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‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ far from least

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There are few films as difficult to review as a “Star Wars” movie. There’s such a fine line that needs to be walked with regards to the narrative; no one wants to be responsible for spoiling any aspect of such an eagerly-anticipated cinematic experience. However, you also want to be able to convey your feelings about the movie in a manner that is both engaging and accurate.

It's tricky, to say the least.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has already proven to be a bit of a polarizing experience for those who have viewed it. Many have loved what writer/director Rian Johnson brought to the table in continuing the story that began in “The Force Awakens.” Many others have decried Johnson’s choices.

For what it’s worth, I fall fully and unwaveringly in the former camp.

We’ll keep the plot synopsis to a minimum here – there will be plenty of spoilers out there by the time this review sees print, but I’m not going to contribute to what will undoubtedly be a wave of unwanted information rolling into the eyes and ears of those who were unable to get to a movie theater this weekend.

The Resistance is in tatters, with a scant few remaining to battle against the ever-expanding forces of the First Order, led by the trio of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, “Logan Lucky”), General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson, “mother!”) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, “War for the Planet of the Apes”). General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher in her final performance) is leading what remains of the Resistance, including pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, “Suburbicon”), in an effort to escape utter destruction.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley, “Murder on the Orient Express”) has tracked down the long-missing Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, “Brigsby Bear”) in an effort to bring him into the fold and restore a modicum of hope to the cause of the Resistance – an effort that Skywalker seems intent to rebuff.

In addition, reformed stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, “Detroit”) joins forces with a tech named Rose (Kellie Marie Tran, “XOXO”) for a mission that may well prove to be the difference between being able to continue to fight and the complete destruction of the last vestiges of the Resistance.

(That’s about all I feel comfortable saying. In truth, I’m a little concerned that even this little bit is too much.)

Again, it’s hard to talk about this movie without talking about specifics, but here are some of the things that really made “The Last Jedi” work for me.

The efforts at developing depth of character were significant. While one could argue about the relative effectiveness of those efforts, I found that many of the main players were given added layers that helped them not only interconnect, but to connect with the audience as well.

It’s a visually stunning movie, finding moments both macro and micro to highlight the beautiful imagination that “Star Wars” can evoke. Vivid colors, remarkable production design, a deft malleability of scale that allowed for moments where the small became large and vice versa; the aesthetic at work here is truly a rich one. Space battles, hand-to-hand fights, quiet conversations … it all looks remarkable.

The sense of humor was a big shift in tone, one that I greatly enjoyed (though others may disagree). At first I worried that a sense of glibness would undercut the weightier aspects, but the occasional laughter proved a welcome presence – a light to balance the dark, if you will. It felt indicative of the joy that, at heart, is what many of us are seeking from “Star Wars.”

Really, the performances are a highlight in a way we’ve never really seen in a “Star Wars” movie. Isaac’s roguish daredevil take on Poe is engaging as hell. In Boyega’s hands, Finn radiates an everyman courage unlike anything else in the franchise’s long history. The juxtaposition between Rey and Kylo Ren is brought to vivid life through the work of Ridley and Driver (along with some bold choices on the part of Johnson); both actors plumb the depths to ground the massive power of their respective characters with a sense of humanity.

Fisher’s farewell is bittersweet; it’s genuinely heartbreaking to see her on the screen, though one imagines she’d be glad to say good-bye with this one. Gleeson is on point as Hux, providing the needed third leg of the Bad Guy Triangle. Newcomers like Tran, Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro all bring something vital to the table – and each has their own powerful moments of truth.

(One thing that seems almost universally agreed upon is the exceptional nature of Mark Hamill’s performance. The return of Luke Skywalker to a prominent place in the “Star Wars” story came with monumental expectations that no actor could reasonably have been expected to meet. And Hamill didn’t meet them – he exceeded them. His portrayal of a broken, angry and self-hating Luke is brilliant, reminiscent of the classic performative meta-awareness of something like John Wayne’s Oscar-winning turn as Rooster Cogburn in 1969’s “True Grit.” Hamill won’t win an Oscar … but he might deserve one.)

Ultimately, the thing that I may have enjoyed most about “The Last Jedi” is the fact that it never felt as though it was bound by the pressures of the franchise. In my opinion, Johnson threaded the needle, putting his own stamp on an iconic universe while still being true to the basic spirit of that universe. I freely anticipate that there are those who will have an opinion that is precisely the opposite. That’s OK – there is no other pop cultural property that inspires such intense and visceral emotional reactions as this one; I’m not going to tell anyone how they should feel about it.

Here’s my take: I think it all boils down to “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s no secret that for many of us, “Empire” is the best of the bunch, and “The Last Jedi” is, in essence, the “Empire” of this new sequel trilogy. As such, there are a lot of very specific expectations that people have, consciously or otherwise, of this film in particular. And when those expectations aren’t met or are subverted in some way, it can cause considerable (and understandable) internal conflict.

Our emotional attachment to these movies is a real thing. And there will always be a romanticizing of the ones that served as our introduction to this world that we could come to love. Our helmet visors are rose-colored; our memories of “Star Wars” altered by fogs of love and nostalgia. Those memories might tell us how these new movies should be, and if/when they’re something different … maybe it hurts us a little. Maybe more than we’re comfortable with.

But make no mistake – Episode VIII deserves to be here.

Look, “The Last Jedi” isn’t perfect. Even with a run time of over 150 minutes, some of the narrative was left feeling a bit thin; it occasionally feels overstuffed. Juggling storylines like this is a tough task, and while Johnson is largely successful, there are occasional lapses; for instance, some of the plot and character decisions are a little lacking.

Still – minor criticisms in the grand scheme. “The Last Jedi” is interesting in that, while it’s a really good “Star Wars” movie, it also manages to be a really good movie, period. And it’s rare for a film like this not to require that kind of qualifier. It’s not the best movie in the franchise – that honor remains with “Empire” – but it’s a worthy and worthwhile addition to the “Star Wars” canon.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 22 December 2017 11:06

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