“This is not going to go the way you think,” Luke Skywalker says to... well, someone who needs to hear it. And this is also Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s word of warning to the audience. To us. The Last Jedi is to The Force Awakens as The Empire Strikes Back is to A New Hope. We know it, and writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper) knows we know it, and he is going to play with every anticipation he knows we will be bringing into his little space opera action fantasy.
And, indeed, there are many callbacks to Empire here: The smallest ones are visual, and often clever (the rebel-hideaway planet that looks like Hoth is covered not with snow but with salt) or shiver-inducing (Imperial walkers stomping across that salt). The significant callbacks are the ones that tease our nerdy conjectures but pay them off in ways that make it impossible to call this a xerox of Empire. The relationship of Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is strong with the Force, and Jedi Master Luke (Mark Hamill), and her sojourn on the rocky water planet of his self-exile might recall Luke’s visit to Yoda on Dagobah, but this will be very different for both of them. Snoke (a CGI’d Andy Serkis), who is strong with the Dark Side of the Force and is the galaxy’s new evil overlord, and Kylo (Adam Driver), his apprentice, have a dynamic that might echo that of the Emperor and Vader, but that’s not quite what’s going on here either. And of course we’re all waiting for something on par with “No, Luke, I am your father” as the reveal of Rey’s mysterious parentage...
I’m not sure The Last Jedi — aka Star Wars: Episode VIII — will make any sense at all to those who haven’t seen The Force Awakens, and it certainly won’t resonate as deeply with anyone who has not been steeped in the Star Wars mythos for the last 40 years. Because the truly surprising things here — don’t worry; I’m not going to spoil — are not moments of action or revelation but rather thematic in nature... and they are all reactions to that iconic mythos.
Luke here is very deeply concerned with the disconnect between the realities of the Jedi order and the fantasy of the Jedi of legend that Rey (and the Resistance, and the entire galaxy) has in her head. Previously the series had been deeply concerned with matters of great bloodlines — princesses and priests — but Last Jedi centers characters who are ordinary people: Finn (John Boyega), the deserting Stormtrooper who worked sanitation back on the Starkiller Base of Awakens, is back, and teams up with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a maintenance engineer on a Resistance ship, for a grand subplot of an adventure on a casino planet. That takes the film through an exploration of the massive divide between rich and poor in the galaxy that feels very familiar.
The Jedi are not so amazing after all, and we shouldn’t revere them. You are not your parents, or your grandparents, and you make your own destiny. This is all a bold new direction for the Star Wars series, and audacity like this is precisely what was needed if it is going to continue without feeling redundant. But perhaps most astonishing of all is the lashing Johnson delivers to the very notion of stereotypical heroics, the stuff the Star Wars saga has been built on: Selfish heroics do not win the day. Real heroism is quiet and self-sacrificing, not boisterous and self-aggrandizing. Some of this is explored in the story thread involving Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Resistance leader Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who deems him a “trigger-happy flyboy.” All of the women of Last Jedi have just about had it with men thinking they can get away with being jerks if they’re also “heroic.”
Some stuff doesn’t work. (Most worryingly, the resolution to Poe’s subplot is almost exactly the opposite of what it should be. I hope this will be dealt with in Episode IX.) But mostly, this is a terrific film, and truly exciting as Star Wars. It is full of humor and courage, and often dazzling and even shocking imagery. The last appearance by Carrie Fisher as Princess turned General Leia Organa is powerfully poignant. And as much as the film’s title — The Last Jedi — sounds apocalyptic, it’s eventually hugely hopeful.