Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A welcome 'Star Wars' addition

Director Rian Johnson takes the reins for Last Jedi and the result mostly satisfies.

Now, where were we?

If you're among the zillions of Star Wars enthusiasts, you know that the last chapter (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) concluded with young Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding her way to a remote island where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) had withdrawn from all things Jedi, including battling whatever evil currently had harnessed the dark side of the series' fabled Force. Luke, we learned, had hung up his Lightsaber.

Now comes Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the next installment of what's billed as a Star Wars sequel trilogy -- and the plea for Luke to shake off his funk continues.

This edition should please fans as it deftly barrels its way through two and half hours with only a few lags as the screenplay fulfills expositional obligations.

Director Rian Johnson (Brick and Looper) picks up the reins from J.J. Abrams and gives us a Star Wars with a bit of nuance, flashes of humor and plenty of well-crafted action.

What brings the whole enterprise to life -- aside from the generosity of its spectacle -- are the inner torments of characters who embody the great Star Wars theme: the tension between the light and dark sides of the force. This clash, of course, includes the knowing acknowledgment that even the most morally superior characters might be a hairsbreadth away from answering the dark call.

In a way, the plot of any Star Wars movie could be its least important attribute. You already know that Rey has found Luke Skywalker, so the only remaining question is whether she persuades him to leave his island retreat -- formally known as the planet Ahch-To -- and return to action as an inspiration for the Resistance, which is busy fighting the First Order.

The First Order, of course, is run by Supreme Leader Snoke, a cadaverous-looking creep played by Andy Serkis with the usual CGI boost. Snoke has great power, but looks so decayed, you half wonder how he lifts himself out of bed in the morning.

Disney, which has taken charge of the Star Wars franchise, has cautioned critics against revealing spoilers. I don't consider it a spoiler to tell you that unlike its 2015 predecessor, this edition includes more than a cameo appearance by Hamill. His Luke quickly establishes himself as a cranky, bearded figure who has shed every bit of the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his character's youth.

A bit of sadness tempers the fun. The Last Jedi marks Carrie Fisher's last performance. Fisher appears as General Leia Organa, head of the Resistance, and yes, Fischer's presence is more than ceremonial. (Fisher died a year ago this month.)

Johnson does a good job of weaving new characters into a mix that brings back Adam Driver, who digs as deep as he can as Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren tops Snoke's list of prospects to become the new Darth Vader. Ren, you'll recall, killed his father, Han Solo, in the last episode.

Look for Laura Dern, with purple hair, as Vice Admiral Holdo, evidently the second in command of Resistance forces after General Leia. Benicio del Toro plays DJ, a hacker who knows how to disable a device that figures heavily in the plot. Del Toro gives Last Jedi a sly, juicy boost. Finn (a returning John Boyega) and Rose Pico (newbie Kelly Marie Tran) are forced by circumstance to trust del Toro's genially larcenous character.

As you can tell, many characters populate this increasingly complex story. Oscar Isaac returns as the dashing pilot Poe Dameron. Also returning: Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux, another First Order purveyor of evil, and Lupita Nyong'o, the goggle-eyed pirate Maz.

Ridley already proved herself a worthy addition to the Star Wars fold and does nothing here to convince us that we weren't right to welcome her for what evidently will be a long run.

Johnson and his production team gives us plenty of visual diversion -- from Luke's monkish stone hut (it looks like something sculptor Andy Goldsworthy might have created) to the imperially sized vessels of the First order to the obligatory trip to a bustling casino planet -- it's called Canto Bight -- where rogues, aliens, and intergalactic swells meet and mingle.

New creatures pop up, notably cute little Porgs, a type of seabird that inhabits the planet Ahch-To. Thankfully, the Porgs are used sparingly enough not to create an overdose of cuteness, the dreaded Ewok effect.

Look, directing a Star Wars movie requires an ability to juggle a large cast of characters without creating too much confusion, as well as a commitment to preserving Star Wars mythology without miring the series in undue reverence for its past. Every new Star Wars movie must earn its own stripes.

Johnson gets the job done and, in the bargain, makes us the beneficiaries of his success.

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