Written and Directed by: Rian Johnson
The Last Jedi starts like all other Star Wars films: with a text crawl and the theme music. Then it gets chaotic, as intergalactic vessels commanded by various rebels and imperial figures take each other on. These early moments of the film concerned me. Was I was about to watch an ambitious but generic action movie: a tale of soldiers more so than characters?
Luckily, and unsurprisingly, my first impression proved wrong..Writer/director Rian Johnson made sure the film’s chaotic density of characters was no accident or shortcoming. While the original Star Wars trilogy featured an intentionally simple story that followed a classical hero arc, Johnson’s film emphasizes that rebellions are not defined by singular heroes. Some heroes are successful but boring. Other heroes are plucky and endearing yet accomplish little. While it is indeed possible that not all of the chaos of Episode VIII is attributable to Johnson’s vision (that the film could have ended several times before it did suggested Johnson may have been under pressure to cover a set amount of content to set the stage for Episode IX), for the most part it is justified, and constitutes an effective reimagining of the Star Wars universe.
Star Wars has done well as a franchise by telling epic tales that prioritize character development over action. While I enjoyed Episode VII: The Force Awakens, a little bit of it felt like a step away from that tradition. Its protagonists: Finn, Rey and Poe seemed the less compelling heirs apparent to Luke, Han and Leia (in no particular order). South Park noticed this and parodied it in their 20th season, arguing that the appeal of episode VII was shallow: fans liked it because it repeated the formula of the original trilogy (South Park then went on in its hyperbolic fashion to connect this nostalgia to “Make America Great Again sentiments).
Johnson handled this problem by writing a script with a meta-narrative of sorts. Having (presumably seen) Episode VII, audiences enter The Last Jedi expecting a work that draws on The Empire Strikes Back. In some ways this is true: a veteran jedi (Mark Hamill) trains a youngster (Daisy Ridley) on a desolate planet, a (less-redeemable-than-Lando) double crosser plays a role (sadly, Billy Dee Williams does not), a character’s familial status is devastatingly brought to light, a Boba Fett-type somehow factors in, and there’s a little romance to boot. Johnson, however, lulls viewers with the comfort of familiarity, then rudely, and beautiful awakens them with deviations from their expectations. While it is hard to explain this approach further without spoiling the movie, one example is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). This character is introduced in Episode VII as the de-facto Grand Moff Tarkin equivalent: a cold villain, who is purely a military figure. Because Tarkin lacked the mythical aura of Vader and Sidius, he, unsurprisingly, was quickly written out of the original trilogy. Hux, however, stays around. Hux also differs from Tarkin in that he is a young man. The same point can be made (to a lesser, more ambiguous extent) about Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in comparison to Darth Vader. The Last Jedi further entrenches Ren and Hux as a villainous duo that is unlike what the original trilogy gave us. As grizzled veterans, Tarkin and Vader come across as pillars of evil. As mere boys by comparison, Ren and Hux lack that kind of fortitude: but the juxtaposition of their youth and power makes them, in a way, more disturbing than their predecessors.
The Last Jedi is not faultless. Its swarm of characters and highly inter-textual qualities render it unwatchable for those who have not kept up well with the series. It should also be said that this new trilogy has taken away one element of charm of the old series: namely that it could easily be interpreted as the story, not of its human protagonists, but of R2-D2. While the writers of the new trilogy have clearly not forgotten R2 and C3P0, there appearances in this film, as they were in episode VII, are little more than cameos.
That said, veteran fans of the series should find plenty to enjoy in The Last Jedi It is a reminder of just how many characters they are invested in, and how many they can come to be invested in. From Luke’s newfound wry wit, to the various odes to and splits from the series’ past, The Last Jedi is an impressive script and a fitting addition to the Star Wars universe.