Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Stars Wars: The Last Jedi

It took me a few days to get to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest installment of a cinematic saga that despite its endmost title, is proving to be immortal.  My plan was for the testosterone-fueled fan-boys to have first dibs at it.  In other words, I wanted to attend a showing that was, at least, half crowded.  But nothing doing, today, on a wintry day when the thermometer struggled to reach 25 degrees F. people came out to see Rian Johnson's rewiring of the franchise's mythological elements.  My afternoon showing came close to selling out, thus my plan of watching the film in a solitary screening room did not turn out the way I planned it.  Then again, neither did Luke Skywalker's plan of ending his days alone on a rock in the middle of an ocean work out the way he envisioned it.  I felt I was in good company.

It's almost incredible to realize that Star Wars started back in the second half of the 1970's, a post-Vietnam decade filled with new hope, and fueled by the Bicentennial craze.  The past was very much alive in America in those days, so the prelude moniker of "a long time ago..." that so far has begun every installment of the franchise seemed more than apt in the summer of 1977.  The country was ready to dream again and believe in something, even if the subject of its reverie was a space opera, adapted from Japanese films and World War II combat serials, and filled with mumbo-jumbo dialogue, populated by a bevy of new up-and-coming performers sharing the screen with British character actors royalty.
Star Wars acquired a new lease in life after 2015's The Force Awakens, the first film in the franchise where George Lucas was not directly involved. The Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm in 2012, and it was up to producer director J.J. Abrams to revive the story, using some of the characters originally created by Mr. Lucas, while shaping an original story line with a new cast of young performers playing the next generation of heroes and villains.  Thus Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found themselves surrounded by fighter pilot Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), reformed stormtrooper John Boyega (Finn), and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisy Ridley (Rey) who, as the new principal villain and hero, are shaped by their knowledge of the Force.

Mr. Driver's Kylo Ren started as a mask-wearing second generation Darth Vader, but soon enough director Abrams realize that keeping Mr. Driver's unusual angular features right out of a Modigliani painting, hidden was a mistake.  In this new film he destroys his mask exposing the scar on his face that marks him with a Biblical sign of patricide.  Thus far, Kylo Ren is the saga's most charismatic villain.
To compliment him Ms. Ridley's Rey is the driving force behind the new film.  She sets out to the desolate planet Ahch-To, a mountainous rock in the middle of an ocean, where Luke Skywalker has retired, living a solitary monastic existence, waiting for the endgame, thus assuring that the Jedi cult dies with him.  Her quest is to convince Luke to return to Leia, his twin sister, and join once again the good rebel fight.  Along the way, Rey learns that the Force is indeed strong with her, and she asks Luke to become her Jedi mentor.

What I just described is the bare bones of the new film's arc. At a running time of 152 minutes (the franchise's longest film to date) writer director Johnson weaves a number of subplots and characters, some of whom are only seen momentarily (such as an interplanetary codebreaker named DJ played memorably by Benicio del Toro with a sly wink), but who are key to the film's plot, and who might take on greater importance in the upcoming films.

On a deeper level, the film is about the often troubled relationships between master and pupil, associations that run very deep in this mythic story, and which serve as character connections, some going as far back to the original established master/pupil attachment  between Luke and legendary Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness).
Visually, The Last Jedi works best when it returns to the original Lucas sources of inspiration, especially the "Jidaigeki" period dramas of director Akira Kurosawa.  For instance, the stylized throne room lair of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) seems to come right out of the super saturated red set of Kurosawa's Kagemusha: the Shadow Warrior, a samurai epic that was partly financed by George Lucas.  Also, Kurosawa's re-telling of Shakespeare's King Lear, Ran, his last samurai film, looms large in the referential color palette that inspires this film.

The Last Jedi is not to be missed.  An excellent addition to cinema's most lucrative franchise.  Who knows where we'll go from here, but the important thing for the filmmakers to remember is to stay true to the original concept that George Lucas set down decades ago.  As long as future filmmakers do this, we will have plenty of Star Wars fun to last us for a very long time.

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