The “Star Wars” franchise, by its very nature, demands that high expectations be asked of it.
While writer-director Rian Johnson’s first offering to the world’s biggest entertainment vehicle is undoubtedly the popcorn flick of the year many have been looking forward to, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the episodic Skywalker saga is in danger of going into cruise control.
In terms of blockbuster action, it’s an oversaturated blast to witness. Narratively, though, it struggles to make the jump into lightspeed.
Johnson takes the reins from J.J. Abrams, cutting down on the nostalgia factor in the process. While Abrams’s story created new conflicts and heroes to root for, Johnson focuses on the introspective journeys of three in particular – Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren.
It makes for some potentially mythology-shattering revelations to be had with “Last Jedi,” so after 152 minutes in the theater it’s a bit frustrating to notice that the plot – particularly revolving around this new trilogy’s young heroes – has barely advanced from the events of “The Force Awakens.”
Johnson is more than capable of conjuring up the requisite amount of grandeur without breaking a sweat. Lightsaber battles, dogfights in space and monumental confrontations are still a hell of a lot of fun to witness, but at this point narrative developments should be just as world-shaking.
They’re not. Johnson doesn’t continue the stories we expected to witness so much as spotlight his own ambitions for the franchise – leading to something that feels only vaguely connected to what’s come before.
Rey, Luke and Kylo do a lot of second-guessing during the 140 minute runtime. While “The Force Awakens” was content with providing little moral gray in its story, there’s an abundance of it here. Themes of choice and ambiguity are as easy to spot as the countless stars in space, and “The Last Jedi” baits its audience with unique physical manifestations of those themes before hooking us with the typical blockbuster bombast.
It’s a bit of an unfortunate pivot for the film, which does extremely little to concern itself with the narrative setups constructed by “The Force Awakens” and even its own marketing. At its best, “The Last Jedi” is a visually splendid popcorn flick that teases – though disappointedly doesn’t truly explore – new branches of the mythos of the Force.
At worst, it’s sci-fi parody.
The soul of this trilogy continues to be Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, whose now-trademark unpredictability and infantile nature results in a villain type we don’t see much of anymore. It’s impossible to predict where his moral ambiguity will take him, and “Last Jedi” is best experienced through the lens of Kylo.
Not to mention, Driver continues to show no restraint in his performance.
Meanwhile, Daisy Ridley is powerfully engaging as the heroine-in-waiting, while Mark Hamill effectively portrays a much more vulnerable Jedi master than we’re used to seeing.
The primary trifecta aside, it’s clear Johnson believes the cast of this new trilogy is too large, creating side plots that do little other than give them something to do.
Finn’s storyline in “Last Jedi” is particularly frustrating, given how big a role he had in “The Force Awakens.” Partnered with franchise newcomer Kelly Marie Tran as Rebellion foot soldier Rose, the story takes him to Canto Bight – essentially a cosmic Las Vegas.
It ends up being a laughably pointless road trip with the sole purpose of providing an allegory about slavery and the business side of war that is much too on-the-nose to be a memorable storyline.
Carrie Fisher shines in her final role as the iconic Leia, as does Oscar Isaac as her best pilot, Poe Dameron.
There is one scene with Fisher, however, that doesn’t play as it should in front of a full theater. It’s cringe-inducing when it should represent a powerful, perhaps even seismic shift for the character.
In fact, “Last Jedi” too often is unintentionally funny. Those are the last words that should belong in a “Star Wars” review, but when Disney has desensitized moviegoers to any real stakes, it’s almost impossible to find where the line is drawn.
The starkest sign that Johnson isn’t preoccupying himself with continuing Abrams’s story full-speed ahead lies in what its marketing insists are mythos-shattering developments. In a world where “Game of Thrones” spoilers are treated like the plague, it’s an accessible way to create buzz.
But it also leaves us yearning for narrative payoffs that never arrive, leaving us feel cheated. While Rey, Luke and Kylo debatably grow as characters, the most shock-inducing developments are reduced to questions of what could have been, and how Abrams would have handled the continuation of his story instead.
I’m not saying “The Force Awakens” was a groundbreaking story – but “Last Jedi” has a responsibility to provide payoff to its predecessor’s setups.
The film’s most memorable moments come by way of truly transcendent visuals – including one particular jaw-dropping sequence that is on par with the original Death Star’s demise. It’s the film’s one true moment of wonder.
“Last Jedi” fulfills its quota as the continuation of a franchise that can resonate with every generation. It doesn’t take the story to new corners of the galaxy so much as get in the cockpit and prepare to do so, but it’s hard to predict where the story will finish with Episode IV, and perhaps that is the best we can ask for.
This review was edited by Jyllian Roach.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher
Directed by Rian Johnson