‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Defies Easy Expectations

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie poster

With “Star Wars” movies now becoming a yearly tradition, I wonder if they will begin to feel less like an event and resemble a typical episode of the “Law & Order” franchise. You know a version of the show is always on television in one form or another, but are you as excited to watch an episode as you were when you first discovered it? Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but considering where Disney is taking this franchise, it is beginning to feel like it no longer takes place in a galaxy all that far away.

I bring this up because I couldn’t stop thinking about this during the opening crawl of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Each new “Star Wars” motion picture feels like a major event to where it should be declared a national holiday, but since it’s becoming a regular thing now since Disney bought Lucasfilm, will the franchise still feel this special with each future installment? Well, hopefully this remains the case as “The Last Jedi” proves to be a rousing piece of entertainment which stays true to the franchise’s ideals, and it even has a number of surprises up its sleeve to where I eagerly await the next episode set to come out in 2019.

While each “Star Wars” film typically takes place several years after the last one, “The Last Jedi” begins where “The Force Awakens” concluded. Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes to meet the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has long since exiled himself on the planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), a much nicer destination than Dagobah. Meanwhile, the Resistance finds itself feeling the First Order after the latter obliterates their main base. From there, the rebels are on the run, but they can only get so far before they realize the First Order has tracked their whereabouts and to where they are trapped with little hope of escape. It is up to the daring and dashing Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) to save the day with the help of friends both old and new.

Revealing more about a “Star Wars” film just as it is released tends to result in actions which will prove to be infinitely painful to say the least, so this will be a spoiler-free review. What I can tell you is while this episode deals with the subjects of hope and the need to discover more than what can be found on the surface, the key subject writer and director Rian Johnson deals with here is failure. All the characters are dealing with failure in one way or another, and it comes to haunt every action they take. The characters we grew up with are dealing with failings they cannot escape, and the ones we were introduced to in “The Force Awakens” are now discovering the irreversible consequences of their actions.

Johnson previously wrote and directed “The Brothers Bloom” and “Brick,” but his best known film before helming “The Last Jedi” was “Looper,” a sci-fi time travel motion picture which was ingenious as it was thrilling. Having seen it, I went into this “Star Wars” extravaganza with the confidence he could pull it off, and he did. Even though “The Last Jedi” threatens to overstay its welcome at two hours and 32 minutes, making it the longest “Star Wars” movie to date, you cannot punish Johnson for his ambition as he covers a lot of ground while leaving us salivating for more.

When it came to the prequels, you had to forgive the actors because they were being directed by a man, George Lucas, who is a master storyteller but deeply deficient when it came to dealing with the human element. But Johnson, like J.J. Abrams before him, knows how to elicit strong performances from his cast, and each actor is more than up to the challenge.

Watching Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher was deeply fascinating as their adventures in the original “Star Wars” trilogy remain forever burned into my consciousness, and it still feels like I first watched those movies just yesterday. Their youthful exuberance in fighting the dark side was contagious as I wanted to fight alongside them, and I know I’m not the only who feels this way. When we catch up with their characters of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa in “The Last Jedi,” the years of endless battles and devastating defeats show in their faces as we wonder how much of a fight they have left in them considering what they have been through. While they are heroes, both have grown weary in the face of an enemy which is every bit as imposing as the Galactic Empire, and their confidence in their abilities is shakier than ever before.

It’s especially poignant to watch Fisher here as this was her last movie before she passed away, and knowing this will be the final time we will see her as Leia is a real heartbreaker. Even as Leia’s accent changes yet again, Fisher imbues the former princess with a dignity and humility which will not be easily shattered in the face of defeat. Even as the odds get worse for the Resistance, Fisher makes Leia stand tall, and she makes clear to the audience that this sci-fi icon will not go down without a fight.

After watching Hamill’s brief appearance in “The Force Awakens,” I came into this film wondering where he would take the great Luke Skywalker. Well, he’s no Yoda here as a devastating failure has led him to believe the Jedi should end and has robbed almost completely robbed him of his sense of humor. Whether or not this is the Luke Skywalker you hoped to see in “The Last Jedi,” Hamill dares to take this character in another direction, but despite defying expectations, the actor makes Luke the powerful Jedi we always wanted him to be.

It’s also great to see “The Force Awakens” veterans Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe Dameron and Finn as their charismatic energy lends itself nicely to the special effects extravaganza which could have, but does not, overwhelm their talents. Watching Isaac here also serves as a reminder that covering him in pounds of makeup like Bryan Singer did in “X-Men: Apocalypse” is completely unnecessary and just takes away from him. Domhnall Gleeson still makes General Hux into more of a twisted tightwad than we previously saw, and Andy Serkis mesmerizes as Supreme Leader Snoke while continuing to shroud the character in mystery.

Among the newcomers to this franchise are Laura Dern as Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, Benicio Del Toro as the codebreaker DJ, and Kelly Marie Tran comes into play as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who becomes a key player in the Resistance. While it is great to see Dern and Del Toro here, let alone in any other movie they appear in, their characters are a bit underwritten to where their talents can only go so far with the material given to them. Tran, however, makes Rose Tico into a terrific character I am very eager to see in the next “Star Wars” episode. As for the Porgs, they are delightful little creatures who do not overstay their welcome, and they serve as a reason why Chewbacca might consider becoming a vegetarian in the future.

But the performances which really held my attention more than any others came from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Both bring a raw intensity to their characters which left me on edge as their passions could lead them either in the right direction, or instead down a road which offers no hope of return. The connection Rey and Kylo share throughout “The Last Jedi” is one which grows stronger in each scene, and it makes me wonder if they could possibly survive without one another in Episode IX. Both actors bring a natural energy which Natalie Portman should have been allowed to bring in the prequels, and they remain as compelling as ever.

Many complained “The Force Awakens” hewed too closely to the plot of “A New Hope” to where it became an exercise in nostalgia more than anything else. So it’s only natural filmgoers are coming to “The Last Jedi” expecting something close to “The Empire Strikes Back.” However, Johnson and company have succeeded in giving us a “Star Wars” episode which surprises us more often than not. While many may be sitting in a movie theater crying out, “I knew that was going to happen,” I think they need to realize not everything is going to go the way they expect. It reminded me of the next to last episode of “The Sopranos’” second season as it left me in shock and wondering what could possibly happen next. While we feel we know and understand the formula of the average “Star Wars” movie, this one upends it to where we can only guess what will happen in the future.

“The Last Jedi” also shows us there is more to failure than we see at first, and this is an important lesson to take in as we often let failure keep us from moving forward in life. It also shows us how hope can be tested more than ever before to where we grasp onto any last piece of it. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman talked about how “hope is a dangerous thing” and that “hope can drive a man insane,” but our heroic characters still cling onto hope as nothing else will do, and surrender is not even a part of the equation.

While the continuing onslaught of “Star Wars” movies threatens to make this franchise feel a lot less special, none of my worries detracted from my enjoyment of “The Last Jedi.” It proves to be as entertaining as any other “Star Wars” movie currently out there in circulation, and yes, I include the prequels. This film also makes me look forward to Rian Johnson’s continued contributions to the franchise which look to be many, and I eagerly await the next episode as I am not sure what to expect from it. I just hope I don’t go into a future “Star Wars” movie saying to myself, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

star-wars-the-force-awakens-poster

We’ve been down this road before. A new “Star Wars” movie is announced and it quickly becomes the most eagerly anticipated motion picture of all time. I’ve lived through this phenomenon many times before and have always been desperate to keep my expectations in check. While I didn’t hate the prequels and enjoyed them for what they were, many fans despised them where they looked at George Lucas as some heartless bastard who utterly destroyed what was most cherished to them. So, with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” I tried to keep my anticipation to a bare minimum as I felt any expectations I could ever have for this installment could easily be undone.

Well, now having seen it, I can safely say J.J. Abrams has not only awakened the force with this “Star Wars” movie, he has also reignited our childhood innocence by bringing the franchise back to its basics. Like “Creed,” the “Rocky” spin-off, it takes the story of its famous predecessor, in this movie’s case “Episode IV: A New Hope,” and spins a new take on it with old and new characters joining forces to keep the dark side from destroying the light. Even if you feel like you’ve seen this story before, what results is a highly entertaining and exhilarating motion picture which gets many of the things the prequels messed up right and reminds us why we love going to the movies in the first place.

No one wants to spoil “The Force Awakens” for anybody as doing so would be like Homer Simpson ruining the big reveal of “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line to see it, so don’t expect this reviewer make this mistake as everyone should come to this movie fresh and experience it all firsthand instead of being forced to read the entire plot synopsis on Wikipedia.

What can be said is it takes place 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” The Galactic Empire had been vanquished, but just like John Carpenter once said, evil never dies. What’s left of it has come to form the First Order which is once again hell bent on crushing every single part of the Rebel Alliance. As for the Rebel Alliance, it is now known as the Resistance which is backed by the Republic and features many veterans including Princess, now General, Leia Organa. Whatever peace was achieved in the 1983 movie has long since been undone by some Darth Vader wannabes, and those wannabes are now more ruthless than ever.

Into the mix comes Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger struggling to survive on the Tatooine-like planet Jakku who comes across a droid named BB-8 which has, you guessed it, secret information the First Order is desperate to get their hands on. From there she joins forces with Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who suffers a crisis of conscience and abandons the First Order without hesitation, and heroic fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to get the droid to the Resistance before the First Order finds and destroys them without mercy.

Revealing any more of the story from there would be hazardous to one’s health, but many characters from previous installments like Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Luke Skywalker are back to once again fight the good fight against an enemy hopelessly drunk with power.

The first thing I have to point out is how good the acting is. This surprised me a lot as the cast had to be acting opposite a number of things they couldn’t see, and the prequels were notorious for the wooden performances which came out of them. But each actor cast in “The Force Awakens” gives us characters who are not just mere archetypes the science fiction genre calls for, but interesting people we want to follow right from the start. Many “Star Wars” fans get edgy when it comes to new characters being brought into the franchise (R.I.P. Jar Jar Binks), but the ones introduced in “The Force Awakens” are very welcome additions.

One major standout is Daisy Ridley who, before starring in “The Force Awakens,” was largely unknown outside of her native England. As Rey, she gives us a new female action hero for the ages who is self-sufficient and needs nobody to rely on, and she infuses her performance with tremendous heart and passion to where this character is not just another token female. Ridley makes Rey stand on her own from so many other female sci-fi heroes who came before her, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

Matching Ridley from one scene to the next is John Boyega who left a strong impression on audiences in the highly entertaining “Attack the Block.” As Finn, he spends a good portion of this movie in panic mode to where his performance could have been irritating, but Boyega gives this reformed stormtrooper a cutting sense of humor and an energetic personality which makes him very entertaining to spend your time with.

Oscar Isaac proves to be a combination of both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker as X-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron, making him into one of the most charismatic characters you could ever hope to find in the “Star Wars” universe. At first it seems like a weird career move for him to do a “Star Wars” movie after giving unforgettable performances in movies like “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year” and “Ex Machina,” but he makes Poe a wonderfully heroic character you want to travel all over the galaxy with, and he looks right at home in this franchise as a result.

Adam Driver provides “The Force Awakens” with its most fearsome antagonist, Kylo Ren. Some will dismiss the character as a Darth Vader wannabe, but that’s kind of the point. Kylo seeks to finish what Vader started as we saw in the trailer, and even he sees he has big shoes to fill. What Driver does is not make Kylo into a simple villain, but instead someone with some serious issues to sort out and who is dedicated to a struggle he has essentially been manipulated into. As a result, Driver makes the character into an unpredictable menace and one who is far more dangerous than anyone realizes.

Then there are the veteran actors who return to this franchise with more enthusiasm than they would have 10 years ago. It’s great to see Carrie Fisher back as Leia Organa, and that’s even though Leia’s accent has changed yet again. Peter Mayhew hasn’t missed a beat as Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels reprises his C-3PO role as though time never passed, and all Mark Hamill has to do is give us a look to remind audiences there is no Jedi better than Luke Skywalker.

But the biggest thrill is seeing Harrison Ford back as Han Solo. It’s no secret Ford has had a lot of edgy feelings about his involvement with the “Star Wars” franchise to where he distanced himself from all the fandom which came with it. But thanks to an unforeseen miracle, Ford is back and he actually looks happy to be reprising one of his most iconic characters. While Han Solo has only changed so much, Ford still imbues the character with a humanity which made him such an integral part of the original trilogy.

For a time, it looked like it was not worth the trouble to do another “Star Wars” movie as what was once fresh had long since become the model for just about every science fiction film out there. That’s what makes Abrams’ accomplishment with “The Force Awakens” all the more commendable because he makes us feel like kids again as we watch the action unfold. And just as he did with his “Star Trek” reboot, he puts as much attention on the characters as he does on the spectacle, and this makes us fully engaged in the way we should be when we go to the movies. “Jurassic World” may have been entertaining, but it can only dream of being as good as this.

Does “The Force Awakens” get a little too nostalgic at times? Sure, and the movie’s ending doesn’t quite give us the same elation as “A New Hope” did when the Death Star blew up. But Abrams and company have managed to pull off the impossible here; they made “Star Wars” seem truly exciting again. While we can’t resist picking away at the flaws inherent in the prequels, we couldn’t care less about any of the flaws in this one because watching it is just too damn much fun.

* * * * out of * * * *

Check out the Star Wars Intro Creator!

Star Wars The Force Awakens scroll

This past weekend we have seen the “Star Wars Celebration” take place in Europe which featured new footage from the upcoming “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” a trailer for season 3 of “Star Wars Rebels,” Alden Ehrenreich being introduced as the new Han Solo, and then news that “Star Wars Episode VIII” will begin right where “The Force Awakens” ended. Of course, there was the issue of the new “Rogue One” trailer that we were promised but did not get. The fans were not happy about that, and when “Star Wars” fans are not happy you have to take their dissatisfaction very seriously.

But in the midst of all this hoopla, I came across the Star Wars Intro Creator on the internet. Basically it allows you to create your Star Wars scroll like the ones we have seen at the beginning of the (so far) seven movies which always fill us excitement about the space adventure we are about to be taken on. This fun little tool was developed by Bruno Orlandi and Nihey Takizawa, and it is based on the work of Tim Pietrusky.

I took a lot of joy in putting my together my own “Star Wars” scroll, and I invite you to check it out. Furthermore, you can create your own very easily, although downloading it may take a while.

Check it out below!

Star Wars Intro Creator