Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

5 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, let’s get this over with. I know a lot of “Star Wars” fans are hurling backlash like crazy (though, to be fair, some of them are lowering their weapons again after seeing this film a second time), and I’m going to try and address it while also giving my interpretation as to why it’s happened.

“The Last Jedi” is Episode VIII in the (mostly-) beloved “Star Wars” franchise. Released two years after Episode VII (“The Force Awakens”), audiences were concerned that it would be a pale copy of “The Empire Strikes Back,” seeing as how “The Force Awakens” was seen as a pale copy of “A New Hope.” What they saw instead was something new with characters introduced in the previous film with only a few flashes of “The Empire Strikes Back” (and “Return of the Jedi” as well) in a story that offers hardly any easy answers to difficult conflict while also giving us a wild thrill ride. And that, in my opinion, is exactly what “Star Wars” sequels need to be…despite countless “Star Wars” fans complaining that “The Last Jedi” went past the norm even though they were previously complaining that it was too in the norm before with “The Force Awakens.”

(By the way, this is what happens when audiences put too many expectations in their highly anticipated movies: they almost become predetermined to dislike them.)

It’s time to be more open-minded to new ideas and new movies, because let’s face it, we’re not going to get the movies we love again because we already have them. “Star Wars” (“A New Hope,” that is; I never call it that regularly though) and “The Empire Strikes Back” are two of my favorite movies, and I can watch them whenever I want. What I need are more “Star Wars” movies that will entertain and challenge me, like “The Last Jedi” did. Maybe Episode IX will satisfy the naysayers, since I’m not sure anyone could guess where it’s going to go. (And trust me, I’m not going to try.)

OK, enough of that. Let’s get to reviewing “The Last Jedi.”

“The Last Jedi” gives us what we expect to see in a “Star Wars” movie—thrilling space battles, tense showdowns between blaster and lightsaber, imposing villains, brave heroes, and even a little drama to be found in connection to the light and the dark sides of that ever strangely fascinating entity known as The Force. But there’s something more to element of the “internal struggle” that is not only satisfying but also compelling and deep. How often in modern action movies do I feel so strongly for what the heroes and the villain are feeling deep within themselves that they can’t fully communicate to others? When humanity and the pursuit of victory and/or answers to inner desires are at war with each other constantly, what comes next in the name of survival?

This question comes through in the characters of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey is a rebellious would-be fighter against the sinister First Order, which Kylo Ren partially commands. The Force connects them somehow, for some reason, and even though Rey is already determined to see Kylo as her enemy, it turns out things aren’t as simple as that. Just as things didn’t appear to be so black-and-white in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Rey learns that Kylo Ren still has his humanity, even if it’s shrouded by anger, resentment, and vengeance that is constantly overtaking him.

These characters become more fascinating to me the more I know about them, as does the character of Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper who defected and ran to join the rebels in the war. Even when escape is on his mind to evade battle, he still stays to defend his allies, whom he now calls his friends. Finn was already an interesting character when we realized a Stormtrooper could no longer be a faceless assassin; now we get to see him grow as a person.

I mentioned in my review of “The Force Awakens” that I liked the character of dashing hero Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) but also wished he could’ve been utilized more. I knew that in the follow-up, he would get more screen-time, which could be open for more opportunities for development. And I was right in ways I didn’t expect. In “The Last Jedi,” he’s an anxious brave who wants to shoot first and ask questions later. When it seems that the methods of his superiors aren’t giving direct results, he sets out to prove that his ways are more effective. And in the end, he learns that being stealthy is going to help win the day instead of loud, conspicuous heroics. That’s such a refreshing arc for this type of character; it would’ve been too easy for him to prove that his ways are the right ways, but instead, he’s proven otherwise.

And yes, let’s get to the more familiar characters we know from the previous “Star Wars” films. General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) is trying to figure out the best way to survive another day without rushing into a new attack mission and risking more lives, as she knows from the past only makes things worse. Something happens to her midway through the film that a lot of fans have spewed negative emotions about, but honestly…I didn’t mind it so much. It involves The Force, to which her connection to it has already been established, and I was open to the possibility of her using it to her advantage. That’s all I’ll say about it, for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. And then there’s Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), finally back in the story after so many years of exile. Rey seeks to be taught the Jedi way and sees him as her best hope. But it’s not as simple as, say, Yoda teaching Luke the ways of The Force long ago. Luke feels that the Jedi religion needs to come to an end due to numerous major mistakes made in the past by himself and other Jedi Knights (you can look back to the prequels for their biggest errors of judgment). His development leads to yet another internal conflict that leaves much for the viewers to take in (that is, when they want to).

I’m being very vague about the story and other details involving characters. Even though most readers have seen “The Last Jedi” by now, I’ll be kind for those who still haven’t and tell you that I think it’s worth watching as long as you open your mind up to new ideas. If you can’t do that, you’re especially going to be confused rather than delighted at the new developments in The Force and the abilities one can do when in full control of it…

Come on, guys. Who are we to decide what The Force can make “Star Wars” characters do anyway?

Also, I have to add—this movie is also very funny. Thankfully, Rian Johnson follows J.J. Abrams’ lead from “The Force Awakens” in allowing the audience to breathe and take in a few good laughs here and there. (Luke’s initial reaction upon seeing Rey for the first time is a definite highlight. We waited two years in between films for that?)

If I have a problem with the movie, it’s that it seems like a solid hour-and-a-half-long movie trying to pad itself out with some filler, particularly with Finn and a new ally, a spunky, warm fan-girl type named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) as they embark on their own side-journey while the more interesting stuff is happening with Rey, Luke, Poe, and Kylo Ren. But even that, I don’t mind that much, because it is interesting to see more of this universe (even if the social commentary they come across in their travels is a little too on-the-nose).

Oh, and there’s also the Porgs, the new creatures obviously here to sell more toys… Whatever, they’re there.

I won’t even complain about the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who’s just some jerk in control of everything. Remember, we thought the Emperor in “Return of the Jedi” was “just some jerk in control of everything” before we saw him fleshed out more in the prequels. Maybe Episode IX will at least give us some answer as to who he was.

There are a lot of surprises to be found in “The Last Jedi,” and I admire writer/director Rian Johnson for the ability to entertain us while also treat us like we can take a little complexity here or there. And I’m glad to hear that some naysayers are changing their minds about this movie after seeing it again and thinking more about the possibilities it opened up. Here’s hoping more of them will learn to lighten up and find better reasons for hating a movie.

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