2015’s “The Force Awakens” breathed new life into the “Star Wars” saga. For years the franchise had slowly been undone by ill-received prequels, retouchings, and add-ons that made the once-great property look like a money-grubbing joke. “The Force Awakens” restored heart to the series, balance to the Force, if you will. Fans were excited about the new direction of the franchise and wondered where it would take them next. “Next” might not actually be the right word since last year we got the glorified space-filler “Rogue One,” but the direct follow-up to “The Force Awakens” has arrived in the form of “The Last Jedi.”
The film once again sees a mix of new characters and old. Strong-willed junk salvager Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains to be a Jedi warrior under last surviving member Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). High-ranking villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has to rebuild his reputation after coming out worse for wear in a lightsaber battle with the untrained Rey. The war between the evil First Order and heroic Resistance intensifies, as the First Order now has the ability to track Resistance ships through hyperspace. General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) is incapacitated in an attack and the seemingly incompetent Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) is put in charge. Hotshot pilot Poe leads an uprising on Holdo’s ship, while former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) teams up with a starry-eyed maintenance worker (Kelly Marie Tran) to lead a sabotage mission on an enemy ship.
Like the MCU and other cinematic “universes,” the world of “Star Wars” is getting a bit too crowded. I barely have time to mention droids C-3PO, R2-D2 and BB-8. Nor can I give much space to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) of the First Order or his underlings, the bumbling General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and masked commander Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). I can’t even think of a way to categorize Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), underworld figure Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), or untrustworthy hacker DJ (Benicio Del Toro), but I can’t ignore them either. Oh, and a former Jedi leader returns to advise Luke in the form of weirdly-constructed sentences.
As if all those characters weren’t enough, there are new creatures and aliens at every turn. I could enjoy them more if I wasn’t so sure they were just created to sell toys. I’m sorry, but there’s a gratuitousness to these characters that I can’t ignore. For example, the marketing department has heavily pushed a creature called the Porg, a sort of big-eyed space gerbil. It’s disgustingly cute, but I can’t think of a single thing it does to contribute to the story. Its only job is to sit around and look pretty, and other creatures are even more useless. They’ll just slink around in front of the camera for a few seconds so the toy-hawkers can say that they were technically in the movie. “The Force Awakens” perfected the marketable character with BB-8, who was as fun as it was important. As cuddly as it is, The Porg fails to recapture that magic.
The Porg’s inferiority to BB-8 is the perfect symbol for “The Last Jedi” and its place in the “Star Wars” universe. “The Force Awakens” simply served the franchise better. This film tries its hardest to catch up, but falls short. There are a handful of memorable moments, like Rey’s Jedi training, a Luke/Kylo confrontation, two lightsaber battles, and the death of at least one major character (not Leia though; I will say that if you’re looking for closure to the character due to Fisher’s death, you won’t find it here). I probably wouldn’t be so hard on the film if I didn’t have such high standards for “Star Wars,” but “The Last Jedi” will probably be the biggest film of the year, and with that in mind, I have to say I expected more.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Its running time is 152 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.