Saturday, December 16, 2017


I didn’t know they had it in them, but I’m grateful to be proven wrong. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is the first great Star Wars movie since creator George Lucas sold his company to Disney. Though run by Lucas collaborators and acolytes – from an ILM and Skywalker Sound stocked with Wars veterans to a story group built out of the prequel days, to a longtime producing partner in Kathleen Kennedy overseeing it all – the results thus far have been mostly successful recreations of franchise sensations past. They were nostalgic, fleet, and fun enough. JJ Abrams managed to introduce a handful of bright and promising new characters along the way in Episode 7 – the searching Rey (Daisy Ridley), stewing dark-sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), turncoat stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and hotshot pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac). Gareth Edwards and company cobbled together a decent margin note in the franchise’s canon with the heisting of the Death Star plans in Rogue One. But for all that potential, it took writer-director Rian Johnson (whose Brick and Looper marked him as an original voice to watch) to return the sense of surprise to the galaxy. He makes a movie following Abrams’ new characters and some of Lucas’ classic ones into a roller coaster of creative developments.

Where Johnson succeeds is in his molecularly precise evocation of the Star Wars style, not by simply copying faithfully what’s come before, but by returning to the source. He realizes the series is a suis generis blending of Westerns and World War II movies, gangster pictures and samurai films, high fantasy and low serialized sci-fi. He returns to these inspirations for whip-smart visual language, spirited tone, and adventurous spirit, shot through with zen portent and seriousness of mythological import. So once more unto the Star War we go, the sinister First Order seeking to crush the rebellious Resistance once and for all. General Leia (the late, great Carrie Fisher), hoping for the return of her brother Luke (Mark Hamill, soulful and unpredictable), leads the surviving rebels across space, pursued by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The usual sturm und drang of space battles and aliens worlds follows, with a healthy dose of Jedi mysticism on a far-flung planet where a Master hides from his mistakes and an earnest would-be Padawan desperately seeks his help. He’s their only hope. The Rebels assemble for dogfights and showdowns; the Dark Side and the Light ready their laser swords with patient, spiritual connections in The Force; nefarious characters plot backstabbings and pure-hearted beings become the sparks that will light up the darkness. In the middle is Rey, an ever more exciting new hero movingly unmoored from a sense of destiny, hoping to find her place in all this while Kylo Ren, similarly lost, circles with roiling bad vibes. 

This is rich emotional territory mined with crisp, clear storytelling in painterly precision and elegantly lensed filmic cinematography. It’s big, broad, immediately satisfying storytelling in the tradition of the series’ best moments. Every step of the way, Johnson finds visual invention for his gripping sequences and compelling settings – a bombing run is so crisply, efficiently unfolded, the fate of a character we’ve never before met and who hardly speaks is intensely felt; a dazzling casino world drips in military-industrial power and is larded with slimy monsters of all sorts (and a jazzy alien band to boot); a colony of frog-like nuns caretake a crumbling village surrounded by a sea of squawking bird-beings; a salt-covered planet is streaked in billowing red dust as a battle rages; a red-walled throne room is draped in ominous Dark Side intent; a hyperspace jump shatters plans – and minds. In these thrilling images and places are a host of creatures and more new characters, from a mysterious pink-haired admiral (Laura Dern) to a big-hearted rebel recruit (Kelly Marie Tran) and a slippery thief (Benicio Del Toro). Johnson imagines fun adventures, tense escapes teetering on massive stakes, and pleasing grace notes – First Order office politics, a melding of prequel lore in sequel minds, loving glamour shots of vehicles and tech – while never stepping wrong. 

What a deeply felt outpouring of the finest Star Wars anyone not named George Lucas has managed to get on the big screen! This isn’t a film entirely coasting on old nostalgia (though the familiar sounds of lightsabers, TIE fighters, and the like are powerful generators of it). Nor is it content to simply doodle in the margins of the expected. Johnson uses the old as a runway for new adventure to take off. In the end, I found it poignant to consider how he’s skillfully built in an old franchise a space for new imagination, while connecting to the childlike wonder at the sense of grandiose unfolding mythology that makes it evergreen. Johnson has pulled off a perfect balancing act – a reverent brand deposit that pushes all the right nostalgic buttons while fearlessly unfurling satisfying surprises. It’s a sensation as pure and as real as a kid, head swimming in the galaxy far, far away, picking up a broom and, for a fleeting moment, imagining it a lightsaber.

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