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FILM REVIEW: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, New Generation Heroes Excitingly Come Into Their Own

FILM REVIEW: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, New Generation Heroes Excitingly Come Into Their Own

If a critic screams in the middle of the galaxy, can the audience hear him? The Star Wars cinematic universe exists far beyond any one person, it is bigger than any of its characters, and has a proverbial life of its own. Buoyed by an endlessly devoted fan base and a well-oiled marketing machine, the films will carry on far after we are gone. The latest installment, The Last Jedi (Episode VIII of the main canon), arrives this week to remind us why the franchise is still so vibrantly alive.

Do not envy the task of trying to critique this film without doing the audience the unforgivable disservice of spoiling any part of it. Like a glass of vintage wine, it is best to go in with a clean palette to enjoy a full serving of Rian Johnson’s take on the classic space opera, tabula rasa so to speak. I apologize for the abstractness of what follows, but you will thank me later for not skewing your expectations of this exciting movie. Its twists are more well-guarded than ancient Jedi Scrolls, let me not be the one to burn it all down.

Suffice it to say that the beloved 1970s characters are back, joined by the ones you grew to love but are still getting to know from when The Force Awakens stormed into theaters but two years ago. And then some. A handful of new players add themselves to the already bulging cast, making this one of the most inflated (and the longest by runtime) Star Wars of all.

The story proceeds along two parallel tracks. One is moodier and contemplative; it deals, as at least most Star Wars films nominally do, with the philosophies of life and death, of good versus evil. The other is playful and adventurous, with thrilling escapes and exaggerated explosions combining to create a gripped set of events. Newcomer Johnson makes his voice subtly but firmly heard, dropping the mic, so to speak, during a couple of key action sequences, sufficient to take your breath away.

The Last Jedi is nominally the continuation of the story of Finn and Rey, of Poe Dameron and of Kylo Ren. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver all return to reprise their roles, galactic superstars now that their names are tied forever to this legendary franchise. But it is also the sunset of the story of older characters, of Luke and Leia in particular, punctuated by Mark Hamill’s and Carrie Fisher’s heartfelt and emotionally impactful performances. Like in real life, the old must cede to the young and that is the way of the world—and the galaxy. It does not mean that the departing generations do not have wisdom to impart. In The Last Jedi, try as the careful handlers of this magical calf may to cede the stage, Hamill and Fisher steal the show even without wanting to do so.

A band of others join the fun, including Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo, a resistance fighter; Benicio del Toro, a mysterious underworld character; and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, a maintenance worker for the Resistance. The three are surprisingly good, with del Toro chewing the scenery and Rose becoming the most beloved of the newer characters in just one short film.

There is an inherent tension among and within these three competing bands. Finn is arguably given short thrift until too late, while Ray recedes into the background of forces greater than her. Like with the original films, the spotlight really belongs to the villain, and Driver as Kylo Ren acquits himself deliciously, not having the benefit of hiding behind a mask like his grandfather did. He is well on his way to becoming the cinematic villain heir of Vader.

There is much else to admire about The Last Jedi. There is no dearth of new worlds and creatures, cute and scary alike. The creative powers behind these filmmakers are as strong as the Force and are not going anywhere. It is sensorial overload at times, but then again everything about The Last Jedi is bigger and badder than the last time around. This is no holds barred Star Wars for the ages.

The Last Jedi also grounds itself firmly in the 21st Century. Already The Force Awakens had given way to a female lead and to an array of ethnically diverse heroes. That trend continues in this movie, not just with casting, but also with messaging. The abstractness of good vs. evil that has always characterized the films (and been the subject of derision from snotty critics) is made more specific in one particular sequence involving casino magnates and arms dealing, fat cats turned rich at the expense of the poor and the oppressed.

Though I am not sure these fleeting jabs will satisfy those looking for deeper meaning, the effort is appreciated.  Clearly, any similarity to famous or powerful figures in the real world is not mere coincidence.

The most impressive facet is how surprising The Last Jedi is. Many complained, fairly perhaps, that The Force Awakens was a carbon copy of A New Hope, a safe approach rather than a gamble that could lead to fan ire like the prequels did. The Last Jedi sets itself up, at least at first, as a subtle rethread of Empire Strikes Back, but then it travels past that movie—and past Return of the Jedi—at light speed. The filmmakers know exactly what twists they made us anticipate in Episode VIII. They use that knowledge to maximum effectiveness—and effectively against us.

Each time I thought I had The Last Jedi figured out, it went in another direction, genuinely surprising me. The sum total of these parts is a delightfully funny movie and a wonderfully exciting one. Its plot reveals itself slowly—one does not even appear until a good thirty minutes in. But the combination of wistful nostalgia, of characters that we now feel as if we know better than we know ourselves, with the fresh new blood, works.

Star Wars is a franchise that has been with most of us for all our existence. It has helped define our love for the movies and reshaped movies themselves, from the bottom up. The lasting legacy of these stories is perpetual, almost across universes. The Last Jedi may not be the best of the bunch, though it is one of the better executed ones. It exists comfortably in a series of tales that purports to be set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but that in truth lives in our cultural hearts and minds every single day.

Grade: A-

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film ‘The Lost Weekend’ is pure coincidence

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