In just one short week, director Rian Johnson has taken his new Star Wars film from one of the most highly anticipated films in the saga to one of the most divisive. In so doing, he has created a bold and original take on the franchise, one that sees a return to the original film’s roots in some important thematic ways.
Warning: I tried guys, I really did try, but yes, there may be some light spoilers in here.
After a total of eight Star Wars films, the formula is pretty familiar: an opening title crawl, John Williams music, simple scene cuts, and ragtag band of pilots, space ninjas, and droids fighting back against an oppressive Empire of Nazi-esque Imperials and Sith Lords. The Last Jedi includes all of those things. The film opens to a space battle led by Poe Damaron, whose mischievous smirk is contrasted with General Hux’s wicked, cartoonish snarl. Supreme Leader Snoke’s throne room is highly reminiscent of Emperor Palpatine’s, and Luke Skywalker’s weary Jedi Master persona is clearly meant to invoke that of an elderly Yoda. In all of these ways, The Last Jedi is certainly aware that it is a Star Wars film.
And yet, in other ways, it is distinctly un-Star Wars. While the film starts with the canvas of familiar Star Wars archetypes, it quickly casts them aside, forging new paths in the galaxy far, far away. Director Rian Johnson frequently deconstructs some of our favorite heroes, exposing their faults and humanity with plot strokes that are, at times, shocking to see onscreen. From the beginning of the film, it appears that, not unlike The Force Awakens, the newest film will be a slight variation on a familiar story. But while Johnson uses the same blueprint to begin his story, he quickly deviates from it, intentionally and frequently reminding us that this is not your parents’ Star Wars.
To say this works with every departure would be an overstatement, but it is, if nothing else, a bold and forward-thinking film. It’s very fitting, then, that the film’s key takeaway is one that flies in the face of Star Wars nostalgia: “Kill the old,” an idea echoed by numerous characters. Not every character who engages in this mantra means it in the same way. Luke, a disillusioned old man who sees himself as a failed legend, believes it’s time for the Jedi to end. Kylo Ren is convinced that he must destroy what is left of his past in order to find a true path forward. This idea is found in numerous other places in the film, from passing the torch of Republic leadership to, perhaps unintentionally, giving hardly a glance to Han Solo’s death from the previous film. But it’s also a meta-level commentary on the franchise itself, given the film’s unexpected plot twists in a sequel to a film that was largely a remix of the franchise’s original film.
But when the old is dead, which has been a symbol of hope, where do people turn to? That’s the reason for the film’s multiple plot elements. Even as Rey implores Luke to come join the Rebellion and reignite the fire that must stop The First Order, the film’s other heroes – Finn, Poe, and newcomer Rose – unite to create a hope of their own. While the New Republic’s desperate circumstances are an odd shift from the optimistic ending to The Force Awakens, the need for hope in the midst of a dying old order signifies the need for new leaders to step into old shoes. This gives a greater deal of meaning to the concept of legacy – especially when legacy is not passed on the basis of blood alone. This was in many ways the thrill of the original Star Wars – some kid from a farm on a no-name planet turns out to be great at space sorcery and brings down an empire’s superweapon.
That’s not to say that this thematic development is always handled well. There’s a rather odd departure from the main conflict about halfway through the film that, while providing the opportunity for an enjoyable and odd performance from Benicio del Toro, distracts from the film’s focus. When the film remains focused on the idea of a new hope amidst the dying old leadership, it hits on a fresh iteration of the ideas that have always made Star Wars great – ideas that the prequels were entirely bereft of.
But to really find that hope, a balance in the Force is needed. And so the old dichotomy of Star Wars lore rises again, in all of its Eastern mysticism and religious pluralism, with Luke preaching the balance of the Force, and decrying the exclusivity of the Jedi religion (“The Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say, ‘The Jedi dies, the Force dies,’ is vanity”). The idea of an all-powerful Force has always been at odds with Christian Theism, but there is an emphasis in The Last Jedi on battling natures within the individual – an emphasis that leads to a much more nuanced view of Kylo Ren. Rey, too, comes to a more nuanced view of those around her.
The film pursues these ends without falling into the trap of radical dualism, as has been present in previous Star Wars films – that attachment leads to evil, that all anger is evil, or that love is ultimately a vice. In so doing, while Luke does refer to “the Jedi religion,” the film is not so much interested in actual mysticism as it is in utilizing that element of world-building as a construct for character development, which the film uses rather effectively.
Of course, none of these themes can actually work if you don’t have good actors, script, and direction. But this film has all three of those things. Aside from the aforementioned and rather odd distraction in the second act, all of the pieces of The Last Jedi fit perfectly together. Mark Hamill delivers what might be his best Star Wars performance, while Adam Driver brings a new complexity to his role, and the supporting players are effective, even if largely conventional.
If Star Wars is going to continue indulging in its flawed philosophical foundations – and of course, it will – this is as positive a step forward as the universe could make. It leaves behind the sillier elements of the Star Wars Eastern worldview, while forging ahead with themes of leadership, hope, and an eye to the future, which is exactly where this franchise’s eyes ought to be.