Sunday, December 31, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Number eight in the never-ending STAR WARS saga begun by George Lucas in 1977 (and the ninth feature overall) is neither the OMG-just-as-great-as-EMPIRE classic nor the disaster so many audiences have declared it to be. Written and directed by series newcomer Rian Johnson (BRICK, LOOPER), THE LAST JEDI is flabby at 152 minutes with a second act that could be excised in its entirety without disrupting anything and suffers, as did THE FORCE AWAKENS, from the dire miscasting of one of the Ramones as its primary heavy.

Mark Hamill, who is excellent — I dare say, this may be the performance of his career — is a sight for sore eyes as the hermitic Luke Skywalker, sulking away on a distant island on a distant planet, content to allow the Jedi religion to die out with his own eventual passing. Lighting a dim spark under him is the enthusiastic Rey (Daisy Ridley), who arrives along with pals Chewbacca (Joonas Suotano) and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) to convince Luke to help the struggling resistance fight back against the evil First Order, led by the enigmatic and thoroughly uninteresting CGI creation Snoke (Andy Serkis).

Meanwhile, defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and lowly maintenance worker Mary Sue (Kelly Marie Tran) launch a mission impossible in a space casino populated by white-collar scumbags to snatch a master thief, but fail due to their own incompetence (would you believe a parking violation?). Back on the big ship, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), intended in costuming and attitude as a ripoff of Han Solo, but lacking the intelligence and personality of Harrison Ford (RIP Han), commits several acts of mutiny against General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and her number two Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) as a smoke screen to stall for Finn’s return.

At Snoke’s side is the petulant Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the son of Solo and Leia and once a Jedi in training who jumped to the Dark Side after a slight breakdown in communication. Unlike the power of Darth Vader in earlier movies, it’s difficult to understand how Ren could command a universe or strike fear in anyone, especially our heroes. As a leader, he’s impetuous, indecisive, uncharismatic — the opposite of David Prowse and James Earl Jones’ Vader in every way — and Driver is, frankly, a drip as an actor.

Outside of Hamill and Ridley, none of the actors makes an impression. Benicio del Toro (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) brings by his standard tics to mumble through a baffling rogue character, and Dern is given so little to work with that her character’s last scene has none of the emotional weight Johnson clearly intended. Worst of all is the brittle, catatonic Fisher, who died almost a full year before release. When she reunites with Hamill, playing her long-lost brother, Fisher dispassionately plays the scene as if hollowing out a grapefruit.

Besides the scenes between Ridley and Hamill, which echo Yoda’s mentorship of Luke in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (still and always STAR WARS’ hallmark), THE LAST JEDI’s highlights are the space battles, which demonstrate a grace seldom seen in computer-generated creations. Granted, by the time of the fourth or fifth space battle, the viewer has grown a bit weary, but the film’s opening attack on a First Order dreadnought packs some bold thrills.

Dialogue, never among the STAR WARS series’ benefits, is weak, dotted with anachronistic slang and uncomfortable profanties that sound incongruous with the eight films that preceded Johnson’s. Craven attempts to sell toys, including “cute” orange penguins on Luke’s planet and a stampede of “horses” (this scene is the film’s worse in terms of effects, proving the computer guys still haven’t learned since Peter Jackson’s execrable attempt in his KING KONG remake), bog down the story. Picking apart the many “huh?” absurdities is a fool’s task in this case, so I’ll just mention the guy who licks the ground and says, “Salt.”

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