By Chris Zuver, A&E Editor
WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.
Being someone who goes to the cinema about as often as I mow my lawn in January, I can say I was anxious to see “The Last Jedi” as I rode with my friends on a cold night to the late show.
Anyone engaged with the online zeitgeist has seen their fair share of reviews and takes on the movie. The feedback ranges from those who are seemingly rational, to others who must be living in a galaxy far, far away. In one corner, you have the old-school fans from the days of the first trilogy, often quick to point out problems with the new films, especially since they’re probably bitter from the prequels. In another, you have those whom have obsessed over discussing the idea of identity politics at play in the casting and plot, whilst arguing amongst each other. I think there were some more nuanced people talking about it too, but I’m not sure.
Despite the public opinion I had been exposed to, I walked in to the theater with the clearest mind I could manage. At the very most, I hoped that I would find it as good as 2015’s The Force Awakens. At the least, I reminded myself that it wasn’t “The Phantom Menace”.
Well, I can say now that my hopes were met and then some.
“The Last Jedi” does what “The Force Awakens” did right and capitalizes on it: That is to say it’s a combination of good elements from both the original trilogy and the prequels while avoiding most of the flaws from each era.
Something I feel sets Episodes VII and VIII more in line with the originals is the aversion from computer animation, which gives everything a more authentic look. While there are obvious usages of CG, they are a lot less frequent than they were the last time George Lucas was in charge of an installment.
Another key difference since Episode VII has been the physics. Gone are the wire acts a-la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Jedi. While it’s true that it was satisfying watching Yoda leap around in “The Clone Wars”, I am glad to see that the series has ditched the choreographed fight scenes for something more grounded.
As for the plot, the film is more complicated than its predecessor. It opens with the First Order’s space fleet approaching the Resistance’s base. Poe Dameron leads a counterattack, which proves to be costly but effective. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (R.I.P. Carrie Fisher) evacuates their base and leaps into hyperspace to escape. Alas, the First Order’s fleet tracks their ship and follows.
From there, the film continuously switches between the three main characters: Rey, Finn, and Poe. Rey spends a good amount of the movie on the distant planet Ahch-To, convincing Luke Skywalker to train her to be a Jedi. Meanwhile, Poe and Finn, with the help of BB-88 and Resistance member Rose Tico devise a plan to disable the tracking device that the First Order is using on the Resistance’s ship in order to ensure their escape.
Of course, the primary focus is on Rey. During her training, she discovers she has a psychic connection with antagonist Kylo Ren, who used to train under Skywalker before turning to the dark side. The two of them communicate distantly as Ren explains to Rey that Luke tried to kill him. Luke, on the other hand, claims that he momentarily considered killing Ren, upon realizing that he had switched to the dark side, which then caused Ren to retaliate and leave. Regardless, Rey is convinced that she can redeem Ren and decides to travel to the First Order’s space fleet to confront him.
Upon boarding the ship, Rey is captured by Ren, who then escorts her to the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke. A climactic meeting occurs between the three of them, resulting in Ren killing Snoke. It remains uncertain if this move is a result of his distrust of the dark side or if it was only a power play to become head of the First Order, a title which he quickly assumes after the assassination.
Nonetheless, Rey and members of the Resistance escape to the planet Crait, a salt-covered world with underlying red soil which makes for some dramatic footage in the last leg of the film.
The Resistance take refuge in an abandoned base built into the side of a cliff. Newly-appointed leader of the First Order, Kylo Ren and his soldiers, land on Crait and start powering up a cannon to break through the walls of the base. Then, in the middle of the chaos, Luke Skywalker appears and steps out in the way of the army.
Ren, upon recognizing Skywalker, orders all guns to open fire. Yet, this doesn’t work, as Skywalker stands, seemingly unscathed in the aftermath. Ren then confronts him for a one-on-one lightsaber duel. As Ren thinks he is about to strike Luke down, Luke warns Ren that this is a bad idea for his own sake, similar to how Obi-Wan gave Darth Vader a similar threat upon his own sacrifice in A New Hope.
Ren hacks away, only to realize that he didn’t hit Luke. What he had been fighting was merely Luke’s projection. Luke was on Ahch-To all along. The camera cuts to him, meditating his projection from a cliff from the far-off world. He then turns to dust, as he “becomes one with the Force.”
But oh, right… you are probably wondering what happens to the Resistance. Well, Rey lands her ship (which happens to be the Millennium Falcon) near the back door of their base. She helps the survivors escape during the showdown between Luke and Ren. Once aboard the Falcon, Leia then reassures the remaining members that they have what it takes to rise again. We are shown a couple more scenes giving signs of hope, and then it cuts to credits.
There are enough strong points in the movie to take away from the inevitable pitfalls that many feel the previous installment set it up for only two years ago. Yes, some of the characters are lacking in personality. Yes, there are plotlines that parallel the original trilogy. And yes, Ren is still a sad emo boy. But regardless, I can counter all of those flaws with reasons that I thought made the film stronger than what detracted from it.
Now, bearing in mind that I still feel that some characters lack in personality (most notably Rey and Finn), it doesn’t take away from the movie at all for me. I still felt that the characters had motivation: Rey is a vagabond, searching for her purpose. Finn is a defector of the First Order, who realized how evil his former employer really was and is now trying to fight for what he thinks is just under the Resistance.
Ren, meanwhile, is torn between two feelings. He shows his doubts of fully committing himself to the dark side when he hesitates to kill Leia in the opening raid scene, and when he reaches out to Rey throughout the second half of the film. Yet, it’s still unclear whether he killed Snoke for Rey’s sake or his own. Let’s also not forget his attack against the Resistance on Crait as well.
As for the complaints of plot parallels to the original trilogy, all I can say is that I can’t really see what people are disgruntled about. There are only so many plots that can be made that work with a large scale of moviegoers. According to Christopher Booker, author of “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories,” there are, in the end, only seven plots when you analyze every story ever told.
Put yourself in the role of the film’s writer/director Rian Johnson for a minute. You’re taking on a huge project. Perhaps the project of your lifetime, based on a film franchise which has dominated the hearts of fans for generations. Sure, you could experiment with something far off the beaten path and hope for a victory, and you may even succeed, but chances are, you’re going to play it safe and incorporate familiar elements and tropes to please the fans.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try some new things. Sure, the scene in Snoke’s chamber is obviously akin to Luke’s meeting with Darth Sidious in “Return of the Jedi”, but in “The Last Jedi”, we’re seeing a mesh of young and old. While it took Darth Vader most of his life to change his ways, we may see a different development for Kylo Ren in the future.
Let’s not forget about some great new characters, such as Poe Dameron, ace pilot. Poe’s trump card is that he doesn’t have to be witty and clever, he’s already a great pilot, however, he conveniently happens to be clever as well. During his attack on the First Order in the opening scene, Poe contacts General Hux, refers to him as “General Hugs,” and even puts him on hold.
As for fans of the cutesy culture of the franchise, there are the Porgs: native creatures on the planet Ach-To which resemble a cross between guinea pigs and penguins.
Aside from the approach to filming, there is also the strength of the soundtrack. John Williams is nothing short of a musical genius as he has proven even during the series’ darkest hours in the early 2000’s. The symphonic music reflects classic themes from the original trilogy while adding new twists, as well as the inclusion of new scores. It’s hard to describe music much further through words. In other words, it’s easier to prove my point by watching the movie.
In conclusion, I think that “The Last Jedi” is a good entry in a great series. It is not at the top of my list of Star Wars films, but it ties with “The Force Awakens”, which outranks the prequels. If you’re still on the fence, watch this movie. At the least, you’ll know what all of the fuss is about.