Film review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

CONTAINS SPOILERS – ONLY READ AFTER WATCHING THE LAST JEDI

Well, it’s finally arrived. After an almost-two-year wait, we finally got to see what happens on Ahch-To immediately after the infamous closing sequence of The Force Awakens. The highly-anticipated interaction between Luke and Rey was anything but grandiose – Luke simply tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and walks away.

This may not have been the first thing we see in the film, but it certainly set the tone. There are some serious plot developments going on here, but they’re always delivered with a smattering of humour. Indeed, The Last Jedi may be one of the best examples of a script being so well-written that the overarching plot’s many loopholes can be forgiven.

In many ways, the tone of the script is essential to ensure the entire spectrum of potential viewers stays on board. Those expecting to see the darkest of dark sides of the force will certainly be pleased – it gets very dark –  but there’s a lighthearted feel to this film that means no fan will feel alienated.

The basic plot is split into three threads, essentially focused around the three main new heroes introduced in The Force Awakens: Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac).

Rey is wrestling with the dark and light sides of the force – a development that clearly has ramifications for the future of the galaxy. She spends the early parts of her journey with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), before taking off to see Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Our heroine is a truly engaging character and Ridley is the perfect actor to take on the role, taking us on a journey to find out more about herself at the same pace as the viewers.

Elsewhere, Finn wakes up from the coma we left him in at the end of The Force Awakens, before a chance happening sees him forming a bond with resistance mechanic Rose Tico (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran), herself mourning the death of her resistance fighter sister.

Poe Dameron is busy on the main resistance fleet ship attempting tactical dogfight missions to attack the First Order, before attempting a rescue/escape plan with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).

If great films are remembered so for their show-stopping visual moments, then The Last Jedi delivers them in buckets. The dogfights are absolutely real, comprehensible and exhilarating, clearly showing the influence of the film ‘Twelve O’Clock High’, which director Rian Johnson cited as a key reference point. The final fight sequence on the salt land of Crait contrasts the crystalline white of the ground with the kicked-up red chalk as the fighter vehicles slice through them towards the enemy.

A surprising and memorable fight sees Rey and Kylo team up together to wonderful effect. It’s a sequence reminiscent of ‘Three Outlaw Samurai’, with very few cheat editing or confusing cuts. It’s delivered masterfully. There are two specific deaths that really caused some great whooping and fist-pump scenes at the midnight screening: one involving a lightsaber-in-the-head death for a Praetorian Guard, and one involving the brutal death of a major character.

The McGuffin for Finn and his new partner in crime Rose allows them to develop something of a romance. It’s a romance that remains almost entirely unkindled by the end of the film – allowing plenty of  scope to further develop or completely nix their relationship before episode IX. The cynic in me believes this will probably depend on how popular Rose is as a character.

It must be said that the whole story thread for this pair of characters is mainly pointless. There is a largely disappointing sequence on the casino planet of Canto Bight that serves the sole purpose of introducing DJ (Benicio Del Toro). It is framed in a world that is wholly reminiscent of Final Fantasy on a plot level – casino-based planets are common in most games in the franchise, with Chocobo races being a clear inspiration for the Fathier creatures being forced to race for entertainment on Canto Bight. It’s also fairly identical on a visual level, suffering from a common issue in present-day cinema where physical sets and props are lovingly built and filmed, only to be touched-up in post with some less-than-realistic CGI, making for a wholly underwhelming result (see Unkar Plutt in Episode VII for a further reference point).. Fortunately there was no need to reproduce an entire human character a la Peter Cushing in Rogue One, but the visuals are so important after the failings of the prequel trilogy and it’s almost unfathomable that this can still go wrong.

As a side note, there is a wonderful tracking shot whilst we’re on Canto Bight that felt like a tribute to 1927 silent film Wings, which can be seen below.

Unfortunately, this Finn-Rose sideplot always feels like an unwelcome distraction from the Rey-Kylo thread. We were left hanging for two years and so most of the build up has been about what happens next to Luke and Rey, who Rey’s parents are (nobody, it turns out), how her training will play out and how she’ll defeat Kylo Ren. It’s frustrating that we keep getting the rug pulled from under our feet with unwelcome distractions from what is emerging as the main plot, and contributes to a sagging middle act. Indeed, should this have been missing from the film entirely, there would have been little impact on the outcome.

Poe’s character gets many of the best lines for laughs, but there are also big visual gags from BB-8 and some friction between Chewbacca and the furry little creatures called porgs. These porgs are destined to be something of a Marmite character for the franchise – I’m still trying hard to warm to them.

All is forgiven by the final act. If anyone was left unconvinced at any point, the film gets firmly back on track with a lovingly-balanced reintroduction of Yoda as a force ghost. It was surprising but absolutely welcome. Frank Oz provides the voice and yes, it is a real puppet operated by real people. This is how it’s done Mr Lucas.

This kick-starts a long stretch towards the end that is entirely satisfying, exhilarating and feels like a genuinely fresh take n the franchise. It sets up the Resistance in a perilous predicament that gives J.J. Abrams a meaty starting point for the final installation of this trilogy.

It makes the failings pale into insignificance and provides a perfect ending to a not-quite perfect film.

The clocks are officially reset and I’m now on countdown again for the next instalment.

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The Force Awakens – Do your homework

The original Star Wars film was released on 25th May 1977. In the intervening years the dialogue, costumes, storylines, goofs, action figures, trading cards and just about everything else has been cross-analysed and dissected to the minutest of details, leaving the world full of Star Wars nerds always willing to provide you with an additional piece of information to “impress” you. Fans of the films hate being left behind on the details and the dedication to all things Force-related has subsequently reached unrivalled levels.

However, as Star Wars Fever grips to world again in the run up to the release of The Force Awakens, it’s difficult to stay on top of the facts of the new films. There are a few familiar faces but for the most part it’s new characters, creatures and worlds. Whilst the only way to secure your status as Force Awakens Trivia King is to watch the film several times when it hits cinemas, the film is over three months away from the big screen. What if there was a way to get ahead of the game?

Thankfully, this article is on hand to provide the lowdown on the best previous acting efforts of the main characters of the film, meaning you are familiar with their body of work and can show off your wider cinema knowledge closer to the time.

JOHN BOYEGA AS FINN
Essential viewing: Attack The Block

C'est Finn

C’est Finn

Surnameless Finn is the lead character in the new film, seemingly the good guy with a dark past as a stormtrooper. The scant details we’ve had on the character is mirrored by the limited previous performances by the actor portraying him, John Boyega.

His biggest role by far was in the much-celebrated Attack The Block (Joe Cornish, 2011), the British sci-fi coming of age action film where Boyega played Moses, the leader of a gang of youths fighting back against an alien invasion. It was an impressive turn and as a newcomer garnered him with a lot of attention, and rightly so.

If you want to go that extra mile you could seek out the wonderfully gritty British drama Junkheart (Tinge Krishnan, 2011). He has a small role as Jamal in a film that’s really all about its two lead characters, but you will get to see a fantastic film and out-nerd all your friends.

Of course, all of this will be dwarfed by his appearance in The Force Awakens and he is entering a world of super-stardom along with Daisy Ridley, another relative newcomer.

DAISY RIDLEY AS REY
Essential viewing: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer

Who Rey?

Who Rey?

If a small proportion of Star Wars fans had heard of John Boyega before they announced he’d bagged the lead role, an even smaller proportion had heard of Daisy Ridley. Outside a handful of one-off appearances in the likes of Casualty, Silent Witness and Mr Selfridge, she also acted in The Inbetweeners 2 (Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, 2014) only for her scenes to be deleted. She has voiced Taeko Okajima in an English dub of Japanese anime おもひでぽろぽろ / Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991), though that hasn’t been released yet (there is a perfectly good version already available on Blu-ray and DVD should you want to check out a fantastic film).

So that brings us to the one thing she has been in that’s readily available to us all: the video to Wiley’s track “Lights On”, which you can see below.

There’s also an interactive film at the Life Saver website, though you’re going to have to play through parts one and two to get to part three.

OSCAR ISAAC AS POE DAMERON
Essential viewing: Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year

I knew the new Star Wars film would get an Oscar.

I knew the new Star Wars film would get an Oscar.

If there’s one actor in the new film you’re going to get a lot of joy out of, it’s Oscar Isaac. He has a filmography covering a wide range of genres and they’re mainly hugely enjoyable. Your starting point should be Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013). It’s especially good if you’re a huge fan of folk music, but his performance in the title role as a struggling and troubled artist is a great example of the depth he can bring to a character.

Ex-Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) should be a high priority. Not only does it tick two The Force Awakens actors off your list (Domhnall Gleeson also stars), it is an excellent piece of science fiction cinema.

A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor, 2014) shouldn’t be overlooked. Whilst it isn’t one to make an immediate impact, it was critically acclaimed at the time and shows another side to his abilities.

He’s had featured roles in a number of big-budget films, though you may, in hindsight, have forgotten he was in them. Agent Number 3 in The Bourne Legacy (2012), annoying Prince John in Robin Hood (2010) and the hammy Blue Jones in Sucker Punch (2011) all fall into this category. You could track down the film In Secret (2013), which is largely terrible and features Isaac in scenes of an erotic nature with Elizabeth Olsen. One to forget.

ADAM DRIVER AS KYLO REN
Essential viewing: While We’re Young, Girls (TV)

Kylo Ren looks pretty badass in everything we've seen so far.

Kylo Ren looks pretty badass in everything we’ve seen so far.

Kylo Ren has been the subject of much speculation, perhaps more so than any other character. He’s dark, he’s mysterious. The anticipation is similar to that of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace (one thing they did get right in that film). The fact he’s hiding behind a mask helps, and his role is probably set to be similar to that of Darth Vader, with Supreme Leader Snoke as this film’s Emperor. Maybe.

As stars of the new Star Wars film go, Adam Driver strikes a friendly balance between having done enough films to show off his talent without having too many to watch to ever get on track. Additionally, for anyone who was longing for the Noam Baumbach film series action figures (strangely yet to appear), you can finally get your hands on a Driver action figure – actually the Kylo Ren Elite Series one is one of the coolest on the market (especially when it is in cosplay).

For a fantastic look at how two-faced he can make a character, then While We’re Young (Noam Baumbach, 2015) is essential viewing. He starts the film as a seemingly innocent and eager filmmaker, only to later turn out to be wholly manipulative and power-hungry individual. It’s likely light-going in comparison to The Force Awakens, but as it’s a rom-com you might be able to have a quiet night in with your other half without them realising you’re researching the new Star Wars film.

He had a brief appearance as a musician in Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2014), which is covered in more detail in Oscar Isaac’s section. Driver has a cameo as a deep-voiced musician and his role is almost entirely covered in the clip below, which also features other Star Wars key player Oscar Isaac (as well as Justin Timberlake!).

The quintessential role for him thus far has in fact been on the small screen with his role as Adam Sackler in the series Girls. His role is the boyfriend of the lead character, but it has been celebrated critically and he has received three Emmy nominations for his efforts.

Elsewhere, he had a cameo of note in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012) as Samuel Beckwith, a brief appearance in another Baumbach film Frances Ha (2013) and recently starred in the lead role in indie film Hungry Hearts (Saverio Costanzo, 2015). There’s plenty to choose from and it won’t be difficult to get up to speed with his work.

ANDY SERKIS AS SUPREME LEADER SNOKE
Essential viewing: The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Welcome to the Serkis

Welcome to the Serkis

If Kylo Ren is a bit mysterious, then Supreme Leader Snoke is a stealth ninja, The Third Man of Star Wars villains. Who knows what he’ll look like? Probably quite a few people by now but they’re all tight-lipped. Let’s say he’s somewhere between a small green goblin creature, a 25 ft. tall colossal gorilla, a seafaring merchant marine captain and solid sound.

What we do know is that Andy Serkis has been involved in a lot of motion capture in his time, receiving many awards and accolades for his efforts. It’s fairly easy to pick a handful of films to get you started, so much so they’re hardly worth mentioning. If you haven’t seen him as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) then stop reading this and immediately go and watch them. All three. Extended versions if possible. After this he put in a criminally underrated performance as the titular King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005). He also starred as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014). There are six huge films there, a great weekend to be had by any fan of cinema. The reason he works so well in motion-capture roles is his level of acting and the way that translates to the big screen. One thing’s for certain – Snoke will be a dynamic character with a believable drive.

If you ever get to see the episode of Pie in the Sky titled “Passion Fruit Fool”, you will see the origins of a great actor in a completely throwaway role. Actually don’t. It’s awful.

DOMHNALL GLEESON AS GENERAL HUX
Essential viewing: Ex Machina, Black Mirror: Be Right Back

He must be evil. He has a British accent.

He must be evil. He has a British accent.

Little is known about General Hux at this stage. He’s not really featured much in the trailers and none of the merchandise has featured him prominently. What we do know is that he’s part of the Dark Side, a senior figure in the newly formed First Order – an organisation build from the embers of the downfall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi.

Whilst Gleeson might remain a bit of an unknown to the wider public outside his appearances in the two Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films (David Yates, 2010 and 2011) as Bill Weasley, he has actually been in a plethora of excellent films since then.

The pick of the bunch is going to be the afore-mentioned Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). It’s a no-brainer as you get to see excellent performances from both Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014) is worth watching, despite its pitfalls as a way of ruining the legacy of a well-regarded British entertainer. British romantic comedy About Time (Richard Curtis, 2013) is one to avoid. The Black Mirror episode Be Right Back (Charlie Brooker, 2013) is a short slice of ingeniously dark satirical comedy and a great way to spend an evening.

You can also see the whole of the Academy Award-winning short film Six Shooter (Martin McDonah, 2004), in which Gleeson cameos as a trolley cart attendant (his first ever role), below.

He’s an actor of real ability and will undoubtedly deliver a haunting performance despite the fact he’s such a nice chap in real life.

By the way, you pronounce his name as if& it is spelled “Donal”.

GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE AS CAPTAIN PHASMA
Essential viewing: Game of Thrones

Phasma girl

Phasma girl

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years then you may not have heard of a little show called Game of Thrones. If you’re THAT person, then please leave this blog straight away and catch up with the rest of the geeky world. Brienne of Tarth is a key character from the second series onwards and is also a fan favourite.

Outside of this, her most prominent role to date, Christie has also featured in two Terry Gilliam films – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Zero Theorem – though only in minor roles. She will also appear in the new Hunger Games film, Mockingjay (Part 2) as Commander Lyme. So now you have a legitimate reason to go to a screening of that film other than the strangely taboo reason that they’re all excellent films. The Force Awakens will be her biggest film role to date.

LUPITA NYONG’O AS MAZ KANATA
Essential viewing: 12 Years A Slave

Spot the difference

Spot the difference

Maz Kanata is, apparently, a female pirate who resides at Maz Katana Castle. The castle serves as a base for other pirates and smugglers and will undoubtedly play a big part for our heroes’ journeys as they beg, steal and borrow the MacGuffins to get to their end goals.

Lupita Nyong’o is a wonderful actress. Originally from Mexico but with a Kenyan father, she had her breakthrough role as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s excellent 12 Years A Slave (2013), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress (the first Kenyan and Mexican Academy Award winner). There really isn’t much else to look back on throughout her career (she breifly appeared in the film Non Stop in 2014), but if you’re going to be picky you might as well get an Oscar for your first big role then land a part in one of the biggest events in cinema this century.

Check out a clip from her amazing performance below.

The only reservation about her character is that it is completely CGId. Unfortunately there will inevitably be some CGI in the film but they are rather sneakily completely playing all of it down due to the negativity around Jar Jar Binks. A quick glance back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and Guardians of the Galaxy prove that Disney probably won’t get it wrong.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be released in the UK on 18th December 2015.