December 14, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Alas, poor Kylo! I knew him ...

Grade: B –
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 32 min.

The deepest emotional resonance in Star Wars: The Last Jedi occurs during companion scenes in which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) engages with Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). The first features the playback of an iconic hologram once sent by a young princess and freedom fighter, the second being a face-to-face farewell between aging siblings, warriors, and cultural touchstones. If anyone was expecting a truncated appearance by Leia in The Last Jedi following Fisher’s untimely death nearly a year ago, think again. She figures prominently throughout, but no longer as the damsel in distress from A New Hope or the love interest in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. She’s now a rightly revered leader who, after all, was already spearheading rebellion when Luke was still a farm boy and Han Solo a two-bit smuggler.

Leia’s earned stature aligns with a new gender dynamic being formed in this latest Stars Wars sequel trilogy. Women comprise the emerging vanguard—the spotlight shines brightest on Leia and Rey (Daisy Ridley), the new trilogy’s lead hero—while men equivocate, undercut, oppose, and even abuse. When Leia’s vice admiral (Laura Dern) temporarily assumes command of the rebel fleet, she’s immediately doubted and then targeted for mutiny by flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). When Rey visits Luke’s island hideaway seeking the training and services of the aging Jedi to battle the First Order, a haggard Luke plays Hamlet, dithering and fretting over fears and old regrets. An virescent old master visits Luke and accurately casts the legacy of the (notably patriarchal) Jedi Order as one of failure. Rey is later taken before Supreme Commander Snoke, leader of the First Order and master of Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), where Snoke growls “give me everything” before prostrating and mentally raping her.

It’s a pity that this more woke Star Wars is saddled by a slipshod storyline and scant sense of discovery that’s previously propelled the saga. While the nostalgia is strong in this one, no enduring characters are introduced and precious little is learned about the existing ones—don’t expect much eye-opening info on Snoke’s identity, Rey’s parentage, or anything else you didn’t already know. Of the tri-headed plotline that fills the film’s opening half, one part is the equivalent of a low-speed car chase. Meanwhile, defrocked Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and a new puckish partner (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on a related mission that ultimately matters not a whit. They detour to a planet with an opulent casino frequented by upscale arms dealers—the latest update of the Mos Eisley cantina—who’ve made a killing selling to both sides of the galactic war and off the toil of enslaved children. But writer-director Rian Johnson doesn’t spend much time on this populist and anti-colonialism subplot, instead racing away in the blur of a CGI stampede.

Remember how Luke’s Jedi training on a distant locale and his later attempts to turn an evil contemporary away from the dark side of the Force were spread over two movies? Well, Johnson crams the same story arc for Rey into ninety minutes, including a reprise of the Dagobah evil cave sequence that reveals nothing besides Johnson’s affinity for the hall of mirrors scene in The Lady from Shanghai. A burgeoning connection between Rey and Ben carries the promise of gleaning gradations in the Force atwixt its light versus dark extremes. But that, too, evaporates once the characters, and with them the narrative, retreat to their familiar camps in time for a climactic confrontation featuring yet another assault on another rebel compound.

The Last Jedi subsists on its iconography, including ragtag rebels who intone about igniting “the spark that will light the fire” of rebellion, a variant of the same mantra we’ve heard in every previous Star Wars film. The Last Jedi flirts with hope and change, but it’s mostly sound, fury, and force signifying little.