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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

No spoilers here, folks. The only plot details I've revealed are those that are contained in the opening crawl. That doesn't stop this from being quite a long review, weirdly enough - but don't worry, another Justice League screed this isn't. It's just as geeky, to be sure, but in a much, much, more positive way.

This review is also up on Channel 24 if you prefer to check it out there.

What it's about

Picking up immediately where The Force Awakens left off, Rey tries to enlist Luke Skywalker to train her in the way of the Force and to return to his sister's side in the fight against the First Order. Meanwhile, with the New Republic annihilated, the rest of the resistance fight for their life against overwhelming odds as the First Order bears down on what remains of their forces.

What we thought

J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars saga, drew equal parts admiration and disdain for its reverent, back-to-basics approach. Those who love The Force Awakens – including yours truly – saw it as a much needed soft-reboot of the Star Wars universe that brought the series back to its “Space Western” origins that had largely been neglected, if not outright annihilated by George Lucas' widely disdained prequel trilogy.

Those who were rather less impressed with Abrams' efforts, complained about how it stuck far too closely to the story and structure of the original Star Wars movie; failing to bring anything new to the seemingly endless potential of the Star Wars Universe. They had a point, to be sure, but with the Last Jedi, the film's defenders have just been proven right in their assertion that the Force Awakens was an absolutely necessary – not to mention highly entertaining and affecting – palate cleanser to give the new trilogy a fresh start, while still being very much a continuation of what came before.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi takes all the good work that Abrams did with Episode VII and builds on it to create what might just be the most pulse-poundingly thrilling and endlessly surprising Star Wars movie to date. I need another dozen or so viewing to say for sure but it might, just might, in fact be the best Star Wars movie, period. Don't hold me to that, though – I did love the Phantom Menace when it first came out, after all – but this is really, quite genuinely something special.

The Last Jedi's writer and director, Rian Johnson, has built a career out of doing new and surprising things with well-established genre conventions on films like Brick and Looper and he brings exactly that subversiveness to what is, essentially, the Empire Strikes Back – but not, crucially, the Attack of the Clones - of this current trilogy. It definitely tips its hat to Empire, but damn near every single time you expect the Last Jedi to follow familiar trajectories, it does the precise opposite and just as you're getting used to the film's bold new direction, it swerves again, and then again; leaving you even more discombobulated than you were before. And it does this constantly throughout its lengthy-but-I-could-have-sat-through-it-twice 152-minute running time.

What this adds up to is a Star Wars movie that feels distinctly Star Wars – albeit with a bit less aping of Lucas' direction than its predecessor – but one where you have no earthly idea what's going to happen next. By the time the film reaches the end of, roughly, its first act, you quickly realize that the film could go absolutely anywhere. No one is guaranteed to get out of this thing alive and no allegiance can be taken for granted.

Along with all the other many, many things that the film gets right, that it managed to have me - a long-time Star Wars fanboy of the geekiest order who knows more than a thing or two about how these things are supposed to work - on the edge of my seat, breathless with anticipation and worry for these wonderful characters, is one hell of a feat. That it managed to do this even as I laughed, grinned maniacally and did all that I could to stop myself from doing an impression of Roger Daltrey at the climax of Won't Get Fooled Again (“yeeeeeeeeeeeah”, for those of you poor souls who aren't fans of the Who), while holding back some very-well earned tears, is damn near miraculous.

However sublime the plotting of the film is; however (mostly) great its special effects are and however much this has some of the very best, most thrilling action set pieces in a Star Wars film yet, what really sets the Last Jedi apart and makes it stand head to head with pretty much any film released this year is the beautiful work it does with its extensive cast of characters; each brought to life by a group of very talented actors at the top of their game.

I've read a couple of reviews citing a lack of characters arcs for anyone but Luke Skywalker and I can only assume that whoever wrote those left the movie after twenty minutes. The untimely death of Carrie Fisher has never hit harder than after seeing her final, beautiful performance as the character with whom she was always associated and anyone who thinks that Mark Hamill isn't a great actor after this his sublime work here is, pretty much, nothing short of an idiot but however much Johnson makes sure that Luke and Leia are given more than their due (must...resist...spoilers), the film ultimately really is about the new generation.

Rey, Finn and Kylo Renn are all taken to some interesting new places and are made all the more compelling in the process, while the actors portraying them have all upped their game from the already high standards of Episode VII. Newcomer Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico is a total delight (think a more mature Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim) and Benicio del Toro is clearly having the time of his life here. We also get Laura Dern at her loveliest in her small but crucial role (which couldn't be further removed from her hilariously but tragically acerbic turn in Twin Peaks) and Domnhall Gleason is, once again, way more fun than he has any right to be as what is basically, when you get right down to it, a Nazi commandant. And, for all of you who rightfully thought that the always great Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron was a bit underused in the Force Awakens, prepare to be very, very happy indeed. And that's only about half the cast...

The film does falter slightly when the CGI threatens to take over in a fairly short sequence that's a bit too close to the excesses of the prequels for comfort but it's a small blip in an otherwise faultless Star Wars movie. There may be “better” films to have been released this year but absolutely none hit me quite like this. If the Force Awakens re-awakened my inner, ten-year-old Star Wars geek, The Last Jedi just blew his freaking mind!

I was thinking of taking off a star for its one or two weaker points but what the hell...


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