When J.J. Abrams began a new Star Wars trilogy in 2015 with a film astoundingly similar to A New Hope, I did not mind the huge parallels for the most part. However, I told myself that if new director Rian Johnson chose to continue the series with another carbon copy of the originals, I could not be so forgiving again.
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.
If The Force Awakens was a return to form for Star Wars, then The Last Jedi is a bold departure into a new era. After fans were burned by subpar prequels, Episode VII reassured them that Star Wars was truly back. Now, Episode VIII provides a new direction for the future of the franchise, and it is a wonderful, ecstatic future.
The Last Jedi accomplishes this departure in two core ways. First, a new level of complexity is portrayed in the characters and conflicts. Second, the ever-escalating plot takes viewers in surprising and unexpected directions throughout the film’s second half.
Getting up to speed
The movie begins with its core characters split in two settings: Princess Leia, rebel pilot Poe, and former stormtrooper Finn flee with the rest of the Resistance from a First Order fleet that has found their base. Meanwhile, young would-be Jedi Rey is trying to convince Luke Skywalker to leave his island isolation and rejoin the fight. Meanwhile, the young Sith Kylo Ren still lies under the thrall of Supreme Leader Snoke. These and other conflicts play out over a 153-minute plot that constantly surprises without confusing.
There are plenty of simple, low-brow reasons to like The Last Jedi. Intense action sequences, both in space and on the ground, are often viscerally satisfying in a way that defies explanation. A healthy dose of well-times humor is injected throughout the affair, and it never feels out of place or ruins the serious moments.
This low-hanging film fruit is important to a movie’s success, but thankfully, The Last Jedi offers so much more.
Light, Dark, and true balance
Traditionally, Star Wars has been a timeless tale of good vs. evil, light against darkness. The original trilogy popularized the “hero’s journey” arc for modern storytelling. While this typical type of story is important in its own right, The Last Jedi moves beyond such black-and-white depictions to achieve something greater for a new generation of Star Wars.
Almost no character in The Last Jedi is entirely right or entirely wrong, completely good or completely bad. Luke struggles with regret, Poe with mistrust, and Finn with selfishness. At the center of the conflict lie Rey and Kylo Ren, two sides of the same coin, struggling to achieve balance between Light and Dark.
The decisions in character development in The Last Jedi seem to be part of a larger movement in today’s storytelling, a trend toward more true-to-life heroes and villains. No one is pure evil, and no one is perfect.
While this reality is present in a handful of people and moments in prior Star Wars films, Episode VIII focuses on it and resolves it in an unprecedented way for the series. Sometimes, the solution to internal conflict is not simply to overcome the darkness. Sometimes, something close to neutrality is a better answer.
It is not just individual characters that become involved in this new definition of balance throughout The Last Jedi. In fact, the entire idea of the Jedi Order is presented from a completely new angle. The Jedi always said that they wanted balance to the Force, but it seems they only ever strode for a Light-favored imbalance instead. Through Luke, Rey, Kylo Ren, and more, this film explores the idea of what true balance looks like.
A plot off the beaten path
Perhaps even more impressive than the complex themes are the many twists and turns of The Last Jedi’s plot. The film starts rather slowly. In fact, the first half of the movie seems like an enjoyable but safe rehashing of the old story formula.
However, throughout the film’s second half, Johnson’s story begins to surprise and impress over and over again with increasing intensity. By the end, I was left floored by what I had witnessed: so many new ideas and developments interspersed with callbacks to the familiar. It was the first time a Star Wars movie genuinely shocked me, and it did so more than once.
In the two previous Star Wars-related films of the current wave, crowd-cheering moments only occurred when something familiar appeared: Darth Vader, AT-ATs, etc. When I watched The Last Jedi, the audience cheered not because they saw something they knew but because something fresh, astonishing, and genuinely entertaining happened.
Johnson and the entire Episode VIII creative team could have easily produced a successful Star Wars film just by sticking with the familiar. Critics may have been skeptical, but the same-old same-old would have still sold tickets and left many audiences satisfied.
Instead of taking the easy way out, Johnson’s The Last Jedi is bold in its direction, leaving itself open for criticism from those who resist change. I could not be more appreciative for the way the story turned out this time around.
There is still so much more to address, if only we had the time and space. The acting, for example, was almost universally well executed.
Mark Hamill is a much better ex-legendary hermit than he ever was as the central hero. The difference is so stark that it is actually difficult to consider the two Lukes as the same person. The late Carrie Fisher performed her last role with the grace and poise we always know to expect.
Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is probably the most improved of the cast, lending a positively chilling presence. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac give us more of the same in a good way, while Kelly Marie Tran provides the most delightful of several new characters.
Still, Daisy Ridley as Rey is the true hero here. We started to see it in The Force Awakens, but there is no doubt by the time the credits role in The Last Jedi that this is Rey’s story.
Episode VIII is just about everything I hoped for in a Star Wars film. Rian Johnson pushed the boundaries of themes and storytelling for the franchise, and a solid combination of action, humor, and good acting helped drive each point home. As trite as it is, the Force truly is strong with this one.