Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Grade : A+ Year : 2017 Director : Rian Johnson Running Time : 2hr 32min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

I knew that, at some point in “The Last Jedi,” something was going to make me cry in light of the loss of Carrie Fisher last year. While I have some typical sadness about celebrity deaths, Fisher’s passing last year after the release of “Rogue One,” where Leia Organa had a CGI-created cameo, hit me harder than most, because Fisher’s character in the “Star Wars” saga has had such a big impact on me over the years. And Rian Johnson delivered the waterworks a handful of times during “The Last Jedi,” and while one of those moments feels a bit overly sentimental, given the rest of the film, there’s a big one at the end that scored on a deeper level than I think even Johnson expected when he was making it. If you thought the tribute to Fisher than ran at Star Wars Celebration in April brought on the tears, that was a warmup to what this film has in store.

Beyond the passing of Fisher, however, this feels like a big turning point in the “Star Wars” saga, and not just because LucasFilm has just given Johnson (“Looper,” “Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”) the chance to create his own trilogy within the “Star Wars” universe, but separate from the Skywalker saga. Structurally speaking, you’ve never seen a “Star Wars” film quite like “The Last Jedi.” Yes, there are quotations of previous moments from the films, and some sequences that follow similar paths, but whereas “The Force Awakens” was not afraid to borrow the structure of “A New Hope,” “The Last Jedi” isn’t just copying “The Empire Strikes Back,” or really, any of the previous films, although if you were to point to some commonalities with “Attack of the Clones,” I honestly wouldn’t blame you. Don’t worry, there aren’t any dopey love stories that play out in agonizing detail; there is one that feels perfunctory, but it won’t really dampen your enjoyment of the film. In fact, it may serve to enhance it.

“The Last Jedi” begins where “The Force Awakens” ended, which is to say, the events that capped “Force Awakens”- the Resistance dealing a blow to the First Order, and the First Order hunting them down to where their base was, and Rey confronting Luke Skywalker with his father’s lightsaber at the original Jedi Temple- are still in motion. I’m going to tread lightly from here, because I wish everyone as clean an experience watching the film as I did, so that the ideas and plot threads Johnson sets in motion can play out. There is a LOT of story here, though, so I can try to stick to some basics: Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds herself training with Luke (Mark Hamill); Leia, Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega) and what’s left of the Resistance have considerable odds to face as the First Order corners them; and Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo, played by Adam Driver) is face-to-face with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) while jockeying for favor with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). That gives you the basics; I’ll let Johnson’s dense, entertaining screenplay take it from there.

Whatever answers you are expecting from “The Last Jedi,” you probably won’t get what you expected. Whatever character dynamics you thought might play out during the film’s 152 minutes, I’m pretty sure you won’t see them here. Johnson is not just looking to entertain fans of the franchise, but to help push it beyond the formula we’ve come to expect from it. Watching “The Last Jedi” unfold, you understand innately why he has been given the keys to the castle for a new trilogy of films, and you understand that when Lawrence Kasden said Johnson’s script was “weird,” he wasn’t kidding. Weird is one way of putting it, but only in the context of what has come before, and how it plays off of what we understand as a “Star Wars” film. This begins with his staging of an early space battle between the Resistance and the First Order that is organized by Poe. We see a lot of conventional moments play out, but the way Johnson composes the shots and shoots the inserts of the pilots gives the sequence an energy and up-close feel that no other space battle in the “Star Wars” universe has had. This is something Johnson does throughout the film, as his way of constructing sequences always goes against type for the franchise rather than right to what we think is going to happen. I am tempted to say that the way JJ Abrams (who will be directing “Episode IX”) told the story of “The Force Awakens” looks worse when put next to “The Last Jedi,” but it’s just a different approach to this type of serialized story, and not a bad one, either. In a way, Abrams had to play it safe with “Force Awakens”; I don’t expect him to do so with “Episode IX,” especially given how Johnson sets things up here.

One of the most compelling ideas I had after “Force Awakens” was how we would witness the parallel trainings of Rey with Luke and Kylo Ren with Snoke, which seemed like a possibility given how those stories were left. Johnson knows better than me what would make a great payoff of this idea, because what he has these characters doing is some of the most delightful writing for a “Star Wars” story involving Jedi and Sith since the “Clone Wars” TV series. Our primary focus is on Rey and Luke, but the way he brings Kylo Ren and Snoke into that thread is brilliant and expands the notion of The Force deeper than we’ve seen since that bonkers Mortis arc on the “Clone Wars” series. One question the trailers have teased us with is Luke and his place as teacher and master. Would we finally be introduced to the idea of “Grey” Jedi formally? Would he be evil? Would Rey turn evil? Hamill was right to question the material Johnson gave him, but he also trusted it, and the result is the old Luke performance I think everyone has hoped to see from Hamill since, I don’t know, 1983. As much as I see echoes of Luke’s training with Yoda in the Luke/Rey scenes, this is also something different. Luke understands the failure of the Jedi to maintain balance better than Yoda and Obi-Wan ever did, and that makes his scenes with Rey particularly compelling to watch, especially when we’re guessing how Luke will handle this along with Rey. But as Luke has greater understanding of the thorny morality of the Jedi and their ideas of “balance,” Rey comes to understand Luke in a way he needs someone to understand him on, and convey to him. Hamill and Ridley do terrific work together here, and to say it exceeds my expectations of what I thought Johnson might deliver is an understatement. In a way, this was the dynamic I hoped we’d get for the past two years; in another way, it really doesn’t go where you think it will go, and if you aren’t delighted by how Hamill relishes this material, I can’t help you.

There’s so much more to say about this film, but I don’t want to give anything away. I love Boyega, Isaac and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, and what they have going on in the story. I enjoy Laura Dern as a Resistance leader who is not playing the same game she seems. I love Chewbacca and the Porgs. The “bureaucracy of evil,” as Drew McWeeney likes to call it, in Kylo Ren, Hux and Snoke is a nice extension of what we saw in “Rogue One” last year with different characters. The droids in the film all have their moments, but I’m sorry, R2-D2 feels painfully underused, though C-3PO and BB-8 still entertain. And there’s a return by an original trilogy character that gives some needed perspective. Technically, we get another “so good it looks easy” effort by all of Johnson’s production team, and a score by John Williams that continues to hit all the right notes.

I’d like to close this review with how I started it, and discuss Carrie Fisher and General Leia. I feel like Johnson gave her this big love letter of a role to play here, and it reminds me of what Harrison Ford was given in “Force Awakens” as Han Solo, and what Hamill is given here as Luke. This isn’t just about inserting characters we’ve loved for 40 years for fan service, but giving these actors a chance to stretch these characters beyond the legends we turned them into, and making them better. Han Solo was still Han Solo, but he was wiser and changed after becoming a father, and having to cope with tragedy. Here, we see that Luke bought into the same hero worship Rey did, and how his failure to live up to it (in his eyes) shook his belief in a larger world. Leia, meanwhile, stayed the same, in a lot of ways- as the beacon of hope that the galaxy could rally around wrapped within the mind of a military leader. Johnson gives her more, though, and my two favorite scenes of her shows us a side of the character that was hinted at in “Return of the Jedi,” but only comes into focus now. I’m tearing up again just thinking about it, such is the power of Rian Johnson’s epic entry in this beloved saga.

Here are some spoiler-heavy thoughts on Luke’s arc in the film I wrote on Christmas Eve on Facebook:

Merry Christmas Eve, everyone!

Who’s ready for some spoiler-y “Star Wars” talk? And it’s gonna get spoiler-heavy.

Let’s talk about Luke Skywalker in “The Last Jedi.”

I only watched three things pertaining to “The Last Jedi” prior to its release- the two trailers, and the panel they did on the film at Star Wars Celebration when I went in April. In that last one, Mark Hamill had a quote that immediately intrigued me about how Rey would find Luke in “The Last Jedi.” I don’t remember the exact words, but it had to do about how our heroes are not always how we expect them to be. That’s actually a motif in the film that extends to the Rose-Finn storyline, as well, and it’s an important piece of why “The Last Jedi” works for me, and why I love Luke in this film.

I love that Hamill has come out and said that he was uneasy and didn’t like Rian Johnson’s characterization of Luke in the script, and didn’t recognize him as the same character. I love it, because it shows a tremendous leap of faith for an actor to make when continuing a story arc that began was he was a kid just starting out in Hollywood. Hamill’s performance in the original trilogy is not great work from an acting standpoint, but it works because he’s given great material that fits to his strengths, hides his weaknesses, and marries actor and character perfectly. Hamill is much better as a performer now, capable of more natural shading of a character than the optimistic Luke of the OT. Johnson is writing to that, to the playful, sarcastic side of Hamill that came out when he voiced The Joker, and it took guts for Hamill to follow him down that path. Johnson realized that Luke could not be the same character he was at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” and, using the crumbs JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasden laid down in “The Force Awakens,” wrote how he would, as a fan and filmmaker, imagine Luke in isolation, looking to just fade away after making similar mistakes with his most gifted apprentice (Ben Solo) to Obi-Wan and the Jedi Order with Anakin Skywalker. Obi-Wan and the Order distrusted Anakin, and, in a moment of weakness, Luke distrusted Ben. Both times, the apprentice lays waste to the work of the master, and turns to the teaching of another (Palpatine for Anakin, Snoke for Ben) to nurture their power. This is where Luke makes a left turn from Obi-Wan and Yoda, however; he not only embraces solitude, content to live out his days, without a care for what is happening in the Galaxy, he also recognizes the hubris of the Jedi Order to control the natural balance of light and dark in the universe. He recognizes it, and wants no part of training others that way after he sees his own attempt to blow up in his face. This is why he tosses his lightsaber when Rey gives it to him, and why he wants nothing to do with training her at the beginning of the film. It takes R2-D2 showing him that hologram of Leia from “A New Hope” to get him to understand why he must train Rey. That scene is a powerful bit of nostalgia, but the reason it works beyond that is because it’s R2 laying down some truth on Luke, that, when he first saw that hologram, it led him to become who he was going to be, and who he is now. Rey is Leia’s new call for help. Like she did then, she needs your help now. And so, thus begins the training, and I’m sorry, Luke’s reaction when Rey literally reaches out when he tells her to had me cackling every time I saw it opening week. Luke won’t suffer fools or dreamers, much like Yoda did in “Empire Strikes Back.”

During the training, we get a sense of not only who Rey is but of why Luke ran away, far away, from Leia and the Galaxy, and honestly, I get it, and through Hamill’s performance, I believe it. The idea that he could cut himself off from not just his friends, but the Force itself, is fascinating, and something I always have been intrigued about when it comes to another one of my favorite “Star Wars” characters, Ahsoka Tano, and it’s something I would explore with her after she left the Jedi Order in the “Clone Wars” TV series. That Luke Skywalker, the standard-bearer of a generation’s heroic characters, could do that says a lot about how broken he was after betraying Ben, after Ben’s betrayal of him, and why he left. We understand his reluctance about Rey, and why he’s more cautious this time around. And then, when he decides to lay waste to the Jedi texts, Yoda comes forth, and I think this may be my favorite scene in the saga (or at least Top 3). Yoda has one more lesson for Luke, and it’s that failure is part of learning, that mistakes are a part of life, and how we deal with the aftermath of them is an important lesson to learn. This is a fundamental principle of “Star Wars,” and we’ve seen it play out in every step of the way, from “New Hope” to the prequels to the TV shows to now. To have it articulated at this moment is important because it shows that Luke still has some learning to do.

I will admit, when Luke walked in at the end, I was not sure what to expect. We got a devastating scene between Luke and Leia that works not only as a goodbye between the characters, but between Mark and Carrie Fisher, and it was where my tears turned to rivers. And then, he goes, alone, to face the First Order’s army, and immediately, I thought that we might see Luke perform some major Force manipulation and bring down their walkers. As cool as that would have been, what we get is cooler, because we discover some truly hard-core use of the Force is in play…at the service of a sacrifice a brother makes for his sister, so that HER legacy (the Resistance) will endure. His gambit not only succeeds, but drains him of what life was left in him. Like Obi-Wan’s sacrifice in “A New Hope,” Luke’s is for a cause bigger than himself, and stands as an inspiration for the galaxy as the battle rages on.

The Skywalker saga has always relied on circular storytelling techniques, about things that happened before being reflected in new events. It’s a technique in fiction that is bound to come into play after eight times telling the same character’s stories, and it’s part of why criticisms of the echoes and callbacks in “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” don’t carry a lot of weight with me, and why Johnson’s breaking of the mold feels not just exciting, but exactly what needs to happen. Luke’s story in “The Last Jedi” is of a piece with that, and is why this movie was so great for me, as a fan. Never too late for an old dog to learn new tricks.

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