On Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It’s always nice to be surprised.   Generally speaking, it’s fair to say that modern blockbusters don’t usually throw too many curve balls in the direction of their audiences, so it’s a genuinely pleasant experience when a movie, particularly a huge one like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, really doesn’t go in the directions you were expecting it to.

The movie picks up pretty much exactly where The Force Awakens left off, with fledgling Force user Rey offering the long-missing Luke Skywalker his old lightsaber, while the Resistance frantically try to evacuate their base before the First Order, having failed to blow the place up with Starkiller Base, show up to do things the old-fashioned way.    And the movie subsequently follows those strands, with Rey dealing with a wary Luke and the Resistance fleet desperately fleeing from the pursuing First Order as they look for somewhere to hole up.

After The Force Awakens mostly flitting between Finn and Rey, it’s with this film that the latter steps up as pretty much the indisputable lead of the new trilogy and Daisy Ridley proves to be capably up to the challenge.   She imbues Rey with a vulnerability that befits both her uncertainty about her family and past and her fear about the rise of the Force within her and what it means for her future, but also gives her a fierce strength that carries her through the trials she faces.    She spends much of the movie opposite Mark Hamill, who has simply never been better as a very different Luke Skywalker.   This Luke, thirty years on from his last appearance, is utterly disillusioned, blaming himself for the fall to the Dark Side of his nephew Ben Solo and his subsequent rise as Kylo Ren.   He’s lost any faith in his ability to make good choices and, having come to see the Jedi as a key factor in many of the galaxy’s ills (an attitude that, from the extensive history of the Star Wars galaxy, is quite hard to argue with), he’s come to the conclusion that the best thing is if the Jedi simply cease to exist.   And so he lives quietly in what remains of the original Jedi temple, effectively waiting to die, and doesn’t appreciate a new arrival looking to learn the ways of the Force.   Hamill is a powerhouse in this movie and sells every last bit of Luke’s lasting pain.

With Rey elsewhere, John Boyega’s Finn get his own subplot as he, accompanied by new character Rose (an appealing Kelly Marie Tran), head out to search for a way to stop the First Order fleet from tracking the fleeing Resistance.   Boyega gives Finn an intensity on his mission, as would befit a former stormtrooper, but also plays him as being more comfortable with his choices – his fear of the First Order remains, understandably given their situation, but he’s come to terms with his decision to face off against them.    Oscar Isaac’s Poe feels rather underused, spending most of his screen time butting heads with the Resistance leadership and, frankly, acting like an entitled dick at times, but Isaac brings his formidable acting ability to bear as his character haltingly moves towards understanding what it really means to be a leader.

In The Force Awakens, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren came across, quite intentionally, as being pretty immature and hung up on living up to the fearsome reputation of his grandfather.   Having severed one link to the past by slaying his father Han Solo, the Kylo Ren we meet in The Last Jedi has changed.   His encounter with Rey has given him food for thought, and now, rather than remaining obsessed with the past, he’s looking to the future a bit more now, considering the possibilities with more calculation than the character previously displayed.

And then, of course, there’s Carrie Fisher, in her last movie role before her untimely death a year ago.   Leia doesn’t get as much screen time as we might like, given that it’s the last time we’ll be seeing the iconic character, but Fisher dominates the screen whenever she’s on it.    Leia’s many pains are never far from the surface, but Fisher gives her the same steely determination that the character has always possessed as she does her best to get the dwindling Resistance forces to a place of safety.   Given the work that she does here, it’s a genuine tragedy that we’ve been denied the opportunity to see how the character would have played out in the final part of the trilogy – all reports suggest that, just as Han was central to The Force Awakens and Luke is central to The Last Jedi, Leia would have been front and centre in the finale.

The supporting cast generally do well.   Kelly Marie Tran is likeable as Resistance tech Rose who joins Finn on his mission.   Andy Serkis gets a much larger role as Supreme Leader Snoke, now present in the scarred flesh and all the creepier for it as he plays Ren and General Hux off against each other.   Speaking of Hux, Domhnall Gleeson does well with a role that’s a bit thankless this time out – stuck between Snoke and Ren, he ends up the butt of rather too many jokes.   Laura Dern’s Resistance Admiral Holdo sometimes seems to be present mostly as a non-Leia senior officer for Poe to butt heads with, but gets some good (and in one case downright awesome) moments of her own.    Only Benicio del Toro, playing an expert slicer (hacker) recruited by Finn to help rescue the fleet, feels almost totally wasted.     And, for fans of British humour, there’s the unexpected sight of comedy stalwart Adrian Edmondson as Hux’s most prominent underling, which is bizarre enough to be a touch distracting.

As with any blockbuster, once the trailers started to come up, the inevitable game of “Guess What Happens” started up around the internet and I’m quite pleased to say that the vast majority of the speculation that I saw around the place was pretty much wrong.  The movie takes a couple of genuinely unexpected turns, leaving things in a pretty interesting place for the forthcoming Episode IX to wrap up.   The script is a solid one, successfully mixing well-handled action with strong emotional beats throughout.   It’s also unexpectedly funny, with some real laugh-out-loud moments – Luke, particularly, has got downright snarky since we last saw him.

One regular criticism (and not an entirely unfair one) of The Force Awakens is that it felt rather too much like a greatest hits revisit of the original Star Wars.   Early trailers for The Last Jedi did raise certain concerns that this tendency might continue and, indeed, there are familiar aspects to the movie that raise the spectre of, primarily, The Empire Strikes Back and, to a small extent, Return of the Jedi.   There’s a walker attack on a planet with a predominantly white surface, the Resistance are on the run, there’s another cantina substitute (a casino is the latest location for the designers to show off their alien creations), and a character visits a reluctant Jedi Master for training – there’s even an equivalent to the Dark Side cave on the planet Rey finds Luke.    There are unquestionably similarities.   Fortunately, while these familiar aspects are present, they’re generally handled so differently to the original that all but the most churlish of viewers should be able to step past them.

The movie is, arguably, a little on the long side (it’s the longest movie in the franchise to date by about ten minutes).   There’s a bit of a sag in the middle section, with the extended side trip to the casino feeling like the main culprit.   While unquestionably plot-relevant and including some impressive visuals, it feels overly padded out; it’s hard not to think that the plot developments involved in the sequence could have been carried out more efficiently and that the main reason for the longer sequence is really to give Finn something to do during the second act.

Visually, the movie is little short of extraordinary to look at.   All the different environments are striking and the effects work is, as one might expect, absolutely top notch – the final solution to the pursuing First Order fleet is particularly jaw-dropping to look at.    Director Rian Johnson has a good eye for a shot and captures action sequences with an impressive flair, making the recent announcement that he’s been handed creative control for a whole new trilogy to follow Episode IX pretty exciting.   The soundtrack is also great, with John Williams doing his usual exemplary work.

Overall, The Last Jedi is one hell of a good movie.   There’s the odd flaw here and there, but nothing major, and the result is a film that can absolutely stand among the best in the franchise.   I’m entirely sure that I’ll be seeing it again, and will be very interested to see where they take it all from here.

Updates and Additions…

So it’s struck me lately, since I started writing this blog thing, that any specific blog post is sort of based in a particular period of time and, as such, can get out of date.   There’ve been a few updates lately on things that I’ve talked about, so I figured it might be worth taking a look at some of them…

Star Wars addresses the Leia problem

It’s now been announced that Leia will not be appearing in the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode Nine, so we can presumably rule out recasting or any sort of digital resurrection of Carrie Fisher.    They’ve not, as yet, explained anything about how they might handle her absence.    I don’t entirely know how to feel about that – it’s hard to imagine how they could just drop the character entirely – but, to be honest, there really wasn’t a good solution to this one.

Really, DC?

So, in my original post, I expressed a degree of concern that those in charge of the DC cinematic output may not have a particularly well-drawn up plan in mind right now.   Central to this concern was the sheer number of movies that they appear to have in the pipeline; I drew up a tally of those that appear to be in active development and it came to a rather staggering sixteen films aiming to come out in the next four or five years.   I felt that it might be something of a wise move to settle down a bit, narrow their focus and address the problems that they’ve had so far.

So they’ve announced another couple of movies, both of them featuring supporting characters from the Batman mythos.   The first is Nightwing, with Dick Grayson, the original Robin, as the lead character – after years as sidekick, he eventually chooses to strike out on his own and adopts the name Nightwing.   The second focuses on Batgirl, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara who takes up the cape to fight as a vigilante in her own right – Joss Whedon is reportedly taking on the movie, and it certainly seems like his sort of territory.

Honestly, I don’t know how many of these movies will ultimately make it to the screen.   Likely most of them will and, hopefully, some of them will be good.   But I’m still not encouraged that DC appear to be spending a lot of time focusing on quantity, when, right now, quality might do them more good.

Split / Unbreakable sequel announced…

M Night Shyamalan’s latest movie was, for me, a pleasant surprise, both in itself and in its last-minute surprise tie-in to one of his earliest movies, Unbreakable.   Since then, Shyamalan has now announced that his next movie, to be titled Glass, will be the third movie set in that universe, with Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson, James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy all reprising their roles.    Scheduled for release in January 2019.    And I’m actually looking forward to it…


On Episode Nine and the Leia Problem

It’s unlikely to have escaped many people’s attention that, at the tail end of 2016, año de la muerta that it seemed to be at times, we lost the incomparable Carrie Fisher at the too-young age of sixty. Better wordsmiths than I have eulogised her far better than I ever could and I don’t intend to compete with them; suffice it to say that Fisher’s iconic Princess Leia was one of the first strong female characters I remember seeing in the movies, so she made a very lasting impression.

Fisher’s untimely passing comes only a few months after the end of principal photography on Star Wars: Episode VIII – Subtitle To Be Announced.    By all accounts, after a relatively small role in The Force Awakens, where most of the legacy character action was given to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Leia’s role will be significantly expanded in Episode VIII.   Given that the movie will now serve as Fisher’s cinematic swan song, it certainly seems unlikely that much of her work will end up on the cutting room floor, and it goes without saying that the filmmakers will aim to give her a fitting send off.

The elephant in the room, however, is that Episode VIII is only the middle film in a new trilogy and, looming increasingly large on the horizon is the spectre of Episode IX, the grand finale to the new trilogy.   As such, the filmmakers have a difficult decision to make regarding how they handle one of their most beloved characters, given the demise of the actress who so capably played her.   And none of the potential solutions are exactly what you’d call problem-free.

The first option is to do what the franchise has done very recently, to use computer-generated imagery to keep the character in play.   In the recent Rogue One, sophisticated effects were used to bring back the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, looking much as he did during the very first Star Wars movie back in the 1970’s.   An actor with the right build and similar facial features was cast and Cushing’s features were digitally projected onto him.   It worked reasonably well in a small role but, as I commented in my review, was hardly flawless.    The same technology was used very briefly again at the very end of the film, for a scene where a 70’s era Carrie Fisher reprises her role as the young Princess Leia.    Could that same technology now be used to recreate the older Leia for whatever scenes are required for the final movie in the trilogy?

Option number two is to write the character out completely in some manner.  An off-screen death would likely be considered a bit too on-the-nose for the filmmakers to take that route, but Leia could conceivably be sent off somewhere to lead some off-screen aspect of the Resistance’s fight against the First Order.

Option three is arguably by far the simplest, to recast the character.

Obviously right now, we don’t know what the storylines for the rest of the trilogy entail, but we can certainly make some educated guesses, and it’s hard to make any that don’t feature Leia in a pretty significant role.    She’s the founder of the Resistance and, with the destruction of the Senate during The Force Awakens, one of the few remaining politically-savvy operators in the galaxy.   She’s a natural leader and, as such, it seems unlikely that she wouldn’t be front-and-centre in forthcoming events, at the heart of those plot strands focusing on the Resistance.

While predicting specific scenes is tough, it seems all but certain that the character will have at least a couple of major emotionally-laden scenes coming up.    Firstly, at some point, there should be the reunion with her long-missing brother Luke.    The odds seem good that this scene will probably occur in the already-shot Episode VIII, so we may be okay on that one, but we’ll only find that out a year from now.   The second scene that seems inevitable is that Leia will confront her wayward son Ben, now calling himself Kylo Ren and apprenticed to the still-mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke.   That’s going to be a big emotionally-punchy scene, particularly given what happened when his father tried giving him a good talking to, and seems much more likely to have been saved for the finale.

The problem that comes immediately to mind with option one is that, while the technology used to recreate characters is undeniably impressive, it seems highly unlikely that, even with another couple of years to refine it, that they’ll be at the point where it’s good enough to carry a major role in a movie as a photo-realistic human.   Nor does it seem likely to be able to pull off the emotional requirements of what will be highly emotionally-charged scenes.   For the movie to work, the audience has to totally buy the heartbreak in Leia’s face as she faces her son after everything that he’s done.   Imagine, if you will, Mark Hamill’s epic performance at the iconic moment when he learns Vader’s true identity – the power of that scene resides not in Vader’s revelation, but in the sheer horror that Luke faces at the knowledge.   If that emotion is compromised, then a pivotal scene fails.    At some point, they’ll get there, I’m sure, but creating an acceptable replica of a much-loved actress, capable of pulling off the requirements of a major role, within the next two years, seems like a very tall order indeed.

Option two does at least sidestep the issue of the CGI, but writing the character out completely, or even a combination of options one and two, by digitally recreating the character in only a small number of scenes hardly seems like a good send-off for a beloved and iconic character.    The audience want to see their favourite characters in satisfying roles, not sidelined when the big finale kicks off.

So that brings us to the third option, recasting the character.   It’s hard to judge how audiences might react to that; certainly it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be some resistance to the idea, but, as long as the matter is handled well, it doesn’t seem to me that there’d be any greater resistance to recasting than there would be to a CGI recreation that doesn’t convince or writing the character out of the movie.   The core emotional scenes could remain intact and the story could unfold as planned, rather than being compromised by hasty rewriting.   I certainly wouldn’t envy whoever took on the role, but as long as they showed the proper respect to Fisher’s performance and didn’t try to do things their own way, I think the audience would accept it as a necessary evil to give the character a good send-off.

When it comes down to it, the filmmakers face a classic Catch-22.   Whatever they do, they’re going to face resistance from the audiences.   For me, the best option, the course of action that best respects both the character and the film overall, is not to turn to technology to bail them out, but to get out there and find somebody who can wrap up the story of Princess Leia in a way that befits the character, the actress who created her and the audiences who love her.

Later this week, the filmmakers are getting together to discuss how to proceed.   It’s a hard choice.   Let’s hope that, whatever they decide, they come up with something good.

On Rogue One…

The original Star Wars is, I think, the first film I actually remember seeing at the cinema.   There were others that I saw before it, I know that from my mother, who, based on her stories, regularly had to put up with an over excitable small person at the cinema, but Star Wars is the first one that I actively recall seeing.   So it’s been part of my movie-going life for as long as I can remember having one.    And it’s safe to say that I actively enjoy hanging out in a galaxy far, far away and there’s really been no aspect of it that I haven’t enjoyed.

Yes, that includes the prequel trilogy.  Not always a popular opinion, to the extent that I’ve actually been told to my face that I can’t possibly be a true Star Wars fan, but I like them and make no apology for doing so.

Anyway, over the last couple of decades, there have been dozens of different Star Wars books, most of which I’ve read and enjoyed to one degree or another.   Many, a majority, focus on the Skywalker/Solo clan beloved of the movie trilogies, but there have been some that have set their focus elsewhere, following the exploits of a minor character from the movies, or even eliminating the movie characters altogether, often by setting the story in a different time period to the original movies and exploring a whole new aspect of the Star Wars universe.    While, as one would expect, the quality of those books has varied, I’ve always found it interesting to take a look aside from the main storylines of the trials and tribulations of Luke, Han, Leia and company and so, when I heard that the first standalone Star Wars movie would focus on a little-known, but utterly pivotal moment in that universe’s history, the theft of the Death Star plans that set in motion the events of the original movie,  I was most certainly interested to see what they came up with.

Fortunately, Rogue One doesn’t disappoint.

Set in the days immediately prior to the original movie, the film follows Jyn Erso, a bitter and disillusioned criminal who, having lost both parents (her mother slain, her scientist father taken away to work on a top-secret military project) to the Empire, prefers to keep her head down and not get involved.    Reluctantly dragged into action by the Rebellion, looking to use her to get to a defector pilot who claims to have a message from her father, she learns the truth about the Empire’s new weapon and, backed up by a motley crew of misfits, sets out to rescue her father from the Empire’s clutches and find a way to destroy the Death Star.

The storyline flows well, travelling from planet to planet, anchored by a couple of visits to the Rebel Base on Yavin 4, meticulously recreated from the original movie.   Both the stakes and the risks rise with each new world the team visit, as they learn more about what they’re facing and the odds arrayed against them increase.    Hope, or the lack thereof, is very much a key part of the storyline; as the truth about the Empire’s terror weapon becomes horrifyingly clear, retrieving the plans becomes the last hope for an increasingly demoralised Rebel Alliance.

The characters, as noted above, are something of a motley crew, but work well.   Felicity Jones’ Jyn makes a likeable lead, her disillusionment dropping away to be replaced with a new determination, and works well with Diego Luna’s Cassian, a Rebel captain who’s not always happy with what he’s had to do as part of their campaign against the Empire.   The rest of the squad, defector pilot Bohdi (Riz Ahmed), blind warrior monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen, putting his impressive martial arts skills to good use) and heavy weapons master Baze (Jiang Wen) all get strong moments, but are all comprehensively upstaged by the obligatory ‘droid, K-2SO (geek favourite Alan Tudyk), a former Imperial security droid whose reprogramming has resulted in a snarky personality that neatly allows him to steal every scene he appears in.

On the Imperial side of the equation, Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennic, director of the Empire’s Advanced Weapons division takes central stage.   He does pretty well with the role, but is regularly overshadowed by characters returning from the original movie.   Darth Vader appears and gets a couple of cool moments, but more prominent is Grand Moff Tarkin, here presented as a rival to Krennic, keen to usurp control over the Death Star and undermine Krennic’s authority within the Empire.   Tarkin reappears courtesy of an pretty impressive CGI reconstruction of Peter Cushing.   It’s not perfect, by any means, and at times tumbles quite deep into the uncanny valley, but it’s so fitting to have the character there that it’s reasonably easy to overlook the flaws.

Uncanny valley issues aside, the film looks gorgeous, with some genuinely epic shots in the capable hands of director Gareth Edwards.   The special effects are mostly near flawless, with everybody bringing their A-game to making the whole movie look as good as it could possibly be.

Key to the film’s success is that, despite the absence of much loved characters from the previous movies, it still feels very much like a Star Wars film, albeit a more grounded one.   The mystical aspects that permeate the originals are toned strongly back, with Vader as the only acknowledged Force user present in the film (Chirrut’s status is rather ambiguous), with the movie feeling more like a war film, particularly the final large-scale action sequence.   The film makes considerable effort to fit in with the original movie, being set only days before it and generally succeeds extremely well.   The recreation of the Yavin base is near-perfect, and a number of minor Rebellion characters from the first film reappear, either through the medium of impressively solid lookalike casting, or, in a couple of cases, using carefully altered footage from Star Wars.   Rogue One also neatly sidesteps an issue that some people have with prequels, in that you know where things have to end up.  In this case, as the titular squad is made up entirely of previously unseen characters, the audience, while they know that the mission to retrieve the plans will be a success, have no way to know who, if anybody, is going to make it out alive.

The whole idea of standalone movies set in the Star Wars universe is very much one that I like the sound of, and choosing Rogue One, based, as it is, around a pivotal moment in their history, as their opening salvo has been a very smart choice.   A young Han Solo movie is up next, starring Alden Ehrenreich in the lead role.   To my mind, that’s not as inherently interesting a concept, but I’m more than happy to give them a chance on that one.   But with Rogue One, it’s safe to say that the standalone films are off to a very good start.