STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz, Andy Serkis, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Kelly Marie Tran, Benicio del Toro, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o
Directed by Rian Johnson
Written by Rian Johnson
Based on characters created by George Lucas
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman
Executive producer, J. J. Abrams
Cinematography by Steve Yedlin
Edited by Bob Ducsay
Music by John Williams
Production design by Rick Heinrichs
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a good movie, it’s recommended, it should be seen in real movie theaters, up on the big screen, it’s worth the admission price, as there’s much to be seen on-screen, the movie features old, familiar faces and some new, fresh faces, it’s made in the classic good-versus-evil and evil-empire-versus-heroic-rebels Star Wars family-oriented story universe and atmosphere, it’s fun and funny and entertaining, albeit a bit too dark and depressing at times, and it won’t disappoint die-hard fans or even the few new fans that exist on the planet. However, with all of that said, there’s caveats—strong, notable caveats–attached to “Jedi:” As noted, the movie is at times far too dark and depressing; also, there’s some specific downer and depressing plot points—like there were some equally-downer-and-depressing plot points in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens;” and, watching “Jedi,” one can’t help but continually feel that, well, perhaps this entire enterprise should finally be put to a nice, quiet rest—forever, or at least for the next forty years–and, perhaps, just perhaps, poor ol’ Star Wars father figure George Lucas should not have sold his baby to the evil empire that is Disney.
These caveats are noted because, in a very real sense, there’s not really much new, inventive, original or groundbreaking regarding the over-arching story, story development, characters, character development, over-arching plot, sub-plots, or plot points, settings, or, alas, even much of the dialogue—although it should be noted that writer and director Rian Johnson did indeed come up with some good lines–in “Last Jedi.” Still—forty years after Lucas’ classic original “Star Wars” was released in 1977—FORTY years later—the entire franchise still hasn’t gotten itself much out of the basic foundation of rebels versus the evil empire, now called the First Order, in “Jedi.” (That First Order is but still just another iteration of the Empire that was presented in previous “Star Wars” movies. You say tomato, I say tomahto, you say First Order, I say Empire—it’s basically the same.) Forty years later, we’re still dealing with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and Chewbacca and C-3PO and R2D2 and Han Solo’s son—not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Luke and Leia and Han and Chewbacca and the robots are genuinely likeable and even loveable characters—but, well, why are we still dealing with these same characters forty years later? Why are rebels still fighting Nazi-ish, fascist, evil, rebel-killing, empire-building-oriented villains, forty years later? Why aren’t there new, inventive, original and more strongly forward-thinking story, character, plot and dialogue elements, forty years later?
There should be. One could argue—and some have—that the entire “Star Wars” series could have easily have ended with the original three films (“Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”) Or, to be nice, the series could have easily ended the original story, characters and plots of those three original main characters and then moved onto other settings, worlds, universes, stories and characters. But George Lucas, trying in vain to revitalize the series, brought everything back for a new trilogy that, generally, until the last half-hour of the last film in that trilogy, remained stalled and stagnant. And now, forty years later, we’re dealing with the second film in yet a third trilogy that has not yet broken free of those familiar elements from—yes—forty years ago. Even though “Force Awakens” was also a good film, was also recommended, was also worth seeing—and promptly became one of the biggest-grossing films in history—that film, as rousing a comeback as it is and was, still remained attached to those familiar elements.
It’s simply time to let the past go in this series. And every science fiction fan—diehard, casual or even just-every-now-and-then—can tell you that there are hundreds, nay, thousands of original sci-fi ideas, stories, characters and situations floating around the sci-fi community that “Star Wars” producer Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney suits can utilize, buy and put to good use within the “Star Wars” universe if they insist on making an endless supply of “Star Wars” films—and that’s what it appears they plan to do, good or bad. Why, for goodness sakes, sci-fi and “Star Wars” fans will quickly add at this point in time that there’s even a host of new and original “Star Wars” stories, characters, settings and plots already floating around—in books, comic books, animated series, video games and even in the fan world. It’s apparent that Kennedy and the Disney suits are too money-oriented, too risk-aversive—and too flat-out scared—to leave the familiar world for one nano-second and to branch out, experiment, and explore strange new lifes and strange new civilizations and strange new worlds and go where no man—where no one—has gone before.
Oh, was that a slight dig to indicate that the concurrent—and consistently better, more original, more inventive, more intelligent and more varied “Star Trek” universe–has indeed accomplished this, through thirteen somewhat varied movies and at least six television shows? Yes, it was—because that’s exactly what the “Trek” world has indeed accomplished far better than the “Wars” universe. Even if six of the films and the next batch of the films and then the next batch of the films have repeatedly utilized the same set of original characters from—yes, we know—FIFTY years ago! If one is at all familiar with the “Trek” universe, at least there were indeed different characters in the second batch of films—the “Next Generation” movies—and the newer “Trek” films showcase a younger original crew living in some type of bizarre, unexplainable-in-rational-terms-even-in-sci-fi-terms alternative universe. However, the stories are different—there’s new villains, new settings, new situations, in general. Or, at least they seem to be different. Or, at least they try to be different.
The problems, again, with the “Wars” films is that they continually don’t stray too far from the overly familiar. And with “Last Jedi,” there’s no spoilers involved with relating the basic storyline: Rebels flee and fight the First Order, trying to preserve the resistance, save humanity from darkness, and use the powerful Jedi warriors to fight the mysterious power that is the Force, or the dark side. The rebels, a motley crew of rookie and veteran fighters—including the clichéd mix of fighters familiar to any of about a thousand World War II or Vietnam war movies—have little resources, clunky ships, move around in clandestine circles, and they try to undermine and fight the more powerful, more monied and more high-tech villains in the First Order. The rebels are cute, attractive, energized, heroic, spunky, and rely on their veteran leaders to help them and guide them. The First Order villains are all darkness and growling and evil and dark and hellbent on death, destruction, domination, empire-building and turning everything good into everything bad.
This general plot in “Jedi” is, as noted, the same general plot of most of the “Wars” films, going all the way back to the original. Lucas tried to mix things up with some family and relationship plot twists and turns, and later some war and peace themes, but even those revelations were more soap-opera-ish than inventive in terms of moving the story, plot and characters away from the familiar. Having someone be a father or brother or sister could have been borrowed from any daytime television soap opera—and those plot elements were, in a way. And the attempts at backstory in the second trilogy were still rooted in the familiar over-arching story.
“Jedi,” though, as noted, is indeed still made well enough that the movie breezes along at a fast pace, is full of action and even lighter, comedic moments, does have those familiar characters. There’s Luke Skywalker, played by a grizzled, steady Mark Hamill in a great performance that truly anchors the movie; Leia, who’s now a General and the leader of the rebels, and, alas, played equally strongly and courageously by Carrie Fisher in her last performance; and Chewbacca, C-3PO (still Anthony Daniels), R2D2, and others. And the film of course includes the new trio introduced in “Awakens”—Rey, a still-plunky and energetic Daisy Ridley; Poe Dameron, the classic rebellious and straight-talking and risk-taking flyboy played with spunk by Oscar Isaac; and Finn, played not quite so strongly in “Jedi” as in “Awakens” by John Boyega—but, it should be noted, not because of Boyega, but rather because of the way that Finn’s character is written and presented in the story by Johnson in “Jedi.” Someone had to take the lower credit in “Jedi” because of the increased presence and involvement of Skywalker in the story, and it was Finn. (Yes, his character plays an important role, it’s just not developed thoroughly enough as one would expect.) And the still-cute and still-funny and still-inventive—yes, this character is inventive—robot BB-8 is back.
In “Jedi,” Skywalker, moody and alone on a beautiful, remote island, is attempted to be called out of exile by an flustered, frustrated and generally exasperated and confused Rey, who keeps telling Luke that he’s needed as the one strong hero to lead the rebels in their fight against the First Order. Rey has tracked down Luke to that remote island—beautifully presented in the film as a wondrous, breathtaking setting—but he repeatedly doesn’t listen to her. This particular sub-plot—the grizzled veteran who is in exile, doesn’t want anything to do with anything, and repeatedly refuses to come out of exile to help his comrades—is so horribly clichéd and tired, any solid writer should know not to include this in any script. Interestingly, the same—too same for comfort, actually—situation was just presented in this year’s equally-tired and clichéd “Bladerunner” sequel, in which Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard was in the same situation: exiled, depressed, a loner, not wanting anything to do with anything. Movies have presented this cliché too often, and it almost never works or adds to anything in a substantial manner. The device didn’t work in the “Bladerunner” sequel–and it doesn’t work in “Jedi.” Deckard was actually unlikeable in the “Bladerunner” sequel, and Skywalker is actually somehow unlikeable on the island in “Jedi.”
To have Skywalker presented as a generally unlikeable grumpy old Jedi who keeps telling Rey to get off of his lawn so he can fish and sit and meditate and do nothing all day is not exactly enjoyable cinema. A better approach would have been to have Skywalker presented as more likeable and more agreeable to join the resistance—and more accepting to Rey’s pleas to teach her about the ways of the Jedi, to be a mentor, to be a hero, to help lead the resistance. Instead, Skywalker in “Jedi” initially appears like a character in a comedic offshoot, “Grumpy Old Jedi.”
Meanwhile, while Rey desperately tries to learn from Luke and convince him to return to fight, the fight rages against the rebels by the First Order, as Nazi-like as ever with spooky, murderous, thoroughly unlikeable leaders Supreme Leader Snoke (once again, an excellent Andy Sirkis, who, just like in every film he’s been in recently, steals every scene as Snoke); General Hux, to his credit played with some underlying black humor by Domhnall Gleeson, who does seem to be having some fun with the role; and, sigh, the biggest misstep in this new series, the horrendously unlikeable—but not in a fun way—character of Kylo Ren, played with dark fury and solid intensity by Adam Driver. All the characters are well-written, well-constructed, and all three villain actors do great playing these parts. However, Driver’s Ren, again, as written by Johnson, is so intense, so dark, so doom-and-gloom, the character’s presence cast an unnecessarily dark and downer pall over everything. Some may say, yes, well, that’s exactly what Johnson is intending do, because Ren is the heir to Darth Vader and the leader of the First Order and he is the main antagonist and he is supposed to be dark—yes, yes, yes, we know all that. But there is a manner and way to write, present and involve a villain without being so downer and depressing. It’s as if Johnson was so intent on presenting darkness, he let that darkness rise too far and too high above the light that rises to meet it—to borrow from one of Johnson’s better—if not the best—lines in the film.
And while Rey deals with the unlikeable Skywalker and the rebels deal with the villains and unlikeable Ren, there’s the efforts of Poe, Finn, BB-8 and a new rebel fighter, the, yes, plunky and spunky Rose Tico, a ship mechanic played with bursting fun and energy by Kelly Marie Tran, to, well, navigate some various worlds and ships and questionable characters to figure out a way to save the rebel ships and the rebels themselves from instant annihilation by the First Order. It’s best to keep the plot elements of this particular part of the story hidden, but rest assured that this part of the story, plot and the movie is the film’s most exciting—new, fresh, full of intrigue and mystery and suspense, and new and interesting characters, most notably Benicio del Toro’s wonderfully snaky, slimy and despicable underworld codebreaker, simply named DJ. Now, here is a villain—del Toro swims and snakes and slimes his way through this character, and it’s always a hoot. DJ also offers up some classic spy-film suspense, mystery and twists and turns. It’s great casting, and a great addition. One possible way that “Jedi” would have been a better film is if the entire DJ-and-related-mission was actually the center, heart and soul of the film! There was a possibility of some Cold War-style, spy-film-style, intrigue-and-smoke-and-mirrors-style storytelling with the mission that enlists the help of DJ, and, if it had been the center, that would have been far more fun that having to deal—sigh—with the same old Force-Jedi-rebel-empire shenanigans.
Johnson does try to layer the story and plot with these varying stories, and he does succeed. Weaving in and out of the Force-Jedi, rebel-empire, spy-mission plots, Johnson keeps viewers interested, keeps the story and plot and characters moving, and, of course, along the way, includes some breathtaking, dazzling fights, chases, special effects, costumes, make-up, otherworldly creatures, settings (the island that Skywalker is on, the world that Finn and crew visit on their spy mission, among others), production design (Snoke’s chamber is oddly, starkly, darkly beautiful and scary, all decked out in bright reds and blacks), art direction, pacing and timing. All the filmic elements are good or, at time, above average, and, as previously noted, despite the caveats, “Jedi” as a whole does not disappoint. And even with a running time of two-and-a-half-hours—that’s right, 2 ½ hours—believe it or not, much like the “Lord of the Rings” films, “Jedi” consistently, constantly moves along at a brisk pace—and the movie to its credit does not at all feel like 2 ½ hours. The time does fly by!
Hamill, Fisher, Daniels, Serkis, Gleeson and Frank Oz and Ridley, Driver, Isaac, Tran and Boyega all deliver strong, solid, energetic performances. No one can fault the acting. But there’s a sense of the bittersweet and the sentimental as one watches the film, knowing that Carrie Fisher died late in 2016. Fisher’s death, of course, has nothing to do with the production of the film, but her real-life death is there nevertheless as one watches the movie. So, too, is the still-unfortunate decision to coldly and somewhat ridiculously kill off the great Han Solo in “Awakens.” That bad decision—yes, it was a bad decision—to kill off Solo does hang over “Jedi” and that indeed is the fault of the filmmakers. That dumb death contributes to the downer depressing aura that, again, still hangs over and throughout “Jedi.” As Rey even notes in character—there was no clear reason for Ren to kill Solo. Ren even offers some type of science-fiction-mumbo-jumbo type of reasoning for his morbid, bizarro decision to kill Solo—his father, for goodness sake—but the explanation is as ridiculous as the decision to kill off Solo.
What’s impressive about the acting in “Jedi” is that the actors overcome the inherent weaknesses of Johnson’s story and plot and rise above the occasion. The film acts as a wonderful, stellar code to Fisher’s career, and, after the film, be sure to stay for the credits for a wonderful credit tribute to Fisher that will make you cry—that’s not a spoiler, as that credit tribute doesn’t have anything to do with the film’s story or plot.
As always with big-budget, blockbuster sci-fi films such as these (various media reports have an estimated budget of “Jedi’ ranging anywhere from $200 million to $250 million), kudos, congrats and serious credit must be given to the literally hundreds, if not thousands, of artists and crewmembers and computer technology wizards and engineers and artists who worked so hard in the areas of special effects, visual effects, computer effects, computer generated imagery, graphic design, mattes, gels, art in general, coloring, robotics, animatronics, and numerous other technical areas on “Jedi.” The special effects are always outstanding, state-of-the-art, and, as noted, dazzling and breathtaking. Whether its battles in space or on the ground, huge sets full of storm troopers, Snoke’s intimidating chambers, other worlds where Finn and his crew go, or even the interiors of rebel and empire spaceships, the look in “Jedi” is always beautiful and impressive. The effects, from scores of effects companies, including Luscasfilm and its associated technical companies, are just wondrous. Equally impressive is the film’s concurrent costuming and make-up effects.
So there is much to like, or even love, in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and expect this film to shoot straight up the stratosphere in terms of box office success, worldwide. And that’s fine and great, and good for everyone, including Lucasfilm, Disney and the “Star Wars” franchise, and moviegoers in general and “Star Wars” fans. That’s all fine and great.
However, as the vile Snokes wisely notes in that great line in “Jedi:” “Darkness rises…and the light to meet it.” The darkness in relation to the “Star Wars” movies could be that underlying force that some filmgoers may have while watching “Awakens” and now “Jedi:” That the overly-familiar, the overly-cliched and the overly-sameness could be the underlying darkness of the “Star Wars” universe, and the light that rises to meet that darkness could be—hopefully—the “Star Wars” filmmakers’ decision to soon move away from that familiar, and move forward to new stories, new plots, new characters—and new lifes, new civilizations and new science fiction worlds. Just like the rebels rely on hope to win their fight, so too can filmgoers rely on the hope that this is the new direction that the “Star Wars” films will take in the undiscovered country of the future.