“Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” Review: Full Circle for The Force

391px-Carrie_Fisher_2013-a_straightened
Photo of Carrie Fisher in 2013 by Riccardo Ghilardi.

In 2015, the first sentence of my “The Force Awakens” review was one that lamented the onslaught of reviews before anyone else had a chance to do a unique take on the film. For the “The Last Jedi”, I imagine each posted review on opening week has a different take this time. If so, you can give thanks to Episode VIII building a dizzying array of angles compared to any “Star Wars” product ever made.

One thing history is going to note about the original trilogy (and the prequels) is that George Lucas’s version of the battle between the Jedi and the Dark Side was far more cut and dry. Those lines were clearly marked in an era before our own recent reality turned more complex in what’s deemed ethical and non-ethical.

Director and writer Rian Johnson has to be given kudos for realizing this sensibility in audiences today. Someone else might have felt too intimidated to go in a brave and thoughtful new direction, just to appease sensitive fans.

On an emotional spectrum, “The Last Jedi” reaches back to the original trilogy more than once to bring a full circle for many characters. At the same time, the new characters have become fully and believably compelling without feeling like a forced “new generation” taking over.

The Resistance as George Washington’s Army

In the opening scenes of “The Last Jedi”, you get the immediate impression they tapped American history in realizing what the impact is working with a diminished army. It’s a playbook right out of George Washington’s battle in the Revolutionary War where his outnumbered army miraculously overcame the British after taking numerous losses.

The Resistance in the film is a definite parallel to Washington’s army at this point, and the losses are horrific at the hand of The First Order. With The Resistance led by General Leia, the opening of the film gives more for Oscar Isaac (as Poe Dameron) to do in terms of continued heroics. Playing close to a Han Solo type without nearly as much sarcasm, he still compels in playing a pivotal role with the ensuing new battles.

The First Order has Kylo Ren and Snoke plotting to take down what remains of the resistance. Adam Driver expertly displays the slow burn of inner conflict in Kylo Ren without overt emoting, and a more humanized Snoke allows Andy Serkis to take motion-capture technology closer to the level of reality.

You could almost (yes, almost) envision Christopher Plummer playing the slimy Snoke here, even if the former can’t be in every movie.

 The Compelling Interplay Between Luke and Rey

If the battle plots of The Resistance and The First Order seem more pedestrian, the interplay between Luke and Rey takes you to an outlying and more thoughtful frame of mind in an instant.

Johnson didn’t waste any time getting right to what we wanted to know: Why is Luke on the island of Ahch-To, and what’s the relationship to Rey?

We quickly find out, but the acting between Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill in these scenes is more than just adequate. Their chemistry is superb with well-structured scenes throughout.

The details, creatures, and way of life on Ahch-To are also highly imaginative and awesome, especially if seeing the film in Real D. And, yes, Ahch-To-based Porgs are memorable, including a funny scene involving Chewbacca attempting to eat a fried Porg.

It’s no surprise why Daisy Ridley has about half-a-dozen or more non-“Star Wars” films on her future slate considering her fast evolution as a supreme actress. She brings complete believability, beauty, focused badassery, and emotion to Rey here, making the character exponentially more interesting than in “The Force Awakens.”

Mark Hamill is almost Shakespearean this time in one of his greatest ever live-action performances. The fate of Luke Skywalker (and Rey’s parentage) is going to remain a secret in this review. But let it be known Luke reunites with key pivotal people from the original trilogy, at one point through Jedi projection. In this version of Luke, we see him looking younger, perhaps through CGI trickery, or practical hair and beard dye.

Yes, That Jedi Projection Thing

One of the key plot elements in “The Last Jedi” is the ability for Rey to connect telepathically with Kylo Ren. It’s here where they establish an eerie bond that sets up the “grey area” aspect somewhere between what’s considered good and evil.

The Force basically achieves a makeover in this film. Ultimately, it turns into a philosophy class where someone new steps in to bring a refreshing take on Aristotle. We even get into some new metaphysical territory that might confuse neophytes to “Star Wars” mythology.

A key figure from the past shows up to talk to Luke about what this all means in a moment when old Jedi texts on Ahch-To burn to ashes. In other words, Armageddon has occurred in the “Star Wars” universe, and it’s time to examine what happens at the next level in testing everyone’s souls.

Memorable Scenes

You’ll find many scenes that are going to stick with you forever. I didn’t expect so many scenes like this, though only a true fan like Rian Johnson could dream up some of these situations and images.

A scene involving General Leia floating in space while John Williams’ iconic “Leia’s Theme” gently plays in the background will bring you to tears. In fact, all of Carrie Fisher’s scenes as Leia will bring the emotions, even if the character’s fate isn’t what you think it is.

Nevertheless, one particular scene with Leia in a sick bed will tear at your heartstrings. The irony of the real-life parallel to Carrie Fisher’s heart attack soon after filming is more than felt during these moments.

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Another segment of the film you’ll never forget involves Finn and Rose Tico (played by memorable Kelly Marie Tran) going to a rogue planet to find a mysterious code breaker. It’s The Resistance’s only hope to find this code breaker as a way to intercept a First Order tracking technology.

This planet looks like it could be owned and managed by an alien Donald Trump in the famous galaxy far, far away. As you watch, it’s hard to imagine they didn’t have this in mind. Once Finn and Rose enter the planet’s odd alien casino, you’ll be overwhelmed at a wild bacchanal of alien creatures and semi-humans, all presented with creative camera devices.

Johnson uses an old camera tracking technique of passing through crowds of people as they gamble at ensuing tables. The technique seems a deliberate tribute to the classic opening shot of 1927’s “Wings” where the camera magically pans through tables at a party.

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Laura Dern stands out as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo who temporarily takes over for an injured Gen. Leia. Her purple hair isn’t a distraction either, including adding considerable woman power when Poe inadvertently starts doing too much mansplaining.

Also look out for Benicio del Toro as an underworld character who also happens to be a so-called code breaker. You might not recognize him at first, yet plays a major role in a serious outcome toward the end of the film.

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Many more memorable scenes exist, including an epic final battle in an ice cave where we see Kylo Ren and Luke meet face-to-face. Rey’s dynamic interplay with Kylo Ren is also a standout, as is one of the most exciting lightsaber battle scenes ever staged, leading to the unexpected denouement of two pivotal characters.

Yet another memorable aspect is what’s not shown. Namely, there aren’t any flashbacks to Han Solo, or even footage of a funeral as once rumored. He’s referenced by name only in a few scenes.

New Directions for Both Sides

Despite the blurring lines of good and evil, the film finally settles on a more defined path by the last quarter. Even so, it sets up an interesting situation for Episode IX, especially with Rey adamant on attempting to turn Kylo back to the good side.

Kylo’s forceful philosophy on Rey to let go of the past to fulfill destiny is an interesting frame of mind, though, in the realm of psychology. It’s one that might answer why some of our own leaders in the real world do what they do, opening doors to far more mental complexity in what constitutes leadership.

All of these elements and explorations of what lurks within “Star Wars” characters (and those in our real world) stirs the soul even more in Episode VIII.

To counteract the emotional connections to the original trilogy, you’ll find a lot of funny moments in the film than you’ll initially expect. Some of those occur during dramatic turns, bringing an occasional tongue-in-cheek sensibility at surprising moments.

The Audience That Attended

I’ve always analyzed audience reactions in my movie reviews, and this film deserves the same treatment.

What’s most interesting is that my screening wasn’t completely sold out. Whether the city where I live just isn’t in to “Star Wars”, or people just didn’t have time to attend, it was refreshing to have two empty seats on either side of me for arm room. It was a mix of those from college age to middle age, seemingly 75% male.

With five screens showing the film at my multiplex, however, it was probably just the law of averages. The theater had a line a mile long outside as I went in with my Fandango ticket.

The initial emotional reactions added a lot to the film, including applause at the opening title scroll, and at the end. You could also hear a few surrounding sniffles during the emotional scenes, especially with Carrie Fisher.

It seems some local audiences didn’t care about attending the Real D screening (not surprising at a $16 ticket price). Regardless, I highly recommend seeing it in Real D. The scenes on Ahch-To, the rogue casino, and the final battle are just some in-depth highlights where you won’t regret wearing the bulky 3D glasses.

Attempting a Rating

I gave nine out of ten stars to “The Force Awakens” in 2015. I’m tempted to do the same for “The Last Jedi” based on a few minor plot hole quibbles, particularly on Snoke’s claimed ability to read Kylo’s mind.

Yet, with everything else resonating so perfectly and satisfactorily, it’s deserving of a final ten out of ten stars.

Much of this goes to the credit of the cast for making the characters and conflicts so powerfully believable. Plus, Rian Johnson had the Midas touch in advancing the story. His direction and writing has mostly perfect execution, including some creative editing.

It’s hard to fathom this is perhaps the swan song film for many of the original trilogy characters. On the other hand, a memorable Jedi line in “The Last Jedi” sums it all up for the new trilogy, and as a philosophy to take with us in reality for those who’ve lost loved ones:

“No one is really gone.”

 

 

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