Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a reunion; a trip down memory lane. Perhaps necessarily, J.J. Abrams ushered audiences back to a galaxy far, far away swaddled in the comforts of familiar faces, places, and story beats, getting the band back together and playing all the old hits. It’s a hoot and a half, but after the initial elation and nostalgia wore off, a shared sentiment seemed to settle in — the old tricks aren’t quite as magical as they used to be.
Enter Rian Johnson, a filmmaking sorcerer if ever there was one, who takes the franchise baton handed to him by Abrams and runs completely off the tracks, not because he’s lost sight of where he’s supposed to be going or how to get there, but because he’s found entirely more interesting and unexpected routes to that destination. With Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Johnson sidesteps every predictable beat, playing against long-entrenched concepts of what to expect from a Star Wars film, and in doing so, he delivers the most electric, thematically rich, and visually innovative Star Wars since George Lucas redefined blockbuster cinema with his 1977 original.
This is what Johnson does as a filmmaker. Brick was a Noir movie, Looper was a time travel movie, and The Last Jedi is a Star Wars movie, but all of them simultaneously redefine those labels while proudly wearing them. Playing the genres he loves most, Johnson makes singular films. He’s like a cinematic architect, remodeling the space he’s working in without undermining the fundamental structures that make it hold true.
The Last Jedi begins in battle, and Johnson makes his subversive intentions known from the film’s first moments. The film drops us in the middle of a Resistance evacuation. Decimated after the events of The Force Awakens, the rebels are on their last leg and hauling ass to get away from a First Order Dreadnaught. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the fan favorite Resistance hero and consummate cocky “flyboy”, sees an opportunity to take out one of the enemy’s biggest weapons and stages an attack in direct opposition to General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) orders, but first he gets in some smarmy smartassing at the expense of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).
What will prove to be one of the most pensive Star Wars films begins with a laugh. It’s a quippy, kind of goofy scene to open the film, earning big laughs out of all three packed audiences I’ve seen the film with, and it toes right up to the line of genre parody. But Johnson knows exactly when to pull back, and he follows up the unorthodox humor with an absolutely stunning action sequence that reminds us, yep, this is a Star Wars movie, and it’s a very good one.
Staged with stunning clarity, geography, and vision, the film’s first major set-piece sets the standard for the level of action Johnson will deliver throughout and puts the back “war” in Star Wars. These grand action sequences come with a death toll. The Last Jedi reminds us more elegantly and pointedly than any Star Wars trilogy film before that resistance requires loss, and the film’s first big action moment turns surprisingly somber as faceless X-Wing pilots are replaced with soldiers we quickly care about. When they sacrifice themselves for Poe’s impulsive plan, it stings, and it’s just the beginning of the film’s fallout from foolhardy heroics.
The rebels take out the dreadnaught, but their entire bombing fleet is lost in the process, and when their escape jump reveals that the First Order can somehow track them through lightspeed, the stakes become even direr. Poe is demoted, a First Order attack claims the life of Admiral Ackbar and puts Leia in a coma (more on that in a minute), and Poe finds himself under the command of the inscrutable Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) as a slow-paced space-chase sends the out-gunned, under-fuelled rebellion on an escape from a pursuant they can never truly outrun.
These first scenes are a showcase for Johnson’s inventive approach to the material, and they encapsulate the themes he wants to explore with The Last Jedi: the myth of heroism and the lessons of failure. Those themes carry through into every sequence that follows, including the (again) foolhardy plan concocted by Poe, Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), that leads to an adventure on the gambling planet Canto Bight and an ill-advised mutiny on the Resistance cruiser. Their journey inverts the standard hero arc. Where we traditionally follow renegade heroes headfirst into ill-advised battle (“never tell me the odds”) where they save the day, these mavericks fail. And they keep failing until they learn from it.
The same themes are at work in the dynamic between Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren, which unfolds on Ach-To, where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has retreated to disappear and die after his failure as a mentor led Ben Solo (Adam Driver) to the dark side. This is where we pick up with our intrepid heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley); after traversing the galaxy to find Luke, she expectantly hands him his old lightsaber, demanding he return to the resistance and save the day. Luke promptly throws the lightsaber over a cliff with a sneer and insists that the Jedi must end; a definitive statement from Johnson about expectations. This is not the Luke Skywalker we knew, and after all these decades and the loss of his training temple, that feels right.
Despite his reservations and his insistence that the age of Jedi is over, Luke agrees to provide Rey with a few key lessons in the Force in order to show her that it belongs to no one, and it’s here that we see most clearly; this is not the Luke Skywalker we all know and love. Something in him has been broken and the impulse for goodness in him has not been lost, but it has retreated, leaving behind the grey, withered, and angry shell of a once great man. Again, Johnson strikes down the mythology of heroes. Outright, he rejects the construct of the “chosen one,” and through Luke’s interactions with Rey, and in contrast, through her insistence on doing good despite her attraction to the Dark Side, Johnson enforces that heroism is not in the legend or the bloodline, it’s in the doing and determination to do right.
Because there’s another chosen one, the young Kylo Ren née Ben Solo, cultivated by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) to become the next Vader. He has the bloodline, he is strong with the force, but when he murdered his father in The Force Awakens, he split his soul. He no longer clings to the legacy of his past in his quest for power. Long gone are they days when he called out to his grandfather for guidance. Now, he wants to kill the past. Not to learn from it, but to burn it all down. When Kylo and Rey begin communicating through the Force, sharing time out of space, he is once again presented with the opportunity for redemption. Once again, he’s given a choice.