Friday, December 29, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars The Last Jedi

Spoilers for people who have not watched yet.

In 1977 I saw Star Wars 13 times from May through till the fall in different theatres all across the city starting with Grant Park which at the time was a single screen. By the end, I think I saw it at the Kings, Odeon, Park and few other theatres in between throughout that summer and into fall.

Unlike many others, I already knew something about Star Wars because Marvel Comics began releasing monthly comic 1-6 starting in April a month before Star Wars premiere. Jamie Rae at Sir John Franklin Elementary School picked up a copy and Nieman's Pharmacy on Corydon and passed it to me. I thought it was good but it was the first time I read a serialized comic covering one story. And to be honest I had been spoiled by Charlton Comics with their 7 issues of Space: 1999 based on the TV series. I had found that comic to have artwork and stories more matching my impression of the TV series.

I was nevertheless intrigued by this new Star Wars world and excited to find it was coming to theatres in May. At 12 there were many movies I could not see unless with an adult. I had seen Rocky only six months before and remembered the elation after in regards to the story, acting, music and spirit. I was not able to see movies like Jaws a year earlier because of parental accompaniment rules. This was also true of Godfather movies 1 and 2 in 1972 and 1974.

So there I was literally trembling with excitement as I watched Star Wars for the first time at Grant Park. The musical fanfare of the 20th Century logo followed b the caption: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away drew me in. And then ta-da! The epic John William's score exploding on screen with an opening crawl introducing us to the adventure followed by a space battle the likes of which we had never seen before.

I have been a Star Wars fan ever since but not an uncritical one. The writing in sci-fi has to be authentic in that you believe that you are inhabiting the world where the story unfolds. Special effects can't come to dominate over story and character. Humour is important but if too cutesy it can be downright insulting or plain annoying. Striking a balance is never easy.

The re-booted Star Wars franchise starting with The Force Awakens was an exciting romp introducing new characters with old and leaving many fans quite happy including myself. Some critics were less impressed calling it a re-hash which it was with nothing new to add which wasn't true.

In the long wait for the second part of the trilogy, a Star Wars stand alone episode Rogue One told a story separate from the main story but familiar with canon. It was better received by critics and fans alike most mostly did not involve characters from the main Star Wars stories as the main protagonists.

The architect of the now Disney-owned Star Wars stood content to leave the writing and directing duties to someone new. Rian Johnson, who achieved fame withe movie Looper and directing episodes of Breaking Bad, was tasked with taking the franchise to new levels. To critics he achieved all of that and more if reviews are to be believed. To fans, many have come to feel that certain storylines have been abandoned as quickly as they were introduced. A dissonance has emerged that is the opposite of what we normally see. Fans love and critics hate. However, in the latest Star Wars outing many critics have been favourable and some fans ambivalent or even hostile.

First, I'd like to say I enjoyed The Last Jedi but even as I watched wondered if Rian Johnson actually liked The Force Awakens. The reason I say that is because certain storylines and characters were struck down down in the course of the film. The fact that this is the second of a trilogy means that there must have been some sort of agreement from decision makers including J.J. Abrams that this was the way to go. A director of the third movie was already removed over creative differences in favour of a return of Abrams so the idea of some sort of continuity obvious exists. But how do you achieve that unless you walk it back and explain what actually happened.

Here is what is good about The Last Jedi. Daisy Ridley remains a compelling screen presence. As Rey her interactions with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) drive the story. As for Mark Hamill, this was a great opportunity to see him in action again. Like Harrison Ford's return in the previous movie as Han Solo, it was good to catch up on an old character and see them fit in as comfortable as an old glove. It was quite the moment when we saw Luke enter the cockpit and look around remembering much like Han did when he found the Millennium Falcon.

This was Carrie Fisher's last movie as General Princess Leia Organa. Her death shortly after the flight home from filming meant we'd never see her act in another Star Wars. That is sad because her role in this new trilogy has gotten richer and her performance after so many years away from the screen better. Producers had planned for her to be in the third movie but that obviously will not happen now.

I waited a bit to write this review. As an acknowledged Star Wars fan, it was important to realize that some movies are critic proof. They will score big box office and the critics be damned. And the ones that critics like go on to be little watched Oscar winners. It seems that never the twain shall meet. However, it should be noted that the Last Jedi critics and fan ratings are almost identical which shows sometimes convergence.

Critics have rated The Last Jedi high and the fans have mounted a backlash. The box office decline is substantial into second week. Disney will likely earn back all the money spent and then some but direct Rian Johnson has had to comment on the fan reaction.

The reaction to Finn (John Boyega) and new character  Rose Tico 's (Kelly Marie Tran) off ship adventure to find a codebreaker DJ (Benicio del Toro) and Poe Dameron's (Oscar Issac) mutiny against Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) have been particularly polarizing.

I suspect the movie will have to be re-watched a number of times (if people give it the chance) to see how they feel about it without the benefit of the 3D and at their own pace before we get a full measure of things. The Empire Strikes Back left fans uncertain as well till it was seen in the context of the full original trilogy. In other words, we might have a different view when the third movie comes out.

Star Wars fans have long been abused. The original Star Wars has been tampered with so much and George Lucas himself has been responsible. The who shot first scene in the cantina between Han and Greedo is particularly perplexing. Of course Han shot first. However, the scene has been altered. Lucas has not released the original film for preservation to the National Film Registry and subsequently, we don't have the 35 mm print to work from. It is selfish and cruel in terms of history. Fans has been subjected to poor copies in terms of colour or digitally altered versions but never a clean copy of the film of 1977.

If fans feel fit to backlash, it is because it is a love-hate relationship. At the moment, many feel director Rian Johnson is trashing their history with Star Wars. Or as Kylo Ren has said about history: "Kill it."

Given the billions Disney paid for Star Wars, I suspect they will take note. If they are not afraid, they should be as Yoda once said to Luke.

I have not given up on the movie series yet but here are a number of things that could have been done to make this movie outing better. It may not be too late to fix some of them or delve deeper for answers in third movie. Not as easy task as it is both simple and complex at same time.

Notes for improvement:

* Movie length. Longer does not equal better. Tighten it up. Some of the set action pieces would be good to trim. Often it feels they are included not to further the movie story but to drive game sales. Just off the top of my head the entire bombing mission on a dreadnought could have been dropped. The idea of dropping bombs downward in space was insulting and stupid. I realize sci-fi takes liberties with hearing the ship in space as well as faster than light speed but Star Wars at least acknowledges gravity and vacuum in space, right?

* Movie characters. There are a lot. Rian Johnson's solution was to kill a lot off and blow them into space (more on that scene later). The director also killed off other characters such as Snoke before we even understood how the First Order came about and how he emerged as leader and seduced Kylo Ren to the dark side. Fans have hated this because why introduce such a villain and not flesh it out more. Even as characters die (more on Luke later) the director adds DJ and Rose Tico. Hard to follow so many characters or know why you should even care.

* The lack of revelation. If we isolate Luke as main protagonist, the first revelation in the first movie was that his father was a Jedi warrior and this propels him to follow in his father's footsteps. The second movie's revelation is that Luke's father turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader. The third movie's revelation was two-fold in that Luke had a sister and it was Leia. Also, Luke sensed conflict in his father and hoped to turn him back to the light and end the Emperor's reign.

If Rey is the protagonist in the new trilogy, the first revelation is that she possesses the Force and is somehow connected to Luke Skywalker. The second movie indicates there is no familiar connection. Skywalker asks: Who are you? It is later revealed she is the daughter of scrapdealers and created her own mythology of waiting on someone's return.

Now that is either some classical misdirection or the worst opportunity blown ever. Couple of possibilities where they could have gone. Rey is daughter/grand daughter of Ben Kenobi. Probably a bit of reach given Ben's death and years since past then. Better: Rey is daughter of Snoke which would have had nice symmetry with Kylo Ren being son to Han and Leia.

As for Snoke, some wags suggested he could have been a deformed Mace Windu. Bit of a reach there but possible. In any event, better than saying Rey is no one.

* Plain Silly There were a few moment but by far Leia flying in frozen vacuum was awful. And lazy. And nonsensical. The scene shows Leia outside the ship frozen, weightless and dead. Somehow she is alive and able to get back to the ship presumably with the Force. I'm prepared to suspend belief a great deal but that was a ridiculous moment.

All my commentary about what was flawed has not put me off this Star Wars or the franchise. They have made bad choices in the past such as the Star Wars holiday TV special or Jar Jark Binks. George Lucas was a visionary for his space opera but he could err when it came to size and scope of his work. The writing could be clunky, the humour hit and miss, the special effects amazing and overwhelming and the characterization bang on or off. More uncomfortably, he kept changing his work without realizing how polarizing it could be. How dare he keep messing with our memories? Spielberg is guilty of this as well by turning guns into walkie-talkies in E.T.

There will be no perfect Star Wars. I can remember how much controversy there was over Leia saying "I love you" in Empire Strikes back but it had to be seen in the context of Han saying "I love you" and getting the same response in Return of the Jedi. This is the point of a trilogy of having a beginning, middle and end. Some people are great at the beginning, some great end at the end while most struggle with the middle. George Lucas had a strong beginning as did J.J. Abrams. Irvin Kershner gave a textbook example of how to do a second movie in Empire Strikes back with a solid script by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett.

The creator has to know the beginning, middle and end of the story...the bones. But how the meat of the saga is filled by the collaborative effort of all involved in the film. While some creator know how to begin a story others collapse just short of the finish line. J.J. Abrams did this with the TV series Lost which failed to pay off in its finale. The movie goer may not be able to judge The Last Jedi as solidly as they might until the third and final part of the trilogy is told.

I think there is no danger of that The Last Jedi will be the the last movie because of box office. It should do well in the overall world market to make Disney very happy. Hollywood has always been focused on the box office and that is why they've focused on franchises to deliver the goods time in a time out. While some critics have waxed poetic on Rian Johnson and some fans have made a call to arms, I am left awaiting the third chapter to the story because I find it impossible to totally assess this latest effort. I liked it a lot but still have so many questions about the direction and choices made.

Until then I remain a Star Wars fan but am awaiting the pay-off in the third chapter.

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