Is it bad that I may have outgrown the Star Wars universe? “The Last Jedi” hits all the notes. But I found myself frustrated that the tone was comedy and sometimes almost veered into parody.
In “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Rey (Daisy Ridley) joins Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on an island on some far off and hidden planet in hopes of being taught to be a Jedi. Of course, Luke is having none of it. His dark path has led him to reject the Force, although his present tiny, isolated residence sits at some kind of powerful cross-section, a nexus that perplexes him. For sure, this Skywalker is a divided and tortured soul but recognizes that his power imbues him with great responsibly. It’s the classic theme.
Meanwhile, the conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), fresh off killing his universally beloved father Han Solo, attempts to prove himself to Supreme Leader Snoke (a CGI Andy Serkis). Snoke is a hideous ruler who is thankfully a more concrete creation here and not some gigantic, malevolent, ghostly being as portrayed in the last film. Kylo Ren has reservations about his position in the First Order but over-compensates with manic, ultra-violence and boiling anger. Driver’s intensity demonstrates an extraordinary acting ability to transcend the sometimes leaden dialogue that constantly repeats and sums up each and every scene leaving nothing for the audience to internalize.
And while Luke and Rey spar and Kylo Ren sulks, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has her hands full escaping with the rebels from an overwhelming attack. A well-staged space battle erupts.
That’s the heavy stuff. Everything else is jokes and comedic references with a side of cheese. I found myself shaking my head more than laughing along.
Hamill, though, is excellent as Luke. He makes us care about his emotional conflict, the characters, and their collective epic struggle. And this is no small task. Buried under a mass of tangled hair, an unwieldy, unkempt beard, and covered in tattered robes, Hamill emotes like he’s never done before. There are lines in his face that tell the story of a character and a franchise that has long endured. Hamill’s marvelous voice still cracks with an uncertain waiver reminding us of the youthful Skywalker. And while he has some jokey moments, the script smartly never allows him to lapse into outright parody.
Luke and Leia stabilize the narrative. Naturally, Fisher’s tragic passing has made the performance even more poignant, but she made good, sincere choices in the role. And one key moment with a droid will put a lump in any hardened viewer’s throat. It’s all very necessary, because clearly the effect of the Marvel universe and Disney’s influence is at play in shaping the tone.
Ultimately, fans should love this latest episode, but they will have to resolve whether the comedic elements undercut or insult the storied mythology. To be fair, humor and tongue-in-cheek cheese were always an integral part of the franchise. The technology, the thematic structure, and even the planets and the universes themselves were never meant to be analyzed in great depth.
Allow me a bit of heresy: Star Wars is not serious science fiction. It is not on the same level as this year’s box office disappointment, but worthy critical darling, “Blade Runner 2049.” However, there was a time when I held in high regard the first two films that were released theatrically. “The Empire Strikes Back” still remains a high-water mark for story-telling and is easily one of the best films of the 1980s—a classic. But since “Return of the Jedi” upped the cheese factor, Lucas’ vision was never quite the same, as sadly demonstrated with his prequels. And while I loved “Jedi” at age 13, looking back, I recognize that comparing any of the episodes that followed to “Empire” is misplaced and probably unfair. “A New Hope” followed by “Empire” was a simply amazing cinematic feat that might be impossible to repeat.
So, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” falls short, because it isn’t as good as “Force Awakens” and fails to capture the magic of “Empire Strikes Back.” And regardless of the jokes and ad nauseam, explicit exposition, there was enough real emotion to make me care. Given the absolute ridiculousness of so much of what happens in this unapologetic space soap opera, making me feel anything at all is an undeniable measure of success.