Rebels on the run: The evil First Order tirelessly hunts good guys in the sprawling ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

May 4, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 3, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth entry in the projected nine-movie space opera sequence that George Lucas launched in 1977, is a messy but entertaining addition to the saga.

Writer-director Rian Johnson, who’s best known for the 2012 time-traveling drama Looper, splits his sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens into four interwoven threads. All are set into motion by the nefarious First Order’s pursuit of the Resistance — now in the process of being rebranded as the Rebellion, just like the insurgency from Lucas’s original trilogy. This premise (or at least the timing in play here) is rather confusing, because the narrative involving Rey (Daisy Ridley) and self-exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) picks up literally right where it ended in the preceding film’s coda, which happened shortly after the good guys won a major victory over wicked Snoke (motion-capture legend Andy Serkis), the First Order’s shriveled, misshapen Supreme Leader.

At any rate, as an embittered Skywalker — the missing man being hunted by both sides in Episode VII — adamantly refuses to train Rey in the ways of the magical Force or do anything else to aid the Rebellion, most of the other characters have hastily evacuated their compromised (once-hidden?) base and are fleeing at top speed. A powerful First Order fleet pursues, lurking just outside of cannon range until the inevitable moment the insurgents run out of fuel.

Bereft of outside assistance and perceiving their plight as hopeless, hotheaded pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and First Order defector Finn (John Boyega) devise a plan to disable the new technology that Snoke and his minions have used to track the good guys’ jumps through hyperspace. Finn and his new friend, technician Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) visit a lavish casino in hopes of finding and co-opting a codebreaker with the ability to infiltrate the First Order fleet’s hulking flagship, the Supremacy. Dameron stays behind with the remnants of the rebel convoy, attempting to persuade the tentative Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) to take decisive action in lieu of General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), who was put into a coma by a First Order attack.

Meanwhile, Snoke and his squabbling henchmen, the Force-wielding warrior-wizard Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and enthusiastic fascist General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), plot how best to eradicate the rebels. A still-reluctant Skywalker gradually changes his mind about tutoring Rey, but her forays into Jedi arcana also open an occasional psychic link between her and Ren. Can Rey persuade Ren to turn against the derisive Snoke and rejoin Luke, his uncle and former Jedi tutor, or will Ren corrupt her and doom the rebellion?

The Force Awakens suffered from being too reminiscent of the original Star Wars (retroactively retitled Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope). Consciously or not, The Last Jedi also bears a strong resemblance the Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, which is generally considered to be the apex of the series. Episode VIII, like V, opens with the evacuation of a rebel base, pairs its young Force-using protagonist with a crusty potential mentor and sends some of its characters to an outpost that appears to be untouched by the conflagration devouring the rest of the galaxy. Moreover, the group that visits the out-of-the-way location — Bespin’s strangely elegant Cloud City gas mining settlement in Empire, Cantonica’s decadent Canto Bight resort here — encounters a rogue who may not be entirely trustworthy.

There are a few differences, of course: The Last Jedi has an encounter in the main bad guy’s space-borne throne room that’s patterned after Luke’s confrontation with Darth Vader and the emperor in Return of the Jedi, the 1983 capper to the original trio. Also, Episode VIII ends with a planetside battle; however, when I thought about it, I realized that the movie had simply shunted the invasion from the beginning of V to the end of the narrative. (The rebels’ desperate retreat from a relentless, numerically superior force is somewhat reminiscent of the premise of Battlestar Galactica — ironically, I suppose, as that franchise derived more than a little inspiration from George Lucas’s original Star Wars.)

Johnson arguably puts his protagonists in greater jeopardy than the heroes have yet faced in the course of the nonology. Skywalker is content to see the Jedi die out, the First Order ruthlessly eliminates rebels over the course of the story, and no one in the galaxy seems inclined to rally to the beleaguered insurgents’ side.

But on the other hand, who are we kidding? There’s one more feature left in the main sequence, not to mention a potentially endless skein of spinoff movies and TV series and video games and comic books. Every time I started to get concerned about the fate of this or that character, I reminded myself that corporate overlord Disney is about as likely to kill off Star Wars’s youthful protagonists as Donald Trump is to dress himself in sackcloth and spend the rest of his life observing triple vows of chastity, poverty and silence.

Look: The Last Jedi is a well-crafted, entertaining space opera with some dynamic, visually appealing battles. The biggest problem here is not that the action is overshadowed by the prospect of Episode IX et al, or that the running time comes in at a whopping two and a half hours, or that the humorous notes here never seem to be quite as funny as Johnson evidently thought they were, or that Johnson introduces some wrinkles and limitations that are entirely new to the starwarsverse. (Somehow, the rebel fleet begins the story only carrying enough fuel for two hyperspace jumps, which previously seemed to be unlimited.)

Rather, I think the main reason I wasn’t thrilled to pieces by The Last Jedi is that my interest in Star Wars has gradually waned over the years. I think (I know!) that I would have enjoyed this a lot more if I’d watched it back in the ’80s or ’90s, or even a decade ago. I’m still interested in seeing future additions to the Star Wars canon — the Han Solo origin story is out later this month! — but it’s just not as big a priority for me as it used to be.

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