The problem isn’t The Last Jedi, the problem is you. If that sounds like a harsh lead in then I almost apologize. Almost. Humor me if you can and hear me out (or I guess read me out), The Last Jedi deserves your time for a re-watch and re-appraisal. In fact, it’s the best Star Wars movie since Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and is easily among the top three films in the entire saga.
Before we get too far into this let me come out in front and say I love Star Wars (otherwise I wouldn’t be taking the time to write this) and I really enjoyed JJ Abrams’ Force Awakens. It’s a really great Star Wars movie. The new characters are so much fun to spend time with, the old ones are an absolute blast to see on screen again, and even the story is pretty solid (despite the fact that it gets a little repetitive). Overall Force Awakens is a very good Star Wars movie, especially in light of the prequels (yes 2/3 of Revenge of the Sith is a ton of fun, but the other 2 and 1/3 movies could be touch to watch until prequel memes became a thing), but Rian Johnson’s sequel blows it out of the water and it isn’t really even remotely close.
The Last Jedi thrives because it’s a subversion of expectations and a masterclass in how to set stakes and consequence for big budget IP films. We are an era of large IP films dominating the box office and our lives. We know the characters in these films, we’ve grown with them over time, and we love them. The flip side of this is that these films also rarely take us by surprise. Because we know and love these characters, we also know that studios are very hesitant to kill one of them off for good or let directors take liberties that stray too far from fan service or the status quo. The Last Jedi though refuses to bow down to that. Fan service can be an absolute joy to see on screen when it’s used the right way (see Avengers Endgame), but when it becomes the fallback for a lack of ideas it’s boring and lazy. The Last Jedi is a lot of things, but boring and lazy are not two of them.
Heading into The Last Jedi fans were primarily pre-occupied with three specific questions. The first was who Rey’s parents are. The second, what happened to Luke Skywalker? And the third, who was Supreme Leader Snoke? Johnson knows that fans are expecting huge answers and the internet had spent the better part of the last two years endlessly speculating on these answers. Before we get any further I’ll offer a spoiler warning (to be fair though, you’ve had two fucking years, it’s on Netflix, and this movie made a billion dollars, where have you been).
The popular theories at the time were that Rey was a Skywalker, Luke had been in hiding, and Snoke was Emperor Palpatine. Throughout The Last Jedi Johnson holds the audience in suspense often times teasing that our initial assumptions are correct. But instead of going down a boring and all too familiar path, Johnson zags hard when everyone thinks he will and should zig. Rey’s parents end up being no one of consequence, Luke quit the Jedi Order, and Snoke dies before we really learn anything about him. When it comes time for Finn and Rose to find the code breaker. Johnson knows you immediately are thinking they are going to find Lando. He’s also smart enough to know the easy answers shouldn’t actually be the answers. The intentional subversion of leading audiences down a trail of predicable and uninteresting answers is absolutely brilliant and in doing so becomes the first Star Wars movie in a long time to present original ideas and be unpredictable.
The prequel movies, at their core, were extremely predictable. That isn’t a bad thing, of all the issues the prequels have, predictability doesn’t crack the top few. A big chunk of a journey isn’t the ending, it’s how we get there. But it does mean they are missing a key element of what made the original trilogy so thrilling. We know Anakin turns to the dark side to become Darth Vader, we know Obi-Wan defeats but doesn’t kill him, we know that Leia and Luke are born and grow up separated. There isn’t a ton of mystery as to where the story is going. Nothing shocks you the way the ending of Empire Strikes Back does when Vader tells Luke he is his father, and while I don’t think that Last Jedi‘s subversion works to the same level that Empire‘s twist does, it is the first film since Empire to genuinely surprise people and have real stakes.
By providing the answers, or lack thereof, Johnson is freed to make more creative choices, leading you know that anything is possible, right down to moment he does the impossible and kills Luke Skywalker. Imagine your favorite franchise killing off the fan favorite and central character who the film crucially revolves around in the middle of a trilogy. It would never happen, but it does in The Last Jedi and it’s for the best. If the new trilogy is going to be successfuland stand on its own, it needed to move on from the shadow of the original trilogy (as much as it could while still being a sequel). Killing Luke the way Johnson does gives him an earned and fitting final turn as Luke, the kind of beautiful and poetic finality writers can only dream of for their most iconic characters.
You can pretty much glean all you need to know about The Last Jedi from our first moments on screen with Luke. He takes the lightsaber that Rey had stretched out to him at the end of Force Awakens and throws it behind his head, storming off. This is pretty much the last thing you’d expect Luke Skywalker to do in this situation. Luke isn’t interested in retreading familiar ground to predictable results and neither is Rian Johnson. Sometimes you don’t get the answers you were hoping for, sometimes your heroes aren’t heroes anymore, and sometimes it doesn’t matter who someone is or isn’t. But that doesn’t mean the quest for those answers is without consequences or meaning, it just means those answers weren’t what you were expecting. After Force Awakens fans rightfully criticized Star Wars for being stale and predictable. The Last Jedi completely bucks this with originality and ingenuity.
With his choices the development that gives to Rey and Kylo Ren especially is brilliant. He finds ways to move their personal journeys along while creating a higher degree of urgency and investment into their storylines. These are three dimensional beings who are written, directed, and played as such.
We also haven’t even touched on how great Johnson’s directing is here. The Last Jedi is far and away the most gorgeously shot film in the entire franchise. Rian Johnson puts on a clinic on how to shoot and frame his characters, it’s truly a beauty to watch.
Yes, this film also features what is quite possibly the most ridiculous scene in all of Star Wars. I am, of course, talking about the scene where Leia floats through space. This scene isn’t indefensible, but I’ll give you it’s easily the most surreal scene in the whole movie. To the point where it’s the part of the film that a lot of people just turned their brains off. As soon as they saw Leia float back to the ship they immediately checked out and refused to give the movie any chance. I get it, but I’ll also come back and say that Star Wars is a space opera, campy and ridiculous moments in the midst of the awe inspiring set pieces and battles have always been a big part of Star Wars charm, I am not sure this scene was intended to be anything much different, but I do think there is still a lot to read into with this though. A lot of time has passed in between Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi. Leia has had 30+ plus years of character development, all of which was off screen, much in the same way that Han’s had taken place off screen in Force Awakens. We already knew Leia was one with the force in Return of the Jedi due to who her parents were. Considering how powerful her brother and father were, it isn’t a gigantic leap to understand that she has mastered the force over the past 30 years (I mean look what Luke did after three movies, think what Leia could do after 30 years). Leia’s character development is especially fascinating when compared to Han, who when we meet him in Force Awakens has already regressed to his old self, as opposed to Leia who has mastered her own abilities and progressed to be the best version of herself.
JJ Abrams could (and maybe even likely will), undercut all of this by backpedaling and offering different answers to the central mysteries of The Last Jedi. That’d be a huge mistake for the franchise though. Everything doesn’t need to mean something. Everyone doesn’t need to be related to someone else. In a weird way The Last Jedi is the most grounded of any of the Star Wars films, which is odd because it’s also clearly the most ambitious.
It would also be remiss if I failed to point out something that my brother and I talked about. The Last Jedi also serves as a subversion of the hero myth. In film we talk a lot about the hero’s journey, and the original Star Wars trilogy is surely one of the best examples of this. A New Hope is very much a movie of its time, 1977. Luke Skywalker is an everyman who works hard despite it getting him nowhere and longs for something better. Luke is plunged into an adventure and along the way must discover the truth about his parents and powers to be able to fulfill his regal destiny and complete his character arc. He wants the adventure, but he doesn’t choose it, instead it chose him. However, 40 years and multiple generations separate A New Hope and the sequel trilogy. Rey is our 2017 every person. She is self-directed and chooses her own adventure, she goes out of her way to find it. Whereas Luke’s parental lineage earned him his place as a Jedi because of who is father was, Rey is forced to fight for it, working tirelessly to convince Luke she is worthy. The original trilogy focused a lot on the lofty concepts of fathers and sons, predetermined destiny, and how no one is ever too far gone, all central themes to the hero’s myth. At its core though The Last Jedi dismantles the idea of the hero’s myth saying we can be our own heroes.
The Last Jedi offers viewers something they seldom get in big budget franchise films; stakes, consequences, and subversion. It should be applauded for taking bold risks with a franchise that notoriously has played it safe for the past three plus decades. With The Last Jedi Rian Johnson manages to surprise and delight, even if it isn’t the way viewers originally thought they wanted. Now that it’s been just over two years since the film released, it’s high time you popped it back in and gave it another shot with an open mind. You just might be surprised.