The original “Star Wars” trilogy used story and character archetypes to create the perfect universal ‘hero’s journey.’ “The Empire Strikes Back” challenged our conceptions of those archetypes that had attained mythical status with the film’s defining moment. The revelation that Darth Vader, the embodiment of evil was in fact Luke Skywalker’s father torpedoed the mythical and focused an entire galaxy far, far away on the arc of an important family. It’s Shakespearian, operatic and yet it’s elemental. “The Force Awakens” created a portal back to these characters (circumventing George Lucas’ ambitious and boneheaded prequels), like the audience, who had grown up hearing about and propagating the myths of the original trilogy. J.J Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan found a way to synthesise everything that had come before into a greatest hits “Star Wars” movie that created a portal to the old canon that was occupied by a dynamic fresh cast of characters. In a beautiful review of “The Last Jedi” by Walter Chaw he so eloquently sums up that writer/director Rian Johnson had been handed “the reins to the most revered American mythology.” Johnson inherits old myths and new players and does something beautiful; he takes a sledge hammer to them.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found “The Last Jedi” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) have been discovered at their secret base and The First Order is ruthlessly retaliating for the destruction of ‘Starkiller Base.’ Rey attempts to bring Luke to the Resistance’s aid and harness her burgeoning force powers. The Resistance - Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) dispatching Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) on a secret mission - must delay a dogged pursuit of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) to survive.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a small story that I promise is relevant to “The Last Jedi.” A few months ago at a dinner with friends, one of the guests was outed as having never seen the original “Star Wars” Trilogy. As always there’s a brief discussion. Phrases like “I don’t like sci-fi” (cool because it’s more like space western) or “I can’t watch old movies” (it’s not old seriously, I may punch you); are bandied about. Somehow I was assigned a task; O.K Blake you’re a Film Critic, how would you try and convince this person to see “Star Wars.” I said something like this. Well my family grew up in a quiet coastal holiday town, an ethnic family in a gleaming white Anglo pocket of Australia. This coastal town in Australia had a daily routine of being evacuated by working adults, choosing to live in what could be considered as a holiday paradise. In actuality it was a choice to sacrifice time with your family to endure a lengthy commute. For a kid it was like a fish bowl, a trap that tortured you to see through to new experiences that you couldn’t reach. ‘Star Wars” captures those feelings so perfectly. Luke Skywalker is the hero we wished we have inside ourselves. When Luke looks to a twin sunset, yearning for the possibility that an individual could make a difference; we do too. It may have felt like a prepared answer, and after watching each of the original trilogy films more than 100 times each, it’s the answer I felt. The response was, “wow, that sounds like a movie I would want to watch.” “The Last Jedi” is the only film since the seminal original films that understands that moment.
However, that yearning to change is a point in time. Live another quarter to half century and that blonde haired farm boy as universal saviour holds true when you understand his time and place in that galaxy far, far away.
Johnson is precisely the right person to take the helm of this “Star Wars” film and an expanding trilogy. Johnson does an incredible job of expanding the mythology, pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the force and having precise intuition about the characters’ impulses to drive them head long into situations where they’ll either sink or remain buoyant.
Daisy Ridley’s Rey is sensational here. There’s such a terrific gusto to her learning journey and there’s something so wonderful about her not being burdened with the same fears as Luke or Anakin in their own journey with the force. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren continues to be a revelation for the series. In this performance we get to delve deeper into the internal conflict of attempting to assume the mantle left by his grandfather Darth Vader; as well as a more intense and volatile rage to power his ascent to mastery and power. Driver is equipped with the instincts to tackle Kylo’s ferocity, his ambivalence and contemplative moments are executed with a beautiful flow.
In the wake of Rey and Kylo’s final confrontation in “The Force Awakens” they are inexplicably connected. In this series, we see that their connection allows them to communicate across the galaxy like they’re talking across the room. These interactions feature some of the best and most sorely missed chemistry in the series since “Empire.”
John Boyega’s Finn is back, recovering from a saber slash to the back and pushing to be reunited with Rey. Boyega has embraced a more assertive and uncompromising Finn this time around. Having the stones to take on Kylo Ren at the conclusion of “The Force Awakens,” continues to inform his nonsense approach. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is an outstanding addition to the Star Wars universe. Recovering from her sister’s sacrifice for the Resistance, Tran plays Rose as the perpetual bridesmaid to her more accomplished sister. Tran plays Rose with a great urgency to make an impact for the cause and lays her life on the line with comedy and warmth.
Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is an utter delight in “The Last Jedi.” From the opening seconds of the movie he’s heard mocking General Hux via intercom to help buy time from the Resistance’s evacuation. Poe’s talent in the cockpit has made him cocksure in the face of the impossible. Isaac is able to imbue the character with charm to show his humility as he’s being groomed by General Leia to be more than be a great pilot.
It’s such a welcome sight to see Mark Hamill back in the saddle as Luke Skywalker. If you want that same old farm boy from Tatooine, or the meditative Jedi calmly pleading with his deeply conflicted father to lean toward the light beaming through his dark soul; you’re not going to be pleased. If you ever wondered what 40 years of mythical status, loneliness and the plague of failure after your nephew and pupil turned to the dark side, you’ll relish this conflicting and sometime dissatisfying image of our galactic hero.
Carrie Fisher is divine as General Leia Organa. As death struck Fisher down, she’s become more powerful and significant than we could have possibly imagined. Every single moment she’s on screen you get a feeling of joy, wrapped in a bristling melancholy; it’s a similar experience when you listen to David Bowie’s final album, “Blackstar.” Apart from the raw emotions that hit you in waves, she delivers a worthy performance leading, guiding and inspiring the next generation of Rebels under her watch. There’s a moment shared between Luke and Leia, which both times I’ve seen the film, resulted in a barrage of tears. It’s poetic, funny and heartfelt.
“The Last Jedi” is not without flaws. Johnson’s tone feels like it takes the opening thirty minutes of the film to gel with the story. The first thirty minutes are like standing atop a snow capped mountain precipice, hearing the creaks beneath your feet. You’re not sure if and when you’re going to ride the avalanche, but you can feel it in your bones that it’s swelling to something that’s going to make your landscape unrecognisable. Beginning the film immediately in the wake of “The Force Awakens” requires a sudden acceleration and it takes a while for the characters and the story to march to Johnson’s drum beat. From the moment that Adam Driver’s nipples appear on screen you’re in freefall.
The Canto Bight sequence of the film is a necessary mad cap departure from the dire situation that the Resistance faces as they’re being pursued by the First Order, and from how Rey is being challenged under the guidance of Master Jedi Luke Skywalker. Canto Bight is a galactic high rollers casino where Finn and Rose discover the gluttonous galactic elites enjoying the spoils of military spending in this permanent state of war. While entire planets are eviscerated, they’re happily swilling space ‘piss’ and gambling.
Director of photography Steve Yedlin is responsible for some of the most luscious photography of the entire series. When First Order supersized A.T.A.T’s or Heavy Assault Walkers are blasting the surface of the Crait – a newly introduced salt planet where the resistance are facing an imminent threat – the blood red of the displaced salt spews like a volcano under fire, or slices deep lacerations in the ground. Crait’s pristine surface is a continuation in this latest trilogy to register trauma. When Finn’s trooper counterpart smeared blood on his pristine white helmet it was an acknowledgment of humanity that had been disguised. Production designer Rick Heinrichs does some of the series’ best Snoke’s throne room in his gargantuan star destroyer ‘Supremacy,’ it is a black glacial floor hovering in a seemingly endless curtain. Blending into the red squall are Snoke’s sensational guards - somewhere between samurai and living sculptures - equipped with some of that laser enhanced weaponry ready to surge at any moment.
The deep supporting ensemble deserves some specific shout outs. Saying Captain Phasma grows in stature in “The Last Jedi” seems counterintuitive when the incredible Gwendoline Christie is donning the chrome; but her limited contribution is something to savour this time around. Domhnall Gleeson’s insipid cur General Hux is back. This is Gleeson’s most theatrical and over emphasised performance, and therefore his weakest. Andy Serkis delivers another great motion capture performance as the Supreme Leader Snoke. The large, distended mutation occupies space in the physical world in a more pronounced way than a lot of digital creations. It’s nice to see Serkis take one step closer to portraying a human on screen in 2017. Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo is such a wonderful addition to the cast; a General Leia protégé intent to temper the impulsive ‘flyboy’ Poe (Isaac). Benicio Del Toro overcomes the potential for DJ to be a minor secondary character by injecting him with his natural hypnotic quality. DJ is a bundle of affectation and stuttering reminiscent of Fenster in “The Usual Suspects,” and he manages to steal the scenes and be memorable in the chaos of Casino world Canto Bight.
“The Last Jedi” is absolutely the “Star Wars” film we deserved and didn’t expect. The prequels, stand alone “story” films and even the animated series considered canon are a frustratingly repetitious and revisionist cycle. “The Last Jedi” is not a crude predictable entry to the series; Rian Johnson has delivered a luminous spark that’s left the future of the franchise looking bright.
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Daisy Ridley ... Rey
Mark Hamill ... Luke Skywalker
Adam Driver ... Kylo Ren
Gwendoline Christie ... Captain Phasma
Domhnall Gleeson ... General Hux
Carrie Fisher ... General Leia Organa
Billie Lourd ... Lieutenant Connix
Andy Serkis ... Supreme Leader Snoke
Laura Dern ... Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo
Oscar Isaac ... Poe Dameron
Benicio Del Toro ... DJ
Kelly Marie Tran ... Rose Tico
John Boyega ... Finn
Lupita Nyong'o ... Maz Kanata
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.