Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

SW8Director: Rian Johnson

Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, and Domhnall Gleeson

Another year another Star Wars film. Man, if I could travel back to 1985 and tell my 5-year-old self that in the early 21st century, this will be a factual statement! That’s right, we have entered the era of annual Star Wars movies, and this year’s entry is a doozie. The eagerly anticipated sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens and the 8th episode of the principal series is here, and it is called The Last Jedi. A formidable title for a film that like no other before it, takes the franchise to some new heights as well as one or two new lows.

This is an immediate sequel to The Force Awakens, and given where that film leaves off, that’s the right move. The First Order being victorious against the Republic, is on the move to seize control of the galaxy under Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his loyal legion including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Admiral Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Leia (Carrie Fisher) and what’s left of the resistance continue to stand against the First Order, while Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the fight.

I’d wager to say, unlike any Star Wars film before it, this one will be the most divisive. The original trilogy is generally regarded as brilliant, the prequels are generally regarded as garbage, but The Last Jedi I think will go down as having the best of both worlds: strong haters and strong supporters, not unlike the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Family-bonds and friendships may be lost forever over this film.

Before I get into why, I will reveal myself as one of the strong supporters. However, I do see where some of the haters are coming from. But they’re wrong, for the most part. Blockbuster films tend to have a ludicrous obligation to deliver predictable comfort-filled experiences rather than challenge audiences with surprises and risks. Most critics of the film are citing the fact that it does not answer the questions that were posed from the previous film. The choice to back away from and subvert expectations often comes with some occasional flaws, but those flaws are worth it, if the overall result is something new, ambitious, and most importantly, something that has direction. That’s ultimately what we have here with The Last Jedi; there are flaws, but at the end we have so many opportunities to see these Star Wars films continue on beyond the immediate threats playing out.

This review is going to play it safe, so I will not be discussing many specifics in terms of plot and developments, and focusing more on the mechanics and commentary. So what’s so great about The Last Jedi? There are two things that I think will stand supreme when all the dust around this film settles. First, The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film to truly capture the allure of the dark side. Many have taken it for granted, two have attempted to show it, but only this film gets it right. Ask yourself, “What is the dark side?” Why is it attractive? Is it just greed for power? Then why would they ever band together? Why would there be Supreme leaders and Emperors? Is it just basic evil for the sake of evil? Is it fascism? That’s what The Force Awakens attempted to explore. But no, it’s not that either. For all the questions fans are claiming The Last Jedi does not answer, here’s one it does answer that no one was even asking, and it may be the most important one of all. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it at this, but I will say that The Last Jedi spins the entire motivation and philosophy of Star Wars on its head and gives us the most authentic perspective of what all of this is really about!

Secondly, The Last Jedi opened the conversation about how the force works beyond just the training, teaching, control aspect. Again, to avoid spoilers, I will be brief and vague. We learn that who we think is supposedly “special” may not be so “special” after all. The force may not be so exclusive, and maybe (like what the net neutrality repeal will inevitably allow), someone is just hogging it all! The force has never been as intricate and involved as it is in this film, and I think that was a brilliant decision.

lastjedi17Where The Force Awakens was an enjoyable (and I do mean enjoyable) romp through the familiar days of A New Hope, The Last Jedi is a far more mature film. This film marks, perhaps, the first Star Wars film not aimed principally at kids and teens. While there is more than enough for them to enjoy about The Last Jedi, the more involved and complex themes will likely go over their heads. Kids will grasp on to the idea that anyone can make a difference, but they may be lost in the exploration of the disappointment of meeting one’s heroes and finding out they’re frauds. That theme resonates throughout the film and writer/director Rian Johnson runs with it to massive effect. He forces us (pun intended) to examine all of the characters and evaluate them from minute to minute with the goal of showing us that what we thought we knew may not be true at all. This is unsettling, but also an outstanding achievement for a Star Wars film or any form of entertainment for that matter.

These are the places where The Last Jedi shines. The big picture stuff. The exploration of mythos and themes, and not satiating our curiosity with sugary artificial satisfaction. Still, as I mentioned, there are a few places where the film admittedly stumbles. The 153 minute running time is not lean and mean. It’s occasionally bloated with some silly additions that feel cheesy and unnecessary, primarily a sequence involving Finn (John Boyega) and a resistance fighter named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) who are sent on a wild goose chase to a planet full of “the worst creatures in the galaxy.” Except part of why they’re the worst is because they’re rich. Really Star Wars/Disney, you want to go there? I felt a little dumb sitting in a theater after pre-purchasing tickets to see the latest TLJFathiers-696x467installment of a billion dollar franchise, which then spent a sizable portion of its running time pretending to condemn the wealthy elite. I’m not saying Star Wars is incapable of taking on this subject matter, but the “worst creatures in the world” gag felt a little disingenuous. Also, there’s a weird animal abuse subplot involving some horse-like creatures being force to race for entertainment. This whole part is problematic.

There are at least two other areas that came across cheesy or needless, one of which involves a very precarious event involving General Leia that definitely raised an eyebrow. Still, these are minor qualms in an otherwise, risky, different, and dare I say original installment in a now much more interesting saga. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is worthy of praise and debate. It is both enigmatic and iconic. It’s also a visual and acting masterwork. Director Rian Johnson, who is mostly known for a couple of relatively small-time films like Looper and The Lookout, shows what he’s made of. He blows the lid off the theater with one of the finest opening and closing scenes of any Star Wars film, all while carrying the weight of recently beloved characters like Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) as well as introducing new characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and then navigating the tricky terrain of classically loved characters like Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and the Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Furthermore, Hamill’s performance is easily the finest of his career, and Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren is spectacular this time around. It’s also pretty darn funny at times. This movie’s got it all! In fact this review is just scratching the surface. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is not without its flaws, but it is also one of the most ambitious films of the franchise, and certainly the richest in terms of critical analysis. I think in several years people will look back on this film as the one that transformed the saga into something new. B+

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 152 minutes.

Looper

Every fall season a movie comes along that lacks the hype and pandering for an audience. Instead, it is released and looks to succeed by word of mouth. Last year that film was the still under-appreciated Drive; this year my top contender is Looper.

Looper begins by introducing us to Joe, a barely recognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt who performs the title task as a “Looper.” Looper is a time-travel story, but roots itself firmly in a mostly-recognizable version of the near future. The only major difference is that time travel is invented soon after the present setting of the film, which allows for a somewhat confusing, but well executed, original story. Loopers are hired guns who kill for a futuristic mob that sends their hits 30 years into the past before time travel was invented. This allows for mob enemies to simply disappear in their present time and be disposed of in an earlier time when they wouldn’t be investigated. Loopers are paid well to shoot first, ask no questions, and most of all be punctual as hits will suddenly appear in a predetermined location at an exact time. Allowing a “loop” to “run” results in some very unsavory consequences. The downside to Looping is that one day, every Looper’s loop must close, which means the future version of yourself will be sent back for immediate execution. When this happens, a Looper gets a big final pay day and 30 years to enjoy it before the inevitable.

The premise for this film is imaginative and dealt with in a surprisingly cohesive way by director Rian Johnson. As with all great time-travel films, rules must be established so that the viewer may understand exactly what the limits are within these multiple dimensions. I provided a short discussion about some classic time travel theories in a previous blog post that you can read here. In short, this particular film’s view is similar to the Back to the Future variety where you can co-exist with multiple versions of yourself and events that affect the younger version will also impact the later version. Thus, when Joe finds himself face to face with his older self, played by Bruce Willis, he inadvertently allows him to run. However, Willis’ character can not simply run since he knows the consequences against Gordon-Levitt will affect him too.

The story’s arc is much more far-reaching and complex than a cat-mouse chase between alternate versions of Joe. As we learn more about Joe’s future from Bruce Willis, our sympathies are toyed with and our moral centers are jarred endlessly. Johnson’s screenplay and direction provide powerful and conflicting motivations for both characters, making the movie deeply engaging and surprisingly fresh. Additional story lines regarding a futuristic crime boss (Jeff Daniels), a fellow Looper (Paul Dano), and farmhouse mother and her son (Emily Blunt and an Oman-esque Pierce Gagnon, respectively) all flesh out this film and give it real dimension and pragmatism, regardless of its sci-fi, time travel plot.

Looper is a tightly wound, entertaining film that has something for everyone to enjoy. There is a slight dragging feeling at the close of its second act, but this perceived lull is making way for a strong and dominant conclusion. In summary, this review only touches on the surface of what Looper accomplishes; there are multiple surprises in store for all audiences who see it, so let the word of mouth begin! A-