Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 15, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

There's no pleasing “Star Wars” fans. While the first two films in Disney's plan for yearly galactic adventures were widely liked, the dissenters have been loud. “The Force Awakens” was either the perfect way to revive interest in the franchise or too reverent of “A New Hope.” Some said “Rogue One” was an impressively grounded prequel to the original. Others said it was a reshoot burden, masturbatory act of fan service. Naturally, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi,” the highly anticipated new entry in the Skywalker saga, has already produced hot takes of varying intensity, despite only being out a few days. Has new director Rian Johnson taken the series in a bold new direction or has he let all the air out of fanboys' balloons? Let me, a casual watcher with a general lack of interest in “Star Wars'” lore, decide.

Several months have passed since the destruction of the Starkiller base. Despite that victory, the New Order has the Resistance on the run. A cruiser carrying the rebellion's leaders is slowly being pursued by enemy forces. The heroes of the Resistance leap into action. Finn and a new friend sneak off to another planet, in a last ditch effort to get the Order off the Resistance's trail, while Poe makes his own move. Meanwhile, Rey stays with Luke Skywalker in isolation, trying to convince the exiled Jedi to train her. Luke fears Rey's powers, especially the connection she feels with Kylo Ren, who is only growing more conflicted and powerful.

There was some concern that, if “The Force Awakens” was so beholden to “A New Hope,” “The Last Jedi” would be an extended homage to “The Empire Strikes Back.” “Episode VIII” ends up feeling like the “Empire” of this new trilogy without being slavishly devoted to that film's formula. Like that seminal sequel, it does spread the characters across several locations, splitting the story up before bringing everyone back together at the end. Despite having about six protagonists spread across three or four locations, “The Last Jedi” never feels overstuffed or unorganized. Like “Empire,” this is also likely to be the darkest installment in the new trilogy, focused on taking the characters through the harshest part of their journey.

“The Last Jedi” also shows the series' established heroes struggling with their legacies. Leia does what she can to lead the rebellion, despite their enemy quickly closing in on them. Han Solo's death still hangs heavily over the head of his son and family. Luke, more than any other, finds himself wondering what his place in this new future is. Luke's failures, especially what went wrong with Ben Solo, weigh heavily on him. By taking the character into isolation, and having him ruminate on the failings of the Jedi Order, “The Last Jedi” forces fans to consider the importance of the series' iconic space religion. Moreover, it also gives Mark Hamill a fantastic chance to play a weary mentor, a lifetime of regards visible on his aged face.

A lot of the criticism directed towards the character of Rey in the previous “Star Wars” movie was unfair. However, “The Last Jedi” does provide her with far more character development. Over the course of “Episode VIII,” Rey goes through her own dark night of the soul. In an act of Campbell-ian symbolism that Lucas will probably love, Rey literally crawls into a dark hole, confronting the darkness inside her own soul. She considers why she wants to become a jedi, in a way that frightens and encourages Luke. Daisy Ridley's performance has grown too. She gives a more complex, nuanced reading, the character struggling to realize a destiny she's only beginning to understand.

There's more notable change among the returning cast. John Boyega continues to be having the most fun among the new characters. This film sends Finn on some really amusing adventures. He has to grapple with some fame of his own, reaching the level of heroics he showed admiration for in the last film. Carrie Fisher projects an incredible sense of authority and strength as Leia, even getting a really neat moment solely to herself. Kylo Renn comes into his own as a villain, as Adam Driver discards the character's whiny aspects in favor of more inner conflict and a more intense of anger. Among the inhuman cast members, BB-8 gets one of the most satisfying action beats all to himself. I wish Oscar Isaac as Poe was given a little more to do, as the character remains primarily defined by his reckless rebel attitude.

“The Last Jedi” introduces some notable new names too. Laura Dern, whose overriding pleasantness is practically an internet meme by this point, appears as Admiral Holdo. Dern is soft-spoken but strong. That strength eventually builds towards one of the film's biggest moments, one that got several audible gasps from my audience. Benicio del Toro adds another eccentric and morally ambiguous character to his resume, with DJ, a space-hacker with some interesting thoughts on currency. Del Toro gives the character a stutter, which might have been a move too far. Obviously the break-out character of the film is going to be Kelly Marie Tran's Rose. Tran has a youthful energy that she injects into every scene. She also gets a weepie of a back story, one that is very touching, and gives her choice to fight the Order a special meaning.

In a year that also brought us far-out sci-fi visions like “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” and the latest “Guardians of the Galaxy” film, I'm happy to see Rian Johnson has returned the weirdness to “Star Wars.” The commitment to practical effects that was shown in “The Force Awakens” continues here, as there are many oddball aliens created through puppetry, latex, and rubber. Such as the bizarre elephant seal like creatures Luke milks on his world. Or the crystal-like foxes that inhabit the salty red planet in the last act. An especially stunning shot has the Millennium Falcon diving briefly into the planet's caverns, revealing a world of brightly colored tunnels. One of my favorite sequences in the film is set on a high-rolling casino planet, a nice subversion of the typical hives of scum and villainy we see in “Star Wars.” It's populated with all sorts of colorful, strange creatures. It's nice to see the franchise re-embrace this level of imagery.

“The Force Awakens” certainly had several moments designed to make viewers cheers, most of which costed on reintroducing beloved characters. “The Last Jedi” has at least one moment like this, where one of my favorite cast members from the original trilogy reappears in a really unexpected and welcomed way. Yet most of “The Last Jedi's” other fantastic moments are based on skillfully engineered action theatrics. I've already mentioned a scene weaponizes hyper-drive. Another involves Rose and Finn's escape from the casino, atop giant bounding creatures, a quickly paced chase that gets the blood pumping. Lastly, Luke Skywalker gets a huge action beat all to himself, one that gleefully pays off on years of expectations.

Yet my favorite moments in “The Last Jedi” are the ones seemingly designed to misdirect expectations. In the year between episodes VII and VIII, the internet became obsessed with the question of Rey's parents and the true identity of Supreme Leader Snoke. “The Last Jedi” answers these concerns bluntly and perfectly, completely subverting the George Lucas-ian habit of everyone knowing each other or being related. The film goes there, in a way I really didn't expect a new “Star Wars” movie to. That key moment also leads to a fantastic action sequence, one that seems inspired by action films like “The Raid” franchise, where Rey fights off the bad-ass looking Imperial Guards, in increasingly tight and brutal angles.

Unsurprisingly, the way “The Last Jedi” confounds expectations has not sat well with everyone. I guess if I was really invested in the Mystery Box approach J.J. Abrams brought to the last film, I might be annoyed too. Yet, with the exception of the fate of one major character, I found most of the film's twists and turns satisfying. This is the first time a “Star Wars” movie really surprised me. From the beginning, Rian Johnson seemed like an inspired choice to take the reins of the series. He did exactly what I hoped he would: Shake things up and go further, creating what is likely to be regarded as one of the best entries in the franchise. [8/10]

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