For those hoping that there may have been a substantial uptick in quality between J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi—in much the same way that The Empire Strikes Back improved on Star Wars—you may need a new hope. The latest entrant in this now-Disney-owned franchise is largely content to further the themes and narrative strategies of its predecessor: Johnson, a filmmaker who proved capable of crafting individualistic, tightly wound sci-fi with 2012’s Looper, too often seems to think that the best he can bring to Star Wars is an amped-up version of Abrams’s overly reverent tribute to George Lucas’s original films.
The Last Jedi’s manically paced first 90 minutes include two lengthy spacecraft battles and at least three independent plotlines. Johnson makes a great effort to leaven the freneticism of this chaos by indulging in a handful of comic set pieces: The film’s first scene is an extended crank-call joke, and there are several petty disses directed at a “new Vader” who isn’t quite filling his grandfather’s oversized helmet. But these moments feel like exaggerations of things Abrams did in The Force Awakens—with the wry self-awareness coming off as more tiresome by comparison, since this franchise should feel less burdened by now with the task of establishing itself and its lineage.
The good news is that Johnson has a bit more of his own plan here than the first half of his film suggests: The Last Jedi becomes essentially bifurcated, thanks to one decisive, unexpected break from this series’s tradition-bound progression that reverberates across the film’s various narrative threads. But The Last Jedi’s two-and-half-hour sprawl still includes an awful lot of clunky, derivative, and largely unnecessary incidents to wade through in order to get to its maverick last act. This is especially true when it comes to the plausibility-straining mission of stormtrooper turned Rebel Alliance fighter Finn (John Boyega) and puckish series newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran).
In order to hack into, what else, a giant battleship, the two young recruits are first dispatched to a nearby planet with a lavish casino run by rich arms dealers—who, it turns out, profit from supplying weapons to both sides of the galaxy’s seemingly eternal good-versus-evil conflict. Johnson establishes the opulent casino space with a gliding push-in, whizzing past an array of inventive creatures and costumes, in a scene that’s very much designed to capture the bustling feel of Chalmun’s Cantina, from the original Star Wars (but in a far more socially upscale context). After this shot, though, the setting is largely discarded, as Johnson abruptly refocuses on, and hastily defines, an underground culture of enslaved children and racing llama-like beasts. The film sidles up to an anti-colonialist sentiment but doesn’t devote it any time, instead spending its energy on a CGI llama stampede.
There’s a very good 90-minute version of The Last Jedi that strips out the extraneous subplots and zeroes in on the emotionally compelling relationship between self-assured hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the vulnerable villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). While Rey spends much of her time in the film with her new master, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)—on that remote planet she landed on at the end of The Force Awakens—she finds herself able to telepathically link with Kylo Ren. The two rivals’ shared scenes boast a surprising tenderness and intensity, thanks largely to Johnson’s careful framing, which puts the viewer just off axis enough from the actors’ eyelines to avoid the breaking of the fourth wall but still conveys a creepy sense of closeness.
The Last Jedi does pull many of its disparate parts together in its markedly stronger final stretch, which also happens to include the film’s two best set pieces: a lightsaber duel in a Twin Peaks-like red room and an impeccably paced airship battle through a sprawling, crimson-dyed mineral mine. But Johnson’s ambitions here can easily be over-sold: Most of the surprising plot twists and character developments that eventually enliven The Last Jedi walk back their radical implications on the story, and revert to the resolutions we’ve come to expect from a trilogy beholden to recycling its themes of misplaced hope and heroic sacrifice. Three films into the Disney Star Wars era, there have been enough unique elements introduced to this familiar world to suggest the kind of ways Star Wars could grow and change. But there’s also been resistance to letting those elements escape an oppressive sameness.