For a franchise that seemed like it was on the ropes after the prequel films, Star Wars has new life thanks to Disney, J. J. Abrams, and Kathleen Kennedy. The Force Awakens was a fun romp through some familiar territory with some familiar characters that it had nostalgia written all over it. While I generally enjoyed the film, I was reminded by more than one person that it seemed like another version of A New Hope. It’s not too much of a stretch to see characters like Rey, Po, and Finn as new iterations of Luke, Han, and Leia. Nor was the big threat to the Republic anything groundbreaking (a Starkiller instead of a Death Star). Blow up the Starkiller, morn all those who died, go home triumphant in winning the battle, and cue to end title music. That’s pretty much what Abrams gave us. With The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson is deliberately trying to “break with the past.” That, on the face of it, is a very good thing. Because really, how many times do we need to see the archetypes of the Empire and the Rebels fight each other in epic battles between the light side and the dark side of The Force. However, while The Last Jedi was a good movie, its ambitions to “break with the past” got bogged down in a lot of bloat and corny jokes. The running time of the film is 152 minutes. A New Hope was 121 minutes and was tight, well executed, and full of interesting characters and a thrilling plot. And while it’s difficult for lightning to strike twice, Lucas and company were able to do just that on The Empire Strikes Back — in many ways the best of the Star Wars saga. The Last Jedi occupies the same place of being a middle film in a trilogy, so it has the task of setting up the finale and connecting the threads from The Force Awakens. And while the film does do that, the story gets muddled by trying to do too much — even within a very long running time.
Without giving away, well, anything about the film’s plot, let me just note that Mark Hamill’s performance as an aging Luke Skywalker was quite good. He’s been living with this character since the mid-1970s and he brings to the screen some of the conflicts he expressed in the original trilogy, but also a sense of gravitas and bitterness in his role as the last of the Jedi Knights. Carrie Fisher, in her last role as Leia, turned in a very good performance as well. While she can’t be the wise-cracking spark plug of the first films, she does give us flashes of her younger self, while trying to be a leader who has to command respect.
Ascending and descending character arcs are what drives The Last Jedi. Clearly, on the up and up are Rey, Finn, Po, and Kylo — whose story will be the front and center of the next film. Descending are the Luke, Leia, and Han era — and much of what came with it. And while many iconic elements from the original trilogy both metaphorically and literally come to an end, it’s not entirely clear what comes after it — or even if it’s compelling enough to end the trilogy. That’s because the ending (again, without giving away anything) left me with a kind of “Wait. What?” moment. It’s not that the conclusion wasn’t clear, but it seemed kind of weak compared to all the battles that preceded it.
So, is The Last Jedi worth the price of the ticket? Yes, but if you slightly lower your expectations, you may come away more satisfied than I did.