Yes, I did get up at 6:30 in the morning to go to the movies. Circumstances gave us a movie day on the opening day of The Last Jedi, the newest entry in the perpetually ongoing Star Wars series and almost certain to be the super smash hit of the holiday blockbuster season. And we figured (rightly as it turned out) that the first showing, at nine o clock in the morning, was less likely to be sold out than the presentations offered at more ordinary times for movie going. So after an early alarm, some pet care, and breakfast (coffee!) at McDonalds, we found ourselves waiting in the car as the snow fell. Do you know when the doors open at your local picture palace? About 40 or 45 minutes before the first show, apparently. No, we were not the only people in the theater (there were about 25 or 30 other fans of early morning space opera), but we did beat the Guy With Similar Taste In Movies Who Also Likes To Sit In the Middle of The Back Row Directly In Front of The Projector. He arrived about 5 minutes after we did and was slightly put out to find his favorite seats were taken. Truly a case of “you snooze, you lose”, and better luck next time, dude.
As usual before a Star Wars review, I do feel a need to point out that I am not a die hard Star Wars fan. Like almost everyone my age, I have a nostalgic fondness for the early entries, particularly the first two films, which were so much a part of the whole pop culture universe of my adolescence. But that never translated into a lifelong commitment to the franchise and its universe, and while I liked The Force Awakens, and I liked The Last Jedi, too, I am not going to offer you the same kind of professional analysis here that you would get from a true fan. It’s just another movie to me.
Since my early cinema going means I am actually writing this review while it is still opening weekend I am putting the whole review under a cut. Spoilers abound so read at your own risk if you plan on seeing The Last Jedi.
The first thing you need to know about The Last Jedi is that you probably already know a lot about it. It’s a Star Wars film, which means it is a space opera about an ongoing conflict between good and evil in the form of the good Jedi Knights and their allies and their equivalents (often quite directly drawn) on the opposing Dark Side. There will be space ships and aliens, chases, and battles both epic and individual. Someone will put on a disguise, and cool critters will wander through a scene. Crowds will be full of wildly diverse individuals, while almost all the main characters (the good guys, at least, will be baseline humans. At least one of the big bad guys will be a CGI creation, and the bots (excuse me, droids) will live practically forever. Things will blow up and be set on fire, and hard science fiction fans will complain that the space battles and their tactics make no sense. There will be many, many references to World War II movies, which formed as much of a background to the youth of the original creators of the series as Star Wars did for ours. You will leave feeling entertained and vaguely uplifted, and the latter may make you feel slightly guilty, or at least that you have been lightly manipulated.
This is a long film, in need of the usual 15 minute edit, but it is compelling enough not to drag. It does require the usual substantial dose of the voluntary suspension of disbelief, especially as regards spaceship design. As always, the makers of a Star Wars film will choose something that looks pretty, dramatic or exciting, over something that makes sense, and I suppose even I am fine with that, at least in this context.
Performances are not always the centerpiece of a space opera– the roles are basically stock, with the actors only having to fill them. The Rising Master, Rey, is ably played by Daisy Ridley as more mature, poised and serenely powerful than most people would be in that position. The Dark Side Rising Master, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren/Ben Kenobi, is her opposite in character, emotional, conflicted, essentially immature, though beginning to find his feet as he seems to make his choice to go bad permanently. Driver is a strange and interesting young actor, and he pulls more out of the part than the writers put in, I think. And the Old Master Pulled Out of Retirement for One Last Ride, was of course, inhabited in full by Mark Hamill, who seemed to be having entirely too much fun pushing his performance to the absolute limits of good taste and possibly a little bit beyond. But Luke Skywalker is such a beloved and iconic character that it’s possible to suspend taste as well as disbelief just this one time to give him a bang up send off that includes not only a last meeting with his beloved sister and a titanic Last Battle on a plain of blood and salt, but a beautiful golden death/ascension scene as well, complete with the obligatory empty robe blowing away in the wind. One of these would normally be enough, but hey, it’s Luke.
Standing out among the rest of the cast was Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, the nerdy, practical Girl Mechanic with a sense of wonder. The Hotheaded, Hotshot Pilot and Guy who is Generally Hot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), was there, with couple of good scenes, but John Boyega as Finn, was underused. Laura Dern made an elegant, and very ladylike, good guy Admiral, while Domnhall Gleeson dominated every scene he was in as a gloriously snivelling pantomime villain of a bad guy Admiral. And of course Andy Serkis, the established master of CGI acting. brought the horrible big bad, Lord Snoke, to life, and then to a bloody end, in one of the best performances, and best scenes, in the film.
Special mention must be made of the guest appearance of the ghost of Yoda (voiced by as ever by Frank Oz), giving us a lesson in space opera Buddhism, lighting fires like a true spiritual vandal, and telling us of the ancient Jedi religious texts: “page turners they are not”.
Plotwise, The question of Rey’s parentage was settled in a way I found highly satisfactory. I am personally not a huge fan of the Force being (or becoming) the sole property of a “royal family”, however extended. It’s fine with me that Rey is “nobody” but herself, without a Skywalker, a Solo, or a Kenobi in her pedigree, and she can be joined by the stableboy in the closing scene with my blessing. If, as signs seems to be showing, the new world coming will see the Force awareness spreading widely, it’s fine with me. My usual moviegoing companion was just afraid that the powers that be were “going to make them brother and sister again”, a trope that he thinks is an easy way out.
No review of a Star Wars movie is complete without a mention of the creatures, which you know I think are the best part. In this one we had porgs, charming little penguiny puffiny birds, large seal like beings raised for their milk, wonderful giant racing beasts that people are interpreting as dogs but which I thought looked and moves more like hyenas, and the “crystal critters” of the salt planet where it all goes down at the end, pretty creatures like kitfoxes made of ice. All interesting and vaguely ecological, though none were were particular standouts.
But for me, as for many of us, this one was for Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia Organa, later Senator, later General, has always been the center of the Star Wars universe for me. Brave, intelligent, and not afraid to speak her mind or talk back to men in power, she was a vivid role model to the teenage girl I was when the first film came out, and I have always admired and sort of looked up to her. I don’t think I’m alone. She was our sassy, fighting Princess, and now she is gone. It was bittersweet to me to see her on screen one last time (?) knowing that the actress who has played her so ably died soon after her scenes were filmed. I’ll admit, I was thinking the filmmakers might have invented a death scene for her too (there were several good places to put one).
But maybe its best that we leave her as we last see her: a gallant but sorrowful passenger aboard the faded Millenium Falcon, alongside her beloved droids and a Chewbacca who is soon to be the sole living survivor of that first generation, all of them very much in mourning as they are surrounded by bright new lives. Luke has gone to become one with the Force, and probably a ghost to haunt future episodes. His sister will almost certainly join him there in the gap between this installment and the next, which as graceful a way to write Fisher out of the series as any. The young people: Rey, and her company made up of Poe, Finn, Rose and assorted droids, are ready to begin a new cycle of adventures and spiritual questing, and Chewie will go with them to keep them out of trouble.
Here’s hoping they will meet with Leia’s ghost eventually, in the long white robes and cinnamon roll hairdo she wore when we first saw her in that famous holovideo. CGI can do that for us, can’t it?
From the moviegoers notebook:
The Empire or the First Order or whoever the bad guys are here, continue that longstanding Star Wars bad guy design tradition of putting significant technical McGuffins at the end of interior bridges over internal voids.
The beehive monastery on the Irish Island is one of the great space opera settings. No better place to seek to be Trained by a Master, and to discover the limits of Mastery. Burning down the Library, or even threatening to do so, is a very spiritual thing to do.
Was I the only one who thought the (very cool) Praetorian Guards in the big bad throne room were all, underneath all those red robes and red armor, women?