The middle chapter of any trilogy has an uphill battle to climb. By the very nature that it is a bridge between a larger tale's introduction and climax, it is destined to lack a finite beginning and ending. Without a clear vision and individual purpose, such intermediate films run the risk of feeling as if they are merely biding their time for the true payoff of a third and final installment. By a large measure, 1980's "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" has become emblematic of how to do things right, a thrilling, rapturous, finally haunting first sequel which improved upon its blockbuster predecessor by expanding its scope, finding a newfound maturity in its storytelling, and culminating in a revelatory third act which perfectly and irrevocably set up 1983's finale, "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi."
In tackling his own respective interlocked entry, writer-director Rian Johnson (2012's "Looper
") has been faced with these very challenges, along with another: not only does he have to live up to J.J. Abrams' outstanding trilogy-starter, 2015's "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
" (one of the highlights of the entire cinematic "Star Wars" saga), but he also must satisfy a rabid fanbase who still remember all too well what a game-changer "The Empire Strikes Back" was some thirty-seven years ago. Johnson is a talented filmmaker, expertly mounting grand action set-pieces while juggling a daunting number of moving parts. What he is unable to do is fully escape the perils of the dreaded middle film. "Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi" is a worthy continuation and may well work better in the context of what is yet to come in 2019's "Episode IX." Judged on its own, however, the picture struggles to find its way, at times playing things too safely and at other times seeming unsure of what to do with its characters and their personal trajectories. If "The Force Awakens
" held a resounding emotional impact by its end, "The Last Jedi" is more plodding and less surprising, most of the central players on both sides of the fight concluding the film in the same places they were one movie ago.
The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), has been exposed. As the malevolent First Order, lorded over by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), speeds toward the Rebel Base in a bid to destroy them once and for all, Jakku-scavenger-turned-Resistance-fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) has managed to track down Leia's brother, last known Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Living as an island hermit, his days as a Jedi long behind him, he initially has little interest in helping Rey, but cannot deny the Force is strong in her. Tortured by memories of the last apprentice he trainedLeia and Han's son, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), now Snoke's patricidal close servant in the First OrderLuke fears Rey will likewise be seduced by the Dark Side. He may have a reason to worry. Cosmically connected by the Force, Rey and Kylo have begun communicating with each other from across the stars, each attempting to lure the other to their corner of the fight.
"Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi" is a two-and-one-half-hour battle between good and bad, roughly three-quarters of it set in the deep reaches of the galaxy. With the lives of everyone in danger, there is little time for building the characters and relationships beyond what was divulged in "The Force Awakens." The most dynamic previous duo, Rey and Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance-fighter Finn (John Boyega), are separated for the bulk of the running time, with Rey stuck on a desolate island with Luke for at least half the running time and Finn paired with brave maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). John Boyega (2011's "Attack the Block
"), who made such a splash two years earlier, is mostly an afterthought here, outshined by winning newcomer Kelly Marie Tran in their respective scenes. Better used is Oscar Isaac's (2015's "Ex Machina
") daring fighter pilot Poe Dameron, taking matters into his own hands when it becomes clear Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern, slaying as per usual in a supporting turn) is inadvertently setting up the Resistance for a crushing defeat. Isaac continues to be a captivating new presence in the "Star Wars" series, his Poe doing whatever is necessary to survive another day. When Holdo tells Leia he's a troublemaker and she likes that about him, the viewer knows exactly what she means.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of "The Last Jedi" is the dangerous intertwined bond which reveals itself between Rey and Kylo Ren. Both possess the Force, but what they have opted to do with these powers has made them mirror images of the other. Rey, like Leia, believes there is still a light flickering behind his eyes, a goodness that may one day still win out in the war waging within him. Kylo, however, who has already taken the life of his father Han Solo, believes if he and Rey were on the same side they would prove unstoppable. A fight sequence involving Rey and Kylo, arriving a little past the midway point, is a show-stopper with an anticlimactic tag, setting up a courageous and provocative new dichotomy for Kylo that the film disappointingly recoils from almost immediately. This happens several times throughout, with writer-director Rian Johnson introducing fresh avenues for his characters and then yanking them back to follow the expected, unchanged path. Daisy Ridley (2017's "Murder on the Orient Express") and Adam Driver (2014's "This Is Where I Leave You
") are as strong as they were in "The Force Awakens" and share a palpable chemistry with each other as magnetic antagonists; one simply wishes their personal arcs weren't so rigid.
Watching the late, great Carrie Fisher (2009's "Sorority Row
") in her final performance as Princess-turned-General Leia is bittersweet, her every moment and line of dialogue punctuated with uncanny parallels, deeper meaning, and greater consequence. Fisher blesses Leia with all the authority, wisdom and warmth her role calls for. Alas, given the circumstances, an eleventh-hour reunion she shares with Mark Hamill's (2015's "Kingsman: The Secret Service
") Luke now plays like a poignant farewell. It's a beautiful moment made more so by a real-life tragedy beyond anyone's control.
"Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi" entertains as comfort food in filmic form, but this is an altogether slighter experience than the spectacular one "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
" provided. One goes to "Star Wars" hoping to be wholly and consistently immersed, but this time the jagged edges poke through. In addition to its reluctance to break new ground the way "The Empire Strikes Back" did, Johnson stumbles at times while attempting to capture a tone with humor, fun, and dramatic gravitas. The light-hearted moments are frequently forced, from a pratfall off a bed to a surreal phone gag that reminds of a joke which might have been seen in a "Scary Movie" sequel fifteen years ago. And then there are the Porgs, small sea birds that look just like Furbies. They may be cute but they are entirely inconsequential and unctuous, shoehorned in as a way to pander to younger audience members while providing grindingly unfunny comic relief. If the cliffhangers typically found at the end of the best middle chapters in a trilogy typically leave one drooling to find out what happens next, "Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi" opts not to end with much of a cliffhanger at all. Yes, there are still plot threads to work out and the fight between the Resistance and the First Order is yet to be solved, but all things considered it's not much different than where "The Force Awakens" endedonly with less pathos. This is a fine film in spite of its many issues, easily recommendable to fans, but somehow "fine" isn't satisfying enough in the shadow of the greatness which preceded it.