Monday, February 5, 2018

Killing the past? 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' review — finally!

It’s taken me three times seeing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” – and the third very near the end of its theatrical run – for me to be ready to review Rian Johnson’s divisive film.

Before the page break, I’ll give the few of you who somehow haven’t seen it the benefit of the doubt: A no-spoiler review. By the end, all bets are off.

Paired with yet another killer John Williams score (which contains many themes from the original trilogy), “The Last Jedi” has everything you’d expect from a “Star Wars” film – and a few things you don’t. While it seems pretty clear that “The Force Awakens” ends with a decisive victory for the Resistance over the New Order after its Starkiller Base is destroyed, the opening crawl of Johnson’s movie tells us the Resistance is in shambles and on the run.

If that sounds quite a bit like “The Empire Strikes Back,” you’re on the right track.

“The Last Jedi” has all the comforts – or clichés, if you prefer – of the franchise: The tension between good/redemption and evil, the outnumbered underdog versus the better armed and more powerful enemy, tension between teacher and student, a potential Jedi’s search for her parentage, the rogue “flyboy,” a secluded Jedi Master and yes, C-3PO quoting the odds.

Depending on whose opinion you believe, or even your own stance, “The Last Jedi” is either the most original film in the saga or it uses the same formats and situations from the classic trilogy (just with different characters). Or you could take the rather extreme perspective that some fans — many of them diehards – have taken: that Johnson is giving George Lucas’ creation a subversive middle-finger and/or is soiling the memories of first-generation “Star Wars” fans.

The truth for this lifelong “Star Wars” junkie is somewhere in the middle.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) considers the lightsaber
that Rey hands him early in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."
To paraphrase Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, who remains underwhelming in his menace and potential to be a memorable bad guy), this movie is an opportunity to “kill the past.”

The “Last Jedi” subtitle is a reference – not surprisingly – to Luke Skywalker (a brilliant Mark Hamill in the best and most subtle performance in the franchise). And given that ominous phrase and whether you like it or not, Johnson is weaning us off the Skywalker connection.

Yet the director embraces the past too. Call it tradition, homages, Easter eggs, throwbacks or what-have-you, but there’s a lot of that is familiar here. “The Last Jedi” isn’t quite Johnson’s love letter to “The Empire Strikes Back” that J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” is to “Star Wars” (what we first-generation fans still call “Episode IV: A New Hope”), but it’s awfully darn close at times.

One of the first lines is what Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, still strong and poignant in her last film) says when the Rebels are escaping Hoth; yet, this time it’s Fisher’s real-life daughter saying it. Skywalker, now bitter and broken, has isolated himself on a planet just as Jedi Master Yoda did, except this locale is somewhat more hospitable. Updated AT-AT walkers advance on Resistance soldiers in trenches on a planet with a white surface – yet another “Empire” reference.
The intimate friendship that Mark Hamill had with the late Carrie Fisher is evident in this promotional photo
for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."
“The Last Jedi” picks up some threads from “The Force Awakens,” such as answering the question of who Rey is — addressed here on Cary’s Comics Craze three years ago. Kylo Ren gives her an answer and she – along with millions of fans – probably don’t like it. Again, this is the answer I attempted to advocate in 2015.

For you fans who consider Rey's parentage of importance, consider this perspective: Skywalker teaches Rey that being in touch with the Force is more important than one’s parentage or being trained as a Jedi Knight. By the very closing seconds Johnson’s story seems to indicate it’s yet another character, a possible “nobody” like Rey, who can rise from nothing to being a Resistance hero, just as Skywalker is for the Rebel Alliance in the first “Star Wars.”

Fans may not agree with, much less appreciate or like, the way Luke Skywalker’s story ends, but his last stand delivers the very sliver of hope the Resistance needs. It will stick with you long after you leave the theater.

And as far as the “Star Wars” universe is concerned, Skywalker's death cements his reputation as a legend. Rey has it right: His passing has “peace and purpose.” Obi-Wan Kenobi would be proud.

The emotional resolution of “The Last Jedi” is so relatively optimistic that it’s hard to care what happens when Abrams takes the director’s chair back from Johnson to end the “Force Awakens” trilogy. It’s hard to know where the ninth film might go.

Or can go, given Fisher's death. I will maintain my theory that it was supposed to be Leia who was going to be instrumental in redeeming Kylo Ren back to Ben Solo until someone from Lucasfilm or these movies says otherwise. Episode IX likely was going to be “Leia's film”/time to shine, just as “The Force Awakens” was for Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Hamill now as Skywalker.

What will happen next? Who knows. Don’t expect a cliffhanger in “The Last Jedi” – there isn’t one – or to even having any yearning to have your questions answered.

Ultimately, Johnson wants it both ways – paving a new way in the franchise while closing characters’ storylines. He pays homage to past “Star Wars” films and themes while comfortably going beyond those restraints. That is why it’s taken me this long to process “The Last Jedi.”

Grade: B

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