With Last Jedi, Star Wars is now a spark of hope, small and unusual but effulgent enough to make everyone believe in the Force in them.
“This is not going to go the way you think,” says Luke Skywalker in the trailers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Episode VIII of the beloved fantasy saga that has been expanding for 40 years. Sure, Star Wars fans did a lot of thinking about whether The Force Awakens lazily imitated A New Hope or gave us a warm hug after the disappointing prequels. Details were spotted, theories conceived, and scenarios for Last Jedi imagined. Don’t forget the persisting legacy of Empire Strikes Back—its plot twist and perfect narrative that influence our expectation on the first sequel. Can Last Jedi be the worthy Empire of the new trilogy?
Much like Empire, Last Jedi starts with the antagonists’ counter-attack after their spherical space-cannon was destroyed by the freedom fighters. Assisted by the chirpy BB-8, Resistance flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) alone goes to deliver a message to Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), the despicable First Order General. At first, I thought the script would sabotage this dire situation with the Disney humor seen in MCU movies. Jokes seem inappropriate, but it soon becomes clear writer-director Rian Johnson keeps humor organic to the underlying intentions. War is still serious, and the bad guys use technological advancement to outplay the Resistance. After sustaining heavy losses, they flee yet can’t shake off the First Order fleet.
Side adventures are written around this chase, in which the Resistance takes advantage of their light ships to keep their distance. The First Order has about 24 hours to devise a new course of action but just can’t for some reasons. If you can forgive this story convenience, the scenario provides tension and an effective framework to develop character—a tribute to Empire. Some plot strands meander, but the transitions are well-executed, considering how the ambitious script runs on various storylines.
The focus is on the Skywalker family drama, but my favorite arc is Poe’s. He’s literally jarred out of his comfortable cockpit and must come to terms with his flaw, an inherent part of this hotshot flyboy from the Black Squadron. Now demoted due to his grave mistake and running around the ship’s bridge, Poe learns to relent from disobeying orders. Committed and versatile, Isaac displays his enthralling chops in Poe’s many strifes with his superiors about the threat behind them. Ironically, I see him as the audience surrogate, forced to watch the tactical procedure going in ways he protests but can’t change the result. Of course, his teacher is General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), staunch and motherly, strict and magnanimous. Her voice is raspy, her attitude adamant, and her imperative decisions cement her skills as both a leader and a Force user. It’s a melancholic feeling to watch Fisher’s last appearance in Star Wars. She will always be our Princess and General, and Last Jedi gives her the best farewell possible.
Before Poe finishes his learning, he allows an unauthorized mission that might save the Resistance. This is the least important, and admittedly weakest, side quest: to ask for help from a codebreaker in a casino. It’s carried out by reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and a technician named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), whose sister (Veronica Ngo) just sacrificed for Poe’s impulsiveness. Their storyline looks like Johnson’s far-reaching attempt to dump everything less important into one place, though it addresses an intriguing issue about animal cruelty and war profiteering. Also, there are redeeming qualities. Whereas the callow Finn meets Rose in an idol-groupie scene, this new female character persuades skeptics with her steadfastness. Finn appears a coward, but his intention is fixed on rescuing Rey. Boyega and Tran’s individual performances are better than their chemistry, with Finn being silly while learning to be selfless and Rose showing firm loyalty for the Resistance.
Awakens ends with its villain, Kylo Ren a.k.a Ben Solo (Adam Driver), demoralized and hurt in more places than physical wounds. This is a complex role, beyond the Internet’s dismissal of Driver’s asymmetrical face and Kylo’s fits of whiny anger. Driver owns each expression of many conflicting emotions, which arise from Han Solo’s death at his lightsaber. With growing darkness and resolve, he knows what he has to do and, in a satisfying arc, has the strength to do it. Seeing Kylo in front of his enemies is electrifying, but his best scenes are when he’s alone. One such pathetically striking scene happens around his wannabe mask after Snokes berates him, “You’re no Vader. You’re just a child in a mask.” Kylo’s scenes with the overbearing Hux are both ominous and funny; every time Hux rises to prove himself unyielding, Kylo makes him yield.
Intertwined with Kylo’s rise to power is the fate of Rey (Daisy Ridley) from the first moment of her actual growth. Their connection is getting stronger, providing insights into Kylo’s fallout with his uncle, the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The heiress of the Force is less green and vulnerable than when we met her. She hinges more on external influence while looking deeper into her soul and the Force’s secret. Ridley inspires and invites sympathy as her lucky, plucky Rey, with beloved Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) on the Millennium Falcon, visits Luke for her Jedi training. Rey believes in the Lightside withheld by Kylo, but the pull to the Darkside is threatening to swallow her.
Fans waited for two hours in Episode VII and booed at J.J. Abrams for not giving Hamill even a minute of screen time. What happens when Luke holds his old lightsaber? To fans’ surprise, the embittered recluse responds to Rey’s wholehearted wish with apathy and fatigue. He hides from the galactic turbulence to soothe his psychological baggage. “I came to this island to die,” Luke informs Rey early on, “the Jedi have to end.” This is a different Hamill—but as the most intriguing Luke and with the best acting skills to take on his iconic role after Return of the Jedi. It’s been 30 years, Luke can’t stay the same valiant hero we remember.
Andy Serkis is awesome in another captivating mo-cap role as the much-discussed, disfigured Supreme Leader Snoke. He’s one of the most enigmatic factors of Awakens, and fans will not be disappointed with his trained power, whether Force lightning or manipulation of minds. Other solid minor roles are Benicio del Toro, as a sordid, shady codebreaker, and Laura Dern, a stern Vice-Admiral who confronts Poe with her unshakable sense of duty.
An artistic imprint is evident in the substantial color and composition by DP Steve Yedlin (Johnson’s collaborator in his previous films). The direction isn’t flawless, but Johnson is competent with dramatic pivots when silence takes over sound and the camera pushes into intensified faces. Snoke’s ominous throne chamber has the combination of red and black—colors of totalitarianism. For action scenes, the choreography is less distractingly fussy and more character-driven than in the prequels. This results in a lightsaber showstopper, featuring Snoke’s Praetorian guards, whose crimson armors evoke an Inquisitor-meets-samurai vibe.
Master musician John Williams returns and solidifies how music is essential to Star Wars. His new score, which includes a part of the original soundtrack, isn’t groundbreaking as the movie it supports, but its emotional significance and tonal guidance are beautiful and transcending. Even as a space opera, Last Jedi never loses its visceral feeling, and the urgency can’t stop the heroes from caring for one another. Characters are always the connective tissues of the spectacle. In visually engaging sequences of dogfights, the camera pays attention to the little people, who put themselves amid the crossfire. Sweeping action springs to close-up shots, bridging the genre framework to ground-level affection. In one early scene, the film cuts from three TIE fighters to the faces of Kylo and Leia as they gain connection through the Force. I don’t know whether they talk about Han or talk at all, but judging from the facial expressions, I can’t bear the heartbreak.
In terms of worldbuilding, Last Jedi is better than Awakens. Constructions are true to the Star Wars spirit, from outlandish vistas over Ahch-To to the ostensibly luxurious guests and interiors of the Canto Bight casino. The latter thematically contrasts its neighboring dirty stables and jail cells that Finn and Rose visit. Last Jedi also expands on the fauna in these corners with fascinating creatures: puffin-hamster hybrids called Porgs (which was far less annoying as trailers made them), the Ahch-To inhabitants who look like hard-working nuns, large creatures Luke milks for refreshment, giant race horse-dogs on Canto Bight, and diamond foxes on the mineral planet Crait. While green screen is sometimes too obvious, practical effects are spot on, rendering the necessary warmth and affectionate realism in a surprising appearance.
A few scenes reminisce about Empire and Return, but they are just that—reminiscences that serve a new purpose, narratively and aesthetically. Otherwise, this is a daring take on the Star Wars canon. When Artoo plays the message from Hope for the neglectful Luke, the film is self-aware of how Abrams used nostalgia. It might be cheap, but it works nonetheless and we should only do that once. Limbs are cut off, screens wiped, but the battle of good and evil resists our speculations. Trope-defying twists are incredible and impactful. They pose profound questions at characters, and even the franchise, about self-sacrifice, obligation, and legacy.
Many fans feel betrayed, and Last Jedi seem irrelevant and anti-climatic next to Episode VII. This is due to the hype, and the disparity creates a conceptual shock that is visionary and reverent to Star Wars legacy. Its core ideas have been decorated by clichés with which we grow too comfortable, and Last Jedi snuffs out the flames of old tropes and shrinks the franchise to its basic elements. Star Wars is now exactly a spark of hope, small and unusual but effulgent enough to make everyone believe in the Force in them.
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