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Review: "Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi"

There was something electric in the air when that first teaser for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens premiered back in 2014. A sinister voice on the soundtrack asked, "There has been an awakening...have you felt it?" Then there was a barrage of clips teasing something familiar for Star Wars fans. That familiarity was the style and look of the original trilogy's western frontiers, with a kick of space cowboy bravado. It was void of the prequel trilogy's green screen approach and cutting edge technological risks (though I will defend those jubilant George Lucas entries til the end of time). Unfortunately, J.J. AbramsThe Force Awakens ended up being a pleasantly mild carbon copy of A New Hope, recycling tropes and story situations from that film as some gesture of assurance for a new generation of fans; if anything, it was setting up a dutiful cover song trilogy. So when it was revealed that writer/director Rian Johnson was going to helm Episode VIII, I have to admit that it shot to the top of my list of anticipated films. I believe Johnson's Looper to be one of the best sci-fi films ever, so the fact that he was taking over the reigns of sci-fi cinema's holy grail was more than promising.

I saw Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi yesterday afternoon and I can tell you that it boasts some unpredictable action sequences, plus some of its most frustrating shortcomings and silly moments. They add up to a finished film that shouldn't be as long as it is in running time, and one that fails to resonate as soundly as the lean, focused and ultimately more emotionally moving Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In short, the Rogue One spinoff ends up being the best entry out of these recent Star Wars outings.

The Last Jedi picks up right after where The Force Awakens left off, with the evil First Order hot on the trail of the remaining mobile formation of the Resistance. Johnson wastes no time into throwing us into a dazzling space battle between several X-wing Starfighters and TIE fighters. At the front of the Rebel star fleet again is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who is more than trigger happy and defiant of his leader Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) as he whizzes his comrades into battle. This first half hour of the film is the strongest because of this tense action spectacle and because it also gives us our first clear engagement with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, doing spectacular motion capture work even though he's mostly sitting down). In a wonderfully written scene, Snoke basically pisses on the consistently dull villain that is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) for essentially being a pussy in all of Episode VII. It's devilish in its wording and you can almost hear Johnson pounding away on his Macbook keyboard as he wrote this scene, echoing what so many of us have been internally saying this whole time.
But less than an hour into The Last Jedi, we're given the first of the film's *here's where a certain character dies but wait! it turns out they didn't die* moments. Such narrative devices tend to deflate the drama in stories and unfortunately The Last Jedi does this more than once with VERY major characters. It's a flip flop rhetorical ploy that proves as frustrating as Kylo Ren's ever-growing indecisiveness on whether he's a good guy or a bad guy. That indecisive schtick gets old quick and it cements Kylo Ren as the first Sith who is a self-entitled Millennial, which is a shame because Driver can be an interesting actor with the right material.

The rest of the narrative jumps back and forth between Rey (Daisy Ridley) trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her in the Jedi ways on his secret island and the aerial conflict of the Resistance trying to flee from the First Order before running out of fuel on their main ship. There's also a really bad subplot involving Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) on a casino planet trying to find a master codebreaker, that doubles as a PSA against horse racing tracks. It's here where Benicio del Toro shows up as a crook named DJ, whose accent is a mix between Tom Waits and del Toro's Fred Fenster character from The Usual Suspects. We also get a momentary glimpse of Justin Theroux on this planet. Considering Theroux's appearance and Laura Dern playing Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, not to mention Snoke's spaceship lair covered in blood red walls, I mused on what a David Lynch Star Wars film might've looked like.
Look, I love Star Wars. I own all the films. I grew up with the original trilogy on VHS. I'll own this movie too eventually. These films are critic-proof not because they're big, intimidating productions but because it's the "idea" of Star Wars that people respond to and come back to, time and time again (including me). Am I disappointed in The Last Jedi? At some of its parts, yes. I could've done without the broad Disney comedy sight gags, like Luke milking the tit of alien island creature just to get blue milky shit in his beard. Also, as a fan of the lore within the Star Wars universe, I found it kind of cruel to reveal who Rey's parents were in a mere throwaway line, sans any visual representation or backing. But I love hearing those lightsabers turn on and it's always exhilarating seeing that beaut of the Millennium Falcon soar through the skies and fly through explosions. The appeal of it all is losing a little bit of magic, sure, but that happens with franchises emptying the tank on nostalgia and its weaponry of franchise motifs. We saw the same thing happen with the less-than-spectacular second season of Stranger Things on Netflix. When you try to please all targeted audiences with different renditions of the same film, you end up not pleasing any one of those audiences wholly.

The Last Jedi is going to make a lot of money and everyone and their mom will have seen it in less than a week after I've published this review. There will be fanboys forever bitching on Twitter about spoilers and what not. I think Johnson is a terrific filmmaker and he took on a huge task by pulling off a middle entry that people will wrongly compare to The Empire Strikes Back (even though this film's second climax takes place on a snowy planet like Hoth, but one where the snow literally bleeds red). And Johnson can forever boast that he pulled off a key kickass lightsaber fight, though not with the parties you might expect. (I also liked Johnson giving Rogue One director Gareth Edwards an embedded cameo if you look closely towards the end.) Ultimately, The Last Jedi is an improvement over The Force Awakens because it marches to the beat of its own drum as opposed to painting by numbers. And on the plus side, with the removal of Colin Trevorrow from the upcoming director's chair we can all breathe a sigh of relief that we don't have Star Wars: Episode IX - The Book of Henry slated for 2019.


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