- Movie Rating -

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

| December 15, 2017

At this point, the last two things that you might expect a Star Wars movie to be are unexpected and unpredictable.  After ten theatrical features, you might imagine that you could call every twist and turn; every fiber of this saga seems to have been mined until the surprises are long gone.  It is refreshing to report that Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi trumps that notion, not just once, but several times over.  This is the most unexpected action movie I’ve seen in a long time, a movie whose joys are most potent when you step in spoiler-free.  Having said that, I’ll tread lightly.

The Last Jedi is a terrific science fiction adventure, a triumph of visual design and complex storytelling.  It bleeds atmosphere, which is appropriate for the middle child of a trilogy.  Its genre requirement is to throw our heroes into the pits of darkness and despair from which they will emerge in the final act (due out Christmas 2019).  In that way, no one would blame you if you approached it with the assumption that it was going to try and recapture elements from The Empire Strikes Back and, well, it does, to a point.  Yes, this is a very dark movie and there are elements that remind us of the earlier film (often credited as the best film of the series) without necessarily mining it.  The fortune and the curse facing director Rian Johnson is in trying to tap the saga’s great history without giving in to the temptation to want to duplicate them.

The movie picks up pretty much where The Force Awakens left off.  There are two fronts; first dealing with the surviving remnant beholding to The Resistance against the tyranny of The Nazis First Order.  Having taken out the enemy’s hedonistic superweapon, they are now on the run.  The visual language here achieves something that even Lucas’ legendary original trilogy might have come up short on, and that’s the absolute threat that our heroes are under.  As the movie opens, they are on the run from The First Order in a sort of intergalactic game of jump-and-run, as The Resistance fighters jump to lightspeed ahead of The First Order’s armada.  We see The Resistance under attack and their numbers dwindling fast – the population of our heroes is critically low.  This causes fractures in the alliances within The Resistance over what to do next.  Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) wants action, but Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) advises a strategy due to their dwindling numbers.  She’s still tough as nails, but when she is forced to stand down, she is replaced by the tough-as-nails Vice Admiral Holdo (played by an odd-looking Laura Dern) who has even less tolerance for Poe’s shenanigans.

The other key to the story picks up where we left off, on the water planet Achc-To (God bless you!) where Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has been living like a hermit in exile, closing himself off from the Force due to a failure some time ago that left a number of good people in an unfortunate state of not-living.  Something in Rey is stirring, a longing to not only understand herself but also to remove the veil of whatever is stirring inside of her soul.  Luke wants nothing to do with it, the Jedi and the Sith have been a far more destructive force on the peace of the galaxy probably than 100 Death Stars.  But, of course, we know that this won’t stick.

Rey is desperate not only to pull Luke out of his funk, but also to discover what is at the mystery of her power.  She’s being seduced by Kylo Ren via an element in the force that was briefly alluded to in Empire but never fully explored – apparently force-users can talk to each other across time and space as if they are looking at one another – a sort of Jedi Skype.  It is really quite effective.

Kylo Ren turns out to be a very compelling character here; making twists and turns in his allegiance that you don’t expect.  One of my minor complaints about The Force Awakens was that he felt weak as a central villain but here, as the trilogy deepens, Adam Driver is able to give the character a great deal of pathos and a lot of emotional weigh.  His connection to Rey is really quite stunning, giving you a different kind of seduction that the Sith has thusfar not been able to display – it’s a seduction of the mind and it played out beautifully.

The volume of characters here is stunning especially in the way that the script allows each to have a moment without feeling like anyone is left out.  The older characters bear the weight of the saga’s history but the newer characters are given nuances we well.  First and foremost is Rose (played by the cute-as-a-button Kelly Marie Tran), a resistance maintenance worker who develops a touching bond with Finn.  Then there’s the aforementioned Vice Admiral Holdo whose alliances are somewhat questionable.  They’re both solid characters; in fact, the only new character who comes up a little short is a code-breaker played by Benecio Del Toro who spends so much time being sneaky and vague that it gets a little tiring – which he finally reveals his hand, it comes up more as a ‘so what?’

The returning characters are given far more weight here, along with Kylo Ren and Rey, Finn gets to have a touch of romance amid the chaos.  And Leia, dear Leia.  Given the short-shrift in Force Awakens, she emerges here as a full-blooded leader with experience in her eyes and the fire still in her heart.  She has a beautiful moment early on that suggests the fullness of her lineage – more I will not say.

But truly, the movie really belongs to Mark Hamill who, in my mind, gives a complex performance that I think should earn him an Oscar nomination.  I mean, come on, if they nominated Stallone for Creed, why not Mark Hamill for this?  It won’t but it should.  The structure of the character is very logical here.  Luke Skywalker has had the most arc of any character that I can think of, starting in A New Hope as a bright-eyed farm boy, then as a broody sullen teenager in Empire and then as a more thoughtful adult in Jedi.  Here we feel his age, decades of having had the weight of the world on his shoulders and choosing to reject his destiny when he failed it.  Now the rebellion calls him back in their most desperate hour – he’s their only hope.

I will admit that I was nervous about this film going in.  With all the complaints about Force Awakens replicating A New Hope (I see their point), I was fearful that maybe this would replicate Empire, one of the greatest science fiction experiences of my life.  It does to an extent but it moves in its own direction and takes us in unexpected directions.  The production design here is inspired, especially Snoke’s throne room which looks like the something out of the final stage of the video game ‘Doom’ and the salt flats of the planet where the final battle takes place.  When the white salt is disturbed, it reveals beautiful trails of crimson that I thought was not only visually pleasing but oddly symbolic.  But my FAVORITE location nearly equals the cantina in the original – a seedy high-roller casino where the greedy and high-falutin’ go to get their appetites fed – it may be more scummy than Mos Eisley.  Here is where we get a fresh dose of humor (the movie needs it) and that’s something that is present all through the movie, fresh doses of humor that don’t step on the main action – a miscommunication between Poe and Hux is my favorite, proving that technology in Star Wars is not at all perfect.  Plus, I love the running joke about how the goings-on of the main characters are affecting the ancillary background characters who are just trying to go about their day.

This is what I hope to get in a new Star Wars movie.  It’s beautiful, it’s complex, it’s dramatic, it’s funny, it’s thrilling.  Rian Johnson is the perfect director for this kind of story.  He’s a director who knows how to unwind a complex plot as with his previous films like Brick and Looper.  He’s no slouch in the story department and he’s determined not to be a director-for-hire.  He knows what he’s doing.  There are moments in this film when I didn’t know how he was going to get the characters where they were suppose to be or how they were going to get out of their predicament.  That’s refreshing from a 40 year old series with this much history.  He keeps things moving, he keeps them interesting and balances humor with pathos and deep, dark drama – I deeply cared about what was happening on screen.  What more could you ask for?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2017) View IMDB Filed in: Sci-Fi/Fantasty