SPOILER WARNING! This review contains heavy spoilers throughout.
The Last Jedi is possibly the most controversial Star Wars film yet, but nonetheless is an important change of pace for the series. Rian Johnson’s vision (and there’s no doubt this is his film) focuses on nuanced character development and establishing new themes while avoiding the past missteps of the prequel trilogy.
In a franchise dominated by super fans and rampant speculation, many of Johnson’s plot points are alarmingly bold. The anticlimactic resolution to Snoke’s threat, the reveal that Rey’s parents (for now) are nobodies, and the suggestion that Luke isn’t quite the white knight we’d hoped can easily be perceived as controversial choices for controversy’s sake: an aggressive betrayal of the fans. But, as Johnson revealed in his interview with /Filmcast, he began writing long before The Force Awakens even hit screens. Rather than a response to the fandom’s theories, this film was created entirely separate from them. Does this mean that what we are seeing is a glimpse into a truly original Star Wars film; a singular vision, rather than a corporate crowd-pleaser? It’s definitely possible, especially since once the dust has settled each decision proves its worth by the time the end credits roll.
This film is a masterclass in character development, and its play with expectations contributes heavily to this. The death of Snoke as a plot point is demonstrably emphatic, bringing fully into question the darkness within Kylo in a way that no ‘predictable’ plot point could. He becomes a complex character because, even as an audience member, we are completely in the dark about his next move. His internal conflict is apparent in not just the reactions of those around him, but also in our own reactions to him. This duality, his occupancy of a middle ground between light and dark, makes him a compelling villain that, with Adam Driver‘s commendable performance, surpasses even the mighty Vader.
We can see similar examples in almost every character: Rey’s supposed destiny to be a heroic Jedi is called into question by her lack of Jedi heritage; Luke’s role as a mentor is complicated by varying accounts of his betrayal of Ren; and Poe’s approach to heroism is refined after his attempt to overthrow a seemingly corrupt authority is proven unjustified. The morality, intentions, and opinions of every protagonist are kept directional (and most are reaffirmed in the final act of the film) but they end the film having organically reached these standpoints. They end as three dimensional characters, not the slightly cookie-cutter heroes we were introduced to in The Force Awakens.
This is a perfect solution to the ‘middle film’ problem in trilogies. The first film is responsible for introducing us to the world, characters, and plot. The final film wraps up the plot, brings characters to logical conclusions, and delivers the happy ending we want. But a middle film often struggles to find meaning – that’s why it’s so refreshing to see Johnson use this relative freedom to provide insightful and nuanced development. The criticisms of TFA’s similarity to A New Hope are long forgotten, the characters of the now 30-year old plot thread respectfully retired to make way for a new and rich cast. Tired themes of incontestable good versus total evil are replaced with new and refreshing subtleties. We’re back to original and creative Star Wars, escaping the predictability of most other franchises (cough, Marvel, cough).
That’s not to say this film is perfect. The casino subplot is by far the weakest element, combining a forgettable and aimless romp in a casino with a romance that feels both beneath the characters and beneath the film itself. There are also a few moments of levity that ring discordant with some of the darker moments framing them, in particular later scenes involving the overthrow and undermining of Domhnall Gleeson’s slimy General Hux. These moments often are fitting with character, but in need of refinement to better blend with the context around them.
There will never be a shortage of strong opinions on both sides (after all, it’s a Star Wars film), but audiences will return for what will undoubtedly be a more conventional Episode IX with a new appreciation and investment in the characters which is in itself an achievement. The Last Jedi balances the crushing pressure of the past with a need for refreshment perfectly, and with technical prowess that makes the film a pleasure to look at. This kind of creativity and freshness is what made the original trilogy so special and I have no doubt that, over time, this film will come to be recognised as an important moment in Star Wars history.