Star Wars The Last Jedi – Listening to old voices with a new ear

The Last Jedi poster

Star Wars The Last Jedi – 2017

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro

After so many movies and so much written and television on the characters and concepts of the force, it was a kind of foregone conclusion that we’d seen everything The Force had to offer. Star Wars had become seemingly a recycled unit of ideas in the The Force Awakens. Sure, there was a lot of energy, but it seemed to lack any sort of innovation.

The world was fooled in the prequels into thinking that somehow Attack of the Clones would be the Empire Strikes Back of that series. It was disheartening to hear the same hopes and dreams about The Last Jedi. Rest easy. This could be the best movie of the new trilogy. It is certainly no Empire Strikes Back, even if it does have echoes within the chances it takes.

The beauty of Rian Johnson’s film is that while it is well aware of the past success and failure of the franchise, it is not prisoner to the conceptual hocus pocus that passed before. What we get, when it comes to Luke Skywalker, Rey and Kylo / Ben is a new angle on what it means to be a Jedi, or even working within the force in general. Sure, some of it feels like nonsense upon first listen. No doubt, though, future views will fill in some of the gaps…and create new ones.

I have to say, I was not all that sure how much I would like Luke Skywalker, the exile. And in his teaching Rey (Ridley), were we going to see the same stuff we saw with Yoda? The surprise is as much what lessons were to be learned as they were who had to learn them. Somehow, Johnson managed to incorporate some unique traits into the old Jedi, reminiscent of the actor playing him. Still, he managed to avoid being annoying as Mark Hamill has become in person. If the segment on the planet Ach-To feels too brief, it is a welcome move in order to avoid the cliché of master and student in debt to the story being told.

Equally interesting is the turn made with Kylo (Driver) and Rey. There is created a twist in their relationship that is delightfully and intriguingly obtuse. What is this connection?  What does it mean for their futures? As soon as we think we know, there is something else to consider. Both are played somewhat ambiguously to their mutual benefit. We hear some repeated cheesy ROTJ Luke lines from Rey, but they get turned on their ear, thankfully.

What can I say about Snoke without spoiling things? I can say that whatever your theory is, it probably will end up being wrong. And in the end, you may not care. Serkis plays him as delightfully wicked and prescient. His animation is top-notch and very real compared to anything we witnessed in Thor Ragnarok even.

Of the other new faces, Poe Dameron is exciting and nuanced. The screenplay is smart enough to not make him perfect, and that helps give Oscar Isaac somewhere to go. To this end, his interplay with the other integral characters feels fresher than almost anything else in the film.

Finn is unfortunately caught spinning the same plot points that they gave him in the first film. How many times does he need to learn that he is a hero? He does get an intriguing pairing with Tran, a maintenance worker for the resistance who sees opportunity where others see doom.

Captain Phasma (Christie) is somewhat underused again. There is a clash seen in most of the commercials that will give us a few moments of joy in seeing that Palpatine cruiser hull plating of hers get a work out.

Gleeson is better this time with his snark always on the verge of breaking out into full dictator mode. The interplay with he and Ren is better this time, if only because we know the animus is real.

Chewie and the delightful Porgs are a site to behold. Even as one gets their sites set on unbearable Ewok cuteness, these little guys are nowhere near as cloying as the walking teddy bears. If you think Chewie’s heart is melted by them, just wait until you see what he has on the barbecue. It’s a complicated relationship that should delight fans of all stripes.

Speaking of cute BB-8 is everywhere in this film. They seem to find a way to throw him around a lot, then have him help find a way out of each sticky wicket. Again, they could have used a little bit more R2, especially in conjunction with BB. They used 3-PO the right amount, in that you never have a chance to tire of him.

As for Leia, it’s the saddest part of all having watched her struggle through these last two films. Her acting days are long gone. Her moves seem accompanied by endless amounts of pain. She looks exactly as ravaged by time as she was in real life. The strange thing is they make no effort to show these obvious disabilities as a result of any sort of battle. The result is just as depressing here as it is watching her in The Force Awakens and even in Bright Lights. She is not well and it shows.

Looking at her did not evoke memories of the heroine of the original trilogy, and indeed the best character of Empire Strikes Back. I could not picture a valiant old general tired by endless battles. All I could see her character doing was spending days on the couch with her dog, occasionally getting up to answer the door for guests. I understand she will always be a hero, but she just never got into acting shape for these films and it is to their detriment.

She’s not the only drawback though. The point of the film from the first time they come out of light speed through to the beginning of the last act lacks any amount of real drama for the simple fact that no one in this new world seems to understand the idea of surrounding your prey. Somehow we’re treated to long, boring chase scene reminiscent of something from The Simpsons. “Look, they’re getting gradually away…” only they’re not.

We have less of Rey in the last act than I would have wanted. She still works as a character, and they’ve managed to not give us too much of her character so far. The spirit she puts into these films make them enjoyable as much for me as my wife and daughters. That I never consider her being a woman as any sort of difference when it comes to the force goes a long way to showing how well they draw the concept.

Johnson did a good job here. It’s not perfect. It’s not even as good as Rogue One. The visuals are completely stunning, though the plot is uneven. It is a pretty decent improvement over the last Skywalker film. It gives the numbered films hope for a decent future that they’ve created more than a few memorable characters you want to see succeed.

Let’s keep on listening to the old voices, but let’s just not repeat every word they say.

(**** out of *****)

 

 

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