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Oscars: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Takes Aim Below the Line

In some sense, it seems silly to continue weighing the awards prospects for Lucasfilm’s ongoing “Star Wars” franchise each year. With “The Force Awakens,” “Rogue One,” and now “The Last Jedi,” it’s become clear, both in how these extravaganzas are realized on the screen and how Disney chooses to position them at year’s end, that trophies aren’t part of the equation. Revenue and firmly rooted brand appeal drive the machine, and even when a filmmaker like Rian Johnson steps in with the first truly fresh writer-director vision of the series since George Lucas breathed life into it 40 years ago, there just seems to be a ceiling on how galvanizing the material can truly be outside the established fandom.

That’s not to say what Johnson has created is otherwise disposable. Quite the opposite. Albeit overstuffed and built on a script that spins its wheels a bit while trying to reconcile everything being thrown into the mixture, “The Last Jedi” contains more character moments and detail than the franchise has seen in years. It’s going to reach deeper into viewers’ hearts, just like “The Empire Strikes Back” before it. That was a goal, and it was met with aplomb. But will these films ever again catch fire as something the industry feels compelled to recognize as — well, let’s just say it — “Oscar-worthy?” In bold-faced terms, that is? It seems unlikely.

So idle best picture thoughts, speculation that Mark Hamill’s return to the role of Luke Skywalker or Carrie Fisher’s emotion-stirring work as Leia Organa could generate supporting conversation — that’s not really in the cards. But when it comes to year-end kudos, the story with “Star Wars” tends to be the considerable crafts effort on display anyway, and “The Last Jedi” is no different.

The visual effects will always be at the top of the list, and with exciting action sequences, creative world-building spectacle, and a compelling performance-capture offering from Andy Serkis, this one is sure to be in the thick of it once again. It’s not quite as shiny as “The Force Awakens,” though, and that’s a compliment; Johnson has paid lovely homage to some of the handmade charm of the original trilogy, and that will no doubt resonate with effects artists who appreciate a mix of digital and practical wizardry.

Once again, the sound editing and mixing prove that the aural world of “Star Wars” is half of the experience. One moment in particular actually makes incredibly bold use of silence. But then again, “Rogue One” — a straight-up war film — was notably excluded from the sound editing field last time around, so who knows? And while the detail of John Williams’ score escapes me at the moment (as it did, frankly, with “The Post”), the reverence for him in the Academy’s music branch is pretty self-explanatory: 50 nominations and counting.

It would be nice to see the production design get some love. Oscar-winning legends are crafting wildly detailed environments on this saga, Rick Carter (“Lincoln”) on “The Force Awakens,” Rick Heinrichs (“Sleepy Hollow”) on “The Last Jedi.” The decadent, Monte Carlo-inspired city of Canto Bight, in particular, is a lively addition to the canon. But production design and costume design are two of the categories no “Star Wars” film has managed to nail down since the original trilogy.

Naturally, makeup and prosthetics — where actually utilized over CGI — add appreciated tactile flavor, and the film editing deserves a shout-out not least of all for a 45-minute chunk of the movie’s second act that builds gloriously, feverishly, to an electrifying climax. But a note on Steve Yedlin’s cinematography: When Peter Suschitzky saddled up to “Empire,” he captured some of the most iconic frames of the series, punctuating the material with expressive and dynamic visual language. Yedlin does something similar here. His lighting is elegant, his camera movement graceful. Oscar nominee Greig Fraser (“Lion”) managed similarly elevated visuals in “Rogue One,” however, and he was passed over.

But ultimately, again, playing that “what’s in the cards?” Oscar game with “Star Wars” just feels beside the point of the whole exercise. No one making these movies is interested in awards. It’s unbridled passion and love for a franchise at the wheel. Come what may, it’s probably better to just give the prognostication a rest.

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