By Jim Slotek
How else to explain why George Lucas’s ill-fated attempt to “evolve” his franchise with a second trilogy is remembered so sourly?
Meanwhile, Rian Johnson has created an action-packed, faithful tribute to the original films, full of call-backs and in-jokes for fans well-versed in the lore of Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han Solo and Darth Vader (example: a throwaway line about Leia’s old “cinnamon bun” hairdo got a big laugh from the nerdier critics at my screening).
Granted, such fans number in the scores of millions. So, it isn’t a box office liability that Star Wars long ago ceased to be something a non-fan could watch cold and catch up with. (And if there is such a person in the audience, they will be enchanted by a range of big-eyed social-media-cute aliens that practically scream “I can haz cheeseburger?”)
In a way, Johnson (Looper) is like a skilled musician covering classic rock songs for a modern audience, throwing in flourishes, tweaking expectations on familiar riffs, but generally sticking to the melody. Underneath it all, the first film in this iteration, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015) really was just a retooled retelling of 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. Right down to the trek-with-cute-droid through a desert planet, a young orphan who doesn’t know she’s really a Jedi, and the introduction of a Sith Lord with family ties.
Those two, the young Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Darth Vader’s Dark-Lord-wannabe grandson Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are obvious opposite poles in this story – the plot of which I will keep as general as possible. Suffice to say that The Last Jedi is pointedly very much like The Empire Strikes Back in terms of where it fits in this storyline. (Could this be the end of the Resistance? Sure looks that way).
I The “last Jedi” in question is presumptively Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), former defender of the galaxy far, far away, now a hermit on a remote planet – just like Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi in A New Hope and Yoda in Empire Strikes Back before him. If you recall, those two both reluctantly agreed to teach young Luke in the ways of the Force. So, when Rey gets there…
Make no mistake, the narrative is going forward, however much it resembles the old one, with a plethora of great space battles that resemble dogfights in old war films. Along the way, Johnson throws familiarity at us (Oh, that reminds me of Mos Eisley! That’s so Lando Calrissian!), sometimes playing it as expected and other times pulling the rug on our expectations.
The cast of characters is slightly expanded from The Force Awakens. Hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is back, disobeying orders from Princess/Admiral Leia (Carrie Fisher, whose off-screen death fuels plenty of rumours about her fate in this movie, which I obviously won't spoil). John Boyega returns as the former Imperial Storm Trooper Finn, with a new, hero-worshipping sidekick named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).
And the most motion-captured man in movie history, Andy Serkis is the apex villain, Supreme Leader Snoke (four out of five dermatologists agree, the job of emperor is bad for your skin).
There’s a trick to taking something old and making it bigger, louder, more impressive, and yet still somehow familiar enough to sate our desire for the same. And with Last Jedi, Johnson pulls it off assuredly enough to please nearly everybody.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Daisy Ridley, John Bodega, Carrie Fisher. Opens wide Friday, December 15.