Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ***1/2 (2017)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi stays faithfully within the Star Wars tradition, while at the same time opens up new possibilities for the new universe that was introduced in The Force Awakens. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi is an epic space opera, the sort I'm sure George Lucas had in mind when he wrote the first film back in the mid 1970s. Johnson honors the Star Wars mythos and puts the saga on a new path. The central conflict of this new trilogy is how to deal with loaded history of Star Wars and finding new ways to tell these stories, in that sense The Last Jedi is a success.

To pick up the story, The Force Awakens ended with Jedi in training Rey confronting the aging Jedi master Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, the Resistance had just scored a major victory over the evil First Order. Episode VIII informs us that First Order's power is growing and they are close to establishing a new Empire. The Last Jedi begins with an epic space battle and the good guys are losing, shot in sprawling Star Wars fashion. Meanwhile, Rey confronts a rather mysterious and remote Skywalker.

The great strength of The Last Jedi is that all the characters are given good arcs (including the new ones). Daisy Ridley continues to bring a much welcomed new type of heroism to these movies as Rey, perhaps the most original character in the new trilogy. John Boyega almost carries the film as Finn, he brings the right amount of humor and swashbuckling heroics. Oscar Isaac as ace pilot Poe gets more screen time as a more traditional comic book hero. Adam Driver also impresses as the Dark Jedi Kylo Ren, perhaps the most complex villain in the franchise. Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro also appear. 

As for the original trilogy characters. Carrie Fisher shines as Leia, expertly playing the regal matriarch who leads the Resistance. Knowing we are seeing her for the last time on the screen adds an extra poignancy. What the writers decided to do with Luke will upset some fans, maybe leaving them with the sense the original trilogy was all for nothing. I would hesitate to go that far, it may become an unending debate. Who knows? Luke's evolution here is far different than the portrayal in the now non-canonical Star Wars novels. Still, it was fascinating to see what Mark Hamill did with the character that forever defined his screen persona.

Visually and thematically, Johnson has crafted the most complex Star Wars film to date. There's some stunning cinematography and many of these images will become iconic. As an action director, Johnson displays a Kurosawa influence. While there are some welcome allusions to The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, Johnson creates a unique tapestry with some intelligent depth. Gen X fans may long for the simplicity and genuine fun of the originals; new fans will appreciate Johnson's refusal to provide mere fan service. The Last Jedi is more self-reflexive than nostalgic - and that's a bold creative choice. Like Blade Runner 2049, it builds upon ideas introduced in the previous movies. 

At 150 minutes, many will be tempted to call the film overlong. I get that, but I think the long running time is warranted. At times is does feel as if Johnson is frantically trying give all the story lines credence and credibility, the style keeps you a little off balance (that's a good thing). With the exception of a few minor missteps, The Last Jedi works as stand alone space adventure with some heavy pathos. It brings all the elements that makes Star Wars movies memorable, while also offering something new.

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