Thursday, December 28, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi / **1/2 (2017)

Is it true, Luke? Are things really as dire as the scowl on your face suggests? From the first moment you turn around on screen, we no longer see the eager and zealous eyes that gave us everything we know about the Skywalker legend; in their place are spheres of broken hopes, a smile that is no more, hazy features concealed by time and age, and hands that grasp your old lightsaber only long enough to toss it over your shoulder in protest. Now comes the time to ask, in earnest: does the sacred order of the Jedi die with you, as the title of the latest movie may suggest? Or are you hiding something deeper from us, something that might inspire a hope as the darkness persists in enveloping a fragmented resistance across the galaxy? Without straight answers, without the slightest shred of optimism, how long do you expect our eyes to hold out patience? There is only so much your aspiring understudy, Rey, can compensate for. In times like these, of relentless peril and doubt, we barely have enough fight to find the silver linings. Give us something to work with here, or spare us the pain of a lingering uncertainty.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is the emphasis of this downbeat sentiment, a 152-minute excursion through spaces and characters that would be refreshingly familiar, had they not been glossed over by a pathos that seems as pervasive as a viral infection. No longer are the eyes and ears of the heroes eager to pick up on looming dangers and match them with vigor; they seem to barely make it through their choreographed fight routines before collapsing in a heap of conflicting emotions, as if paralyzed in a mindset that can barely fathom what may exist behind shadows and explosions. Is this just the nature of a transition story in which one era of characters must pass the torch to others? Did Rian Johnson, the director, choose to confront the mood head-on because he knew he had to, or was the untimely death of Carrie Fisher enough to cast that gloom? In any event, we now confront the saddest and most depressing entry thus far into the main “Star Wars” saga, and what remains beyond the initial throb of conflicting feelings is a concern with where, at this point, anyone can go with it.

If that assessment contradicts what this third generation of films has symbolized, it’s no wonder. After Lucasfilm’s merger with Disney lead to the revival of the industry-changing series two years ago, the first entry, “The Force Awakens,” roused the sleeping wonder of fans like a thundering echo. So prominent was the turnout, in fact, that it even propelled enthusiasm for last year’s off-shoot “Rogue One,” despite containing a less-than-optimistic ending. And now, for a third film, the story moves out of nostalgic undertones and right into the doldrums of 21st-century cynicism. The plot follows Rey (Daisy Ridley), the conflicted heroine of “The Force Awakens,” on a journey to a distant planet to persuade a broken Luke (Mark Hamill) to rejoin the fight for the future of the universe. This comes despite his vehement depression, spurred because he feels responsible for setting Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a fallen-Jedi-turned-Sith-Lord, loose among the stars. And while he stirs in skepticism, the stubborn resistance led by Leia (Fisher) faces traumatic hurdles that threaten the endurance of their mission, including a First Order that is now able to follow their ships through drastic leaps in hyper-space.

To preserve key revelations found in the third act of the picture, Disney asked many film reviewers to keep plot details to a minimum, lest they reveal too much to inquisitive eyes. For my purpose, I only provide a general outline to underscore my indolent desire to delve deeper into this struggling mythos. Make no mistake, “The Last Jedi” is a well-made film, full of new visions and interesting new characters – my favorite is Rose, a pilot with loyalty to the resistance that finds striking confidence among a plethora of awkward interactions with others – but what the studio is ultimately selling is a series of conflicts and twists that are undermined by the lack of any sense of uplift. Are we supposed to excited, for instance, by the fatalistic inflection in Luke’s voice when he recounts the key events between him and Kylo Ren during a startling confessional in the second act? Notice how Johnson’s screenplay narrows the path to victory for Leia’s resistance with each passing minute, leading her and the remains of her declining fighters to a small cave on a remote planet with little opportunity for retreat. Most people struggle with far less in a lifetime than these people do in just over two hours.

What little enthusiasm remains is left primarily to the newer characters – perhaps because they haven’t been worn down as much from decades of endless slaughter and tragedy. Though Rey has taken the reins as this trilogy’s emotional center, it is Poe (Oscar Isaac), the hotshot rebel pilot, that has the most fun resisting the dim sentiments of his peers. An opening scene involving bombs dropping on one of the First Order’s ships sets the stage for an ongoing feud between he and Leia’s commander Holdo (Laura Dern), who exchange consistent arguments as to what is best for them – standing their ground to engage the enemy, or fleeing in hopes that the order will not catch up to them (this despite Poe’s warnings that their ship is nearly out of fuel). When indecision gives way to grimmer realities – a scene in which a cluster of escape pods are picked off by enemy combatants strikes a particularly ominous chord – his anger is replaced with the sort of rebellious tendencies that recall a young Han Solo. Could he be on his way to serving as the anchor for the next generation of Star Wars stories? One can only hope.

Then a plot detail emerges that requires Finn (John Boyega) and Rose to seek out a machine hacker in a gambling city on a nearby planet, and that supplies the film with its most interesting new character: DJ (Benicio del Toro), a renegade who claims to know how to kill the tracking device on the First Order’s ship that is allowing them to make space leaps (is he really that good, or is he only saying that to buy his freedom out of a compact jail cell?). What fuels audience interest isn’t so much the attitude or the sarcasm, but the perceptive dialogue. Johnson supplies him with a bemused world outlook that strikes alarming parallels with the modern political system, and when a detail is revealed in the final act that ought to point to betrayal, we don’t look at it as out of character – he is a product of a system where right and wrong have gone past the black-and-white and found comfort in the embrace of gray areas. In turn that forces us to consider the nature at which the heroes and the villains are written – is Kylo Ren, for example, really the evil figure that a mere plot description would suggest? Is Luke guiltless in his transition? Can we fault Rey for wanting to salvage his soul from the clutches of Snoke’s order, especially after he shows some level of admiration for her?

These are not unique concepts to “Star Wars,” but Johnson only takes them so far; he is more enamored by the doom of the scenario rather than the conflicted alliances within them, and we begin observing all the action and discussions from a place of apathy rather than enthusiasm or wonder. But was there any other route this saga could have taken? After climactic events that implied a close to the stories of the famous Skywalker siblings nearing, could any bridge, no matter how ambitious or celebratory, have allowed this audience to reflect fondly rather than mourn? Or even anticipate the rousing adventures that may follow? For all the division Johnson’s film has caused in the audience, I never expected leaving the theater feeling like muck at the bottom of an emotional sinkhole. There is simply no joy in “The Last Jedi.” But all great legacies, I guess, are destined to fade. Whether they go out in a compelling manner is a distinction best left to those more loyal to this franchise than me.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Science Fiction/Action (US); 2017; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 152 Minutes

Daisy Ridley: Rey
Adam Driver: Kylo Ren
Carrie Fisher: Leia Organa
Mark Hamill: Luke Skywalker
John Boyega: Finn
Oscar Isaac: Poe Dameron
Andy Serkis: Snoke
Laura Dern: Vice Admiral Holdo
Benicio del Toro: DJ

Produced by
J.J. Abrams, Pippa Anderson, Ram Bergman, Candice Campos, Boris Dmitrovic, Kiri Hart, Leopold Hughes, Andres Jauernick, Finni Johannsson, Nikos Karamigios, Tom Karnowski, Kathleen Kennedy and Jason D. McGatlinDirected and written by Rian Johnson; based on the characters created by George Lucas


Eric Remer said...

This is a good and thoughtful review. However, you would be well-served to rewatch the last 20 minutes of this film. I promise you, there is joy to be found, even if it is bittersweet.

Anonymous said...

This seems like a contrarian review after everybody else had posted theirs. It's the middle of a trilogy -- I don't recall a lot of joy in Empire or, well, any of the Lucas prequels. But, yeah, tough to have enthusiasm or wonder in the context of the film (war and annihilation, the seeming triumph of evil). "Most people struggle with far less in a lifetime than these people do in just over two hours" -- er, yeah, it's a war movie. I just don't understand what you want this to be, exactly.

Unknown said...

Why aren't most other critics as honest as you? This movie is something to be forgotten.

Unknown said...

I agree wholeheartedly with this reviewer/critic. I was completely underwhelmed with this installment of the much-loved Star Wars franchise. I was so hoping this film would blow me away; it blew me away all right -- but for all the wrong reasons! Like Weimer Carvalho commented above, this movie is something to be forgotten.