If there’s one thing that I can say in favor of George Lucas’ much-maligned Star Wars prequel trilogy, it’s that it lowered the bar for the rest of the franchise so precipitously that very little of what’s followed could ever be considered “bad” in context. I was not as enamored of The Force Awakens as most moviegoers seemed to be, so it’s not all that shocking that The Last Jedi left me feeling flat as well. What surprised me was not the fact that I have lukewarm feelings about the film, but the particular aspects of the picture that fell short in my estimation.
My specific objections to The Force Awakens were rooted largely in J.J. Abrams’ propensity to make story decisions from a position of convenience rather than narrative necessity, and while writer/director Rian Johnson has taken steps to amend this flaw, he’s still confronted with the unenviable task of tying together way too many plot threads. Even with over 2 1/2 hours of running time to play with, Johnson’s script feels overly drawn out in some places and unduly truncated in others — Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo has one of the most compelling character arcs in the film despite being given only a handful of scenes, while John Boyega’s Finn seems almost entirely extraneous in a compulsory B-plot that drags on far too long.
To be fair, my disappointment in The Last Jedi stems more from my lofty expectations than from any real structural or thematic flaws. This is still a competently produced, highly polished tentpole, with all of the watchability and entertainment value that designation implies. But it’s also an overstuffed epic weighed down by its world-building obligations — and that’s before we even get to the Porgs. Don’t get me started on the Porgs.
Any plot summary would be excessively spoiler-prone, but it’s safe to say that anyone familiar with the narrative mirror game that Abrams played with The Force Awakens and A New Hope will be adequately prepared for Johnson’s strategy — a sort of Campbellian mythic structure echo chamber that the director references explicitly through a notable visual metaphor during Rey’s crash course in the ways of the Force. While the film’s young leads — Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac — all perform admirably, they can’t hold a candle to Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. And therein lies the problem with The Last Jedi — it never steps out of the shadow of its predecessors when it comes to story and character.
There’s a lot to like here — there’s just too much of it. Johnson’s plotting is intricate without fully digressing into convolution, and his visual aesthetic is legitimately inspired at times. He seems to have countermanded the Disney dictum that the Star Wars films exist in an essentially bloodless universe by making entire planets seem to bleed, although his use of the color red as a visual leitmotif is heavily influenced by late-period Kurosawa films such as Ran and Kagemusha — and late-period Kurosawa is, to the best of my knowledge, nobody’s favorite Kurosawa. Still, despite occasional glimmers of brilliance — the film’s climactic space battle culminates in a show-stopping silent sequence — these moments are all but lost in a morass of narrative board clearing and CGI spectacle.
So, is The Last Jedi any good? Sure. Is it as good as The Empire Strikes Back, as some have suggested? Hell no. Hamill and Fisher deliver career-best performances, and the story resolves most of the dangling threads introduced by The Force Awakens, but that resolution is often too pat and definitive. Where Episode IX will go from here is anybody’s guess, but on the basis of The Last Jedi, my expectations are tempered. Maybe, like Hamill’s crazy hermit take on a jaded Luke Skywalker, I’m just getting too old for this shit. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville, Strand of Waynesville.