No less than the weight of the entire galaxy rests on Rian Johnson’s shoulders with the making of The Last Jedi, but he handles the heavy load with a lightness of tone and an adventurous spirit. His approach marks a clear departure from past middle instalments of Star Wars’ trilogies, which are famous for their dark turns and downer endings. The change in mood is the first of many fresh alterations Johnson makes to the franchise formula, which wouldn’t be so special if it weren’t for the writer/director’s genuine eagerness and slick ability to pull together pieces of both the prequel and original trilogies. While previous Episode The Force Awakens felt like helmer JJ Abrams was merely aping early George Lucas, The Last Jedi finds Johnson fully embodying the series creator both new and old.
As determined by Abrams’ 2015 reboot Episode, this sequel trilogy will always have more in common with the original trilogy than with the prequels or anything else. The conflict is essentially the same (heroic rebel forces battle galaxy-ruling evil empire) and the vehicles and weapons used haven’t really changed since Luke took on Vader, so the visual design generally follows suit. But Johnson clearly wants all of Star Wars’ past Episodes to be represented in his instalment, so The Last Jedi includes much of the demythologizing that makes the prequels potently dramatic and even mixes in some of their silly, endearing humour (thankfully, Johnson stops short of flatulent aliens).
Finding a way to include the ideas and aims of both Lucas-presided trilogies has to be a tall task, so it’s a pleasant surprise that Johnson has attempted it and an especially exciting discovery that he’s pulled it off with such saucy spunk. The Last Jedi is an all-ages adventure with lots for fans of any generation and commitment level to pick apart and mull over.
Johnson is not merely or only trying to cast a wider net of inspiration than his direct predecessor, though. He has some pretty great plans in store for the next chapter of this trilogy’s new leads, namely protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley) and antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The director certainly benefits from the casting that Abrams put in place, since it’s become clear that Ridley and Driver are in the process of delivering two of the finest performances of the entire Star Wars saga. They’re electrifying actors that expertly sell every emotion their characters encounter, which works well given the moral murkiness they both encounter this Episode.
These new Force users find themselves drawn to the middle of their universe’s dichotomous light/dark balance. Whereas past heroes and villains of this saga have preached the importance of going all-in on one side, the Sequel Trilogy’s lightsaber-wielding characters are less clean-cut in their allegiances. At the same time, their goals are different enough that they can still maintain the purity of their protagonist/antagonist roles. Kylo Ren wants to destroy the past, while Rey strives to transcend it.
Interestingly, Johnson reveals that he desires a bit of both. He wants to respectfully shed the past in a bid for regrowth, but he also aims to rattle it in a way that announces the shakeup in loud and clear fashion. The director’s juggling act is a complex compilation of past trilogy tones and proposed future hopes. Johnson embraces the franchise’s lack of subtlety and goes into hyper-speed with his often unpredictable, always optimistic next generation narrative. Above all else, he has mapped marvellously meaty, memorable milestones in the ongoing arcs of Rey and Ren, while Ridley and Driver rise boldly to the occasion.
Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) have less challenging work in this chapter of their arcs, mainly a fun, distracting side adventure, but Isaac and Boyega are so good in these roles that all of their scenes pop. Adding a love interest for Finn in Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose works not for romance, but just general screen chemistry. They’re convincing friends who complement each other well, so while a third act kiss feels forced, the movie is still more enjoyable with their relationship than without.
The duo also finds time in their subplot to liberate a group of equine-ish aliens, which is the most blatant example of the movie’s plea to love and respect all animal species. No Star Wars movie has ever cherished its fantastical creatures more than The Last Jedi. In addition to the horse-like beasts, there are crystal-coated foxes that are depicted as friendly and helpful and a bunch of puffin-like birds called Porgs that annoy Chewbacca and become the source of many of the movie’s funniest gags.
None of these creatures drive the plot in any meaningful manner at any point, but they still feel like an important part of the overall cinematic tapestry Johnson has woven together here. This is the most intriguing thing about The Last Jedi, that it attends to so many different aspects of the Star Wars universe, both internal and external, and still manages to feel breezy instead of bloated.
It’s a very impressive accomplishment given how Johnson picks up the story from the moment Abrams left off and therefore faces the challenge of finding a refreshing way to reintroduce mythic superhero-turned-curmudgeonly hermit Luke Skywalker after several decades of having not uttered a word onscreen. This is different than reintroducing Han and Leia in The Force Awakens because those characters weren’t shrouded in mystery from the outset of this new trilogy and their personalities remained firmly intact.
Luke is now a very different man than when he swashbuckled his way to unearthing his dying dad’s humanity at the end of Return of the Jedi. While Abrams’ entry made clear that Luke had changed, Johnson aims to conclude the two year wait between Episodes VII and VIII with the element of surprise, taking the specifics of these changes in a curiously comical direction. Anticipating the audience’s expectations and attempting to subvert them is clearly a cornerstone of Johnson’s game, which he still plays completely within the rules of a Star Wars movie, making for a smooth mix of shock and awe.
Keeping us reasonably on our toes seems like a fitting task for the franchise that turned a paternity reveal into the most iconic twist in movie history. There’s certainly nothing in The Last Jedi as unexpected as Vader’s announcement in The Empire Strikes Back, but Johnson remains wholly committed to making bold choices and offering many answers to the questions that Abrams hazily posed in The Force Awakens.
Johnson doesn’t scale the emotional heights that the plot turns suggest are in play (I’d argue that Star Wars is always a bit weak on the emotional execution), but he proves a worthy successor to Lucas’ throne. The message that religious orders are inherently flawed, yet intrinsically necessary is as true an observation for the Star Wars saga as anything that has come before this eighth episode. Johnson has crafted a rousing yarn that combines the dangerous naivety of the prequels with the stirring optimism of the originals all while delving deep into the meaningful morality present in both previous trilogies. With The Last Jedi, Johnson jettisons the sequel trilogy from its past, but doesn’t forget the franchise’s history in the process, instead finding in previous adventures the important ingredients for a focused and fulfilling future.