Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017) 2½ out of 4 stars.
As a child of the 1970s, I grew up adoring the original Star Wars franchise … at least until The Return of the Jedi came around, with its silly Ewoks and wooden performances from lead actors who had somehow forgotten how to, well, act (or been misdirected). But the first two movies – with The Empire Strikes Back (#2, or #5 in Lucas’ revised chronology) as my favorite – remain strong in my memory, and have stood the test of many viewings over the years. As bad as the the prequels were (beginning with The Phantom Menace in 1999), they couldn’t take away the magical mythology of my youth. Two years ago, director J.J. Abrams revived the series with The Force Awakens, which cribbed liberally from the plot of the very first movie, but added likeable new characters – while bringing back the old – and forged a mostly successful new path into the story. Now we have The Last Jedi, from Rian Johnson (Looper), to take us forward into merry (and not so merry) new adventures. How does it fare? Read on, young-at-heart Padawan!
First of all, be prepared that the movie takes its status as epic quite seriously. At 150 minutes, it is the longest of the franchise. For those who want as much Star Wars as they can get, with the long-awaited return of Luke Skywalker as a tour-de-force centerpiece, then I suspect more will be more, and then some. For people less inclined to uncritical fandom, however, it’s a problem, especially because the script that supports our reunion with the prodigal Jedi is a mess, filled with nonsensical plot twists and action sequences where narrative tides turn on the whim of the writer, without logical cohesion. None of this will matter at the box office, where the movie should make a killing; the big emotional beats, propped up on high like sacrifices on an altar, cry their clarion call of need to an audience primed for satisfaction. I was not immune, myself, to the joy of seeing an old friend, or of watching new friends develop further. I just wish the connective tissue were stronger. I wanted to like the film far more than I did.
Thanks to the usual title crawl, we discover that the “First Order” – that successor to the Empire – continues its destructive space march through the galaxy, and is about to wipe out what remains of the rebellion, still led by former Princess – and now General – Leia Organa. In a rousing opening battle, hothead commander Poe Dameron ignores orders to retreat and leads his fellow X-Wing fighters in a raid of a “Dreadnought” ship that threatens to destroy the planet below. Though the rebels live to fight another day – or at least, to flee – the cost is high, leaving their forces crippled and barely out of reach of the First Order’s cannons. Meanwhile, Finn, that disaffected stormtrooper who joined forces with the rebellion last time, wakes up from the coma into which he plunged after fighting lead baddie Kylo Ren, and asks about Rey, the young woman he helped rescue from her desolate desert homeland of Jakku, and in whom the Force (that mystic galactic power controlled by the Jedi) runs strong.
Cue Rey, on a planet far away, who now struggles to convince the newly discovered Luke Skywalker (the “last Jedi”) to train her in the use of that Force. Disillusioned by what happened when Kylo Ren, his former apprentice (and his nephew) turned to the “dark side,” he refuses, leaving Rey to seek out answers on her own; a vacuum needs filling, after all. It therefore suits her when a mysterious telepathic portal opens between her and Kylo, whom she bested in a light-saber battle at the end of the last movie (the same battle that left Finn in a coma). He offers her answers, though they may not be the ones she needs. We know he wants to recruit her to the First Order, but she thinks she can best him again, and remain in control. As we cut back and forth between her, the desperate rebels, and Finn and Rose (a new partner he meets upon awakening), who seek a way to stop the First Order’s fleet, we feel the ebb and pull of dramatic tension drawn taut and then released, in a combination at first thrilling, then dissipated as the plot drags on. We know there’s a climactic fight scene coming, and can only hope we remain awake long enough to watch it.
Whatever I might think of the overblown, underdeveloped script, it is a joy to watch Mark Hamill as Skywalker. Gone are the nervous, self-conscious ticks of his early years; the gravitas of age makes his homecoming truly poignant. Most of the other leads are equally strong, including Daisy Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express), as Rey; John Boyega (Detroit), as Finn; and Oscar Isaac, as Poe (Ex Machina). Many new additions make their mark, as well, with Kelly Marie Tran, as Rose, the standout among them. Adam Driver (Paterson), who so annoyed me in The Force Awakens, delivers a much stronger performance here. His partner in evil, Domnhall Gleeson (Brooklyn), as General Hux, is less fine, though much of the problem stems not so much from the actor as from the tonally strange, abusively co-dependent relationship between the two men; their jokey rapport feels like it belongs in a very different movie. The late Carrie Fisher – to whom the film is dedicated in the closing credits – is perfectly watchable, though she is not given much to do. This is really Hamill’s movie. Good thing he is up to the task.
Too bad that the story does not support his efforts. Very little makes sense, from the sacrifices people make, to the easy defeat of seemingly omnipotent villains. One thing that bothered me in The Force Awakens was Rey’s rapid control of the Force, without training. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke spends most of the film learning how to use his power, only to abandon lessons too quickly and suffer the consequences of that decision. Here, Rey, though untutored, is somehow able to face off against foes with greater experience. I like her character and am happy to see her do well, but I do not appreciate the sloppy set-up. Beyond all that, if the film has one more glaring weakness, it’s in its CGI creatures, starting with the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (animated, through motion-capture technology, by Andy Serkis, Golem in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), who moves in an odd, herky-jerky step that reminds us of his artificiality; every scene of his kicked me out of the narrative. In addition, there are many other digital creations, from cutesy Porgs to crystal wolves and more. Some are adorable, but the sum total of the mass of them feels more like a future plush-toy marketing gimmick than a solid story device.
Again, I am sure that none of this will matter. There is just enough good material embedded in the excessive padding to appeal to our cravings for more Star Wars. It could have been worse (witness the prequels), but it could (and should) have been a lot better.