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Three Views: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

December 13, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Right off the bat, I want to address the fact that I found Star Wars: The Last Jedi to be good not great.  Now that that is out of the way, I can get into a more nuanced take on Episode 8.  This is a solid entry into the franchise that provides ample entertainment value and has stuff to like about it, but it also has some character and story problems that hold it back from reaching the levels of its original trilogy counterpart The Empire Strikes Back.

The story begins right where The Force Awakens ended.  General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is continuing to lead her army of Resistance fighters against the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  The film opens with rebel fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) engaged in a fierce space battle with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega) is also back, this time joined by engineer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and these two are sent on a mission of their own by Poe, who is distrustful of Leia’s new second-in-command Admiral Holden (Laura Dern).  Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) are on the far off island of Ahch-To, in hopes that old master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) will train her in the ways of the Jedi and teach her how to harness the power of the Force.  But Luke fears that Rey’s powers might be too strong, even for him, and warns her not to get tempted by the Dark Side.

There is stuff to like here.  I enjoyed seeing Mark Hamill back in action, and he does fine work in the role, delivering one of his meatiest performances as Luke.  It’s bittersweet to see Carrie Fisher in her last performance, having mostly completed her scenes before her untimely death last December, with the rest smoothed over in post-production.  There are also fun appearances from other fan favourite characters, including classic droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 and modern scene stealer BB-8, as well as some other nice surprises worked in along the way that I wouldn’t think of spoiling here.

The other characters in The Last Jedi that have been getting a lot of attention are the Porgs, the native avian species of Ahch-To, which were inspired by the puffins on the real life island of Skellig Michael, where these scenes were filmed.  I’m in the camp that finds these fluffy space birds adorable, and they provide some great sight gags, but they are also barely in the movie, especially considering the amount that they have played into the film’s marketing and merchandising.  I’m glad they weren’t overused, but I actually wanted to see more of them, and the film could almost be described as being “softcore Porg.”

Director Rian Johnson, who already proved his chops with indie gems Brick and The Brothers Bloom and put himself on the public’s radar with his sci-fi movie Looper, does a fine job of steering the ship this time around, and we can tell that he holds a certain amount of reverence for Star Wars lore.  The action sequences are solidly staged, and the few lightsaber battles are as well choreographed and fun to watch as we have come to expect.  The production design of the ships and different alien worlds is once again top notch, Steve Yedlin’s cinematography offers several stirring images, and the editing has some nicely done cross cuts that help establish similarities between the characters.

But the aforementioned story and character problems in The Last Jedi are also hard for me to really overlook.  The whole thing is technically proficient, but the film plays it safe where it should have been more daring, and the narrative risks it does take don’t always work.  Yes, the prequels had a boatload of problems as well, but throughout The Last Jedi, I actually found myself wondering what sort of narrative outline Star Wars creator George Lucas originally had in mind for this sequel trilogy, before Disney took over the series and scrapped his original plans.

A good chunk of the plot involves the Resistance’s ship running low on fuel, and in a way this provides a metaphor for parts of the film itself.  Not only does The Last Jedi follow a largely predictable path, but it also doesn’t really go anywhere.  It seems to be taking two steps forward and one step back, and many times when the film does seem to be going somewhere, it back-pedals on it shortly after.  I had some issues with The Force Awakens as well, but I actually think it’s the better overall movie, at least in terms of forward momentum.  Although there was the potential here for something really exciting, The Last Jedi makes too many frustrating choices, and as such ends up feeling like a bit of a cop out at times.

The film feels bloated at 152 minutes, making it the longest in the franchise by ten minutes, and it has some wheel-spinning that doesn’t really pan out.  The subplot involving Finn and Rose, which takes them to an otherworldly casino that has echoes of the cantina, seems to slow down the plot rather than move it forward.  The best part of this subplot is the introduction of a grifter named DJ (Benicio Del Toro), who also happens to be the film’s most interesting new character, but he feels shortchanged in terms of limited screen time.  The film also has pacing issues at times, and the first few scenes get off to a shaky start, with some cheesy and overly expository dialogue and a scenery-chewing performance by Domhnall Gleason, which leads to a few awkward attempts at humour.

The other problem is that the characters of Rey, Finn and Poe still feel somewhat thinly written, and don’t have enough internal conflict or defining traits to make them all that interesting, besides just being the “good guys.”  Say what you will about the character development in the original trilogy, but Luke, Leia and Han were at least a blast to hang out with in their prime.  I just don’t find these new heroes to be as compelling as their original trilogy counterparts, and a big part of this is that they aren’t really given enough time to breathe between the set-pieces, which is becoming a problem in terms of my investment in these sequels.

Although The Last Jedi does give her a lot of time to explore her past, Rey still feels like a bit of a blank slate to me.  There are more interesting things that could be done with her character, but the writers don’t really push her as far as they could have.  Finn also feels underdeveloped, which was a problem in The Force Awakens as well, and it becomes more apparent here, now that he is tasked with carrying a large chunk of the narrative.  Finn’s new scene partner Rose doesn’t really feel fully fleshed out either, which is a bit unfortunate because John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran are both likeable in their roles.

The trouble is that this makes the villain seem infinitely more interesting.  Kylo Ren is by far the most nuanced character here, a complex and deeply conflicted person who has been driven to extremism because of his past, and he is given the most interesting and fully fleshed out backstory.  Adam Driver delivers the best performance in the film, especially in moments where Kylo Ren almost earns our sympathy despite his evil deeds.  But this also means that the villain has more depth than many of the heroes, which is kind of a problem when we are supposed to be rooting for and invested in the plight of the Resistance.

Although the film would have benefitted from making some different plotting choices and having more concrete character development, there is also stuff to like here, and The Last Jedi is still easily worth seeing.  This is ultimately a decent entry into the Star Wars saga, that is often entertaining to watch, and offers a lot of enjoyable sequences along the way.  I had some problems with it, and maybe my expectations were admittedly a little too high going in, but I still liked it overall.

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Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Picking up where 2015’s The Force Awakens left off, Star Wars: The Last Jedi again follows Rey (Daisy Ridley) as she tries to figure out her force powers, and place in the Resistance against the First Order run largely in part by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  When The Force Awakens ended, Rey had left to find Luke Skywalker in hopes that he could train her in the ways of the Jedi, leaving Commander Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), and Finn (John Boyega) behind to hold off Kylo Ren’s forces.  This is where The Last Jedi opens, in the middle of a dogfight between First Order and Resistance ships, and in many ways this galactic dogfight becomes the through line and stalemate for the entire film.  I won’t say much more on the plot as I went in knowing only what was shown in the trailers, and will afford viewers the same courtesy.

Overall, the film is good, but also feels like it doesn’t narratively advance as far forward as it could have, especially with the story elements they’ve started to touch on here.  This lack of forward momentum is actually shown, almost metaphorically, in the way the First Order and Resistance ships interact, as they are constantly moving back and forth out of range of each other throughout the entire film.

Maybe intentionally written this way as a sort of commentary on why order is needed in military battles, but the characters here are constantly running off and doing their own thing.  One character gives one order and the next deliberately disobeys it and follows their own plan that they deem better, often at the cost of unintentionally ruining the first character’s plans.  While many of the sequences I found entertaining on their own, it does throw the film into a sort of disordered narrative structure as each scene doesn’t quite advance to the others in the way you would hope.  There were also a few moments where it was easy to question why the characters would make certain decisions or not ask certain questions, that felt like these actions were less character-driven and more screenplay-driven.

In terms of character development, a lot is brought up here, but I also feel we could have been given more.  Characters, in particular Kylo Ren, are given more backstory and start to lead in ways that could be quite interesting in Episode IX, however, they also never go quite as far as they could have.  There were countless opportunities to really push further into very interesting territory, but each time the filmmakers backtrack slightly, taking us almost there but not quite.  Here’s hoping that in Episode IX we really get a full circle of all of the plot threads that have been hinted at in this instalment.

Don’t get me wrong – The Last Jedi is an entertaining blockbuster release that thoroughly held my attention, and for those who saw the previous films (and most people have) I would definitely recommend it.  It does fit cleanly into the series, with all the style and elements of a Star Wars film, from the dialogue style, to the slightly strange but appealing creatures (Porgs and Crystal Foxes are two of note), and use of a mix of practical and digital effects.  These style elements are all well done here, with the visual effects providing a clean entry into the world of Rey and Co., and similarly the music by John Williams giving an instant familiarity and sense of the grandeur of this galactic universe George Lucas created decades ago.  Was I hoping for more?  Sure.  But what we get is still pretty solid entertainment, and despite being 152 minutes moves along at a fairly good clip.

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Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review By Tony Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Right from the loud opening major chord and introductory crawl we are back in the Star Wars universe with Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. (The word Jedi is plural, as seen from the titles in other languages). Remaining resistance members under General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) are being picked off by First Order (former Empire) troops under General Hux (Domhnall Gleason), the latest British-accented villain whose failures could meet the choking wrath of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) are on Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) secret island urging him to help save them. Poe (Oscar Isaac) is a fierce if impulsive fighter pilot while Finn (John Boyega) is off getting help with an engineer named Rose (Kelly Tran) avenging her sister Page (Veronica Tan).

Of course, underlining all the action, The Force is at work; the Dark Side represented by the last real Sith and a wannabe one, with the good side represented by the last real Jedi, a wannabe one, and the osv (linguistically rare object-subject-verb word order) wisdom of a certain long-eared former Jedi master. Everything comes together in a final showdown with a hopeful outcome in anticipation of the final chapter of the last trilogy.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the latest episode has the wide appeal of the other films, its straightforward plot of good and evil avoiding the confusion of more intricate time-shifting and other complications of a Star Trek for example. With a few exceptions (Rey, Kylo, Luke, Leia) characters have unconflicted roles in the overall struggle. Within these limitations, the cast, which also includes Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, and Gwendoline Christie, is all fine. Andy Serkis is particularly good as Snoke, seen here in the scary flesh rather than a gray hologram as in the past. The Tran/Tan sisters are welcome roles for Vietnamese Americans. It was hard to take Hux’s character seriously however, especially after seeing Gleason’s same scowling face on trailers for the upcoming Peter Rabbit film.

Thanks to ILM (Industrial Light & Magic, founded by George Lucas for the original Star Wars), the production still favours practical rather than CGI sets, the gleaming First Order ships contrasting with the Millenium Falcon and other rusty makeshift Resistance equipment as well some lavish sets that I can’t describe here without spoiling the plot. The tiny outcropping of Skellig Michael off Ireland’s Kerry coast where Luke abides is especially striking with its interesting fauna including the cute Porg birds and caretakers right out of a Beatrix Potter book, and recurring summit silhouettes. Other critters include long-necked big-eared racing equines and crystal-covered canids.

What most casual viewers like me, aside from the true fans, will want to know is whether Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is worth seeing. I believe it is, and will hold the attention of most despite its record 152 minute length.

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Consensus: The latest entry into the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi is a solidly crafted and entertaining blockbuster that has a lot to like about it, and even though it has some story problems and could have benefited from taking some more daring narrative risks, it still offers plenty of rousing and enjoyable sequences. ★★★ (out of 4)

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