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New Releases: The Last Jedi

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi marks the second installment in Disney’s new trilogy. Directly following the seventh episode, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the sophomore storyline has us guessing whether this will be the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. A small, ragtag group of freedom fighters known as the Resistance, the offspring of the Rebellion from the previous trilogies, is within inches of extermination at the hands of the First Order, the Dark Side’s placeholder for the Empire. Racing through space and against time, our heroes attempt to save the galaxy from tyranny by being the spark of hope that topples the ruthless regime of a supreme leader who is hell-bent on ruling the galaxy.

The reason the first Star Wars film catapulted into success was because it captivated the world’s imagination, but by way of technical prowess never before seen. The Last Jedi, too, brought breathtaking visuals to life with masterful craftsmanship in overall design. From small changes in the iconic Stormtrooper costumes to the striking red and white salt of the mineral planet, The Last Jedi can check those boxes of visual mastery with the confidence of Donald Trump preparing to send a tweet.

The characters, both old and new, were a giant mixed bag ranging from “I could watch this guy all day” to “I beg you to exit the screen and never return.” Adam Driver seems to be one of the best things to happen to Star Wars in the grand scheme of things. Some of the most compelling characters in the franchise haven’t been generally known to be borne of stellar acting, finding their strengths more from how they fit into the world, but Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren is peripheral to perfect; if not for the subject matter I would say an Oscar nomination could be incoming. His embodiment of the character is a blessing to the film. Then there’s Daisy Ridley as Rey, who found the sweet spot between doing a lot and doing very little to great effect. While being entwined with Kylo’s story, along with Mark Hamill reprising his role as Luke Skywalker, the film put the three truly standout performances right next to each other, each empowering the other.

After reading the script for the film, Mark Hamill told director Rian Johnson, “I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for [Luke Skywalker]. Now, having said that, I have gotten it off my chest, and my job now is to take what you’ve created and do my best to realize your vision.” After watching the script unfold, I vehemently agree. While things like Luke’s climatic lightsaber battle brought great satisfaction to parts of my inner child, the mishandling of the character’s storyline was a symptom of a larger problem – the spectacular failure of so much of the plot advancement. Being called by many the most divisive Star Wars film to date (even after Rogue One outright changed the entire beginning of the original film in service of an awesome ending), the split among moviegoers seems to lie in how much turbulence their suspension of belief could bear. Finding myself polarized between 50/50 love and hate for the film, my enjoyment seemed doomed to be constantly interrupted. Jarring cheap plot devices and ham-fisted characterization would be hot on the heels of rich world-building and compelling drama.

Rian Johnson, an excellent filmmaker who is never short on creativity, was given free reign to write the script from scratch when the original writer was called upon to fix issues with Episode VII. This news initially drove my expectations to excitement and gratitude for Disney and Lucasfilm, but there’s a massive problem in making a trilogy without having a bigger vision for the overall story arc. This problem is not necessarily in the aspect of granting freedom of creativity – like George Lucas foresaw from 1977, new directors trying to outdo him and bring new visions to the universe is an immensely beautiful thing, and likely the reason why so many cool things we’ve never gotten in Star Wars and so many great takes on classic elements found their way into the franchise. However, the implication that a greater vision for the trilogy has taken a back seat is unshakable.

Granted, this is not a new problem for the franchise or many others, but rather a solvable one: don’t release a diamond while half of it is still a piece of coal.
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