When Star Wars came roaring back with The Force Awakens, it was just what the long-running franchise needed: a return to what made audiences fall in love with the series back in 1977. It wasn’t just the return of fan-favorite characters that attracted audiences, though that certainly didn’t hurt. Rather, it was a recommitment to elements of the original trilogy that seemed forgotten by the prequels, whether it was creating new characters that resonated with audiences, shooting on film, or relying more on practical sets and effects. One of the more popular criticisms of The Force Awakens, though, was that it skewed a bit too close to Star Wars. I disagree. While the prequels were financial successes, they weren’t on the level of the original trilogy in terms of quality, and I believe it was vital for the series to get audiences back on board with something they would love before the series attempted to stretch what it could accomplish narratively again. So I was fine with The Force Awakens recalling Star Wars and, to a lesser extent, The Empire Strikes Back in setting up this new trilogy, with one condition: it would provide a jumping-off point for Star Wars films that pushed the boundaries of the series.
Well, two years later, Star Wars: The Last Jedi manages to push against those boundaries in some significant ways, creating an entry in the series that simultaneously feels organic to what came before and wholly unique.
NOTE: While I will in many cases speak broadly about The Last Jedi, the following text may include SPOILERS.
In the aftermath of the First Order’s destruction of the Republic in the Hosnian system, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leads the Resistance in an effort to evacuate their base before the First Order arrives to wipe them out. On the planet of Ahch-To, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to come out of exile to help Leia in their efforts to defeat the First Order. Following his defeat by Rey on Starkiller Base, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) attempts to prove himself to the leader of the First Order, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
There’s more to the plot, but part of the joy of The Last Jedi is not knowing exactly what’s coming. At 152 minutes, The Last Jedi is by far the longest Star Wars film to date, and it uses the time to take each of its plot lines in unexpected directions. Seemingly insignificant elements come back in significant ways. By picking up where The Force Awakens left off, the time gap that normally takes place between Star Wars films is eliminated, which enables this film to jump into the action in a way never quite seen before in this series.
Credit this in large part to writer/director Rian Johnson, taking over the creative reins this time around. Best known for his previous film, 2012’2 Looper, Johnson seems to know what audiences are expecting not only to a sequel to The Force Awakens, but what audiences expect from the second film in a Star Wars trilogy – and he toys with those expectations, subverting them in ways that are delightful. With Luke and Leia in particular, he relies on the fact that audiences have known these characters for 40 years to do things that are in character, but not quite what we’ve grown to expect from them. Where The Force Awakens focused heavily on Han Solo, Luke and Leia get far more prominence this time around, in ways that should thrill longtime fans.
Of course, the true stars of this new trilogy are the five main characters we met in The Force Awakens: Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and BB-8. With the exception of BB-8, who’s still a badass droid, each of the characters gets to show growth and added complexity as the film goes along. This is where I’d wager the film’s decision to be an immediate follow-up to The Force Awakens comes in most handy. Rather than seeing characters who’ve changed over a period of time off-screen, we get to see how the previous film’s actions are still changing them. With Rey, the growing power she felt with the Force goes into exciting new directions. Kylo Ren has to come to terms with killing his father, and the anger he harbors towards Luke. Finn must reckon his newfound status as a hero with the desire to run that still plagues him. Poe gets the most refinement this time, in large part because he was less present in The Force Awakens than the others. The Last Jedi gives a better idea of Poe’s presence in the Resistance, his relationship with Leia, and what makes Poe tick.
The film also introduces a handful of new characters: Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance mechanic who’s the sister of a Resistance hero; Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), a leader in the Resistance whose style (in leadership and possibly fashion) rubs Poe the wrong way; and a mysterious figure credited as DJ (Benicio del Toro) who assists Poe and Rose on a mission. While DJ is more fun than anything, Rose and Holdo are both great additions to the Star Wars universe, with both getting two of the most powerful moments not only in this film, but in the entire film series. They also provide some excellent diversifying in the inclusion of women in this series, continuing the trend of this new trilogy in making the galaxy reflective of a wider range of individuals.
On a storytelling level, there’s a lot to process with The Last Jedi, and it’s something I’m finding myself processing further as I continue to write, trying to decide what’s worth sharing upfront and what should be left unsaid until after the film comes out. There are a few worth talking about now, though. One is something that’s been hinted at in The Force Awakens, and that’s the growth of moral complexity in the Star Wars universe. For a universe that’s been defined by the light and dark sides of the Force, of the Jedi and Sith, of the Rebel Alliance and the Empire (or, more recently, the Resistance and the First Order), there’s been an obvious push for one side to win. What The Last Jedi emphasizes is something that’s been present in some way since the beginning, and that’s balance. It brings to mind one of the elements of the prequel trilogy that tends to be downplayed in criticism of that trilogy – the idea that an imbalance in the Force, combined with the hubris of the Jedi Order, led to the rise of the Sith and the Empire. One thing that becomes apparent watching this film is that there’s room to define these characters in ways that go beyond purely good and evil. It’s not to say that there can’t be two sides, or that the sides are equal. Going beyond the binary of good and evil, though, is vital.
That coincides with something that’s been hinted at in the trailers for the film. As Kylo says, “Let the past die.” The idea of letting old ways die comes up frequently in the film, with the belief that holding onto the past in many ways hinders at the potential for growth. Reconciling who they are with who they were or what’s in their past is something most of the characters have to wrestle with here. More specifically, it’s the idea of breaking with the past that comes into play. For all of the criticisms about The Force Awakens echoing previous films, The Last Jedi adds in a narrative context for the parallels of that film to the previous films. It also suggests a possible way forward for the series, and I can hardly wait to see how Episode IX plays out in two years.