A really mixed bag, this one is (in my best Yoda voice). When it is good, it is really pretty good, but when it isn’t, well, it really isn’t. I wasn’t expecting that result given writer/director Rian Johnson’s (Looper) track record. He is a great and unique storyteller, able to make complex, character-filled plots sing. I don’t want to say he was my last hope, but it was certainly a big plus for me. What he delivered has an odd, uneven patchwork feel to it rather than the perfect constructions he usually delivers.
The sensibility oscillates between kid film and adult, with very little apology or transition. Silly, empty moments with animals and laughs are interludes or intercuts between, and even amidst, complex emotional story moments and revelations. Only once do those animals have a real part to play. The rest are just there for show.
Additionally, while some of the plotting is told in new and interesting ways, other plot branches are literally dead ends. Anathema in writing, and I’d expect better from Rian Johnson. These latter branches literally go nowhere and serve no purpose other than to give characters we know something to do in this sprawling second installment of the new epic. This was particularly true for the entire John Boyega (Attack the Block), Kelly Marie Tran, and Benicio Del Toro (Song to Song) sequence. It makes the movie as a whole a fairly empty and frustrating experience, despite the few very good moments.
There isn’t even a main character for this film. That, in and of itself, could work as an ensemble, but in this case it simply muddied the waters. It really isn’t Daisy Ridely’s (Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens) film this time. It seems to want to be more Oscar Isaac’s (X-Men: Apocalypse). But it isn’t his either, nor is it cleanly Adam Driver’s (Logan Lucky). If anyone, it is probably more Mark Hamill’s (Sushi Girl) tale than anyone’s, simple because he has a cleaner storyline to follow and much of the action revolves around him.
I’m beginning to believe that the real problem with Star Wars is that, like Peter Pan, it just doesn’t want to grow up. We’re getting very little that is new. So much is recycled, not just homage or reflection but actual transposed fights and dialog (or close enough). Plot points and characters repeat, which I know is partially the idea, but c’mon already, we’ve seen so much of this; surprise me already.
Part of the magic of the first trilogy (eps 4,5,6) was the cast. The return of Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher (Catastrophe) was certainly a gift. Hamill, in particular, gets to expand his character in this trilogy. But there is still no one in this new series that has the charisma and presence of that cast. It makes the jokes fall flat and the catharsis fizzle. There is no epic journey, simply a big, noisy story. I’m not saying they’re bad actors, they just don’t have that spark, that magic that makes them bigger than they are. Johnson’s take on the tale come closer to bringing this out than others have, but it still misses the mark.
I was actually primed for this installment of Star Wars specifically because of Johnson’s involvement. Sadly, the resulting film only feels about half his, with the other half being driven by a misplaced nostalgia and the studio quants who wanted to sell toys. Even the 3D felt bolted on and unnecessary. It adds a minimal amount to your experience, though it is probably the only way to see it on a really big screen, so the extra cost is up to you.
OK, reality: it is going to make a mint. You’re likely going to see it, either because you want to or because you have kids or friends that insist that you do. It is a visual ride, with some incredible locations selected. There are moments in there that are really, really good, and there is stuff to build on into the final installment. But, frankly, it isn’t a great film, just a reasonable (not even brilliant) entertainment. It has nods to previous Star Wars movies as well as inside winks to other shows like Battlestar Galactica and, of course, a weirdly emotional dance around Fisher herself.
So go and enjoy (as if I could stop you). But be honest with yourself about how good it is or isn’t. I don’t see this trilogy enduring like the originals because there are no new truths, no real threads to invest in, only a lot of great special effects.