(*** Spoilers ahead ***)
In an interview before The Last Jedi premiered, Mark Hamill said that the most important line was one shown in trailers, said by Luke Skywalker: “This is not going to go the way you think.”
In the movie, he’s talking to Rey, but he may as well have been talking to audiences who would flock to see the film. The latest installment of the Star Wars saga grossed $220 million domestically in its first weekend, putting it as the second-best opening all-time behind only The Force Awakens. Audiences certainly have shown up in droves to see the movie, which has been widely and almost universally praised by critics and has been very well-received by much of the fanbase, it seems – although a vocal section of fans (largely made up of some hardcore fans) hates it.
If we heed Luke Skywalker’s words about this not going the way we think, however, we are freed up to enjoy The Last Jedi for what it is: an absolutely terrific story with some breathtaking visuals that challenges all of our expectations and sends the Skywalker trilogy heading in a bold new direction. It may just be the boldest Star Wars film to date, Rogue One included. And I think Rian Johnson hit a home run with the film, one that I loved initially but that perhaps has gotten better each time I’ve seen it (the count is up to four so far).
For its entire cinematic history, Star Wars has been about the Skywalkers. The original trilogy featured Luke Skywalker as the protagonist, and as the films went on it was revealed that Darth Vader was his father and Leia Organa was his sister. It was all about the Skywalkers. The prequel trilogy explored more of Anakin Skywalker’s backstory, showing his ascension into Jedi hero as the chosen one, and then chronicling his fall to the dark side, becoming Darth Vader. The sequel trilogy picked up on the Skywalkers nearly 30 years following the OT, and we realize that Leia is now commanding the Resistance, she and Han Solo have a son, Ben, who has turned to the dark side, and Luke is in hiding. The Force Awakens was in one sense all about Luke Skywalker, as the heroes and villains both searched for a map that would lead to the last Jedi’s location. The easy thing for Rian Johnson to do in The Last Jedi, then, would be to take this legendary Jedi Master and have him overpower everyone and save the day.
Johnson wasn’t interested in taking the easy way out simply for fan service, however, and the movie – and Star Wars as a whole – is much better for it. Instead, we were introduced to a new version of Luke Skywalker – one battered and broken by failure, having lost hope and come to Ahch-To to die (and to let the Jedi die with him). Luke’s character arc is perhaps the thing most debated by fans, but in my opinion it is terrific. In many ways, this is a movie about disappointment and failure. Luke failed Kylo Ren. Rey failed to fully bring Ben Solo back. Poe failed in his attempt at leadership (with the Dreadnaught) and heroics (with Holdo). Finn and Rose failed in their attempt to disable the active tracker (instead inadvertently leading to the First Order being aware of the Resistance’s plan). And even Yoda talks to Luke about failure. This movie is one that openly and readily addresses and demonstrates failure. It’s a fresh take that stretches and humanizes our heroes.
About everything in the film, another one of Luke’s lines would be most fitting: “Everything you just said is wrong.” For years, fans have debated Star Wars. In all honesty, it’s been a ritual far before the internet was around, as for example people speculated as to whether or not Darth Vader was telling the truth about his being Luke’s father. Years after the conclusion of the OT, then, fans and authors alike spent plenty of time speculating and telling stories about our heroes’ adventures in the post-Endor galaxy, and especially Luke Skywalker became something of a god. The prequels featured discussion in the early internet age, but it wasn’t until the sequel trilogy that Star Wars fans have had almost unlimited access to the internet, to message boards, and to social media to discuss a variety of things. Following the release of The Force Awakens, people spent hundreds of hours over the next two years discussing and debating and theorizing about what would happen moving forward, from Rey’s parents to Snoke’s identity to what’s up with Luke Skywalker, and a host of other things. And to those two years of theorizing, The Last Jedi echoes Luke Skywalker: “Everything you just said is wrong.”
Have an opinion about Snoke? Guess what: Rian Johnson wasn’t interested. Instead, the realization that the villain Lucasfilm was interested in developing was Kylo Ren, not Supreme Leader Snoke. Johnson did a terrific job of furthering Kylo’s character, giving us more glimpses of Ben Solo and making us think twice rather than automatically assuming he’s wrong.
Have an opinion about Luke Skywalker? Guess what: Rian Johnson had something different in mind. Instead, Luke’s a bitter old man, worn down by the weight of failure. Mark Hamill delivered his best performance as the iconic character, portraying a conflicted and downtrodden Jedi who has lost hope. Luke gets a satisfying conclusion to his arc, but nothing went the way fans would have expected.
Have an opinion about Rey’s parents? Guess what: Rian Johnson thought it more important to tell a good story than engage in fan service. It would have been simple to make Rey the child of Luke Skywalker, or of Han Solo, or even the grandchild of Obi-Wan Kenobi, for that matter. It would have been a surprising and emotional hook for the audience, but Johnson instead went with what would be the most emotional thing for Rey – and what would most benefit Star Wars moving forward. No, Rey is not royalty in this story, but rather she’s nobody: her parents sold her for drinking money. As Kylo Ren told her, she has no place in this story – a story of the Skywalkers, of their magical blood running with the force. Rey is a nobody, and yet she’s the main protagonist of this sequel trilogy.
But that’s precisely where The Last Jedi shines in the story it tells: the force is not about midi-chlorians and Skywalkers, it’s about the energy that flows through all living things and binds the galaxy together. In many ways, The Last Jedi takes the force from the Skywalker royalty and gives it to everybody. To a girl, Rey, whose parents are nobody, and to a young boy in a stable on Canto Bight. The force is something for all people. Yes, there’s still a Skywalker moving forward (Ben Solo) who will have a massive role in Episode IX, an yes, Luke Skywalker will almost certainly appear as a force ghost. We’re not done with the Skywalkers, but the saga is different now. And it’s for the better.
The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story want to please you. They want to hit familiar beats and remind you why you love Star Wars. They are so much fun. But The Last Jedi doesn’t want to remind you of anything. It doesn’t care about your relationship with Star Wars. The only relationship that matters here is Rian Johnson’s relationship withStar Wars, and for the first time in a long time, here is a Star Wars movie with a proper point of view, one delivered by a storyteller who is unafraid to shatter a universe he loves, to break down the heroes that mean so much to him. A wise and noble Luke is easy. A Luke with regrets? That’s hard. That’s tough to swallow. That’s what elevates The Last Jedi beyond a simple retread – it asks you to take these characters seriously in a way that other Star Wars films have not, to acknowledge them as something beyond a vessel for escapism. Star Wars can only matter in the long run if it’s given the room to grow. And right now, it feels like the sky is the limit. Right now, Star Wars feels…unsafe.
And that feels great.
Here’s the thing: Rian Johnson did pack in a ton of nostalgia into this movie, from R2-D2 playing Princess Leia’s message to Yoda appearing (in classic ESB form, no less) to the wonderful musical callbacks by John Williams. This film has those moments for Star Wars die-hards, but this film also isn’t afraid to step on toes, to shake things up, and to directly challenge our sacred nostalgia and hopeful expectations.
Some people went into this movie with certain expectations that they had to see, and there’s nothing that could make them like The Last Jedi then. Turns out, if you get so set in your two years of expectations, you’re probably not going to like the result. Some people hoped The Last Jedi wouldn’t become a remake of The Empire Strikes Back, but I think some people have realized since then that what they wanted all along was a remake of Empire. People want the same feel they have about the original trilogy (or whatever the pinnacle of Star Wars is for them), and they want the same version of Luke Skywalker that they experienced in the expanded universe for so many years. But for those that can let go of the past – a major theme of The Last Jedi – and see the story for what it is, this film is an exciting, emotional, fresh, and bold step in the saga, one that will change things for good.