‘The Last Jedi’ finds ‘Star Wars’ searching for direction

Luke Skywalker returns in The Last Jedi.

Three stars

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega. Directed by Rian Johnson. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

When the Star Wars movies returned with The Force Awakens in 2015, it was exciting just to see the familiar characters and worlds back on the big screen, and director/co-writer J.J. Abrams delivered a story that recalled a lot of well-known elements from George Lucas’ 1977 sci-fi classic, presented in new and often delightful ways. The second installment in the sequel trilogy, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (officially Episode VIII in what Lucasfilm has designated “the Skywalker Saga”), offers less comforting familiarity, but writer-director Johnson doesn’t quite have a handle on how to take the franchise effectively into (relatively) uncharted territory.

After opening with an action-packed space battle in the classic Star Wars tradition, Jedi slows down considerably for the next hour or so (at 152 minutes, it’s the longest Star Wars movie ever), following separate threads for Awakens protagonists Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). Rey is on a remote planet trying to convince former Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to return to help the Resistance fight against the evil First Order, while Finn teams up with Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to sabotage the First Order’s main ship. Rey’s journey toward learning the ways of the Jedi is far more entertaining than Finn’s convoluted (and ultimately pointless) storyline, although Boyega and newcomer Tran have strong chemistry.

The scrappy, resourceful Rose is a welcome new addition, but other new characters prove less engaging, especially Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo and Benicio Del Toro’s unnamed codebreaker, both of whom are given big, emotional reveals that fail to make an impact. (And the less said about the awkward attempts at comic relief, the better.) Johnson has more success with character development for Rey and villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who forge an unexpected, uneasy connection over their shared bond with the Force, and for hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who has a lively dynamic with General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, making the most of her final role).

But the character moments and the explorations of moral ambiguity aren’t quite compelling enough to compensate for the slow pacing in the middle (one thing a Star Wars movie should never be is dull), and it takes too long to get to the most rousing action sequences. The movie’s best set piece comes more than two hours in, during a climactic battle on a mining planet covered in red salt, and it’s as thrilling and visually stunning as anything in the Star Wars canon. Johnson (Brick, Looper) comes from an indie-film background, but he does his best work in The Last Jedi when he stops trying for narrative complexity and just stages some cool outer-space action.

Tags: Star Wars, Film
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