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My initial reaction to The Last Jedi was one of ambivalence; Rian Johnson had seriously defied my expectations not just of a Star Wars film, but specifically a Star Wars sequel. I’ll also admit I was not especially partial to a few scenes, while being impressed with the ones centered on major plot developments.
But it wasn’t until a second viewing where I felt myself completely awash in the movie’s emotional current. I think it can be so easy to associate Star Wars with its visual iconography: lightsabers, blasters, space dogfights, and all that fun stuff. But I’d forgotten how much Star Wars could make me feel.
In retrospect this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Hell, I think the franchise’s willingness to get at big emotional truths is a huge reason why it’s lasted as long as it has. My favorite moments in the saga have always been the ones where the filmmakers deliberately throw us off balance. The confrontation in the Dagobah cave from The Empire Strikes Back stood out to me because of how radically it departed from the style of the rest of the film. A lightsaber duel in slow motion, an impossible appearance by Darth Vader, followed by an even more impossible appearance of a face. As a child, it terrified me. As an adult, I stood awestruck by such a terrifying character development in our supposedly pure hero, portrayed vividly and wordlessly.
The Last Jedi has these kinds of moments as well, but it’s not afraid to forge its own path. In fact, the film makes it practically a requirement. When Rey drops into that terrifying wound of a cavern, she finds herself in a Citizen Kane-esque hall of reflections, foreboding the inevitable reveal of her lineage. It’s only you, they mock. You’re on your own.
The film not only upends expectations, but abandons them entirely. Whether intentional or not, Johnson’s film flies in the face of a culture where fan theories and “keepers of the canon” are held in high esteem. Supreme Leader Snoke? A Force-sensitive opportunist filling a power vacuum. Rey’s parentage? Junk traders who abandoned her for a quick buck. The sacred Jedi texts? Literally burnt to a crisp. The Last Jedi gets back to what the very first Star Wars film did by reminding us of its pure evocative power.
We see it in the portrayal of Kylo Ren, whose complex moral and emotional struggles make him more than just the central villain of this trilogy. Unlike Darth Vader, we constantly see his face, which can’t hide his tortured internal conflict despite its relative stoicism. And there are moments of true tenderness between him and Rey, knowing that they share similar experiences with abandonment, loneliness, and heartbreak. They are broken rudders, guiding ships that drift inevitably toward each other. That’s part of what makes the next installment so terrifying; knowing that the entire military apparatus of the First Order is now in the hands of an emotionally unstable (and therefore unpredictable) adversary.
Or take the depiction of Luke Skywalker. Here is a man broken, content to die in his own corner of the universe, trying in effect to remove himself from all things except life itself. Critics have seen this as a betrayal of the character, but what if it illuminates a character we only assume we know? Is it too much to imagine a man trained relatively quickly in the Force to buck at such a traumatic failure? And rather than portray him as uncaring, it reveals his guilt at what he and the Jedi have wrought. He sees himself as much to blame for evil in the universe as the First Order. And he’s not totally wrong…but he’s not totally right. It’s amazing to see Luke slowly accept his failings and accept the present situation.
And accept it he does, as he did after his first failure in Empire, leading to a climactic showdown that reveals his growth and maturity in spite of his self-imposed exile. That’s perhaps the biggest surprise of all; unlike most second installments in planned trilogies, The Last Jedi ends on note of defiant hope. It’s yet another unexpected but welcome break from tradition. In a culture currently mired in the warmth and fuzziness of nostalgia, Johnson has brought the franchise into a brave new future. He hasn’t tarnished the legacy of Star Wars and all its teeming traditions. Instead, he’s shown how it can grow, adapt, and still remind us of earliest memories. Much like the Expanded Universe of novels, comics, and video games that flew far past the vestiges of the original films, The Last Jedi cements Star Wars’s place as a living, breathing mythology.
Good luck, Episode IX!
Edit: It has come to my attention that Rey in fact steals the “sacred Jedi texts” and stows them on the Millennium Falcon, so they are not, as I stated, burnt to a crisp. Still, I think it’s key that Luke never finds out about it, and has to accept a new version of the Jedi that excludes a strict literary canon. And whatever Rey does with them, it’s safe to say she’ll be interpreting them in her own way.