Brad’s April Escape - Part 16
April 24 - Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Each weekday this month, I’ll screen a film from The Bearded Trio Cinematic Universe and list 10 random scenes, characters, musical cues or performances that I particularly enjoy and look forward to upon every viewing. I’d love to hear similar little things you enjoy about these films, and hope you join me in this escape from the present-day world.
Next up is a film that effectively split the fan community, but a film I immensely respect, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).
The Last Jedi - An Introduction
You probably either loved or hated Episode VIII, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson. After the giddy popularity, and (sorry) predictability of The Force Awakens, Johnson executed his own vision for Star Wars with this entry in the Skywalker Saga.
TLJ took chances. It was bold. It wasn't afraid to redefine some traditional Star Wars tropes. It took the beloved Luke Skywalker in a completely unexpected, and controversial direction. Why would the man who held out hope for even the most evil of beings in the galaxy decide to isolate himself in shame on a remote island no one can find? If you listen closely to Johnson in the wonderful feature-length documentary The Director and the Jedi, you hear his justifications, and I have a hard time refuting them. Luke choosing not to fight was entirely consistent with where his character evolved to by the end of Return of the Jedi. His walkabout through the galaxy post-ROJ enlightened him to the failings of the Jedi, and he logically determined to not repeat all of their past mistakes. Add to that his failure with Ben Solo, and of course he would choose to live out his life in isolation. Is it the kick-ass Jedi Luke we all wanted to see? Of course not. Was it a realistic and justifiable direction for his character to take in-universe? Absolutely.
One consistent thing I'll mention over and over here is what a beautifully shot film TLJ is. Rian Johnson constructs some real treats for the eyes, and even in some places you wouldn't expect. He took the chance turning an ordinary shot and making it epic and memorable. The kind of shots that stay in your mind's eye well in-between viewings. Those kind of visuals, along with the John Williams score, are the easy strengths of this film.
Williams returns to a handful of older and familiar themes throughout the soundtrack. Music from the Battle of Yavin and Battle of Endor return, as does the beloved Luke-Leia theme late in the film in the resistance compound. Aside from the ever-present Force theme, Williams seems to call back to older themes more in this film than any parts of the sequel trilogy. It works well when intermixed with fun new themes like Rose's Theme. No matter what you think of Rose the character, her theme is a consistent highlight anytime it appears in the course of the film. The opening-sequence music, the battle around the dreadnaught, is my favorite Star Wars opening sequence music of any of the 11 films in the franchise, by far. Sweeping and dramatic, with a touch of impending doom for the Resistance.
You'll notice in this post that there are obvious characters, and large chunks of the film I skip over. As usual, I stick with the parts of the film that resonate the most deeply for me. Taken as a whole, I am not the biggest sequel trilogy fan out there. But there are key frames, moments on screen and musical cues, that make this the highlight of the entire sequel trilogy for me. I truly hope this isn't the last Star Wars Rian Johnson directs.
10 Things I Like - The Last Jedi
1. I adore everything that's on Ahch-To. It's such a striking environment, and quintessentially Star Wars. It was such a wonderful location choice by J.J. Abrams in The Force Awakens, and is smartly utilized to a much deeper extent by Rian Johnson.
In this shot of Rey, we're hit with a whipping wind and rain, but there's more. She turns to hear ghostly whispers in the direction of the black hole that leads to the cave we see her fall into later on. Those sounds grabbed my attention right away, and are a great indicator that this island is home to something far more significant than porgs, grass and mountains. My interpretation was that this was the Force itself whispering to Rey, finally satisfied that she has come to the island to continue her training. Give me a two-hour movie set only on Ahch-To, and I'll be captivated by every frame. I expand upon this idea a bit more below.
2. The Minor Character Who Met an Unfair and Way Too Early Death is Tallie. She's played with such cool and confidence by Hermione Corfield, I really wish her character had lived through the end of the sequel trilogy. I saw her as the Wedge of this trilogy, and it's too bad it got cut short.
3. Snark alert coming up...You know, it sure is nice to see a reference to the prequel trilogy in the sequel trilogy for a change.
There was something just super cool about hearing Luke Skywalker utter the name "Darth Sidious" here in this scene. It was a direct acknowledgement of the research Luke has done post-Return of the Jedi. Luke's time between ROJ and TFA is now the most fascinating untold story in Star Wars for me, and something I sure wish would see the light of day, in whatever form, now that the sequel trilogy is finished.
And what about that Jedi symbol on the floor? There's so much here on Ahch-To that begs for more expansive story explanation.We have this symbol, obviously put together by ancient members of the order. The Jedi texts. The island itself, which clearly contains a myriad of mysteries.
Were I in charge of future Star Wars films, I'd make the 2022 trilogy about the origin of the Force and of the Jedi Order. The first location is Ahch-To, so you already have a familiar environment for the audience. And there has to be something uniquely Star Wars about a story like this, or else it would be plain old sci-fi. So Lucasfilm folks, if you're reading and you're staring at a blank Google doc, give me a call. I'll take a crack at the Jedi origin story.
4. This is the sequence where I scooted up in my chair and payed strict attention to every detail on screen. Rey was clearly echoing Luke's venture into the Dagobah cave in Empire Strikes Back. What would she find here? What is the Force doing? The music plays a surprisingly secondary role here, as all our attention is focused on Rey and her search for truth. Ultimately, she wouldn't find it here, but it's far from a pointless sequence, as she turns further towards Kylo Ren himself for answers.
5. Flashbacks traditionally hadn't been used in Star Wars, and I feel our three flashbacks in TLJ are done the best of any such sequences. We get Luke's version, Ren's version, then, presumably, the truth.
This shot also represents the story I need to know more about. Luke's life at his Jedi temple, and Ren's turn to the dark side. That's the story that I believe, fans wanted to see told the most, which helps account for the incredible sales of the Rise of Kylo Ren comic, which came out in December, shortly after the release of The Rise of Skywalker.
This also plays into what I detect as an odd recurring theme in the franchise. The good guys lie and the bad guys tell the truth. This is clear in Obi-Wan's story about Anakin to Luke on Tatooine, as well as Count Dooku revealing to Obi-Wan on Geonosis that the senate has been under the control of the Dark Lord of the Sith. Oh, and there's that little scene in Cloud City where Darth Vader reveals to Luke that the two are related. A clever continuation of that motif here by Johnson.
6. A critic of this film commented that a really good two-hour movie existed within this two-and-a-half hour movie. If one accepts that edit and slices off the final half hour, you get this exchange between Kylo Ren and Rey as the end, and wow, what a cliffhanger this would have been!
Imagine this film ending with Ren's hand extended to Rey, and a shot lingering on her, considering whether or not to take it. A sloe zoom in on Rey's face, then we cut to the end credits. Somehow, for a film this bold, it would have been a very appropriate ending.
But then we wouldn't have gotten the Battle of Crait, which was another sweet treat for the eyes and ears. More on that below.
7. Man, what beauty. Rian Johnson really knows how to stage a shot he wants the audience to breathe in. Leia stands at the rebel compound door awaiting word to shelter. This was one of many shots that could have been designed in any number of ways, but Johnson somehow found the most gorgeous angle and composition possible.
8. A straight-up awesome visual/audio moment from the Battle of Crait. This salt crystal setting is totally Star Wars. A visually striking scene that wouldn't appear naturally on earth anywhere. Rian Johnson crushed this essential aesthetic, finding something new and unique, but totally fit within this universe we all love.
The addition of traditional Star Wars space battle music by John Williams here only enhances an already cool scene. This version, first heard in the Star Wars gunport sequence, has horns that operate a little more intensely, and the percussion strikes a bit harder, more intense than previous versions, which I think had a more melodic tone than this version. But it works insanely well in this context. This scene was a true highlight in the end battle for me.
9. This scene between Luke and Leia had to be just as emotional to shoot for the producers and director as it was for the audience to watch. We've spent nearly two full films to see Luke and Leia reunited on screen, and this does not disappoint.
And of course this scene wouldn't carry the full emotional weight it does without John Williams bringing back his "Luke and Leia" theme, first heard 34 years earlier in Return of the Jedi. This rendition feels a bit slower paced, more deliberate. Which feels appropriate for these characters, who are older, a bit slower afoot than we've been used to seeing. Rian Johnson reaches right for the heart strings, and man does he tug on them.
10. Seriously, how gorgeous is this shot? I know I have asked that in different ways in this post, but I don't care. As is custom in cinema, we have our bad guy on the left and our good guy on the right. The ground and sky meet in the middle of the frame, and both look so alien. So Star Wars. The lightsabers are almost an afterthought, and that rarely happens when lightsabers are in any frame in this franchise. Rian Johnson isn't afraid to go epic with this confrontation. He delivers the moment as it should be delivered, and it's a glorious sight.
Brad’s Escapism Moment in The Last Jedi
Was Luke *not* dying in Episode IX the thing that made Star Wars fans mad about this film? Eh, who knows. As a whole, fans of this franchise are pretty hard to please with a thing that's current. But as we see Luke fade away here, my first thought was "He went the same as Yoda and Obi-Wan." There was something appropriate, maybe even poetic, about Luke's death. It came in an act of selflessness. An heroic act, meant to only benefit his friends, more specifically, his twin sister and her allies. He went out on his terms, and as someone who has loved this character for more than 40 years, that's all I could ask for.
The Force Awakens was criticized - with more than a little justification - for following plot points of A New Hope a little too closely. Rian Johnson took a far different approach with TLJ. He went bold. He zigged when people expected a zag. I equate this film to LeBron James signing with the Miami Heat in 2010. It wasn't the most popular move, but I respect its boldness.
Some may question more than a few details about this film, and that's fair. But I feel Rian Johnson is an immensely talented director and storyteller. I feel several areas of question in this film can be attributed to it being the middle chapter of a trilogy that, with the benefit of hindsight, suffered from the lack of a single, coherent vision. Here's hoping Lucasfilm keeps to its word and backs the already announced Rian Johnson trilogy. Give him the freedom to set his own story in its own part of this universe, and I have 100 percent confidence he would knock it out of the park. He already did that in many respects with The Last Jedi, and I feel fortunate to have this addition to the Star Wars Universe.
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