As widely beloved as it is, Star Wars: Episode VII- The Force Awakens has been criticized for how similar its plot and story elements are to George Lucas’ original Star Wars film, A New Hope. Director J.J. Abrams clearly believed the best way to revive the franchise after the controversial prequels was to include many echoes and references to the original films in order to remind audiences why they loved Star Wars in the first place. This was an understandable, safe, and mostly effective choice but it has led to the film rightfully being called unoriginal. Rian Johnson, director of The Force Awakens‘ sequel, was clearly determined to avoid such criticisms and it shows in his own entry to the saga of the galaxy far, far away. Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi is easily the most ambitious film in the franchise since its famed second entry, The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson is unafraid to challenge or outright ignore the unspoken laws and traditions of making a Star Wars movie and while The Last Jedi is far, far from perfect as a singular film it takes necessary steps to move the franchise into a more creative, less nostalgic future, even as it maintains a sometimes-self-contradicting relationship with the past.
Emphasizing how different The Last Jedi proves to be when all is said and done is how similar it seems at the beginning to its own counterpart in the original Star Wars trilogy, the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back. Once again, a trilogy’s middle chapter finds the forces of good, in this case the Resistance, most recognizably represented by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) being hunted to the point of near extinction by their evil counterparts, Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) First Order, the most notable member of which is Leia’s traitorous son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Meanwhile, the heroes’ best hope for victory, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, who fills the role once inhabited by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has traveled to the outer reaches of the galaxy to master her supernatural Force abilities and learn the ways of the Jedi from an aged master, Luke himself, who now holds the wisdom once imparted to him by Yoda. The first significant distinction The Last Jedi makes from its spiritual predecessor is in Luke’s plain refusal to train Rey in the Jedi arts. Instead of focusing on exploring the importance of faith and inner peace in practicing the Force as the creators of Empire did Johnson uses the conflict between Luke and Rey to explore the minds and souls of the two broken characters. Ridley’s performance is once again superb, with a rare level of emotional vulnerability and Rey again proves to be one of the most intriguing new characters in recent cinema. Luke’s characterization and Hamill’s performance will prove to be much more controversial. While in some moments Luke is 100% the character viewers first met 40 years ago, changed naturally by age and trauma, in others he seems off, with a crotchety, strange sense of Grinch-like humor that seems to more closely match Hamill’s real-life persona than it does Luke’s previously established character.
Like many past Star Wars directors, Johnson seems most excited by the core scenes dealing with the Skywalker family drama and the mythology of the Force and this can be both a blessing and a curse to the film. The military confrontation Poe, Finn, and Leia find themselves in is a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. After a disastrous opening space battle the small remaining Resistance fleet is trapped in an unending barrage of enemy fire. Finn goes on a secret mission with Rose (Kelly Marie-Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a codebreaker who may be able to sabotage the First Order crafts while Poe, Leia, and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) debate on the best, most moral strategy to use on the front lines. Poe, Rose, and Finn all have well-written arcs (though Finn’s is so subtle that Boyega is left without much memorable dialogue) and the idea of a Star Wars film structured in the style of a thriller about an impossibly dire military disaster such as Argo or Lone Survivor is intriguing but Johnson rarely if ever delivers the pressure-cooker intensity such a structure demands. The film’s pacing is too gradual to sell the constant danger that such a situation would cause. It’s easy to forget these and the film’s other flaws however, when the focus returns to Rey’s Jedi journey. As mixed as Luke’s characterization can be Johnson’s script tells a moving story as the original Star Wars hero must contend with his own culpability in his nephew’s fall to the Dark Side and placing Rey in the middle of this dark family fight gives her a unique challenge primarily based on emotional interactions rather than lightsaber fights (though there is a spectacularly choreographed one of those late in the film). A mysterious, intriguing bond is established early-on between Rey and Ben and Ridley and Driver are captivating on screen together. Rey’s climactic confrontation with both the fallen son of Han Solo and his master, Snoke, is one of the highlights of the entire Star Wars saga to date.
While Johnson avoids retelling the story of The Empire Strikes Back, mainly through some truly shocking developments in the third act that leave the path of Episode IX delightfully unclear, he still has a fascination with examining the cultural meanings of Star Wars as a franchise similar to those shown by Abrams and Garth Evans, director of spin-off Rogue One, even if he does so in a different way. While Abrams largely sought to replicate the original films’ most iconic elements and Evans’ film served to further detail the backstory of A New Hope, Johnson devotes himself to deconstructing the iconography and story elements that make Star Wars Star Wars. Rey’s arc challenges some of the saga’s previously established ideas of destiny and the nature of the Force. Poe’s constant clashes with Leia and other authority figures critique the type of roguish hero popularized by Han Solo whom are often completely incapable of following orders or working as part of a unit. As interesting as this meditation on Star Wars as a genre is it does lead to some problems and these can largely be seen through Finn’s role in the movie. Execution aside, the basis of Finn’s character was one of the more unique aspects of The Force Awakens but within The Last Jedi the lack of an established Star Wars archetype to tie Finn to leaves his role feeling somewhat random.
Additionally, while examining the core elements of the most popular film franchise in history is intriguing, after three films of doing so the time has come to abandon the meta-commentary. What really makes the original films so great was their singular focus on telling great stories. Johnson’s work is largely necessary to set the saga on a less self-obsessed path, but it still has the problems that come with making a Star Wars movie that’s also a movie about Star Wars. Conversely, some of his attempts to break with tradition seem more critical and angry than necessary. The saga will be back to its full potential when the right balance is achieved between pure storytelling ambition and franchise tradition. As Ben says in one of The Last Jedi‘s best scenes, “You have to let the past die,” as “that’s the only way you’ll become what you’re meant to be”. Johnson’s boldness and focus on character development tied together through the theme of moving on largely accomplish those two goals well, but like his antagonist he also apparently believes that it’s okay to violently kill the past, without seeing the problems with that line of thinking.