Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
The new Star Wars trilogy continues with Rian Johnson’s heavily anticipated Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
I was somewhat critical of The Force Awakens for its numerous callbacks to A New Hope in its narrative. In many ways it felt like a safe high budget remake in order to reinvigorate the franchise and appease newcomers as well as old school fans. Judging by the amount of money it made it certainly worked but for me personally it made the film less interesting.
The natural concern was that the follow-up would be far too similar to The Empire Strikes Back therefore continuing the repetitious precedent set by the first returning instalment. I’m glad to say that this wasn’t the case and this film definitely takes itself in a different direction.
Internal callbacks are to be expected and this film certainly doesn’t shy away from them but it does so in a way that feels like more of a reference than a repeat. On several occasions a scenario is established that might feel familiar before something happens that takes it in a very different and unexpected direction. This happens constantly which keeps the plot refreshingly unpredictable.
The clearest reference to The Empire Strikes Back is the structure of the overall story. Both trilogies start with an entry that brings the collection of characters together while establishing their relationships and the second instalment splits them apart to make their delayed reunion more satisfying. Naturally everyone has been changed in some major way by what they experiences.
This film splits the group into four; Rey (Daisy Ridley) spends a good chunk of the film with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Finn goes on a mission with new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is in conflict with resistance leader Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues his journey with the Empire stand-in The First Order. These different plots develop the characters while coming together in interesting and often surprising ways.
Splitting a group of characters can be a blessing and a curse as keeping them apart can be detrimental to the story if not handled correctly. This isn’t the case here as each of the characters find themselves tested in fascinating ways that develop them along with the overall story. Each of them feels like a part of something much larger than themselves which is definitely classic Star Wars.
Connecting the four stories is the theme of balance. It’s mentioned several times throughout the narrative in various different contexts indicating that balance is very important for the universe in general. Without balance there is only chaos and the characters are all working to either restore or achieve a balance of some sort. It’s an interesting and well developed through-line that makes everything feel intricately connected.
Arguably The Force Awakens is very much a film about Star Wars as it treats the history of the franchise with a level of reverence that overwhelms the story. The Last Jedi is also a film about Star Wars and its history but acts as more of a subversion of it more than anything else. Philosophical musings about the Force, the Jedi and other aspects of the mythology are turned on their head while the original characters are taken in directions that remind the new characters -and the audience- that these legendary figures are ultimately just people. It’s a profound message about looking at events and people differently.
One of the major strengths of this film is the way it looks forward without ignoring the past. The focus is on the newer characters as Rian Johnson fully commits to this being their story with the familiar faces supporting it. Everything about it gives the sense that Star Wars is a franchise looking to its own future rather than being tied up in references to its own past and it’s refreshing.
The tone is absolutely spot on as well. Star Wars is a franchise with plenty of humour when at its best and the jokes here are excellently handled. As with everything else they suit the characters as well as the situation. They also don’t get in the way of more dramatic moments allowing the perfect balance to be struck between serious drama and humour.
Pretty much every member of the cast nails their performances. Daisy Ridley is charming, naive, relatable and heroic all at once, John Boyega is believable as a loyal action hero, Oscar Isaac expertly plays the loveable rogue, Adam Driver crafts a wonderfully complex character with a lot of uncertainty surrounding him and newcomer Kelly Marie Tran blends in seamlessly to the established dynamics.
The older actors all do a great job too. Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker makes for excellent viewing thanks to his growing list of eccentricities and wonderfully written character and Carrie Fisher turns in a great final performance as Leia. Even though the film isn’t about them they still have an important role to play and seamlessly slot themselves into the film without overshadowing the rest of the cast.
Action sequences are plentiful and intensely creative throughout. In all cases they use the characters and their established traits to compliment the action which makes it far easier to invest in them. None of the sequences feel gratuitous as they all serve an important story purpose. Rian Johnson definitely has an eye for doing things a bit differently and it certainly pays off here.
If the film has a problem its that the pacing starts to give a little in the second act. It’s not enough to derail the narrative significantly but it’s enough to make the 2.5 hour running time be felt. From a story point of view it feels like certain parts digress from the main story a little too much though the eventual pay-off is so satisfying that the diversion makes sense when considering the overall picture.
An excellent film that isn’t afraid to take risks with familiar source material and points the Star Wars franchise in a fascinating new direction. The characters are well used with actors that do an excellent job playing them, the film is full of moments that subvert expectations, the action sequences are excellent and the story itself never fails to be compelling. Outside of some pacing issues in the second act that barely drag the film down this is a tight and well constructed cinematic experience that demands to be seen.
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