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How ‘The Last Jedi’ Liberates Star Wars from its Past and Provides a New Hope for Blockbuster Cinema

Rian Johnson understands something that franchises (and their fanboys) need to accept: If you really love something, you have to let it go.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Spoiler Warning: This article discusses the major plot points of “The Last Jedi.”

“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” — Kylo Ren

“The Last Jedi” is the best Star Wars movie since “The Empire Strikes Back,” but it’s also a lot more than that — it’s as much of a new hope for the eroding blockbuster culture of 2017 as “A New Hope” was for the emerging blockbuster culture of 1977. Needless to say, this is something of a huge surprise. At a time when mainstream cinema is typified by the coddling safety of episodic superhero movies, makeshift “Jumanji” sequels, and whatever the hell you call “The Emoji Movie,” Star Wars is pretty much the the last place you’d expect to find someone try to shoot the moon. And yet, that’s exactly what Rian Johnson did with his first foray into a galaxy far, far away.

An immensely satisfying experience that doubles as an urgent call to action for mega-franchise filmmaking, “The Last Jedi” snuck up on us like an Imperial Destroyer hiding in the shadow of a Death Star, shirking expectations at every turn and somehow resolving as both the most ubiquitous movie of the year and the most unexpected. Taking the reins of the most obsessive fandom in the entertainment universe (a responsibility that would scare most directors into deference), Johnson mounted a bonafide insurrection against an industry that’s fueled by nostalgia, grounding his story in a simple idea that was bound to ruffle some feathers and piss off some fanboys: If you really love something, you have to let it go. It’s a notion that other massive franchises should take to heart if they want to survive.

Star Wars might take place a long time ago, but “The Last Jedi” is the first installment of the monolithic space opera that’s more concerned with telling a new story than it is with burnishing an ancient myth. It’s a shocking transition, but not a subtle one. Indeed, the best and most significant moments of this film are so explicitly progressive — so heretically violent towards the sacred texts of Hollywood’s greatest saga — that they almost border on the surreal.

As sad as it is to watch Luke Skywalker slip away from this mortal coil, the scene’s raw emotion is dulled by the unshakable sense that none of it is really happening (and not only because of the great illusion the self-exiled Jedi just pulled off for his final trick). How could it be? The idea of killing him off isn’t all that extreme or unpredictable, but the reality of actually seeing it happen, of entering a world without Luke Skywalker… well, it’s enough to make the Star Wars universe feel like a truly alien place.

Between “The Force Awakens,” “Star Trek,” and the underrated “Mission: Impossible — III,” J.J. Abrams has proven himself to be a reliable steward for beloved franchises in crisis. This is a guy who rightly identified that his great contribution to the saga would be to bring people back into the fold, and so he crafted a warmly inviting epic that everyone could enjoy regardless of age, color, gender, or degree of fandom. “The Last Jedi” beautifully doubles down on most of those points — this is the most inclusive Star Wars ever, and its belief in the value of new voices is bone deep — but Johnson decided to gamble a bit when it came to that last point.

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Disney

It’s hard to imagine how he found the courage to do that, considering what’s at stake. Even after disregarding the small percentage of fans who consider the mere act of making a new Episode to be as sacrilegious as adding a new book to the Bible, he still had to contend with a handful of unique challenges. In this Etch-a-Sketch era of reboots and remakes, where most of the massive tentpole pictures are comic book adaptations that allow for a seemingly infinite number of mulligans, Star Wars is the only franchise of its size that operates without a safety net. No disrespect to Tom Holland, but there’s really only so much on the line when you’re watching the third different Spider-Man in the last decade. On the other hand, there’s only one Luke Skywalker. And while he exists in a zillion different action figures and video games and novels, no one in the audience doubts that the character they’re seeing on screen — the one embodied in flesh and blood by Mark Hamill — is the real Luke Skywalker. When he dies in “The Last Jedi,” he really dies. Everything else is just fan fiction.

Be that as it may, “The Last Jedi” is the first Star Wars movie since 1983 that has the temerity to treat the original trilogy like it was just a triptych of old stories, and not a sacred text. Johnson prioritizes character over mythology. It starts with Leia and her resistance hopping from one desolate corner of the galaxy to another in a desperate bid to shake off the Empire, the rebels stuck without a home in either direction (while Poe makes the same kind of hotheaded mistakes that used to get Han Solo into trouble). But Johnson really lays his cards out on the table when Rey finally reaches Luke on the magical Porg island of Atch-To, hands the legendary hero the lightsaber he once used to bring down the Empire, and… watches in stunned silence as he chucks the thing over his shoulder. It’s a funny moment in a film full of funny moments (in a franchise full of funny films, lest fans forget), but its impact is clear: The past isn’t going to save you, so there’s no use being precious about it. It’s a nervy, borderline hostile admission for this particular franchise to make.

Of course, Luke isn’t entirely right about all that. “The Last Jedi” wouldn’t so completely throw “The Force Awakens” under the bus, betraying the entire purpose of its predecessor. Johnson’s film isn’t about doing away with the Force and everything it represents, but rather restoring its balance. And balancing the Force isn’t just a matter of restoring some kind of harmony between good and evil. It’s also a matter of finding an equilibrium in time and space: How do we honor where we came from without limiting where we can go?

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