The crowd seemed unusually unsettled at the New York City media screening for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. All evening, people seemed to be wandering up the aisles. Maybe they drank too much soda. Maybe they weren’t mentally prepared for a 152-minute movie. Or maybe they were retreating to the lobby to give themselves a pep talk: It’s not as bad as the prequels. It’s not as bad as the prequels.
Redeemed in part by a solid final half-hour, The Last Jedi (henceforth TLJ) is not (quite) as bad as the prequels, but it’s like hearing 1980s hits as played by a mediocre cover band. So many elements in Episode VIII are recycled that it could have been called Rerun of the Jedi.
Picking up where the just-okay The Force Awakens left off, TLJ sets up parallel story lines. At the rebel base, the trigger-happy flyboy Poe (Oscar Isaac) is leading attacks on gigantic Dreadnought ships of the First Order (the Empire’s attempt at rebranding) in a long, meaningless battle sequence that opens the movie with an extravagant thud. General Leia (Carrie Fisher, in her final role) is forever trying to rein Poe in: “Get your head out of your cockpit,” she says. When he says things like, “Permission to jump into the X-wing and blow something up?” you get the feeling this whole struggle-for-survival thing isn’t really registering with him. For no discernible reason except that he is played by one of the stars of the movie, Poe keeps surviving unsurvivable calamities, costing countless comrades their lives without so much as an “Oops.” When he isn’t carelessly destroying rebel equipment, he prank-calls a First Order general (Domhnall Gleeson) whose flustered reaction is pathetic rather than scary.
Meanwhile, the Jedis’ rookie-of-the-year hopeful Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down the loner Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a distant planet where he prefers to let the Jedi die out. Like the Republican party in California, the Jedi were thriving as recently as 30 years ago, but now exist only as memories and legends. Luke blames himself for this state of affairs, what with his prize pupil and nephew, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), having gone over to the Dark Side. The two men have an ongoing he-started-it dispute about whose fault this is.
A huge chunk of the movie is devoted to Luke and Rey doing a lackluster, dinner-theater-in-New-Jersey reprise of Luke’s trip to Yoda’s Dagobah. Only this time, after a weakly motivated change of heart on Luke’s part, he plays the grumpy old sage. There’s a reprise of the Empire Strikes Back cave scene (this time rendered as a hall of mirrors) and a hint that Rey is in thrall to the Dark Side, a twist that is unoriginal and half-hearted, comes out of nowhere, and feels completely wrong for a character who radiates goodness. Later in the movie, there will be an even more blatant ripoff of a key scene from Return of the Jedi, albeit with much cooler costumes and VFX. Did you know a light saber could be turned into a light whip or a light spear? It doesn’t make any difference, but it allows the notoriously easy-to-kill Imperial (sorry, First Order!) soldiers to execute some nifty moves as they get mowed down like dandelions.
If your movie depends on Mark Hamill trying to be Walter Matthau, you’ve got trouble. Why is Luke, previously the most earnest guy in the galaxy, letting loose with acerbic wisecracks? When Rey hands Luke her precious light saber, he tosses it over his shoulder like an empty can of Dr. Pepper. He mocks it as a “laser sword,” while Rey, asked to explain the Force, calls it a “power . . . that makes things float.” The tone here is similar to that of the self-aware jocularity of the progressively less successful 2009–2016 Star Trek series, whose concept is apparently being ditched in favor of an R-rated reboot overseen by Quentin Tarantino. You can go with self-mockery if you want, but it amounts to burning your seed corn to warm your hands. Get a cheap laugh poking fun at the mythology and its power won’t be there when you need it.
If your movie depends on Mark Hamill trying to be Walter Matthau, you’ve got trouble.
Given sole credit as writer and director is Rian Johnson. It seems like a lot to put on the shoulders of a filmmaker with only three previous movies, none of them hits. Compared to Gareth Edwards’s somber-but-effective direction of Rogue One, Johnson’s tone is jarring, as are his choices to give characters never-before-seen powers — conducting transgalactic telepathic Skype calls, flying through space like Mary Poppins. These scenes, strange as they are, get topped in eyeball-scalding pointlessness when the rebel Finn (John Boyega) and a sidekick (Kelly Marie Tran) visit an Abu Dhabi–like pleasure planet of gambling dens and arms dealers and destroy its casino by rampaging through on a herd of giant animals that look like longhorn llamas.
In the process, Finn joins up with a mercenary (Benicio del Toro) who amounts to yet another bit of recycling: he is thrown in to create an outlet for jaded Han Solo–type dialogue. That he is able to defeat any software system in the universe by using metal lock-picking tools suggests Johnson’s level of interest in tech is comparable to that of Hillary Clinton when she wondered whether you could wipe a server with a cloth.
I haven’t even mentioned Laura Dern, who turns up as a lavender-haired admiral. There’s so much else going on in the film that Dern gets 13th billing in its credits. Her character doesn’t make much of an impression but does get to do something really cool involving light speed near the two-hour mark. Unfortunately it’s the first cool thing that happens in the movie, and though it leads to a reasonably rousing and twisty battle scene, I was numbed by all the idiocy that comes before and with it. Does Poe really get jailed for a parking violation? Does BB-8 really overcome an adversary with a fusillade of poker chips? Does an evil First Order warrior in a shiny metal uniform really get called “chrome dome”? Is there really a gag about how the ancient, sacred Jedi texts aren’t exactly “page-turners”? Are there really terriers made out of what appear to be the kind of icicles you hang on a Christmas tree, and are they really called “crystal critters”? Are we really meant to believe wars are won “not fighting what we hate but saving what we love”? Maybe Luke was right. Maybe the Jedi should have been allowed to just die out.