Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi
Bruce Steele: Since Star Wars: The Last Jedi trumpets its heroes’ sad state in its title, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is easily the darkest installment in the series yet.
Edwin Arnaudin: Coming off the mostly light-hearted A New Hope cover band known as The Force Awakens, it’s the Dark Side’s turn to balance out the Rebels’ small gains. The analogs with The Empire Strike Back are expected, but I was surprised by how much The Last Jedi strays from its forebear. It has its own personality and doesn’t feel beholden to the typical Star Wars blueprint — and I think that’s mostly a good thing.
Bruce: Writer-director Rian Johnson loves both feeding and thwarting audience expectations, with the balance — a favorite Jedi word — tipping to the pessimistic. I think I was most surprised that the movie doesn’t give Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) a grand mission so much as toss them in a series of holes they have to claw their way out of.
Edwin: Their fragmentation is a bit frustrating, though in Rey’s case, her new friends compensate for breaking up the band. I found her tutelage by a reluctant Luke (Mark Hamill) on the sacred Jedi island Ahch-To the current trilogy’s best melding of old and new. More intriguing, however, is her Force connection with conflicted baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and where it leads both characters.
Bruce: I was dreading yet another Jedi training sequence, so the way the Rey/Luke sequence unfolds was surprisingly satisfying. More than any other Star Wars movie, this one wants to be about the characters’ inner lives — especially Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren, but also Finn, who takes up with another former cog in the war machine, rebel mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). It seems like Johnson started by deciding how he wanted the characters to interact, then invented some plot to reach those combinations.
Edwin: And perhaps because of that, The Last Jedi does feel plot-heavy — and all in the service of the Rebellion’s survival, the specifics of which I found to be the film’s most boring aspect. With Leia (Carrie Fisher) suddenly unable to lead, Vice Admiral Holdo (a miscast Laura Dern) and Poe dully butt heads, and the Finn/Rose side mission to recruit a codebreaker to help get the First Order off their tail isn’t much better. I kept wanting to get back to Rey and Kylo Ren.
Bruce: Dern looked and acted like she’d beamed in from Twin Peaks: The Return. I got used to her but never really bought the character. For me, Rose and Finn’s trip to the interplanetary casino was the film’s most entertaining sequence. The movie may be gloomy overall, but it’s got some good doses of humor.
Edwin: A certain lightsaber battle gets my vote over the casino stretch, though I’m with you on the humor. It was fun seeing General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) be the punching bag for Poe and Kylo Ren, plus BB-8 again steals each of his scenes and at one point inspires a priceless look from Finn. And while I wouldn’t want Chewbacca and the porgs (the chirpy, guinea pig/owl hybrid creatures that infest Ahch-To) to get their own spin-off, they make for quick, amusing tangents.
Bruce: So the question is, will this jambalaya of cute gags, self-doubting heroes and disconnected action sequences satisfy the fans and keep them coming back for repeat viewings? Despite the "A" Cinemascore from opening day audiences, I’ve heard some grumbling.
Edwin: You can’t please all the people all the time, and it seems like some of the same viewers who griped about Episode VII being too familiar are miffed that Last Jedi isn’t a flat-out Empire homage. I applaud Johnson for taking risks and there are plenty of scenes I’ll look forward to on revisits, but given its occasional narrative rockiness, I’m more apt to choose The Force Awakens or Rogue One. How about you?
Bruce: I think Rogue One is the best stand-alone film in the series since Star Wars, and Force Awakens is probably a close third. But I already have tickets to see Last Jedi again, and I expect to like it better on second viewing. Still, it’s basically appetizer for Episode IX, that that grand finale needs to deliver the goods a la Return of the King. Are you hopeful?
Edwin: Very much so. I’m curious to see how J.J. Abrams and whoever else wind up writing the script interpret Johnson’s entry. Since Abrams (and Lawrence Kasdan) got the new series rolling, I’m guessing the concluding chapter will be a smoother, more traditional film — but we’ll see. Maybe Johnson will inspire him to get a little weird. I take it you’re optimistic as well?
Bruce: I am. All of Abrams’ movies as director tend toward grand confrontations with explosive finales — even the intimate little Super 8. I think he was called back in (replacing Colin Trevorrow of Jurassic World) because Disney wanted to make sure that’s what they get for Episode IX. Meanwhile, it’s fine to try something a little dark and a little different. I’ll give The Last Jedi a B-plus, with lots of room for the series to grow into a full A finish. Or maybe... A-plus? Ask me in two years.
Edwin: That good ol’ Abrams insurance...part of the same policy that led to Ron Howard inheriting Solo from the quirk of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie; 21/22 Jump Street). I wasn’t thrilled with that switch and likewise wanted to see what Trevorrow would do with this universe, but after liking Last Jedi a lot yet not loving it, maybe I’m less adventurous than I want to admit when it comes to these movies. Episode VIII gets a tentative B-plus from me with hope that I’ll grow to appreciate its importance to the trilogy and overall Star Wars mythology in time.
Grade: B-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse.
(Photos: Walt Disney Studios)