Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Rey attempts to convince Luke Skywalker to return from his exile, her friends in the Resistance are being pursued by the First Order…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

GOOD GUYS:

* Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is still the Resistance’s most dashing pilot. As the story begins, he squares up against the evil First Order fleet – on his own, just one small fighter ship against city-sized cruisers. It’s a gutsy delaying tactic, but after he’s bought enough time for his colleagues to escape he can’t resist hammering home the advantage and leading a full-scale assault. While the bulk of the Resistance gets away, they suffer many loses – and Poe is blamed. He’s demoted by his superior, Leia, and then kept out of the loop, which angers him when he believes a new battle plan will lead to the Resistance’s destruction. So he agrees to an idea cooked up by his pal Finn and new character Rose, then relieves Vice Admiral Holdo of command…

* Droid BB-8 is by Poe’s side during the early space battle, then accompanies Finn and Rose on their mission.

* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is still in charge of the Resistance. During a space battle, though, the hull of her cruiser is hit and she’s sucked out into space… but because she’s awesome and has vaguely defined Force powers she’s able to survive and fly across space back to the ship. (How much you like this Mary Poppins-ish moment will probably depend on your age, your level of cynicism and how much joy you have left in your soul.) The character then spends a long while recovering. Later, once the Resistance have reached a safe planet and are holed up in a fortified base, Leia’s surprised to see her brother walk in. Leia and Luke share an extremely touching scene together before he leaves to confront Kylo Ren… Very sadly, Carrie Fisher died not long after filming The Last Jedi. The Force will *always* be with her.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) features in a few scenes, interacting with Leia, Poe and Luke, but doesn’t contribute anything beyond nostalgia.

* Finn (John Boyega) is unconscious to begin with, after his injury at the end of the previous film. When he awakens his first thought is, ‘Where’s Rey?’ Later, he decides to leave and find his friend, but is caught in the act by a Resistance engineer called Rose. The two of them bond and come up with a plan to disrupt the First Order’s ability to track the Resistance fleet. However – and here’s where it starts to get convoluted – in order to sneak aboard a First Order ship and do some sabotage, they need a master codebreaker. So with Poe’s sanction, they leave the fleet, travel several parsecs across space, and visit a casino in a city called Canto Bight to find a guy recommended by Finn’s friend Maz . The casino section is the film’s biggest flaw: it’s frivolous, throwaway and – with its Art Deco stylings, naff gags, simplistic politics and crummy CGI – an unwelcome reminder of the Star Wars prequels. (It does, however, contain an elaborate tracking shot that’s a reference to the 1927 film Wings, which pleased this film-geek blogger.) After much titting about, Finn and Rose don’t find Maz’s mate, but do stumble across another codebreaker called DJ who agrees to help them. Later, while the Resistance are defending their base on a planet with a crust of red salt, Finn leads a mission to destroy the First Order’s biggest gun.

* Having found Luke at the end of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) refuses to leave his remote island. She wants him to come and help the Resistance; they need the resurgence of the Jedi order to defeat the First Order. Luke is initially grumpy and says he’s not interested, but Rey perseveres. In part, it’s because she recognises the island from her dreams. Soon, a teacher-pupil relationship develops, though he’s not impressed by her understanding of the Force (“It’s a power that Jedi have that allows them to control people and make things float.”). It’s clear, though, that Rey has huge, untamed power… and seems unconsciously drawn to the dark side. She also begins to have psychic conversations with the First Order’s Kylo Ren, who is Leia’s son and Luke’s former pupil. (The conversations are really well staged and played. The two actors are filmed on their respective sets and simply cut together as if they were talking to each other.) One night, Rey’s drawn to a murky cave where she experiences a nightmarish hallucination – she sees multiple versions of herself and is given a tantalising glimpse of her long-lost parents. Soon after, she leaves to find Kylo and turn him back from the dark side. But he wants her to join him in villainy. He also draws out a truth she’s always instinctively known: her parents were no one special and simply abandoned her. Rey resists the temptation to become evil and escapes…

* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been found. Following on directly from the monumentally wonderful cliffhanger ending to The Force Awakens, Rey reverentially passes him his old lightsaber… which he then just dismissively tosses away! (Great gag. Great mission statement.) Luke’s in a bad way, wracked with guilt for his failure to help his student Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren. He’s living a basic, prehistoric-like existence on a rocky outcrop, sharing it with a strange mixture of creatures, and initially doesn’t want to listen to Rey. He finally agrees to teach her in the ways of the Jedi, but she leaves when she comes to believe that Luke tried to murder Kylo. Later, Luke apparently shows up on the Resistance’s planet. But he’s not really there: he’s projecting his body across space using his Force powers. He squares off against the entire First Order battalion, then Kylo in person – all as a stalling tactic to allow his friends to escape. The enormous effort proves too much and, back on his island, the real Luke fades away from existence. The last thing he sees before he dies are twin suns in the sky… With his greying beard, shaggy hair and cantankerous maturity, this is a career-best performance from Hamill, who in this series has believably progressed from a naïve, young upstart to a wise yet grizzled elder statesman.

* Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, taking over the role from Peter Mayhew) accompanied Rey to Luke’s island, so the two old pals now meet. Briefly. Chewy then spends his time hanging around on the Millennium Falcon.

* R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) is aboard the Millennium Falcon, so Luke sees him when he explores the ship. He tells the droid that he’s not coming back and nothing will change his mind. So R2 replays the famous hologram message of Princess Leia recorded more than 30 years previously. “That was a cheap move,” says Luke wryly.

* Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over running the Resistance when Leia is incapacitated. As with most Laura Dern characters, she has a folksy quality, but she’s a steely military leader. She also has purple hair. Holdo doesn’t seem to like Poe very much, especially when he questions her odd tactical decisions. It’s eventually revealed that she knows what she’s doing, her actions will save the Resistance, and she’s willing to sacrifice her life for the greater good. Quite why she kept this plan to herself is another matter.

* Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is a young woman who works for the Resistance as an engineer. When we meet her, she’s mourning her sister Paige (Veronica Ngo), who was killed in a battle with the First Order. Then she rumbles Finn in the act of running away and electrocutes him. When Finn reveals that the First Order can now track the Resistance through hyperspace, Rose suggests a plan to scupper this ability – and the pair head off to the casino city. Later, on the planet with the Resistance base, she saves Finn’s life because she loves him… Rose is a great addition to the regular cast and it’s a good, likeable performance. Rather astonishingly, while publicising this movie, Kelly Marie Tran became the first Asian woman to ever appear on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

* Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) returns from The Force Awakens in a cameo. Finn and Poe phone her up to ask for some advice and she talks to them while in the middle of a gun fight.

* Yoda (Frank Oz) appears as a ghost when Luke’s at a low ebb and offers him some kind, good-natured guidance. In a move that makes a geek’s heart sing, the character is back to being a puppet after his drift to CGI in the early noughties.

BAD GUYS:

* Among several First Order officers and lackeys are characters played by Vyvyan from The Young Ones, Lysa Arryn from Game of Thrones and Finchy from The Office.

* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is still in operational command of the First Order and is still a prick.

* Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is not happy when the Resistance escape his clutches and takes his anger out on Hux. We finally see him for real – as opposed to a hologrammatic projection – when we visit his throne room. So we can now confirm that he’s a disfigured alien who’s about six feet tall. He still doesn’t make much impression, though.

* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a changed man. He’s still evil; he’s still kneeling before Snoke. But you can see the doubt in his eyes caused by his encounters with Rey in the previous film. The two characters also start to talk to each other via a psychic connection, which affects each in interesting ways. We’re told conflicting versions of what happened years previously between Kylo and Luke – that Kylo rebelled and murdered his fellow students, or that Luke grew paranoid and decided to kill Kylo before he grew too powerful. The truth lies somewhere in the middle and there’s a wonderful emotional depth to the whole storyline. After killing Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo takes his place at the head of the First Order… Driver is again absolutely fantastic in this role, turning what could be a cartoon villain into the most complex character in the movie.

* DJ (Benicio del Toro) is a master codebreaker who Finn and Rose are conveniently imprisoned with just as they’re looking for a master codebreaker. A louche scoundrel with an odd speech impediment, the character is clearly shifty so it’s not the biggest shock in Star Wars history when he betrays his new friends for a stash of cash. Del Toro is a bit irritating.

* Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) returns from The Force Awakens and has a fight with her old nemesis Finn. During which, her metallic helmet is cracked open and we see a terrified look in her eye before she dies.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Kylo takes Rey to see Snoke in his theatrically designed throne room. A massive open space with a shiny floor and blood-red walls, it looks like the set of a dream sequence from a 1950s Hollywood musical. Snoke taunts Rey but also arrogantly ridicules Kylo, who snaps and murders his master. Kylo and Rey then team up to take on Snoke’s bodyguards in a beautifully choreographed and wonderfully filmed fight that’s full of invention and excitement and violence.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: The humour isn’t always successful in this film and a handful of gags fall flat. But there are still many chucklesome moments. There’s Poe speaking to Hux over a radio and pretending not to recognise his voice… Finn stumbling around in a space suit that’s leaking fluid everywhere… Rey saying she’s from nowhere, Luke replying that ‘no one is from nowhere’, Rey telling him she’s from Jakku, and Luke deadpanning, ‘All right, that is pretty much nowhere’… Chewbacca and the cute little porgs… Luke ridiculing Rey’s naivety about the Force… BB-8 mimicking a First Order droid… But the best laugh comes after Kylo has ordered every weapon in the First Order arsenal to fire at Luke Skywalker. Miraculously, Luke seems to survive the battery intact. The way Mark Hamill then archly flicks away some dust from his shoulder may very well be the greatest ‘fuck you’ in cinema history.

MUSIC: It’s by John Williams so of course it’s *superb*.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: My first viewing of The Last Jedi was at the Everyman Baker Street cinema in London on 19 December 2017. I went with my great friend and former colleague Fraser Dickson; going to that cinema to see a new Star Wars movie has become an annual tradition for us.

REVIEW: In one half of this film some characters are doggedly chased by the bad guys, while in the other half the young lead travels off to a mysterious planet to learn about the Force from a grumpy old Jedi. This bifurcated storytelling was used so well in The Empire Strikes Back, of course, but here it’s more of a problem. And that’s a big shame because in many, many ways The Last Jedi is *wonderful*. All the scenes featuring Rey, Luke and/or Kylo are knock-it-out-of-the-park successful… The main series characters – Rey, Poe and Finn – now feel just as integral to Star Wars as Luke, Leia and Han, which really is an astonishing achievement… There are plenty of cute echoes of previous Star Wars situations, but the film is also bold enough to push the mythology into dramatically interesting territory (Luke has flaws, Rey’s heritage is just a red herring, the villain is sympathetic)… The crosscutting between scenes and subplots is fluid and pacey… The action sequences are exactly what you’d want from this type of movie: exciting, meaningful, inventive and easy to follow… The look of the film is marvellous, both in the art of the design and the craft of its realisation… The sound mix is staggeringly impressive… However, the half of the story that focuses on Poe, Finn and the others has several issues. Frankly, after an exciting opening, it starts to feel like vamping; like ‘stuff’ to pad out the running time. The plot is built around a chase sequence and the threat is that the First Order will catch up with the Resistance. But it’s not a chase where characters are sprinting or racing at full speed. It’s played more like ocean liners chugging along through space, which doesn’t exactly help with the tension. It’s also a chase where a pair of characters can pop off on a separate, self-contained and rather silly subplot for *hours*. And while they’re gone, there’s a naff bit of superficial drama back at the fleet. There’s no reason why Holdo doesn’t reveal her plan to Poe (or we viewers), other than to set up a reveal when we find out what it is. It’s artificial and unsatisfying. But, as irksome as they are, these gripes shouldn’t distract from how entertaining the rest of The Last Jedi is. It’s not as good as The Force Awakens – very few things in life are – but it’s still a movie to cherish.

Nine and a half beards that are grey when Luke is real but darker when he’s a Force projection and I’ve genuinely only just spotted that on my third viewing of the film out of 10

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Ten Things I Love About Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

1. The script.
Los Angeles, November 2019. Six replicants – strong, skilful, synthetic humans – have escaped and are on the run. So a detective called Deckard is pulled out of retirement to hunt them down… Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a thoughtful book set in a post-apocalyptic world and is full of complex sci-fi ideas. However, in adapting it for the cinema, writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples unashamedly stripped the story down and repurposed it as a film noir. There’s a world-weary detective on one last job, a gruff boss who wants results, a classy broad with a secret past, a dark, rain-sodden city… Despite being about robots, it’s a pleasingly old-fashioned plot. And it’s remarkably simple: detective Deckard simply moves from A to B, following clues and tracking down the ‘bad guys’. There’s virtually no intrigue. Director Ridley Scott’s previous film, Alien, was about a dispassionate creature killing a group one-by-one. Here’s the same concept, but from the killer’s point of view. But with so much going on visually and thematically, the story needs to be linear and clear. (The combination of sci-fi concepts and film-noir conventions resulted in a new sub-genre called Tech Noir, named for a nightclub in 1984’s The Terminator. Blade Runner is its definitive text.)

2. Deckard.
This is Harrison Ford in the middle of one of *the* great CV runs. For a decade or so from 1973, he appeared in American Graffiti, The Conversation, a Star Wars trilogy, Apocalypse Now, two Indiana Jones movies and Blade Runner (and was cut out of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). Not too shabby. Philip K Dick certainly approved of the casting, calling Ford “more like Rick Deckard than I could have ever imagined… Seeing him as a character I created is a stunning and almost supernatural experience to me.” Here, Ford’s hair is closely cropped rather than Han Solo shaggy, while the Indy charisma has gone too. It’s a terrifically controlled, unshowy performance. Deckard is a classic film-noir gumshoe – he works reluctantly for the police’s Blade Runner Unit (what the name means is never explained), is a loner (the droll voiceover tells us he has an ex-wife) and barely raises a smile. The character’s name is a pun on René Descartes, a philosopher whose most famous maxim was “I think therefore I am.” And that rings with the film’s central question: what does it mean to be alive? Deckard is initially cruel to Rachel, the first robot he meets, because he doesn’t see her as a genuine person. But he gradually grows fascinated by her, falls in love, and this helps with his mission: he only starts finding the rogue replicants once he accepts they have emotions and personalities… In one scene, Ford gets to step outside the private-eye persona. When he meets Zhora, he pretends to be an unctuous union rep with a whiny voice. It’s a better bit of acting than Harrison Ford’s Scottish accent when does a similar thing in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Note: because it’s less relevant to this version of the film, I’ll save discussion of who Deckard really is for the next review.)

3. Futurism.
When released, the movie was set 37 years into the future – a date we’re now only 36 months away from hitting. But like all the best science fiction, it looks back as much as it looks forward. This is not a Star Trek world of gleaming perfection and utopian lushness. The city still has garish 1980s commercialism, such as billboards for Coke, Atari and Pan Am; there are flying cars, but they mostly have the silhouette of vehicles from the mid-20th century; and every street is full of bustling, chaotic crowds. There’s just as much decay as there is progress. As a fictional setting, it’s *totally* convincing. (It’s also constantly raining. This helps with the relentlessly gloomy vibe, but Ridley Scott had a more prosaic reason: the water disguised how small the exterior sets were.) Blade Runner is also the key example of cinematic cyberpunk, which is perhaps surprising given that it pointedly sidelines computers and has little concept of a digital world. Machines here are functional and analogue. (Check out Deckard’s chunky, juddering photo scanner!) But the clash of ‘high tech and low life’ is what cyberpunk is all about – the more advanced the technology gets, the more rotten the society becomes. And Blade Runner’s world is built on that conflict.

4. The design.
The aesthetic of the sets, costumes, vehicles, props and locations is *extraordinary*. Numerous cinematic geniuses worked on the film’s physical look, among them concept artist Syd Mead (Tron, Aliens), production designer Lawrence G Paull (Back to the Future), special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters, Silent Running) and of course Ridley Scott. Their Los Angeles is a masterpiece. From a wide shot of the city, we see familiar sprawl – but with additional power plants, flaming towers and flying vehicles. Thick smog hangs over the whole area. Then when we go down to ground level, everywhere is busy, textured, overflowing with people and vehicles and activity. Again, it’s about imagining a future culture by using what’s gone before – specifically the early 20th century. To suit the story’s film-noir mood, sets and costumes (including men’s hats) often feel like they’re from the 1940s. Meanwhile, because he’s detached from the rest of the population, Tyrell’s office building is shaped like a pyramid and has a vaguely Egyptian feel inside (another logical throwback: after Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, a streak of Egyptology ran through American theatre, film and fashion). The 1920s and 30s are also evident in the flashes of Art Deco architecture and the decadent nightclub where Deckard finds Zhora. But playing on the rise of Japanese technology in the early 80s, the city has been laced with an Asian influence – colourful neon signs pop out of almost every exterior shot, many in eastern languages, while fast-food stalls sell noodles. Ridley Scott mostly used sets, including a heavily redressed section of a pre-existing fake street, but there are also carefully chosen real locations: the cavernous Los Angeles Union Station for the police HQ, the Bradbury Building for Sebastian’s apartment, a glistening road tunnel… All of these elements build a stunning universe for the story to take place in. There is enormous detail – extras, shop fronts, stalls, vehicles, signage, screens, umbrella, bicycles, hovering sky-ships – but it’s never overwhelming or cluttered like a lumbering CGI blockbuster. Instead, the world feels alive and vibrant and menacing and fresh and dangerous and seductive. On each viewing, I want the camera to follow every single extra to see who they are and where they’re going.

5. Lighting.
Let’s not equivocate. Blade Runner is the best-lit film there is. The director of photography was Jordan Cronenweth, who was responsible for two hours of sensationally beautiful images. Not one single frame is boring or ugly. There’s a lot of smoke and shadow, flares and florescence, Venetian blinds and fan blades. Almost the entire film is set at night, yet for such a dark film there’s beauty, atmosphere and texture in *everything*.

6. Rachel.
A dame right out of the 1940s – clock her vintage outfits and victory-rolls hairdo! – Rachel is introduced with an archly lit shot where she walks into a spotlight. The camera loves her. When Deckard realises that she’s actually a replicant, he starts referring to her as ‘it’. Sean Young is maybe not the strongest actress, but you can’t help but feel the character’s pain when he then rudely confirms her fears that she’s not real. Sadly, Rachel later drops out of the story while Deckard hunts down Roy Batty. She returns for the ending, though: Rachel escapes the city with Deckard and they drive off into the countryside. For the first time in the film, it’s daytime. Ridley Scott hated being forced to include the scene, and it’s been dropped from subsequent versions. But I’ve never had a problem with it. It’s not a cosy happy-ever-after; it’s a brief glimpse of hope…

7. Music.
The famous score is by Vangelis. It’s electronica with Pink Floyd prog-rock grandeur. Elegant, seductive, hypnotic. Later, it turns appropriately grubby when Deckard’s detective works leads him deep into the bazaar-like streets. (The whole sound mix is generally terrific. Multiple viewings keep throwing up new details.)

8. Roy Batty.
We first see the film’s antagonist on a computer screen. A caption tells us that his ‘incept date’ – ie, his date of birth – is 8 January 2016. Billy Idol blond, he’s a combat model and is the leader of the replicants who have got loose. In some ways, Roy is the most human character in the story. He certainly has the biggest lust for life. His tragedy is that he’s fatally aware that his time is running out – and that means he appreciates experiences more vividly. Roy isn’t actually in the film very much, but like any great ‘villain’ he’s really charismatic. You can’t take your eyes off him. His pre-death soliloquy – partly written by actor Rutger Hauer – is rightly lauded. An action film where the climax is the baddie saving the hero’s life, sitting down, and quietly dying? That’s a pretty decent trick.

9. The rest of the cast.
We meet three other replicants… The kooky and sweet Pris (Daryl Hannah) has a punk look and is euphemistically called a leisure model. Ironically, her incept date is 14 February 2016. Tough guy Leon (Brion James) is uncovered in the opening scene, so attacks his boss and later tries to kill Deckard. The youngest of the gang, his incept date is 10 April 2017. And the beautiful Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is hiding as an exotic dancer at a seedy nightclub. Her incept date is 12 June 2016. Sadly, her death scene features a very obvious stuntwoman in a very bad wig. Roy and Pris befriend a nervous, naïve man called JF Sebastian (William Sanderson), who lives with a gaggle of animatronic toys. They force him to take them to their creator, Tyrell (Joe Turkel), who lives in a palatial apartment of drapes and candles. Meanwhile, Deckard has two colleagues of note. His boss is Bryant (M Emmet Walsh), while a man called Gaff (Edward James Olmos) seems to have a watching brief over the Blade Runner agents. The latter uses a cane, enjoys origami and talks in Cityspeak, a mishmash of various languages.

10. Cuts.
One of the minor reasons Blade Runner has such a lasting legacy is that there are five different edits available, some with really interesting differences. For a kick-off, there were two versions released in 1982: in the rest of the world, we got 16 seconds of violence that had been trimmed from the US print. This review is based on that slightly longer ‘international version’. The bits not seen in America come during Tyrell’s murder, Deckard’s fight with Pris, and a moment when Batty pushes a nail through his own hand. I’ll discuss the other versions in the next two reviews.

Review: There’s a recurring motif of eyes in this movie. A close-up of a pupil is one of the first things we see; the machine that assesses replicants uses an iris-scanner; Leon threatens to poke Deckard’s eyes out; an ocular technician gives Roy some vital information; Batty pushes Tyrell’s eyes into his head; replicants’ eyes sometimes glint red in the light… The eyeball is a product of evolution, but is so complex and useful that many assume it must have been designed. That tension – evolution vs design, human vs replicant – runs through the whole film. Nominally a standard manhunt movie, Blade Runner is a discussion of what it means to be alive. Are the humans (evolution) any more ‘alive’ than the replicants (designed)? Do they have more right to life? The film’s biggest achievement may be that it’s so stylised, so constructed, so designed, yet feel totally organic and real. Just like a replicant. It’s also, as mentioned, the best-looking movie of all time. The craft on show in the design work, the photography and the special effects has yet to be bettered. Unfortunately, before the film was released, poor audience reactions at test screenings led to a voiceover being added against the wishes of the director and star. As a storytelling device, it’s fine in concept – it really does fit the Sam Spade idiom – but is just bad writing. All it does is spell out things we would rather be left to infer. The crassest example comes just seconds after Roy has died: the narration cuts in, spoiling the moment, to tell you the bleeding obvious. Make no mistake: this film is a masterpiece. It’s one of the most imperishable examples of popular culture. But that voiceover, man… I just can’t justify a 10. Let’s cheat:

Nine and a half Voight-Kampff machines out of 10

Next time… Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut