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Front Page - Friday, December 22, 2017

Critic's Corner: ‘Last Jedi’ storyline gets lost in galaxy far, far away

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is an earnestly made film that has its heart – but not its head – in the right place.

Disney gave writer and director Rian Johnson the keys to the Magic Kingdom as he set out to make the eighth chapter in the “Star Wars” saga, allowing him to take the story and its character in any direction he desired.

Johnson has said in interviews that his goal – first and foremost – was to make a great “Star Wars” movie. He at least made a “Star Wars” movie.

Johnson is a talented director, as most of the people who have seen the sci-fi thriller “Looper” will attest. His eye for captivating imagery, fluid camerawork and tight editing is on full display in “The Last Jedi.” The action is dynamic and exciting – even when it doesn’t make sense – and Johnson crafted several original scenarios for space battles, which was good to see after “The Force Awakens” rubberstamped the Death Star attack from “A New Hope” for its climax.

Johnson’s grasp on character development is looser. He does fine work with Rey, who begins “The Last Jedi” where she ended “The Force Awakens,” on a remote planet trying to convince Luke Skywalker to return to the fray and help take down the evil First Order.

Rey also is on a journey of self discovery and believes Skywalker can provide guidance. “I need someone to help me figure out my place in all this,” she says to him.

Rey has the only real character arc in the movie, and it’s beautifully done. It’s also the most satisfying part of the film, in part because Daisy Ridley poured herself into the role.

Less gratifying is what Johnson did with Skywalker, who’s become a grumpy hermit who initially refuses to even talk with Rey. Luke has his reasons for being reclusive, but I’m not convinced they’re enough for a man who was once a powerful and hopeful Jedi. That said, it was good to see Mark Hamill back in a “Star Wars” movie, and he delivered a hell of a performance.

Johnson’s handling of the other characters varies, although he wastes a few. He didn’t know what to do with Finn, so he invented a subplot that sends him galivanting across the galaxy with a new character named Rose to retrieve a man who can break First Order shield codes.

This entire chunk of the film could have been cut with damage, as everything Finn and Rose accomplish is rendered unnecessary when they return. It’s one of those annoying moments in a movie when someone who should have said something earlier but didn’t – simply because it was convenient to the plot – finally opens their mouth.

I’m surprised Johnson, who has such tight and creative visual sensibilities, allowed the writing to get so sloppy. Even worse is his handling of Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, who devises several ill-advised battle strategies and watches the losses mount as a result. I have to wonder if someone said, “Poe, maybe flying a half-dozen junk buckets directly toward a battalion of heavily armored and powerful First Order walkers isn’t the best idea...”

I certainly wish someone had said something similar to Johnson. I can think of at least one moment when someone really should have said something – and this isn’t the nitpicky fanboy in me coming out. If you’ve seen “Mary Poppins,” you’ll know the scene when you see it.

From here, my list of grievances will sound like nitpicking, but since I can’t provide examples without spoiling the movie, you’ll have to trust me: “The Last Jedi” disposes of characters it should have developed further, swings from superbly written dialogue and delivery to the most awkwardly penned and acted moments since the prequels, and has characters do things that actually create plot holes in the other movies.

That’s a shame because, like I said, “The Last Jedi” has its heart in the right place. Johnson develops the theme of letting go of the past and moving forward throughout the film. It’s a magnificently colored thread, and he weaves it through every character’s lips, every nostalgic throwback to the old films and every envelop he pushes. Even if “The Last Jedi” was not perfectly executed, it had a purpose.

But where does that purpose leave the series? At the risk of saying too much, nowhere. Elements that should be in place at the end of the middle chapter of a trilogy – and that were brilliantly executed in “The Empire Strikes Back” – are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Johnson has handed J. J. Abrams, the director of the next film, the same thing Disney gave him: the ability to do whatever.

It’s been a thrill to see “Star Wars” on the big screen again. And the new films have been exceedingly well made technically. But the lack of a cohesive and driven narrative has me missing George Lucas, the creator of the series.

For all the wooden qualities of the prequels, the back story was very well conceived.

Characters existed for a reason and the storyline went somewhere. After seeing “The Last Jedi,” I no longer feel that’s the case with the current trilogy, which simply seems lost in space.