Friday, December 22, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Is Not the Sequel We Were Looking For

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie review
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
In 2015, Disney brought back George Lucas's Star Wars with ambitious plans to churn out films until 2020. Following a long-awaited ten years after the prequels disappointed the masses, Star Wars: The Force Awakens renewed the beloved franchise to a solid, mixed reaction. Leaving its sequel with a lot of questions to answer, The Last Jedi had one job to do, and unfortunately, didn't get it exactly right.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS. Please return when you've seen the movie.



Picking up where we left off, The Last Jedi follows the misfit band of cohorts when all hope seems lost. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kellymarie Tran) try to thrwart Supreme Leader Snoke, while the Resistance led by General Organa (Carrie Fisher) is caught in the crosshairs against the First Order. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince disenchanted exile Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to rejoin their cause and teach her the ways of the Force, which is also being attained by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to do his mentor's bidding.

Directed and written by Rian Johnson, the loveable ensemble has a lot to juggle from director J.J. Abrams's previous flick in this highly anticipated sequel. What initially made the reboot charming and engaging, thrusting fans into theories and raising expectations, now struggles to find its balance by packing three different movies of comedy, adventure, and character development into one.

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie review

The Man, The Myth, The Legend

After his last appearance thirty-four years ago, The Force Awakens teased audiences with the epic return of Luke Skywalker - the optimistic hero set to be the last Jedi master. Everyone was trying to locate Skywalker because he was supposed to turn the tide against the First Order's uprising, or so we thought. While The Last Jedi certainly brought the man back, the movie itself mishandles the myth and the legend.

Where we find Luke now is disenchanted and exiled on Ach-to, the founding base for Jedi lore. He's no longer in the longest staredown with Rey after she returns his lightsaber, but this however, is not the Luke anyone was expecting to find. Shut off the Force and basically waiting to die, Skywalker brushes Rey off despite that the galaxy will supposedly lose hope without him, and Rey will not have someone to mentor her in the Force as her untamed powers possibly get out of control.

Though the conflict between Rey, Kylo and Luke is definitely the most engaging plot, Skywalker's personal arc is all over the place. Embarking on everything that was established in his prime, the story tries to thread his moral ambiguity of being a Jedi and the franchise's next leaders Kylo Ren and Rey together, but doesn't know how to marry the two. Something good and evil has been awakened in both of them, and they need Luke to understand how to wield their abilities. Here, the movie should aid Skywalker to this calling, but it never fully takes advantage of his impetus to help others.
I only know one truth. It's time for the Jedi... to end.
In Return of the Jedi, Luke knew Darth Vader was his father, someone who committed genocide and fully turned to the dark side, but Luke appealed to him anyways, even willing to sacrifice himself to get his dad redemption. In the complete opposite direction leading up to The Last Jedi, Luke sensed darkness in his nephew and almost killed him for it. When that backfired, and Kylo joined the First Order anyways, Luke jumped ship to leave his sister and husband to deal with the aftermath. Now, Rey comes to him for help, it's acceptable to think Luke might not be too excited to jump back into his old ways. But when he eventually gets around to helping her, he senses her willing surrender to the dark side. She is more powerful than he could've imagined, prompting Skywalker to even say Kylo's abilities didn't scare him before (even though he almost killed his nephew for it) but it does now. He barely gives her two half-hearted lessons, nor implants any sort of deeper truth about her abilities, eventually forcing her to take matters into her own hands, and then sides with Kylo over their bad blood. And, then out of nowhere cue an epic battle between himself and Kylo which really only pushes his nephew over the edge some more...

While it's unrealistic to assume a character can't change after forty years, it's equally irresponsible for that evolution to be inconsistent, to barely take into consideration his real history except for easter eggs. Skywalker's plan to be shut off from the rest of the galaxy is confusing. This Skywalker doesn't live up to the myth Rey knew in Force Awakens, which emboldens some things the movie tries to capitalize on later (stories from the past can inspire the future; as a Jedi force ghost he'll still pass down lessons, etc.). But it also makes Luke lose a significant amount of agency, especially since his arc serves as a branch between Kylo and Rey's identities. For a series connecting fresh younglings to the elder ones, what is the lasting impression Rey has of Skywalker except being grumpy and unhelpful? what was the end product of finding Luke in the first place if appealing to Ben wasn't in the cards? It's not that the changes of Luke were wholly bad, a lot of elements don't add up.

At his best, Hamill's performance is good; he's more than capable of handling the comedy (even if its hammy). His sweeter spots are the drama, sharing Luke's anger, hurt, and fears despite his disagreements with the director. Luke is mostly caught in the middle between the Rey and Kylo, but as a trio, their dynamics bring on the entertainment as well as nuance we expect from Star Wars. At its worst, the movie is being called a character assassination by most fans, and at its best (for me), a mediocre script with a reliable performance.

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie review

Script's A Trap

With the responsibility of The Force Awakens on its shoulders, The Last Jedi tries to handle a lot in two and a half hours - actually, too much. It's clear from the start the Luke/Rey/Ren stand-off is the movie's defining centerpiece filled with engaging, action-packed, emotionally-fulfilling, and definitely surprising, scenes, while the other entwining subplots drags the momentum down.

The Resistance is trying to gain the upperhand on The First Order but the plan backfires. Every time they jump to hyperdrive, Snoke's ship tracks them. Even if the Resistance wanted to shake 'em, they can't because they've lost fuel. Poe suddenly thinks he knows better than his superior officers General Organa and Admiral Holdo, and with Finn and Rose in tow, tries to help them sneak aboard Snoke's ship by tracking down a codebreaker to disassemble their tracking unit.

It's fair to say that this subplot tries to reintroduce some unique ideas that weren't of much concern in previous movies such as a weaponry economy permeating both sides of the battle, and that war requires sacrifice and selflessness in order for others to fight another day. This set of storylines between The First Order and the Resistance starts as a cat and mouse chase but essentially becomes a traffic jam in space. It's actually surprising that for all the eight movies with space battles, even the prequels, the scripts never exploited a loss of fuel to buy the weaker plots more screentime.

That said, the transitions between the three plots aren't strong or smooth. The writing and direction couldn't strike a balance between being in the Star Wars universe and showing the Star Wars universe off. Comedy has always trailed between the movies, but the cheesy humor here are repetitively corny, while drama is usurped by several unnecessary, fake-out "Did they just do that?!" deaths. Nor has the Force been used in so many radical ways: Luke can astroproject himself as a hologram to another world and still get killed, while Leia can save herself in space and fly, but they can't talk to each other from distant planets? Snoke can play Hotline Bling, but not attack the Resistance's ships with his mind? On top of which, several returning faves like Poe and General Hux become parodies of themselves, while others are wasted like Finn and Captain Phasma.

This is not to say that all of the script is in poor taste. If you're unlucky enough to be an encyclopedia of Star Wars most important moments, there are plenty of homages as well as original scenes that make the movie worthwhile. And, some characters fare better than others. Giving her last performance as General Organa, Carrie Fisher is once again the commander-in-badassery that we need. She's sharp, witty, and strong-willed, making an sophisticated farewell full of beautiful moments and a wonderful final tribute. As well, temporarily stepping in for Organa, Laura Dern as Admiral Holdo offers that same determined attitude and grace of teaching the young things a thing or two. And Kellymarie Tran as Rose might be a predictable friend-turned-love-interest, but she was one of the few transcended Johnson's direction; clever, resilient, tenacious, vulnerable, charming. At least, in the chaos, there's still room for some bad-ass women to take the helm and for others to follow.

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie review

A Few Saving Graces

When the eighth film's title was announced a year ago, its meaning absolutely rattled fans even though the answer was in plain sight. The continued story still contended with identity and destiny, and how the two are intertwined, but knew the warped maze it would take all of us down. With its leads in particular, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley who have become the Yin and Yang, respectively, of the series are also some of this movie's biggest and most enduring saving graces. (Yes, even with the Force Skype sessions.)

Kylo and Rey's connection began as twins of The Force, making a shared mental and emotional connection, but not knowing what to do with it. Kylo was summoned to the dark side by Snoke, while Rey tries to get more proper training with Skywalker, a plan that ultimately fails. Left to their own devices, they have to make their own decisions of who they want to be.

Kylo has already fallen a number of times, but his redemption is still up for grabs. He struggles to shed the image not only of his uncle's betrayal, but also live up to grandfather's legacy. He thinks to extinguish everything that reminds him or tethers him to the extremes of good (Jedi) or evil (the Empire, oops The First Order), he can start all over again and rule the galaxy himself (possibly with Rey). Here, for the eighth movie, the story really dives into his conflicting choices Ben faces being loyal to his family, and Kylo, who is meant to be all-evil, all power. Driver does a great job with the internal tug of war Kylo has between what he thinks or knows is right.
Luke: What do you see?
Rey: The island. Life. Death and decay, that feeds new life. Warmth. Cold. Peace. Violence.
And between it all?
Balance and energy. A force.
And inside you?
Inside me, that same force.
By the same token, Rey's past isn't touched on too deeply in the movie; the hype of her parentage is all but slated as nothing special, and perhaps that's the key to her biggest strength and weakness. Unlike Kylo, her life isn't a measuring stick of greatness. A lot of good characters from Anakin to Luke to Rey have come from nothing to become someone, whether that means an instrument for destruction or hope. She can do anything she wants since her Jedi powers stem from somewhere within, not some special lineage. The dark cave on Ach-to that she visited didn't scare her as it would others, which makes her capable of immense power, maybe the kind only Kylo can dream of. As they use each others emotions and realities to gain the upperhand and seemingly see hope in the other, we get a hint of what pulls her in different directions: the darkness that she almost willingly surrenders too, or the good moral compass she holds onto.

Separately and together, this installment started to explore the extreme ideology of The Force to be all good or all evil, and that peace might exist in finding a balance between the two. Whatever fuels Ren and Rey will be to their own detriment or benefit, and firmly keep them in opposite ends of the spectrum? Can Kylo redeem himself? Without proper training, can Rey still fall to the dark side? or will she be the first to grapple with the peace and violence within? Fans might not agree on how the duo are seen (shipped together or not), but The Last Jedi gave us some compelling angles to talk about moving ahead.

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie review

We'll Meet Again

As Disney tries to usher in more movies for decades to come, it's difficult to not shake off the poignant, disconcerting aspect of The Last Jedi that to forge a future, you should kill the past. By coincidence, the galactic trio Han, Luke, and Carrie Fisher can't continue in the future universe anymore (except as a ghost force). Its story isn't even in the original creator's hands anymore. As the upcoming era introduces characters and stories, the dismantlement of Lucas's origins are bittersweet.

The legend of Skywalker, and the entire Star Wars universe, lives on for its fans young and old. The world and characters might be fictional, told through the big screen, graphic novels, and animated shows, but it doesn't make their influence any less tangible for our own morality or self-expression. Even if the arcs were always meant to come to an end, and the Last Jedi's finale tries to show that even the forgotten, disadvantaged children can aspire to be someone like Luke, the series treatment of its veterans doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. Disney is going to have to answer the question: what do fans or their stories do when their beloved heroes are killed off? Sure there is a lot of possibilities where the phenomenon can go next, but we dealt with possibilities before in The Force Awakens and a lot of them didn't come to fruition.

That said, fans always expect Star Wars movies to entertain at a higher level than regular blockbusters, so its surprising that the go-to critics' response for The Last Jedi is game-changing and groundbreaking. This edition feels more like a 7.5 than an 8 as the story delves further into what happened after The Force Awakens, but 75% of the results aren't uniquely defined or all that memorable.

Despite its ambitions, The Last Jedi simply doesn't have the writing behind its universe to support what it's trying to attempt: handing the reigns over from the original trilogy to the next generation.  Johnson as writer and director definitely made sure the movie was filled with hardcore homages and parallels to his sources, but hits and misses all over the place with poor execution. Its comedy, action and character development is stitched together with good intentions, but like Porg plushies clamoring for attention in toy stores, they struggle to hit the right notes. As far as The Last Jedi is concerned, for a lot of us either Padawans or Jedi masters, this wasn't the sequel we were looking for.

Rating: ★¾
Have you seen The Last Jedi? What did you think?

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