The “Star Wars” universe is forty years old now, so it’s no surprise that it’s really showing its age. Of course decline set in as early as 1983 with “Return of the Jedi,” and the “prequel” trilogy of 1999-2005 was a terrible letdown, but now that Disney has taken over the property and is busily turning it into an assembly-line cash cow, the spirit of the enterprise seems to have changed. George Lucas’ 1977 original was so appealing because it simultaneously evoked the naïve charm and excitement of the serials of the 1940s for those who had seen them, while introducing a new generation to those qualities in a shiny new package, and it did so with a sense of playful innocence.
That unaffected character has greatly diminished over the years, and is now almost completely gone. The new “Star Wars” movies are skillfully made, recycling elements that made the first two pictures in particular so winning and offering a cornucopia of action, battles and thrills (much of them CGI-based), along with an obligatory dose of juvenile humor. But the recipe has taken on a mechanical feel, and because of the sensory cascade it has grown increasingly exhausting rather than exhilarating. There is a point where giving audiences too much of what you think they crave has diminishing returns. The aim of the makers now appears to be the same as that of the heroic characters in the movie—survival.
That isn’t to say that fans of the franchise—and even casual viewers—won’t enjoy “The Last Jedi,” as this latest installment is subtitled. But even the most dedicated devotee probably won’t feel transported by it, as they were by that first trip to a galaxy far, far away four decades ago. One now reacts dutifully rather than enthusiastically; as with the movies of the so-called Marvel Universe, what you’re likely to appreciate is the familiarity of it all—you feel comfortably at home with what’s transpiring onscreen because, basically, you know what’s coming. But the freshness is gone.
It isn’t that writer-director Rian Johnson doesn’t toss a few curves into the plot of this sequel to the modified remake of “A New Hope” with which J.J. Abrams rebooted the series in 2015. Introducing new characters who essentially went through a slightly altered version of the story arc that Luke, Leia and Han completed the first time around, Abrams’ movie acted as a farewell to Solo, and this one is a similar send-off for Luke. Only Leia survives—at least corporeally—at the end, presumably to have her swan song in the upcoming third part of the “reboot (or “Skywalkers’ End”) trilogy,” though one imagines that Carrie Fisher’s death will require some serious rethinking to end matters properly now.
In any event, when the film begins, the Rebels led by Leia are on the run from the troops of the First Order, or the revived empire, headed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, in another virtuoso motion-capture turn), whose right hand men are General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, still a pale stand-in for Peter Cushing, goofy rather than stern) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, smoldering effectively), aka Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia who has turned to the dark side, killed his father and emulates Darth Vader down to the mask. In desperation Rey (Daisy Ridley), the young force-empowered heroine who pretty much stood in for Luke Skywalker in “Force Awakens,” is sent off to find the aged, reclusive actual Luke (Mark Hamill) to beg him to intervene. Her mission is complicated by Luke’s refusal to get involved (or, initially, to train her in Jedi ways) and by a sort of unexplained mind-meld with Kylo Ren that leads her to suspect he’s not so evil after all.
Meanwhile Poe (Oscar Isaac), the hotshot—and hot-headed—pilot who’s the Han surrogate, tries to keep the tattered Rebel fleet from destruction despite insistence on caution from Leia and Admiral Hodo (Laura Dern). And Finn (John Boyega), the erstwhile storm trooper who’s defected to the rebel side, joins with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a maintenance worker, to invade the First Order’s headquarters ship and disable the apparatus that allows it to track the rebels even into hyperspace. Their efforts face many setbacks, not least the danger posed by Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the leader of the storm troopers, and the intervention of an unscrupulous code-breaker (Benicio del Toro).
The scenario jumps frantically from one of these story threads to another, barely pausing for breath along the way. Together they afford multiple opportunities for extravagant action scenes—chases, starship battles, light-saber face-offs, death-defying feats of heroism, self-sacrifices and hairbreadth escapes. Old friends from previous installments pop up to complement Luke and Leia. A species of tiny birds with soulful eyes are introduced to approximate the effect of the Ewoks, and some tiny hooded figures that will remind you of a nicer brand of Jawas. There are unlikely alliances, misunderstandings and double-crosses. And you may be sure that the disillusioned Luke eventually rouses himself from his lethargy to confront his nephew Kylo Ren, and a ragtag band of rebels manages to survive to fight another day—or another movie.
All of this is done up with every bit of polish that the Disney balance-sheet can muster. The effects are top-drawer, and while no one among the younger performers is especially charismatic, they all do what is demanded of them well enough. Most interest, however, will probably concentrate on the oldsters. Fisher provides a maternal presence but not much more. Though absent for long stretches, it’s Hamill who dominates as a sort of Obi-wan redux, and it must be said that while he’s adequate, he lacks either the gravitas or the mischievous twinkle in the eye that Alec Guinness brought to the first film, though he tries for both. Rich Heinrich’s production design and Steve Yedin’s cinematography are aces, and John Williams continues the tradition of his rousing background scores. Editor Bob Ducsay moves the individual sequences along with dispatch; it isn’t his fault that at two-and-a-half hours the movie overstays its welcome. That’s the fault of Johnson’s decision to pile climax upon climax as if they were on sale at Screenplays-R-Us, apparently unwilling to jettison any of the ideas he’s had for propelling the story forward.
“The Last Jedi” is a perfect example of the so-called tent-pole fantasy movies that studios depend on nowadays—efficiently manufactured and enjoyable enough but overloaded with action and effects, and sorely lacking the magic that marked the first movies in the franchise. Of course they arose in a time and place that are now far, far away and, despite efforts of some to turn back the clock, unrecoverable.