Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a film that needed to play it safe in some regards. It was introducing new characters, new worlds, and trying to restore a fanbase that felt burned by the prequels. It succeeded in establishing a baseline for the sequel trilogy, and that baseline has allowed writer-director Rian Johnson to move the franchise forward with the stunning Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Although, like The Force Awakens, it takes more than a few beats from the Original Trilogy, Johnson feels eager to subvert our expectations, challenge the archetypes the series was founded on, and take bold steps to establishing a new concept of what a Star Wars movie can be while still feeling very much in line with previous films in the franchise. Although the movie suffers from a few pacing issues, they ultimately don’t detract from the film’s stunning craft and confident storytelling.
The Last Jedi is spread out over three storylines. Although Starkiller Base was destroyed, the First Order is on the move and the Resistance is on the ropes. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has traveled to the island on Ahch-To to try and convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the Resistance and lead a new Jedi Order, but she also has the personal motives to try and find her place in the galaxy now that the Force has awakened within her. She’s also found a new bond with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that allows them to communicate over long distances, and she believes she might be able to save him like Luke saved Vader. Over on the Resistance Fleet, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) butts heads with commanding officer Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) over trying to preserve the remnants of the fleet with the First Order bearing down on them. Discovering they can’t escape because their lightspeed is being tracked by the First Order, a revived Finn (John Boyega) and technician Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) head to the casino on Canto Bight to find a hacker who can break the tracking device and allow the Resistance to escape.
Although the similarities to The Empire Strikes Back are clear, Johnson is always upping the stakes in his story to try and deprive the audience of the security blanket of recognizing callbacks and parallels. The opening battle between the Resistance and the First Order makes the skirmish on Hoth look like a cakewalk, and Johnson is invested in not only showing the cost of war (as much as a PG-13 movie will allow), but challenging the comfortable archetypes that allows viewers to take a passive stance on the conflict at hand. In a lesser movie, the cocksure Poe Dameron challenges authority, shows his bold ways are what wins battles, and is the Han Solo 2.0 that inspires a generation of boys to also be cocksure charmers. In The Last Jedi, Johnson is eager to challenge that ideal and show that it’s wise, authoritative women like Holdo and Leia (Carrie Fisher) that have something to teach the flyboys. That’s incredibly refreshing, but it never feels preachy or self-congratulatory. It comes off as the evolution this story needs.
You see that evolution on Ahch-To as well where, on the surface, it seems like The Last Jedi has created a mash up of Empire and Return of the Jedi where the island is Rey’s Dagobah, providing a journey of self-discovery and Jedi training, but she also believes she can save Kylo Ren by forming a personal bond with him. Neither one goes according to plan, and while the parallels are clear, where The Last Jedi comes alive is how Johnson twists and subverts our expectations in the way that only a true Star Wars fan can. If The Force Awakens was a matter of giving fans what they wanted, then The Last Jedi is giving them what they need, which is more complex characters and themes that break free of the traditional archetypes and mythic tropes the franchise was founded upon.