The Last Jedi

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Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is the most artful film in the whole series. Working with his usual (but new to the franchise) cinematographer Steve Yedlin, and Series Legend sound designer Ben Burtt, he creates images, moments and sequences that have more visual flair and sonic innovation than the other films. In doing so, he creates a slightly more grown-up feel (even, once or twice, bordering on the arthouse), all to the film’s credit. It’s not only wonderful, it’s fresh.

Perhaps the biggest and boldest cinematic innovation Johnson and Yedlin apply here is a simple one: colour, or to be much more specific, red. This could well become known, of the Star Wars movies, as ‘The Red One’ (or perhaps ‘The Crimson One’); the colour’s use is so blatant, so dramatically present, that it cannot go unnoticed, even by the youngest viewer (or the most under-informed cineaste). It informs the entire experience of the film. Johnson and Yedlin deploy it as a stand-in for blood on a salt planet (with a truly chilling, and seemingly very violent, effect, such that you feel they’re ‘getting away’ with something); as the colour of the armour of a squad of elite imperial guards; and, most theatrically, as the colour of the lair of Big Baddie Snoke, where red simply replaces actual walls and the film veers from fantasy movie ‘reality’ into actual abstraction.

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Rian also advances the cinematic language we’ve come to expect from the film’s action sequences. Here, at climactic moments, he will offer us an absence of sound and spectacle, using silence in lieu of an explosion, destruction seen from a distance. Again, it feels more mature, more cerebral; you’ve seen plenty of big bangs, he seems to be saying, but how often have you taken a moment to contemplate their impact? He also makes far more of small individual moments of tension than is common for the franchise; the film’s first big action sequence comes down to the simple pressing of a finger on a button, and it is nail-biting.

All of this makes the film thrilling experientially, and the character stuff works tremendously as well. In particular, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver get to play off each other (whether or not they’re on the same planet) with wit and emotional resonance. Oscar Isaac also makes a strong impression. The actor not making a big impact this time around is John Boyega, whose Finn definitely takes a narrative backseat to Isaac’s Poe. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher offer substantial  appearances, though their actual performances are a little odd.

The story is convoluted and at times confusing, but that felt, to me, by-the-by. I had a great time at this Star Wars; I felt, as an adult, that I was being catered to on a more substantial level than usual, and that was gratifying. I even liked the little fluffy penguins. I just might go see this one again.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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****1/2 (out of five)

Gareth Edwards’ (and, it must be acknowledged, Tony Gilroy’s) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is sensational, a thrilling, spectacularly crafted action-adventure tale set in the Star Wars universe. Unburdened by the weight of expectation, and J.J. Abrams’ almost pathological addiction to fan service, this “stand-alone” romp is more fun, more thrilling and just a better movie than The Force Awakens.

If you don’t know by now that the plot involves stealing the plans for the original Death Star, you’re probably not particularly interested in seeing the film. It’s a terrific story idea, though, allowing Edwards and his unbelievably talented team to assemble a motley crew on a stealthy raid with stakes as big as the universe. Essentially, the model here is The Dirty Dozen and so many films that came after, involving a wartime assault by a small group with big hearts against, well, Nazis – because that’s what the Empire is, right? Stormtroopers and all.

The film looks, feels, sounds and smells astonishingly like a Star Wars film, right down to its grain (in this it neither surpasses nor underperforms against The Force Awakens, which would have been responsible for constructing all the tech that allow these films to be so evocative of the texture of Lucas’ original three movies). It has the right rhythms, the right dialogue style and the right kind of story beats, but, unlike Force Awakens – which was, let’s face it, a remake of A New Hope (the first one, from 1977) – the story here is fresh. It also doesn’t seek to aspire to being Epic (with a capital “E”, see?) and so feels a lot tighter and more structurally satisfying.

The tone is more serious, or dare I use that dreaded word… “darker”. Force Awakens was so jam-packed with jokes as to be easily labeled comedic; Rogue One has very few. These people have too much on their mind to crack wise. Jyn (Felicity Jones, continuing the series’ fetish for very petite posh British brunettes) has a missing father who has designed a genocide machine; Cassian (Diego Luna) has, in one of the film’s rather excellent dialogue moments, been fighting against the Empire “since I was six years old”. Even this film’s droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, but doing an English accent!) is no-nonsense, and also kicks butt. (He’s also ugly; Rogue One scrupulously avoids the cute).

Characters from A New Hope appear, including, astonishingly, Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin – and not just for a moment but in whole scenes, with many lines of dialogue. This is the most extended use of a dead actor’s likeness I have yet seen. There was a hint of uncanny valley to this most special of special effects, but I’m willing to bet a teenager who didn’t know Cushing died in 1994 wouldn’t pick it. It’s pretty amazing, and Actor’s Equity should be very, very afraid.

Jones and Luna have superb chemistry; as they fell for each other, I fell for them. It’s hard to describe how satisfying Rogue One is. As craftsmanship and story-telling it’s superb, but it is something else, something magical. It really does offer a kind of welcome regression to the thrill of the movies as only children experience them. Perhaps seeing it on my birthday had some influence on my state of mind, but I felt like a kid again, giddy with pleasure, excitement and a warm heart. I guess like I felt after seeing the first one. What higher praise for A Star Wars Story can there be?