Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac return for the Rian Johnson-directed second film in the ‘Star Wars’ sequel trilogy.
Star Wars has now occupied a galaxy of is own in the zeitgeist for 40 years and shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon; to the contrary, each new year brings a new Star Wars film of one kind or another, so using the word “last” in connection with anything to do with the series seems a bit disingenuous. Rather, this latest, and longest, franchise entry has the decided feel of a passing-of-the-torch from one set of characters, and actors, to the next. Loaded with action and satisfying in the ways its loyal audience wants it to be, writer-director Rian Johnson’s plunge into George Lucas’ universe is generally pleasing even as it sometimes strains to find useful and/or interesting things for some of its characters to do. Commercially, Disney is counting on another haul soaring past a billion dollars in worldwide theatrical box-office alone.
As indicated by the dramatic finale of Star Wars: The Force Awakens two Christmases ago, the follow-up is anchored by the attempt by Daisy Ridley’s Rey to persuade Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker to indoctrinate her in the ways of the jedi. As a warm-up, however, the first quarter hour is mostly devoted to the evil First Order’s outer space attack on the Resistance, led by General Hux, who’s goofily played by Domhnall Gleeson as if he were acting in a Monty Pythonesque parody. Still, the resurgent fascists decimate the fleet and put the good guys on their heels.
Back on terra firma or, to be specific, the thrusting oceanic mountain hideaway so splendidly represented by Skellig Michael, Rey finds Luke in a singularly depressive state, ready to call it a day where jedi and the force are concerned. For him, it’s all over, and Rey has her work cut out for her getting Luke to change his mind.
There are generational differences of opinion on the dark side as well. When Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the turncoat son of Leia and the late Han Solo, shows up in a Darth Vader outfit, Supreme Leader Snoke (a deliciously heinous Andy Serkis) barks, “Take that ridiculous thing off!” This is the sort of mild all-in-the-family irreverence that the fan culture eats up and Johnson — who here becomes the first person to single-handedly write and direct a Star Wars feature since George Lucas did the honors on the original and two of the “prequels” — injects a good deal of this sort of elbow-jabbing humor into the proceedings.
Hardcore series devotees will decide to what extent the new film functions in an equivalent way to how The Empire Strikes Back did in the initial trilogy in 1980. But what it definitely does is stir the pot with ambivalence on both sides of the good-and-evil equation: Just as Luke is ready to pack it in as far as perpetuating the jedi tradition is concerned, so does Kylo Ren begin to question his abandonment of his true legacy; the tables keep turning here, which is desirable from the dramatic point of view of sustaining fan excitement about what’s in store two years from now and beyond.
Johnson, whose three indie-slanted prior features — Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper — are all crime tales tinged with off-beat humor, is faced with at least two major narrative challenges: To advance the renewed face-off between the resurgent First Order and the beleaguered Resistance, and to further develop the characters introduced two years ago.
As to the first issue, neither here nor in The Force Awakens is it convincingly shown how the demolished Evil Empire was able to bounce back so powerfully just thirty years after its destruction. Even less clear is where Snoke came from, not to mention how he ended up with a face that looks like a twisted and rotted old tree (the makeup job is terrific). It feels like not nearly as much time is spent with the bad guys than has been the case in previous Star Wars incarnations (no Peter Cushing-back-from-the-dead appearances here).
As for the one who counts, Kylo Ren, it remains difficult to accept Driver physically as the son of Ford and Fisher (unless there’s a surprise parentage revelation yet to come, which could make for a good joke), although the character’s complexities begin emerging in interesting ways that promise even more surprises in two years’ time, when J.J. Abrams’ third chapter to this yarn, the still-untitled Star Wars: Episode IX, will land.
More crucial is building up audience interest in and sympathy for the new banner carriers for the Resistance, and the results remain mixed. As bold soldier Finn, John Boyega made a big splash two years ago, but his character more or less treads water here; he’s reduced to more generic athletics. An adventure he shares with a new character, maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), isn’t one of the most compelling interludes of the film’s 162 minutes. Lupita Nyong’o is in again briefly as the leather-skinned-looking old pirate Maz Kamata. Towering Gwendoline Christie, so wonderful in Game of Thrones, is, ironically, hard to spot.
The one character who begins to come into his own here is Oscar Isaac’s fighter pilot Poe Dameron. His status seemed rather generic and uncertain in The Force Awakens, but there’s more confidence here both in the writing and performance of the character as he steps up to fill the void left by Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, without yet having achieved that sort of stature. Perhaps in the next episode.
At this stage, Poe has his hands full not only with the First Order’s warriors but with a disconcerting new character who’s parachuted into the story. Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo is a lavender-haired, oddly accoutered contemporary of Leia who turns up ostensibly to help the Resistance. But she has an odd way of speaking, doesn’t like “trigger-happy fly-boy” Poe at all and is so negative about every proposal made to thwart the enemy that one might imagine she’s working for the other team. Time will no doubt tell what her game is, but one shares Poe’s apprehensions. Mixed in with these emotions is the poignance attached to Fisher’s death a year ago toward the end of production.
Enlivening things in the more positive way is a blaggard named DJ played with great mischief by Benecio del Toro, who sneaks and slithers around and plays all sides like an unusually active lizard.
But while the physical action unfolds in the air and on land (the climactic battle explicitly recalls the celebrated combat involving the giant AT-AT, or Imperial Walkers, in The Empire Strikes Back), the real drama lies elsewhere, that being in the weird space that prolonged solitude has made of Luke Skywalker’s head and heart. Stating that he considers himself “a legend and a failure,” Yoda’s former devoted student prefers to let his lineage and teachings die out, and an ideological battle ensues, involving both Rey and Kylo Ren, that’s philosophically engaging and narratively elemental. It’s where the film has been headed all along and will assuredly serve as the springboard for what’s to come in two years.
Narratively, Johnson has a tendency to create digressions within digressions, not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that as long as you’re skilled enough to keep multiple balls in the air, which he mostly is. The humor does at times strike notes unusual for the franchise, more often to the good than bad, and John Williams’ vigorous eighth Star Wars franchise score never sounds rote or tiresomely familiar.
Maybe the film is a tad too long. Most of the new characters could use more heft, purpose and edge to their personalities, and they have a tendency to turn up hither and yon without much of a clue how they got there; drawing a geographical map of their movements would create an impenetrable network of lines. But there’s a pervasive freshness and enthusiasm to Johnson’s approach that keeps the film, and with it the franchise, alive, and that is no doubt what matters most.
Production: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenwriter: Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Ram Bergman
Executive producers: J.J. Abrams, Tom Karnowski, Jason D. McGatlin
Director of photography: Steve Yedlin
Production designer: Rick Heinrichs
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan
Editor: Bob Ducsay
Music: John Williams
Casting: Nina Gold, Milivoj Mestrovic, Mary Vernieu
PG-13 rating, 162 minutes