So much happens in “The Last Jedi” that it becomes difficult to remember exactly what the main conflict should be. The latest entry in the “Star Wars” franchise since the intellectual property was acquired by Disney back in 2012, “The Last Jedi” is the series’s third film released in as many years, and the second of the “sequel trilogy” christened by J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens” in 2015. This time, director and writer Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper,” a couple “Breaking Bad” episodes) gives his interpretation of where the franchise could expand. Whereas “The Force Awakens” was a constantly moving, action-packed journey through the galaxy, “The Last Jedi” attempts to tell a more meditative and deliberate story, along with decent helpings of lasers and explosions. Unfortunately, Johnson can’t seem to decide which of the four plot lines he’s more interested in, resulting in an intercut, bloated, two-and-a-half-hour exercise in keeping up with disparate narratives.
Supposedly, the focal point of the episode is Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) visit to the bearded Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, seemingly happy to play the role again) who’s hiding in exile ever since that Jedi Academy thing didn’t quite work out how he planned. On the lush island on the isolated planet of Ahch-To (Bless you!), Rey asks Luke to become her mentor and train her in the Jedi ways, a welcome convention of the series. We see Luke milking a gross alien and Chewbacca playing with some annoying Porgs, which look like a mad scientist’s attempt at combining a hamster with a penguin — or a brilliant marketing executive’s way of making sure the franchise will rake in millions in movie tie-in toys and merchandise sales this holiday season. By the time they get to the actual training in the ways of the Force, the movie has already spent far more time with the Resistance fighters, who are fleeing the clutches of the First Order. Though there’s a nice parallel between Luke training Rey and Yoda training Luke in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke’s training is mostly uninteresting, consisting of meditation on the nature of the Force and swinging a lightsaber around.
Plot line number two follows Poe (Oscar Isaac) as his “space cowboy” attitude gets him in trouble with superior officers Princess/General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Meanwhile, the main cruiser for the Resistance is being pursued by the First Order, which is like the Empire from the original films, but more violent and with more red furniture on their ships. Poe wants the Resistance to stand its ground and fight, but the rebels are quite obviously outnumbered. Ultimately, this story goes nowhere, as Poe learns that maybe his headstrong attitude isn’t the smartest — but neither is Holdo’s idea to keep a perfectly reasonable escape plan secret from the entire crew, causing them to question her actions and leadership. Holdo is a bizarre addition to the franchise, paper-thin as characters come and dressed in a rumpled turtleneck dress, purple hair and a halo, a costume that’s weird even for a “Star Wars” character. For the poster boy of the Resistance in “The Force Awakens,” Poe’s childish disdain for authority and inability to recognize that the Resistance is on their last limb feels out of character.
Plot line the third: Finn (John Boyega), a defecting First Order soldier now fighting alongside the Resistance, embarks on a secret mission with newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to the spiffy city of Canto Bight. The spot is nothing more than a heavy-handed metaphor for the greed of business (Ironically, nobody at Disney seemed to take issue with it): In one scene, well-dressed aliens gamble and drink space champagne, and in the next scene an ugly alien whips a racehorse-like alien and threatens to beat his human orphan slaves. Eventually, Finn and Rose steal a ship to escape the planet, absolving themselves of guilt when they find out the ship belonged to a weapons dealer, a concept so far-fetched for a series named “Star Wars” that the only way it could have been more poorly implemented would be if Johnson decided to pursue it at all. Instead, probably for the best, the military-industrial complex thread never reappears, one of the many reasons why the excursion to this planet is ultimately pointless. Rose isn’t terribly unlikeable, but the way her character is written — she talks like an ultra-moralistic fangirl of the Resistance — results in most of the movie’s biggest eye rolls. Finn, like Poe, also acts surprisingly out of character, getting distracted by Canto Bight’s glamour when the mission was his idea in the first place. Did I watch the same “The Force Awakens” as Johnson?
Plot line four: At the behest of the inexplicably weird CGI monster Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) gets shirtless and gives our protagonist Rey a phone call, imploring her to join the Dark Side. Does anyone think she will? Kylo Ren’s conflicted persona could’ve been the most interesting part of “The Last Jedi,” if his character actually showed any development. The power-hungry and short-tempered villain is a promising potential anti-hero, debating the idea of betraying the First Order, but by the end of the movie, he’s only power-hungrier and shorter-tempered.
I wanted to write about the movie’s “twist” here, but the script is so littered with what you might call “twists” that it would be confusing to pick one without specifying. Johnson seems to believe that the more surprising moments a movie has, the more interesting the plot will be. This isn’t true in the slightest, and by the time the movie gets to its fifth “Gotcha!” moment, the subversion of expectations just gets exhausting. Though a few moments are genuinely suspenseful, the rest either purposefully snuff out any momentary tension, violate the established rules of the movie without explanation or defy character motivations egregiously. Main characters are protected by such a thick layer of plot armor that they escape nearly any dangerous moment unscathed. The following happens a couple of times in the movie: Suffering an attack that killed everyone else around him or her, a main character gets up and walks around relatively fine mere moments later. By the third act, it’s understood that every main character will make it to Episode IX intact. Ironically, “The Last Jedi” is perhaps the most violent movie of the franchise. Entire fleets of Resistance fighters get blown to pieces, and at one point Leia reprimands Poe for leading a costly attack against a First Order ship, telling him that the loss of fighters wasn’t worth the small victory. Maybe the threat of getting blown up would seem more tangible if it could actually happen to a character the audience cares about.
When “Star Wars” came out in 1977, it was unlike anything audiences had seen before. It felt epic yet simplistic, with lovable characters, exciting action, memorable worldbuilding and great dialogue. Maybe it’s because “The Last Jedi” plays within the cultural landscape created by the iconic original “Star Wars” films that flaws might be more glaring. Bolstered by spectacular cinematography, awesome battle sequence, and an unremarkable, crowd-pleasing story, the newest film in the franchise feels more like an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than anything else. Familiar, marketable characters — who will survive all peril until the next yearly installment — come together for cool space battles that’ll earn over a billion dollars for a company that has First Order-like worldwide domination goals of its own.