What, if anything, do the new crop of “Star Wars” movies owe to the generations of fans that have been loyal to the series since it first appeared on screens 40 years ago?
With its emphasis on practical special effects over the cartoonishly digitized prequel trilogy, 2015’s “The Force Awakens” went to great lengths to re-establish itself in the age of “Harry Potter” and “The Avengers” by bringing back familiar characters (and using them to tell a familiar story) in an effort to cast the widest net possible. But just because it ended up being a massive hit that left audiences and critics pleased, didn’t mean the producers were intent on creating anything resembling a comfort zone.
Without giving too much away, “The Last Jedi” wastes no time in establishing a reckless and flippant attitude toward everything that came before it. In the past, director Rian Johnson (“Looper”) has proven to be adept with drama and sci-fi action, but here, he seems intent on harnessing the shock value of the final act of “The Empire Strikes Back” and spreading it out over an entire movie.
As the longest entry in the franchise to date, “Jedi” has its share of surprises and tense moments, but it’s still beholden to the storyline set up in “The Force Awakens,” and sometimes feels over-burdened by it. As a result, the shifts in tone and staggering amount of ground covered in “Jedi” provide an experience that will please crowds, but also leave them frustrated (and possibly disappointed) in some places.
We do get the things that the previous movie promised. That cliffhanger where Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes face to face with an over-the-hill Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, who is now older than Alec Guinness was when he played Obi-Wan in the first “Star Wars”) picks up right where “The Force Awakens” left off, and the connection between she and villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) becomes more complex and intriguing. We also get a lot more time with General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, who passed away late last year after filming was completed) and are introduced to a wealth of new female characters including Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Admira Holdo (Laura Dern), who do their best to balance out all the additional critters Disney saw fit to jam into every possible frame in order to maximize toy sales.
As gritty and bleak as last year’s “Rogue One” was, it managed to harness what I refer to as “Star Wars magic,” an operatic quality that takes the mythology of the series to heart and allows the stories to play out without a hint of self-awareness or appearing overly concerned with special effects. By comparison, “Jedi” struggles with trying to make all the characters introduced in “The Force Awakens” feel useful by laboring over minor plot points instead of having the confidence to set them aside for awhile, or even until the next movie. At 152 minutes, the Luke Skywalker thread is given a thrilling conclusion, but after the climactic battle scene in the chambers of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), it feels like the end of an additional movie that was chopped up so it would all fit into one. After all of that, I left the theater wondering what could possibly be left to constitute the plot of Episode IX, the new trilogy’s 2019 conclusion.
What’s certain is that “Star Wars” is going to continue long after George Lucas and the first generation of fans have gone on to become one with The Force, and the general direction and tone of each new film is likely going to vary from one to the next.
As much as parts of “Jedi” bored or confused me, most of it made me want to stand up and cheer, and I’m probably going to be excited for these movies for the rest of my life (even if I don’t end up liking them all). In the end, what’s important to remember is that these are still films, not a television series, and the vision of each director should be unique and gently guided. The staying power of the franchise doesn’t come from trying to pre-suppose what will best satisfy the fans, but what will continue to keep them guessing and enthusiastic for what surprises the next adventure has in store.