Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi
***/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A
starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Benicio Del Toro
written and directed by Rian Johnson
by Walter Chaw I wrestled for a long time with this review. Not what I would write but whether I should write it at all. I consider director Rian Johnson to be a friend. He's kind, smart, true, and unaffected despite having been handed the reins to the most revered American mythology--save for becoming somehow more humble during the course of it. In the middle of a period in which everyone in the business, it seems, is being outed as a cad, Rian is something like hope that there are good and decent men left. Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (hereafter The Last Jedi) is every inch his movie. It's about hope, see, and hope is the word that's repeated most often in his script. By the end of it, he suggests that hope can even grow from salted earth. It's a beautifully-rendered image as open, guileless-unto-corny, and genuine as Rian is. I don't love everything in the film, but I do love Rian and The Last Jedi as a whole. In a franchise this venerated and valuable, it's ballsy as fuck that he decided to do his own thing and that Disney let him. Now they've decided to invest another $600M or so in letting him do his own thing some more.
In The Last Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley) presents a problem for Luke (Mark Hamill). She's uncontainably powerful and probably untrainable, like he was once upon a time, far, far away. She sees a dark pit during a period of meditation and heads directly towards it. Luke is horrified: "You went right for it?" She didn't think twice. She represents the new; Luke represents the old. When confronted with his own subconscious in The Empire Strikes Back, some 36 years ago now, he hesitates; he's warned that whatever he takes with him in there is what he'll find. Rey learns the same lesson without similar guidance. She discovers a Platonic mirror down there (maybe it's Lacanian), next to a still pond. She learns who her parents are and then that it doesn't matter, because at the end of it all, we are who we make ourselves. Johnson references Notorious in this scene, just as he references the likes of Black Narcissus and Akira Kurosawa throughout--but always with a purpose. Here, it's to see the shadows of her parents merge like the shadows of Sebastian and his demonic mother when Alicia succumbs to bad tea. It says something about that particular relationship. The merging of the wraiths in Rey's vision says something about that relationship, too. They're both trapped, these heroines, by other people's expectations of them. They're both wounded by those who should have loved them the most. "Who are you?" asks Luke. And then he asks where she's from. "No one's from nowhere," he says. Then he asks why they sent her to him, "Rey from Nowhere."
Luke tells Rey that he has three lessons for her. The first is that the Force is neither good nor bad, just the energy between opposite sides of the same devalued coins. Two halves of a coin is what we see, too, in the hands of Page (Veronica Ngo)--who is instrumental in an early space battle--and her sister, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), as Rose mourns the Resistance's losses. They are cut like a Yin/Yang. Separate, they are out of balance. The heroes of The Force Awakens are separated for almost the entire film. They're all out of balance. The Last Jedi resembles The Empire Strikes Back's structure in that way, if in few others. Luke says to "Rey from Nowhere" that thinking the Force will die with the "last" Jedi is arrogance. It's his way of warning her about arrogance and the importance of respecting that the older you get, the less you know anything with any certainty. I had all the answers twenty years ago. Now? Now I don't know shit. The second lesson is that being lost in the past can be dangerous, can teach the wrong things to the cursorily enlightened. Luke's asked if he's read all of the sacred Jedi texts he's placed on an altar in his hermitage. They're not exactly, you know, riveting. He tells Rey that the Jedi are more useful as symbols than as actors, and Rey understands that symbols are important to the future. In one exchange, Johnson articulates the enduring importance of Star Wars to my generation of Americans. It was my first and most vital connection to this culture. There's a scene near the middle where Luke is reunited with an old friend and they watch a home-movie together; I well and truly lost it for those few minutes.
Rey tells Luke that Leia (Carrie Fisher) sent her "with hope." We're reminded of the last word uttered in Rogue One and the original entreaty in A New Hope when a hologram of Princess Leia pleads with an old friend of her father's to join the Rebellion. She's asking now for her brother to come home from exile. It's a complicated gesture, because we know that Luke has failed his nephew, Leia's son Ben (Adam Driver), the violent apprentice to the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). In a series of Rashomon-style flashbacks, we learn of Luke's failure and Ben's vulnerability. Driver, it bears mentioning, is amazing. Again. The Last Jedi happens in the middle of the bleakest time that I can remember in our culture, and all it really has to say is that, in the words of Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), if you don't believe in the sun, you'll never survive the night. It talks about the right way and the wrong way to fight, about holding strong to the idea that there are still good people in the world, even when the line distinguishing right from wrong, truth from fiction, blurs. Finn (John Boyega) tells thief DJ (Benicio Del Toro) at one point that DJ is wrong for believing there's no real morality in taking sides. In response, DJ says, devastatingly, "maybe." It's a shrug. We greet each new effrontery with the same kind of nonchalance-approaching-nihilism. We are a culture of not-surprised. We are beyond the capacity for satire, and so The Last Jedi approaches with its heart in its hand. This is not who we are, it says--this is who we used to be, if we care to remember. And who we could be, if we care to hope.
The Last Jedi is about--most of all, then--self-determination. It destroys the idea of destiny and the notion that this story is bound to the Skywalker family. It's about becoming comfortable in your skin: not by birthright, but through struggle, pain, perseverance; by making the good decision at the right time; and by hope. It values leadership and temperance. "Wisdom" isn't a word said with scorn. What's fascinating to me is that Luke shares the same worldview as Ben: they both want to eradicate the past. Luke wants to because it's painful and he's full of regret and shame. He's uncomfortable with his reputation, which becomes a refrain in Finn's initial reactions to Rose's fawning recognition of him. Ben wants to because of his own regrets and shame, and then the belief that the future belongs to him. The past is an uncomfortable burden, so he plucks it out. He thinks he's found an ideological partner in Rey, who should also be ashamed of her past, he thinks, growing up as nothing, nowhere. Maybe he has found one. Luke seeks to burn it all down. He's stopped, but just for a moment and for a different purpose than is first apparent. He hasn't changed much from the kid always looking towards the future. It's his greatest flaw and his greatest strength. Ben's, too, maybe. Hard to say. For a glimpse of what Johnson thinks about the past, catch what's in a storage drawer at the very end in the belly of the Millennium Falcon. I should mention that the plotting in The Last Jedi is trip-hammer tight, as, you know, all of Johnson's scripts have been.
I didn't like the sequence in a casino--a callback to the Star Wars Cantina, of course, but also a chance to discuss the evils of war profiteers and the 1%. There are creatures there, there's slapstick, there's a heist of sorts, and it all harks back to my favourite of Johnson's films, The Brothers Bloom, in the interplay between the characters, in the lightness and clarity of the scheme. But it's tonally disruptive, and it introduces a trio of children who seem like part of a different film. I'm not much invested in Rose and Finn (mileage may vary), though I do love the doomed chase of the Resistance fleet, running out of fuel, on the verge of mutiny from frustrated "Flyboy" Poe (Oscar Isaac), and watching their already-minuscule numbers further, cruelly reduced. There's a frontier quality to the picture that's extraordinary and raises the idea that if The Last Jedi is a western, then it truly believes we're in transition, perhaps, and there's reason not to despair. I love Ben and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). I love the samurai influences of Snoke's Praetorian Guard and a final showdown borrowed from Sanjuro and shot like a Sergio Leone standoff against an impossible backdrop of machines of war. I love the movie's courage and its honour. I love how much it loves its characters. I love that it so loves Star Wars that it challenges the series to be elevated in its ideas and its images. There's a double sunrise set to a familiar John Williams motif. When Rey first wields Anakin's lightsaber, her gorgeous theme rises up like the lump in my throat. The Last Jedi feels like something entirely new: a shot across the bow in the form of a message of peace and acceptance. A leap of faith. Luke never gets to teach his third lesson to Rey, but I think he teaches it to us. By being easily the most unconventional film in the octet, The Last Jedi underscores exactly what Star Wars was always about. Hope. We need it now more than ever. Originally published: December 13, 2017.
THE 4K UHD DISC
by Bill Chambers Star Wars: The Last Jedi marks the series' 4K Ultra HD debut, docking on physical media in an Ultimate Collector's Edition that shunts the frills onto two accompanying Blu-rays, giving the 4K feature all the room it needs to breathe. Years ago, I attended a demo of the short-lived D-VHS format that screened clips from Independence Day in HiDef and standard definition side by side. "Notice how many more stars you can see in the D-VHS version," the MC said during the space-set prologue. My first impression of The Last Jedi in 4K, possibly a placebo effect, was that the opening backdrop looked unexpectedly dense with stars. Then the signature scroll began, and I noticed the yellow font seemed richer in HDR, closer to how it is in memory versus how it usually is in reality (and how it is on Blu-ray). Like so many of the embellishments wrought by director Rian Johnson and DP Steve Yedlin, who oversaw the HDR pass together, it's subtle, but these minor tweaks add up to something special. Colours I would call more decisive in HDR (HDR 10, that is, or Dolby Vision, depending on your set-up), like the Resistance uniforms: a rusty orange instead of the murky red they are in SDR. Beams from the laser swords have a radioactive intensity that totally revitalizes them as an iconic weapon, while the sparks they generate have real heat. The picture was mastered in 4K from a mix of film and digital elements, and all the expected gains in textural detail are obvious, from Ben's quilted breastplate to Snoke's papery skin--the latter a particularly wretched sight in UHD. This is pretty much a perfect presentation that's ruined me for the 1080p editions of episodes one through seven.
A Dolby Atmos track, exclusive to the 4K disc, responds well to amplification and in fact demands it. (Sampling the Dolby Digital Plus alternative, I found it louder but also comparatively shrill.) While I could only access the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core, it's spectacular; when Hux's fleet materializes out of thin air at the start of the film, each thwomp is a playful little kick to the solar plexus. John Williams's music stands beautifully above the fray, which is arguably more complex and transparent than ever before. For some reason, though, I didn't feel the electronic groan of the lightsabers in my gut as much in this one. On the Blu-ray Disc stamped FEATURE FILM, additionally find a full-length audio commentary from Johnson, who's recorded--and likely listened to--enough of these by now that he avoids common pitfalls like narrating the action or treading overcautiously. After pointing out an actress from The Witch who has one line, he laments that shooting Star Wars in London is a double-edged sword, because it means having unprecedented access to England's finest actors and squandering them in bit parts. Throughout, Johnson credits his colleagues for their strokes of genius, saying that Leia manifesting the Force was Kathleen Kennedy's idea, for instance. Actually, what really endeared me is that he goes on to compare Leia's impossible act of survival to how "you hear about parents when their kids are caught under cars being able to get Hulk strength and lift them up." That is such an '80s kid thing to say. It almost makes up for him invoking Monty Python out of the gate.
The Blu-ray Disc labelled BONUS bears an image of Johnson directing C-3PO (or Anthony Daniels), which is a sublime way to troll the movie's disgruntled fans, whom Disney knows won't be able to resist buying it anyway. It's interesting that the studio appears to have embraced the idea that this is an auteurist Star Wars, however--those same fans might see it as Disney passing the buck and take it as ironic validation. I myself am delighted for Johnson, who's long been supportive of FILM FREAK CENTRAL, but I also remember that the last time I saw a director's face on a DVD was when M. Night Shyamalan graced the cover of Signs. It's not a great precedent/omen. Anyway, the centrepiece of this disc is The Director and the Jedi (95 mins., HD), a feature-length documentary from Anthony Wonke and Tylie Cox that follows the production from a brief rehearsal period with Mark Hamill and Daisy Ridley in an intimate office setting through to those same actors' last days on set. Both Johnson and his long-time producer Ram Bergman are new to mega-budget franchise filmmaking, and their kid-in-the-candy-store-ness lends itself to a vicariously thrilling view of the Star Wars machinery, even if they're both so unflappable and easy-going that drama hardly gets a chance to percolate. What tension the piece has comes from Hamill's "fundamental" disagreement with how Johnson wrote--and wrote out--Luke Skywalker; the two seem to be in a bit of Cold War that Johnson endeavours to thaw in a lovely if voyeuristic moment where he whispers the movie's title to Hamill before it went public. The doc largely eschews talking-heads but does feature soundbites from Carrie Fisher, as well as more recent ruminations on her passing from Johnson. Mostly, The Director and the Jedi is a chance to buzz around the set like a fly on the wall and watch Frank Oz puppeteer Yoda or BB-8 struggle to drive up a ramp. Though gratifyingly hype-free as far as these things go, it's not quite as revealing as The Beginning: Making Episode I or as deliciously dorky as "Films Are Not Released: They Escape" from the Attack of the Clones DVD. If nothing else, you will learn definitively what's practical in The Last Jedi and what isn't.
Four additional HD featurettes cover topics skimmed or skipped over altogether in the documentary, and they offer a good blend of making-of and food for thought. In "Balance of the Force" (10 mins.), Johnson says he wanted to re-establish the Force for newcomers and reclaim it from its debauched reputation as a superpower. He also defends Luke's refusal to take up the cause of the Resistance as a corrective to Luke rushing to the aid of his friends and abandoning Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. Ultimately, Johnson seeks an uncanny symmetry in The Last Jedi that's difficult to resist--for instance, rhyming Luke's discovery that he's Vader's son with Rey's equally tragic discovery that her bloodline is insignificant. In "Lighting the Spark: Creating the Space Battle" (14 mins.), Johnson even admits that a line from Star Wars about jumping into hyperspace inspired Holdo's sacrifice, though the highlight of this segment is a closing title-card that reads: "The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement." (Did Disney just accidentally leak Trump's top-secret plans for a Space Force?) "Showdown on Crait" (13 mins.) breaks down the challenges of coming up with an otherworldly soil--a galaxy-brain concept for a special effect if ever there was one. That red earth beneath the planet's salty topsoil? It's dyed confetti. Here, too, we get a chance to nerd out about the sound, as the great Ren Klyce and his crew demonstrate how they gave voice to the new speeders and Gorilla walkers that fuck all that shit up on Crait. Finally, "Snoke and Mirrors" (6 mins.) is a fairly typical look at the motion-capture process, trailed by the entire Snoke sequence with "Andy Serkis as Snoke, in the raw," as Johnson puts it in his brief introduction. My favourite part is when Serkis cups Ridley's face with a giant rubber Snoke arm. It has fingers that move.
Rounding out the platter and thus the entire package is a 23-minute block of deleted scenes (fourteen in total, HD), including an alternate opening that goes straight to Finn waking up in a hyperbaric chamber and an extended Fathier chase. Let me ask you, do you wish the Fathier chase was longer, with incomplete vfx? Because this might be your lucky day. In optional commentary, Johnson rightly cites "diminishing returns" as his reason for paring it down in the final cut--there were so many cool and clever bits of business that none of them got a chance to stand out. In Johnson's most regretted elision, Tom Hardy has a jokey, typically unintelligible cameo as a Storm Trooper, but before that happens Finn, Rose, and BB-8 make their way through "the Star Wars version of Jack Lemmon's office in The Apartment movie." Production designer Rick Heinrichs certainly ran with that brief from Johnson, although the desks and their arrangement are more Mission Control than soul-sucking bureaucracy. Personally, I got a kick out of reading the data in the letterbox bands, because often shots are annotated with the focal length at which they were photographed. This package, in other words, has a lot to offer students of Star Wars and filmmaking alike; I wouldn't expect anything less from the unapologetically geeky Johnson. A digital copy of Star Wars: The Last Jedi turns up inside the keepcase--and is apparently the only way to hear Williams's much-ballyhooed isolated score.