- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
At some point in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” — maybe it’s 15 minutes in, maybe 30, perhaps an hour — it hits you just how many masters this movie has to serve: the vision of writer/director Rian Johnson; long-term fans who have been with the franchise since Jimmy Carter was in office; the children of the aforementioned, long schooled in the ways of the Force; the 20-somethings who grew up with fonder feelings toward the prequels than their elders; new fans who are just getting into the franchise via “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One”; people who just like seeing blockbusters; and, last but most certainly not least, the famously-hands-on executives and producers and marketers at Disney.
’Twas ever thus for franchise blockbusters and studio tentpoles — but, man, that is still a lot of disparate factions with expectations, even for the year’s most-anticipated movie. No wonder this thing is a sprawling, occasionally thrilling, occasionally genuinely weird 152-minute movie.
And, to Johnson’s credit and blame, there is something for every faction of Star Wars fan in “The Last Jedi.” Older fans will enjoy seeing Mark Hamill’s bitter Luke Skywalker and will mourn the late Carrie Fisher as heavy-is-the-head-that-commands-the-Resistance Gen. Leia Organa. The very small will enjoy the puffin-like porgs, this episode’s official cute aliens. Celebrity watchers will scratch their heads at Laura Dern as a somewhat extraneous Resistance commander and Benicio del Toro (intentionally?) riffing on his character from “The Usual Suspects.”
Johnson had the task of writing and directing the middle chapter of this latest trilogy — and middles, as any storyteller can relate, can be notoriously difficult, a burden made double when your model is “The Empire Strikes Back,” maybe the most famous cinematic middle of all time. (We don’t count “The Godfather Part II” because, come on.)
And by model, I mean modeled upon. Much in the way “The Force Awakens” drew on visual cues from the 1977 “Star Wars” (desert planet with young hero on a landspeeder who goes on a quest, a massive weapon like the Death Star, a final space battle to destroy it), “The Last Jedi” lifts liberally from, and lightly tweaks, bits from “The Empire Strikes Back.” Not for nothing do massive walkers attack Rebels on a white planet — except this time the background is salt, not snow. (Hey, at least it looks cool.)
Like “Empire,” we find our main protagonists having largely separate adventures. Rey (Daisy Ridley), continuing her narrative journey in the young Luke role, has found Skywalker to be a coarse, solitary senior citizen — essentially a bitter version of Yoda. Hamill at one point said he disagreed with every choice Johnson made for the character (a remark he later said was “inartfully phrased”), and you can’t blame him. Self-exiled on an island world instead of Dagobah, Skywalker reacts to Rey’s request to be trained in the ways of the Force with almost cruel disdain. The Jedi have failed over and over, he reasons. There is no reason for them to continue. He is no longer a hero or even a fighter. He is totally absent from the conflict.
But Rey is not having it, and the two begin a master-student relationship that, well, seems awfully familiar, including its midway-through-the-movie conclusion. (Also, there is a visual gag involving colored milk that elicited two reactions: “Wow, that was really gross,” and, “Much funnier if it was blue.”)
Elsewhere in the galaxy, the Resistance is getting its rear handed to it. The New Republic is in tatters, and, like “Empire,” “Jedi” begins with a daring escape from Imper — uh, First Order forces, led by Leia and head pilot Poe Dameron.
Much of Poe’s through-line concerns the shepherding of this rag-tag fleet through a slow-speed chase plot contrivance that beggars belief, even for a story with laser swords. Oscar Issac as Poe once again does his best with a cipher of a character.
Who else … oh, Finn (seriously, this thing has a lot of moving parts). Finn (John Boyega) wakes up, meets a admiring fan down in maintenance named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and they head off on their own adventure, a detour that somehow combines the louche slickness of Cloud City and moralizing at its most Disney. Tran is a rock-solid addition, but here, and elsewhere, one is reminded of the deftness of editing on both (yes, both) previous trilogies. Intercut sequences that moved swiftly in earlier films feel clumsy. Where once the passing of time was cannily implied yet compact on screen in, say, “Empire,” in “Last Jedi,” well … you can fit a lot of movie into 152 minutes.
The Empero — um, Supreme Leader Snoke’s massive Star Destroyer (those things just keep getting bigger) is now part of the battle, and in another nod to “Empire,” we see more of the complicated relationship between Kylo Ren (a terrific Adam Driver), his mentor Snoke and the burdens of family.
Driver really is the straw that stirs the colored milk in “Last Jedi.” More than anyone else on screen, Driver seems to know exactly how to pitch his character. He is magnetic in his scenes, and his sequences sing with (space) operatic melodrama that, for all its showiness, is absolutely correct for the piece. Sure, his is the meatiest part by far, but Driver, more than anyone else and more than anything else in the picture, serves every possible master.
And even in the sprawl, Johnson sneaks in some wisdom: Meeting your heroes can be complicated; sometimes we read signs that aren’t there in the service of making our lives grand; and (in a gesture that seems necessary to ensure the long-term viability of this increasingly corporate-feeling franchise), now and then younglings should just burn it all down and do their best to make it new.