Say what you will about J.J. Abrams’ vision of the “Star Wars” universe, it was nothing if not lovingly nostalgic. Even if that nostalgia meant the story was somewhat recycled, this was done with care, making it an apt celebration of the past as well as a look to the future of a galaxy far far away. Director Rian Johnson can’t be accused of handling the franchise with such concern. “The Last Jedi” features 70 minutes of good-to-excellent material buried under 80 minutes of mediocre-to-execrable junk. Johnson doesn’t seem to be a fan of the material; he treats it with the care of a toddler wielding a toy hammer. One feels the earned joy of the franchise crumple under the pull of a director who doesn’t know what to do with it.
The overstuffed plot sees a resurgent First Order, led by hideous CGI alien Snoke (Andy Serkis) and apprentice Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver), in pursuit of a faltering Resistance led by Princess/General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher). Elsewhere, fledgling Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) implores with exiled hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to teach her the ways of the Force. Juggled into the narrative is a near-meaningless side adventure featuring turncoat stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and Rebel mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who venture to a casino-resort planet in search of a valuable MacGuffin.
Johnson crams the story with superfluous characters who sole purpose is to sell toys in such a brazen way that the Ewoks look austere by comparison. Newcomers such as the purple-haired Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and criminal hacker DJ (Benecio del Toro) are vestigial to the greater narrative. Johnson places fresh faces where existing characters or none at all would do. He lacks the canny commercialism of pre-1984 George Lucas, who was able to expand his universe in ways that boosted the films’ quality and his wallet.
Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is now a wizened old hermit, having undergone a shift from earnest hero to sour, reluctant mentor. Hamill has made no secret of his disdain for the film. He has bitterly complained about its treatment of his iconic character. But Luke’s arc it’s one of Johnson’s lesser sins. Despite his objections, Hamill renders his hero with a sympathetic weariness, true to what one might feel after a lifetime of failing to overcome intergalactic evil.
“The Last Jedi” does dazzle the senses. The design work ensures that every frame bursts with incredible detail, from exotic creatures to technological wonders that possess the visual sensibilities of the original films. Of particular note are the sound effects; the pangy sounds of laser fire and space engines, the warm hum of an ignited Lightsaber. True fans of the saga will still be able to luxuriate in the incredible production, even as the plot falters.
But Johnson insists on committing franchise malpractice, as if he considers “Star Wars” beneath contempt. He trots out snarky meta-jokes, contradictions of established series norms, and even denies fans the concluding duel that the plot promises for 150 straight minutes.
Johnson’s last feature was the brilliant mid-budget sci-fi film “Looper.” Given his past genius, it comes as a bit of a surprise that he struggles with the scope and responsibility of cinema’s most beloved franchise. Most noticeably, he demonstrates a bafflingly poor grasp of editing and chronology here, intercutting between temporally-mismatched moments as if the characters were allowed to hit the pause button unannounced with each edit. These cutaways get more than annoying, as they especially disrupt Ridley and Driver’s dynamic, which sits at the heart of the story.
Editing malfeasance aside, Johnson thankfully does manage to cultivate the core of Rey and Ren’s relationship right, with the yin and yang of a supernatural bond. Their doubts about their respective destinies push them toward an unholy alliance. This leads to the film’s key twist, and even allows for a scene that tweaks the philosophy of the “Star Wars” universe in an interesting way. But this gem of a thread loses momentum as Johnson cuts between the weaker storylines.
This installment’s backers argue that, unlike “The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi” takes the series into new territory. It does, but then again, so did George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. If this is progress, forgive me and millions of other fans for our collective nostalgia.