Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

lj1It’s hard to believe: Star Wars has been a part of American mythology for more than forty years. Each movie in the series, from 1977’s A New Hope to 2017’s The Last Jedi, succeeds or fails on how well it holds up against the established Star Wars mythology. Each new “episode” becomes a part of that mythology, but does it improve upon or weaken the mythology? For better or worse, this is the measure by which one must judge each new movie, especially in this era where Star Wars is owned by Disney, the largest and most powerful media concern in the world.

Therefore, Star Wars movies succeed or fail based on how well they continue the Star Wars mythology. How well does the story hold up? Does it function within the parameters set by George Lucas, or does it do something totally out of the ordinary?

Last Jedi does a little of both. It works within the confines of the universe galaxy George Lucas established, but it also takes the story in new directions and offers a twist or two. Defying expectations is never a bad thing.

Here’s the good news: The Last Jedi is a worthy successor to the original trilogy. It’s deeper and more involving than The Force Awakens, and it sends the characters (old and new) in interesting directions. Its sword fights are big and showy, without overstaying their welcome or looking like video game cut scenes (see any of the Star Wars prequels).

The Last Jedi is better than 2015’s The Force Awakens. If it’s not quite as creative, original or revelatory as 2016’s one-off Rogue One, that’s to be expected of a movie that’s the eighth “episode” in an ongoing series.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

The bad news: Strange things happen. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, returning to the role he originated in 1977) dies because he overextended(?) himself in a Force hologram/astral-projection kind of thing. Sure, he’s old and cynical, and a hermit, and yes, the character had to go at some point. But wouldn’t it have been better to see him go out in the blaze of glory (or lightsabers) — rather than wither away on some rock in a faraway place? Skywalker now becomes a Force ghost, joining Yoda and Obi-Wan. (How come we never see Palpatine as a Force ghost? Or General Grievous? Or… I dunno, Count Dooku? Do only the good guys get to become Force ghosts?)

And Snoke, the new Emperor, dies too. Where did he come from? How did he assume power? Is he connected to the Skywalkers?

At least those Internet rumors speaking of Rey being Palpatine’s granddaughter didn’t turn out to be true — but, never say never: 2019’s Episode IX could rewrite the story, and perhaps invalidate Kylo’s claims that Rey came from ordinary parents.

We begin to understand how different characters have different signature Jedi skills, which is fascinating. Rey is clearly a great sword fighter, and she can really move rocks. Snoke has some kind of ability to levitate people and move them around. And Leia has Superman powers, to keep herself alive in outer space.

Sometimes I wish death in Star Wars was final — the use of “force ghosts” as a plot device to resurrect old/dead characters (Yoda, etc.) is getting tiresome.

End of spoilers.

By this point in time, we’re two installments into the corporate overlords’ three-film arc, and we can see where Disney is taking the franchise. They’re playing it safe, at least with these “episode” entries. For the most part, nothing happens to a character that can’t be undone by the time the credits roll. Some characters die, but of course those characters probably weren’t that important in the first place (or they were holding other characters, like Junior Darth Vader-in-training Kylo Ren, back).

So what else did I like about The Last Jedi? It kept me awake for 2.5 hours. It’s the longest Star Wars movie, but it doesn’t feel like it. Paraphrasing Roger Ebert: A movie is good when you 1) don’t want it to end; and 2) when it does end, it seemed too short.

Last Jedi showcases some very good acting from Hamill and (the late) Carrie Fisher — these are two of the best performances in their long careers. The returning, younger characters, like Kylo Ren and Rey, a Jedi-in-training who was the protagonist of The Force Awakens, are fleshed out and have plausible, personal ticks that make them seem less like cardboard cut outs.

The music, the eighth Star Wars score by John “85 years young” Williams, is a standout, and contains a distint cue from each of the preceding seven Star Wars “episode” movies (perhaps to memorialize the series’ fortieth anniversary).

BB-8, this trilogy’s R2-D2, steals the show: he devises a solution to everything and, most of the time, can out-think and out-perform the humans.

Some critics have complained that The Last Jedi doesn’t take these beloved characters in the directions (these critics) think they should go. Humbug. Let the filmmakers do what they want. The audience can still write its fanfic and do whatever it wants.

I applaud Rian Johnson, the new writer-director, for not copying scenes and setups out of the older movies, in the way certain Star Wars TV shows (ahem, Rebels) have been known to do. Mr. Johnson is a capable director, a better-than-average writer, and he brings an auteur sensibility to his work. (And unlike The Force Awakens, there are no Rathtars or stupid, pointless time-wasting, filler scenes.)

It will be interesting to see where 2019’s Episode IX takes the story and these characters. Will Rey become a Jedi knight? Will Kylo Ren finally become a legitimate neo-Vader? The filmmakers have done a great job of cleansing the palate of the forgettable prequels*, and giving the old characters their due. The Last Jedi strikes back in compellingly original directions and takes chances. I’m looking forward to discovering where Star Wars goes from here.

My rating: starstarstarhalf-star out of starstarstarstar

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*Revenge of the Sith excepted, of course.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

This review does not spoil elements of the plot.

You know those old movies that Roger Ebert (the late film critic) would famously freeze-frame and analyze in minute detail, scene by scene? Rogue One is that kind of movie: almost every single scene, every cut, pan and swoop of the camera offers a moment that you want to stop and regard, take in and absorb to the extent possible. Here, finally, is a cineaste’s Star Wars.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story might have an unwieldy title, but it accomplishes something that no Star Wars movie since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back has managed: a sense of wonder, and a feeling of grand, high adventure. Rogue One is, pound for pound, the very best Star Wars movie since Empire, and together with 1977’s A New Hope it represents a knock-’em-dead blowout of soaring outer-space adventure/fantasy and operatic spectacle.

Another accomplishment is a palpable sense of consequence. You could argue that the Star Wars prequels blew this, and Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Force Awakens (2015) come close but no cigar. The story and characters’ actions and motivations in Rogue One have genuine consequence–important things happen that will affect the outcome of Star Wars stories yet to be told.

Rogue One firmly occupies the “used future” ethos of the original Star Wars trilogy. The shiny digital sheen that pervades the prequels is gone, replaced by a world that feels lived in.

Another fascinating element of Rogue One is the idea that it brings us into the world of the Galactic Empire. The movie works almost as an “day in the life of…” documentary, especially in the opening scenes set on the moon of Jedha.

That Rogue One ends in yet another big, epic space battle is to be expected: every Star Wars movie, excepting Empire Strikes Back, ends with a Big Space Battle, but the one in Rogue One is particularly well executed, and man, do those Mon Calamaris make good leaders.

Rogue One settles a question that might have been on the mind of fans of the original Star Wars trilogy: what is it like to be Darth Vader? Yes, he’s evil and all that, but what does a Sith Lord do when his minions are controlling the actual day-in, day-out activities of the Galactic Empire? Rogue One answers these questions and more.

Remember “the Force“? In the original trilogy it was a quasi-religion that functioned to drive the story forward without feeling like a plot device. In the prequels, George Lucas decided, regrettably, to de-mystify the Force by introducing the unfortunate element of “midichlorians”. Rogue One matter-of-factly jettisons any talk of midichlorians and goes back to the basics: the Force is, once again, a quasi-religion, without any stupid technobabble and overt, extraneous, unnecessary explanations.

Director Gareth Edwards delivers a sorely underrated job of taking what could have been a by-the-numbers generic exercise (see Star Trek Beyond) and making it one of the best movies in all of sci-fi geekdom. My hat’s off to Mr. Edwards. Seriously.

The Star Wars movies have that odd (but frustrating) quality of being hit-or-miss. 2015’s Force Awakens irritatingly falls somewhere in the middle of the good versus bad (quality-wise) argument. I can really pay Rogue One no higher a compliment than to say that it has the courage of its convictions and sees them out to the bitter end: it goes there, does what it needs to do, and gets the hell out of the way.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

(…and my thoughts on the Star Wars saga films in general…)

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So I’ve now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens four times. The movie gets a little better each time I watch it. When I first saw it, on opening weekend last December, I kinda-sorta liked it, kinda-sorta didn’t like it: It was well-made, certainly, but too derivative, with its plot copying, beat-for-beat, elements of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Second time around was in a super-crowded movie theater, several weeks after release night, at one of those late-night screenings that bring out the soccer moms (sans kids) who couldn’t make time during the day, and fans dressed in Jedi robes and fake laser swords, picking up the movie for the 11th time. This time I liked Force Awakens more, but not enough to recommend it, generally, to anyone.

Finally, my third time with the movie made me start to appreciate it. It involves leaving your brain at the door. If you ignore the elements that, again, are lifted wholesale from the original trilogy (especially the original 1977 Star Wars movie, A New Hope), and just appreciate Force Awakens on its own merits (which requires one to actively forget that it’s really just a glossy remake of A New Hope), it plays a lot better. It is on that level that I can finally recommend it.

My fourth time watching the movie involved the home-video version (on Blu-ray); this time I could stop and replay certain scenes–and it’s obvious a lot of care was put in to the script to explain why so many battles in the film take place at very low altitude levels, and other things that nagged at me my first three times through it.

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All things considered, Force Awakens probably falls in the middle, somewhere, quality-wise, of all seven yet-released Star Wars “episode” movies. I rank A New Hope as the best: it was the first, is still the freshest, and tells a self-contained story. Empire Strikes Back is a very close second; it’s so good that sometimes I think of A New Hope and Empire as one long, great, sprawling, sci-fi/fantasy/space opera epic.

This is where Force Awakens comes in. For my money, FA can duel it out with Revenge of the Sith for third best in the series. Sith is the best of the prequels and it has its moments, especially in the second half of the film when things really get going.

The final three movies in the series (Return of the Jedi, Phantom Menace and the most forgettable, Attack of the Clones) all exist in middling levels of mediocrity: Jedi has some compelling material toward the end when Luke Skywalker duels Darth Vader and contemplates joining the Dark Side. Phantom Menace has Darth Maul, which somehow makes it not as bad of a movie as you remember. Attack of the Clones: does anyone even remember that one?

So here I will end my half-baked semi re-review of Force Awakens. It has improved with time, ranks somewhere in the upper half of the seven yet-released live action Star Wars “episode” films, and plays better each time I see it. Now, if Rian Johnson can cobble together something more creative and original in the forthcoming Episode VIII

My rating for each movie:

A New Hope: four lightsabers out of four.

Empire Strikes Back: four lightsabers out of four.

Revenge of the Sith: 3.5 lightsabers out of four.

Force Awakens: 3 lightsabers out of four.

Return of the Jedi: 2 lightsabers out of four.

Phantom Menace: 2 lightsabers out of four.

Attack of the Clones: 1.5 lightsabers out of four.