Monday, January 15, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anothony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Frank Oz, Benicio del Toro
Running Time: 152 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**Warning: The Following Review Contains Major Plot Spoilers.**

From the moment it was announced George Lucas was selling LucasFilms to Disney and we'd be getting the inconceivable pipe dream of actual sequels the original Star Wars trilogy, it was basically a given they'd be able to creatively surpass the wretched prequels. But hopes remained high that they'd go further and really get it right, and after selecting J.J. Abrams' as the franchise's caretaker and an enormously successful reintroduction with 2015's The Force Awakens, there was finally  reason for fans to celebrate. There was just one more thing. But it's everything.

If you argue few characters in cinema's history have had a greater influence on pop culture than Luke Skywalker, than it's also fair to concede few actors have ever gotten as little credit as Mark Hamill. He's why we're here, and watching Harrison Ford denounce his involvement all these years only served as a reminder that Hamill never complained once, instead appreciating the adulation of his fans and in knowing the only role he'll be known for is at least a great one. While it's difficult to call any aspect of the already highly praised original trilogy overlooked or underappreciated, if forced to choose, it's his performance.

With the promise of sequels also came the promise of something fans like myself have been waiting decades for: Hamill playing Luke as the older, grizzled Jedi Master. Under the best circumstances,  he'd be as instrumental to The Last Jedi as Sir Alec Guinness was to A New Hope as Ob-Wan. With age and experience on his side and a director as uniquely talented as Rian Johnson at the controls,, Hamill would be put in a position to do the work of his career. What I couldn't have anticipated was descriptors like "controversial" and "polarizing" being attributed to any Star Wars installment that doesn't have George Lucas' name attached. Or more specifically, that the controversy would primarily surround Hamill and his return to this iconic role.

The Last Jedi is not The Empire Strikes Back of this series, nor should that have been the expectation. But it is something a Star Wars movie hasn't been in a while, if not ever: Completely unpredictable. Both for better and worse. It is the most visually arresting installment in many moons, while containing a certain degree of depth and complexity uncommon to the franchise, especially at this point. In other words, it doesn't feel as if Johnson was just hired for a job, which was probably one of the bigger fears going in. Unfortunately, mitigating these flashes of brilliance is that it's overstuffed, overplotted and, at over two and a half hours, a bit bloated. There's enough plot here to jam into ten movies, but all anyone will want to talk about is what happens with Luke. And that's fair, since it's about time he gets some attention.

When we last left Rey (Daisy Ridley), she had arrived with Chewbacca and R2-D2 on the remote island of Ahch-To to convince the self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Hamill) to join the Resistance in their fight against the tyrannical First Order. But it'll be harder than anticipated, as she discovers a bitter, grizzled recluse who's denounced all Jedi teachings after Han and Leia's son, Ben Solo, turned to The Dark Side under his tutelage, only to reemerge as the vindictive Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Now it's Ren who sees himself capable of recruiting Rey to his side, as Luke fears history could be repeating itself.

Meanwhile, Resistance General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and pilot Poe Dameron Oscar Isaac) are trapped on a transport ship surrounded by a First Order battle fleet targeting their rebel base, as per the orders of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). This is as Stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega), joins Poe, BB-8, and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), to embarks on a mission to infiltrate one of their ships and disable their tracking device. The First Order, however, have other plans.

There are about four or five main plots and sub-plots unfolding simultaneously throughout Rian Johnson's script, close to half a dozen huge battle sequences and such a surplus of characters both new and old that you'll need a chart to track it all. Historically, the most successful Star Wars entries are the tightest and most streamlined, narrowing its focus on a few key characters embroiled in a struggle between good and evil. It was that template Lucas introduced in 1977, until with each succeeding effort the universe expanded, the backstories grew deeper and more complicated, and now with Episode VIII, the consequences of that excess are finally reflected in the actual running time of the film. This isn't your father's Star Wars and it might even be the first to fully incorporate the Marvel influence, as the only possible explanation for a universe this packed is Disney looking ahead to spin-offs and sequels.

Injecting the material with his own vision in a way the safer Abrams didn't in The Force Awakens, Johnson manages to heavily diverge from instituted tenants of the franchise while still being somewhat hamstrung by certain requirements. The result is a fascinatingly mixed bag of greatness and frustration that's all about looking ahead, serving as a swan song for classic characters and seriously testing the loyalty of even the most ardent fans who receive what could be their final nostalgia fix. By its end, the most important question surrounds whether enough has been done with the newer characters to get them to the point that they're ready to take over. And the biggest surprise coming out of this is that the time has apparently now arrived, whether we're ready or not.

Much of the gargantuan running time is taken up in the first half by a lot of narrative set-up and an exciting opening battle sequence that lays the cards on the table in terms of what to expect from the Resistance's plan to topple the First Order. Little would we know that the rest of the picture is going to be spent subverting those expectations. While it's easy to quibble that nearly all of these battle scenes could have used a trim and they do employ a good deal more CGI than its predecessor, they're staged impressively by Johnson and Abrams' mandate of incorporating more practical effects has mostly held.

Like its predecessor, the world continues to look dirty and lived-in, the creatures seem authentic and the locations look like actual places rather than actors standing in front of green screens. While most aren't completely incorrect in pointing to the film's middle portion involving Finn and Rose at Canto Bight as lagging the most, there is a larger "Let's do that. Well, that didn't work. So let's try this." repetition to the whole Resistance storyline, often causing the narrative to take an extra step or two in getting where it's going. Whether that's something that would be ironed out in a second viewing remains to be seen, but what's undeniable are that characters are given a chance to shine, even as others are inevitably marginalized.

Anyone who came exclusively for Chewbacca, R2-D2 or C3PO may as well head for the exits since they're given what amounts to extended cameos, save for maybe Chewy who does share a cleverly humorous scene opposite the now infamous Porgs. Most of the comedy in the script works really well, coming off as as natural and unforced as it ever has, especially when it comes to anything involving Domhnall Gleeson's put-upon General Hux, with the actor actually in on the joke this time around.

Despite General Leia Organa spending much of the film's first half incapacitated, the late Carrie Fisher, as promised, is given a substantial role this time around, even as each of her scenes carry a  certain weight in wondering if it's her last. As the glue that holds the Resistance together, she makes her additional screen time count and becomes far more instrumental to the story than most predicted. Even when not on screen, the character's a presence and Johnson crafts a far more emotionally fitting send-off for the actress than that jarring non-appearance as a CGI avatar at the end of Rogue One. Oddly, this wasn't a send-off for the character, who strangely survives through the end of the film despite numerous opportunities to rather easily write her out. Talk about a surprise.     

In a successfully odd and inspired bit of casting, a purple-haired Laura Dern steps in as Leia's temporary surrogate Admiral Holdo, more than holding her own in this universe and proving to be strongest of the new additions. Her casual but stern demeanor plays well against Oscar Isaac's hotheaded pilot, Poe Dameron,who has a more developed arc than you'd expect, undergoing a transformation throughout that puts the character in a more intriguing place than simply the "hero" role he played in the last film. In fact, one of the better, overlooked aspects of Johnson's screenplay is that at least most of the major characters have clearly identifiable arcs, even amidst all the quibbling as to where some of those lead.

The only important character who takes a noticeable drop-off in importance is Finn who, through no fault of John Boyega's, can't help but feel like an expendable accessory following the purposeful, spirited introduction he had in The Force Awakens with his engaging fish-out-of-water plot. His one moment comes in a lightsaber duel with Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma, who's quickly emerged as the new Boba Fett by being a relatively minor character whose popularity can be attributed to a really cool costume.

While Finn still has some interesting interplay with Benicio del Toro's stuttering codebreaker, DJ, being separated from Rey hurts him the most since so much of his impact inthe previous film came in those scenes opposite her. But even taking into account my reservations about the ultimate purpose it serves in the film's final scene, the Canto Bight excursion is a really fun detour in the vain of A New Hope's Cantina, and Kelly Marie Tran's Rose is a fun, spunky new character who unfortunately seems marked for death the second she appears.

That Rose doesn't perish should be a shock, if only we cared. And that's the biggest problem. The plot that eats up the most amount of running time feels like a placeholder as we we wait to return to one of the most well-written, directed and performed storylines in the franchise's history. In fact, it's so superior to the other aspect of this production that it superficially magnifies even the tiniest flaws with everything else. There isn't a moment when Finn and Rose are on screen when you're not wondering when they're going to get back to Kylo, Luke and Rey.

In a storyline brimming with possibilities, Luke's training of Rey, and both their relationships to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, is masterfully executed, taking us back to the classic template of the original Star Wars trilogy in a way no film has managed since. With more considerably more mileage and experience behind him now, Hamill brings an undeniable gravitas to the role of Luke that wasn't there before, and despite many complaining about the character becoming a grouch or turning his back on the ways of the Jedi, it make sense. As does his distrust of Rey, who he believes will eventually betray him as Ben Solo did. Of course, we find out that's not completely true through a series of brilliant Rashomon-style flashbacks that present three different perspectives on the inciting event that caused the creation of Kylo Ren. It's really the first time the audience has been seriously challenged to question Luke's morality, and it's a testament to both Hamill and Driver's performances that we are.

With two sides to the same story and the truth landing somewhere in the middle, true nail-biting suspense is built up in finding out whether Rey or Ben will turn to the other side, as each attempts to flip the other. With Rey's calling to the Dark Side ringing louder and more believably than ever (resulting in an unforgettable sequence involving mirror images) while Ben internalizes Snoke's disappointment at his apparent softening due to the guilt of killing his father and lingering attachment to his mother.

What's most clever about all this is how it works on a number of meta levels by having Snoke acknowledge fan criticisms of Kylo Ren as a Vader wannabe and being defeated by the inexperienced Rey in the last film. She and Ben clearly share a strong, unspoken bond that goes beyond being mere adversaries, communicating telepathically as he tries to seduce her into seeing the world his way and vice versa. So palpable is their chemistry, you start to wonder whether they're literally seducing one another, as there's this sexual undercurrent to their relationship that uncomfortably brings to mind the fact we're still unaware of Rey's lineage.

Johnson has fun teasing us with Rey's parentage and playing with fears that the two will be revealed as siblings before pulling the rug out. It comes as a relief when it's revealed that she's essentially a nobody, not only because the idea that everyone has to be genetically linked is patently ridiculous, but it gives Ben another card to play in claiming he's the only one who sees her as a "somebody." It's with all this to unpack that Rey and Kylo Ben eventually arrive in Snoke's blood red Throne Room for their moment of reckoning in a sequence that draws heavily from the legendary Vader turn at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi. But it's an important distinction to make that Johnson doesn't try to duplicate it in any way, as the battle feels as if it belongs entirely to this film, with his writing and direction at a level that more appropriately earns a comparison to Luke's and Vader's Cloud City confrontation in Empire.

While it's hard to overstate how much Ridley and Driver wring out of each other and the material, the CG presentation of the creepy, frightening Snoke only helps their cause, far surpassing Andy Serkis' unsuccessful holographic cameo in Episode VII. Not only does The Throne Room scene closes with a shockingly unprecedented moment of brutality for the franchise that turns the story upside down. Or does it?  With neither willing to give in or back down to the others' beliefs, Rey and Ben find themselves back at exactly where they started: On opposite sides. It's now Luke who must face down his ultimate challenge in Kylo Ren. Getting that character to the point where he's at Vader level didn't seem like a possibility a film ago, but now thanks to Driver and the writing, he's alarmingly close. And with Ridley further building on the already solid foundation built for Rey, she stands on her own in a way she didn't a film prior. So while it seems as if the story merely reset itself, it's with characters internally transformed by what's happened here. 

The concept of the Force, which has fluctuated wildly in use and explanation throughout the series, is strongly presented and examined here, lacking in the occasional ridiculousness of previous entries. It's made clear that Rey hasn't yet mastered it and why, and Yoda's holographic appearance from beyond the grave is at least partially successful in so far as looking less like the computerized abomination we saw in the prequels, if still not exactly resembling the iconic Frank Oz creation we all loved from Empire.

While getting the climactic showdown we've always wanted with a seemingly invincible Luke battling Kylo Ren on the red-soiled planet Crait, it comes with a major caveat. Luke's Force projection takes the dive, as his physically spent body remains on Ahch-To, exiting the series as he entered it: Staring into the sunset, before disappearing for good. Taken at face value, I actually don't have a huge problem with Luke sacrificing himself to insure a future for the Resistance and the eventual title character.

Skywalker's arc came to its logical conclusion while Hamill delivers the dark, conflicted performance we've always wished for, becoming the film's centerpiece and beating heart, but in a far different manner than in the original trilogy. The final moment he shares with Leia can be seen as the ultimate symbolic gesture that the franchise is moving forward without them. Almost as sure an indication as a bitter Luke tossing his lightsaber was of Johnson's intentions to completely deconstruct this universe.

What's potentially problematic is a franchise without Han, Luke and Leia, and betting the new characters are ready to move to the forefront. Two of them surely are, while the jury's still out on the rest. That, along with pacing and editing issues, is where the film flounders most. And yet, while the sum of its parts is arguably greater than the whole, it's too sprawling and ambitious to not have staying power. There's nothing "average" about it, as it visually stuns while deepening the characters and mythology. Rian Johnson did his job. It wasn't to send every hardcore fan home happy, or take a safe, risk-free route that paves the way for a smooth, predictable Episode IX. It was to shake things up. Be careful what you wish for.     

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