Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Directed by: Rian Johnson | 152 minutes | action, adventure, fantasy, science fiction | Actors: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Billie Lourd, Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac, Gwendoline Christie, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, Warwick Davis, Peter Mayhew, Kelly Marie Tran, Hermione Corfield, Anthony Daniels, Veronica Ngo, Jimmy Vee

‘Star Wars’ fans can breathe a sigh of relief again… and immediately take stock of the state of the franchise in the ’10s’. Where confidence had bottomed out 15 years ago after the poorly received ‘The Phantom Menace’ and ‘Attack of the Clones’, Lucasfilm/Disney has now worked through no fewer than three great Star Wars films in three years. The surprisingly successful ‘The Force Awakens’ skillfully revived old magic with a fresh, young cast. ‘Rogue One’, although ‘just’ a prequel/spinoff, was unexpectedly entertaining, with a tone all its own. And yes, ‘The Last Jedi’ also does a lot of good. Director Rian Johnson (“Brick”, “Looper”, “Breaking Bad”) takes over the baton (or lightsaber) from JJ Abrams and impresses with his potent mix of character moments, humor, drama and action.

It is both an advantage and a disadvantage for Johnson to have to follow up ‘The Force Awakens’. On the one hand, he can let go of old forms and story elements, which were almost mandatory in the previous film. That’s good news, because ‘The Force Awakens’ – especially in the second half – went a little too much off the beaten track and Johnson now has more freedom. But on the other hand, the surprise of the arrival of a modern, high-quality ‘Star Wars’ film is no longer reproducible. ‘The Force Awakens’ showed that the ‘Star Wars’ series could be reinstated. The old magic was back and old heroes returned in a dignified and moving spectacle. That lump in the throat of the scene where Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca first set foot in his Millennium Falcon with the words “We’re home, Chewy” is almost impossible to recall. The viewer has been home for two years now and has to continue…

Still, Rian Johnson manages his difficult task admirably. He has respect for existing elements in the Star Wars universe, but at the same time is not afraid to knock down sacred houses – often with humor – or to suddenly take an unexpected step. Like the first meeting between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the now-old, hermit-like Jedi Master – and hero of the original trilogy – Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). This moment was grandly introduced at the end of ‘The Force Awakens’, when Rey walks to the top of the island where Luke resides, with swirling camera movements and music swelling. Let’s just say the encounter with this greatness doesn’t quite go as hoped.

That moment prepared by the previous film – or rather, the confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren that preceded it – undoubtedly created a story technical problem for Johnson. In that confrontation, Rey had already shown herself to be a fairly brilliant (lights) swordsman, by successfully opening her mind to the force. Suddenly the fight turned 180 degrees and she actually managed to bring Kylo—grandson of chief villain Darth Vader and been in training for some time—to her knees. So she doesn’t really need a lot of real training from a Jedi master—which she seems to be applying to when she arrives on Luke’s island—she doesn’t really need it anymore. Fortunately, this does not appear to be the focus either. In fact, she just wants to enlist Luke’s help, whatever form it eventually takes.

It’s also nice that the focus will eventually be less on combat training or the operation of force and more on the inner struggles and insecurities of both Rey and Luke. Daisy Ridley beautifully shows Rey’s struggles. She is looking for her identity and role in this world; and more specifically: what the force of her ‘wants’. That makes her problems very recognizable. Her bond/relationship with villain Kylo Ren also fits into this. Because how much do they actually resemble each other and can she still get through to him and give his life or character a good turn? And what does this mean about the malleability of her own life? She actively pursues the answers to this, often through a kind of cosmic chat sessions at a distance. It’s a clever way to bring these two characters together without the need for them to be in the same room. In Star Wars this kind of communication has never happened before so intensively and directly – and it sometimes feels a bit too easy – but it is an efficient trick to get to the bottom of things. And to humor.

Because Johnson also intersperses his film with many successful comedic moments, elaborating on the antics and winks of JJ Abrams, but also with his own touches. It ranges from practical jokes to physical, cartoonish humor that you will find in an Ice Age or Pixar movie. For example, X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) quickly puts General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) in his shirt in a hilarious way, and his little hamster-like animals – called porgs – several times funny comic centerpieces.

It is interesting that the film (for a while) does not seek confrontation, but mainly tries to stay out of the hands of the villainous First Order. It delivers several tense moments, where our heroes suffer a lot of losses and it just doesn’t look that rosy. The survival of the Resistance and the Good in the universe is at stake, and if we don’t want it to be lost, fleeing and dodging is now our heroes’ only chance. In short, it is a matter of choosing the future and not temporary heroism. Always with your head held high and with the aim of coming out stronger later with combined forces and a new strategy, but in any case in a way that doesn’t just throw your legacy away. This ties into the larger theme of nurturing and continuing what you have built. About inspiring others and offering new hope. In some dialogue (especially at the end) this is a bit over the top, but it has a heart and soul that is nevertheless beautiful to watch and forms a good dramatic anchor in the film.

In that respect it is also nice that a kind of ‘sidequest’ is introduced on a planet that is ruled by wealthy arms dealers. These dubious people enrich themselves by selling their weaponry to the highest bidder and enslaving and mistreating the local population. This brief focus on ‘real people’ in this universe is very welcome. After all, the films are set in an immeasurably large universe, so it is good to see the impact of major events on ‘ordinary’ people. You now realize that the ‘star wars’ affect everyone, not just our heroes. It is also nice to see how much impression the symbol of the resistance makes on such a child. After all, these are the heroes of stories and their dreams. Heroes who, there it is again, give them hope in a dark world.

Although ‘The Last Jedi’ does a very commendable job, not everything is equally satisfying. Scenes or situations are sometimes presented with a lot of fuss only to be completely ignored. Dialogue is bad here and there on the nose and sometimes it is apparently necessary to declare a theorem three times in a row in slightly different terms, in case we haven’t got it. Villain Snoke can be seen more up and close, which is nice, but despite some tantalizing moments, this figure is ultimately not done enough justice. And while Rey and Kylo Ren’s character moments are beautiful and well acted, you could argue that there was little real character development at the end of the film. But perhaps this is also a consequence of the film’s quality as the middle of a trilogy: the greatest development is undoubtedly saved for the last chapter.

All in all ‘The Last Jedi’ is more than worth watching and makes the film very curious about the final part of this already very successful trilogy. The film feels more intimate and personal than its predecessor, but at the beginning it lacks a bit of the ‘wow-factor’ that ‘The Force Awakens’ had with its impressive panoramic images – like Rey sliding on a shield from a hill, very small and void on that vast expanse of sand. Yet this is largely made up for with gripping action sequences and photogenic moments on a planet of swirling red sand. Because yes, there is also a lot of successful action in the film, don’t worry. Oh and also nice to mention is that Mark Hamill actually makes an impression as the bearded Luke Skywalker, that the latest appearance of Carrie Fisher (as Princess Leia) is moving and that at least one old acquaintance shows up. As if you needed another reason to watch the movie…

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