Rian Johnson Remixes Star Wars To Frustrating Results In "The Last Jedi"

Warning: moderate “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” spoilers below.

In December 2015, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opened to rapturous critical and commercial success, kicking off the newly Disney-owned franchise’s post-George Lucas life with a bang. And yet, for some, its ruddy reception was met with serious skepticism. Moviegoers in search of a rebirth for the series following Lucas’ wobbly prequels found in J.J. Abrams’ film something between spec script and corporate swill; less a bold, new statement than an unconvincing tribute act. Such is the peril of a 150 billion dollar company commandeering a franchise that once belonged to one man.

Garbled 2016 one-off “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” unceremoniously taken away from talented “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards during post-production, announced Disney’s intentions for at least one Star Wars movie a year forever. Never mind seeing filmmakers’ visions through or creating value through scarcity. Now the much-hyped follow-up to “The Force Awakens” is here, a guaranteed billion dollar grosser before film even rolled. It doesn’t have to be any good. It isn’t.

Writer-director Rian Johnson (“Looper”) deserves a modicum of credit. His “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” looks more like Lucas’ original trilogy than Abrams’ film did (read: it looks less like a TV movie), delivering some inspired design choices to go along with its relative narrative audacity. But “The Last Jedi” doesn’t so much take risks as it backs into them, utterly stumped by the banalities of the new characters established in “The Force Awakens.” It is the focus-grouped version of a dark, edgy blockbuster, only as adventurous as shareholder memos allow.

Cruelest of all, Johnson repeatedly shows an inability to build to moments. His screenplay’s biggest beats come off as self-defeating and lifeless. Case in point: as soon as one of the pic’s lead characters thrillingly saves the day and is revealed to have survived, he dies. Just like that.

Johnson picks up right where Abram’s left off. Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on an island on an oceanic planet called Ahch-To, returning something lost. She hands a lightsaber to a hooded, bearded Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who immediately tosses it away. Luke has evolved into a regretful old man doubtful of his and the Force’s place in the galaxy – seemingly out of character but plausible nonetheless. It’s even understandable that Rey might have to spend an extended period of time on that same island, attempting to persuade the old Jedi Master to join her and the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), in their fight against the evil First Order.

Less understandable: how frequently Rey and Luke are made to cede the screen to a bevy of characters and occurrences that amount to time-sucking opening acts.

The brilliance of Lucas’ original trilogy was in his juxtaposition of Luke’s plainly simple hero’s journey with hordes of idiosyncratic characters and locales. The 1977 original remains at once startlingly simple and astonishingly weird. Johnson willfully muddies those waters, setting the whole universe off balance. The characters and their motives are more dense than the last time around – a good first step in subverting audience expectations – but many of them only serve to distract from the Skywalker saga. When Luke and Rey aren’t on screen, the movie dies on the vine.

Johnson attempts to remedy this in two ways. One, with a delightful mid-film cameo that’s admittedly little more than nostalgia button mashing. Two, by having the murderous Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo (Adam Driver) unwittingly communicate with Rey telepathically. Driver is one of the great actors under the age of thirty-five (see: the resplendent “Paterson”), but Ren’s talks with Rey amount to little more than telephone conversations; labored exchanges transparently laying groundwork for their inevitable meet-up. It should surprise no one that their ultimate rendezvous results in a thudding non-reveal concerning Rey’s parentage that defies scrutiny because Ren is a known liar and manipulator.

But the worst distraction “The Last Jedi” has to offer involves erstwhile Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and a Resistance maintenance worker named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a subplot every bit as visually and narratively inept as Lucas’ prequels were taken as.

Finn’s development from “The Force Awakens” is stopped dead as soon as he appears, while Rose is a blank, almost entirely defined by her sister, a fighter pilot who dies early in the film after no more than thirty seconds of screen time. While Rey is with Luke on Ahch-To and bubbly Resistance operative Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) engages in a power struggle with Leia’s mysterious Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), Finn and Rose abscond to a casino planet in pursuit of a woefully misused Benicio del Toro. The “Sicario” actor plays a human codebreaker named DJ who would mark the pic’s most useless character if not for the return of the villainous Snoke.

If the empty presence of the vague Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) was a hilarious footnote in “The Force Awakens,” here he’s a hilarious part of the text, his brassy disdain for Kylo Ren amounting to less than zero. The duo’s on-the-rocks relationship is meant to be a tweak on that of Darth Vader and Palpatine, but those were beautifully voiced, deeply intimidating flesh and blood characters. Snoke is a CGI void, Ren an underdeveloped brat, their affiliation proving good for nothing but a nifty lightsaber fight sequence that suggests Ren might actually be joining forces with Rey – only for Ren to immediately revert to whiny, preening form.

Another would-be climactic moment gone to waste.

Thank heaven for Mark Hamill. Even though Rian Johnson’s take on Luke Skywalker is frequently a shell of what we remember, Hamill commands the screen with ease, begging for an even bigger role in Episode IX – one that almost certainly won’t come. Johnson repeats Abrams’ biggest gaffe: sending off a classic character definitively instead of ambiguously, as if the galaxy isn’t big enough for our beloveds to go off and partake in other adventures.

If the filmmaker’s intentions for Luke and the arc of the franchise are purer than Abrams’ – there’s never a doubt that he aspires to uniqueness – his film is still hopelessly fractured, cordoning off the stars of the show, the Jedi, from the real action. For fans that waited thirty-five years to reunite with Luke Skywalker, “The Last Jedi” can’t help but sting with disappointment. Seeing the franchise’s flagship character receive such an ignominious send-off – amidst a 150-minute, 200 million dollar movie no less – is memorable in all the wrong ways.

There are fleeting licks of inspiration in Johnson’s movie, but they’re routinely boxed out by a feeling of filmmaking by committee – of characters and creatures designed to be marketable instead of meaningful. Together Johnson and J.J. Abrams have convincingly steeled the argument that The Walt Disney Company lacks both the verve and the vision to make the first great Star Wars movie in three decades, not to mention the absence of one key ingredient: George Lucas.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: December 15, 2017
Studio: Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenwriter: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Benicio del Toro, Anthony Daniels
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence)