What makes a hero? A lot of things can; no one thing should. A hero can be a cynical pragmatist, or a morally grey antihero, and stories are often the richer for that. But a persistent, classic mold of the hero is the idealist. In the safe space of a rollicking action movie, heroes can represent idealism that doesn’t have to compromise, and we root for them because of it. Heroes can bear their naivé idealism as a weapon, made all the more powerful by their uncompromising belief in good, and the audience’s knowledge that the real world isn’t like that… but wouldn’t it be nice if it was? Three recent cinematic heroes can all be called naivé for their beliefs and resultant actions, but should also be championed for their idealism: Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman. Especially in fiction, naiveté needn’t be pejorative, and these characters are case studies in why.
Ilsa Faust is an MI6 agent who has been assigned by her agency to infiltrate the Syndicate, an international rogue cabal of ex-spies who have turned from espionage to glorified terrorism. It is later revealed that the Syndicate was originally the brainchild of Atlee, Ilsa’s MI6 handler, highlighting with a sharpie the agency’s corruption. That murkiness is contrasted with Ilsa herself. Ilsa is an efficient killer and manipulator, no doubt. But she also naivély believes that agents of allied nations have a responsibility for each other, as she demonstrates when she risks blowing her cover to save IMF agent Ethan Hunt.
Ilsa is vindicated, as she and Ethan expose the Syndicate, foil their plans, and arrest their leader Solomon Lane. Had Ilsa followed MI6’s orders, Ethan would’ve been left at the mercy of the Syndicate. At first, when Ilsa rescues Ethan, she feels like a plot device to free the lead character, but in retrospect, Ilsa’s act defines her character. She doesn’t know Ethan has the outsize power that comes with being the main character. Ilsa simply sees an American agent in danger and saves him without hesitation. She represents a better, less pragmatic, more naivé version of statecraft. And accomplishes the impossible mission because of it.
Rose Tico is a Resistance technician whose home planet was strip-mined by the neo-fascist First Order. At Rose’s first meeting with former Stormtrooper Finn, Rose sees Finn’s actions in The Force Awakens as those of an overly simplistic and idealized hero. Initially, she doesn’t see Finn as a person. Ironically, after Rose reprimands Finn for attempted desertion from the Resistance, she starts them both on a path to true heroism, as he commits to the Resistance that Rose so believes in. Rose’s beliefs are contrasted in the movie with the roguish character DJ, who points out that corrupt weapons brokers sell to the Resistance as well as the First Order. When DJ tells Finn, “It’s all a machine… be free, don’t join”, DJ is using a convenient false equivalency. At a certain point you have to realize, one side kidnaps and brainwashes babies, and the other doesn’t. One side commits willful genocide, and the other doesn’t. And that’s exactly what Finn realizes as he fully commits to the Resistance, thanks to Rose.
Something of an activist, Rose frees fathiers who had been victims of animal cruelty, and disrupts the exploitative luxury of rich war profiteers. She gives hope to downtrodden stable children, igniting their dreams of adventure and heroism. After naivély regarding Finn as a perfect hero, Rose becomes a hero herself throughout the movie. One crucial moment where Rose saves Finn from a useless sacrifice (“That’s how we’re gonna win: not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”) clarifies the thesis of rebellion in all of Star Wars. In the original trilogy, the Rebels are the good guys defined by opposition to the tyrannical bad guys of the Empire. Rose’s backstory, and her inspiration to downtrodden slaves at Canto Bight, provide insight into not only what Rebels fight against, but what they fight for. Rose’s sentiment is idealistic and in some situations naivé, but Star Wars supports it. When Poe Dameron asks Lando Calrissian how the Rebels toppled the Empire, he says, “We had each other. That’s how we won.” This type of idealism drives a fairy tale like Star Wars.
In her solo movie, Wonder Woman/Diana Prince emerges from the paradise island Themyscira to find a world embroiled in “the Great War” (World War I). Naivély, Diana fervently believes that the only explanation for this grand-scale conflict is manipulation from the rogue god of war, Ares. This is the kind of great idea that can provide the engine for an entire screenplay, since the audience knows the moment will come when Diana’s naiveté will crash into the realization that humanity doesn’t need divine influence to sacrifice an entire generation in the trenches over lines on a map. But when it comes to the audience’s relationship with Diana’s naiveté, viewers can consider themselves more worldly and knowledgeable, but also envy Diana’s worldview. How wonderful would it be if violent conflict could only be explained as outside manipulation? Diana’s naiveté is objectively wrong, but there’s also power to it, right alongside her literal superpowers.
When Diana affirms her beliefs in a final battle with Ares, this manifests as a quantifiable power-up, allowing Diana to break free of shrapnel bondage. She says, “I believe in love”, to which Ares responds, “Then – I shall – DESTROY YOU!” It’s a truly absurd and cheesy moment, but one that speaks to the power of naivé idealism. “I believe in love” is a bold choice for an action movie one-liner, and stands out because of it.
Ilsa, Rose, and Diana are very different characters. Where Ilsa can manipulate with the most elite of spies, Rose and Diana are unfailingly earnest. What they share are ideals, some of which are impractical and unworldly. But in heroic stories, storytellers have license to let that very naiveté win the movie. Ilsa Faust, Rose Tico, and Wonder Woman are all characters not diminished, but enhanced, by a dose of naiveté.
In X-Men: Dark Phoenix, there’s an unintentionally hilarious sequence where two characters are fighting over control of a helicopter, one with magnetism powers, the other with telekinesis. But what that translates to on screen is two thespians standing in place and straining to wrangle nothing. There’s a similar moment in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, where Force prodigies Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) struggle to control a troop transport. While not as laugh-inducing as those helicopter shenanigans, it is a small example of the cartoonish reality Skywalker exists in, a reality separate from the saga it means to conclude.
That cartoonishness manifests in a variety of absurd plot elements, but moreover, that feeling of being in a zone of emotional unreality pervades the film. Weighty developments seem to occur multiple times only for them to be reversed, the emotions they stir rubber-banded backwards. And this relates to the number one, banner, headline problem with The Rise of Skywalker. The movie is filled with big developments that have the potential to be emotionally resonant, but none of them land, because the film zooms through them all. Significant story twists are either half-assed in execution, or feel incidental because they lack setup and we don’t live with the repercussions. The emotions are unearned.
Is character A Force-sensitive? Maybe, but it doesn’t really amount to anything besides confusion and is so glossed over you wonder what the point is. Do characters B and C betray their group? Yes, but it is largely stripped of any significance or sense of payoff it should have had. Does character D die? Yes, but I’m not in the moment. I’m not feeling it. Does character E sacrifice something of themself? Yes, but it barely registers in the storytelling and gets reversed. It’s a strange state of affairs when the film’s trailer does a better job of giving the emotions space to breathe.
For the first act at least, The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t reach for those deep emotions, instead embracing the spirit of serialized adventure that is key to Star Wars. It’s this trilogy’s main heroes, Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), on a series of adventures. The charitable reading is, this is where the movie cooks at its highest consistent intensity. The uncharitable reading is, this is exhausting. It’s charismatic performers playing at comic strip hero, so there are moments of genuine fun. It’s there in Rey firing her blaster like she’s spamming the button on Star Wars Battlefront; it’s there in the sight of jet troopers delightfully wiping out. At times it can feel a little like forced frivolity. When C-3PO is with the group, he has to chime in at every possible opportunity, presumably to keep Anthony Daniels happy with his number of lines. Regarding director J.J. Abrams’ decision to let the actors improvise, I’m sure it was fun for them but it isn’t always to the advantage of the story.
The tension between some dreadful plot decisions and the simple fun of being along on a Star Wars ride defines much of the movie. I love how Rey takes in the Aki Aki puppet show, and how she can can beat someone down and then offer her hand to them in the blink of an eye. The snapping sound as a Force-summoned lightsaber hits a hand is simply exciting. A few legacy character returns, including Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), work well. There’s at least one great piece of aural fanservice. And the choreography for Rey and Kylo Ren’s lightsaber dueling remains effective. There is not a dearth of quality, but those moments are tainted by a few key woeful choices in the big picture.
Bringing back Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in the worst possible ripped-from-clickbait-websites fashion proves to be a mistake. There is also an unfortunate thread in The Rise of Skywalker that feels like a reaction against The Last Jedi, particularly the first line out of a returning character’s mouth. There is a revelation of Rey’s backstory that undermines her character and the thematic groundwork of The Last Jedi, and moreover, serves no essential purpose in the story. In specific sequences, we see a deft portrait of Rey wrestling with aspects of herself that shows the storytellers possess the skill to portray her internal struggle without resorting to fan theory bingo, which makes it all the more disappointing that they do. Also, when not pushing against its predecessor, the film re-stages specific set-ups from The Last Jedi, and executes them decidedly worse.
The cast is solid. Adam Driver remarkably builds a physical consistency for the Kylo Ren character, repeating certain subtle movements from the previous films. One of my favorite things in the movie is Driver’s delivery when Kylo Ren says he can never go back to his mother. Daisy Ridley does well with challenging material. Richard E. Grant makes for a nicely sadistic military authority figure. The production and art design is a constant source of joy in Star Wars. How else to praise the Knights of Ren, only there to look cool?
John Williams’ final score for Star Wars introduces some new Alan Silvestri-esque sentimentally sweeping cues, and though he quotes some old passages effectively as specific callbacks to each original trilogy movie, he could have pulled more past themes out of the toolbox. In one of the most fist-pumping moments of the film, Williams deploys fanfare usually reserved for the end credits sequences of these movies to sharp effect. It is delightful how much mileage Williams gets from big statements of Rey’s theme, and fascinating how at one point he melds her leitmotif with another character’s. And look for a certain other character’s theme played in the opposite key it usually is.
So what the Babu Frik is going on with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? There is a smattering of good material here, to be sure. But there are also unmotivated emotion dumps, coming off the heels of by far the most emotionally powerful film in the series. Unconvincing plot developments, the centerpiece being a silly metaphysical finale. My biggest critique of The Force Awakens is that it’s not weird enough, playing with a relatively conservative imagination in terms of general environment and design. The Rise of Skywalker proves I should be careful what I wish for, as so much of the driving engine of its story crosses the threshold of weird into ridiculous. By and large, Skywalker will be remembered for feinting in the general direction of emotion when it should have stoked tears, and for lacking a mastery of character that previous Star Wars films displayed.
We’ll always have The Last Jedi. A weak 5/10.
It’s been a journey to get to this point, but as I’ve watched all ten Star Wars movies in preparation for The Rise of Skywalker, I have unexpectedly come to the conclusion that Return of the Jedi is the best the original trilogy has to offer. Let’s explore my reasoning and celebrate the first time the world thought the Skywalker saga was wrapped up.
Genuinely funny humor
The entire chunk of the film dedicated to Jabba the Hutt’s chunky villainy is rife with successful comedy. From Salacious B. Crumb’s manic reactions to countless priceless C-3PO moments, the movie’s first act walks a line between silly and serious. There’s humor with a dark streak too. Malakili’s reaction to the Rancor’s death is both amusing and heartbreaking. And the Gonk droid who keeps screaming under torture is hilarious and disturbing at the same time.
The Ewoks, to their credit, are not generally bumbling delivery systems for slapstick, so when Wicket does hit himself in the face with a slingshot, it lands in more ways than one. I also love when an Ewok hugs Han’s legs after hearing about his carbonite experience. But it’s C-3PO who consistently kills it in Return of the Jedi; this is his best showcase as a panicking accidental comedian.
Deep engagement with core Star Wars themes
Not that the previous two chapters don’t possess depth, but Return of the Jedi firmly codifies a lot of the thematic preoccupations of Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi gives his famous speech about “a certain point of view”. The Ewoks’ crucial role in defeating the Empire contrasts the natural world against technology through the lens of warfare, connecting to one of the key conflicts in the entire saga: the natural and flowing vs. the mechanical and rigid.
But it is the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader/Emperor Palpatine thread that gets to the core of Jedi and Sith philosophy. Building on Yoda’s teachings in The Empire Strikes Back, this sequel makes the lesson tangible: the idea that the Dark Side is not wearing all black and using a red lightsaber, but rather giving into fear, hate, anger, and aggression. And make no mistake, Luke flirts with the Dark Side throughout the entire movie. The first thing we see him do is use Force Choke on two Gamorrean guards. After opening himself up to fear, anger, and hatred at the thought of losing his sister Leia, we see how wild and aggressive his lightsaber strikes against Vader are. That’s not passive defense. It’s passionate attack.
In the end, however, Luke remains a hero. When he refuses to kill his father, throws away his lightsaber, and leaves himself vulnerable to Palpatine, it’s a stunning act. He is willing to sacrifice his life to force Anakin Skywalker to redeem himself. It’s a defining moment for Luke; you can draw a straight line from this almost Biblical sacrifice play to his epic pacifist heroism on Crait in The Last Jedi.
The sail barge sequence
The sail barge sequence is the best pure action setpiece in the original trilogy. It’s a thrilling ride, from R2-D2’s iconic lightsaber delivery, to Leia choking Jabba, to Lando’s amusing scream when the Sarlacc’s tentacle ensnares him, to the triumphant score when the skirmish is won. It doesn’t matter that you can see a stuntman’s alien headpiece fall off as he rolls into the Sarlacc Pit, nor that Boba Fett’s death is celebrated with an ignominious burp. Nor that Luke cutting down henchmen has the imprecise choreography of an impromptu schoolyard play-adventure – and maybe that’s part of the point. Perhaps the charm of the sequence comes from that childlike enthusiasm. “What if Luke walked the plank, but then jumped up and got his lightsaber, and slashed all the bad guys?” If Luke swings his lightsaber haphazardly in the general direction of a stuntman, and they perform a stagey fall, we can fill in the blanks. Whether with crayons or ball-point pens, we can fill in the blanks.
The war, the lore, and the score
The theory goes that there are three major elements of Star Wars. The military conflict aspect: the war. The Force/destiny aspect: the lore. And the crime/heist/underworld aspect: for the sake of preserving the rhyme, the score. Return of the Jedi brilliantly serves all three masters. All the Jabba stuff is a hugely enjoyable dive into the criminal underworld. The seduction of Luke and redemption of Anakin is iconic lore material. And the two-pronged Battle of Endor is the war on a big canvas. Structurally, the film is an odd beast. As opposed to the straightforward chase framework of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi leads with what could be its own mini-movie, fully develops it, and then widens the scope to round out the galactic picture. It has a clear serialized feel that is core to Star Wars.
Demerits and conclusion
I do take issue with some aspects of Return of the Jedi, which should be addressed. The edge is almost totally taken off the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian characters. Maybe Han’s carbon sickness lasts the whole movie, or maybe Harrison Ford didn’t necessarily want to be there, but Han is a goofy figure by and large. Lando is an appealing presence, but that’s all he is here: the square-jawed hero. The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas can skew somewhat hacky, repeating phrases and ideas. And regarding the remastered edition changes, Vader’s “Nooooooooo” when killing Palpatine probably should’ve stayed internal.
However, the film benefits from the deepest emotional complexity of the original trilogy. The reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back is a truly horrific spectacle. We sympathize with Luke’s pain and, indeed, revulsion; the Darth Vader character has been a monolithic force of evil. It is Return of the Jedi’s innovation to take that dark reveal, and find hope in it. To apply, I’ll say it, a Star Trekkian level of humanism to this Dark Lord of the Sith. Vader/Anakin’s moment of sacrifice in betraying Palpatine rightly gets the headlines, but observe the earlier scene where our heroes try to get clearance for their stolen Imperial shuttle Tydirium to land on Endor. Vader senses Luke’s presence; this is the enemy, ready to sabotage the deflector shield. But Vader lets the shuttle land. Is this a moment of sentiment?
A New Hope’s simplicity is its greatest strength and greatest weakness. The Empire Strikes Back, while deepening Jedi philosophy and the visual texture of the series, has an insular quality and its chase structure makes for a slightly fallow middle third. Return of the Jedi features the most impressive action in the trilogy in the form of the sail barge skirmish and the Battle of Endor (including the speeder bike chase), the most amusing humor, and in the Luke/Vader storyline, it writes a humanistic thesis of Star Wars. (Plus there’s the joy of Ian McDiarmid’s scenery-chewing as Palpatine.) There are moments watching Hope and Empire when I think all they have over certain other Star Wars movies is a high level of craftsmanship. To watch Return of the Jedi is to eat a full Star Wars meal. The show’s not over ‘til the fat Ewok dances.
What more can be said about the original Star Wars? It’s a film so influential and beloved that the film industry and film fandom are still feeling the shockwave from its May 25, 1977 release. The first paragraph of its opening crawl has been adapted into a 2-hour-plus movie. Halfway glimpsed background characters have been turned into sought-after action figures. George Lucas’ tale of underdog rebels battling the evil Empire has spawned an empire of its own, but let’s return to the beginning.
“You Can Type this Shit, George, but You Can’t Say it”
I say beginning, but this is a movie that starts in the middle of a pitched space chase. No one-and-a-half-hour buildup to action; we are dropped in medias res into a star war. The situation is sketched quickly and efficiently. The Empire is an overwhelming dominant force; the Rebellion is skittering away on a little blockade runner.
Lucas has often dismissed the importance of dialogue in favor of visuals, and the film plays into that thesis at many points. When Darth Vader barks orders at his subordinates (“I want them alive!”), John Williams’ score violently crescendos, in the style of a silent movie. During the prison block escape, the dialogue is buried in the sound mix. Two of the most iconic scenes in the movie, the binary sunset and the throne room medal ceremony, lead with visuals and don’t bother with words. When the Imperial Star Destroyers chase the Millennium Falcon near Tatooine, the danger has already been set up by the opening shot.
Lucas’ framing is mostly classical, but filled with visual interest. On the flashier cinematic side of things, my favorite shot in the film is when the camera follows Princess Leia’s cell door closing down to the floor, tracks with an officer’s foot, and adjusts back to eye level.
While there is certainly some excellent dialogue in Lucas’ screenplay, sometimes his words do let the movie down. The most egregious example is his decision to add the Jabba the Hutt scene into the Special Edition, which tediously re-covers the ground from the previous Han/Greedo scene, occasionally using the same phrasing to make the same points (not to mention the awful visual gag of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail).
John Williams’ landmark score constantly complements the words and visuals, telling the story with a punchy, magical soundscape that oddly also sounds excitingly DIY. The magisterial main theme opens the curtains; the ambling Jawa theme fits their silly design perfectly; the Force theme is instantly iconic; the perhaps underused Leia theme provides contrast to all the bombast; the “TIE Fighter Attack” cue remains thrilling; the “Battle of Yavin” music is some of the best action film music ever; and “The Throne Room” is a perfect triumphant dénouement. And: “Binary Sunset”, end of.
“You Think a Princess and a Guy Like Me…?”
The cast of characters is painted in broad strokes, as archetypes. There is very little psychological complexity to them yet. But this works for the movie because of the spirit of universal adventure it embodies. Luke is the earnest underdog hero; Leia is the brash and savvy politician of action; Han is the insouciant scoundrel; Obi-Wan is the wise mentor; Vader is the black cloud of evil. Maybe the most complex characters are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who show a whole range of cowardice, bravery, affection, and irritancy.
Vader and Tarkin are an excellent villainous double-act (which one is the film’s main villain…?), with an interesting dynamic between them. Peter Cushing brings a lot of smarm and charm to the role, with his delivery of “you’re far too trusting” being a particular classic. At the time, Lucas even felt that Vader was a weak villain without a Tarkin-type figure to play off of.
Another iconic double-act is Han and Chewbacca. Chewbacca takes the idea of the loyal dog to a fantastical extreme, where he becomes an equal partner. But how much is this true in-universe? After hiding in the smuggling compartments, Han playfully fuzzes up Chewbacca’s head; in a deleted cantina scene, Han strokes Chewbacca under the chin exactly in the manner of a dog. Later films would never literalize the Chewbacca-as-dog dynamic like this again, an indication of this film very much in the process of figuring things out.
Not to mention the crazy-in-retrospect, right there on screen love triangle element between Luke, Leia, and Han, which course-corrects later. Lucas not only categorically saw Luke and Leia as love interest characters at this point, he’s also on record saying that he wanted Leia to “run off with” Chewbacca and that he “wouldn’t mind” killing Leia off. That course correction couldn’t come too soon.
Approaching Tosche Station
A key element of Star Wars, and especially this first movie, is silliness. That’s both intentional screwball humor, and unintentional kitsch. Why do these Imperial officers keep baiting and egging on Vader when he can choke them with his mind? What did Luke hope to accomplish by firing on the sheer face of the Death Star? And most pressing of all, is the VT-16 really quite a thing to see?
Given the controlled chaos of the production (at one point, the Sandcrawler was mistaken for a new type of tank and the movie almost started an international incident), the number of continuity errors is understandable. Greedo is seen walking around after he’s already been killed. A lot of the ADR on the Imperial officers is painfully obvious. At one point Vader’s dialogue and gestures are out of sync. There’s the amazing moment of the stormtrooper bumping his head. You can see David Prowse’s eye a couple times when Vader’s in his TIE Advanced.
But really striking in retrospect are the anachronisms. Luke says there’s nothing C-3PO can do for him “unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport me off this rock.” Right there you have references to time travel and teleportation, two ideas that have never made it into the Star Wars mythology (Rebels’ World Between Worlds notwithstanding). If Luke has a concept of them, does the galaxy have its own version of science fiction?
Naturally, there are even more anachronisms at a script and draft level, but it’s amusing to look back on them. Vader threatens Leia with, “You will come to know such suffering as only the Master of the Bogan Force can provide…” And check out this little speech from Obi-Wan about Leia:
She’s part of the royal family. They won’t get any information from her… She knows the art of mind control… She’s a swan sensana.
That died a death on the way to the screen, but this description of her mental power does remind me of the bene gesserit from Frank Herbert’s Dune. All the references to spice must also be allusions to Dune, and the concept of a messiah from that novel also finds its way to Lucas’ epigraph on the script: “… and in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as The Son of the Suns. – Journal of the Whills, 3:127”. Suffice to say, we could have had a very different Star Wars saga.
The First Step into a Larger World
George Lucas did revise well, and came out with a screenplay packed with amazing (and funny) lines. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” “I’ll be careful.” “You’ll be dead!” For all that the power of the binary sunset scene is wordless, the last time I watched the movie, Owen and Beru’s buildup to it (“he has too much of his father in him”) made me cry while the sunset itself did not. The film, like many first installments, is a marvel of scope if not scale. The Empire Strikes Back probably beats it on a scene-to-scene basis, but the original Star Wars wins out through structural purity. Watching the film now, in light of everything that’s happened with the franchise in the forty-one years since, there’s the sense that Star Wars has outgrown this. The simplicity of the film is pure, but also singular, and not sustainable for an evolving series. But no matter what, the franchise will never stop honoring it. The original Star Wars truly was the first step into a larger world.
How high are the stakes for Solo: A Star Wars Story? There’s a disconnect between the extreme scrutiny paid to the film from a real-world perspective (largely due to the hiring of Ron Howard to finish the movie after the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller), and the movie’s own identity. Solo is a movie of modest ambitions, and it meets them. This is a solid straightforward crime movie in the Star Wars galaxy with a great lead performance, and that’s all it needs to be a success. The fate of the galaxy isn’t at stake on screen, so the fate of Star Wars isn’t at stake off screen.
On the industrial planet Corellia, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is unwittingly following in the footsteps of his future father-in-law; he’s indentured to an alien slave driver, and longs to take his skills as a fast driver off-world to be a great pilot. After being separated from his girlfriend Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke), Han befriends Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and follows the gunslinging cynic Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) into a life of crime.
The era is ten years before the original Star Wars, a time when the Galactic Empire is a fact of life. Stormtroopers are just dystopian cops. Against this backdrop of oppression, Han is introduced hotwiring a landspeeder, and here Ron Howard takes a cue from his past and paints with an American Graffiti brush, all breakaway teens and hairpin turns. Familiar genre conventions are trotted out because they do the job. Of course there are Mexican standoffs, and a train heist (updated to the high-flying, twisting Conveyex), because this is a space western, get it? Several side characters are wiped out, because that’s what happens when a motley crew gets together in a heist movie and a job goes sideways.
One stumbling block is that the film is a little top-heavy with action. How exciting can it be for a ship to rock in a vortex filled with abstractions for ten minutes? The action isn’t a particular highlight, but still, Solo is a fun ride. The opening speeder chase is propulsive, and parts of the Conveyex sequence are spectacular (including a stylish little one-on-one fight between Beckett and the masked Enfys Nest).
Everything is held together by the film’s central performance. Ehrenreich is extraordinary, holding the screen with real presence but doing so with subtle actorly choices. He embodies a few of Harrison Ford’s mannerisms, but more importantly, his roguish essence. When we first meet Han, he looks damaged, determined with a face like an open wound, the product of a pained Dickensian upbringing. As the movie goes on, his worldview evolves, from optimism to that familiar front of being above caring.
Another highlight is the droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a (what do you know?) droid-rights activist who, like Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, profoundly represents the spirit of rebellion. However, some odd decisions are made with Solo’s female characters. Maybe Thandie Newton was only free from Westworld for a week or two, but her character Val gets L.O.S.T. in the shuffle (Lack of Screen Time). L3-37 is given such as strong logline for her character but then gets sidelined. And Qi’Ra is taken in a weird nourish femme fatale direction that feels undefined.
Another major player is Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who’s great and larger-than-life, complete with a closet filled with nothing but capes. At one point, Lando and Han are given a little call-forward to the famous “I love you”/”I know” exchange from The Empire Strikes Back, but this and other fanservice moments feel decidedly underplayed, to the point that some audience members won’t even catch it. This is the right decision; there’s a way to wink and nod without contorting your face and giving yourself whiplash. Rounding out the characters, we all know it’s all about Luleo Primoc (aka “Vat Weirdo”) and Aurodia Ventafoli’s soulful, plaintive duet.
In the build-up to Solo, it was announced that John Williams would compose a musical theme for Han Solo, something he always wanted to do in the past. But what he’s come up with seems like a copied-and-pasted, slightly faster version of his own Poe Dameron theme, another roguish pilot. The main body of the score is written by John Powell, who uses hints of his own percussion-heavy Bourne scores, as well as an Adiemus-meets-Ennio Morricone cue for Enfys Nest’s Cloud-Riders. But Powell would have done well to incorporate some of the rock instrumentation from the Solo trailers to give the score an extra oomph. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity for the man who, with How to Train Your Dragon, gave us some of the greatest film music of this century by marrying atypical film score instruments with an orchestra. Powell does make great use of existing Star Wars themes, however. The “TIE Fighter Attack” cue, last heard during the Millennium Falcon’s flight under Crait in The Last Jedi, gives the Kessel Run a needed punch-up, and will never stop being a pure injection hit of Star Wars. And, asteroids!
Production designer Neil Lamont adds to the saga’s palette of settings well, a couple of his designs being Han’s cool-as-Hoth landspeeder and the rustic and unusual Lodge set, where the stage is set for Lando’s introduction. Also, cinematographer Bradford Young gives Solo an earthy yet beautiful look. His lighting of the film’s five planets give a shape to the story’s structure all on their own: From the grime of Corellia, to the even-darker War-is-hell mud of Mimban, to the brighter snowscapes of Vandor, to the claustrophobic toxicity of Kessel, to a warmer hope for the future on Savareen.
Solo, while not featuring the best action or the best character dynamics, carries itself well as a fun space caper movie, and is given a big lift by its make-or-break central performance from Ehrenreich. It hits its themes of freedom and family hard and often. It’s filled with that Star Wars spirit of rebellion, albeit in different forms. I’d venture to say it’s a better Han Solo movie than Return of the Jedi (though not a better movie overall). When Han first sees the Millennium Falcon, I did almost cry. And that’s got to count for something. 7/10.
P.S.: YOU CAN’T MAKE THE SPOILER RUN IN LESS THAN 20 SENTENCES!
More than the other recent Star Wars movies, Solo traffics in a delightfully unending stream of offhand references to other elements of the canon. To name a smattering: Aurra Sing (Beckett killed her…!?), Teräs Käsi, Mimban (from the Legends novel “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”), Colo claw fish (“There’s always a bigger fish…”), we now know how both Lando and Leia got their Jabba’s Palace disguises (see Forces of Destiny), Bossk, the Pykes. But best of all is Maul.
What a payoff for fans of the wider Star Wars canon. What a tribute to the writers of The Clone Wars and Rebels TV series and Maul’s two comic miniseries, who against all odds created a real character out of the cipher in The Phantom Menace. That’s not to mention Ray Park (from the films) and Sam Witwer (from the TV shows), whose distinct approaches to Maul were melded together into one performance here. And this is exactly where Maul would be, as per TV and comic continuity: orchestrating criminal syndicates, and in opposition to the Pykes, who abandoned his service. That little strain of “Duel of the Fates” comes on, and Maul ignites his lightsaber. There you go, that one moment means that every Star Wars movie still includes a lightsaber.
Contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“Something inside me has always been there… but now it’s awake.” – Star Wars
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the longest film in the franchise, appropriately has a lot on its mind, but also uses its cinematic flair for an exciting popcorn ride. More than just a good eighth installment, it’s the type of sequel that reignites the appeal of what came before. It does this by giving itself wholly over to the core appeal of Star Wars, while expanding our understanding of those basic elements.
What’s quickly apparent is that The Last Jedi puts the Wars in Star Wars. Never before have detailed military tactics and big picture strategic chess moves played such a big part in these films. Attention is paid to the interacting dynamics of shields, propulsion, maneuverability, fuel reserves, and the role of fighters versus the role of bombers. When Paige Tico desperately tries to reach a detonator (an easy ask of a Force user), it feels like something out of World War II. Forget Rogue One, this is a star war. So, the core martial aspect of Star Wars is laid out with clear stakes and a greater detail than ever before.
This film’s portrayal of the heroic Resistance actually stands somewhat in contrast to the other Disney-era films. Whereas The Force Awakens reframed the Rebellion vs. Empire conflict into the Resistance vs. First Order because that underdog setup is just what works, The Last Jedi leans into that echo hard. With their backs constantly up against the wall, the Resistance is simply referred to as the Rebellion several times (the literalization of this being when the Resistance sets up shop with analog Rebel Alliance technology on Crait, including barely-hanging-together ski speeders), and the alt-right, neo-Nazi, fragile-egoed white supremacist-type character Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young man trying to live up to the glory of the old Empire. Rogue One was all about complicating the central conflict, with corruption in the Rebellion facing off against a long-suffering middle manager in the form of Krennic, but The Last Jedi decisively returns to simplicity while also making the conflict dramatically engaging. We know the black-and-white, good vs. evil storytelling of the original Star Wars – here it is again, familiar and reinvented at the same time.
On a related note, The Last Jedi further defines the spirit of rebellion, this idea we’ve cheered for ever since an overly excited Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) asked C-3PO if he knew of the rebellion against the Empire. As the trip to casino city Canto Bight illustrates, rebellion is not just about fighting “evil”, but injustice. And this is why Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is so vital to the movie.
An introverted gearhead with a passionate sense of right and wrong and an affinity for the underdog, Rose converts Finn (John Boyega) to the Cause. Because before, Finn was swept up in events for the sake of his friends, having “imprinted” on Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as the first people to treat him like one. Arriving at Canto Bight, Finn learns from Rose that you don’t have to wear First Order jackboots to be one of the bad guys. The menagerie of wining and dining war profiteers make this a very clear class fable – when Rose shows an abused stableboy that her ring carries the symbol of the Rebellion, we are given a rare and welcome indication of just who the good guys are fighting for.
Releasing the exploited fathiers at Canto Bight is save-the-cat screenwriting at its best. Rose’s purity of heart contrasts other characters’ cynicism very well, but there is bitterness and pain as well. She has the line of the movie (hell, a contender for line of the saga) when she says, “I wish I could put my fist through this lousy, beautiful town”. Rose wears her heart, and the symbol of rebellion, on her sleeve.
Also at the nexus of Canto Bight, the greying of the central galactic conflict is represented by DJ (Benicio del Toro). This free agent neither good nor evil (“It’s all a machine – don’t join”) brings up some valid points but is ultimately portrayed as a villain. His selfishness is instructive for Finn, who has his hero moment, motivated positively by Rose and negatively by DJ, to proudly call himself “Rebel scum”. Now we feel even more what this means.
Even in small ways, central tenets of Star Wars are reinforced. When Rey reaches out with her feelings we are given a poetic Terrence Malick-ian montage that portrays the Force more completely than before. And speaking of the Force, let’s talk about our hero and villain, so dangerously strong with it. The teasing of Rey to the dark and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to the light could not have been handled any better. The cinematic device of their long-distance Force phone calls they want to hide from dad (Luke and Snoke) is genius, allowing true connection. After the fantastic dark side mirror cave sequence, Rey confides her deep-seated need to see her parents not to Luke but to Kylo Ren.
But Rey and Kylo Ren each end the film disappointed in the other. Rey correctly foresaw Kylo Ren kill Snoke and took this as evidence of light, and Kylo Ren thought that when he revealed the truth of Rey’s parents to her she would join him, but each was mistaken. It’s that old chestnut, “from a certain point of view”. (We even get a Rashomon-style triptych story of the night Kylo Ren destroyed Luke’s old Jedi temple, so the tradition of Star Wars referencing Kurosawa is still alive.) What we have here with Rey and Ren’s kind of dance is a fresh take on that familiar Star Wars trope of “turning” people to the light or dark side. We can experience that thrilling glimmer of hope for Kylo Ren as he kills Snoke – and the language of Star Wars says, that’s it, he’s on the side of good now – but it’s not that simple. Again, the same, but richer.
It should be noted that this part of the movie contains one of the most badass action sequences in the franchise, the two-on-eight Praetorian guard dustup. (Rey and Kylo Ren each briefly use the other’s lightsaber, which has shades of Obi-Wan using Asajj Ventress’ red lightsaber in The Clone Wars TV series.) And after the dust settles, we learn that Rey’s parents were, in the grand scheme of things, nobodies. This is how Star Wars grows beyond the Skywalker Saga, beyond the idea of dynasty. If a powerful Force user, but more pertinently a great hero, can come from the humblest beginnings, there is hope for the galaxy.
So Kylo Ren takes over as Supreme Leader of the First Order, and if you thought his temper tantrums were bad before… He comes face-to-face with Luke, and Kylo Ren figures after Han Solo and Snoke, it’s time to kill the final father figure, the one who failed him all those years ago. When he and Luke face off, they don’t need to trade blows and hack off each other’s limbs for it to be thrilling. The wide-shot of their samurai standoff is stunningly beautiful, Luke a picture of determined calm and Ren a coiled lion in a cage. It turns out that Luke is projecting his image through the Force, and it’s vital that he’s not there; Kylo Ren can never get the satisfaction of finally killing this man he hates. Luke projects himself as a younger man, exactly as Kylo Ren remembers him. That’s salt in the wound. If Luke had been there and been killed by Ren, that’s a semblance of closure. As it is, Luke looks up at twin suns and becomes one with the Force, Rey finds her place with friends and fugitive heroes, and Kylo Ren has all the power he could want except the means to be rid of his pain.
Over and over The Last Jedi recontextualizes but also celebrates the building blocks of Star Wars. Far from a deconstruction, it adds vital detail and nuance to the elements that have always been there. But beyond all the themes and deep character work, just look at the moment when the Millennium Falcon takes a hard turn into the crystalline underground on Crait and John Williams deploys his classic dogfighting music. The Last Jedi shows an instinctive understanding of Star Wars in that instant. It clicks with our lizard brains. So The Last Jedi is also funny, exciting, pretty-looking blockbuster entertainment. If it wasn’t that, it just wouldn’t be good Star Wars.
Whatever else 2017 will throw at us, we’ll always have movies. And whether it’s finding the greatness that comes out of a studio factory, or keeping an open mind to new independent efforts, I’ll be there. So amidst the delights and excesses of awards season, these are the 2017 films I’m most looking forward to seeing.
First, a bunch of bonus mentions. T2 Trainspotting (one of my favorite directors, Danny Boyle, returns to the film that made his name), Pitch Perfect 3 (After the sequel improved on the first, I’m ready for more a capella antics); Free Fire (a claustrophobic 70s throwback crime movie from the director of the stunning A Field in England, it could be this year’s Green Room); Annihilation (I only called Alex Garland the greatest science fiction screenwriter of all time. No big deal! Hopefully he continues to bear this out with his next writing/directing effort); Kingsman: The Golden Circle (The first Kingsman is even smarter than I initially gave it credit for, and Matthew Vaughn is a dynamite director of action); Kong: Skull Island (Apocalypse Now with Kong as Kurtz is a great pitch, and I love the 2014 Godzilla, with which this shares a cinematic universe); Death Note (an adaptation of one of my favorite comic properties looks to be a twisted psychological thriller); Logan (the rapturous response to the first 40 minutes screened to festivalgoers bodes well for this final bow of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine); Beauty and the Beast (given the state of the Disney remake, I’m very optimistic).
10) Wonder Woman
It’s a travesty that the greatest female superhero has never headlined a movie (hell, no woman has headlined one at all since Elektra in 2005). So under any circumstances, this first Wonder Woman film is a full-blown event. Under any circumstances; it sure doesn’t help that the current DC universe project hasn’t produced a single decent movie out of three chances. (And I hope the way Henry Cavill’s charisma is repressed in the role of Superman doesn’t parallel any untapped range in Gal Gadot’s performance.) But the trailer is solid, promising a weighty World War I setting, stunning cinematography on Themyscira, and impactful action. The image of Wonder Woman walking out from a trench onto “no man’s land” is incredibly potent, and I predict some very creative uses for the Lasso of Truth. The film will either wreck shop, or prove as divisive as DC’s previous movies. Please be good. And please don’t lean on Chris Pine as some kind of “stealth male lead”.
9) The Fate of the Furious
In the past six years, the Fast and Furious franchise has reinvented itself as one of the silliest and most rewarding in Hollywood, and this first post-Paul Walker entry will surely continue that pulpy momentum. When I reviewed Furious 7, I hadn’t seen any other movies in the series. Now having seen them all, I anticipate #8 all the more because while the showstopping stunt setpieces are the franchise’s signature, its secret weapon is the use of past cast members to create a sort of gestalt ensemble. In that tradition, former villain Jason Statham will join the team! That sort of loopy idea of community (indeed, “family”) is what I look for in a Fast movie.
8) Blade Runner 2049
Following up Blade Runner is almost a thankless task. But director Denis Villeneuve might be the best fit for the material anyone could hope for. After the painful intensity of Prisoners, nightmarish Enemy, the visceral Sicario, and the brooding but beautiful Arrival, Villeneuve is on an extraordinary run of atmospheric and pointed work. The teaser shows a matter-of-fact return to this very specific world, bolstered by another return to an iconic role by Harrison Ford, and a lead performance from 2016 darling Ryan Gosling.
7) The Masterpiece (née The Disaster Artist)
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is a legendary so-bad-it’s-good experience, endlessly quotable and inexplicable (“Did you get your promotion?” “Nah.” “You didn’t get it, did you?”). And co-star Greg Sestero’s personal account of its making, “The Disaster Artist”, is one of the funniest and most engaging books I’ve read, so the burden is on The Masterpiece to live up to the incredible subject matter.
6) The LEGO Batman Movie
After The LEGO Movie (my favorite film of 2014, incidentally), it seems LEGO’s roast/tribute of the Dark Knight is far from over. What’s most intriguing about this spinoff is its apparent willingness to engage with the whole breadth of cinematic takes on Batman. So we’ll have riffs on Adam West alongside jokes reflecting the Christopher Nolan era. And the above picture hints that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is already going to be satirized! For that alone, I can’t wait. It’s very unusual corporate thinking to let two Batman properties coexist on the big screen at the same time, making the business side of things fascinating as well. If all goes well, The LEGO Batman Movie could end up being the second-best Batman movie. That’s realistic.
5) Baby Driver
When wunderkind director Edgar Wright shows up, so do I. The sublime “Cornetto trilogy” of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End alone ensures Wright’s place as one of the best filmmakers working today, but Baby Driver looks like a bit of a change of pace. Frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are nowhere to be found, and it looks to be a harder-boiled affair. Revolving around a getaway driver (Walter Hill’s 70s pulp classic The Driver is a clear reference point), the hook is that he suffers from tinnitus and listens to music constantly on his earphones during heists. So Wright has license to make a sort of jukebox musical crime movie. Sounds like a plan.
4) Paddington 2
One of the biggest surprises in recent memory, Paddington is no joke one of the best family films I’ve ever seen. Charming, funny, emotional, and thematically rich, the freshman entry is a hard act to live up to, but the humility of the story will surely make for a non-bombastic follow-up. This is just the story of a (sentient) bear and the human family who loves him, and if this sequel continues in the vein of the first, that’s all we need.
3) Thor: Ragnarok
“Think you can handle having the incredible Hulk for a dad?” That’s a line spoken by Taika Waititi’s character in a film he also directed, simply titled Boy. Boy is a charming coming-of-age slice of life set in mundane New Zealand. Its simple charms seem miles away from those of a big-budget superhero movie, but that’s what Taika Waititi has been entrusted with in Thor: Ragnarok. Also the director of heartwarming adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople and hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi is an exciting indie filmmaker given the keys to the Marvel playground. And to bring it full circle, he’s got the Hulk.
He’s also got an unbelievable cast. Aside from returning favorites Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Mark Ruffalo, and Benedict Cumberbatch, also signed up are Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban, Jeff Goldblum, and Tessa Thompson! That’s nothing less than a murderer’s row. I’m actually an unabashed fan of the oft-maligned Thor movies (this is Marvel heresy, but the first two Thors blow the first two Iron Mans out of the water for me), and Ragnarok has a chance to wrap up the trilogy in an unforgettable bow. With Waititi at the helm, there’s no limit to the cosmic and comic territories the film can go to.
2) Star Wars Episode 8
The world is still mourning the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, and even though Rogue One already functions as an odd tribute to her, she will actually have a strong presence throughout this second sequel to the original trilogy she was so beloved in. So Episode 8 will sadly function as a kind of collective wake for Carrie.
But beside all that, it will also function as a movie. In 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought the legendary franchise back to prominence in style. With Episode 8, Star Wars is taken over by writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the brilliant Brick and the visceral Looper. He inherits new characters audiences are already heavily invested in such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron, and more minor ones like General Hux and Captain Phasma (who should have, you know, something to do this time around). And of course, Leia will be a prominent player and Luke Skywalker has re-entered the story. What’s particularly exciting is that now The Force Awakens has established the foundation of the story at a breakneck pace, Episode 8 can slow down and take the storytelling in any number of risky directions. The Force Awakens’ signature scene is the terrific lightsaber duel, and if Episode 8 comes up with anything as iconic, the series will be in good shape.
1) Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin’s body of work speaks for itself. Even ignoring TV, his screenplays for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs are masterful. (And to neglect non-masterpieces The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Moneyball would be a mistake too.) With Molly’s Game, the doyen of dialogue will not only write but also make his directorial debut. And with my favorite actress Jessica Chastain in the lead role (as the real-life underground poker “queenpin” with a meteoric rise and fall), I’m very much in the bag for this. Last year Chastain starred in Miss Sloane, a movie I adore but which is also Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation. I look forward to seeing the genuine article, as it were.
Granted, Molly’s Game does not have an official release date yet. The year could go by without a release and I’d look pretty foolish for putting it in pole position, but this pick is a little more personal than the blockbusters that the eyes of the world will be watching. And in 2017, I’ll be watching quite a bit.
Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, is in many ways not a standalone at all. It is a direct prequel to the original movie from 1977, and features scores of deep-cut references, allusions and easter eggs that only hardcore fans will appreciate. So Rogue One is big-budget fanservice. But crucially, it’s more than that. It’s fanservice that also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick of Rogue One is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (and works as such; the ending made me cry), but it also fundamentally changes its texture.
The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and seeks to solidify its reign by constructing a planet-killing superweapon. To complete work on the Death Star, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces the scientific genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), father of Jyn (Felicity Jones), into service. When Galen sends a secret message to the reeling Rebellion tipping them off to a structural weakness in the Death Star, a scrappy guerilla team must steal the Death Star plans. The team: Jyn; lethal Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); sarcastic tactician droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk); desperate Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); and his cynical companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). But in this war, can any hope survive in the grime of Imperial domination?
In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. That tale is great, it has its place, but Rogue One complicates it. There’s ethical compromise in the Rebellion, represented by Cassian. There’s a pecking order in the Empire, an elitist element that Krennic must constantly prove himself to. There are extremists on both sides. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s methods are disavowed by the Rebel establishment, while his opposite number, Darth Vader, plays enforcer for an unstable galaxy. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens recreates the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the main characters here are underdogs even within the Rebellion. And Krennic, the villain they face, is an underdog even within the Empire.
None of this thematic stuff would click if the character work wasn’t there, and thankfully it is. All the characters resonate, but standouts include comic relief monstrosity K-2SO (think C-3PO with a two-by-four in place of an etiquette program), and apathetic loner to inspirational leader Jyn Erso. But my favorite character is Cassian Andor, who embodies what makes Rogue One work so well. The co-leading hero in the film, Cassian is exciting because he’s tainted. Pretty much the first thing you see him do is shoot an unarmed ally in the back because he would be a liability! (And you thought Han shot first?) He personifies the risks that the film is willing to take, introducing a Rebel officer as a morally compromised hero. The main characters are allowed to be impure or damaged, and Krennic, while ruthless, has to deal with bureaucratic and browbeating BS from superiors more evil than he. The idea is that the Rebellion’s purest heroes and the Empire’s purest villains are more background players, and we get to spend time with relatively complex characters.
Rogue One manages to stuff a lot of character into what is perhaps too compressed an amount of time. This does have downsides. Jyn’s character arc is good, but feels like it has a middle and an end while missing part of the beginning – we’re told Jyn’s rap sheet but we don’t see her struggles fending for herself brought to life. The first act has a lot of quick planet-hopping setup and so probably works better on a rewatch. Conversely, while the action in the third act is alternately breathtaking, tense, and emotionally powerful, it still feels like a little paring down might have made it pop even more.
But flaws aside, the storytelling always has something up its sleeve. This is a surprisingly emotional movie, largely owing to how the light contrasts all the more against the desperate circumstances. Chirrut’s reverence of the Force becomes poignant precisely because the Jedi have passed into myth. Put Obi-Wan Kenobi on the team and the everyman quality to the group crumbles. In a stroke of genius, the first test of the Death Star’s awesome destructive power is made intimate and personal. The pacing and atmosphere is far removed from the propulsive, almost manic The Force Awakens (which is great in that context). It’s Star Wars sung in a different key in a different time signature, and I ate it up.
Technically speaking, Rogue One has much to commend it. I love how the CGI Star Destroyers as near as damn them look exactly like physical models. The cinematography, and vaguely documentarian aesthetic courtesy of director Gareth Edwards make the action and emotion hit home. And considering composer Michael Giacchino only had a couple months to score the film after replacing Alexandre Desplat, his score contains some solid motifs.
Rogue One commits to its war movie aesthetic brilliantly. The acting ensemble is outstanding; even tertiary characters like the leery General Draven feel rich. This is a smart, weird, exciting, occasionally sloppy, and surprisingly emotional blockbuster, which enriches Star Wars in a two-hour salvo. It will be remembered for playing with what the franchise can do, while also blowing stuff up real good. 9/10. — If you’re a fan of the saga, there’s a good chance you’ll get emotional at the last scene. But after certain recent events… it might wreck you.
P.S.: *SPOILER-FILLED STRAY NERDY OBSERVATIONS*
So this is a mainstream blockbuster where every main character dies. With a sweeping gesture out of Shakespearean tragedy, the board is cleared and only characters on the fringes live to carry on. Disney will sugarcoat anything.
Darth Vader. Giving him an imposing evil tower immediately casts him in the same company as Sauron (with lava planet Mustafar standing in for Mordor). It codifies his status as an iconic villain. But it’s worth noting that a castle for Vader isn’t a new idea; it was proposed in concept art for the original trilogy and was even considered for inclusion in The Force Awakens. Vader’s first scene with Krennic perhaps isn’t everything it could have been. It ends with what I call “stand-up comedy Vader”, but even though it feels a bit weird in the moment, it’s not too far off from his “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” brand of humor. Vader’s other scene is just terrific. Add the hint of his vulnerability and his weird Riff Raff-esque butler, and Rogue One does some interesting things with this Dark Lord of the Sith.
When the Empire puts up the shield in orbit of Scarif, an X-Wing can’t pull up and crashes into it. Which is exactly what should have happened in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fighters are flying to the second Death Star thinking the shield is down.
Star Wars isn’t known for romance. It has a few, but they’re either dreadfully stilted community theater (Anakin and Padmé) or a whirlwind flirtation carried by bickering and banter (Han and Leia). So am I alone in thinking that Rogue One contains the hottest moment in all of Star Wars? When Jyn and Cassian are in close quarters in the elevator, and it’s filmed like they might kiss, and they don’t?
If Rogue One came out when I was in junior high, it would have been the biggest deal in the world that Garven Dreis and Dr. Evazan are in the movie. Now, it’s just really cool. But in junior high, I wouldn’t have caught the significance of Chirrut and Baze being Guardians of the Whills, which is a reference to George Lucas’ original title for his Star Wars screenplay: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1.
What may be the most highly anticipated film of all time is here, continuing the most popular film series of them all. So after all the hype, what are we left with? Impressive restraint. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is something I would have hardly expected: a movie whose ambition largely doesn’t exceed its reach. It’s a high wire act, where the small-scale interpersonal drama (with unprecedented levels of character development for this franchise) is just as important as the large-scale space opera. Star Wars is back, with all its old trademarks of pulpy dialogue, a lived-in world, humor, and screen wipes, all energized by an exciting new cast of characters.
It’s thirty years after the Empire was sent scurrying to the Outer Rim after the Battle of Endor; a New Republic governs, but remnants of the Empire have come together as the First Order, countered by a paramilitary Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). On the desert planet Jakku, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovers a key piece of intelligence, before he’s beleaguered by Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) force of stormtroopers (including John Boyega’s reluctant trooper Finn). Poe hides the information in his droid BB-8, and as the little BB unit comes across a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), the hunt is on for the droid. Because both the First Order and the Resistance covet what’s hidden inside it…
The Force Awakens’ greatest strength lies in its new characters (which in and of itself is a kind of best-case scenario for this franchise reintroduction). In Ridley and Boyega’s Rey and Finn, Star Wars has hit upon a pair with exceptional chemistry together, and charisma apart. She is technically minded and self-sufficient, with abandonment issues. He is stubborn in his desire to do the right thing in all cases, with a tendency to get in over his head. Together, they’re a fun pair to follow into the future of these films, especially given that they feel like real and relatable people in a universe where that’s not necessarily the norm.
But in my mind the film’s breakout character is its villain, Kylo Ren. He is as ragged as the untamed blade of his red lightsaber, always playing at being more than he is, more implacable, more dominant, more evil. He has spectacular Force-assisted temper tantrums. And when the mask comes off, Driver reads his lines with this beautiful mixture of menace and ineffectuality. Because The Force Awakens gives nearly equal time to developing its villain as it does its heroes, Kylo Ren is given space to shine as a fascinating character, and while he may idolize and model himself after Darth Vader, Kylo is a different beast altogether.
Kylo Ren puts on the mask because he wants to be larger-than-life. But in good guy Poe Dameron and bad guy General Hux, we have characters here that legitimately are. Poe is a semi-flamboyant, ultra-charismatic top gun X-wing pilot, given little room for particular depth but lighting up the screen because of his mere “coolness”. On the flip side, Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is a tyrannical yet jealous, conniving yet pretentious, General in the First Order (or should I say in my best all-caps staccato English accent, “the FEHST AWERDEHR”). There’s a total Triumph of the Will scene involving legions of stormtroopers and Hux’… particular rhetorical style, bringing the First Order in line with the Third Reich as much as possible in a galaxy far, far away. Hitler at Nuremburg, much? The movie pushes the Nazi thing far, but Gleeson’s work as Hux makes it work, and he’s a character I’m particularly interested to see progress in future installments.
It must be said that stormtrooper Captain Phasma is a waste of Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie’s talents at this point, but again, the future should hold good things for this chrome trooper. If Phasma is developed well, Star Wars will have a very symmetrical balance of a trio of great heroes (Rey, Finn, Poe) opposing a trio of great villains (Kylo, Hux, Phasma). For now, in Rey and Kylo Ren, we have a hero and villain both still learning, still rough around the edges, and that’s exciting.
If there is a worry in The Force Awakens, it’s that this is a movie that doesn’t really cut loose its imagination. There are no big space battles. In Jakku we have a desert planet like Tatooine. In Takodana we have a forest planet complete with old temple like Yavin 4. In Starkiller Base’s surface we have an icy landscape like Hoth. The locations are not the most imaginative, but their groundedness also gives them cinematographic beauty – their relatability is a strength, but being earthbound could also could give the impression of a fan film. I think these choices mostly work for The Force Awakens, though, because it’s bringing an interesting hybrid of zaniness and realism to the Star Wars universe.
After all, these decisions also give us a dynamic shooting style courtesy of director J.J. Abrams. On Takodana, we have a thrilling oner that goes from a character scrambling on the ground, up to a kinetic dogfight in the sky, back down to the ground; it’s fluid and energetic in the best way. These decisions also give us a visceral and fresh take on lightsaber dueling. No 20-foot Force jumps here. A bruiser, pitted against a defensive combatant using a lightsaber almost like a rapier at times. Breathlessly exciting peaks and valleys in the flow of battle. There are a couple moments in the duel that do for lightsaber dueling what Creed did for boxing, both films shooting its action with hard immediacy and empathy for its characters.
Scaling back to the big picture of plot, The Force Awakens is nothing revolutionary. (I don’t weigh plot so much as character and quality of writing.) There are a few clear similarities to beats from the original trilogy, but I maintain that they’re superficial. The whole tenor of the beats, as well as how characters interact around them, is wildly different in context. The one noticeably weak plot element is Starkiller Base. There’s a bit where its size is compared with the Death Star, and that moment is kind of dumb and rote. But the Base is merely a backdrop, incidental in the face of its own destructive power. The real ballgame is what’s going on with the characters: Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and by this point, Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Yes, old characters have moments to shine in The Force Awakens, and it’s a credit to the movie that it took me this long to mention them directly; the film’s fresh blood is so good, I don’t have much to say about their predecessors. Suffice to say that they’re all present and correct, and welcome sights. It’s been 30 years since we’ve seen them, and a lot of history has happened in the meantime. The movie obfuscates a thing or two (the politics and beliefs of the First Order are quite unclear), but on the whole takes the right tack: hinting at things that have happened in that time gap without feeling the need to lengthily exposit on them. In the old days throwaway references were expanded into whole spinoff novels; a similar thing will undoubtedly happen now.
Episode VII: The Force Awakens reintroduces Star Wars through an exciting new cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and especially Adam Driver inject extraordinary energy into their roles, making the movie a great ensemble piece. The old elements are there, but they’re not the focus, and Star Wars can now look entirely to the future with a new creative regime. Let’s just get more imaginative in Episode VIII. (Stay tuned for the spoiler P.S. for more.) Unlike certain other films in the franchise, The Force Awakens stands as a synergistic work of craftsmanship, with solid cinematography, music, production design, writing, and directing. These elements lay the groundwork, and the characters jump off the page and carry the day. 9/10.
P.S.: May the SPOILERS be with you
In 1983, Harrison Ford wanted to be killed off in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. I presume he wanted the door closed so he didn’t have to return to the character. But thank the Maker he didn’t get his wish, not only because it freed him to have a last hurrah and interesting death in Episode VII, but also because Episode VI would have been a terrible swan song for him. (As far as I’m concerned, the writing and Ford’s goofy performance in that movie barely qualify as Han Solo.) So Han is dead at the hand of his son Ben. I like the death for Han because it’s such unfamiliar territory for his original character: dealing directly with dark side corruption, and intensely personal as opposed to a blaze of glory. But what I like most about the scene is that Kylo Ren’s plea to Han is entirely genuine. Far from being some kind of cheap fake-out, by looking directly into Ben’s eyes, Han really is giving his son the strength to take decisive action. It just happens that that action is patricide.
That kind of irony appears elsewhere in the film; Kylo Ren unwittingly has a large role in awakening the Force within Rey. And that duel is one for the ages. Firstly the slight misdirection in the marketing about Finn works a charm (the cross guard blade digging into Finn’s shoulder! Ouch!). And then when Kylo Ren tries to summon the lightsaber, and it proceeds to arc to Rey, is a crowning moment of triumph that left me physically shaking. The duel is great, and I think Rey’s moment of calm at the cliff edge is vital, because it’s something that Kylo Ren could never achieve. It’s a beautiful point to all those discussions about whether the Dark or Light side of the Force is stronger (expressed here as aggression vs. inner peace).
So the macguffin of the whole movie is the map to Luke Skywalker, in his hermitage on an island in a vast ocean. I’m totally fine with the relative lack of Luke; that just means a bigger role in the next movie. And how about that look on Luke’s face when the sees his old lightsaber? Like a look of profound sadness? Roll on Episode VIII! I’m rooting for you, Rian Johnson.
And am I the only one who thinks Supreme Leader Snoke resembles the Silence from Doctor Who?