Sunday, December 24, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Review

When the Star Wars franchise returned to cinema screens in 2015 with The Force Awakens, there was work to be done—or undone, the prequel trilogy being one of the more spectacular prolonged acts of self-sabotage in popular art. Old fans had to be placated without alienating the younger viewers who’d ultimately determine whether the film was a success or not. Disney reached out to the man who’d done exactly this with the 2009 Star Trek reboot: JJ Abrams. And, without a doubt, The Force Awakens was an expert bit of fan service, happily indulging the nostalgia of the earlier films even as it introduced a 21st century springiness to the franchise.

Over the years, it’s become a marker of good taste to declare a preference for The Empire Strikes Back over the first Star Wars film. I’m about equally fond of both, but it’s fair to say that Irvin Kershner’s 1980 sequel is more persuasively directed and richer—mostly due to its surprising darkness—than George Lucas’s 1977 film. The same is true of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which has fewer winks and nudges and, it must be said, fewer soaring moments than JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, but more emotional heft.

At the end of the last film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) had tracked down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a deserted island, leaving a comatose Finn (John Boyega) with the rag-tag Resistance, headed by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and reliant to an unhealthy degree on the flying skills of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance ship under attack from the First Order, where things are pretty much as they always are: Snoke (Andy Serkis) is still Supreme Leader, Kylo Ren is still mopey (he’s earned the right, having killed his father and let Rey best him in a lightsaber duel), and Hux is still either a brilliant parody of an evil villain type or a brave continuation of baffling choices that Domnhall Gleeson made in the first film.

Having finally found Luke, Rey wants to extract every bit of Jedi knowledge she can from him. Only, he isn’t interested; there’s a reason, he reminds Rey testily, that he moved to an undiscoverable island. But Rey’s as persistent as Luke himself was as a young man, and when he finally agrees to teach her a little something, there’s a brief, pleasing echo of Yoda’s training of young Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. As she grows into her Jedi powers, Rey also discovers that she’s developed—possibly after their battle at the end of the last film—a disturbing connection with Kylo Ren, a sort of video conversation of the mind where they can be light-years apart and still see each other and converse.

Despite a running time of 140 minutes, there are only a handful of subplots. Finn, who shakes off his coma early, remains this trilogy’s most engaging character, and his search for a master coder with new pal Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is a badly planned adventure in the best Star Wars tradition. For the most part, though, Johnson keeps the narrative focused on two fronts: the increasingly desperate situation of the Resistance ship, and Rey’s discovery of self. There’s a lot of build-up, but to a purpose: when the two storylines collide, they do so with a satisfying crunch.

In the past Johnson has made faux-noir (Brick), screwball comedy (The Brothers Bloom) and head-spinning sci-fi (Looper), in addition to directing some of the finer episodes of Breaking Bad. Though he’s clearly unfazed by the expanded canvas of a franchise film, his imprint isn’t always visible. His off-kilter humour, for instance, is tempered down to staple Hollywood gag-writing (the hold-on-bad-connection shtick that Poe does to Hux would have fit snugly in any recent Marvel movie). My favourite moments in the film are when Johnson throws his weight behind the visual: the final battle, with the red clay under white salt exposed like giant gashes in the desert; the classic samurai framing of Hamill’s silhouette; Snoke’s command room, done up in deep reds and blacks like a set from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

It’s disconcerting, when all is done, to look around and see that we’re pretty much where we started. The Resistance is now an even smaller group on the run, Rey still doesn’t know the names of her parents, Kylo continues to experience Internal Conflict. This stasis isn’t limited to the narrative. The post-Lucas trilogy now has two above-average films, but remains incapable of providing the shock of the new (beyond the vital introduction of commanding female characters). In one of his more animated moments, Kylo tells Rey that she must “kill the past”. She doesn’t, and neither does the film.

This review appeared in Mint. 

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