Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (film review)

The next generation of Rebels (left to right): Finn, Rey and Tico

Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Kelly Ann Tran, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver

The Last Jedi thrills longtime Star Wars fans, ties up several story threads, and passes the light sabre to a new generation of characters. Though imperfect, it is one of the best films in the franchise.

[spoiler alert: Read no further if you haven't seen the film.]

The Last Jedi picks up from 2015's The Force Awakens which introduced the next generation of Star Wars heroes and villains: Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Depending on whether you liked it or not, The Force Awakens either honoured or plagiarized the very first Star Wars. Young junk scavenger Rey was the young Luke Skywalker; Han Solo and Chewbacca reunited in their Falcon; BB-8 was the droid carrying a secret message, and so on.

In contrast, The Last Jedi strikes new ground. For starters, I'm glad it reverses the Yoda-Luke teacher/pupil story from The Empire Strikes Back as elder Luke refuses to teach Rey the ways of the Jedi. Luke, now a hermit on a distant planet, is sickened by the destruction that the Jedis (notably his former pupil Kylo Ren) have wrought. Rey begs Luke, and his obstinacy notches up the tension. Rey is running out of time.

The Empire has besieged the dwindling Rebel fleet after General Leia (Carrie Fisher's last Star Wars) leads an escape from their base, but shockingly can't elude the Empire in hyperspace. This battle sequence opens the film with a jolt and sets the stakes high right off the bat. Even better, young hotshot Poe clashes with wise, calm Leia over the direction of the first battle, adding another laying of tension.

Meanwhile, Finn recovers from his injuries in The Force Awakens, but is caught deserting by mechanic Tico Rose. Played by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran (pictured right, top), Rose is the new character of The Last Jedi--and a stunning addition. She's feisty and tough, an underdog orphan bringing the best out of Finn. Also, Tico adds a long-overdue Asian face to Star Wars and bolsters its feminine presence. Tico Rose modernizes Star Wars.

There's no shortage of battle scenes in space and dazzling light-sabre duels, but telepathy plays a role in this film like no other in the franchise. Crossing the galaxy, Rey "speaks" to Kylo Ren through their minds, wooing him to abandon the Dark Side (under Supreme Leader Snoke) and join the side of good under the Rebels. Later, Luke takes this kind of telepathy a leap forward when he faces Kylo Ren in a showdown.

Two things struck me with The Last Jedi. One, there were some laughs. When the Empire blasts a stock-still Luke a thousand times, an unscathed Luke merely wipes his shoulder. More importantly was the poignancy. Everyone knows Carrie Fisher (above) passed away a year ago, so seeing her hurled into space, lifeless and covered in ice, silenced the audience. Later, seeing her and Mark Hamill (below) reunite was touching. You somehow knew those two would not see each other again. (BTW, they joke about their hair.) And it's no secret, given the title, that this is Luke Skywalker's last appearance. How he goes, you don't know. These farewells are executed with class and eloquence, never forced.

Two cameos are worth noting. Benecio del Toro steals his scenes as DJ, a shyster who gets Tico and Finn onto the Empire's mothership to switch off its tracking device, so that the Rebels can try to escape, but then DJ sells them out to the Empire. Then there's Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo. I wasn't sure about her presence or character's motivations at first, but she propels a crucial scene where she slices the Empire's ship in two.

The Last Jedi suffers from a few imperfections. The middle of the film drags a bit and the third act feels extended with one epic battle immediately following another. But I can live with that. What I can't stand are these super-cute puffin birds that pop up on Luke's planet. It's like there's a Cute Quota in each Star Wars and these puffins fulfilled that.

Thank God there is no medal ceremony to neatly end The Last Jedi as in the first and third films. Instead, there's enough ambiguity to tantalize the viewer, yet enough closure to satisfy. In The Last Jedi, the past of the original Star Wars closes, and the door to the future--Rey, Tico, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren--opens. I hope they lead us somewhere as wondrous as this chapter.

review by Allan Tong

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