If you didn’t already have the incentive to see “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the return of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, as well as Carrie Fisher’s final performance as Leia, are more than enough of an enticement. But beware. Your overall enjoyment depends on your level of fandom, along with a tolerance for plot contrivances, unanswered questions and thin character development. That’s not to say this eighth installment in George Lucas’ epic sci-fi saga doesn’t have its pleasures. It does. In fact, the last act overcomes a sluggish middle and is as thrilling as this franchise ever gets. But once those final credits roll, it’s hard not to feel let down. Why? Well I can’t really get into all that without spoiling the twists and surprises Lucasfilm is heavily guarding.
This is a “Star Wars” for a new generation, and for those of us old enough to have seen the original trilogy in theaters, it’s like one big Jedi mind trick. We’ve seen this story before. Sure, “stuff” happens over the film’s 157 minutes but our main characters remain pretty much in the same place. You’d swear time stands still. “The Force Awakens” got by on nostalgia. This one needs to offer more than cute droids and epic explosions.
As indicated in the signature opening scrawl, “The Last Jedi” picks up where “The Force Awakens” ended – with the evil First Order threatening the Resistance. Writer-director Rian Johnson (“Looper”) takes the keys to the “Galaxy” from J.J. Abrams and it’s a seamless transition. Johnson sticks to the Star Wars playbook, chronicling another chapter in the seemingly endless 40-year-old civil war between the Resistance and the First Order. Like always, the good guys are down, but not out. Gen. Leia Organa (Fisher, who died after filming wrapped) sends Rey (Daisy Ridley, superb) on a mission to coax Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) out of exile to help save the galaxy and restore confidence. It’s a recycled plot string straight out of 1977′s Episode IV. Think: “Save us, Obi-Wan. You’re our only hope.”
Meanwhile, the First Order threatens, per usual. And why have one villain when you can have a trio of dark-side baddies, each lusting after power? Reprising their parts are Adam Driver as the father-murdering Kylo Ren; Domhnall Gleeson as the exasperated General Hux and Andy Serkis, as the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke.
Johnson crosscuts the interesting story developing between Skywalker and Rey – he’s showing her the Jedi way — with the Dark Side doings and a secondary mission involving Finn (John Boyega) and new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tan, terrific), an ace mechanic for the Resistance who might just become your favorite character. Handsome flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Leia run things from the Resistance side of the table. Johnson flat out wastes franchise newcomers Benicio Del Toro and Laura Dern.
Johnson’s script is ambitious. There’s a lot of information and exposition to process. There are some revelations, an obvious twist involving Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo) but the one central to Johnson’s story — Rey’s lineage — is not revealed. But you don’t really love “Star Wars” for the narrative. That’s like saying you get Playboy for the articles. No, you go for the spectacle, to be visually stunned and whisked away on an adventure to a galaxy far far away to see exotic creatures (Porgs!) and witness magnificent lightsaber duels, to fly in hyperdrive with those white streaks swooshing on the screen, to blow stuff up and to hear John Williams glorious score. A five-time Oscar-winner, Williams’ compositions enliven the whole enterprise.
In the 2015 “Force Awakens,” Abrams set the stage for this next generation of “Star Wars,” and it is Johnson’s job to move the story forward. He needs to do more than infuse the script with spots of broad comedy and near-miss deaths. “Star Wars,” at least as most of us know it, is gone. Han Solo is dead, Skywalker is vastly different, and Fisher’s death last year raises questions about Leia’s storyline. Rey and Finn are supposed to carry the franchise into the future but it’s hard to imagine where the story goes next.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.