It’s been a little more than forty years since simple letters in a crystal blue font first informed audiences they were about to see a story that happened in a distant galaxy quite some time earlier. Conceived and directed by George Lucas, Star Wars changed everything. The never-ending blockbuster era arguably launched two years earlier, with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, but Lucas cemented cinema as an inexhaustible source of product. Initially a modest but inspired fantasy story — with spaceships instead of steeds and lasers instead of steel — the Star Wars line swelled to become a factory of the crudely inventive, existing to perpetuate itself and feed the fans’ unyielding need for more, more, more. That it held the collective imagination for so long with so few films is a testament to the soundness of Lucas’s original vision.
Now, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Marvel Studios, the rest of U.S. major commercial moviemaking apparatus has fully caught up with the Star Wars model, and has perhaps even lapped it. New films are events and installments, standing on their own in wobbly fashion, always poised to tip and spill over into subsequent, preceding, or vaguely adjacent sequels, sister series, reboots, or spin-offs. It’s a battle for an individual film to be at all distinctive, much less boldly notable.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is officially Episode VIII in the sprawling saga of combat deep in the darkness of space. Recounting the starting place of the established characters and the mechanics of the new interweaving plots defies any aspirations towards brevity. The crux is that the new version of the rebellion remains at odds with the new version of the Empire, and most of the characters introduced in the film’s immediate predecessor, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, are finding their place in the mythos as those fictional figures who’ve been around since the nineteen-seventies are gently receding into the background. The movie ebbs and flows with the normal rhythms of the Star Wars films. But the element that sets The Last Jedi apart — that makes it the first film in the franchise since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back to truly surprise — is that Johnson plays to expectations only to shrewdly subvert them.
Johnson’s approach has already earned the venomous ire of self-proclaimed defenders of the Star Wars legacy. They’ve drafted asinine petitions in the ugliest example of fan entitlement since online entertainment pundits tirelessly groused that David Chase ruined The Sopranos by ending the series on a thrilling note of ambiguity. I think what Johnson has done is restore nuanced psychological acuity to a film universe that got bogged down in drama-deadening notions of good versus evil a long time ago. He looked at the juvenilia of the positive Force and its menacing Dark Side and wisely smeared the line in between. That gesture alone is worthy of plaudits.
I’ll go so far as to assert that my mixed reactions to The Last Jedi break down as such: the more it feels like a general Star Wars film (the fussy introduction of new creatures, the ponderous pontificating) the less successful it is, and the more of Johnson’s insurrectionist fingerprints are present, the more the film soars like a falcon. Despite the complaints, Johnson doesn’t dishonor the legacy of Star Wars. If anything he rejuvenates it by making the cinematic galaxy feel vital again.
On a more fundamental level, Johnson presides over the best-looking Star Wars film in the canon. The cinematography by Johnson’s regular collaborator Steve Yedlin is exquisite, and various scenarios are rendered with spectacular visual inventiveness, especially a moment of lightspeed heroism that stands as the single most striking scene I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars film. But the vividly beautiful shots and cinematic design run throughout the film, from the craggy, remote island where Rey (Daisy Ridley) meets Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to the vast, spare, ruby-light drenched throne room of the dastardly Supreme Leader Snoke (performed in motion capture by the invaluable Andy Serkis), a set that looks like it was imported over from some lost Alexandro Jodorowsky science fiction masterwork.
A major thesis of The Last Jedi seems to be moving this ongoing story from the staid repetitiveness that has too often defined it. Throw away old notions and embrace new possibilities, Johnson seems to argue. There’s a whole galaxy to explore.