The perfunctory predictability of “The Force Awakens” is mostly-abandoned for Rian Johnson’s venture into that “galaxy, far far away.”
His sentimental sequel, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” starts with laughs and finishes with a somewhat heartfelt flourish. He’s too smart to show us another Death Star. Thank the Maker. He’s clever enough to know which old favorites the fans want to see and panders accordingly.
“Change” and “kill the past” are the bywords of this middle film in the new trilogy. It’s filled with surprises, and I’ll try not to spoil those. He gives us a lot to process in his over two and a half hours of “Star Wars,” some of it recycled, some of it less than wholly satisfying dramatically.
The summarizing quote is what Luke Skywalker says to young Rey, who wants to learn at the feet of the last Jedi master and thus save the Rebellion.
“This is not going to go the way you think.”
Luke (Mark Hamill) is still on his Fortress Isle of Solitude. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is leading a dying rebellion, with every Imperial ambush reducing its ranks. Her son with Han Solo, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) remains a Vader-in-training beholden to monstrous First Order leader Snoke (motion-captured Andy Serkis) and competing with sneering General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) in villainy.
Rey seeks Luke’s counsel. Poe (Oscar Isaac) and ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) are all about the combat, plunging into battle, leading a lot of rebels to their deaths, which enrages Leia.
“Get your head outta your cockpit!”
C3PO (Anthony Daniels) is still at General Leia Organa’s side. BB-8 tries to keep Poe flying, and digitally nags him as she/he? does.
“Happy bleeps,” Poe demands. “Happy bleeps.”
There are new spacecraft on both sides as feasts to the eyes, spectacular space battles, more populous light saber fights, a “connected” ongoing argument between the galaxy’s Yin and Yang, the Dark Lord (ish) Kylo and the green but good Rey (Daisy Ridley).
Its brisk open and anti-climactic climax underscore that Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”) is not a visionary director, but a competent one. He’s smart to let some disasters in space play out in silence, but struggles to make this unwieldy “middle installment” fly and flow. The contemporary dialogue mixed in with the arch, sci-fi serial speak Lucas channeled makes for jarring listening.
He put more effort into showing us the “new” — Dreadnoughts, not Death Stars, cuddly critters who aren’t Ewoks — and finding the laughs in putting our vernacular into a galaxy far far away.
“Hi, I’m holding for General Hux? Skinny guy? Kinda pasty?”
Where “A New Hope” had the Mos Eisely cantina scene, a saloon setting for a shoot-out, “Last Jedi” has Canto Bight, a high-end casino visited ostensibly to fetch a code-breaker (Benicio del Toro, a pointless detour with a pointless character), but really to deliver a lecture on the slavery it takes for the galaxy’s One Percent to live like moguls.
Enough already with the desert planets. Instead we get a version of The Ice Planet Hoth called Crait, a world covered by salt and featuring crystalline foxes. And of course, Luke is still laying low by the rocky seas of the Scottish-looking Ahch-To — fishing, brooding, keeping the faith (sort of) and resisting training Rey when she and Chewbacca show up for a visit. The puffin-penguin bird critters there (a stocking stuffer) are cute enough to make Chewy consider going vegan. That swamp cave where Luke met his destiny “Empire Strikes Back” destiny? It’s in a hollow tree, here.
It’s a more feminine film, with a lot of new female faces, on the bridge, in fighters and bombers, chief among them is the plucky plebe Rose, ineffectually played by Kelly Marie Tran. Yes, Laura Dern’s also in it, in purple hair and a leadership position.
Women fight and lead and weep and slap men and try to point out that standing and fighting kills people and is not always the best solution.
That feminizing fails to cure what has been the Achilles Heel of this franchise for the past 20 years, one rendered crystal clear with the superior prequel “Rogue One.” A corporate decision to stray from the formula of classic Westerns, martial arts and combats films has all-but-outlawed that any hero in our ranks dies a sudden death (giving the films a needed shock) or a noble “death with purpose.” That lowers the stakes in these movies, robs them of emotion.
Compare “Rogue One’s” layers of heroic sacrifice to “Force Awakens” or “The Last Jedi.” It’s like comparing classic “Star Trek” to “Star Trek: Voyager.”
Isaac handles the action well and the comic vernacular with flair, and Gleeson takes to General Hux with a certain malign, old school British character actor glee.
But as mean and sullen as Driver can play, the pouty, slouch-shouldered mop-top seems out of place here, unthreatening as a villain, just sensitive enough to be the Wrong Guy for Rey to attempt to…you’ll see.
The late Carrie Fisher has the look of someone who botoxed the expressiveness out of her face during her “I’m a writer, not an actress” years. The novelty’s worn off of Boyega’s “Ex-Storm Trooper Who Cries.”
Hamill’s Luke is expected to transform into a new Obi Wan in this series, the wizened elder statesman and soulful wizard. I think he’d be the first to say he’s no Alec Guiness, whose imprint over the original films was far larger than his small, serene, twinkling, performance.
And it does the hardcore fan’s heart no good at all to compare the pretty but impassive Ridley with the fierce, physical and emotional Felicity Jones of “Rogue One.”
Where’s the glint in the eyes, the bravado, the confidence that points towards a swashbuckling future?
There’s a lot to be said for making this universe less Anglo and more diverse, less butch even. But the whole storyline in the original “Star Wars” universe has become a Big Tent political party, compromised via a party platform that promises a little something for everybody. The films pander in the worst Harry Potter tradition.
That means nobody’s character is fully served by the script. Even at two and a half hours, there are jumps in logic/setting/action that don’t flow.
Given what I said about “The Force Awakens,” I really wanted to like this. It starts more promisingly, has its moments. Some innovations work, others make things worse.
Intentions and inspiration aside, “Last Jedi” doesn’t add up to an “Empire Strikes Back” for this trilogy. There’s no romance, little pathos and no real punch-in-the-gut moment. Its emotionally sterile tone was set with “The Force Awakens,” and that’s proven hard to shake, new innovations and plot twists aside.
“Last Jedi” is just another middling movie with a rabid fanbase, a Harry Potter-style placeholder picture for lump-in-the-throat moments to come. Or so we hope.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Domhnall Gleeson, Benicio del Toro
Credits: Written and directed by Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas. A Disney/Lucasfilm release.
Running time: 2:32