“This is not going to go the way you think!”
That line, spouted in pained fashion by Luke Skywalker, stood out in the intriguing trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It felt like more than a suggestion from Disney aka LucasFilm aka director Rian Johnson that the second film in the newest Star Wars trilogy would not follow a familiar template, as many have accused its predecessor The Force Awakens of doing. Luke’s words would turn out to bear fruit in a film which feels both like the box office shattering ultimate expression of Hollywood blockbuster it no doubt will be, and at the same time something wilfully subversive. Johnson started with small beginnings, with a precise and almost poetic low-budget modern noir, and you can still feel the pull of a director who wants to do things his way.
Doing things your way as a creative force on a series like Star Wars is no mean feat. Despite how Marvel have dominated the cinematic landscape in the last decade, Star Wars has no equal in terms of scope, scale and fan anticipation. When Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas in 2012 with the intention of relaunching the saga, it was the biggest news in filmmaking for many years. Considering it was originally just three space fantasy movies, and subsequently three maligned and ill-judged prequels from Lucas, the fact Star Wars as an entity has never left the public imagination or consciousness speaks to its power. Not everyone loves it, but those who do understand Star Wars has a special alchemy no other franchise can boast.
The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson asserting himself in striking fashion, with a script and story which determine to rip up the Star Wars rule book and potentially set the franchise in a bold new direction, while still honouring what came before. The fact producer Kathleen Kennedy and those at LucasFilm loved Johnson’s take so much that he has now been gifted his own unique Star Wars trilogy to devise—not just film, trilogy—shows they too are keen for Star Wars to spread its wings and embrace the future.
The Last Jedi doesn’t entirely detach from the mythological themes and fantasy tropes Lucas’ movies, and indeed The Force Awakens, played with – but it feels like the start of a brave new world.
Star Wars, at its heart, has always been a metaphysical, philosophical story about contrasting, balancing forces waging within the human soul, represented by the iconic idea of the ‘Force’. It’s why the universe may be filled with strange alien lifeforms and reliable droids, but the spiritual conflict has always been with characters who look and sound very human, despite Star Wars taking place long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. George Lucas originally rooted this battle in Judeo-Christian terminology, with characters such as Luke discussing villainous father Darth Vader in terms such as “there is still *good* in him”. Come the 2000’s and the prequels, Lucas was attempting to convert the metaphysics into a level of ‘magic science’, with terms such as midichlorians and the like.
Come The Force Awakens, when an older Leia is discussing her wayward son Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo, her description from the pen of JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan is “there is still *light* in him”. Good and evil become light and dark, the Old Testament becomes a far more philosophical Buddhist concept of duality and spiritual dichotomy. Star Wars’ approach, therefore, to the underpinning religious constructs inside its world and mythology have evolved over the last forty years, changing to edge away from a harder line delineation of philosophical ideals to a depiction of the Force more in line with Far Eastern ideas of body and soul.
This feels important to The Last Jedi because Johnson truly attempts to explore just what the Force means, where Lucas felt more inclined to try and explain what it *is* in his prequels. Johnson’s message very much seems to indicate ‘the Force is whatever you want it to be’, and, crucially, it’s for whoever you want it to be. This feels at odds with Lucas’ central messages within his original trilogy and especially the prequels, whereby Anakin’s Skywalker’s Lucifer-like fall from the heavenly Jedi chorus was framed in concepts of destiny, as if his transformation into Vader had long been pre-ordained. The Force, whether good or evil or light or dark, was for a Chosen few. The biggest thing Johnson does is call bullshit on that higher order idea – Star Wars is done playing with prophecy.
Johnson actualises this through Rey, our erstwhile female protagonist. She grated a touch in The Force Awakens; an earnest, tomboy stray who did little except run around like a headless chicken and emote quite expressively. Daisy Ridley isn’t exactly an award-winning player in the making but Johnson’s script gives her more heft by grounding her on Ahch-To island, and developing the two key relationships central to her in the film – her dynamic with Kylo and her dynamic with Luke. What Johnson does, and one wonders if this was a change in direction from Abrams’ vision, is take away the very idea Rey is ‘special’ and has a destiny, by pulling the ultimate flanker: her parents, set up as mysterious abandoners in the previous film, were nobody, when we all expected them to be somebody.
Here’s the rub, and the central key to The Last Jedi – you don’t have to be anyone in order to be someone. It doesn’t matter if Rey’s parents weren’t Jedi or Sith or gifted of some powerful history or destiny. Kylo throws this back in her face when he lands the revelation on her about her family (which she already deep down knew), suggesting “you’re not part of this story”. Johnson almost reaches out here from behind the lens and shouts – “IT DOESN’T MATTER!”. Lucas’ original tale was all about a special, gifted, destined family with a Royal, entitled lineage who provided balance to the Force, both light and dark, but Rey breaks that cycle. She is just a girl from a nowhere planet and nowhere parents who happens to be one with the Force.
Star Wars can’t be the same after this evolution. Having the Force be accessible and open, free of destiny or Royalty or even the Jedi Order, opens up a mountain of possibilities. This is what Luke comes to understand through a character arc which carefully avoids him becoming Obi-Wan Kenobi, which he so obviously could have been. R2-D2 showing him the original “help me Obi-Wan…” hologram of Leia from A New Hope as he sits inside the Millennium Falcon underscores this very point – Luke may be old, may rock a beard, may have gone into hiding in a cave after watching the Jedi almost destroyed around him, but he isn’t guarding or protecting anyone, waiting for the new saviour to emerge. Luke begins this film fundamentally convinced there is no hope.
Luke’s nihilism, born out of Ben Solo’s fall to the Dark Side and the destruction of Luke’s attempt to re-create the Jedi Order, is taken further by Johnson than you suspect Abrams, and definitely Lucas, ever would have dreamed. Johnson’s open, egalitarian world where the Force could be in anyone is a world where characters are encouraged to reject history and reject myth. Many fans had heard Luke was seeking a Jedi Temple and almost everyone expected The Last Jedi to see Luke uncover Jedi secrets or arcane knowledge that would help save the day – almost nobody would have expected Luke, with the help of Yoda no less, to burn that knowledge and those secrets to the ground and extinguish the Jedi of the past. Doing this was perhaps the film’s bravest choice.
Bear in mind just how much the Jedi religion and idea has become an iconic piece of pop culture and, to an extent, has grown beyond Star Wars itself. People don’t dress up as random Sith Lords, but they do dress up as Jedi Knights. In the UK, on a religious census, Jedi was written by so many people as their denomination that the government had to officially recognise it, passing the required 100,000 signatures. We’re talking about a fictional code which if not practiced by film fans, and children, the world over, is certainly revered and honoured by millions. The word Jedi would be known to almost everyone in Western society, irrespective of whether they know Star Wars well or not. To fundamentally change the paradigm of how the Jedi work is a striking move.
Luke spells this out when lecturing Rey in why the Jedi need to die, reminding her it was their hubris and arrogance which allowed Darth Sidious to turn the Republic into an Empire, and subsequently see the extermination of much of the Jedi Order. While this is Luke to a sizeable degree abrogating Sidious and Vader of responsibility in the choices they made (and it all does come down to choice), his point is given context and clarity by Yoda: the Jedi doesn’t have to exist in the form it did for millennia in order to survive. Much like the Star Wars franchise itself, the Jedi can themselves evolve in purpose and form, and this plays greatly into Johnson’s other major level of commentary: sociological class in the Star Wars universe.
A tonally jarring sequence it may be, and perhaps an indication of one of Johnson’s weaknesses as a filmmaker (his own Looper has the same problem), but Finn and Rose’s sojourn to the Canto Bight casino and races planet reveals the major schism and dichotomy which has always existed in the Star Wars universe but Johnson writs large – the lower and upper classes which make up the galactic framework. Rose seems like a needless additional character but her purpose is abject; her essential skills are the final expression of a crucial part of the Resistance and fight against tyranny, despite her coming from nothing (much like Rey). She was one of the servants and slaves who feed the rich gamblers and dilettantes which fill Canto Bight, people who became rich off the First Order’s rise to power.
This too has to be a pointed level of allegory in Johnson’s writing, which is interesting as Star Wars doesn’t often tend to stray too heavily into an allegorical framework of storytelling, much as Lucas apparently read the original 1977 movie as an indictment against Vietnam, with the United States as the evil Empire. The commentary here is clear – the 1% of super wealthy are serving a dark, fascist, tyrannical force who want to be the ultimate boot in the face of the little people. By giving the Force back to this underclass, the Rebellion of the original trilogy and the Resistance of the sequel trilogy are framed in a new context: the Revolution. Johnson’s final shot, of a young, impoverished child looking up at the stars, wearing a Resistance sigil and holding his broom like a lightsaber after hearing stories about Luke and the Jedi sells it: the Force is with everyone, and woe betide a fascist dictatorship who underestimate them.
Naturally you can apply the iconography and visual style of the First Order with the Nazi Party (Abrams made this very clear in The Force Awakens) but is Johnson making quite pointed parallels to the modern Republican government and the increasingly fascist direction of Donald Trump’s Presidency? Possibly. Not pointedly, but the inference is certainly there. The fact those young children are telling stories, too, is crucial, because it reframes the myth and legend Johnson’s script is keen to snuff out, or at least redefine without the historical names and touchstones characters in the Star Wars universe, and fans outside of it, are used to.
Johnson clearly sees legends in a different way to Abrams. The latter feels they’re important and venerates them – you only have to look at Rey’s excitement when she first meets Han Solo in The Force Awakens, and the hushed tones of myth when Luke is referred to. This is exactly how we, the audience, consider these characters and The Force Awakens indulged our euphoria at being in their presence once more. The first thing Luke does when we meet him in The Last Jedi is disdainfully toss away the lightsaber which itself became legend – the lightsaber that fought Vader, which cut off Luke’s hand in The Empire Strikes Back. To all of us, its a symbol. It was almost the McGuffin of The Force Awakens. Johnson tosses it away like its nothing, like its a falsehood. Legends are earned, not simply made and set in stone.
Kylo Ren certainly comes to understand this, and quite early on. It’s telling how Johnson has him destroy the very mask he created to try and emulate his grandfather Vader. That was a visual piece of original series iconography in The Force Awakens, Abrams’ honouring the legend of Vader, but when Supreme Leader Snoke mocks him for wearing it, Kylo destroys it and never wears a mask again. His central, inner conflict across The Last Jedi is no longer about trying to be Vader, it’s deciding where his destiny lies. Kylo believes himself part of the Skywalker path he mocks Rey for not being part of, but he’s choosing to repeat the cycle of the original trilogy. He chooses not to blow up Leia, or kill Snoke instead of Rey.
That choice wasn’t the same for Vader when a very similar situation played out in Return of the Jedi. The Emperor actively wanted Luke to kill his father to ‘complete his training’, in no small part because part of him undoubtedly knew Vader could be more powerful than even him. Snoke doesn’t consider Kylo in the same terms. He thinks him weak and feeble for much of this, and doesn’t even countenance the possibility he could be bested. Johnson sets up an Episode IX which explores the concept Return of the Jedi never could – what if Vader had chosen to kill his master and become Emperor, instead of dying regretting his dark path? Kylo actively chooses this path, even if he doesn’t choose the direction. Indeed Kylo is as keen to redefine everything as Luke is.
Remember how he asks Rey to join him, but not in the same way Vader asks Luke to join him in Empire. Vader wanted to continue the Empire, wanted to reaffirm the status quo as a family, hereditary, honoured, Royal destiny, but Kylo wants to let it all burn – not just the Jedi but the Order. He wants Rey to join him and start again, redefine what the Dark Side could mean. Johnson doesn’t even use the words ‘Dark Side’ across his script, another rejection of the previous terminology and tropes which define the Star Wars universe. Sides aren’t as clearly defined in The Last Jedi. There is room for manoeuvre. Kylo almost becomes the new Supreme Leader by sheer happenstance, once he puts General Hux in his place.
Story therefore is key to The Last Jedi, and how it inverts what we expect from Star Wars. Indeed there’s a clear level of self-mockery going on with quite how Star Wars tells its narrative; how Johnson plays Hux as a fascist buffoon for comedy is telling, from Poe Dameron’s early joke about not being able to connect, and a wonderful moment when Hux shouts an order again that Kylo has just given – there’s a wonderful glance by Kylo as if to say ‘I just said that, what are you doing?’. This subverts the very earnest way Admirals and Commanders, often with cut glass British accents, would repeat and deliver orders in the original trilogy, often thanks to Lucas’ quite ripe dialogue. Johnson seems to understand the silliness inherent in Star Wars while honouring and revelling in everything about it.
The Last Jedi could well end up being the most polarising Star Wars film ever made. It’s a touch too long, has tonal problems, feels like it has two distinct endings rather than just one, and it lacks the sheer joie de vivre of The Force Awakens, but intentionally so. It’s the middle part of a story where the heroes take a severe beating at the hands of a seemingly unstoppable, un-defeatable force, to an even greater degree than they do in The Empire Strikes Back; this is a Resistance taken to the absolute brink of destruction and saved only by the power of the Force let loose from the restraints of the Jedi. There are plenty of moments of levity, nods and winks to previous films, and lots of loveable droids and cuddly alien creatures (hello Porgs!), but The Last Jedi by default has to be a story where victory and resolution is far from the characters’ grasp.
Where it will divide opinion is just how it approaches the Star Wars universe, attempting to redefine and reconstitute some of the key, central concepts which have made the franchise and the mythology ingrained within such a revered success for forty years. Rian Johnson’s film will potentially reward repeat viewing in a way certainly The Force Awakens doesn’t, and The Last Jedi leaves a returning JJ Abrams with some oddly big shoes to fill, because his successor has changed the very manner in which the Star Wars universe considers itself.
The Force is now with all of us, and there is no coming back from that.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson
WRITER: Rian Johnson
CAST: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleeson, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Andy Serkis
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