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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”

If “The Last Jedi” were actually in favor of wiping the slate clean, then Kylo Ren would be its hero. While some viewers might find themselves cheering Kylo’s “burn it all down” approach to Star Wars iconography (destroying his wannabe Vader helmet is a victory for us all), the unsettlingly jacked emo prince is clearly poised to become the trilogy’s main antagonist. But it’s the ways in which Kylo Ren overlaps with Luke that make him such a compelling foil for Rey: Both her mentor and her nemesis are essentially arguing for the same thing: destroying the things they hate about the past. It’s no wonder they both see so much potential in a Force-sensitive girl who doesn’t have one.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, Supreme Leader Snoke is so busy prattling on about destiny that he can’t see the extent to which he’s dooming himself. Too arrogant to care about what’s already happened, Snoke is a chewed-up manifestation of our latent desire to see this trilogy unfold exactly as we expect, high on dopamine hits and low on drama. His sudden death makes for the film’s most satisfying twist, the lightsaber slicking through his guts in a violently ironic rebuke to everyone who thought this trilogy was just going to follow the template that’s been laid out for it.  When his torso slides away from his legs, a world of possibilities springs out from his cauterized guts.

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Disney

The prequel trilogy was hobbled by a preoccupation with destiny, and yet fans have spent the last two years eagerly theorizing all the ways that that same destiny might define these new adventures. Poisoned by a generation of blockbuster cinema in which the biggest films have been fueled by the smallest ambitions, these people have been reconditioned to just want more of the same. Honestly, it’s hard to blame them. If Hollywood isn’t going to risk telling new stories, the least they could do is not fuck up the old ones. Every new movie is introduced to the culture like an organ transplanted into a sick body, where the best case scenario is a new lease on life and even the slightest incompatibility risks total rejection.

Logic suggests that Star Wars should be the apotheosis of contemporary franchise modalities, but Episode VIII finds this trilogy charting a bold new course. After almost two full movies spent following a linear path, Rey suddenly finds herself freed from the shackles of whatever story this is supposed to be. She may be no one from nowhere, the daughter of two random Jakku traders who sold her for drinking money, but that opens her up to a future of infinite possibility. Forget the chosen one, Rey can be whoever she wants. Just because she’s at the center of the biggest franchise in the universe doesn’t mean that her story has been written in the stars; Johnson sends her hurtling off into the unknown.

Zooming in on the personal agency that empowered Finn to trade a walk-on role in the First Order for a lead role in the rebellion, “The Last Jedi” argues that people are defined by the choices they make, not by their moxie or the Midichlorian count in their blood. The entire story hinges on the argument that anyone can save the day, and anyone can ruin it. Multiple times throughout the movie, Johnson coerces us into judging certain characters only so that they can defy our expectations and slip free from the inflexible roles we’ve assigned them.

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Disney

As a result, the movie’s less concerned with heroes and villains than the way people like Poe Dameron come to question their own value, as he realizes that his hotheaded ways might cause more harm than good. That swagger may have worked for Han Solo, but the galaxy has changed, and Han Solo is dead. Luke Skywalker has literally become an illusion, only capable of buying time, and General Leia Organa is already looking to the next generation for their guidance. While the film’s title burdens us with the idea that new heroes are not an option — that hope can only be found by looking over our shoulders — the film itself refutes that point at every turn, spreading the Force to those who need it most before leaving us with a nameless street urchin on Canto Bight.

It’s just as Yoda says, the little green Jedi all but looking into the camera:  “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” Star Wars has always owed as much to the future as it does to the past, but “The Last Jedi” is the first Episode of the franchise that actually takes that wisdom to heart and displays the full courage of that conviction. Abrams planted the seeds for a new story, but Johnson had the audacity to cultivate them into something real.

“The Last Jedi” is a shot across the bow of every boardroom in Hollywood, and an affront to anyone too selfish to recognize how their childhoods might not be the only ones that matter. If the biggest series of movies in multiplex history can afford to liberate itself from its own success, grow beyond the things that made it great to begin with, and dare to give audiences what they didn’t even know they wanted… well, then nobody has an excuse to keep selling (or buying) the same old slop. It isn’t easy to take a chance like that, to make progress within a system that seems designed to keep us stuck in place. But Johnson just proved that rebellion is possible — and necessary.

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