one can only often be achieved due to the other, this will have an awkward ring to it for many viewers.

The dwindling Resistance fall back to the caves, where Luke at last emerges, into a bittersweet final reunion with his sister Leia, offering her a memento of her husband Han Solo, and discussing his recent failings. Luke is curiously less disheveled, with a new haircut and more impressive, darker robes in this scene. And so he strides out before an entire enemy army, defiantly facing them down and taunting Kylo about how he will always be with him in his head, even if he is defeated. As a hailstorm of weapons fire pours down upon him, the other heroes belatedly realise they are being provided an opportunity for escape, and race to meet up with Rey, who has been attacking from the air in the trusty Millennium Falcon – a hotrodded pickup truck for the starlanes. Luke emerges unscathed from both the First Order’s weaponry, and Kylo Ren’s own blade, revealing to the audience he is a phantom of Force energy – similar to how Kylo was unknowingly projected to Rey earlier (by the too clever for his own good Snoke). Humiliated, Kylo storms away, as the now severely diminished party of the good guys narrowly escape on the Falcon. Their plans, for now, have failed, and no help seems coming, requiring them to run and hide. Rey, however, has acquired some old Jedi texts from Luke’s island, and Leia reassures her that, for the moment, they have all they need.

And at the last, Luke, wearied by the strain of using so much power to project his image across the galaxy, sits tiredly on a rock, in front of two suns – much like in the tableaux he was first introduced to audiences in, back in 1977… and he passes on, fading into the Force. Whilst another elegiac scene, this has also received backlash, over what seems a hasty or contrived end to Luke’s storyline. Knowing the precedent for Jedi returning in ghostly form, I would say not to count on having seen the last of him yet. Leia describes his last thoughts as those of peace and purpose, and we see him become a legend to children, across the galaxy at Canto Bight, laboring under cruel overseers, and one child seems to feel the first stirrings of not only wonder, but a new power in his hands…

And so ends Star Wars: The Last Jedi – at two hours and thirty-two minutes, definitely a long-haul for many an audience, but definitely one filled with incident, stunning visuals and new questions. Emotions have been stirred, even if many are mixed, and debate will continue for years down the road. Whilst critical reception has been generally positive, audience reaction has been more mixed. Rotten Tomatoes’ rating has fallen to about 59 percent recently. Some have laid the cause for this with some disgruntled fans using bots to post duplicate and extra negative reviews onto the site, dragging the score down. Formal studies do not appear to have located proof of this, and China has seen a downturn among it’s own audiences, possibly due to the Vietnamese origin of actress Kelly Marie Tran. Quite apart from the controversial plot and character decisions, be it with Leia, Rey, Snoke or Holdo, one looming shadow among longtime fans concerns the treatment of Luke Skywalker himself and his legacy. Although characters can be expected to change and grow in new or unpredictable directions, many feel this story has been untrue or disrespectful to both the character of Luke – the wistful farmboy and callow youth turned crusading knight – and his legacy. Certainly the older spin-off material featured a more consistently heroic and undefeated champion of the light side and burgeoning leader. To what extent this could be called predictable or boring is hard to say – for a general audience.

But the movie certainly elicited a strong performance from Mark Hamill, who manages to pass through a range of emotions, and makes an undeniably impressive showdown at the climax. Adam Driver develops a strong performance of brooding rage, resentment and a fierce desire to prove himself and overcome perceived short comings. And Daisy Ridley finds her character a bit more stretched than in her prior appearance – although she still seems preternaturally gifted and a quick learner in supposedly arcane skills. John Boyega gets an entire subplot exploring his loyalty and commitment to the cause, but the outcome is not especially in doubt. His chemistry with new star Kelly Marie Tran can be seen as a bit forced – and mostly one-way so far. Oscar Isaac gets a larger role this time, after having made the most of his brief scenes in The Force Awakens due to his charismatic performance. The arc he undergoes is aimed towards his supposed maturation and leadership ability, but has proven confusing according to much feedback.

John Williams returns with another impressive soundtrack, heavily reliant, as is traditional for Williams, on major themes and motifs for characters and factions. Many of these collide bombastically in tracks like ‘Escape’ from the film’s opening, or during the showpiece ‘Battle of Crait’, where many themes strain and fight for dominance. Quieter moments allow the showing off of the mournful ‘Last Jedi’ theme interwoven into many tracks, tied mainly to Luke’s solitary fisherman life in his island home. The theme for Rose’s character evolves into the stirring ‘Rebellion is Reborn’ track, which serves as a microcosm of other themes as well. Sound design overall remains as impressive as ever, with a notable subversion during a scene where neither words or sounds will feel required. Audiences will find themselves generally entertained, although some plot progression feels laboured, and the tone of the movie wanders slightly. The members of the villainous First Order struggle to emerge as a consistent threat, with Snoke’s big masterplan quickly undercut, and Gleeson’s General Hux reduced largely to a joke. Gwendoline Christie may yet have another chance to shine as the chrome-armoured Phasma, but not without seeming contrived.

It’s a good film, overall – and it definitely takes chances. How well the story holds up, and it’s associated characters, is a question for future ages to determine… now, and perhaps, in a galaxy far, far away…

 

 

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