Here is the tragedy of the ever-expanding Star Wars saga, first hinted at by J. J. Abrams’s third-trilogy-opening Force Awakens two years ago and now clarified definitively by Rian Johnson’s follow-up, The Last Jedi. In these new movies, Abrams and Lucasfilm and Disney have found exactly what the terrible, dreadful, I-still-can’t-believe-how-bad-they-were George Lucas prequels lacked above all: a compelling human portrait of a young Jedi slowly being claimed by the Dark Side, and a compelling, sexually charged relationship with a young woman who tries to draw him back to the light.
But instead of that human drama being embedded in the sweeping story of a civilizational calamity, the fall of an old and corrupted republic, it is embedded in a political-military narrative that at best is derivative and disappointing, and at worst is just infuriating garbage.
This means I don’t know exactly how to review The Last Jedi, because the contrast between its various elements is so extreme. Unlike Awakens, the new movie is not a pure homage or beat-for-beat re-creation; it aspires to be more of a remix than a remake of its original-trilogy counterpart, the dark and glorious Empire Strikes Back, and sometimes the remixing process produces interesting set pieces, calls up strong performances, and yields moments of genuine science-fiction beauty. But the rest of the time, basically all the time when the central young characters and a certain famous older one are not on screen, the movie goes in circles, insults our intelligence, copies the worst instincts of the prequels, and makes a mockery of the stakes and triumphs of the original movies.
The character who shows us what Hayden Christensen’s awful, whiny Anakin could have been is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), born Ben Solo son of Han and now the pupil of Supreme Leader Snoke (the inevitable Andy Serkis in motion-capture), the deformed Dark Side–wielding leader of the First Order, which is like the Empire but with . . . okay, fine, it’s just the Empire. The character who shows what Natalie Portman’s Padme could have been to Anakin, with a rewrite and some Jedi abilities of her own, is Daisy Ridley’s Rey, an up-from-nowhere Force prodigy who is searching for her parents; she bonded strangely with Kylo in the last movie and this time finds herself engaged in a Force-enabled long-distance dialogue-cum-courtship, in which she tries to pull him Lightward while feeling pulled to him in other ways.
She’s dancing with Ren while being trained, sort of, by Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, who lives on a Skellig-like outcropping (complete with fish-faced monks who tend its Jedi temple) on an ocean planet to which he retreated after botching Kylo’s training and enabling Snoke’s rise. Luke was the most earnest character in the original story, and Hamill the weakest actor of the bunch, so asking him to reinvent the character as a man transformed by age and pessimism seems like a gamble. But it actually pays off; the relational triangle formed by his interactions with Rey and Kylo are as strong as anything yet depicted in the galaxy long ago and far away.
But everything outside the triangle . . . oh, man. The B-plot features Snoke’s First Order fleet in pursuit of Leia (Carrie Fisher, R.I.P.), the hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and the ships of the Resistance, which is like the Rebellion except . . . okay, fine, it’s just the Rebellion. The C-plot sends Finn (John Boyega), the first movie’s ex-stormtrooper turned Resistance hero, and a plucky mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to a casino planet to find some sort of locksmith (it ends up being Benicio Del Toro) who can release the tracking device the First Order has placed on the Resistance ships.
Their mission is entirely pointless, it resembles the worst CGI-addled sequences in the prequels (culminating in a stampede by a herd of racing animals that are supposed to be gorgeous but look, well, not), and it advances Finn’s character development not at all, which is particularly unfortunate because he’s set up as Kylo Ren’s rival for Rey’s affections, and let’s just say the chemistry between Finn and Rey would have a tough time lighting a twig on fire on a dry day in the Black Hills.
Also, Del Toro is egregiously bad—though he does get off one good line, speaking dismissively of the Resistance–First Order battles: “They blow you up, you blow them up.” Which, on the evidence of the B-plot, seems exactly right: Without explaining why or how, the new movies have basically wiped away all the military victories of the original trilogy and returned us to exactly the same balance of power that existed when we first met Luke and Han and Leia.
The idea is to raise the stakes—can the Resistance survive?—but in truth it lowers them; if nothing that happens militarily in these movies matters from one to the next (including the destruction of a huge First Order Death Star . . . er, sorry, Starkiller at the end of The Force Awakens, which seems to have barely set back what was supposed to be an Imperial start-up, not a full-fledged empire), why should we care a whit about the latest imitation of the Battles of Hoth or Yavin or Endor that the Disney nostalgia factory conjures up?
The answer is that we shouldn’t. As Driver and Ridley prove, with their charisma and their spark, there is still interesting drama to be mined from the story of Force-wielders and their various temptations. But when it comes to the political story that’s supposed to explain why the psychodrama of Skywalkers and Solos matters to the whole galaxy, not just to their kith and kin, the new trilogy has completely lost the plot.