With The Force Awakens J.J. Abrams made something that felt familiar, that was safe. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi doesn’t have to walk so lightly and the writer/director takes full advantage of that.
It’s not that there’s nothing familiar about Episode VIII. There are moments that echo The Empire Strikes Back and even more that ring of Return of the Jedi. There are connections to books and the TV show Rebels. Heck – there are even a bunch of concepts familiar to the Star Wars books now known as Legends. Tributes to films such as Jurassic Park, The Wizard of Oz, and even Hardware Wars make appearances. There are plenty of characters we already know. And so many John Williams established musical themes play over scenes. It’s that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a compromise.
Picking up right after The Force Awakens, we’re given a resource-low Resistance on the run despite their very recent victory and a First Order bent on wiping them out for good. Meanwhile Rey is off working on convincing Luke Skywalker to return to public life and put his power behind the Resistance to turn the tide.
It’s a story that requires multiple viewings to appreciate. After my first, I wasn’t sure how I felt. There were so many elements I liked both from a fan and a storytelling perspective. But there were plenty of pieces that were jarring. There were even a few moments where I was all for the concept but the execution took me out of the movie. Spending a couple days thinking about it all and then seeing it again let it settle better.
Johnson subverts expectations time and time again. Everyone warned us he would. The key is that he doesn’t do it just to mess with the audience. It’s all part of challenging each character and character is so important to The Last Jedi‘s storytelling. It’s refreshing how often character is served over plot when we see so much of the other way around in action and adventure movies.
Additionally the challenges presented and overarching theme of failure don’t just apply to a couple lead characters. Rey has an emotional journey facing her past and searching for her place while making difficult choices for her present. But Luke, Kylo, Poe, Finn, Rose, Holdo, Leia, Hux – they’re all challenged too. With the huge loss of life, heroes on the run, and a plethora of foundering this movie could have been one dark, depressing descent. But Johnson finds a balance. Humor plays a part and it’s not the only way. There’s levity through the takeaway from those failures – the idea that failure can teach you a lesson, make you better, and leave you with hope for the next day if you handle it well enough.
It’s not the easiest message to serve up – especially to a society that tells you failure is not an option, that you need to be fearless and invulnerable. Paired up with expectations that fans built up and got attached to over the past two years, it’s not going to be the most effortless movie for absolutely everyone to take in.
On top of that the pacing is kind of choppy – probably to make up for the visual slowness of the extended chase. At times it can get so meta that it’s a challenge to allow the movie to fully sweep you away with it. My issues with Star Wars’ flying body visuals were in no way helped by this chapter either.
Yet I’m drawn back in to thinking about the complexities and intricacies of this story repeatedly. The cast fits it so well. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver flow together through their characters’ growth. Mark Hamill unreservedly sells Luke’s arc. Newcomer Kelly Marie Tran is a beam of light and Veronica Ngo completely slays her screen time. The use of a black, white, and red color palette is stunning. The lightsaber fight was a boon internally, has fantastic rewatchability, and benefits greatly from the director’s obvious respect for the choreography. Johnson answers questions, asks more, and builds on so much of what came before. It was undeniably all crafted with clear intent.
In the end Rian Johnson has expanded the mythology of Star Wars both in-universe and out while presenting an inclusive heroism. The Last Jedi takes us on a journey reflecting on our past and releasing it to push forward. It’s a bumpy ride at times, but one that’s worth it.
Listen in to episode 35 of Hyperspace Theories for a more spoiler-filled discussion.
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