The Force, as the Jedi master has often explained if you would only listen, is not some magic power that enables you to lift rocks and wield a lightsaber. No, The Force is the energy between things, the tension between the light and the dark, the cycle of life and death. If the galaxy is ever to live in peace, what we are going to need is some balance.
Flung back into that long-ago faraway galaxy for The Last Jedi, round two of the second Star Wars retread, we must once again rejoice in lightness and suffer in the dark. Nifty new animals, a maturing villain, a flagging heroine, muffled humour – as it seeks to uphold a giant cultural legacy, this unfolding trilogy struggles to maintain a balance that often seems just out of reach.
Following the $4-billion (U.S.) sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, director J.J. Abrams revived the Stars Wars story in 2015 with The Force Awakens, a self-referential film that winked at the George Lucas formula it replicated. After the franchise-abasing Clone Wars prequel trilogy in the 2000s, it was an acceptable approach, but hardly an inspiring one.
Now writer and director Rian Johnson picks up the action where Abrams left off – with Rey (Daisy Ridley) climbing a rocky island to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – and the story settles in nicely. There's more room for interesting locales and exotic creatures; the Dark Side is more complex and convincing. And the plot, hopping nimbly from a rebel ship under fire to the First Order's command centre to Skywalker's island, chugs along satisfyingly for the first two acts.
But gradually, Johnson's many additions become too much of a good thing and The Last Jedi grows crowded, busy and long. Promising new characters – a gracious rebel admiral (Laura Dern) in conflict with Oscar Isaac's energetic Poe Dameron; a lovable rogue played by Benicio Del Toro – are often shortchanged.
Meanwhile, Johnson's dialogue is flat and sounds stilted in the mouths of his younger actors, while their comic delivery can be so offhand that it dismisses the jokes. The good guys, those characters required to be either idealistic or funny, are the ones who suffer most under the Johnson regime. With the excellent Adam Driver playing Kylo Ren (and the appearance of Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke rendered less silly this time), the forces of darkness are now dramatically ascendant.
Will Skywalker come out his self-imposed exile to defeat them? This film deals tidily with the problematic legacy of two dimming stars – Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher. Hamill was never any Alec Guinness and, as he returns as the new generation's old greybeard, Johnson has cleverly enfolded that truth into the story of Skywalker's retirement: In his encounter with Kylo Ren, Hamill is a lesser actor playing a lesser man. He emerges with pride intact and further ahead than Fisher, who had completed the movie shortly before her death in 2016. She presents a strong physical presence as Leia but delivers her lines ponderously in a time-coarsened voice.
Still, the older generation gets off fairly easy. Ridley, full of charming spunk playing a skeptical rebel recruit in The Force Awakens, is the biggest disappointment here. She is less engaging now that she is committed to the fight and plays most of the later action on a single note of earnest desperation; Johnson's script leaves her little else.
She has also been separated from her supposed love interest, John Boyega's Finn. Instead, he teams up with a resourceful techie named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). These two rejoice in the best setting – a glittering city where an arms-dealing elite races giant goats and gathers in a casino every bit as delightful as the Mos Eisley Cantina – but neither actor is deft enough to maintain a flagging plot about breaking into the First Order command.
Those arms dealers, by the way, are selling to both sides in the rebellion. Star Wars, to its credit, has become increasingly convinced its world is not black and white and that evil can be explained. At the core of all the tangled back stories in this episode, there is a strong villain and – shades of Voldemort – he has the ability to penetrate the heroine's consciousness. The tantalizing possibility of some sexual chemistry in this Manichean battle poses the next question: Can Kylo Ren extract himself from the Dark Side to embrace Rey? Balance may yet be achieved.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens Dec. 15