When J.J. Abrams and writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt rebooted the Star Wars film franchise in 2015 with The Force Awakens — the first in a sequel trilogy, following the original Star Wars trifecta of 1977’s A New Hope, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, and 1983’s Return of the Jedi — they found a fairly winning formula that split the difference between respecting fans’ love for the original trilogy, and nudging the franchise into the future. They introduced new characters and centered the story around them, but that story was remarkably close to a retelling of A New Hope, complete with new Empire and Rebellion analogues facing off, a new Death Star to destroy, a new Luke Skywalker equivalent trying to escape a new backwater desert planet, and so forth. At the same time, Abrams and company brought back A New Hope’s original Luke / Leia / Han Solo / Chewbacca quartet, and set them up as beloved legends whom the new characters all but worship. It was a smart approach in terms of giving fans something familiar to embrace while easing them into the series’s inevitable generational shift, but nostalgia has its limits, and it was hard to escape the feeling that The Force Awakens wasn’t a new film, so much as a jaunty modern remix of a familiar one.
Given that foundation, Brick and Looper writer-director Rian Johnson had a few obvious options with The Last Jedi: continue the trend and remix The Empire Strikes Back into a 2017 version, or buck the trend, move sharply away from the legacy content, and push the series away from familiar places. Instead, he chose a less-obvious option: he did both. The Last Jedi does feature sequences that directly recall The Empire Strikes Back, though Johnson’s script uses their familiarity to play against expectations and subvert viewers’ nostalgia, instead of paying it off. But he also borrows from Return of the Jedi, compressing the rest of the original trilogy into a single fast-moving, far-reaching story. And he makes some even more radical choices, abruptly shutting down open storylines and wrapping up loose threads. There’s been some fan concern that Last Jedi might mimic Empire Strikes Back too closely, down to the dark tone and open ending. Instead, Johnson’s film feels remarkably close to a coda for the new trilogy, a platform for a radical departure from canon when the untitled sequel arrives in 2019.
And Johnson is certainly aware of how far and how fast he’s pushing this well-worn narrative. His characters repeatedly talk about the need to put the past aside, to make their own choices and accept the future, to discard everything they’ve been holding onto, because it’s been holding them back. The “let it go” theme is so pronounced that it sometimes feels like a repudiation of both The Force Awakens and the fandom itself. Last Jedi is often a painful, mournful film about loss: as the bleak story unfolds, the characters lose allies and friends and family, agency and options, treasured illusions and ideals. They lose significant objects tied to their identities. They lose confidence and cockiness and hope. Some of them lose their lives. Not all those losses are defeats, but it’s unmistakable how much of the Star Wars mythos lovingly re-created and embraced in The Force Awakens crumbles to ash in The Last Jedi, and how the series’s wisest characters embrace that process as a painful but necessary rebirth.
Amid all that, though, Johnson finds plenty of room for familiar thrilling Star Wars adventure, from a Rogue One-style information-and-infiltration scheme to Phantom Menace-style rambunctious, CGI-forward chase sequences. He piles on the space dogfights and lightsaber duels. He significantly expands the roster of Force-related powers, in ways that are going to prompt endless fan debate (and resistance, and resentment, and backlash) after the fact, but that provide plenty of surprises along the way.
And he fills in missing pieces of the past, implied in Force Awakens, and left as endlessly debated mysteries for fans. It’s surprising how neatly and succinctly Last Jedi wraps up the open-ended stories — there are still plenty of details left to address about the new characters’ pasts, but the film answers the trilogy’s biggest questions to date with a directness that feels blunt and pointed: “You need to move on, and you can’t until you have your answers. So here are those answers.” If Last Jedi is fundamentally meant as a rebirth for the Star Wars series, the way Johnson addresses fan questions is the sharp smack on the ass that’s meant to prompt a baby’s first wailing breath.
But Johnson isn’t just being preemptory. The Last Jedi sprawls out over a 152-minute runtime that introduces new characters, including visually soft but emotionally steely Resistance leader Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), sweet but not very useful Resistance techie Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and drawling scoundrel hacker DJ (Benicio Del Toro). It separates the primary characters from Force Awakens, and gives them each their own separate story threads, spread across the galaxy. Johnson crams The Last Jedi with incident and sidelines, including new developments that radically shift the supposed direction of the franchise. It isn’t just a single-story movie, it’s a kind of wide-ranging, almost soap-operatic check-in on an immense cast of characters up to their own adventures. Johnson doesn’t fully justify all the side adventures, but he does weave them into the larger loss narrative, and into an ongoing attempt for the Resistance to live up to its name, while the evil First Order attempts to wipe it out completely.
And Johnson tells that story while occasionally delving into a loopy sense of humor that’s 100 percent guaranteed to deeply offend some viewers. This might be a good time to remember that Star Wars has had its funny side from the very beginning, from the comic-relief sidekick duo of C-3PO and R2-D2 to Han Solo’s occasional bout of goofy incompetence. Johnson’s only radical step here is to extend that humor past the heroes, and let it briefly disrupt the villains’ solemnity as well. For a series that’s so often treated its primary antagonists as towering, intimidating bastions of evil, that feels radical, but it also punctures their balloons and makes them a little more ridiculously human. It isn’t a dominant or central choice — Johnson doesn’t have Supreme Leader Snoke cracking porg jokes — but it’s foregrounded in an unmissable way. And it’s likely to kick off a debate about whether Star Wars eventually needs its own version of Thor: Ragnarok, an idiosyncratic, obviously director-flavored, predominately humorous movie that gives its characters a hipshot, silly charm.
Johnson doesn’t go nearly as far as Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi in re-creating a tentpole franchise in his own image. He doesn’t radically reinvent Star Wars with the looseness of his film The Brothers Bloom, or the creative rigor and conceptual daring of Brick. But he does dig into the impulses behind the new trilogy’s younger characters, cracking them open and examining their psychology in a way Star Wars rarely has. Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) comes in for some particularly intense scrutiny, as Johnson analyzes and dismisses a certain type of reckless hero complex, and the dangers that come with it. Up-and-coming Force user Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets a similarly brutal, unforgiving examination into her parent issues and her attachment to myths, both her self-created ones and the ones she’s absorbed about the Jedi. Johnson reveals a good deal more about villain-on-the-brink Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) — not just where he came from, but where his choices have taken him, and which ones he’s struggling to accept.
The script spends less time on the martyr complex escaped First Order stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) is carrying around, and on the way General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) balances the necessary remove of leadership with her personal concern for her people, and her personal affection for some of them. But just the attempt to acknowledge and examine these archetypes makes the characters feel a little more fleshed-out and fulfilled, and makes the roles a little more meaningful. Where he can, Johnson lifts his characters outside of the predictable, familiar franchise narrative of heroes charging wildly forward and relying on luck and the Force to get them through whatever they’re facing. The results are often messy, and not entirely satisfying.
But that describes rebirths in general. The Last Jedi is often a painful one, with the losses stacking high by the final frames. (Carrie Fisher’s prominent, touchingly elegiac role is a particularly poignant reminder of a real-world loss.) The Star Wars movies have always lived in nostalgia, even starting back in 1977, when George Lucas first slapped together a space adventure out of a mixture of Westerns, Akira Kurosawa samurai movies, Buck Rogers serial adventures, and 1940s screwball comedies. There has always been tension around that nostalgia for series fans, going back as far as Return of the Jedi, and extending divisively into the 2000s prequel trilogy. Some fans have embraced the series’s habit of returning to the same wells, and rejected any changes in tone, look, or content. Others have vocally resented the way Star Wars’ constant re-echoing of its own past has limited the directions the story could take.
The Last Jedi feels like a deliberate, thought-through corrective. It sums up its theme in its title: it’s trying, as respectfully and carefully as possible, to let go of some of the old traditions, and look for the next steps for a world that’s rapidly expanding, and needs to escape its old, familiar conflicts if it’s going to grow. Johnson acknowledges, through the characters and the dialogue, that letting go of familiar things is hard, and he holds his audience’s hands through the process. But he’s also admirably merciless about it. Audiences will likely come away from The Last Jedi with a lot of complaints and questions. But they’re at least likely to feel they’re in the hands of someone who cares about the series as much as they do, someone who loves its history, but sees the wide-open future ahead of it as well.