Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
The plot: After a costly battle against the First Order, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) tries to evacuate the Resistance fighters and get some distance between them and the First Order ships. In order to get away, former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and Resistance maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) have to go to a nearby planet to find someone capable of getting past a Star Destroyer's defences. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to teach her the ways of the Force. However, it seems that Luke’s past still haunts him and there’s only one thing he wants done in regards to the Jedi: He wants them to end.

Man, it is glorious to see Hamill in this film. Along with immediately giving the air that he is a true master with the history and knowledge to prove it, he also balances out the severe regret of his character with some pretty solid quips and even one-liners. I honestly think that this is the best iteration of Luke Skywalker we have yet gotten on-screen, fully realized and made of awesome. Fisher, in her last film role, likewise exudes authority but is also level-headed and makes her mark as General Organa, not Princess Organa, a leader determined to see the Resistance carry on. Ridley, Boyega, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron and even Adam Driver as Kylo Ren all seem to be growing more comfortable with their characters, resulting in solid performances and a definite sense of progression to their respective arcs. Andy Serkis is still chilling as Supreme Leader Snoke, Domhnall Gleeson is still petulant and now turning into a source of comic relief as General Hux, and Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma is still wasted. Business as usual all-round then.

Now for the new faces. I will try to avoid direct spoilers here but these are actors that need to be highlighted so I make no promises. Veronica NgĂ´ as a Resistance bomber pilot… wow. This is easily the most powerful performance of the entire film, even managing to surpass Hamill at his absolute peak. With just a few gestures and facial expressions, and not a whole lot of dialogue to her name, she embodies such a crucial aspect of the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order that even I, the guy who really doesn’t get the hype surrounding this franchise, for a brief moment got it. That’s a hell of an accomplishment and she deserves all the props possible for it. Tran as Rose makes for a very welcome presence, establishing rapport with Boyega so quickly as to make every single conversation they share a joy to witness. Laura Dern as a Vice Admiral for the Resistance works best in her scenes opposite Carrie Fisher, and is otherwise kind of annoying to sit through, and… argh! I seriously want to get into some of the other faces that show up here, but since everyone is so pragmatic about spoilers with this thing, I’ll leave off for now. Let’s just say that it’s good hearing a certain character showing up here, in a body that will help scrub some potentially annoying memories away for the older fans.

As easy as it is to draw parallels between the stories utilized here and the stories that have already been used in the franchise’s past (which for a franchise that started out on the most derivative foot possible is just an unfortunate side effect), that would detract from how well the separate plot threads work, both on their own and when bound together. The main overarching story, that being the efforts of Leia and the Resistance to fend off the First Order, does quite well at delving more into the War side of Star Wars, highlighting the painful, difficult and even passive decisions that have to be made so that people will survive. Isaac’s Poe Dameron really comes into his own with this, wielding the character’s hotheadedness opposite Leia’s weathered experience to show the opposing forces (heh) of action, reaction and inaction and how they all play a part in military tactics. The more minor of the main plots is that of Finn and Rose heading down to the planet where they find the new “wretched hive of scum and villainy”. Aside from being bolstered by Boyega and Tran’s banter on-screen, and the increasingly badass presence of BB-8, it also shows how the ideas of being ‘the resistance’ has changed a fair bit from how it was back when the original first came out. That had the bottom-feeders, the mercenaries and the opportunists as that embodiment; now, it’s the ruling class, the funders and the suppliers of war.

The third thread of the story, and arguably the most important, is Rey’s training under Master Skywalker… and it’s here where some of that potential I saw in Rogue One starts to come into fruition. As I explained when I looked at that film, the whole Jedi/Sith dichotomy that the series revolves may be a good representation of the fight between Good and Evil, but it’s also incredibly simplified and more than a little screwy the more you delve into it. Well, it seems that I’m not the only one who feels that way. As we hear Luke discuss the history of the Jedi, specifically how they fell during the Prequel Trilogy, we also see how Luke doesn’t have any faith left in the old ways. Like any religion (and Jedi is officially named as such in the film), its traditions and stances can’t be kept the same forever. Nor should they. Adhering strictly to the original rules, rules written long before what is considered to be the current state of civilization existed, is what gives rise to fundamentalists. Through this, the film delves into areas of morality and whether the galaxy far, far away is simple enough to work under that same dichotomy. This stretches out into the rest of the film as well, showing our heroes butting heads with each other because even those we are supposed to be looking up to get things wrong.

But that’s just what’s going on in-universe; for the franchise as a whole, this means something even greater. As I said before, comparing this directly to the rest of the series in terms of story is rather easy; it’s all made of familiar parts. However, what this idea ends up creating is an impression that things are about to get different. Or, rather, that things have to get different. Fans the world over still have love for these stories, and while I don’t share in that love, I’m not so much of an asshole as to try and take that away from people. But when a story keeps repeating itself for too long, it will inevitably start to lose its lustre. A fresh perspective is needed, and through this new paradigm concerned with more complex moralities, it seems that that is what we are going to get. Sure, Rogue One laid down the groundwork for this in its own way, but this series has still been in need of its Deep Space Nine moment for quite some time. That moment when the main ideology is questioned, broken down and scattered to the wind, letting the dust fill up the lungs of the new vanguard. Knowing how fickle the fanbase for Star Wars can get whenever anything remotely different goes down (case in point, literally everything about this list), this will likely turn off some people. But if these new films aren’t allowed a chance to try something different, to allow a newer generation to be inspired by these stories and prevent things from stagnating, then why bother making any new films in the first place?

All in all, while this didn’t exactly blow my socks off like it apparently did for many others, I still have the feeling that this new direction for Star Wars is just what the doctor ordered. The acting is still top-notch, with Mark Hamill giving a legendary performance here as the more wizened and broken Luke Skywalker, the visuals continue to benefit from the tangible Abrams aesthetic, and the writing shows more than enough respect for what came before it while also laying down the foundations for the series’ path going forward. It does suffer a bit from middle-part-of-a-trilogy-itis, in that a fair bit of it still feels like build-up without adequate pay-off, but considering this made me genuinely curious about how this particular trilogy will end, it still did what it needed to do in a number of ways.

It ranks higher than Personal Shopper, which honestly had better writing than what is found here but it also felt like it wasted a good amount of its own potential. This film managed to exceed whatever expectations I had going into it, a mammoth task considering my lukewarm reception of the series as a whole. However… oh dear. This next comparison is likely going to get me assassinated for daring to make it public, but with how this year’s list is set up, this is just where it landed. This falls short of The Boss Baby, which engaged me a fair bit more and isn’t attached to a collection of stories that I actively have to make an effort in order to be interested in them.

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