A short review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017)

I’ll never be able to love “Star Wars” the way its lifelong fans do.  After the unexpected magic of the first three films, the subsequent movies almost always seemed to me to be just space fantasies for kids, formulaically developed to hit all the right notes and sell licensed merchandise.  (The exception would be last year’s generally excellent “Star Wars: Rogue One,” which uniquely felt like a genuine, human story that a creator wanted to tell, rather than something brainstormed until consensus in a corporate writers’ room.)  With that said, I’ll happily report here that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was actually very good — as someone with little favorable bias toward the franchise, I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

The movie simply got more right than it got wrong.  It’s still a marketing-oriented space opera developed for mass appeal, but it managed to rise above that because its many elements included more hits than misses.

If I had to pick one thing that made this movie succeed for me, it’s the balance it struck between its epic war story and its narrower sword-and-sorcery central plot thread.  I like how the film began with an interstellar war — it had ordinary, mortal, relatable human characters fight and make sacrifices.  Anyone can relate to characters like that because they are interchangeable with people fighting a war in our world.  (It was also excellently rendered, in terms of fantastic visuals and some creative ideas.)  Only afterward does the movie layer in the far-out Jedi stuff, which contrasts the war story and adds complexity to it.

The second thing I liked about it was its terrific special effects — I’ve never seen a “Star Wars” movie without them, even if the prequels had a more cartoonish, toylike quality to what they depicted.

The third, I think, was the return of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker.  Hamill is actually quite a good actor, and his skilled turn here was alternately funny and dramatically convincing.  I found myself more nostalgic after watching Luke’s return to the franchise than after Han Solo’s return in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015).  (And I love Harrison Ford just as much as everyone else in the universe.)

Is there a lot to nitpick?  Sure.  In addition to some plot holes, the character of Rose was rather annoying.  (Spunky young idealists can grate on the nerves if they’re too cutesy and seem to ingratiate themselves to the viewer.)

But a far larger weakness is that “the force” has become more of a deus ex machina than ever before.  I can’t be specific here because I want to avoid spoilers, but both the Jedi and their Sith counterparts employ incredible new powers in the movie that are absolutely unprecedented.  It isn’t explained at all, and it isn’t consistent with any prior “Star Wars” movie.  And it feels like a cheat that is both sweeping and … a little strange.

Still, I’d recommend this movie — even if you didn’t love every “Star Wars” movie you’ve seen in the past.

I’ll end with a quick note about the “porgs” — those little penguinesque aliens that are supposedly dividing longtime fans into opposing war-camps.  I loved the damn things.  It makes perfect sense that Luke’s hideaway planet would have local fauna.  And I read that the filmmakers actually did include them for an understandable reason.  The island shooting location’s landscape was inhabited by puffins.  It made more sense to overwrite them with CGI stand-ins than to digitally remove them altogether.

 

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