The chief complaint against Star Wars: The Force Awakens was that it reveled too much in its own past, repeating the themes and dynamics of the Star Wars franchise too closely. Taking it as an expertly constructed remix, I enjoyed it through and through, but even I will admit that it’s still just a remix.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is now in theaters, won’t ignite the same criticisms. Expectations have been high that, as the second in a trilogy, it will mirror Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. And it certainly does begin with a student looking for a legendary Jedi master, an attack on an evacuating rebel base and a villain on the hunt for Luke Skywalker.
But The Last Jedi winds up being its own thing. It concludes with an overwhelming note of hope. It sets its ambitions high and follows through. And it walks the tricky line of surprising a savvy audience while also following its franchise’s familiar symmetries and tropes.
The Last Jedi knows that it is not just trying to make more Star Wars. It’s trying to work with symbols and patterns that Star Wars made forever iconic — conceits that other stories have been building on and reframing and refocusing in every medium for 40 years.
We’ve seen Jedi masters train their students, and we’ve seen countless stories that have built their own training sequences on our cultural familiarity with the tropes of Star Wars. How then, does The Last Jedi use that scaffolding rather than being crushed beneath it, when it has to, once again, show us a Jedi master training his student?
With good ideas, it turns out, and good acting and good writing and good direction and, most of all, good humor. The Last Jedi might be, scene for scene, the Star Wars movie that attempts the most jokes. But it never dispels tension when a scene needs tension or undercuts gravitas when a scene needs gravitas.
Yes, it’s safe to assume this deft tone blending got Rian Johnson the job of helming an entire new Star Wars trilogy. It turns out that Disney really can have a series of war movies that you can take a grade-schooler to. It can even have a war movie that tips its hat to its own setting’s preoccupation with cycles of conflict.
But forget cycles: let’s talk about what’s new. As newcomers to the franchise, Laura Dern navigates a tricky character in Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, while Kelly Marie Tran is instantly lovable as Rose Tico. Benicio del Toro’s character — if he had a name, I never got it, and I’m not even certain he did — is an outright scene-stealer. And, though not new by any means, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is given the character arc he was missing in The Force Awakens, when his role was expanded from a first-act death to an implausible third-act reappearance.
Though not created as one, The Last Jedi even works as a worthy send-off for Carrie Fisher. One line in particular, in the full benefit of hindsight, reads as a metaphor for the place that the actress turned author turned irrepressible public speaker of truth found in the hearts of her fans. If this is the last we see of Princess Leia, and it seems like it will be, it will be a good end.
The Last Jedi is not without its disappointments: a stone left unturned here, a contrived conflict there, characters whom I wish had been allowed to share more screen time and others left oddly unexplored (I suppose there will be a tie-in novel about them someday). The Last Jedi is the longest Star wars movie, and it does feel like it. The third act is a beating drum of moments that each seem like they could be a satisfying climax.
But I didn’t care. The Last Jedi had still tricked me into mentally digging my fingers into the armrests, worried that it would do the financially unthinkable: kill off a marketable character.
There are some scenes in this movie I can’t wait to talk about. Not because they’re beautiful, though they are. Not because they’re heart-wrenching, though some of them are. But because The Last Jedi challenges itself with moments that, if mishandled, could easily have tainted beloved Star Wars moments in the same way that many people feel the prequel trilogy did. Instead, it navigates those narrative rapids with aplomb.
And it continues The Force Awakens’ biggest job, that of passing the weight of the galaxy from the shoulders of the original trilogy’s heroes to those of our young protagonists. Here, even more than before, it’s up to them to determine the future of their world.
As Kylo Ren has said (in trailers, so it’s not a spoiler!), “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.”
As in most things, he’s a little overdramatic for the occasion — but it’s still a serviceable metaphor for the journey of the story of Star Wars from the final scene of The Force Awakens to the final scene of The Last Jedi.