Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….

JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens burst onto the screen with all of the glory & subtlety of a lightsaber to the face. Having said that, I still loved the hell out of it. Yes, it was a rehash of A New Hope, but it was more than that – it was a welcome reintroduction to the world we all fell in love with as children. Unlike the prequels, it felt like Star Wars! Somehow, it threaded the needle of having to re-establish the feel of our beloved galaxy far, far away, introduce new characters, re-introduce old characters, avoid the pitfalls of the prequels, embrace the triumph that was the original trilogy, and somehow manage to be a coherent Star Wars movie in the process. Needless to say, JJ had his hands tied a bit in needing to do all of that with one movie. Regardless, it very much established a solid structure for writer/director Rian Johnson to build off of with The Last Jedi.

In the years between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, fanboys & girls dissected and obsessed over every detail JJ left dangling in Episode VII. JJ created a classic Abrams puzzle-box with Episode VII. Theories were raised and debated daily – Who are Rey’s parents? Who is Snoke? What will Luke’s first words be? Why did he really strand himself on that island? Will Kylo turn to the light? Will Rey turn to the Darkside? Is this whole trilogy going to mirror the original trilogy? The list of questions were endless and the expectations were sky high – never a good recipe for success. It’s obvious Rian Johnson considered all of it – not necessarily the fan theories, but certainly the questions and expectations leading into Episode VIII.

In the end, the film feels like a purposeful subversion of not only those theories & expectations, but of Star Wars itself. How much you enjoy The Last Jedi seems to be dependent on how much you cling to the Star Wars of the past. Fans who love the Star Wars of old -  “The Chosen One” plot lines, cocky (usually male) heroes who refuse to bend to authority (and are rewarded for it), a clear distinction between the dark side and the light, and the mysterious, all-powerful puppet-master villains - may find themselves feeling betrayed. Fans looking for growth beyond those areas will likely walk out quite satisfied with what Rian Johnson has put together. I, myself, am somewhat torn down the middle of the two camps – I love the old ways, but I greatly admire Johnson for wanting to subvert expectations & genre norms so wildly.

Technically, The Last Jedi is an impressive feat. Rian’s friend and forever-Cinematographer, Steve Yedlin (Looper, Brick, Brothers Bloom), creates a marvelous looking Star Wars film, even by Star Wars standards. The mix of practical and CGI FX lean a little more towards CGI than JJ, but not by much. Don’t be surprised if he shoots the whole new trilogy that Rian is set to do next.

Acting-wise, The Last Jedi has very few issues. I felt like Carrie Fisher didn’t put her best foot forward with The Force Awakens, but she certainly makes up for it this time. Every moment she’s on-screen is fantastic and makes you miss her even more, if that’s possible. I didn’t even mind the heavily debated “space Leia” moment of the film (for spoiler reasons, I’ll avoid more detail).

Everyone else carries their weight admirably. I love what Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are doing with Rey and Kylo – they’re the spine of this new trilogy and that spine is only strengthened and reinforced here, both in the writing and performances given.

Oscar Isaac is granted a far more meaty role this go-round, and, while you can debate the writing of it, you can’t debate the spark he brings to the character of Poe Dameron, who could easily come off two-dimensional in other hands.

My only issues are with the characters of Finn, and newcomers Rose and Vice Admiral Holdo (played by Kelly Marie Tran and Laura Dern, respectively). While I don’t mind John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran’s performances, I do take issue with their wasted storyline. Without going into spoilers, Rose and Finn’s story feels the most out of place and forced. At points, their adventure on Canto Bight genuinely feels like a scene straight out of the prequels, as it gets downright cartoony. In fact, if you extracted their story from the film overall, I’m betting people would have a lot fewer issues with The Last Jedi.

Dern, on the other hand, has a character that is both forced and awkwardly acted, which is strange considering all of the acting praise she’s receiving this award season. Even then, she still gets one of the most jaw dropping scenes in the movie – one that, in my opinion, should have gone to Leia.

Then there’s the Snoke of it all. As always, I won’t go into spoilers, but I will say that I’m glad Rian did what he did – it made for the best sequence in the movie. It was also needed to distance this trilogy from the original trilogy. So, yes – fanboys – I hear you…you’re just wrong.

Finally, for all of the commotion about The Last Jedi’s use of Luke Skywalker, you can’t deny that Mark Hamill gives a fantastic performance. He’s nothing like the Luke we knew, but hey, it has been 30 years. Whether it rings true to you or not is another issue altogether. While I wouldn’t have seen Luke being used that way, I still can’t fault Rian Johnson’s motivations, as it makes for some great scenes and leaves the story/newer characters with room to run.

Overall, The Last Jedi is a strange beast, filled with some amazing Star Wars moments and some confusing ones, as well. Throughout the movie, Johnson tees up each expectation/trope the audience might have and sets the characters on a course to intersect with said expectations; however, before those points intersect he smashes them to bloody pieces before your eyes, smiles, and moves onto the next. At first, it’s wildly refreshing – after two and a half hours, he’s done this so many times that some may feel that he’s subverted Star Wars altogether. Again, how you feel about this depends on how much you cling to the past. It took me some time to reckon with it. Regardless, it’s clear how Rian feels – “Let the past die…kill it if you have to.”

…..also, can we just say the Porgs weren’t so bad, after all? Cool.