By Billy Jepma ’18
It’s been over a month since “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” made its grand debut in theaters, and by this point, just about everyone has some kind of opinion on it.
For a lot of fans, the movie’s subversive storytelling choices and surprising plot developments just miss the mark, and fall painfully flat. For others, those very same things make it one of the most exciting entries into the broader Star Wars saga.
While this is a film that can and should inspire many ideas and opinions in its audience, to say the film is anything less than successful with its aims is to grossly misinterpret its objective as a Star Wars movie.
Much like “The Empire Strikes Back” shook audiences’ expectations in 1980 with its sudden plot twists and stirring emotional tension, so too does “The Last Jedi” challenge the very idea of what a Star Wars movie can be. And for a series of films that is pushing fifty-years old, that is a wildly important thing to do.
For decades, Star Wars has become something comfortable, something audiences of all ages can predict and easily enjoy. At their core, these films are space operas, melodramatic, stylish, and otherworldly. They transport the viewer to a world of possibility, of adventure, and in many ways, of wish fulfillment.
Most of the films released in the saga have fallen into this category, and even for those who dislike George Lucas’ prequels, it’s hard to argue that they too don’t at least aspire to achieve these same goals.
“The Last Jedi” also aspires to this goal, but it’s not content to strive towards familiar territory.
Instead, writer and director Rian Johnson––who Disney and Lucasfilm have already hired to lead production on a new trilogy of Star Wars films for the distant future––takes everything he loves about Star Wars and subverts it into something that simultaneously feels very much at home in the universe while also dramatically broadening the scope of that universe.
The characters here are more nuanced than they were in “The Force Awakens”, the tone feels a bit more foreboding, and the story drags its heroes through a series of crushing failures that leave them, and the the audience, off-balance.
Like Luke Skywalker himself warns, “This is not going to go the way you think.” As much as this dialogue is directed at Rey, it is also meant to inform the audience that this is not the movie they are expecting. Rather, this is a movie that they––and to an extension, Star Wars itself––are in desperate need of.
The story of “The Last Jedi” is tightly packed with tension, emotion, and high-stakes action and morality. Visually, it may be the most beautifully directed Star Wars movie, and Johnson’s skill behind the camera cannot be overstated. He captures every nuanced expression of his cast, and frames his characters in the most stunning and legendary of ways.
Johnson knows that Star Wars is a mythic fantasy, and he directs it as such, creating for a film that feels both lofty in its scope and intimate in its focus.
The characters are equally complex, and grapple with failures and conflicts that are far too multilayered to summarize in such a short space.
Everyone behaves like fully functioning human beings, which means they make mistakes––sometimes stupid mistakes––but their beauty comes from how they deal with those mistakes.
While this is an undeniably darker movie than “The Force Awakens,” it’s a far more real movie as well.
It’s a stirring and chaotic whirlwind of emotions and actions that assault the audience with a Star Wars experience that challenges what Star Wars can be, while also comfortably hitting all of the notes a good Star Wars film should.
“The Last Jedi” is far from perfect, stumbles a bit in its pacing, and feels a bit aimless in its second-act, but Star Wars has never been known for its cleanliness. Nevertheless, Rian Johnson has crafted a beautifully subversive and thrilling film that opens up a new and exciting world of opportunity for the Star Wars saga to explore.