Sunday, January 7, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Director: Rian Johnson
Notable Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Kelly Marie Tran, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Benicio del Toro, Laura Dern, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Frank Oz

Star Wars: The Last Jedi maybe one of the most unique entries into the series simply for one reason: it’s the first film since the original that feels like it truly has its own unique voice within the Star Wars realm. For what it’s worth since Disney purchased LucasFilms, they have righted the course for the franchise overall, but the House of Mouse machine is not necessarily a place for experimentation. The Force Awakens works because it’s a fine-tuned film powered by nostalgia (or weaponized intertextuality, if one follows the video essays by Nerdwriter on Youtube) and displays that love for it as a foundation to set up the new trilogy, but Rogue One was a film that definitely wanted to go further into darker territory that was certainly undercut by Disney’s need for a more consumable film. Which is why the more divisive approach of style used by director Rian Johnson for Episode VIII is so fascinating and respectful. Not only does he put a unique stamp on his entry into the latest Star Wars trilogy, but he’s able to balance some very diverse genre influences into the film without necessarily derailing the film as a whole that still innately feels like Star Wars. There are moments that don’t necessarily work as well as one would hope, but the final result is a Star Wars film that feels fresh. If anything, that’s massively respectable.

"I can sea." 
If The Force Awakens was a film that displayed a greatest hits of the Star Wars saga, in particular in following the blueprints of A New Hope, The Last Jedi is a film that patches together some of the stranger elements of the series while still firmly rooting itself as the middle of the trilogy. The film is a roller coaster of tonality and narrative shifting, leaping from some impressively dark moments to a surprising use of slapstick comedy, all the while embracing the fantasy like core of the series and still getting in some social commentary. The film is not afraid to throw down a few surprising twists in its plot and narrative, particularly in the second act and leading into the third one, that go against the grain of what has been established thus far and it comes off as huge (and very pleasant) deviations from the formula that work. With further digging, the film uses the formula of the series, with The Empires Strikes Back as the main one, to establish expectations and then delivers on those in some unique ways. As always with reviews like this, I do not want to spoil the fun of what this film does as it would play into how it ends or undermines the experience of the film, but rest assured it uses the Star Wars concept and gives it a unique feel. Perhaps making it one of my favorites of the series in doing so.

The red throne room, courtesy of Akira Kurosawa?
That being said, The Last Jedi does attempt to jam in a lot of material into the film and it’s not always the most effective it could have been. For each plot line that works, for me it was Luke Skywalker and Rey plot that really digs into the religious aspects of the Jedi/Sith relationship and why Luke has reached the next level of ‘enlightenment’ (or is it disenchantment?), there’s a plot line that seems rushed and fluffy which is the biggest issue for Finn and Rose’s story. Not only is their second act adventure, where they end up in a massive casino run by weapons developers and sellers that are benefitting from the endless war, one that ultimately has little effect on the major narrative, but it feels out of place and doesn’t give either character a huge arc that couldn’t have been handled in simpler ways. An entire chase sequence in this portion feels like it is there for the children (and to sell more toys) than for any other legitimate reason and it’s disappointing. Even though he seems to be a divisive aspect thus far, my favorite part of this tangent is Benicio del Toro. Just thought I would add that for discussion’s sake.

Outside of those elements of the narrative and plot, it’s hard to say that The Last Jedi isn’t immaculately executed. The performances are all memorable and layered, the score is bombastic, and the visual effects continue to embrace the tone and feel of epic that this series is known for. Rian Johnson steeps the film in iconic settings, from Luke’s lush green island and its limited scope to the Akira Kurosawa inspired bright reds and minimalist build of Snoke’s throne room, that stands out as Star Wars, but different from the rest. The action is crisp and effective, using its diversity to its benefit, to deliver on space battles, trench warfare that invokes the Hoth sequence of The Empire Strikes Back with bursts of red color, and more classic chanbara inspired sword play. The red throne room light saber battle rests as one of the best action sequences of the year and the emotional charge behind it allows it to soar.

The most controversial aspect? Luke Skywalker?
The loud and very opinionated haters of this film have some valid points in the chances and stylistic choices made in The Last Jedi. Not all of it works. Some of the humor is hit or miss, there’s the previously mentioned fluff plot line for Finn and Rose, and a few other moments (no spoilers, people) that didn’t always work as well as it might have. Still, even with those in mind, The Last Jedi is an epic and unique entry into the Star Wars universe that deserves a lot of love too. The artistic merits of the visuals, the plays on the expectations of the formula, and the directorial voice all set it aside as one of the best of the series too. Repeated viewings will ultimately make the statement of whether or not this becomes the instant classic that fans either want it to be or despise it for trying to be. For now though, Star Wars: The Last Jedi remains one of the best of the franchise and I will staunchly stand by it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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