If it was J.J. Abrams’ job to bring the Star Wars franchise back to its core centrality (read: familiar faces and no more midichlorian talk), Rian Johnson’s was to take that framework and rock it to the core. Where The Force Awakens was, in many ways, a reboot of A New Hope, The Last Jedi is similar to The Empire Strikes Back only in its position in the trilogy, ambitious scope and strong character work. Johnson has long promised that his film would “explode expectations,” and indeed, with The Last Jedi he breaks what we expect of the franchise wide open.
Now, we’re not in the business of spoiling the fun around here, so don’t worry about any juicy plot details coming up, but we are going to get into what makes The Last Jedi such a delight. The picture’s success begins and ends with the host of characters who now people the epic struggle we’ve watched unfold over so many decades and films. A major theme in the picture is letting go of the past. And while Johnson makes incredible use of the guard he has at his disposal, he increases the focus on the new faces considerably. Rae, Finn, Poe, Hux, Kylo Ren and newcomer Rose, a scrappy Rebel engineer, push and pull us across the galaxy through a blend of journeys and quests, mistakes and miscalculations, and they do it all with the pressures of both the past and future weighing heavily on them. What makes a hero? A villain? To what end do we rebel? And how do we decide the course of our lives? All of these questions hover at the edges of the narrative, for the upstarts and the old guard alike.
Take the opening moments of the film, for instance. We don’t leap right into Luke and Rey’s first meeting, as we’ve all thought we must since 2015. We open on a space fight, with the Rebels pinned down, Hux confident of impending victory and Poe leading a last desperate escape attempt under Leia’s watchful eye. Later, we cut to Luke and Rae right where we left them. But the legendary jedi doesn’t spring into action to save the day. He’s reticent and and self-deprecating, undercutting his own legend at every turn, infusing humor almost as often, and leaving Rae with more questions than answers. And she’s not the only one confident in a long journey ahead and utterly uncertain of her role in that future. Kylo Ren, always turbulent, remains shaken in the wake of his father’s death and his injuries at Rae’s hands. He’s still at odds with Hux — and the entire universe — but his mind flits out of the darkness, distracted somehow from his aims. Just as Rae finds herself distracted from hers.
Meanwhile, The First Order continues a relentless march ahead even as the Rebellion struggles to find hope and purpose with so few avenues left to the cause. We follow all of this to new lands and scenarios, some urgent and full of staggering action, others peaceful and speculative, and still others demonstrative of the everyday implications of the struggle between the dark and the light. By the time all is said and done, a staggering amount of action has transpired, but given the knowledge we’re left with when the light goes up, it all feels like quite a small start down quite a long road. The Last Jedi expands the scope of the Star Wars universe beyond the narrow scope of dignitaries that have so long held the spotlight. Our new Rebels are scrappy upstarts and our new baddies have risen from unlikely origins — they’re still locked in the ultimate battle between good and evil, but the lines are starting to blur, as the story becomes more grounded in humanity than ever before. Sure, you’ll get the epic space battle action you came for (a showdown at an abandoned hangar is a particular stunner), but you’ll find a depth of character that the series has rarely (if ever) slowed down to embrace and showcase.
In short, we’re ready for your new trilogy Mr. Johnson.