A Star Wars film does not stand alone, and in the new Disney era, each film has a specific role. The Force Awakens was to prove the franchise could survive without George Lucas. Rogue One explored the galaxy behind the Skywalker legacy. The Last Jedi has become the passing of the torch, both narratively and creatively.
Contrary to early rumors, the eighth film in the core story does not begin exactly where The Force Awakens left off, with fledgling Force wielder Rey (Ridley) confronting the long-missing Luke Skywalker (Hamill), determined to drag him from his self-imposed exile. Instead, the last remnants of the Resistance fleet under General Leia Organa (Fisher) and hot-shot flier Poe Dameron (Isaac) are being pursued by Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis), General Hux (Gleeson), and the fascist fanboys of the First Order. Straining at the leash is Kylo Ren (Driver), fresh from patricide and surlier than ever. When events finally turn to Rey, her journey of discovery is less about her own path than finding out why the man who felled the Empire has gone into seclusion. Meanwhile, the team is split further, with First Order defector Finn (Boyega) dispatched on a new mission with engineer Rose (Tran).
Johnson’s selection as writer/director raised eyebrows, since his signature was neo-noir films like Brick and Looper. However, Looper’s second story arc, of a superpowered child who could be demon or savior, set the themes that he revisits here. Where the earlier films dealt with destiny, Rey and Ren both live in a galaxy of ambiguity, and that’s Johnson’s métier.
Amongst the ecstatic reviews of The Force Awakens, there was also a contingent happy that Abrams got the franchise going again, but glad he was only around for one film. Whereas the Lucas films referenced other movies and legends, Abrams was simply self-referential to the first six, with Ren reduced to Anakin-lite and Snoke just a cardboard Emperor Palpatine. Johnson sets the entire mythos on a new path, while finally fleshing out Abrams’ characters. Where Force Awakens’ Poe was all cardboard enthusiasm, here he’s a gung-ho fool, a flyboy who thinks that everything can be solved with a few bombers and some quips – strategies that soon send him into conflict with Amilyn Holdo (Dern), Leia’s number two.
Johnson also shows himself to be a master of visuals. Unlike Abrams, whose style merely cobbles together notes from the original films, Johnson finally delivers the iconic moments that have defined the franchise. And yet the imperfections are frustrating, and still show Abrams’ influence. Finn and Rose’s trip to a gambling planet – basically a space Monaco – flits between light fun and on-the-nose political narrative. Some sight gags stink like a farting Eopie; and there are purloined visual cues, like a rerun of the flight through the Death Star II. However, there are larger structural problems: While Johnson’s final act emulates the classic Star Wars balance of multiple strands – overlapping and flowing together – he never quite catches the tight elegance of the Battle of Endor.
But these are minor quibbles compared to the depth, wonder, and sense of heroism that The Last Jedi brings back. While Abrams peddled name recognition, Johnson understands that the classic characters have to reignite the torch before they can pass it on, and gives both Leia and Luke defining moments. While Fisher’s memorable performance as the sardonic but sentimental princess-turned-senator-turned-general is given additional poignancy by her death, it does not need it to be heartbreaking. As for Hamill, his aging Luke – despairing, self-destructive, and isolated – may be his finest performance to date.
The good news is that Johnson will stay with the Star Wars universe, creating his own trilogy away from the Skywalker bloodline. The bad news is that Abrams takes over the reins again in the next installment. With The Last Jedi, Johnson breathed life into his pastiche. Now the question is whether Abrams can give the saga the ending it deserves.
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