The new Star Wars is darker, but not the Empire Strikes Back retread we kind of expected

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Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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If there’s one billion-dollar franchise that would be capable of stirring complex emotions out of me, I assume it would be Star Wars. As I’ve already outlined before, I had a period of focused obsession for the franchise between 1997 and 1999 — one that was quashed, if somewhat indirectly, by The Phantom Menace. Of all the things that are currently being rebooted and reconstructed for maximum nostalgia, the Star Wars franchise is just about the only one that I have actual nostalgia for — and yet, here we are. Three films into the new iterations of Star Wars, and I’ve yet to feel the powerful wash of nostalgia.

It could be my age. Star Wars: The Last Jedi has been calibrated to appeal to the largest possible audience, and like the two films before it, it spends a lot of time with characters straight up explaining the moral quandaries and lessons they learn from taking a specific action. It could just be that the marketplace is stuffed; though I have more “history” with characters like Luke Skywalker than I do with Thor and the Hulk, the sheer amount of these kind of large-scale movies that I see in a year has certainly diminished the magic of the Star Wars movies. Maybe it’s nothing — maybe it’s just that these movies are merely “pretty good.”

(As with the previous installments, the studio has asked that press not reveal spoilers or key plot points, so forgive me for being as vague as possible. Please note that there may be spoilers for the previous film, The Force Awakens, which you should really have gotten around to seeing at this point if you’re reading these words.)

The events of the first film have left the Rebellion, led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), dramatically weakened. An attack spearheaded by hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has destroyed a huge First Order ship but dramatically weakened the Rebellion. Forced off the planet where they had established their base, they’re chased through the galaxies by the slimy General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson). As their resources dwindle, Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a mechanic aboard the resistance ship, devise a way in which they can perhaps get themselves to a safe haven — but it means travelling to a fancy, Monaco-esque planet and finding a very mysterious codebreaker. Meanwhile, Rey and Chewbacca have found where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been hiding this whole time. Rey hopes to corral the grumpy old hermit into teaching her what this indescribable “force” she feels might be, and how it can help her deal with the powerful yet destructively-emo Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

One of The Force Awakens’ major flaws was its rather strict adherence to the structure of the very first Star Wars film. It gave this film trilogy its new Luke, Han, Leia, Vader and Palpatine figures from the get-go, so much so that parts of the film felt like total retreads. Writer/director Rian Johnson mostly avoids those pitfalls here, even if the film actually folds onto itself rather than expands the scope as is so common with second films in a franchise. Johnson doesn’t expand the world — he chisels it down and streamlines it. It’s also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a darker film than its predecessor: one where hope is doled out sparingly.

It would be preposterous to call a film like The Last Jedi daring. There’s very little daring that could be done when so much corporate synergy is at stake, but it at least gives itself a wider berth than many blockbusters. Perhaps positing that the Star Wars universe is a practically infinite one, Johnson allows his story the dramatic beats that are so often lacking from major blockbusters — but the Disney Corporation will send Elsa from Frozen to snuff me out in an Atomic Blonde-type scenario if I dare say any more about this. While overall not as bleak as The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi does trade in darker and thornier issues than its predecessor. (But there are also porgs — the chicken/owl hybrid thing that got the internet in a state of hysteria when the first trailer was released. They’re fine, like more ineffectual Ewoks, but they’re not even the best new species introduced by this particular installment.)

As personal and singular as The Last Jedi sometimes feels, it does ultimately have the awkward task of being the second film in a trilogy: sandwiched between an opening salvo and a final grand statement, it inevitably functions as an inelegant narrative funnel in its worst moments. What’s perhaps most impressive and ultimately satisfying about The Last Jedi is that Johnson hasn’t used this opportunity to fully indulge in his fanboy fantasies, even if it goes without saying that the film is truly the work of a Star Wars fan. The Last Jedi proves to be ultimately satisfying, even if it did not quite strike pangs of yearning for my lost youth as I’d hoped. ■

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in theatres on Friday, Dec 15. Watch the trailer here:

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