Monday, April 9, 2018

"The Last Jedi" (Without Spoilers)

I loved "The Last Jedi." I don't know what all the controversy has been about, or all this business concerning subverted expectations and the disappointed fanbase, but I'll tell you that as a fan of "Star Wars" since I was eleven years old, I loved "The Last Jedi" unreservedly. And I haven't felt that way about anything "Star Wars" since the originals.

My biggest issue with "The Force Awakens" was that it felt like a Greatest Hits compilation of the first"Star Wars" trilogy crammed into a single movie, and didn't give enough of the spotlight over to the new characters. "The Last Jedi," though it pays obvious homage to the older films, and has particularly strong echoes of "The Empire Strikes Back," avoids this. Yes, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) living like a hermit on the craggy islands of the planet Ahch-To and training Rey (Daisy Ridley) is reminiscent of Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah, but the dynamics are different. A battle on the crystalline planet Crait resembles the one on Hoth, except that the mechanics and strategy are different.

More importantly, there is a significant sense of advancement in the story. Big things happen, and quickly. We aren't just visiting with old friends, but watching Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) off having their own meaningful adventures. And returning characters like Luke Skywalker and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) are now in very different phases of their lives, and their stories are still steadily moving forward as well. Luke, for instance, naturally shows up in the aged master role, but he's very different from the Luke who appeared in the original trilogy, having become bitter and disenchanted with the notion of resurrecting the Jedi. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues to progress further down the path to the Dark Side while showing occasional flashes of doubt.

"The Last Jedi" is often an uneven outing because all these different characters aren't as equally compelling to watch. Finn and his new bestie Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) gallivanting around an intergalactic casino, and Poe recklessly plotting a mutiny against the infuriating Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), feel silly next to the juicy melodrama of Rey trying to convince Luke to join the Resistance, or Rey's Force visions of Kylo Ren. There's so much crammed into the movie, though, that even if you don't particularly enjoy one segment, the next one is likely to knock your socks off. Unfortunately this makes the film feel mightily overstuffed. By the time we got to the big finale at Crait, after what I thought was the big finale in space, and the big finale with Snoke, I was incredulous that we somehow still had another full act to get through. But it's one hell of an act.

Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are still the strongest performers in the cast, and "The Last Jedi" gives them several scenes together, all very enjoyable. However, the performance that's really going to stay with me is Mark Hamill's as Luke Skywalker. Unlike the return of Han Solo in "The Force Awakens," Luke feels like someone who went and had a lifetime of adventures since we last saw him, someone familiar but who we don't really know anymore. Getting to know him again is a fantastic experience. There's also a substantial improvement in the portrayal of Princess Leia, who is given a more solid leadership role. The actors saddled with the weaker material, namely John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, still manage to nail their better moments when they can.

The production design is endlessly inventive, full of gorgeous new alien worlds, fantastic imagery, and flawless CGI. There are sequences on Ahch-To and Crait, and at least one shot in the big space battle, that I expect will be considered as iconic as anything from the original trilogy. John Williams' score does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting, but then it's been such a long time since any movie has allowed for that, it was a thrill. I'll be humming "Rey's Theme" for days.

As for the director, Rian Johnson, the last time I reviewed one of his movies, I declared that he was very close to making a great movie. I can't say that "The Last Jedi" is that movie, but it's one that feels more like a "Star Wars" movie than anything else I've seen in two decades.


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