'Last Jedi' Puts The Smarts — And The Heart — Back Into The 'Star Wars' Franchise

Dec 15, 2017
Originally published on December 19, 2017 10:55 am
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This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." It features actors who showed up in the third cycle of Star Wars films that began in 2015 with "The Force Awakens," in which classic characters like Han Solo, Chewbacca and Leia were mixed in with new ones played by Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and John Boyega. "The Last Jedi" features those actors as well as the late Carrie Fisher who died last December.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Blow me down. "Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi" is terrific. I'm shocked because I had largely given up on Star Wars since, well, 1983 when the "Return Of The Jedi" turned out to be campy dreck and when George Lucas's subsequent trilogy suffered from stiff filmmaking and Medusa dialogue - meaning lines that turned actors to stone. In 2015, "The Force Awakens" relaunched the saga without Lucas, who'd been bought off by Disney for the GDP of a small country. The movie was a crowd-pleaser - though nearly beat for beat a retread of the first "Star Wars." Now, writer-director Rian Johnson puts the smarts and the heart back into the enterprise.

Daisy Ridley returns as Rey, the orphan who last time out discovered the Force was with her - you can't buy it. You either got it, or you don't - and set off with Chewbacca and R2-D2 to the island on which Luke Skywalker lives in self-imposed exile. A new dastardly empire, the flamboyantly fascistic First Order, rules the galaxy. And rebels, led by Carrie Fisher's now General Leia, need every last Jedi they can get. The presumption is that Luke will train Rey as Yoda trained him. But Mark Hamill's once open-faced Skywalker has become a hairy malcontent who sits around ruminating on past failures. Luke Cavesulker (ph) is more like it.

In between scenes of Rey nagging the old man, and Luke saying, get off my lawn, she somehow acquires a long-distance psychic connection to Adam Drivers' Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Leia who opted to follow in Grandad's footsteps - Granddad being Darth Vader. During their tender conversations, Rey thinks she discerns the pure heart under the tantrum-throwing, patricidal maniac facade. Luke thinks she's nuts.

The Rey-Ren-Luke triangle would be enough for one film. But alas there's no such thing as a single-strand narrative in a modern universe-building epic, which has a studio mandate to look backwards, forwards and sidewards at characters who could be spun off into other movies. That said, Johnson manages to cut among three story lines without losing the pulse. Much of the fun comes from "Star Wars's" new cowboy pilot, Oscar Isaacs's Poe Dameron, and his tussles with killjoy rebel leaders Leia and a vice admiral played by Laura Dern, who should be in every movie.

The third plot features John Boyega's ex-stormtrooper Finn and his small but gargantuan-spirited sidekick Rose Tico, played by the charming Kelly Marie Tran, who rocket off to disable some sort of First Order defensive something. The really important thing is that the three story lines reach their climax at the same time and bombard you into submission. The movie showstopper unfolds in the throne room of the First Order's Supreme Commander Snoke, looking like the computer-generated love child of Gollum and Voldemort. The room's luminous crimson walls silhouette an array of elite samurai guards who descend on Rey and another character with lightsabers humming.

But Johnson doesn't cutaway on the saber clacks the way George Lucas did. He has the fighters go at it in thrilling long shots - their whole bodies charged. Johnson even makes it easy to enjoy the two obviously merchandisable creatures - like the popeyed, puffin-like bird called a porg that attaches itself to Chewbacca. He achieves what no one else has since the second Star Wars film "The Empire Strikes Back" - a fusion of junkyard genre parts and passion.

The pall that hangs over "The Last Jedi" is, of course, the death of Carrie Fisher. She doesn't get as many big moments as you'd hope for. The filmmakers were saving them for the trilogy's finale, which she didn't live to make. But it's moving to hear her soulful croak one more time. The linchpin of "The Last Jedi" isn't a hero but Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, who makes his entrance in a Vader-esque helmet that he smashes in a rage when Snoke basically says he looks like an idiot - good since Drivers face here, a Modigliani portrait come to life, is even more unnerving. It's like Darth Vader's mask made flesh.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, seafood - some fish you might not be familiar with that are not threatened and are good to eat. My guests will be former chef Barton Seaver, who directs the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at Harvard. And Jennifer Egan will talk with us about her novel "Manhattan Beach," which is on our book critic Maureen Corrigan's top 10 list. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We have additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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