In many respects, this was a more exciting and thrilling movie than the previous Star Wars: Episode VII, The Force Awakens” It was more heroic, noble, and self-sacrificing. Unencumbered by previous storylines, it was able to introduce new characters into an existing historical narrative.
Often, the new lead character is — if not an ingenue — at least an unknown: Mark Hamill as Luke, Carrie Fisher as Leia, Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. Not this time. The lead character is played by Felicity Jones, an Oxford graduate, a veteran of many notable films, and nominated for a Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA, and Academy Award for her performance in The Theory of Everything. And it showed, she’s a strong actress and carried a challenging role well.
The cast was the most ethnically and nationally diverse I’ve seen in any Star Wars movie. Academy Award-winning African-American actor Forest Whitaker, Mexican actor Diego Luna, Chinese actor Wen Jiang, Australian actors Ben Mendelsohn and Joel Edgerton, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, and of course, lots of Brits. And even an American who sounds like a Brit.
But the one I was waiting to see was Chinese actor Donnie Yen. You may know him by the three Ip Man movies he made. He’s the hottest martial arts action actor in the world right now, and you are treated to some impressive bo staff demonstrations in this movie. You feel at times he’s channeling for Zatoichi, the blind Samurai swordsman dating back over 60 years ago, with 26 movies from 1962–2003.
Themes of loyalty, friendship, integrity, bravery, and hope, were showcased throughout the film.
There were lots of beloved familiar faces and bit players from the original Star Wars film. And even some of the same costumes. And a favorite line. And two customers from the original Cantina. In this way, it’s comforting, at least to those of us who recall seeing in 1977 the original Episode IV for the first time as our first Star Wars movie. The internal technology is the same, though we get to see some types of spaceships we’ve not seen before, they’re not as alien as those in Episodes I-III, or VII.
We meet four original key actors from the previous series, one who is a simulacrum. Well, two actually. I’ll only tell you about one (spoiler alert) though, Grand Moff Tarkin. This is interesting as the original actor Peter Cushing died over three decades ago, and is resurrected here through the magic of CGI and permission from his estate. He was one of only two well-known actors in the original movie — the other being Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan. (One of the place names is Wobani, an anagram for Obi-Wan. That may help.) Cushing’s intimidating presence added so much to the original — he was a star in many horror movies — and he was so classically British, that Carrie Fisher admitted that she adopted a British accent in her early scenes of Star Wars: Episode IV. You don’t hear her do that later in that film or in subsequent ones (spoilers off.)
The visuals were stunning. You can see a lot of the budget on the screen. There’s an acropolis that looks like Masada in Israel, but with an Imperial Destroyer floating above it. The space battles show incredible 3D movement. (It helps to see the movie in 3D.) The aliens look top notch; the new droids are imaginative. It was filmed in the UK, Jordan, Iceland, and the Maldives.
I do have a few criticisms.
Confusing. We’re introduced to 4 place names early in the movie, only one of which we’re familiar with. And we hear so many new names that it’s like reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time: alien names that are hard to remember and you hope you’re going to meet later. But that only happens in the beginning half hour of the First Act.
Chaotic: some of the action scenes were hard to follow. However, there were multiple interleaved action plot lines in the exciting Third Act, like Empire Strikes Back, that worked well. In general, the Third Act was the most exciting space battle ever seen. You knew there was going to be a space battle, there always is.
You don’t hear John Williams strains at the beginning of the film because this one was done by Michael Giacchino, who did every other J.J. Abrams movie except, ironically, The Force Awakens. You note Williams’ absence. Later in the film, you hear some of his familiar Williams themes, including during the final titles. But you miss the iconic Williams magic.
It opens, like all the others, in space but with different objects in view than you’ve seen before. However, there is no title scroll. Because this is not part of the Star Wars saga, rather it’s part of the anthology. December 2017 will see Star Wars: VIII, but December 2018 will see the anthology with the prequel to Han Solo.
Some say this is the best film since Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. I’m inclined to agree. It was complex, thrilling, and stunning. There were times when my jaw dropped at the visuals.
When you see it, and you will — these are the droids you’re looking for — pay special attention: what is the last word in the movie? And where have you heard it before?
You’ll like it if: you like action, grit, spaceships, stormtroopers who can’t hit the broadside of a barn, stunning visuals.
You won’t like it if: you don’t care for long expositionary speeches, intense family scenes, movies with “daddy issues.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture