The first fifteen minutes of The Last Jedi contain a prank phone call, a daring X-wing raid, an epic fleet battle, and a noble sacrifice. As an opening salvo, it is wholly different from anything else in the all-conquering space opera serial, and yet at the same time exactly what we want from a Star Wars film. Rian Johnson (late of time travel romp Looper, but whose best work remains the neo-noir-in-high-school Brick) has thrown away those traditions the series has been clinging to blindly for the past forty years, while keeping and revamping those that still resonate And in doing so, Johnson tells a Star Wars story about those very same traditions, about jettisoning what has failed and adapting what can still be used.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “What’s all this nonsense about prank calls and fleet battles? Doesn’t The Last Jedi begin with Rey and Luke?” The Force Awakens did indeed end with nascent Force-user Rey offering the legendary Luke Skywalker his old lightsaber in a cliffhanger of potential and uncertainty. But Johnson is playing the role of Star Wars iconoclast. What should be moments of great galaxy-shaking import are relegated to (sometimes literally) throwaway beats; and small character moments ascend to take their place, becoming the pivots upon which galactic history turns. Johnson needs us to know that there is more at stake here than the lineages and legacies which have dominated the Star Wars canon for so long.
But don’t worry; we do catch up with Luke and Rey. Luke (Mark Hamill), gnarled and weary, has hidden himself away from the galaxy and from the Force. Rey (Daisy Ridley), young and hardheaded, wants answers, about the galaxy and the Force. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Resistance, led by General Leia (the dear departed Carrie Fisher), are stuck in a stalemate with the First Order fleet. The stalemate can only be broken by ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) going on an adventure. In the most obvious comparison to The Empire Strikes Back (other than, you know, being the second in a trilogy), The Last Jedi plays out in only a handful of locations. This allows Johnson’s script to zero in on his characters, to eschew grand galactic journeys that shape history for small personal ones that shape people, so that those people can, presumably, shape history later on.
That’s not to say there’s no crowd-pleasing here. There’s that opening fleet battle. There’s a lightsabre fight that ranks among the best the series has seen, with some seriously cool anti-Jedi weaponry on display. A climactic pitched battle takes place on expansive salt flats, with the blood red undersoil creating a breathtaking battlefield. And there’s all the spaceships, droids, and weird creatures you could want from a Star Wars film (those screeching penguin things aren’t as annoying as you might think). Johnson has quite the imagination on him, and he uses it to craft a dizzying array of captures, escapes, chases, and infiltrations.
But it all comes back to the characters. Case in point: this new trilogy’s biggest secret is revealed, and it’s not the earth-shattering revelation we were expecting. Instead, it’s a deeply personal moment, one that certainly has big repercussions down the line, but that is more about defining people than events. Johnson ensures that everyone gets such a moment, from the veterans (a scene of Leia surviving an explosion is a wonderful tribute to an actress whom the film’s dedication calls “our princess”), to newcomers like Laura Dern’s pink-haired General Holdo, who becomes one of the film’s only genuine heroes.
In fact, The Last Jedi as a whole is more concerned with people. Star Wars has always been about ruling classes: the political upstarts of the Empire and First Order; the embattled aristocracy-in-exile of the Resistance; and the Jedi, that legendary ruling class of a bygone Utopia. Johnson strips all of this away to focus on the people actually fighting in these struggles and, more importantly, the people they’re fighting for. To this end, Tran’s Rose Tico becomes the mouthpiece for a discussion of class that Star Wars has needed to have for a long time. It might be superficial and sentimental, but it’s there, and it works.
I realise that much of this talk about traditions, people, and classes is all rather vague, but there’s good reason for that. So much of what makes The Last Jedi the freshest Star Wars film since Empire is tied up in pivotal moments, which themselves are tied up in character arcs, and to discuss either here would spoil everyone’s fun. The Last Jedi is a film made up of character arcs, not plot points. This is not a film about getting the state of the galaxy from here to there; it’s a film about getting its getting characters from here to there. In a blockbuster landscape obsessed with MacGuffins and doomsday scenarios, Johnson’s is a daring mission statement.
I also realise that this talk of traditions, people, and classes makes The Last Jedi sound very revisionist. And it is, trimming away the ancestral baggage that has held the series back, while keeping what has allowed it to endure for four decades. But don’t be put off by hoity-toity labels like “revisionism”. The Last Jedi is a great Star Wars film, probably the best since the much-vaunted Empire. I’m sure J. J. Abrams likes the series, but his The Force Awakens was more a proof of concept than a labour of love. Johnson, though, is clearly a fan, and The Last Jedi is clearly made by a fan. It’s a big neon signpost pointing out where this series needs to go to avoid the mistakes of the past; but it’s also an exciting, emotional, surprising vision of a galactic and cinematic future full of hope.