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

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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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“Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Episode VII” Review: Evil Always Returns Ahead of The Force

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

You’ve probably read at least 100 reviews of “The Force Awakens” by the time you read this or discover it squeezed in with other critiques on Google. Back when I wrote film reviews more often, I always attempted to bring something different with an analysis of the audience along with the movie. For “The Force Awakens”, it’s worth the same attempt, though with one caveat: my showing of “The Force Awakens” wasn’t filled with overly excited uberfans dressed in old “Star Wars” cosplay from their dusty closets.

While there were no major surprises in the audience, “The Force Awakens” arguably has one of the most compelling and insightful plot elements of any film this year: A reminder of how evil regimes always return.

Examining our world as it is now, we already see how evil continues rearing its demonic head, sometimes sooner or more intensely than we ever thought possible. The trouble is, not everyone can foresee or acknowledge evil returning. Examples of this in the real world are arguable and enter the controversial realms of recent politics and specific candidates.

In the category of terrorism, we see evil regimes turn up about every decade to 20 years. Each one ultimately gets vanquished, yet it seems we never learn enough lessons to keep it from occurring again.

It’s this dynamic that makes “The Force Awakens” doubly powerful outside its smashingly successful attempt to revive a pop culture behemoth. It’s not hyperbole to say director J.J. Abrams pulled off an out-and-out miracle in making this film have a solidly believable connection with the original trilogy without feeling too far removed.

Catching Up on 32 Years

With The First Order being depicted in the film as more nefarious than the previous Galactic Empire, we see a glaring analogy to terrorist groups we’re trying to eradicate now. We also see how previous heroes who helped destroy prior regimes frequently become mired in myth to a point of frustrating distortion.

In the first quarter of “The Force Awakens”, we see a big idea develop that brings more truth to our real world than any other sci-fi product. In this case, the myth is Luke Skywalker who becomes a former war hero elevated to lofty status. He’s gone missing since the days following “Return of the Jedi”, and nobody knows where he is.

The problem: The First Order is slowly gaining more power over the Republic, now led by General Leia Organa, again played by a regal-looking Carrie Fisher. The Resistance is equivalent to our real-world Homeland Security and only proves its power when in battle action. Fortunately, the Resistance has X-wing fighter pilots with skills even the most decorated U.S. Air Force pilot would genuflect to.

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the new roguish equivalent to Han Solo here, and he possesses a map containing information on Luke’s whereabouts. When The First Order tracks Poe down on the planet Jakku to obtain the map, Poe places the map data inside the droid BB-8. The latter is the ubiquitously popular ball-shaped robot that hasn’t yet been made into a cheese ball for further marketing purposes in our world.

Admittedly, BB-8 is cute, fun, and almost overshadows R2D2, but we soon enter the world of the mysterious Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. All the accolades you’ve heard about Ridley’s performance aren’t overwrought. There seems to be a true magic that emanates from unknowns on the big screen, perhaps out of feelings of doing or dying when trying to deliver in the biggest movie franchise of all time.

And, yes, Ridley really does deliver while finally paving a stronger path toward more complex women in lead roles. The same goes to John Boyega playing Finn, a Stormtrooper from The First Order who becomes a conscientious defector. After an escape with Poe above, Finn links up with Rey on Jakku. This leads to the revival of one particularly noteworthy starship you’ll love seeing hitting the skies after sitting idle for 30 years.

Then there’s an entrance stage left: Han Solo and his never-aging sidekick, Chewbacca. If you see “The Force Awakens” in 3D, you’ll get a kick out of seeing the Millennium Falcon’s familiar cockpit again and feeling as if you’re in the passenger seat. All of the expected and perfectly-executed space battle scenes work fantastically in 3D, despite Real D still having troubles with images looking slightly too dark.

At this point in the film, the surprises and unexpected connections start unfurling into a long list of spoilers if revealed. The most interesting non-spoiler revelation here is the psychological study of The First Order’s Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver in one of his best roles to date.

Ren has parallels to tragic Shakespearean characters as a powerful allegory for real-world Millennials and their current ethical struggles. Once his metallized mask comes off, we get a chance to see Driver create one of the most psychologically complex villains in recent memory. His problem is he’s torn between fear and evil, with the latter emotion failingly nurtured by Supreme Leader Snoke.

Snoke is another mysterious (giant) character played through motion-capture by Andy Serkis. Motion-capture has finally taken a flying leap forward, particularly with Lupita Nyong’o and her expressive alien character, Maz Kanata. Maz has lived long enough to throw hints toward many of the mysteriously lost familial connections in the film.

These connections make up the key elements of “The Force Awakens”, and each one were once part of a long slate of rumors.

The Rumors Are True; All of Them

With the above subtitle a play on words for an already popular line Han Solo utters to Rey and Finn about the myth and truth of the Jedi, it’s also a bit meta for many of the film’s longstanding plot rumors. All those plot rumors you’ve heard about are definitely true without any explanation necessary. The only one you can write off is the notion of Luke turning evil, which isn’t fully addressed anyway.

Some may look at the adherence to a few old rumors as a major weakness in “The Force Awakens”, yet it doesn’t lessen the impact. One particularly notable death in the film doesn’t necessarily mean things will stay that way in future episodes. Another rumor you’ve heard about related to Rey is only hinted at and leaves open a lot of questions for the next installment.

Then you have the biggest rumor of all: Where is Luke Skywalker in all of this? He’s definitely there, but you’ll be slightly staggered at how brief his scene is. Nevertheless, the impact of his appearance is one guaranteed to give you chills if you grew up seeing the original trilogy in movie theaters. The beautiful setting of his appearance only adds to the majesty and mystery, enhanced further with John Williams’s new earworm worthy themes.

The Audience

The city where I live used to have a huge “Star Wars” fanbase, yet it seems some of them disappeared. Ticket availability on Fandango for “The Force Awakens” in my hometown was wide open for weeks. Even so, going on a Friday afternoon next to a major mall during the peak of holiday shopping season only gave me visions of sheer chaos.

When arriving, there wasn’t a single person in line at the box office. While the theater had four screens showing “The Force Awakens”, my showing only had 30 people attending at most. Attendees avoided wearing cosplay, and nearly everyone stayed fairly subdued. Whether that’s a sign of the times is up for debate, though there was still an interesting mix of demographics.

Only a quarter of the crowd looked old enough to remember seeing the original “Star Wars” trilogy. The majority were definitely Millennials who only grew up seeing the original trilogy on DVD or endless cable TV plays. They were just as quiet as the older crowd, and no one did much reacting to the film’s breathtaking plot revelations.

Much of this gives me the impression that some audiences find far too many sobering parallels in “Star Wars” to our real world. After construction of a new “Starkiller Base”, the Dark Side in “The Force Awakens” is still strong enough to continue into Episode VIII. All told, there could easily be many more trilogies in the “Star Wars” universe where you’d see the Dark Side continue to return over and over.

If you’re finding real meaning in this new incarnation of “Star Wars”, it’s this: Evil will likely keep on returning in our world as a test of our wills with new lessons learned along the way. Hopefully each vanquishing won’t be forgotten and turned into myth much like Luke Skywalker has in “The Force Awakens” universe.

Total Score: Nine Out of Ten Stars