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“The Last Jedi” a mixed bag

*SPOILERS ABOUND*

 

There are some great scenes in the latest “Star Wars” film. A confrontation in the throne room of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) between both apprentices, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). A daring sacrifice to save the remnants of the Resistance fleet by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Luke staring down his former apprentice on the slopes of a planet covered in salt.

Then there are some terrible scenes. Yoda’s ghost (Frank Oz) showing up and somehow blowing up a sacred tree. BB-8 taking control of an imperial walker. Leia (Carrie Fisher) floating in space back to her ship after it explodes.

There are subplots that work (Finn and Rose on a gambling planet is fun if pointless). There are subplots that don’t work (anything having to do with Poe). There are some good new characters (Rose), and there are some bad new characters (Holdo and DJ). It seems so consequential to characters such as Luke and Snoke and so inconsequential to everyone else. To say “The Last Jedi” is a mess of good and bad is an understatement.

The film picks up on the promise of the previous entry, “The Force Awakens.” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been found. Rey travels to meet him and begin her Jedi training, after her mentor, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), was murdered by his evil son, Kylo Ren. Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper, has joined the Rebellion after being recruited by his friend, Poe (Oscar Isaac).

The film is disjointed. Characters are introduced just to be killed off. Storylines go nowhere. The humor is hit and miss and generally more miss. It feels rushed, as if more time was needed to really iron out the story and character arcs. But in a cinematic world where franchises need to come out with new entries every year, filmmakers aren’t given the right amount of time to really get a grasp for their story. And the results are clunky films.

But the biggest issue facing this franchise is a lack of originality and purpose. While some have complained that the plot to “Force Awakens” is a carbon copy of “A New Hope” (justifiably so), the film felt like a part of the “Star Wars” canon. It seemed like a natural continuation of the saga and posed several interesting questions: Who were Rey’s parents? Why does the force call out to her? Who is Snoke? What is his backstory? What is the history between Kylo Ren and Luke? Will Luke rejoin the fight? These questions kept up the intrigue in the story. For a franchise starving for ideas (there are only so many different ways good can fight evil), these questions promised a potential new direction.

So it is disappointing that “The Last Jedi”‘s response to those questions was to just brush them away. Rey’s parents are no one. She’s important simply because she is. Snoke is dead and probably won’t be mentioned again. We’ll never learn about him and by ignoring his story, his death had little dramatic weight. There is no great revelation about the force or the Skywalker family or anything really. The big surprise in the film is that there is no big surprise. And that is a giant shame. It’s like setting up a joke and then not giving the punchline. It leaves you with a hollow feeling of disappointment.

While “The Force Awakens” promised intrigue, “The Last Jedi” offers more of the same. It’s another good versus evil, pedantic story of a young Jedi, an evil figure in a mask and failed mentors. The viewer left the theater of “Force Awakens” eager to see where the story was going. With “Last Jedi”, there is no desire. There are no lingering questions. We already know where the story is heading; Rey must fight Kylo and stop the First Order.

Just imagine this instead:

The film begins months after the events of “Force Awakens.” Rey has found Luke and begun her training, after great reluctance from the old Jedi. He questions if what he is doing is the right thing after his failing to save Ben Solo and the destruction of the rebuilt Jedi order. Rey learns about the strength of the Force, branching out, but she feels the lure of the dark side. She is frustrated with Luke’s depression and begins mentally connecting with Kylo Ren, seeing his struggle, and she sees how similar they are.

Meanwhile, the First Order reigns down havoc against the old republic. The regime that emerged from the ashes of the Empire has returned. The resistance is desperate. Leia tries to manage the war in her headquarters, but sees little hope. She recounts how Snoke appeared from nowhere, how he managed to coral the last vestiges of the empire to his will and how he needs to end.

Poe and Finn work together on missions for the Resistance, but their confidence wanes as well. Finn asks Poe how he first joined the Resistance and he remarks how he first heard the stories of Leia and Luke and how they were heroes to him on his world, a beautiful planet that was ruined by the Empire. They inspired him to become a freedom fighter. Finn remarks how he has never known freedom and Poe tells him that one day he will feel it.

Leia recruits them for a top secret mission, a last dire choice in their struggle against the First Order. Finn will go back to the stormtrooper corps as a spy and rejoin their ranks. He will offer them secret information and work his way up to Snoke in order to assassinate him. Poe works as his handler and sneaks aboard the imperial cruiser.

Snoke chastises Kylo for his failure to snuff out the Resistance or find Skywalker. He reminds Kylo that he still mentors the Knights of Ren, the other apprentices taken from Skywalker, with him, and that any of them could one day replace Kylo. Kylo, angry, vents his frustrations to Rey through their communications. She sees the anger and divide in him and wonders if he is a good man haunted by bad mentors. She questions Luke and his methods. Kylo hints that Luke knows more about her past than he lets on and reveals how his Jedi training failed because Luke was obsessed with making sure the dark side never came to his students, in a way ensuring that it did.

Rey challenges Luke to reveal what he knows. Luke refuses to tell her, but Rey keeps pushing him. Luke eventually relents and reveals her parentage (something dark that ties her into the Skywalker family/Snoke in some way). Conversely, Finn, in his mission to gain the trust of the First Order, discovers the past of Snoke and how it too connects with Rey. Crushed, Rey abandons her training and seeks out Kylo.

Finn and Poe are captured by the First Order as Finn is about to assassinate Snoke. Kylo meets with Rey and the two of them talk about how their masters have failed them. Kylo talks about his desire to tear down the systems of the galaxy and rebuild from the ground up. Rey tries to talk to him about how the power of compassion can save them. Kylo tells her about the captured Finn and Poe. Rey begs to save them, but Kylo does not understand her feelings. He questions why she cares so much about Finn, but agrees to help her.

Luke, tortured by another perceived failure, ruminates with R2-D2. He hints at other prophecies that have yet to come true and wonders about his role in this galaxy. Knowing that Rey will try to contact Kylo, he decides to stop her.

Finn and Poe are tortured by Snoke and his men. Poe tells Finn to remember to keep searching for that sense of freedom before he dies. Rey and Kylo arrive in time to save Finn. Snoke tries to lure his old apprentice back, but Kylo, consumed in anger, refuses. Snoke unleashes the Knights of Ren and everyone fights. As the situation appears dire, Luke appears. He confronts Kylo and reminds him that he sees the good in him, the spirit of Han Solo. For a moment, he gets through to his old apprentice. Together, they fight and kill Snoke. As the ship explodes around them, Luke sacrifices himself to save his students. The remaining characters disperse to escape pods.

Kylo and Rey end up in a ship together alone. Kylo offers to join with her and create a new order. Rey is torn, unsure whether to trust him. She accepts his offer.

The fate of the galaxy now rests on this uneasy alliance. How will these two former adversaries work together, neither with a master anymore? What will happen to the other Knights? Will the romance between Rey and Finn work out or will she grow feelings towards Kylo? What was the final part of the prophecy Luke had foreseen?

This is sort of where I saw “The Last Jedi” heading. Answering some questions but leaving others open. Raising the stakes for the characters. Forcing them into more consequential decisions that reveal more about their inner selves. This is what “The Empire Strikes Back” did for the original “Star Wars.” Luke learns about the darkness inside him, further deepening his inner turmoil. Leia and Han learn about their feelings towards each other, but that also raises complications: Han is taken by the bounty hunter, Boba Fett, and they know that their relationship could strain their friendship with Luke. Even Darth Vader, who was seen as a simple evil villain in the first film, now faces an internal test: can he convert his son to evil, against his better judgment, revealing that even he has inner struggle?

“The Last Jedi” fails in deepening the conflict within the characters. They face no great internal struggle and the audience has no mystery leading into the final chapter of this trilogy. We know Rey’s history. We know Kylo’s history. Luke is gone. Poe is uninteresting. Finn is uninteresting. It’s just a simple good versus evil story. The middle chapter of a saga should have viewers on the edge of their seats, anxious to see how the mysteries and questions posed by the previous entries will unravel. Instead, we feel nothing about the final chapter.

For a franchise that seemed to be getting back on its feet, “The Last Jedi” is a step backwards in a way. While thrilling and emotional at times, it lacks clear progression and delves into monotony. With JJ Abrams returning to helm the final installment, perhaps a bit of that old “Star Wars” magic he captured with “Force Awakens” will return.

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‘Rogue One’ explosive but lacks soul

Are you ready for a “Star Wars” movie every year until the end of time? Disney is. After rebooting the franchise last year with “The Force Awakens”, the next film in the series deviates from the Skywalker storyline and focuses on a Rebellion troop who manage to secure the plans for the Death Star and deliver them to Princess Leia.

The story follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a renegade whose father, Galen (Mad Mikkelsen), was forced to build the Death Star by the Empire. Meeting up with Cassian (Diego Luna), a member of the Rebel Alliance and a few other allies, she intercepts a message from Galen that contains information on how to destroy the weapon. She and her team must retrieve the plans before the superweapon is operational.

The action is strong and exciting, the last thirty or so minutes of the film a breakneck war film that recalls memories of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Dirty Dozen.” It is refreshing to see a darker tone and something a little bit different.

However, when confronted with a story where the audience pretty much knows the ending, the filmmakers have to establish a basis for the audience to care. That starts with strong and empathetic characters, but there is nothing particularly compelling about Jyn. The story is a simple stop-the-bad-guys type of affair, which by itself is pretty boring. Jyn and her rebel friends really need something to drive them internally.

For example, take a look at “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The film’s conclusion is about an army trying to save a planet from a warlord trying to destroy it, but that is not really what it’s about it. It’s about a team of losers who have been alone for so long and have found friendship and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for each other. We are given time to really know them and to understand their fears and desires, what has held them back, what they want in life and they build off each other.

In “Rogue One”, we are rushed through from scene to scene, never quite identifying with Jyn or Chirrut (Donnie Yen) or Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) or any particular character. We don’t really understand their past or why they are fighting for the Rebellion so the resolution to the story lacks meaning and emotional punch.

Perhaps Jyn’s father was a loyal Imperial and she has to correct his evil deeds (similar to Luke in “Return of the Jedi”). Or she has been running her entire life from responsibility and ditches the fight only to be lured back at the end (similar to Han in “A New Hope”). Perhaps Cassian was a stormtrooper who couldn’t stand the killing anymore. Perhaps Chirrut and Baze (Wen Jiang) lose their home to the Empire after it begins ethnic cleansing and want to take revenge. We just need a little backstory to care.

It’s a shame because there is so much that “Rogue One” does right. It’s direction and visual style are strong, it’s action scenes are top-notch, the premise is precise and interesting and it elaborates on the “Star Wars” mythos. But without a heart behind it all, it is just a pretty facade.