I've said it before, and I'll say it again: "Star Wars" works best when it adheres to its John Carter, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon roots. When it deviates from that, it becomes something other than the original intent: case in point, the prequel trilogy.
"Force Awakens" pleased many fans by recapturing the old, George Lucas feel (though some critics claimed perhaps too much so, becoming more of a "New Hope" remake than a veritable sequel) and "Rogue One" (though a deep, somber vision) dared to capture (and basically succeeded) "The Empire Strikes Back" mystique. All signs looked promising, therefore, for producer J.J. Abrams and writer/director Rian Johnson's "Episode XIII: the Last Jedi" to continue the recharged spree, but hints that things might go awry surfaced some months ago in a couple enigmatic trailers.
Is "Last Jedi" a fumble or on-course success? To be quite frank, it's a bit of both and neither, becoming an odd, unorthodox chapter that in one sense embraces tradition and in another, spits straight in its eye.
I won't spoil the plot, though many have speculated correctly as to what some of its elements might be, but I will surely confirm that it concentrates on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). In this cozy, "family" affair (but don't hold your breath for a trustworthy reveal of Rey's lineage), we must come to terms with who's good, bad, and somewhere in-between, with various "surprises" installed in a somnolent attempt to give the memorialized "Empire" a run for its money. If the truth be known, this chapter is destined to break a few hearts, but when all else fails, we can at least count on the strength of its characters to snuff the discourse...right?
Alas, yes and no, and much of the blame goes to the new kids on the block. Rey is presented as far too perfect, too annoyingly preordained for us to empathize with her. Let's face it: Luke had a golly-gee, farm-boy, "I wanna make good against the odds" vibe that made him identifiable, but Rey is a blatant champion (and was pretty much so even in "Force Awakens"), leaving one little choice but to focus on the wayward Kylo, though he's not all that much better.
As "Force Awakens" villain, Kylo's temperamental and remorseful swings made him one of that installment's best features, but in "Last Jedi", his impetuous ambivalence has diminished. Ren, though still bad, has become downcast compared to his previous outing. Therefore, whether he champions the dark side or rejects it becomes of little dramatic concern or at best, confusing.
To make the film's character brevity even more agitating, Finn (John Boyega), who proved a respected underdog in "Force Awakens", is as monochrome as his young counterparts. (Man, it would have been swell to see him develop into something more than a something-already-close-to-better.) Though he does bumble some for tradition's sake, it's really his friend, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) who reinstates his air of levity. Alas, the duo's energetic escapades seem more disjointed than relevant to the plot.
Who then (if only for complexity's sake) rises to the occasion? Why, it's none other than good ol' Jedi Master Luke. He's not the guy we once knew, and yeah, he might possibly be the sorrowful last of his kind, but he's seasoned enough to make his moments shine, and contrary to his cameo in "Force Awakens", he's given ample opportunity to dominate the scenes in which he's featured.
Much of the credit for Luke's depth goes to Hamill, who layers his mature Skywalker with influential, Ben Obi Wan Kenobi contemplation, though with a threatening dash of fatherly Vader. Hamill has always been an underrated actor and for better or worse, forever linked to Luke, but in the case of "Last Jedi", his iconic presence sure does save the day...well, aesthetically, that is. (Again, I'm being respectful here not to give too much away.)
As expected, various established and more recent supporting characters revolve around our principles, like Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); C3PO (Anthony Daniels); R2D2 (Jimmy Vee); Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo); Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac); "DJ" (Benicio Del Toro); General Hux (Domhnall Glesson); Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern); Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie); Paige Tico (Ngo Thanh Van); and (maybe, just maybe) an adored, little, green guru from chapters past. In addition, we're given a heavy supporting appearance by Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa, but most of the character nostalgia takes a backseat to the exotic locales; crimson trimmings; and fervent, spaceship roars. (On that note, where the hell is Billy Dee Williams? I've no real gripe in seeing a cutie-pie Porg occupy the Millennium Falcon, but gee whiz, wouldn't it have been cool if Lando Calrissian had sat in Solo's seat?)
By the time the interminable credits roll, "Last Jedi" can only be taken as a lofty, ideological bridge between chapters, with the line between right and wrong, light and dark, Resistance and First Order blurred at best. It in no way reflects Edgar Rice Burrough's straight-and-narrow narratives, let alone Hollywood's classic, moral-based serials. In other words, it's not true-blue "Star Wars", but then (as the jaded would be quick to point out), what is anymore? (I'd argue that "Guardians of the Galaxy" comes damn close, but that's another topic for another time.)
Perhaps when viewed as part of the three-trilogy saga, "Last Jedi" won't seem so conspicuously cumbersome, but for now, it looks like Lucas' mid-trilogy, tried-and-true formula has been yet again trampled. Don't get me wrong: It ain't bad (not by a long shot), but it sure ain't what it used to be or could have been; and damn it all to hell, didn't Abrams and Disney promise to give us old-timers what we crave?