My wife and I had the pleasure of taking in a preview showing last night of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi", which officially opens in theatres on Friday, December 15, 2017.
There are going to be many spoilers in this review, but they don't start just yet. Consider this opening sort of like the seemingly endless commercials and previews that accompany every motion picture these days. If you don't want to know the actual film storyline, I'll let you know when those spoilers are coming.
Before getting into the film, a little personal background on the two people doing the viewing. You see, we come at the entire Star Wars series and phenomenon from completely different places. Those differences result in my wife and I viewing from completely different perspectives.
When the original film "Star Wars" was released in 1977, I was a highly impressionable 15-year old boy. I was just beginning to explore the broader world around me outside of the little South Philly neighborhood where I was growing up.
My wife, on the other hand, was a 22-year old young woman that summer. She had already started in the working world, and her interests had become much more focused on adult pursuits.
That 15-year old me related strongly to the young Luke Skywalker, who was supposed to be just an older teen himself at that point. Luke was portrayed by Mark Hammill, and the character dreamt of a bigger reality beyond the confines of the comforting yet bland existence in which he was raised.
I went along happily with Luke and his new friends, Princess Leia Organa (who we would later find out was Luke's twin sister) and smuggler Han Solo on a series of adventures. Luke was on a quest to find his purpose, and to engage in the battles taking place out there in the larger universe, not unlike my teenage self.
The first film, and the two sequels that followed in that original trilogy, drew tens of millions of us into a world of empire and rebellion. In fact, the original 1977 "Star Wars" film, now known as "The New Hope" within the context of the series, remains the only movie that I ever paid to see more than once at the box office.
It was all highlighted by the ultimate battle between the good and light of The Force, and the lure of The Dark Side. It is a familiar struggle, one that has visited each of our real lives as we continually find ourselves in a tug-of-war with good and evil forces, both external and internal.
I did not see those original films with my wife, we had not yet met, so we never got to share that experience. Her exposure to the "Star Wars" franchise was far less intense than my own. While mine was more personal, hers was based more on what was seeping into the broader culture. So her reaction to these films is never as visceral as my own.
Flash forward a couple of decades, and we would get to share my love of the franchise by seeing all three of the prequel films together between 1999 and 2005. That trilogy revealed the story of how Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala, Luke and Leia's parents, got together.
The prequels also told how the friendship and mentor-student relationship between Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker deteriorated, leading to the latter ultimately turning to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Vader.
The prequels set the stage in a timeline for the action in the original film series, which ended with "Return of the Jedi" in 1983.
This new series of films picks up the story decades later. The evil Galactic Empire, defeated thanks to the intervention of Luke and his allies in the original films, is re-emerging as the First Order and threatening the benevolent New Republic.
To set the stage for the latest film, the new series began with "The Force Awakens" in 2015. In it we get caught up with our old heroes, Han and Leia. They had gotten married, had a son, fought together to maintain peace in the galaxy, and but then later separated as a couple.
Now aging, Leia had turned in her previous royal title of Princess to become a General, leader of the New Republic's armed forces. Han had returned to his more familiar and comfortable role of working with co-pilot and sidekick Chewbacca in transporting and smuggling various shipments across the galaxy.
The First Order, an extreme Nazi-like power, was emerging as a genuine threat to galactic peace. Their goal was nothing less than to destroy the New Republic and replace it with tyrannic rule of their own. Leia attempts to locate Luke, who has mysteriously become a hidden recluse, in order to bring the Jedi back into the conflict on the side of her Resistance forces in battling the First Order.
"The Force Awakens" also introduces us to a new generation of characters. Poe Dameron is the greatest fighter pilot in the Resistance forces. With the aid of his orange and white droid, BB-8, Poe is sent to locate the final segment of a map that will lead to Luke.
A stormtrooper known as FN-2187 becomes a defector from the First Order. He joins up with Poe, who dislikes the impersonal number and bestows the name 'Finn' on him.
Rey is a loner on Jakku, a seemingly inconsequential lost girl on a middle-of-nowhere planet. She was abandoned by her parents as a small child, and his now scavenging just to get by from day to day.
Finally, the new trilogy introduces a new villain who goes by the name of Kylo Ren. We learn fairly quickly that he was originally Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia. Ben was strong in The Force and was sent to train with his uncle Luke to become a Jedi.
But the Dark Side, which lured away his grandfather (Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader), would turn Ben as well. He would take the name "Kylo Ren" from a mysterious 'Knights of Ren' group that he would join. He was then further lured towards the Dark Side under Supreme Leader Snoke, the leader of the First Order.
Now, real spoilers begin here for anyone who has not seen either of "The Force Awakens" or "The Last Jedi" films. Read no further, or prepare to have the key plot lines revealed.
As we saw in "Awakens", Kylo ultimately kills his father, Han Solo. Meanwhile, it is revealed that The Force is extremely strong with Rey, hinting at some background that is still to be revealed for her character. She meets Finn, who becomes immediately and almost instinctively protective of her.
Leia's Resistance fighters begin to defend the New Republic against the attacks of the First Order, led by Kylo and General Hux, who commands the First Order's more conventional forces.
It is revealed that there is a strong pull within The Force that draws Rey and Kylo to one another, and they will ultimately engage in an epic light-saber duel. She wins, but before she can finish him off, fate allows him to escape.
As the map to Luke is finally fully recovered, Rey is sent by Leia to find him and convince him to return from his self-imposed exile. That is basically where "Awakens" leaves us off.
"The Last Jedi" is written and directed by Rian Johnson, produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman. It begins with Poe leading the Resistance in a somewhat successful but also foolhardy military mission that gets a number of Resistance fighters killed. Poe is demoted for his recklessness by Leia, who is then herself blasted into unconsciousness by the military might of the First Order.
Meanwhile, we flash to Rey back on the island at the exact moment where "Awakens" had left off. Unfortunately, she finds that Luke is almost violently disinterested in any type of return to battle. This becomes a main focus of "Last Jedi": Rey trying to convince him to return, Luke resisting.
With Leia incapacitated, leadership of the Resistance passes down their chain of command to Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, played by Laura Dern. It's been quite the year for Dern, who joines this iconic franchise after her featured role in the "Twin Peaks" revival this past summer.
Finn, who was seriously injured at the end of "Awakens" by Kylo, regains consciousness, and rejoins the fight against the First Order. Finn, Poe, BB-8, and a new character named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) then team up to more aggressively challenge the First Order after Admiral Holdo takes a path of apparently passive resistance.
With Finn's knowledge of the inner workings of First Order tactics and equipment, they devise a plan to destroy the lead First Order ship which is laying siege to the Resistance vessels.
Their plan is for Finn, Rose, and BB-8 to secretly board the ship and take out its tracking system. Poe would convince Holdo that the last of the Resistance fleet's fuel could be then used to escape.
The group is instructed by Maz Kanata, a diminutive and large-goggled cantina owner who was introduced in "Awakens", to seek out a computer expert "slicer" who could help them to sneak on board the First Order vessel. They are directed to a casino on a nearby planet to find this person.
Finn and Rose are taken into custody at the casino and tossed in a jail cell where they meet 'DJ' (Benicio Del Toro), who does indeed help them infiltrate the ship. Unfortunately, he also turns on them, delivering Finn and Rose into the hands of the ruthless Captain Phasma.
While all that is going on, Poe leads a mutiny back at the Resistance. Holdo has given an "abandon ship" order which Poe sees as leading the group to sure destruction. As usual, he is jumping the gun, and is put in his place by a revived Leia.
In the Rey-Luke storyline, she yields herself to the Dark Side, only to find that it holds no answers for her. Luke is visited by the spirit of his own teacher, Yoda, and is inspired to give some basic Jedi training to Rey.
Luke also confides in Rey with the story of Kylo Ren. The Force was strong in young Ben Solo, and so Luke had taken his nephew along with a small group of others to train as Jedi knights. But Luke sensed the growing and inevitable pull of the Dark Side in Ben. This led to a confrontation between the two, and with Ben destroying the old Jedi temple, killing some of his fellow trainees before fleeing with others to join the First Order.
Rey was told a completely different version of this confrontation by Kylo. She was becoming more and more conflicted between Luke's resigned hesitancy and Kylo's charismatic but dark leanings. She believed firmly that if she could only meet with him face to face, that she could turn Kylo back to the light.
That meeting would take place, and would lead to Kylo delivering Rey to Snoke. When Snoke is unable to convert Rey, he orders Kylo to kill her, thus surpassing his grandfather Darth Vader by completing Kylo's own full turn to the Dark Side.
Instead, Kylo strikes down Snoke, and together he and Rey fight and overcome Snoke's eilite force of personal guards. Just when we thought this might be the beginning of Kylo's return to Ben, just when it looked as if Rey might successfully rehabilitate him, it all turns again.
With Snoke and his guards out of the way, and with his own power growing, Kylo saw this as his chance to rule the galaxy. He proposed an alliance with Rey in which they would overcome both the First Order and the Resistance, and rule alongside one another.
This was not her vision, and so Rey was having none of it. Unable to convince him to join the Resistance, Rey and Kylo put their powers to the test in a battle of wills through use of The Force.
Neither is able to overcome the other, and Rey escapes to help the Resistance. Kylo overpowers General Hux and declares himself as the Supreme Leader, replacing Snoke, and leaves to destroy the Resistance once and for all.
Those Resistance forces appear to run out of time. Holdo and Leia's escape plan has been discovered, and their ships are being picked off one by one.
It dawns on Holdo that there is but one way out of the situation. In a suicide mission, Holdo flies the main Resistance ship directly into the lead First Order vessel at light speed, slicing it in two as she sacrifices herself.
This was the very same ship that Finn, Rose, and BB-8 were on board and trying to sabotage. As the ship begins to disintegrate around them, Finn is confronted by Phasma, and the two engage in a showdown of their own which ends in her demise. Finn, Rose, and BB-8 are able to then flee the doomed vessel and re-join the Resistance.
In the final battle, the Resistance has taken refuge on a secluded planet. But the First Order finds them and quickly over-matches them with superior military might. Leia and the survivors find themselves cornered inside a reinforced cave with the First Order about to deliver a final blow.
Suddenly, in walks Luke Skywalker. After a brief reunion with Leia, he marches out like some wild west gunslinger to take on the full might of Kylo and the First Order all by himself. Unable to defeat Luke with conventional weapons, Kylo realizes that he will have to fight this battle himself.
This sets up a mano a mano between Luke and Kylo in which Luke delivers a warning that echoes one given decades earlier by Obi-Wan to Vader: "If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."
Luke succeeds in buying time for the Resistance to escape from the cave. They do so with the help of Rey and her growing abilities to draw upon the power of The Force. We leave Leia, Rey, Finn and the others as they flee aboard the Millenium Falcon.
Kylo suddenly realizes that he has been fighting with a Force-projected image of Luke, not the real person. We are left with him frustrated the he was unable to kill the real Luke, and that the Resistance has escaped.
Luke has fulfilled his destiny. He passed along the fundamental secrets of The Force to a new generation in Rey, and thus Luke will not end up as the last of the Jedi after all. We watch as he finally dissolves as a physical being, dying in peace and becoming one with The Force.
The film has wrapped up all of the story lines at this point, but still has one final scene with which to tantalize us. It shows a small group of children back on Canto Bight, the planet where Finn and his group had visited the casino earlier. These young stable hands had aided in Finn and Rose's escape.
A small boy in the group is shown using rudimentary powers of The Force to retrieve a broom. He then uses the broom to make motions of a light saber as he looks up at the stars.
We are thus left with the vision of a younger generation that has been inspired to one day join the Resistance, and with the hope that The Force will once again be a force for good in helping lead their cause.
That is where we will pick up with Episode IX, slated for a December 2019 release. That film was originally intended to feature a larger role for Carrie Fisher as Leia. Of course, we know that Fisher died almost exactly one year ago. She had finished filming all of her scenes for "Last Jedi" by that point, so "Last Jedi" will be her last appearance.
When we return to the series, we will certainly find Rey, Finn, Poe, Rose, and Chewie as key figures in trying to restor the Republic, battling against Kylo and his New Order. I'm sure there will be some appropriate resolution for Leia's character as well.
Will Luke return as a Yoda-like figure to guide Rey? Will there be a satisfying resolution to the Rey-Kylo relationship? Will there be a heartfelt romance between any of the characters? Will there be new characters? We'll have to wait two years to find out.
Now, that takes care of a recap of the story. So how would I rate it, and what criticisms, if any, would I have?
I prefaced this piece with my own history in following the "Star Wars" saga. That history takes me back four decades to my youth. I need to say this: I am not an unbiased source. I am a big fan. I don't wear costumes, don't read the books or comics, don't play the video games. I don't watch the animated series. But the films and their story will always be a part of me.
I loved the original trilogy. I enjoyed the prequels, which gained a measure of criticism from many Star Wars fans. And I can also say the same now regarding "The Last Jedi" and its "The Force Awakens" predecessor.
The prequels and the new trilogy do not hold the same romanticism for me as the original trilogy. That is no fault of the films. It is simply a reflection of my having grown older. The characters of Luke, Leia, and Han, even Darth Vader, are iconic because they came first. They started what has grown into a generational phenomenon.
As ground-breaking as the visual effects were from that original trilogy in their time, the newer films offer so much more in the way of special effects. Modern technological advances make any type of creature, world, and weapon a reality confined only by the imaginations of the creative team working on each film.
If I have any criticisms, there would be two. First, I found myself wishing that there was greater reliance on the actors and their skill in developing relationships and dialogue. The films try to balance that element with the special effects of the battles. For me, I would prefer fewer special effects-enhanced fights and more dramatic acting scenes.
Second, in this particular film it felt like too much story was being scattered around too many characters. I would much rather have seen more of a relationship develop, more teaching take place, with Luke and Rey than was actually shown in the film.
Daisy Ridley as Rey is clearly the breakout star of this new trilogy. She is captivating in the role whenever she hits the screen. I felt that she was under-utilized in this latest film. I would, for instance, have been interested in seeing a more interesting background story developed for her, something that reveals a reason for the strength of The Force in her.
Same goes for Oscar Isaac's character of Poe. This has been a character with a great deal of potential, but one who has been reduced to a stereotype of the insanely gifted but undisciplined maverick fly boy. Picture Tom Cruise from "Top Gun", only in outer space. Poe could have been a modern Han Solo, but that ship may have sailed.
I was never really sold on John Boyega in the Finn role. A supporting role, sure. But he is cast as a major character, and I just don't find him to be leading man material.
We are also through two films now, and I don't see a legitimate romance. The sexual tension, first as a triangle between Luke, Leia, and Han, and ultimately in the Han-Leia relationship, helped cement the "heart" felt in the original trilogy by the audience.
Who is that supposed to be here? Rey and Finn? Finn and Rose? It seems as if those have been tried and found lacking. Rey-Finn feels more like the brother-sister relationship of Luke-Leia than a romance. Finn-Rose might happen, but I simply don't find it all that interesting.
The relationship between Rey and Kylo seems almost dirty, and not in a sexual way. While it appeared as if each might have briefly thought of the other in that way during a fleeting moment in "Last Jedi", it seemed as if they immediately realized what went through all of our minds: "No."
The most interesting hope for a romance to develop might end up being Rey-Poe. The two characters finally meet towards the end of this one, and there seems to be a quick spark. But it was indeed quick. There was no real conversation between the two, and nothing is made of a relationship.
Kennedy was hand-picked by the creator of this world and these characters, George Lucas, to carry the torch forward. She needs to try something to recapture the magic. Perhaps with the return of J.J. Abrams to direct Episode IX, we will find Star Wars getting back to those roots.
For old school Star Wars fans, there are definitely some great retro nuggets in this one. The aforementioned Luke nod to Obi-Wan. Our old buddy R2D2 cues up a video of one of the original trilogy's greatest hits for Luke. There is an actual appearance from Yoda, and we hear the ethereal voice of Obi-Wan. Luke takes the bridge of the Millenium Falcon, finds the gold dice that Han had hung there, and reminisces over his old friend.
Looking back on the nostalgic aspects that were heavy in "Last Jedi", they also served as a reminder that we missed out on something that I would love to have seen. Due to the choices made in the "Awakens" storyline, there would never be a reunion of Luke, Leia, and Han all together.
I recommend that everyone who has ever called themselves a Star Wars fan should go see "The Last Jedi" as soon as possible. It continues the story, opening with the now iconic musical strains of John Williams and the introductory word scroll. You get to watch Leia and Han reunite. You will see R2D2, C3PO, Yoda, Chewbacca, the Millenium Falcon. It pushes forward the newer generation story of Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo, and BB-8.
What do I want to see in a finale in 2019? I want a Rey-heavy film, one that sees her fully learn the powers of The Force. I want to see the return of the Jedi - not a repeat of that film, but a rebirth of the Jedi knights. I want to see Kylo as clearly and unambiguously on the Dark Side. I want to see a realistic Rey interpersonal relationship developed, perhaps with Poe.
I would love to see a Luke cameo as Rey's spiritual Yoda-like teacher. I want to see good defeat evil. I want to see the First Order defeated and the Republic restored. I want to see Rey defeat Kylo, though not necessarily kill him.
Finally, I would actually like to see the ending have something that leaves the door open, that allows the folks at Disney to perhaps revisit the series a few years down the road. I mean, what is life without the hope of a Star Wars fix coming at some point?
I wouldn't know. For me, the events which took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away have always been there. I'd love a new hope, one where I might continue to enjoy this series for years to come.