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Dueling Critics: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

10:50 December 26, 2017
By: David Vicari, Fritz Esker

Fritz: Disney continues its quest to release a new Star Wars film from now until the end of the world with The Last Jedi. It's episode 8 of 9 for the main series. It's written and directed by Rian Johnson, a talented filmmaker who has delivered imaginative genre fare like Brick and Looper. Some early buzz has called it the best Star Wars film. That's an over-exaggeration (the modern film climate is much like the modern political climate - prone to extremes and allergic to nuance). But, I definitely enjoyed this film the most of the three Star Wars movies made by Disney. How about you?

David: I give it the same faint praise as you. It is better than The Force Awakens and definitely superior to the sleepy Rogue One. Sure, The Last Jedi is entertaining, but is it one of the better Star Wars films? Not really.

Dueling Critics: <em>Star Wars: The Last Jedi</em>

This time around, Rey (Daisy Ridley) begs disgraced Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to mentor her. Of course villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is attempting to seduce Rey to the dark side. Meanwhile, Resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) butts heads with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Then there is the unnecessary subplot involving Finn (John Boyega) and new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) trying to find a master code breaker to deactivate the First Order's tracking system.

I enjoyed the dramatic elements between Ridley, Driver and Hamill's characters the most. The tension between Isaac and Dern's characters seemed to be going somewhere, but it is defused rather quickly.

The Last Jedi is very protracted (being the longest Star Wars movie to date at a running time of two hours and 33-minutes) and the screenplay feels like a first draft. For instance, a monologue about the identity of Rey's parents is repeated in full. And political and social commentary (the rich keeping the poor down, arms dealers, etc.) is delivered in such a ham-fisted manner. At least in the original trilogy, George Lucas masked his social and political commentary in more resonant mythic storytelling.

So, what are your pros and cons about the film?​

Dueling Critics: <em>Star Wars: The Last Jedi</em>

Fritz: Ridley's dynamic with both Hamill and Driver is very good. I like that they gave Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron (underdeveloped in the first film) a real character arc in this film. There's a lightsaber fight about two-thirds of the way through that is as visceral of a fight scene that I've seen in a Star Wars film. I also appreciated that the film's tone was able to find a balance of light and dark. It's now edgy and cool to go over the top with darkness, and I was afraid they'd go the Alien: Covenant/Rogue One route here. Thankfully, Rian Johnson does not, but the film is by no means sunshine and light, either. There's a good balance to the tone. And despite it's 2.5 hour running time, it moved pretty well for me. Yes, it could have been a little shorter, but I was never bored. Most importantly of all, it passed the pee test for me. I held it in until the end.

As for cons, yes, the subplot between Finn and Rose could be largely removed from the film. I think Johnson was stuck trying to think of something for Finn to do. Yes, the film seemed to have a theme of everyone's plans going to hell and the Finn/Rose subplot is a part of that. But, it does feel a bit extraneous. Also, Domhnall Gleeson is a good actor who has done strong work in many films (Ex Machina, About Time, The Revenant), but he is saddled with a weak, thankless role as General Hux. While Kylo Ren remains an interesting character, Hux is a cardboard one-dimensional bad guy. He's not intimidating or scary or interesting at all.

The question I have for you, and it's an impossible one to answer, is this ... I was a small child when I first saw the Star Wars trilogy in theaters (saw the first two on re-release then was five when Return of the Jedi first came out). I adored those films. Now, I'm a 39-year-old man. If I'd been a 39-year-old when the original trilogy came out, I think I would have liked them but I'm not sure I would have loved them. And that's how I feel about The Last Jedi. I like it, but I don't love it. What about you? Do you think you would have felt differently about this film if you saw it for the first time through a boy's eyes?

Dueling Critics: <em>Star Wars: The Last Jedi</em>

David: Yes, that lightsaber battle is exciting and one of the best parts of the movie. I also enjoyed the finale when Rey and Chewbacca show up in the Millennium Falcon to save the day. Granted, the confrontation between Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker is clever, but when it's finally revealed as to what is really going on it's like letting the air out of a balloon. I can't help but imagine how hog wild with excitement audiences would have gone if Luke and Kylo had a balls-to-the-wall lightsaber fight.

And you are correct about Gleeson. He has nothing to do. I feel the same way about Carrie Fisher, who, sadly, passed away after filming on Last Jedi was completed. She appears very frail here, and it's sad and distracting. Also, Benicio Del Toro, as the code breaker, barely registers.

So, to try to answer your impossible question, I think you aren't giving enough credit to the original films, particularly the first Star Wars (christened Episode IV: A New Hope on re-release) and The Empire Strikes Back, and maybe giving too much credit to these new films. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are modestly entertaining but disposable rehashes. Would I have liked them if I saw them when I was a child? Sure, but I doubt they would have stayed with me. As for loving the originals if I had seen them as an adult – I think I would have been blown away. They are dynamic, mythic storytelling at its best. A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back both have great story structure, tight editing, and visual panache. These new films just can't compete.  

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