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‘The Last Jedi’ returns wonder to ‘Star Wars’ universe

Tickets+to+a+galaxy+far%2C+far+away+are+well+worth+the+price.+
Tickets to a galaxy far, far away are well worth the price.

Tickets to a galaxy far, far away are well worth the price.

Jaren Tankersley

Jaren Tankersley

Tickets to a galaxy far, far away are well worth the price.

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The score swells as the iconic first notes of the “Star Wars” theme blast through the theater, the massive logo filling the screen before the traditional text crawl takes over. Mere moments later, the Star Destroyers of the villainous First Order appear over the base of the heroic Resistance, and the film becomes engulfed in a dazzling display of light and sound, creating one of, if not the best spaceship battle of the “Star Wars” franchise. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” clearly establishes its understanding of what makes “Star Wars” great, but also clearly sets out to take the franchise in a bold new direction.

“The Last Jedi” premiered Thursday, Dec. 14, grossing $220,009,584 in its opening weekend and $1,206,728,146 overall worldwide. Directed and written by Rian Johnson, Episode VIII features a massive cast including Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Benecio Del Toro, Laura Dern, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis and the late Carrie Fisher.

The Leia of this film is a general with 1,000 bitter defeats and hard-won victories behind her.”

— Jaren Tankersley, 12

The entire cast is incredibly talented and all turn in great performances, but four actors stand apart as especially excellent. Interestingly, two actors from both the old guard of the original trilogy and the new leads who are taking up the torch of the franchise slightly outperform the others. The veteran superstars are Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher as space-siblings Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa.

This is the last role Fisher filmed for before her death in 2016, and nobody could ask for a better send-off for such a wonderful actress. In perhaps her best turn as Leia, Fisher embodies a character who has suffered unimaginable loss, from her home planet’s destruction to her own son’s fall to the dark side, yet has never forsaken hope. The Leia of this film is a general with 1,000 bitter defeats and hard-won victories behind her, as confident in her leadership as ever, only now with more experience. She alternates between kindly parental and sharply commanding, and the film could never survive without Fisher’s performance bringing her to life.

While Fisher is the embodiment of hope as Leia, Hamill as Luke is far removed from any such happiness. “The Last Jedi” does not present Luke Skywalker as having grown into a legendary space warrior, protecting the galaxy as some kind of Jedi John Wayne. The film similarly does not present Luke as a wise and learned master of the Force, teaching new pupils with all the wit and wherewithal of Confucius.

Luke Skywalker, in his old age, is a disillusioned, burned-out hippie who has lost faith in his cause, his teachings and himself.”

— Jaren Tankersley, 12

Luke Skywalker, in his old age, is a disillusioned, burned-out hippie who has lost faith in his cause, his teachings and himself. He is still the Luke of the old trilogy–sometimes charming, sometimes selfish, always, as one character says, “looking to the horizon.” Yet Luke has ceased to look at that horizon with bright-eyed wonder, and now gazes out with weary resignation. Presenting the main hero of the original trilogy in such a grim fashion is a bold step on the part of the filmmakers, and the only way such an unexpected direction could work is if Hamill turned in a stellar performance, which he fortunately does.

Much of Luke’s bitterness is tied to his guilt over his apprentice Ben Solo’s fall to the Dark Side, and with Adam Driver portraying Ben’s ruthless alter ego Kylo Ren, such bitterness is understandable. Ren is the perfect villain for this flick, as his entire personality is built on his relation to the past, one of the film’s main themes. Ren is whiney and petulant, prone to fits of consuming rage at others and himself, consumed with an inferiority complex so obvious Driver may as well dance around screaming “I feel inadequate!”

This self-loathing does not lessen Ren’s threateningness, but rather increases it, as the script and Driver both clearly paint a picture of a villain entirely unpredictable and therefore entirely dangerous. Following in the vein of The Force Awakens, “The Last Jedi” deigns to make the obvious successor to Darth Vader complex where Vader was cool, and Driver’s performance marks Kylo Ren as worthy to carry the lofty title of “Star Wars villain.”

Driver’s excellent performance is furthered by his chance to play off another brilliant actor. While in Episode VII, Kylo Ren and main protagonist Rey had only a brief fight scene to share, here the two spend much of the run time conversing, and both the characters and the acting behind them are elevated for it.

Ridley’s portrayal of Rey’s interactions and disappointments with her hero Luke are perhaps the acting highlight of ‘The Last Jedi.’”

— Jaren Tankersley, 12

Daisy Ridley’s second rendition of Rey is unsurprisingly great. While she carries much of the same curiosity and thirst for adventure as Luke did in Episodes IV and V, Rey is very much her own character. Ridley brings a harsher, grimmer edge to Rey, along with a mistrust of authority which fits neatly with the movie’s themes regarding tradition and history. Ridley also gives Rey a sense of palpable impatience with the setbacks and delays of her section of the plot, lending a sense of imminent peril to the proceedings. While her chemistry with Driver is phenomenal, Ridley’s portrayal of Rey’s interactions and disappointments with her hero Luke are perhaps the acting highlight of “The Last Jedi.”

An attentive reader may note this review has avoided many plot-specific details, and this is because the story of Episode VIII is so full of twist and turns that attempting to even summarize the plot would risk spoiling many of the films surprises. Without revealing too much, “The Last Jedi” takes a drastic departure from traditional “Star Wars” storytelling, disregarding the three-act structure of the previous films for four distinct acts, which pushes the film’s runtime to two hours and 32 minutes, the longest of any “Star Wars” film.

For the most part, the plot of Episode VIII remains tightly focused and well-paced. However, John Boyega’s Finn and Kelly Marie Tran’s new character, Rose, go on what has become a much-maligned subplot during the second act. While their subplot is necessary to discuss a theme “Star Wars” has thus far failed to explore–class divide–the secondary story does outstay its welcome at moments.

Yet Rose and Finn’s subplot is the only real misstep of the movie. The rest of “The Last Jedi” is, on a technical level, flawless. The set design, music, costuming and choreography all perfectly fall into the “Star Wars” tradition, and the cinematography features some of the best camerawork of the series.

Because of the movie’s technical genius, any criticisms not directed toward Finn and Rose’s subplot are entirely subjective. “The Last Jedi” goes out of its way to take the story and characters of “Star Wars” in a bold new direction, and many of the choices resulting from such will anger some fans. While the film executes its every goal with near perfection, audience members may easily feel those goals were never the correct ones, and therefore fail to enjoy Episode VIII.

Yet this reviewer believes the daring newness of “The Last Jedi” is a breath of fresh air in a 41-year-old series, and with such phenomenal talent portraying such brilliantly written characters on such interesting journeys, he cannot wait to see where this new path for “Star Wars” leads.

Episode VIII had the highest box office sales of any movie released in 2017. With only one real flaw to speak of, and enough brilliant moments to overshadow that flaw entirely, “The Last Jedi” is not only the biggest movie of the year, but one of the best. Although the film’s titanic profits indicate you have, if you have not watched “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” go to your local theater as soon as possible and visit a wonderful galaxy far, far away.

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‘The Last Jedi’ returns wonder to ‘Star Wars’ universe