“The Empire, your parents, the resistance, the Sith, the Jedi… let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” ~ Kylo Ren
“When I found you, I saw raw, untamed power. And beyond that, something special.” ~ Snoke
“The greatest teacher, failure is.” ~ Yoda
“I was raised to fight. For the first time I have something to fight for.” ~ Finn
“We are the spark, that will light the fire that’ll burn the First Order down.” ~ Poe Dameron
“I need someone to show me my place in all this.” ~ Rey
“Wipe that nervous expression off your face, Threepio.” ~ Leia Organa
“The Rebellion is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi.” ~ Luke Skywalker
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in theatres, the second part in the current trilogy pitting the Rebels and the light side of the Force against the darkness of the First Order and the Sith. Picking up where The Force Awakens, the film advances the storyline, weaves in action, humour, and nostalgia, brings back familiar faces, and increases the tensions of a galaxy long ago and far, far away. Setting its characters on different journeys meant to converge together (not unlike the original trilogy’s second act The Empire Strikes Back), the film proves to be entertaining by the time it all ends.
The film follows its characters on different paths when we first catch up with them. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found the old Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in his place of self-exile, trying to bring him back to the cause of the Resistance and learn about the ways of the Force. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is rallying the Resistance, which is under attack from the First Order. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), the droid BB-8, and a Resistance mechanic, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) take an unauthorized mission on in the wake of events. And Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) contends with the will of his dark master Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the ambitions of his First Order rival General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).
Rian Johnson (Looper) came aboard as writer and director for this second chapter in the trilogy, and it turns out to be a wise choice. A fan of the franchise and what’s come before, his story builds on what has already happened and takes it in new directions. The tone of the story mixes together military intrigue, special operations, a spit in the face bravado on the part of some characters and a melancholy despair on the part of others, themes of temptation and the line between light and dark, and strong characterization in its key players, giving them depth as the story goes along, even in surprising directions. Johnson’s story feels firmly grounded in the mythos and philosophies of the Star Wars universe, and it flows well throughout, as we weave in and out of the different plotlines.
Having the same person write and direct turned out to be wise as well. Johnson gets the best out of his actors as he goes along, maintaining the right balance between what the cast has to do and the CGI special effects that form their backdrop in much of the film (something that was problematic for George Lucas in the prequel trilogy at times). The production crew really does well at bringing new worlds and new characters to life, drawing out of an extensive established framework for some of the story, but giving the audience new species and new backdrops that mesh well with the established continuity.
This shows itself in costume design, set design, equipment and vehicles for both sides… and the unbearably cute Porgs that end up in the film (think along the lines of fluffy pigeons with the biggest eyes imaginable). The already well established CGI of Lucasfilm handles the special effects exceedingly well throughout, and composer John Williams, who’s been doing this for quite awhile now, gives us another score in his repertoire that successfully builds on what has come before in the franchise, while adding on new thematic material as he goes. It’s a score that stands out well on its own, which you expect out of the best composer in the film music industry.
The cast are well chosen in their roles, and some of them are newcomers to the Star Wars world. Benicio Del Toro has made a career out of playing character roles that feature shades of grey morality, and that features into how he plays the codebreaker DJ, a man who plays the knife edge between two factions and is loyal more or less only to himself. Laura Dern appears as a Resistance admiral, Amilyn Holdo, a colleague of Leia whose instincts at a critical time are in want, but who conveys principles in her decisions. Kelly Marie Tran’s role as Rose is a compelling one- we get a character who earlier in the franchise would have just had a five second appearance and instead gets fleshed out as a full character. She’s a mechanic who is drawn into the larger story and comes into her own. The actress makes the most of her, to the point where we want to see more of her as time goes on.
The previously established villains are back. Gwendoline Christie plays the storm trooper commander Captain Phasma again, conveying a ruthless and cranky energy in her performance throughout. She’s suitably irritable (especially about a wayward deserter crossing her path after the events of the first film) and someone not to be trifled with. Domhnall Gleeson returns as the ambitious General Hux, the First Order commander whose priorities waver between loyalties to his leader and his own place in the galaxy. The actor gives him an arrogant, unpleasant quality that fits with his established persona. Andy Serkis, who’s made a career out of body capture performance, returns as the supreme leader Snoke, a repugnantly evil villain with no redeeming qualities. Serkis makes him a worthy counterpart to the late Emperor Palpatine.
Adam Driver returns as Kylo Ren, the son of Leia Organa and the late Han Solo, once a Jedi in training, now consumed by the darkness. He pouts and schemes, proves to be ruthless and relentless in battle, and yet there are moments when we see him in a different light- as someone who might have the chance to pull away from the darkness, when hints of humanity pull at him. And yet he chooses the wrong path time and again. Pouting or not, the actor makes him a compelling villain, one that you can jeer at one moment and feel empathy for the next.
Two faces return, of course, but one of them with a fresh actor in the role. Anthony Daniels has been playing C-3P0 in all of these films from the start, and he returns yet again as the fussy, anxiety prone protocol droid, mostly spending his days in headquarters and fretting endlessly. It’s a character that would drive you nuts to know personally, but Threepio provides some of the humour in the film in how he copes (or doesn’t cope) with rising tensions. Chewbacca returns as well, but now played by a different actor. Joonas Suomato, a basketball player turned actor, did some of the action work for the Wookie in The Force Awakens. The originator of the role, Peter Mayhew, listed in the credits as a consultant for the character, has retired from the role over chronic pains. Suomato is the requisite height, and since the actor gets buried under fur and prosthetic makeup, it doesn’t particularly matter that it’s a new actor. The character is as cranky as ever- but carries the weight of grief over the death of his friend Han in the previous film, something the actor brings across.
John Boyega started out this trilogy as Finn, the deserter storm trooper who finds himself caught up in the battle against that which he was loyal to, struggling to find his path. His take on Finn this time out is one of more certainty and resolve as the character has allowed his conscience to guide his path. He takes the initiative, steps into risks, and finds himself willing to give his life in service of a greater good. It’s a good nod of growth for the character, and the actor makes him interesting to watch. I do like the rapport he particularly has with Rose as the story unfolds.
Oscar Isaac has done a great deal of work in various films in recent years, and I do like his take on Poe Dameron, the ace Resistance pilot. There’s a hint of swagger and cockiness in the character, something you might expect in his profession, but at the same time it’s tempered by resolve and responsibility for those under his command. He’s loyal to a fault, but not blind, willing to do things that bend or break the rules if it helps save the day, and some of the humour of the film comes from Poe- and how he interacts with friend and foe alike.
Watching this film is tinted with sadness, because you’re watching Carrie Fisher’s final role and final take as Leia. She passed away after filming was complete, and that has an impact in the way you see her final performance. There’s a whole lot of sadness in the character, and for good reason: the love of her life has just died, at the hands of their son. And yet Fisher gives the character the strength and willpower one is used to throughout her take on Leia, the determined leader who people naturally look to for guidance. She invests herself in the role, and thus her Leia is the most poignant take of the cast.
Daisy Ridley has taken on the role of the orphan Rey (who happens to be quite strong with the Force) and made it her own. A strong character, Rey is trying to understand her place in the galaxy, even as she has come to accept it without quite understanding it. Ridley gives the character a stubborn, fiercely loyal quality, and an underlying sense of empathy and compassion that makes her compelling to watch. Rey is a wonderful character to watch, the cornerstone of this trilogy, and Ridley keeps her grounded, reminds the viewer of her basic decency, and makes us root for her.
Mark Hamill has an interesting take on his signature role of Luke Skywalker, having had appeared briefly in the last film looking like he’d just woken up from a thirty year nap. He has retreated away from the galaxy and its struggles, a disillusioned Jedi who blames himself for how things have gone wrong and has been punishing himself ever since. He is in many ways a broken man, but not completely; it is the student who draws her teacher out of his despair and reminds him of who he is. It’s a completely different take on Luke, who is the reluctant teacher, reinvesting himself back in the cause.
The Last Jedi takes the mythos that is Star Wars in brand new directions, some of it dark and tense, some of it lighter and hopeful. The cast is splendidly chosen, inhabiting their roles and developing their characters all the more as they go along. There’s a great deal of poignancy in the film too, all while the viewer deals with space dogfights between fighters and strange new creatures. All while blessedly shielding us from ever seeing a trace of Jar Jar Binks again.