“This is not going to go the way you think!”
Here we are again. For the third Christmas season straight, moviegoers have been treated to what once seemed unthinkable: more Star Wars. Last year, we were treated to the Gareth Edwards-directed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the “lost story” that told of how the Death Star came to be and of the Rebels who fought to find a way to destroy it. I reviewed that film for Geeks Under Grace, and love or hate the story, it undeniably allowed a trip back into the look and feel of the original films that hadn’t been done for decades. Two years ago, we picked up decades after the original trilogy ended with The Force Awakens (Episode VII, for those keeping count), directed by J.J. Abrams. Whereas Rogue One filled in gaps between the prequels and the original saga, The Force Awakens plotted the course of a new trilogy of films with both familiar and new characters in a tale that was also both familiar and new (how forgivable that sense of familiarity was depends on who you ask). In it, we found out the whereabouts of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and more, but we learn those things through a new tale focused on new characters like Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren, General Hux, Captain Phasma, Supreme Leader Snoke, and, lest we forget, BB-8. Seen by most critics as a fun return to the universe we love, it ended with many unanswered questions. Now, two years after that, we begin to get some answers from Episode VIII, directed by Rian Johnson.
I’ll begin by saying that this film has no problem with bucking conventions. Reacting to the line we hear from Luke in the film, we can correctly infer that surprises are aplenty. With a fanbase locked and loaded with two years worth of theories and ideas of where things are headed, Rian Johnson iced most all of them down like a Hoth battle. And just when you think, “Oh wait! This film has a snow-covered Hoth battle too!”, he explicitly has it stated that the similar look is only that, and that it is all salt instead. I’m sure that salt will be a good descriptor of the reaction of many who have their feelings hurt after their theories are torn to shreds, but only time will tell. Anyway, I won’t delve into the plot, other than saying that all the primary players are pushed into new, more complicated directions. Trailers divulge that Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks the tutelage of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now embittered and in self-imposed exile for mistakes of the past. Those mistakes center around his past instruction of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), himself now struggling further under the direction and expectations of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Finn (John Boyega) has recovered from his wounds, but after reviving, he is sent covertly by a desperate and disgruntled Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) with another Resistance enlistee, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), to find a way to destroy the tracking mechanisms of the First Order. Without these systems disabled, the Resistance leadership, including General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), will be effectively neutralized by the pursuing General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and company. While that may sound like too much information, please know that I withheld far more than that, and within those plot threads, many, many secrets will be answered and new questions will be posed. While The Force Awakens played very closely to what came before it, not just in look and feel but in actual storytelling elements, The Last Jedi is very refreshing for the saga. There was a boldness that came within those original films of fighting against conventional thought on what a sci-fi film could be. Here, we see that coming against what we think a Star Wars film can be. Does every new introduction land flawlessly? No, but that boldness to try is a great thing to see play out. One can tell that Rian Johnson is a true fan of it all, and knowing that he is now entrusted to tell a new set of tales in a future trilogy is an incredible thing to look forward to. I felt in this film that anything could happen, and in this age of spoilers, it’s quite the feeling. Do all you can to keep secrets just that, and enjoy this film on its own terms.
Back to Johnson: he crafts shots and sequences that feel unique to what we expect of Star Wars. That will likely divide people, but no one can fault the beauty of it all. The “middle films” tend to deal with some dark themes, and that does find its way into the look of the films as well; the same holds true in The Last Jedi. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous here, and whether it be a lingering shot or a frenetic action sequence (there are many of both extremes), it is all a moviegoing pleasure to witness. I watched the film in 3D, but I am certain that the richness and “pop” lies more in the choice and execution of shot-framing than it does in any post-production tweaking for the 3D-effect. We go to new locales here that feel truly special. The opulence of the space casino of Canto Bight, in particular, is like no place we’ve seen in a live-action Star Wars film. I can’t wait to revisit those scenes again and again. Crait, the red crystalline planet blanketed with white salts, provides the basis for contrast that has featured so heavily in the film’s marketing, and really, those colors extend into the themes handled here. As warfare ravages the surface, the white is disturbed to reveal the red, and it is effective symbolism like this that runs throughout. This is a film that will be watched again and again, as we expect of the saga, but I do believe that we will appreciate these touches more and more as time goes on.
Now, watching the film again and again might prove to be a problem in ways for many. Up to its release, it was reported that this was the longest Star Wars film yet, and I have to say that it does feel like it as well. That’s really too bad, because long films don’t always fall victim to this. Had the film been engineered a little differently in ways, I believe that it all could have clipped a little better for audiences and avoided critique in this area. Still, I hesitate to say that because it would have likely truncated or eliminated some of the new characters in the film, each of whom, including the quirky slicer DJ (Benecio Del Toro), contribute important pieces to the tale being told. Even with the bloated runtime, this film, with all of its philosophical eccentricities and complicated motivations, really does have things to say. Alongside some other relevant messages, there is a central one of hope and heroism amidst dwindling circumstances that comes through strongly; sure, it is as on the nose here as it was in Rogue One, but it all does seem to be about inspiring some kind of social or societal outlook in ways that I haven’t seen before in any of the other films. Moreso than The Force Awakens, there are some bold new points made that will surely inform all the films following, and the Force, seemingly felt to be known and understood inside and out by the audience, is shown to be even more surprising than we ever realized. These elements will likely be divisive amongst fans, but all in all, it’s exciting to go along for the ride of it all.
All of the primary actors returning from The Force Awakens step up their game here, and the new additions all do their part as well to make impressions alongside them. Ridley and Driver are becoming the center of it all, and each are making this new saga more and more interesting. Boyega and Tran develop a connection that is fun to see and follow. Isaac is such an able actor, and seeing him so desperate to lead and protect as Poe is great, knowing that the original intent for the character was to die early on after his introduction. Sadly, my favorite new character from The Force Awakens, Maz Kanata, is used so inconsequentially here that I would have rather not seen her at all. John Williams brings all the right musical cues here with his score, even if, like The Force Awakens, it isn’t all exactly groundbreaking. I do hope to hear him at least conclude this trilogy, but at this point, we won’t likely hear sounds that approach his earlier works’ quality and inventiveness.
Content-wise, we get about what you would expect from prior installments: some mild language, intense sequences, moments of violence, chaotic warfare explosions, and death (mentioned or played out) throughout. That said, these are films made to inspire audiences, young and old, and amazingly, those qualities come to the forefront in this film in particular. It leaves us with exciting possibilities moving forward, especially as characters are played by actors and actresses of multiple ethnicities. For Christians in particular, though, I must say that some elements of the film may rub some of us wrong. The Jedi are referenced as a religion here, and while that inference is nothing new, it does invite critique to our belief system, as well as others. The film examines a questioning of ideals held throughout the ages, a deconstruction of what we know and hold dear. I believed this to be so long before release, and I even wrote a piece on it then when the first trailer hit. While this can open up some great faith-based discussions, post-screening, with believers and non-believers alike, be prepared that the film operates as critique and go from there. As always, people will draw out or read into this film lots of religious parallels, as is often the case with the Star Wars mythos. Still, the messages I highlighted earlier are good for our time, where many feel hopeless and inconsequential.
All in all, I was entertained greatly by this film. It did feel long, but so many huge things occur that it all feels somehow justified. With the crazy things we see done by starpilots and Force users, now is as much of a time of discovery, as it is enjoyment. I, along with millions, eagerly await the continuation of the stories of these new characters, as they have taken their place as the primary players in this saga now. They are inspiring children of all ages now, just like the characters of past films have done before, and that’s an amazing legacy to see come about. I eagerly await J.J. Abrams‘ conclusion to this trilogy, knowing that Rian Johnson raised the bar even higher than what Abrams had set. Until then, I have a few more theater visits to plan and a Blu-Ray to preorder! Oh, and yes: Porgs are awesome.