Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 18, 2017 2:42 pm 
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What does it mean, "The last Jedi"?

Despite the fact that it goes exactly nowhere, ending up much where it begins, the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi is one of the best in this long series. It's one of the highest rated by critics, as one would hope since its director, Rian Johnson (of Brick and Looper), is a certifiable good one. It is very enjoyable, full of the charm of critters and cute robots, things that will appeal to kids.

And yet it also finds plenty of time for a huge galactic conflict of good rebels of the Resistance led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) with a lady Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and the proud rebel fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) against the evil domination of the First Order headed by its cadaverous Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his effete posh-talking British General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

Even if this franchise has never been one's thing, there's something to enjoy here - as was true of last year's out-of-series Rogue One too, which introduced prominent minority characters and had a feel of informal energy the series didn't always find before. The images are beautiful, particularly when they introduce the color red; and the venerable John Williams, now 85, is still there with a rousing score. Several memorable sequences include Rey's sudden replication in a hundred duplicate selves, and the lightsaber battle between Luke Skywalker and a formidable new opponent that takes a magical direction.

The series has been catching up and now Star Wars has gone not only multicultural but visibly feminist, with a brace of new featured women, including Dern, whom you can't miss; Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, and a young Asian woman, Kelly Marie Tran, as Resistance mechanic Rose Tico. But it remembers its past most notably too, by including the iconic original stars Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher (as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia) back at the center of the action, with the return of some essential recent cast members, Isaac, Gleeson, Lupita Nyong'o, John Boyega in that group.

But it still finds time to feature some important new faces, notably Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. Ridley comes as Rey, the great new aspirant to be taught the ways of the Jedi and The Force by the retired Luke Skywalker, whom she comes to seek out where he's hidden away in the "most unfindable place in the Galaxy." The physically imposing, facially distinctive Driver, with his deep, resonant voice that needs only a little tweaking to echo through the biggest auditorium, stands out as the son of Han and Leia, Ben Solo, who has changed his name to Kyla Ren and sworn fealty to the First Order.

But equally prominent is the once (forty years ago) boyish Mark Hamill, who acquires a new seriousness here. And that's the odd thing: this is a Star Wars that's lighthearted for kids, but it also waxes philosophical and mystical and magical, even if Luke's analysis of what "the Force" really means is no big revelation.

An enjoyable odd-man-out is DJ (Benicio Del Toro), the well known actor so weathered-looking as to be almost unrecognizable and representing a slick-and-sleazy criminal type who knows how to break into things at essential moments when nobody has the key or the code on hand. DJ reminds one that compared to sci-fi like the first Blade Runner, "Star Wars" is too much on the squeaky-clean side sometimes, despite the dutiful multicultural and mixed gender cast, and that despite the seasoning of humor, the sequels have forgotten the colorful side of George Lucas' first films.

All this, and it includes some grandiose battles, right? Because this is still Star Wars, after all? Well, yes and no. One of the saving graces Rian Johnson delivers is a strong sense of Star Wars characters and conflicts and yet no droning-on, interminable warfare. The logic of this is that the rebels are running out of supplies, so to hold onto their position, they have to avoid risking too much ammunition and equipment that they don't have. This problem is shown in the opening sequence.

At the end, though, one can't altogether disagree with Richard Brody's disgruntled asserton in The New Yorker online that when even the talented Rian Johnson makes a Star Wars movie, at bottom he is basically performing "an elaborate feat of fan service." And consequently as one lists these different inputs and ingredients, one has the feeling of describing a new dish slightly varying an old recipe.

And with so many ingredients, a clean, clear story line eludes even Rian Johnson, who has dodged the issue of what "The last Jedi" means, exactly - probably Luke Skywalker, but couldn't some of the youngsters, particularly his would-be acolyte Rey, be successors? It even turns out to be a bit blurry whether "Jedi" is singular, or plural, as a Latin-style word pronounced à l'anglaise. Some go with plural. But then is one of them a "Jed"? Best not to delve too deep into the grammar and etymology of this immensely popular fantasy.

"The Last Jedi"? Let's just say it's the title of the latest Star Wars movie, and leave it at that.

Star Wars (Episode VIII): The Last Jedi, 152 mins., premiered 8 Dec. 2017 in Los Angeles for the US, and 12 Dec. in London for Europe; openings in many countries 13 and 14 Dec., but 15 Dec. in the US. Metacritic rating 86%. Watched 18 Dec. 2017 in Auditorium 4 of Regal Union Square, NYC.

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