After reviving film noir, the con man movie, and the time travel movie, it’s clear that Rian Johnson has a knack for breathing new life into old genres. But, within the family-friendly confines of Disney, how much freedom does this populist auteur really have to experiment with narrative form? The answer: way more than expected. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a space opera, with an emphasis on opera. Gone are the comfortable fantasies of “The Force Awakens,” now replaced by a dramatic narrative filled with surprises. It’s “The Empire Strikes Back” of the new trilogy without feeling in any way derivative, instead, it is an effective middle chapter that leaves “Star Wars” in a strange, but exciting place.
Part of what makes “The Last Jedi” so effective is its narrative focus. Many “Star Wars'” films are galaxy-hopping epics, treating the various set pieces as pit stops on the way to the final confrontation. However, “The Last Jedi” focuses the majority of the narrative on one cat-and-mouse chase sequence. Here, Johnson makes sure to maintain the feeling that the protagonists are the underdogs. In establishing the characters’ vulnerability, “The Last Jedi” brings a refreshing change of pace from your typical superpowered blockbuster.
Johnson crosscuts this chase sequence with Rey’s interactions with Luke: the film’s strongest connection to “Empire.” What makes this section stand out is Johnson’s unique treatment of the student-mentor relationship. Here, Luke Skywalker isn’t a wise, all-knowing being. He’s a broken, old man filled with regret. His story turns into a powerfully character-driven take on the “lonely hermit” archetype. As such, Rey’s relationship with Luke bears little resemblance to Luke’s relationship with Yoda, turning a would-be training montage into a fascinating character dynamic complete with dramatic revelations and bitter conflicts. In fact, it is during these sequences that Rian Johnson makes some of his most striking visual choices. Embracing the weird spiritualism of the Force, “The Last Jedi” allows for some downright odd scenes, one moment recalling “The Tree of Life,” another containing a hallucination sequence that’s so bizarre in its vagueness that it’s easy to forget that this is supposed to be a massive tentpole franchise movie.
However, some of the biggest narrative risks take place near the second/third act of the film. Here, Johnson graduates from toying with our expectations to straight up obliterating them. Leave all fan theories at the door and come in with zero expectations, because if you were hoping that “The Last Jedi” is going to validate any expected narrative twists, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, this film has a plot that is genuinely surprising. But it isn’t shock for the sake of shock. Character arcs are all carefully constructed and, like all great drama, conclude in an unexpected, yet inevitable, fashion. Ultimately, this is a film about failure and consequences. Each character is trying to achieve their own specific goal that, while relating to the overarching plot, also addresses deep-rooted flaws and insecurities within themselves. It avoids the idea that characters like Luke, Poe, Rey, or Finn are supposed to be mythic archetypes that we can project our own fantasies on. They’re fallible people, capable of making mistakes, but, more importantly, capable of growth and change.
That’s why, for all its darkness, “The Last Jedi“ is such a hopeful film. Because it’s about accepting failure, picking up the pieces, and trying to mature into a better version of who you are. Johnson’s film ends on one of the most powerful scenes in the entire saga because it pushes the narrative thrust of the series away from a “chosen one” to humanity as a whole. “Star Wars” has always been, ultimately, about hope. But the miracle of “The Last Jedi” is that, even during these trying times, it makes hope feel tangible again.