Fans who felt that The Force Awakens played it safe or skewed too close to the original Star Wars films will find much to like about The Last Jedi — if they go into it with an open mind and willingness to step into uncharted terrain.
There’s a moment in the trailer (and also the final film) in which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) exclaims “This is not going to go the way you think.” The line isn’t just a dire warning to a key character, it’s a mission statement from writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper, Breaking Bad), who makes a few well-chosen references and callbacks to previous entries, but focuses mainly on moving both the story and the universe it inhabits forward and away from safe, familiar territory.
The movie is the first in the series to pick up immediately after the events of its predecessor: The Resistance has dealt a vicious blow to the First Order, who arrives on their doorstep looking for payback. Reduced to a handful of ships and a few hundred dedicated fighters, our heroes make a run for it under the leadership of General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, who gets lots of screen time and owns every minute of it, making her untimely passing all the more heartbreaking) and her associate, the ambiguous Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern in an inspired bit of casting against type).
Their enemies, led by pasty-faced ladder-climbing bureaucrat General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and Vader-obsessed bad seed Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are relentless in their pursuit, leading reluctant hero Finn (John Boyega) and brash pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to go rogue in parallel attempts to save what’s left of the Resistance.
Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down Jedi master Skywalker and urges him to leave his self-imposed exile and take up the fight. Luke is a shadow of what he once was, and a broken man haunted by regret for reasons that will be left unspoiled here. George Lucas built his saga around the concepts of the mono-myth and the hero’s journey; Johnson implodes that structure by giving us a hero made aware that happy endings don’t last and that becoming a legend isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, Johnson his players debate the perceived importance of legacy and preoccupation with the past. It’s a much-needed bit of self-reflection for an ongoing series that’s spanned 40 years, several feature films, and a metric ton of spin-off material.
It’s not only the Empire Strikes Back of the sequel trilogy, but also of the whole damn franchise to date. Much like that 1980 installment, there’s a sense that anything can happen going forward, especially now that the new generation of heroes and villains is planted firmly in the foreground. Rey’s intense connection with the Force and the mystery of her parentage are explored, but in a way that defies fan-boy theorizing (for the best), and the give-and-take between her and Ren are among the movie’s best scenes. Finn gets a side-quest that seems tangential to the plot but allows him to grow from a man running from the fight to a man running towards it. (It also allows for the introduction of Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, a low-level Resistance member and possible love interest who proves to be a hero in her own right.) Dameron gets some much-needed development, and his hot-headed bravado makes for a nice contrast to the callow youth of his co-stars.
It is no surprise that Disney has tapped Johnson to draft a new trilogy for (read: the future of) the franchise, whose future has been in doubt given the recent spate of terminated directors. The series feels like it is truly moving forward for the first time in decades, and that future now looks more promising.