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Review: The Last Jedi

Lynn Lee looks at the new Star Wars film. Warning: Minor SPOILERS ahead...

It’s hard to put my finger on why I remain resistant to the recent Star Wars resurgence despite being a lifelong fan of the original trilogy.  So far the new movies have been solid pieces of entertainment, meticulously crafted to capture the scrappy, underdog-hero ethos that made Episodes IV-VI so appealing and the prequels feel so stilted and airless by comparison.  Maybe a bit too meticulously – and therein lies my ambivalence.  There’s a fine line between homage and recycling, and The Force Awakens, in particular, was a skillful exercise in the latter.  (Rogue One was superior in this regard, perhaps by virtue of being a spin-off that had to be able to stand on its own.)  On the other hand, TFA also introduced new protagonists who were so engaging you could almost overlook the fact that they were moving through the same beats as A New Hope.  I hoped that Episode VIII would give them a bit freer rein to move in new directions.

Does The Last Jedi do that?  Yes and no.  It makes a point of subverting certain narrative expectations, although this has the unfortunate side effect of making some of the subplots feel like unnecessary detours and/or dead ends.  But the overall arc remains a highly familiar one, albeit with some tweaks...

If The Force Awakens was an all-but-in-name reboot of A New Hope, this is the trilogy’s The Empire Strikes Back, in which the Resistance is continuously on the run from – and outmatched by – the relentless power of the Empire First Order.  Meanwhile, a naïve but talented Jedi-aspirant trains with a master on a remote world (though the dynamic of who's pushing whom is flipped), confronts her connection to the dark side by descending into a dark hole (this time culminating in a hall of infinite mirrors, in the film’s most haunting scene), and impetuously rushes off to fight a battle for which she’s not ready, only to be offered a partnership with the very power she’s sworn to defeat (if not at the precise moment we anticipate).  

There’s a strong sense of déjà vu at the story’s margins, too: BB8 is still basically R2D2 v. 2.0, there to save the day at critical moments, while Domhnall Gleason continues to try way too hard to channel the hubristic cadences of the Imperial officers of yore.  There’s even what looks like a snow-covered planet with a rebel base that’s breached by what look a lot like Imperial Walkers, and a pit stop at a much more populated, if morally compromised, city where the rebels find an ally they’re not sure they can trust.  We’ve seen this show before, or at least the original formulation of it.

All that said, the show still works. 

While The Last Jedi lacks the originality and operatic oomph of ESB, like that film it’s an effective middle chapter, raising the stakes and striking a deeper emotional note than its predecessor.  Rian Johnson, taking the baton from J.J. Abrams, proves fully capable of handling both the large-scale space battles and the more intimate human drama – though his true strengths clearly lie with the latter.  His installment is less fun but also more poignant than TFA, and not just because we know we’re seeing Carrie Fisher’s last appearance (at least in the flesh) as Leia.  Important as she is, The Last Jedi ends up being primarily Luke’s story, and Mark Hamill brings just the right blend of gravitas, bitterness, and humor in returning to the signature role of his career.  Not surprisingly, the film turns in large part on the triangulated relationship between him, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver); perhaps more surprising is that the most interesting leg of that triangle is the one connecting Luke and Kylo Ren.  It helps that Driver ups his game from The Force Awakens, deepening without resolving the enigma of how the son of a Solo-Skywalker union could have gone so wrong.

With the increased focus on Kylo and Rey, John Boyega’s Finn suffers a bit from being comparatively sidelined, despite being teamed up with plucky Rose Tico (a charming Kelly Marie Tran) in a long-odds quest to get the First Order off the track of the Resistance.  We see more of Oscar Isaac as the doughty but hotheaded Poe Dameron, which is always a good thing.  He, too, however, is upstaged by a newcomer – a terrific Laura Dern, rocking a purple hairdo while maintaining an utterly magnetic presence as the Vice Admiral with whom Poe immediately butts heads on the command bridge.  Whatever you may think of her character in the beginning, you’ll bow down to her by the end. 

The rest of the new faces are a mixed bag.  Benicio del Toro, initially intriguing, is ultimately underutilized.  And Supreme Leader Snoke may be the biggest letdown, as his unremarkable CGI presence completely fails to capitalize on the particular talents of Andy Serkis.  At the same time, the Porgs, while not exactly highly individualized as characters, are as adorable as advertised, and their scenes with Chewbacca bring some of the best comic relief to a movie that’s already brimming with it.  In keeping with OT tradition, the movie’s moments of humorous deflation keep at bay any tendency towards pretentiousness.  Yes, Star Wars is an epic struggle between good and evil and a tale of resistance to tyranny that remains more relevant than ever.  But at its core it’s also a slightly campy adventure that knows not to take itself too seriously.  The Last Jedi successfully balances both aspects, making for a perfectly enjoyable Star Wars experience—even if it feels like one you’ve had before.

Grade: B
Oscar Chances: The usual competitive categories for this franchise are: visual effects, sound, sound editing, and score. Star Wars films are much less frequent in other categories.

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Reader Comments (6)

Lynn: For Kylo Ren, I'd generally lean on natural problems not being nurtured out. Han (Space Outlaw) and Leia (General) both lean masculine, so...if he was already an extreme risk, that environment, even though it probably wasn't abusive, was NOT going to bring the good out of Ben Solo. (I'm in the middle of hearing about "the results" of a non-abusive, masculine leaning, family raising something bad. My brother, and I won't go into details, but it's a MESS. Not quite Kylo Ren mess, but close enough that this whole plot line will make me uncomfortable for A WHILE.)

December 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I don’t get the appeal of Adam Driver. I find him really one-note. (We get it, you’re full of rage.) Can anyone explain?

That said, I’d watch a whole TV show about the fish nuns.

December 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJames from Ames

James from Ames: Have you seen Paterson? That's the film that brought me round to him.

Lynn Lee: Thanks for the review. I just saw the film this evening, and I'll keep my comments short. I liked quite a lot of it, but I felt it was a bit long and jam-packed. It slightly lacks an elegant shape - both in individual scenes and overall. And some of the humour didn't work for me - it felt a bit too snarky for Star Wars. But I like all the characters - well, all the Rebels, anyway. It struck me, why would anyone join the First Order? OK, yes, power etc. - but there's no fun to be had!

The opening crawl is a model of economic backstory (a far cry from The Phantom Menace!).

Very touching watching Carrie Fisher.

Not the best Star Wars film, not the weakest. Will look forward to seeing it again, where I suspect I'll enjoy it more.

December 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I loved it! But I grew up with these movies and recognize that I can't be objective about them. I was in tears saying good-bye to Leia, knowing that it was also a final good-bye to Carrie Fisher.

I also appreciated the overall message of empowerment, which felt very relevant to today's politics. " We don't win by destroying the things we hate; we win by saving the things we love."

December 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

I really, really liked it, and I'm not a huge SW fan. I also feel like I need to see it again because it was so jam packed, which certainly wasn't how I felt after TFA. It's not without flaws but I stayed with it even when it slumped a little in the middle. I actually liked the sprawl, the slight messiness of it. And damn, that Kylo, Rey, Snoke extended scene in the throne room was amazing.

The level of hysterical hate it's generating in some quarters is nuts ... take a chill pill, fanboys.

December 19, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermsd

Thank you for this review. It summarizes what is good and bad about the film. Minor spoilers here so don't read on of you have not seen the film:

What's good: Leia and Luke story. Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac.

What's not so good: Benicio del Toro, Adam Driver, including his shirt off, a B reel unbelievable love story, and very clunky and jokey dialogue out of a Stallone movie. Renata (Laura Dern) as a General also did not work for me.

But it's often entertaining. I was often aware though of the corporate aspect and some may feel like they have eaten too much junk food. Star Wars Fans will love it.

December 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJono

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