Review: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

The Last Jedi is Star Wars in a new coat of armour, a bold and surprising addition the franchise that respects Star Wars tropes while shaking things up.

After a few weeks of warfare and a time of turmoil, perhaps now it is safe to offer an opinion of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi to the Internet (maybe). Since the hype – and eventual record-breaking success – of The Force Awakens in 2015, it is clear that audience’s adoration of the original Star Wars trilogy characters has only grown over the years and in this Disney owned era of the Star Wars saga, we are arguably seeing more onscreen from a galaxy far, far away than ever before. Yet, there seems to be more than a slight disturbance in the force, as if a vocal audience screamed out in anger and were not silenced…in fact their voices have grown louder and louder.

The Force Awakens received its fair share of flak for riding the coattails of A New Hope too closely and now, in writer/director Rian Johnson’s much awaited sequel, it seems that the Internet is ablaze in fury over the very opposite, with comments of “this is not Star Wars”, “the franchise is dead”, “plot holes much” and “they destroyed our characters”…but did they? Are these social media maelstroms the result of prejudices regarding the film’s diverse cast as some have argued? On the other hand are these criticisms valid gripes? Or are these controversial responses the result of too much fan theorying and not enough waiting and seeing? Well, that all depends on your own, as Obi-Wan Kenobi would put it, point of view.

The Last Jedi follows on from The Force Awakens rather closely as the Resistance may have struck a small victory with the destruction of Starkiller Base but they have drawn the ire of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the entire First Order. Opening with an enthralling space battle, The Last Jedi wastes no time in showing the dwindling numbers, strength and resources of a defiant Resistance led by General Leia Organa (the late great Carrie Fisher). The First Order is intent on wiping away this rebellious opponent and as hope begins to diminish across the galaxy they may be closer to doing so than they realise. Unless, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is successful in her optimistic mission of bringing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) back into the fight and thus giving the Resistance some much needed assistance against over-powering odds. But, is this the same Luke that we once knew and is he still haunted by his past with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

As a lifelong Star Wars lover, I was there midnight to see what The Last Jedi would offer and needless to say I was taken aback by the results. This is unmistakably a Star Wars film, many of the tropes are there if you look and yet it is in many ways a fresh take on the franchise with some narrative detours that genuinely flummox and bold decisions aplenty being taken. What all the fuss really comes down to is expectation and The Last Jedi is not what I expected, but that is not a criticism so much as an observation. Johnson’s film offers spectacle and raw emotion as it expands ideas that were once considered set in stone and still finds time to respect the past.

Contrary to some views I found the film’s hopeful message of the inspiration that comes with legend and how victory can only be achieved by failure truly fitting for the times in which we live. Much like Rogue One, The Last Jedi darws focus on warfare but also joyously toys with our perceptions of Star Wars, in an intriguing and bizarre film about mixed emotions, balancing the force and using the past to create hope for the future. Characters old and new are deepened and while the story has not been to all tastes, there is something impressive about its ambition and diverse themes (from the role of a teacher to an unexpected but great stance against animal cruelty).

Of course it helps that the story and characters are well served by some absorbing cinematography by Steve Yedlin. Whether on the island of Ahch-To or in the almost giallo inspired lair of Snoke, The Last Jedi arouses many striking images, complete with the typical rich environments that Star Wars so marvellously brings to the screen each and every time. The visual power is astonishing and every bit as unique as Johnson’s individualistic direction and the plot’s penchant for surprise, excitement and thematic punch. A much discussed mid-film development especially sends chills and leads to a duel sequence akin to a samurai film, and this scene also shows off what is one of the film’s best features too…the score. To say that John Williams creates musical magic in a film is almost tantamount to saying that the actors got wet when it was raining. However, in The Last Jedi, Williams pulse-pumpingly blends the classic franchise riffs with some of his newer audible beats in The Force Awakens and creates another enchanted soundtrack that is transportative, heroic and a journey in its own right.

Meanwhile the performances are roundly excellent. Some characters get more plot meat than others (BB-8 gets less to do for instance) but overall there are many moments of wonder for all involved. Daisy Ridley is brilliant as Rey, who has matured in this film and almost takes on the role of a viewer as she expects things one way but gets them another and her place in the series in anchored by a moment showing why she is so special. Then there is Adam Driver’s villainous Kylo Ren, whose parentage is played upon here once more and Driver continues to ramp up the character’s internal angst to thoroughly interesting effect. Oscar Isaac also gets more of a chance to shine as ace resistance pilot Poe Dameron, while John Boyega’s Finn and Kelly Marie Tran’s new resistance character Rose have their own mission in place and their own discoveries about what war is and what loyalty really means or whether it even exists. There are numerous names offering memorable sequences from Andy Serkis’ devious Snoke and Laura Dern’s strong presence as new character Admiral Holdo, to the return of Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma (this trilogies answer to Boba Fett) and Chewbacca’s “chemistry” with the much-publicised alien puffins The Porgs (who I loved, I’ll be honest).

The real showstealers though are the remnants of the core Skywalker family. Returning for sadly the last time as Leia, Carrie Fisher is outstanding and the character plays a surprisingly huge part in the expansion of franchise ideals and in one very polarising sequence Leia herself becomes more than ever before. Fisher’s death was a truly great tragedy to fans everywhere but The Last Jedi pays tribute to her in more ways than one, with an empowering role being taken by the beloved character. Then, there is Mark “the man” Hamill. For years children roleplaying at home/school shunned being the pure hero Luke for the rugged hero Han but in The Last Jedi the parameters are splintered, in a sense realistically representing our own society of skewed heroes, unstable allegiances and battered/broken icons. Hamill himself was vocal of the change in Luke’s character initially but as he has since said, it works. Luke in this film is more enthrallingly complex than ever before and Hamill’s performance is seriously awards worthy, in his gaze he conjures up past pain and contemporary worry, as the credence of the Jedi is questioned and challenged, only to be ultimately validated and vindicated by the film’s climax. Hamill is the film’s hyperdrive, he is the essence of this unexpected and unmissable adventure that takes us to places new and old (but through a new set of eyes).

People will always have a view of what Star Wars is, isn’t, or should be but the one thing we loyal fans must sadly face is that it isn’t perfect nor is it meant to be and nor is The Last Jedi. Then again, what film or what piece of art can be unanimously named perfect? Art is subjective and as this franchise grows, the times and perceptions will almost certainly continue to shift but it is a comfort that through it all, Star Wars remains a talking point, a connective thrill ride for multiple generations and a cherished battle-ready ship on the landing platform of cinema history. My initial thoughts about this film were shocked gasps, unsure questions and much thought but a few weeks on, I can safely and truthfully state that, after 3 viewings, the force is strong with The Last Jedi and when Luke says “this is not going to go the way you think”, he sure as hell wasn’t kidding.

I was amazed, impressed and continually intrigued…onto Episode IX, take it away J. J.

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