‘This is not going to go the way you think,” bellows Luke Skywalker. He’s not wrong.
Mark Hamill’s beloved character finally makes a substantial return to a galaxy far, far away in writer/director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, coming after his brief, silent cameo during the literal cliffhanger that ended J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That 2015 installment may have been billed as the Episode VII of the chronology-shuffling, space-faring epic, but beat-for-beat, Abrams’ first film of a new trilogy was an overly familiar, thinly veiled rehash of series creator George Lucas’ original Star Wars from 1977. Nevertheless, as a piece of nostalgia-driven pop art, it served as a hugely satisfying return to a universe that had laid dormant since 2005, when Lucas released the final movie of his much maligned prequel trilogy.
Thankfully, Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) managed to cook up a refreshingly diverse cast of younger characters to pick up the mantle from their revered (and sometimes reviled) elders. There’s Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who flees the Empire-like First Order when he develops a conscience; sand-dwelling scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), a “nobody” who discovers that the all-powerful (now more than ever) Force is strong within her; and fellow Force-wielder Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a black-clad, mask-wearing worshipper of Darth Vader who’s revealed to be the Sith Lord’s grandson, and the tortured, misguided offspring of Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s Princess (now General) Leia.
Despite Kylo Ren’s actions in The Force Awakens, Leia still refuses to believe that there’s no good left within her son—who’s been twisted under the gnarled thumbs of his disfigured master, the First Order’s mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Planet of the Apes veteran Andy Serkis, in another of his indelible, computer-rendered feats of performance capture)—which echoes Luke’s unwavering faith in the villainous Vader in Return of the Jedi.
How to reconcile that Luke Skywalker with the one Johnson has painted here, then? The sole writer and director of The Last Jedi, the acclaimed auteur (known for the high school-set noir Brick and time-travel thriller Looper) has given us a Luke at odds with the wholesome, blue milk-drinking hero we remember, the farm boy who dreamed of adventure—and found it. Instead, Johnson reimagines Luke as a bitter old hermit, hung up on failures that have driven him into exile at the oldest Jedi Temple on the watery planet Ahch-To, “the most unfindable place in the galaxy.”
Resuming exactly where The Force Awakens left off, Episode VIII finds Rey confronting Luke, offering him the lightsaber he lost (along with the hand that had clutched it) when he fatefully dueled his father in The Empire Strikes Back, the episode this film most resembles. The entire sequence continually subverts expectations as Luke’s reaction is shocking—and shockingly played for laughs.
This newfound embrace of broad humor would feel right at home in a Star Wars-themed episode of Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, but here the gags that extend throughout the picture’s needlessly long running time only dilute the drama, as does the crosscutting between at least three concurrent stories that keep most of the performers—new and old—separated once again. An extended diversion to a casino is one of numerous narrative threads that accomplish little during the 152-
minute running time.
All the while, a tiny armada of retreating Resistance rebels remains comically just out of reach of the First Order’s much larger, more heavily armed vessels, producing a slow-moving, filmlong chase that’s as drawn out as the televised pursuit of O.J. Simpson in a Ford Bronco—if it had been set to music by John Williams, whose memorable themes are inseparable from Star Wars. Sadly, the 85-year-old composer’s best work is behind him.
Here’s hoping the same won’t be said about Johnson. Obviously pleased with this film, Disney tapped the 44-year-old to spearhead a fourth Star Wars trilogy that will launch after Abrams helms Episode IX. Johnson is a superb stylist with a great eye (The Last Jedi’s elegant designs and compositions are among the series’ best), but his bold choices here, including a willful disregard for satisfying answers to questions posed in The Force Awakens, left this longtime fan feeling as conflicted as Kylo Ren. ◆
Starring Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro, Billie Lourd, Joonas Suotamo, Mark Lewis Jones, Hermione Corfield, Veronica Ngo, Justin Theroux and Carrie Fisher. Written by Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas. Directed by Johnson. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay and in the suburbs.