Raya and the Last Dragon review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Cast : Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 114 min
Opens : 5 March 2021
Rating : PG

Disney Animation has drawn on stories from various regions as the basis for their films. With Raya and the Last Dragon, the House of Mouse goes a little mousedeer, telling a story inspired by the mythology of Southeast Asia.  

Dragons were the protectors of the mythical land of Kumandra, sacrificing themselves to save humanity when monsters called the Druun attacked, petrifying all in their path. Kumandra is divided into Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine and Tail, each land named for a different part of the dragon.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a warrior princess from the Heart kingdom, whose father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is training her to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem. Chief Benja attempts to broker peace between the disparate lands, but the Druun return and the conflict continues. As an adult, Raya finds and revives Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon. Raya and Sisu must unite the fractured pieces of the Dragon Gem to bring back all who were lost to the Druun. Along the way, Raya must face off with a figure from her past: the equally formidable Namaari (Gemma Chan), princess of the Fang Kingdom.  

Raya and the Last Dragon is gorgeously animated and the world of Kumandra is a visually captivating one. The details in the costumes and architecture are plentiful, and the effects animation, especially on the angry black mist that is the Druun, is exceptional. The hand-to-hand fight sequences are well choreographed and there is a genuine sense of thrilling adventure to the story.

The voice cast is also excellent, with Kelly Marie Tran bringing both steeliness and warmth to the part of Raya. Awkwafina’s rasp works well as the voice of an animated character and she plays the fish-out-of-water aspect of Sisu entertainingly. Daniel Dae Kim effortlessly essays calm authority, while Benedict Wong seems to be having the best time as Tong, a boisterous gentle (?) giant type. Boun (Izaac Wang), a kid entrepreneur who runs a shrimp congee restaurant out of a boat, is also a fun, likeable road movie side character.

The most interesting part of the film is the rivalry between Raya and Namaari, and the possibility that they might still find common ground with each other. Namaari is sufficiently different from your standard snarling Disney villain, and this reviewer feels not enough of the movie is about this relationship.

While watching Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s evident that there is a tension between making this something fresh and innovative, while also honouring the storied legacy of Disney animation, and fulfilling expectations associated with its most successful films. As such, Raya and the Last Dragon can sometimes feel tied down to Disney animated movie formula. There’s a plucky princess raised by a single father, and she goes on a quest accompanied by a comic relief sidekick (or two or three). Sticking to a formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Raya breaks from formula in certain significant ways, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is still constrained by certain expectations associated with Disney animated movies.   

Tonally, there are moments that don’t quite work. This is a movie about a world and its inhabitants dealing with trauma and loss. However, it also wants to be light-hearted and appealing to children – hence characters like an adorable half-armadillo-half-pillbug named Tuk-Tuk (Alan Tudyk) who clearly exists to sell toys – not that we don’t want a Tuk-Tuk plushie.

Like the Dragon Gem, the story sometimes seems fragmented, and feels episodic the way many movies with a road trip structure do. Some of the dialogue is clunky, and several of the anachronistic jokes don’t work, including a moment when Raya proclaims, “bling’s my thing”. Several of Sisu’s jokes sound like improvisational riffs that Awkwafina came up with in the booth, and can be a little grating, but Sisu is generally likeable. Unfortunately, Sisu’s character design sticks out – typically, East Asian and Southeast Asian dragons are depicted with a maned head and a scaly body, but Sisu is entirely furry and doesn’t seem like she belongs stylistically.

Kumandra incorporates facets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos. For Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney assembled the Southeast Asia Story Trust comprised of experts in various fields, including an Indonesian linguist, a textile expert from the USC Pacific Asia Museum and a visual anthropologist. Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn is an artist of Thai descent, while co-writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim are of Vietnamese and Malaysian Chinese descent, respectively.

There is a desire here to tell a story that has a degree of authenticity, but “authenticity” is something that’s hard to measure empirically. As Moana did with Polynesian countries, Raya and the Last Dragon amalgamates and mashes up Southeast Asian countries to create the fictional Kumandra. While there is an overlap in the cultural traditions and mythologies of many Southeast Asian countries, residents of said countries would also generally prefer for others not to get one country confused with the other, and that creates a kind of paradox in telling a story that is inspired by a blend of cultures.

Watching Raya, it’s also hard not to think of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and the follow-up The Legend of Korra, which have thus far been western animation’s most successful attempts at creating fantasy worlds inspired by disparate Asian cultures. The world-building of Avatar seems more thought out than it is in Raya, but then of course the animated series had a lot more time to spend on that.

Summary: Raya and the Last Dragon sometimes struggles with telling a story that is authentic to the region from which it draws inspiration while also delivering what audiences expect from a Disney animated adventure, but it mostly succeeds in pulling off this balance. It may not be as revolutionary as Disney had hoped, but it is still a largely entertaining adventure that draws on rich storytelling traditions. Hopefully, filmmakers from varied backgrounds will continue getting the support they need in Hollywood to tell more stories from more places.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review

For F*** Magazine

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 h 22 mins
Opens : 19 December 2019
Rating : PG13

42 years after the original Star Wars movie redefined cinema and started an enduring worldwide phenomenon, J.J. Abrams rings the curtain down on the Skywalker Saga with this film. While this certainly will not be the last piece of Star Wars media or indeed the last Star Wars movie ever, it’s still momentous that this marks the conclusion of the overarching core story of a galaxy far, far away.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), the heroes of the Resistance, are flung together for a high-stakes mission with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance, as it always seems to. Under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), the Resistance continues its fight against the First Order, led by her son, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The resurgence of the ancient evil known as the Sith, locked in a never-ending conflict with the Jedi, unearths long-buried secrets as foes and allies both old and new are drawn into the fray. Rey’s struggle to find her place in the galaxy and Kylo Ren’s own long-standing inner conflict take both characters to places they never imagined they would go.

You know the Aesop’s Fable about the man, the young boy and the donkey? The one about how you can’t please everyone? One imagines director/co-writer J.J. Abrams as the man in that story. There is no denying that making The Rise of Skywalker was a daunting undertaking, overwhelming in breadth (if perhaps not depth) as a story that must function as the conclusion to not just one trilogy, but three. Taking this into consideration, there is a lot in this film to enjoy.

From the word ‘go’, The Rise of Skywalker is unrelenting, and it is this propulsive kinetic energy that keeps the movie going and going and going, making its 142-minute runtime zip by. Our characters jump from set-piece to set-piece, planet to planet, taking the audience along with them. There are several involving action sequences and the lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren on a barge in a roiling sea is among the best in the whole series.

Rey, Finn and Poe spent most of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi apart, and The Rise of Skywalker makes it a point to have these three characters share multiple scenes. We see how each of these characters has grown and evolved and how the events of the past two films have shaped them. The interplay between them, especially between Finn and Poe, is often entertaining. The resolution of the struggle between Rey and Kylo Ren will not please everyone, but there is an elegance in its execution, and it winds up being satisfying while also being unsatisfying, which seems like the intention.

There is a palpa…ble affection for the movies that came before, and as a result one can sense how hard Abrams, co-writer Chris Terrio and crew were trying to create something that honours the films of the past while also not directly contradicting what has been established earlier, which is easier said than done. This is, if nothing else, a big “points for trying” scenario.

The aforementioned Aesop’s Fable ends with the man and his son, carrying the donkey suspended by a pole on their shoulders, falling off a bridge into the river below and drowning. It sometimes feels like The Rise of Skywalker is doing just this. In nostalgia-driven franchises, fans are especially wary of “fan-service” – moments geared to elicit a positive reaction simply by reminding said fans of something they like. The Rise of Skywalker is stuffed with these moments. As a Star Wars fan, this reviewer did enjoy many of them, but after a while, it can get a bit tiresome when one realises this might be getting in the way of the storytelling. It’s like eating dessert for dinner: it’s fun at first, but by the end it’s too much of a good thing.

Much was made about how The Rise of Skywalker would apparently ‘retcon’ the events of The Last Jedi. While on the surface it seems like nothing here contradicts the events and the revelations of that film, one can tell that the vocal backlash against it did affect this movie – one would argue negatively. For all The Last Jedi’s perceived flaws, it was at the very least interesting. It was challenging in the way The Rise of Skywalker never is. Whatever was interesting about The Last Jedi feels flattened here.

Perhaps The Rise of Skywalker just doesn’t need to be challenging and people actually prefer it this way, but as the Skywalker Saga bounds to the finish line, it feels like narratively, the series as a whole has taken a step backwards. The film was originally set to be directed by Colin Trevorrow, and Trevorrow still receives a “story by” credit alongside Derek Connolly, Abrams and Terrio. Perhaps it was in the reworking of Trevorrow and Connolly’s original script that things got messy.

The breakneck pacing means that the movie is never boring, but there sometimes is the sense that it serves to paper over the cracks and stop audiences from pausing to look around them. The film’s haste also means that several important revelations and developments just whiz by without a chance to meaningfully explore them.

There is a sentimentality to The Rise of Skywalker, but it can be argued that the stories that have endured through the ages are often sentimental. Much of that sentimentality arises from seeing familiar faces, including C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), on new adventures that contextualise their relationships to the other characters. The two main new characters introduced here, the warrior Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and the helmeted spice runner Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), both feel very Star Wars-y.

Considering how poorly a section of Star Wars fans have conducted themselves and how they have expressed their vitriol over certain instalments of the series, making hating something a core part of their personality, there is a comfort in seeing the characters embrace and express their affection for each other. Many elements of The Rise of Skywalker might seem overly engineered, but the positivity and the message of people uniting to defend what they hold dear is sincere.

The film’s greatest accomplishment is in bringing Carrie Fisher’s Leia to the screen one last time. Through an ingenious and nigh-seamless combination of unused footage from The Force Awakens, body doubles, compositing and possibly a soundalike voice actor, the late Fisher delivers a stirring, dignified and supremely moving final performance. This is, after all, the conclusion to the Skywalker saga and this movie does place the family, the surviving members of whom are Leia and Kylo Ren, front and centre. There is a reverence which makes The Rise of Skywalker sometimes trip over itself, but the Skywalkers are given their due and then some here.

The Rise of Skywalker has myriad flaws, but it closes out the nine-film cycle in grand fashion. In straining to please fans, the film will probably end up divisive, just in a different way from The Last Jedi. Regardless, The Rise of Skywalker is still an achievement and it might not be the conclusion to the saga that this reviewer was hoping for, but we’re not quite sure how else we would have done this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie review

For inSing

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Director : Rian Johnson
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, Lupita Nyong’o
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 32m
Opens : 14 December 2017
Rating : PG

(The following review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

In 2015, under the auspices of Disney, Star Wars came back in a big way. The Force Awakens launched a new trilogy, and sparked fevered speculation about where the story would go next. In The Last Jedi, questions are answered, expectations are subverted, and yet more questions are generated – all in engrossing, spectacular fashion.

We pick up where The Force Awakens left off: Rey (Daisy Ridley) has arrived on Ahch-To in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has been in self-imposed exile. Luke blames himself for the creation of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the dark warrior who was once Luke’s Jedi apprentice, then known as Ben Solo.

Kylo’s mother General Leia Organa (Carrier Fisher) leads the increasingly battered Resistance against the First Order, headed up by Kylo’s master, the enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Ace pilot Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) recklessness puts him in conflict with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), Leia’s long-time friend and subordinate. Meanwhile, former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and Resistance engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) hatch a plan to infiltrate the Supremacy, Snoke’s Mega-Class Star Destroyer. The battle for the galaxy heats up as our heroes and villains inch ever closer to fulfilling their destinies.

The Force Awakens was criticised for being too much of a retread of A New Hope, but it can be argued that audiences needed to be reminded of what it was about Star Wars that hooked them in the first place. With writer-director Rian Johnson at the helm, The Last Jedi does what every great sequel should: build upon its predecessor while taking the story in bold new directions. There are some elements that echo The Empire Strikes Back, but it is not a beat-for-beat do-over of that film. There is a consistency to how the characters we know and love from The Force Awakens and the original trilogy are further developed, and the surprises that lie in store do not feel contradictory to what has been laid out before.

On the level of sheer spectacle, The Last Jedi delivers amply. Key creatives including production designer Rick Heinrichs and costume designer Michael Kaplan return from The Force Awakens, but Johnson brings his regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who has worked with the director since Brick, on board.

The opulent casino on the planet Canto Bight has a bit of a latter-day Doctor Who vibe to it, while the mineral-rich planet Crait is blanketed by salt flats that cover crimson clay – the clay is kicked up by the Resistance ski speeders as they hurtle towards the First Order’s walkers. Snoke’s throne room, surrounded by a seamless blood-red curtain, is the ideal locale for one of the film’s most dramatic scenes to unfold in. Hearing those John Williams-composed leitmotifs accompanying the appearance of each character just completes the experience in the best way.

The Last Jedi is also a masterclass in tone: this is an intense movie, but it’s also a funny one, and humour is employed in just the right doses. The levity never undermines the tremendous, galaxy-shattering stakes at hand. Johnson has achieved something which many Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have struggled at getting right.

While many might decry the Porgs, cuddly little avian/mammalian critters, as obviously created just to make Disney mountains of cash in plush toy sales, this reviewer found them irresistibly charming. They pop up at just the right points in the story, and are nowhere near as annoying as some find the Ewoks and many find Jar Jar Binks to be. BB-8 gets more screen time and is straight-up heroic, actively aiding our heroes during conflict.

Hamill gets top billing, after making a silent cameo at the very end of The Force Awakens. Luke is characterised as disillusioned and bitter – Rey clearly wants him to mentor her, but given his past failings, Luke is reluctant to take on another apprentice. Hamill’s performance is unexpectedly abrasive, yet moving and deeply sincere.

Rey and Kylo Ren are pitted against each other in a compelling way, the film highlighting their parallels and the danger that Rey could go down the same dark path trodden by Luke’s old student. Ridley’s youthful energy is in full force, while the physical demands of the role are increased. The dynamic between Rey and Luke and between Rey and Kylo sparks with life and keeps the viewer invested.

The film delves further into Kylo’s fractured psyche. The character is ultimately a child playing pretend, trying to fill a void within by chasing the legacy of the grandfather he idolises. He’s destructive and impulsive, and is thus easily manipulated by Snoke. While Andy Serkis does a fine sneery performance, Snoke is saddled with some of the more cliched lines in the film, which veer dangerously close to Bond villain speechifying.

The late Fisher gets many moments to shine as the regal, wise Leia, who keeps her composure under the most stressful situations as she shepherds the Resistance. It is a quietly stirring performance and we can’t think of a better send-off for the actress.

While Isaac’s Poe Dameron was merely the roguish hero archetype in The Force Awakens, this movie deconstructs that trope, and floats the idea that sometimes being brash and anti-authoritarian, as cool as it looks, is self-serving rather than furthering the cause.

Tran’s Rose Tico is a fantastic character, and a great way to shine a light on the Resistance members who aren’t fighting on the frontlines. She’s a bit of a fangirl and is thrilled to meet Finn, the Stomtrooper-turned-hero. Rose also gives the film a chance to comment on social stratification, since her family was exploited by the rich and powerful.

While Dern and del Toro are both reliable, the role of ‘slicer’ DJ, a hacker and thief for hire, seems like a waste of del Toro’s distinctive talents. Dern doesn’t get too much to do, but Holdo is memorable as she is at the centre of a particularly dramatic moment.

If one has become fixated on and overly attached to specific fan theories, The Last Jedi will disappoint for not realising said theories – but then again, it never had an obligation to. Johnson has a bit of fun at the fanbase’s expense, toying with expectations while staying faithful yet not slavish to the Star Wars films that have come before.

The Last Jedi is as exhilarating as it is moving. The Last Jedi feels like a whole movie rather than a placeholder or a mere trailer for the next film to come. While it clearly functions as a middle instalment in the trilogy, it’s also a beginning and an end.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Built to last: meet the characters of The Last Jedi

BUILT TO LAST: MEET THE CHARACTERS OF THE LAST JEDI

Star Wars welcomes back heroes and villains we love from The Force Awakens while adding new ones

By Jedd Jong

Back in the 70s, 80s, late 90s and 2000s, Memorial Day weekend in mid-late May was when everyone knew to expect a Star Wars movie. Starting with The Force Awakens, the space opera franchise has claimed the Christmas period for itself, with that film and Rogue One opening in winter rather than summer. Star Wars frenzy is reaching a fever pitch with the release of The Last Jedi right around the corner.

The eighth instalment in the main series of films has a tough act to follow, considering how The Force Awakens grossed over $2 billion at the worldwide box office. While some have decried it for being too repetitive in following the template laid down by the original Star Wars film A New Hope, the film was critically acclaimed and announced loud and proud that Star Wars was back.

Beloved characters such as Han Solo, Leia and Chewbacca appeared in The Force Awakens supporting roles – in Luke Skywalker’s case, he barely appeared at all. We were introduced to a trio of intrepid heroes: Rey, the scavenger with a destiny to fulfil; Finn, the Stormtrooper who defects to the side of good; and Poe Dameron, the heroic ace pilot – plus Poe’s trusty Astromech droid BB-8. Leading the charge on the side of the villains was Kylo Ren, who answers to the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke.

Director Rian Johnson takes the reins from J. J. Abrams for The Last Jedi, and the trailers have teased that Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeves. Fans have been tantalised with the promise of an upended status quo – in the trailer Luke says through gritted teeth, “this is not going to go the way you think!”

Before you watch The Last Jedi in theatres – which we have a feeling you will (the Force told us) – get reacquainted with the characters who inhabit this galaxy far, far away, and meet a few who will be introduced in the new movie. Don’t worry, this piece is spoiler-free – we wrote it before watching the movie.

#1: REY (Daisy Ridley)

After clinching the coveted role of the new lead heroine in a Star Wars trilogy, English actress Daisy Ridley was launched into superstardom. The filmmakers received much praise for putting a woman front and centre – this reflects the reality behind-the-scenes, with Star Wars creator George Lucas ceding control of Lucasfilm to producer Kathleen Kennedy.

In The Force Awakens, Rey, the scavenger from the far-flung desert planet of Jakku, was plunged headlong into the adventure of a lifetime. She shares an unexplained link to Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, and touching it triggered a vision littered with little clues that fans were eager to decipher. The Last Jedi will see Rey undergo training at the hands of Luke Skywalker, while resisting the call of the Dark Side as Snoke tries to turn her, just as he has turned Kylo Ren.

Ridley characterises Rey’s arc in The Last Jedi as “more of an emotional journey, than a physical one.” Ridley added that Rey “gets to ask questions about herself and the world around her,” questions which encompass her “parentage and heritage – wherever that may be.” To undertake the combat scenes, Ridley said she trained for a year, and has become more confident in his lightsaber-wielding abilities. Ridley also revealed that even after she has become the new face of Star Wars, her father is still a die-hard Star Trek devotee.

#2: LUKE SKYWALKER (Mark Hamill)

It’s impossible to look at Rey’s arc in The Force Awakens and not draw comparisons to Luke – orphan (?) living on a desert planet who dreams of adventure inadvertently gets roped in to join the fight against an evil empire, taking their first steps towards their destiny. The plot of The Force Awakens involved tracking down a vanished Luke – after his nephew/pupil Kylo Ren (née Ben Solo) turned to the Dark Side, Luke considered this a personal failure and went into self-imposed exile on the planet Ahch-To. Bringing Luke’s lightsaber with her, Rey travelled to Ahch-To to find Luke and learn from him. Hamill says that Luke is dogged by “that guilt, that feeling that it’s his fault, that he didn’t detect the darkness in [Kylo] until it was too late.”

Hamill didn’t find the stardom that many thought would come after starring in the Star Wars trilogy, but he has gone on to become an established and sought-after voice actor, memorably voicing the DC Comics villain the Joker in various animated series, animated films and video games. To reprise the role of Luke Skywalker, once a wide-eyed rookie and now a wizened, haunted mentor figure, Hamill went on a strict diet and exercise regiment, losing around 22 kg.

Hamill admits to being shocked by the direction in which Johnson’s script takes Luke, and initially disagreeing with it. “It it took me a while to get around to his way of thinking, but once I was there it was a thrilling experience,” Hamill explained, saying he hopes the audience will share that thrill.

Hamill said that being appreciated by the fans is a “reward that just never stops giving” and “really moving”. Hamill was conferred the Disney Legend award at this year’s D23 convention, which he called an “out-of-body experience”.

#3: FINN (John Boyega)

The man formerly known as Stormtrooper FN-2187 went from being a soldier for the First Order to a selfless champion of the Resistance. Boyega, who like his co-star Ridley is a 25-year-old from England, has also become a recognisable star. He will next be seen headlining and co-producing Pacific Rim: Uprising, as the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost from the first Pacific Rim movie.

Boyega is a self-professed Star Wars mega-fan, and he brought an action figure of Han Solo for Harrison Ford to autograph when Boyega first met Ford during pre-production on The Force Awakens. Boyega echoes the sentiments of cast members who say audiences are in for a surprise. “[Rian] had a chance to really go crazy, and I’m a big Star Wars buff so certain things I saw I was just like ‘Well, that’s a first,’” Boyega said, calling this “really cool to experience.” Boyega got along well with Johnson, comparing the director to Santa Claus because of his jovial nature. Johnson gifted Boyega the prop blaster that Finn uses in the film.

While it seemed like Rey and Finn were being set up as romantic partners, with Finn having an obvious crush on Rey in The Force Awakens, the characters spend the bulk of the movie apart from each other. “They are separate in this film; it’s like two separate stories,” Boyega said, teasing “maybe they are in a long-distance relationship right now?”

Instead of Rey, Finn is teaming up with Resistance technician Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and both have to go undercover in a First Order installation. As seen in the trailer, he clashes with former boss Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). Describing the scenario, Boyega joked “imagine you work at McDonald’s. You push your manager into a chute compactor and then a year later you decide to go back dressed as one of the colleagues. It’s not the best situation.”

#4: GENERAL LEIA ORGANA (Carrie Fisher)

One of the most iconic heroines in science fiction/fantasy film, the Leia character is now shrouded in tragedy. Onscreen, the character must deal with not only the burden of knowing her son has turned evil, but that he has killed his father; her husband, Han Solo. The real world lost actress Carrie Fisher, who has served as an inspiration to many thanks to her honest and humorous recollections of her tumultuous personal and professional life. Fisher died on December 27 2016 and just a day later, her mother Debbie Reynolds passed away too. The Last Jedi marks Fisher’s final film appearance.

Fisher had filmed all her scenes before her death, and Johnson has stated that he did not tailor the movie to be a send-off to her, but several emotional scenes have taken on greater resonance in the wake of Fisher’s passing. Johnson and Hamill both called Fisher “irreplaceable”. Johnson felt that he and Fisher “connected as writers”, and he welcomed Fisher’s input on the screenplay. When Fisher died, Johnson was deep into post-production, and he said that coming back to the editing suite after the Christmas and New Year break to watch Fisher’s scenes was “so hard”. Johnson called Fisher’s performance in the film “beautiful and complete”.

The film’s female cast members paid tribute to the trailblazing character and the actress who portrayed her. “[Leia] really stayed with me throughout my formative years,” Christie said, adding that she admired how Leia “doesn’t care what people think and isn’t prepare to be told what to do.” For Christie, this “was really instrumental…as someone who didn’t feel like I fit in that homogenized view of what a woman is supposed to be and there was inspiration there.”

Tran spoke of Fisher’s courage in putting herself on the public stage, flaws and all, to candidly talk about her struggles with substance abuse and mental illness. “She was so unapologetic, and so openly herself, and that is something that I am really trying to do, and it’s hard,” Tran admitted. “I think that she will always be an icon as Leia, but also as Carrie,” Tran saying, saying she was “so fortunate to have met her” and that Fisher “really will live on forever.” Fisher’s legacy lives on in part through her daughter Billie Lourd, who reprises the role of Lieutenant Connix from The Force Awakens.

#5: POE DAMERON (Oscar Isaac)

The dashing Resistance pilot Poe Dameron is the most swashbuckling figure of our trio of new protagonists – in The Force Awakens, he offers a whoop as his X-Wing skims the surface of a lake on Takodana. Many identified the Poe character as being in the mould of Han Solo. However, Isaac says that the character will veer a little away from that archetype, while retaining his heroism. “I think what Rian [Johnson] did was make it less about filling a slot and more about what the story needs,” Isaac considered. At this point in the story, the Resistance is low on manpower, fleeing for their lives from the powerful First Order, and in need of someone to take the helm. “Leia is grooming me — him — to be a leader of the Resistance, as opposed to a dashing, rogue hero,” Isaac said.

Isaac’s comments strengthen the impression that The Last Jedi will be considerably darker than The Force Awakens, and that our heroes are in for a rough ride. “The heroes get challenged very specifically. It’s almost like you get to discover their character flaws and those things get tested,” Isaac said, adding that audiences will get a better sense of Poe, Finn and Rey “because you get to really know somebody in a crisis.”

Large swathes of the internet are ‘Stormpilot shippers’ – they root for the characters of Poe and Finn to end up as romantic partners. There’s palpable chemistry on display between Isaac and Boyega, and Poe even names Finn. Isaac does a pretty telling lip bite when the characters are reunited in The Force Awakens, after each thinks the other has died. “I was playing romance. In the cockpit I was playing… there was a deep romance,” Isaac said.

Alas, dreams of ‘Stormpilot’ becoming canon have been dashed by Boyega, who said the romantic pairing “only exists in Oscar’s head”.

#6: KYLO REN (Adam Driver)

The villainous Kylo Ren is an impulsive, fiery character, someone whose unconscionable actions can be justified at least in part by having been manipulated by powerful dark forces. Driver, who has been described by some as “unconventionally handsome”, won over droves of fangirls with his portrayal of the brooding Kylo.

Kylo idolises his grandfather Darth Vader, and longs to bring the Empire, in its new guise as the First Order, back to the heights of its power under Vader. “He’s a vulnerable kid who doesn’t know where to put his energy, but when he puts his mask on, suddenly, he’s playing a role,” Driver said of the character. “J.J. had that idea initially and I think Rian took it to the next level.”

Kylo is at the centre of the most talked-about moment in The Force Awakens – the death of Han Solo. Driver understood the gravity of this moment, saying he felt “sick to his stomach” watching the movie at the premiere, in anticipation of the horrible deed his character would execute. “I was holding my wife [Joanne Tucker]’s hand, and she’s like, ‘You’re really cold. Are you OK?’ Because I just knew what was coming – I kill Harrison Ford – and I didn’t know how this audience of 2000 people was going to respond to it, you know?”

As part of playing the character, Driver was withdrawn and self-serious on set. “The things about that character that I find painful, that I really relate to, I kind of prefer to keep to myself,” Driver said of his process.

Various cast members attempting to get him to lighten up. Hamill invited Driver for lunch, but he declined. Boyega attempted surprising Driver with random hugs, which Driver did not seem to enjoy. “He just stands there,” Boyega said. “He just waits for me to be done.”

Driver does have a fun side though: he famously portrayed Kylo Ren going incognito on Starkiller Base as ‘Matt the Radar Technician’ in a side-splitting Saturday Night Live sketch that aired in January 2016.

#7: SUPREME LEADER SNOKE (Andy Serkis)

Other than Rey’s parentage, the other giant magnet for speculation in The Last Jedi is the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke. The enigmatic head of the First Order who snatched young Ben Solo from Luke Skywalker’s tutelage, turning him into Kylo Ren. The character is portrayed via performance capture by Andy Serkis, famed for playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy.

Serkis has been fielding many questions about the mysterious Snoke. “He’s definitely not a Sith, but he’s certainly at the darker end of the Force,” Serkis revealed, adding “that begins to unfold a little in this one,” – whatever “that” may be. Snoke is apparently “extremely strong with the Force,” but Serkis adds that while Snoke is “terribly powerfully”, he is also “a very vulnerable and wounded character.” Snoke’s deformities include a mangled jaw, and to help capture that in his performance, Serkis would tape down the left side of his mouth to restrict the lip movement.

The character was seen in The Force Awakens as a hologram seated on a throne, and appeared to be humongous. In The Last Jedi, we see Snoke in the flesh, and he’s about 2.7 m tall. Snoke has a penchant for luxury, which manifests itself in his gold robes and striking crimson-hued throne room. Snoke’s personal security force, the Praetorian Guard, also wear bright red armour. Serkis characterised Snoke as “flamboyant” and “slightly oligarch”.

In The Last Jedi, Snoke is none too pleased with his young apprentice. “His training of Kylo Ren is not yielding what he wants,” Serkis said. “Therefore, his anger towards Kylo Ren is intensified because he can’t bear weakness in others.” Serkis added that part of Snoke’s manipulation of Kylo involves playing Kylo and General Hux (Dohmnall Gleeson), Kylo’s right-hand man, off each other.

Johnson has warned fans that all the mysteries regarding the character might not be laid bare in this instalment, saying “We’ll learn exactly as much about Snoke as we need to.” Johnson added that it was “really exciting” seeing Serkis, whom he called “a force of nature”, play the character, since he got to do “much more in this film than in the last one.”

#8: ROSE TICO (Kelly Marie Tran)

The Last Jedi introduces several new characters, with Resistance engineer Rose Tico touted to have the largest part among these inductees. Rose is played by Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran. This is set to be Tran’s big break – prior to clinching the role, she was active in improv groups, appearing in the College Humor Originals and Ladies Like Us web series. There are very few actors of Asian descent in the Star Wars saga – prior to Tran, the largest roles played by Asian actors were that of Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Tran describes Rose as being “smart, brave and loyal, someone who knows she comes from a humble beginning – she’s not a princess, she’s not a superhero.” The character is someone who has always been comfortable fighting the good fight while remaining firmly in the background, but circumstances draw her to the forefront of a galaxy-spanning conflict. Rose’s older sister Paige (Veronica Ngo) has taken a more active role in the conflict as a gunner.

“I think she symbolises that there are always so many background players in any revolution, and without those people you can’t have those people at the forefront,” Tran said, reasoning that “if their ships aren’t working, they can’t be fighting the First Order.

Tran has admitted to having never seen any of the Star Wars films prior to clinching the role. She has said that because she wasn’t a die-hard fan to begin with, she was able to approach the audition as if it were for any other part, lessening the pressure in the moment. Of course, the fact that she is part of a worldwide phenomenon will sink in sooner or later. “When I saw the action figures, I was like, ‘This is insane,’ but it still hasn’t sunk in or registered on me,” Tran said.

“Growing up I watched a lot of [pop culture] and didn’t really get to see a lot of people that looked like me,” Tran said. “I think that I’m really lucky to be this person, and I get to be part of this franchise. I hope that it is a move in a better direction.”

Tran worked long hours at a temp agency to pay the bills, and revealed that she nearly quit acting. Her persistence has led her to join the Resistance, and we can already see Rose being an inspiration to many young viewers of all backgrounds.