Star Wars

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

BBFC 12A 2hrs 32mins

 

 

Full disclosure: I have never been a Star Wars fan. I don’t own any toys; I have never read any of the extended universe novels; no posters adorn my walls; the prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and The Revenge of the Sith) didn’t upset me, only bored me; I don’t own any of the dvd’s; I even had to look up the names of the prequels just now.

This, of course, does not mean I don’t recognise their value or, that in any way, I dismiss them as fan-serving fluff. The job of a film reviewer is to try to honestly convey to the reader what they’ve seen up there on the screen, to give a completely unbiased opinion based upon a number of criteria (such as storytelling, direction, acting and technical merits), to be as informed as possible and to try not to bore said reader in the process. Oh, and avoid spoilers… yes, definitely avoid spoilers.

I tell you all of this for one simple reason. I want you to know that Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is not just a great Star Wars movie, it is a really, really great movie in its own right: it achieves exactly what it sets out to do and does so in a way that never is boring, flabby or uninteresting; moves its characters and plot forward in a satisfying and, sometimes, moving arcs; it stays true to the series ethos and mythos whilst introducing new and interesting riffs upon them and, along the way, it corrects a course-direction that the prequels (and even The Force Awakens to some extent) managed to muddle and muddy.

Yes, The Last Jedi works… with a few caveats.

Picking up directly where Episode VII: The Force Awakens ended Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found the now reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To and seeks answers to not only her heritage but to her place in the universe. The Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), is on the run from The First Order and fiercely outnumbered. New alliances must be forged and old questions beg answers.

So far, so Empire Strikes Back.

Where The Force Awakens was basically A New Hope remastered, The Last Jedi shares a whole heap of DNA with The Empire Strikes Back. But, unlike its predecessor, Jedi manages to shine despite its familiarity and not because of it. It’s the difference between a Woolworth’s Top of the Pops collection and something like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions… (the former being a cover version album, the latter taking the familiar and creating something new and exciting with it). Replace Ahch-To with the Dagobah scenes of Luke’s training; the neo-Vegas glitz of Canto Bight with Cloud City; the shock revelation of Rey’s true ancestry and cliff-hanger ending and you’ve got Empire 1.2. What writer/director Rian Johnson manages to achieve though is something always fresh, sometimes surprising and, ultimately, emotionally satisfying.

New layers have been added to familiar characters like Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and even Luke Skywalker. Existing characters are expanded upon giving them both motivation and weight, specifically General Hux (Domhall Gleeson), Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) – a villain so repulsive he could easily have risen to power wearing a red “Make The Galaxy Great Again” baseball cap. New characters are introduced that will immediately become fan favourites like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), DJ (Benicio Del Toro) and purple-haired Resistance fleet Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). There’s plenty of spectacular battles, an all-timer light sabre duel, emotional highs and devastating losses. There’s even a new shade of grey introduced into what is, essentially, a universe of black hats versus white hats that, if carried forward and expanded upon, will move the Star Wars Universe in a deeper, more nuanced direction.

I’m desperately trying not to give too much away but I have to address the elephant in the room: That The Last Jedi is the slam-bang in the middle of a three act story and, as such, it struggles to be anything but the set-up for the final chapter. This is a problem that all trilogies face and, though it is probably the best instalment since Empire, it’s difficult to judge it as its own thing. The whole Canto Bight storyline will become clearer in the context of the whole, I’m sure, but here it feels slightly crow-barred in and excessive to the needs of the story despite introducing new characters Rose and DJ and that much needed shade of grey. It’s not that the Canto Bight sequences are bad, far from it, but here they tend to feel like something you’d get in an extended edition dvd rather than an essential part of the story.

There’s also a fear that new elements of the film have been added simply for their merchandising potential than as necessary plot points. I’m thinking specifically about the Porgs (cute rabbit/penguin hybrid critters, plushie-toy-friendly creations coming to a Christmas stocking near you) which add little to the plot but potentially enormous earnings beyond the movie.

The tragic loss of Carrie Fisher hangs heavy over The Last Jedi and it would take a hard heart not to break over her final scene as Leia, a scene that even without the actress’s death would have audiences reaching for the handkerchiefs. It’s the kind of emotion we should have had in the previous episode for Han Solo but were denied through awful writing and direction, but alas.

So, did Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi make a fan of me? Only for its two and a half hour running time, but during that time I was as thrilled and invested as any fanboy. It’s a transportive experience, the kind that only great cinema can offer and, trust me, this is great cinema.

Andy Oliver

 

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (BBFC 12A)

 

There’s a well-known, much-beloved high street clothes and food retailer whose sumptuous advertisements for puddings makes one salivate at the mere thought of them and, in general, they are quite delicious though sometimes a little less so than they would have you believe. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is such a confection, it’s not quite what you were expecting. There are those that are wholly committed to the brand who will absolutely love it and defend it to their dying breath and there are those that may choose to try it the once and, although mildly pleased by the product, opt to mark it up as a decent enough effort but are not entirely sure what all the fuss is about.

Rogue One is so calorie packed with Easter eggs and nods to previous movies (or chapters to come or however this works) that Star Wars fans may well leave the cinema with the top button of their trousers undone, appetites well and truly sated. The rest of us may find we need to cinch our belts one hole further.

When her mother is murdered by the Empire and her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), taken to finish construction of the first Death Star, young Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsden) escapes the clutches of evil Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and delivers herself into the guardianship of more-than-slightly fanatical Rebel Alliance fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).  Years and untold adventures later, Jyn (now played by Felicity Jones) is rescued from a prison planet by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), his robot side-kick K2-SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and his troop of rebels in the hope that she will lead them to her estranged father.

Meanwhile, Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) seeks (the now even loopier) Gerrera with a message from Galen and news of the Empire’s new super-weapon. All sides converge on the desert planet Jedha where they enlist the cooperation of blind monk(?) Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his protector Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and witness at first hand the destructive power of the Death Star.

Rogue One then shifts from all this set-up to full-on “Men (and woman and robot) On A Mission” movie as the companions track down Galen, argue a bit and finally attempt to recover the blueprints of the Death Star and get them to the Rebellion.

So, what we have here is episode 3½, kind of. Assuming you’ve seen episode 4, Star Wars: A New Hope, (or at least, the opening crawl) you’ll already know whether, or not, the mission is a success and therefore the narrative drive of Rogue One rests wholly on which, if any, of the team will survive?

And therein lays Rogue One’s greatest strength and (one of) its greatest weakness(es). Being part of the larger Star Wars narrative it gives greater depth and resonance to the following part: there is greater weight placed on the climactic Death Star battle of A New Hope; Luke Skywalker’s final torpedo becomes laced not only with saving the rebels but with the sacrifices laid down before he even steps into his X-Wing fighter; we now understand why such a terrifying and devastating weapon was fitted with a single and ridiculous flaw.

Unless you’ve just emerged, Kaspar Hauser-like, from a gothic basement bereft of all forms of story-telling you will understand how these men-on-a-mission movies work: a disparate bunch of characters are brought together, often for the greater good, to battle indomitable odds and wave-upon-wave of bad guys and many, if not all, of the team will die for the good of the mission. We’ve seen it countless times in movies such as The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven and The Guns of Navarone, and the success, or failure, of the story-telling lays in how much we care about the characters and how much of our emotions we invest in them. It’s all about the ensemble and how well they’re written. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of sub-par character writing going on in Rogue One, many of the team feel under-written and more like tropes than real people and this detracts from any emotional gut-punch you may feel when any of them meet their heroic ends.

Rogue One’s problems don’t stop there, however. There is one character in particular that presents a hugely worrying and moral question that, I suspect, will rumble on in the many think-pieces that will be written about the movie: Grand Moff Tarkin. Originally played by the late, great Peter Cushing, Grand Moff Tarkin is replaced here not by another actor but by a CGI avatar. Beyond the quality of the effect (which is uncanny but rather waxen), I was pulled from the movie by its absolute brazenness and my mind began to wander from the film’s narrative to questions of the ethics of the resurrection of long deceased and how studios may employ this effect in future. Another character in CGI’d in to a much lesser extent (appearing in just one scene), though its inclusion seems arbitrary and an unnecessary reveal, I’ll let you decide on that one (you’ll know who I’m talking about as soon as you see it).

That said the rest of the movie’s special effects are absolutely on point and the climactic space battle is exciting and wrought with spectacle. There’s also a welcome return of practical alien effects rather than an over-reliance on CGI, which is to be applauded.

Director Gareth Edwards keeps the action moving along at a brisk pace even though he tends to drop the ball when it comes to emotional beats. The acting, on the most part, is good but not great (a few lines soar, though many are flat as if being read for the first time without emotion or understanding and one made me want to strangle myself – a Darth Vader “Zinger” that even a Roger Moore era Bond would shudder at). Michael Giacchino’s score hits a lot of the familiar John Williams beats and then becomes its own thing always adding to the film and never detracting.

Overall, Rogue One is the Rocky III of the franchise: it is so invested in entertaining its audience that, for the most part, its problems can be ignored. And it is entertaining, it’s the best movie in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars fans are going to love it and, at the end of the day, that’s what counts. It would be churlish of me to moan that it doesn’t work as a standalone piece of work, that’s not what it is designed to be (imagine watching a single episode of, say, Game of Thrones and basing your opinion and understanding of the entire series on that single viewing), Rogue One is part of a greater whole and, as such, it “adds to” rather than “detracts from” the series.

Andy Oliver

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

After months of endless speculation since its release date was announced, Colchester 101’s Andy Oliver was one of the very first to see the Christmas blockbuster. Here’s his review.

Star Wars

The Force Awakens is a sprawling, expansive, space-opera epic that will have Star Wars fans leaving the cinema with huge grins, empty pockets and a sense that their franchise has been rescued from the mire of the unsuccessful prequels. There’s huge star-ships, alien worlds, straight-arrow good guys, dark as night villains, laser guns, light sabres, a sense of humour, exciting battles… and a sense of familiarity that is both its strength and its weakness.

There’s a new Death Star in this movie. Starkiller* Base is not a space station this time but an entire planet, seventeen times larger than those seen in earlier movies. When I tell you this, I don’t mean it as a spoiler but a clue to where The Force Awakens sits, it’s as much a complete reboot of Episode IV: A New Hope as it is a sequel, played on a vastly expanded scale. There’s lots of familiar plot beats, but with a twist on them: There’s not a princess hiding a secret in a droid, but an X-Wing pilot; the central hero lives on a desert planet but she’s not happy about leaving it; there’s a Stormtrooper dressed as a rebel; there’s a villain dressed all in black who’s… well, that would be telling.

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There’s also moments you’ll recognise from Episodes V an VI (Empire and Return of the Jedi): A small group of rebels have to knock out a shield generator so the main force can attack the Super Death Star; there’s a cantina scene; a forest planet; an ice planet; stuff too spoilery to go into. Some of the scenes feel more like forced attempts to crowbar in familiar concepts and conceits than an attempt at organic story telling. The sense of magic, of discovery that the original movies shared is missing here. Whilst some may welcome this forced familiarity, those looking for new, weird worlds to explore will probably be mildly disappointed.

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But, while the plot feels rather under-nourished and a bit “been there, seen that”, the characters deliver on a massive scale, especially the new ones and they are the best reason for revisiting this series again. Like Luke, Han and Leia in the original trilogy, Rey, Finn and Poe are the reason you’ll want to come back. For every too-on-the-nose callback to the originals there’s a great character moment from one of these guys that make you smile from ear-to-ear at how magical and alive these characters feel.

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina) is the first of the new heroes we meet. Dameron is a straight-arrow good guy, an X-Wing pilot version of a Nicholas Sparks leading man: he’s good to his friends and robot and probably sands down boats with his shirt off. A lesser actor might seem a little Dudley Do-Wright in the role, but Isaac plays him with just the right balance of a square jawed man of action and vulnerability; a good old-fashioned, two-fisted pulp hero.

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Attack The Block’s John Boyega plays Finn, a character cursed to give a damn. Finn is originally FN 2187, a Stormtrooper who refuses to do the wrong thing and finds himself turning from The First Order (as the successors to the Empire are now called, I don’t know why, hey, I thought the rebels won at the end of Jedi) and fighting for the Rebel Alliance. He’s equal parts heroic, terrified and full of bluster and steals the majority of the film’s funny moments.

If the original trilogy made stars of relative unknowns Hammill, Ford and Fisher, then Daisy Ridley (as Rey) emerges as the new star of The Force Awakens. Rey is very much the emotional centre of the movie, abandoned on the backwater desert planet, Jakku, as a child by her family and terrified to leave in case she misses her chance at reunion. It is her compassion and the compassion she receives from others that sets her free. She’s the movie’s single-most capable and self-sufficient character and, although her story arc feels a little rushed, you feel the whole saga will pivot upon her. Ridley is great and her on-screen chemistry with John Boyega is worth the ticket price alone.

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Of the returning characters Harrison Ford has the lion’s share of the screen time and looks like he’s finally having fun again. Han and Chewie are back in the smuggling game but the Empire and The Force are not done with him yet. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia is basically reduced to standing at the central command console at the rebel base, which is a shame and a waste. The first line of the usual screen-crawl states, “Luke Skywalker is missing”, so don’t expect too much of Hammill and what there is is eye-rollingly predictable.

But it’s Adam Driver (another Llewyn Davis alumni and Frances Ha) as the central bad guy, Kylo Ren, who really steals the show. Where Rey, Finn and Poe feel like Star Wars characters, written with bold strokes, Ren is psychologically underpinned in complex and thrilling ways. He’s a man drawn to the dark side of The Force, praying to Darth Vader to resolve the conflict within him; he wants to be consumed by darkness but the light won’t let him go. He’s petulant; his confidence is illusory, a mask behind which his lack of self-esteem festers. He’s a furious ball of emotions, scary and sympathetic and, when the mask is off, he’s a cauldron of conflict. Where George Lucas failed with Anakin in the prequels, Driver triumphs.

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Director JJ Abrams keeps The Force Awakens moving along at a cracking pace, but ultimately it is the dearth of new ideas that holds it back from being a great movie. Too often it riffs on the original trilogy’s action and emotional beats and refuses to be its own beast.

Ultimately, how you feel about The Force Awakens will depend on how invested you are in Star Wars lore, die-hard fans will probably love it, but there’s a little too much fan service for the casual viewer.

*George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker was Starkiller, apparently

 

Andy Oliver

Andy Oliver