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Rian Johnson’s Genius Cements ‘The Last Jedi’ As A New Classic

Disney/Lucasfilm

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson

Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Issac, and Mark Hamill

152 Minutes

Reber’s Rating – A

Somewhere in the middle of the inaugural showing of The Last Jedi, a breather in the plot exhibiting on the screen before me, out of the corner of my eye I saw a father two seats down rise to his feet. He wore a Chewbacca t-shirt and looked absolutely wearied, yet that wasn’t what caught my eye. It was his young daughter, no more than four years old, dressed head to toe as a young Princess Leia, hair buns and white dress and all. They were getting comfortable, settling in for the rest of the film. And as I gazed about the theater, seeing a crowd of varying ages and fandom all gleefully cheering and yelling in tandem, I grinned. The House Lucas Built was finally back with the next much-anticipated installment of our favorite space opera.

I walked out, metallic popcorn tin slinked under my arm, making this musing with others and still cannot believe these were our first words – Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi may arguably be the very best Star Wars movie ever committed to film. Yes, side-by-side by The Empire Strikes Back.

That’s right. Not only is The Last Jedi visually a jaw-dropping sight to behold, rich with cultivated character development and advancement, but Rian Johnson has gone back to the basics much akin to J.J. Abrams before him. (Practical sets and special effects, miniatures, and actual puppets, oh my.) Johnson had a tall order to fill, given that The Force Awakens was a rip-roaring return to form for the now 40-year-old franchise. Abrams was ripped for taking a few pages out of Lucas’ original film. People wouldn’t be totally wrong either to be honest (though was far from a deal breaker for me). Yet Johnson set out to keep audiences guessing, trying to distance himself from comparisons to Irvin Kershner’s 1980 follow-up to A New Hope, setting out to pen a screenplay that began to focus on our new set of heroes a bit more and progress the overall plot the next step forward towards 2019’s finale.

Listen. You think you know the answers. You think a thread on Reddit will unravel the mysteries that Rian Johnson has cobbled together to keep audiences the world over theorizing. You think you’re smarter than a director who has been tasked to top The Force Awakens and a rabid fan base hungrier than ever for more of these characters. And sure, you may think you’ve got the entire puzzle pieced together but just as you’re about to proclaim triumph – your pieces are swatted off the table, your mouth agape, what you thought to be obvious and absolutely ordinary just a veil over your eyes. And when that veil is lifted, what you’re presented with before your very eyes are twists and turns that you didn’t see coming. As clever as you may be, Rian Johnson is already many paces ahead of you and dangling a string for you to chase.

Bravo, Rian. From pre-to-post production, you’ve crafted a film that finely balances crafty fun and heart-tugging feelings, all the while tricking audiences with the unexpected.

Sure, The Last Jedi indeed picks up right where we left our heroes. Rey is still very much on Ahch-To with Chewbacca and R2-D2, presenting herself before a weary Luke Skywalker. Finn is very much in medical stasis, still nursing back to health following injury by Kylo Ren’s hand. Poe Dameron remains the brash ace pilot who beats to the tune of his own drum. Though, in a sharp swerve away from Sequel-Itis, we aren’t left with the same characters as before. Johnson understands that each individual needs to take the next step in their evolution. Remember, the Rebellion means absolutely nothing without a spark to ignite the fires of insurgency. Though there’s plenty of yuks to be had once again – remember, the original trilogy had its fair share of lightheartedness too – Johnson keeps the romanticism high for our heroes three. Rey thinks she’s just attempting to persuade Luke to return to the Rebels but really, who is she and why is she so fascinated with making a difference? Poe may be one of the best pilots throughout the Outer Rim and beyond but why does his heart beat so strongly to end the First Order? Why does he defy his own leaders? And Finn, just days removed from being a Stormtrooper, has yet to grasp his importance in the grand scheme. He desires to ensure Rey remains safe but are his decisions what is best not just for the Rebellion – but for those who’ve heard the tale of Starkiller Base?

Our heroes are more than myths spread across the cosmos, fairy tales recited by children to their friends using their imaginations, bewildered adults to friends over a beverage at a bar. Rey, Finn, and Poe are more than just characters in fables from our childhood, people from a forgotten time whose story has bowed from the truth. Though their victory over the First Order at Starkiller Base is nary a couple days in their past, their bravado has spread across worlds like a torrid wildfire. Rebellions are built on more than just hope and Johnson spends The Last Jedi building up our new cast to the roles that they belong, drumming up their maturity to ascertain that each reaction can have a desired – or undesired – ripple effect on those around them. Each have their own intertwined destinies, much like the heroes Lucas introduced to fresh-faced audiences four decades ago. Times may have changed but the determination remains the same. The Last Jedi is amazingly complex and unafraid to flex its emotional core and, while parts may stir controversy, we at least can get inside of the character’s heads this go-round.

Of course, we can’t forget that fan favorites have returned as well. Chewie still serves as the helmsman of the Millennium Falcon of which Rey now captains, the derelict from Jakku’s scrapyard working thanks to her know-how. C-3PO and R2-D2 still serve their functions too. And of course Luke Skywalker is front and center to The Last Jedi‘s plot. Yet, with characters of a trilogy past contributing their part to the plot, we come across the late great Carrie Fisher.

Men and women, boy and girl, no matter the age, not a dry eye was to be had in the theater. To see Fisher in her finale performance on the big screen – and with the knowledge that Leia was due to have an even larger role in Star Wars: Episode IX – just absolutely gutted me. I’m a grown man reduced to a puddle because of Fisher’s undeniable power as Leia. None of her scenes were cut from the final print either, meaning we’ve been given all of Leia’s story in The Last Jedi unadulterated. Not only does Fisher command each of her scenes with power, but her wordsmith abilities came in handy with Johnson’s initial script. Though times may change and people pass on, there’s no doubting that Carrie Fisher ushered in a new wave of female stars in the franchise. And we’re all the better for Fisher’s involvement in the rebirth of Star Wars.

Sure, Leia may still be a Jedi like her brother and Rey may be the saving grace of the Jedi – but the scene stealer this time isn’t Harrison Ford. Instead, Mark Hamill turns in what is easily his best turn as Luke Skywalker. Skywalker is far removed from the same scrappy upstart from the original trilogy. Following the failure of Ben Solo under Luke’s tutelage, Skywalker now spends his days on Ahch-To to live out the rest of his days isolated from his Force prowess. Hamill has always been one of the most underrated working actors in Hollywood – c’mon, his Joker is easily the most fine-crafted villain in modern history – but his work with The Last Jedi is arguably his finest yet. His older, colder Luke is lacking purpose and peace, unable to shake his shortcomings and failures. He’s quick to forget the peaceful time of the Republic years before, his duties as a young Jedi under Master Yoda’s teachings sounding more like a timeless parable than historical truth. But in comes Rey, a girl with a murky mystery, with a spunk and determination that shakes the old man back to life. The sorrow in Luke’s eyes, his acceptance of his place in the galaxy, even his reservations about Ben’s tragic turn make Skywalker a standout in Johnson’s sequel.

And while Luke may be the last of the Jedi – what we know as the Jedi anyway – there’s absolutely no way that the Jedi are on the precipice of extinction. We already have the future unfolding before us. Rey is the future of the Jedi, a fresh beginning to a new cavalcade of young Force-wielding warriors to bring balance to chaos. But how this will all come about, well, our inventiveness will have to conceive all on its own as we wait to see what’s next for the Jedi future. Though, one absolute we learn in The Last Jedi – Rey’s raw power rivals than of Kylo Ren.

Oh, and may I add that can we please have more of Kelly Marie Tran’s plucky Rose Tico? And Bille Lourd’s resourceful Lieutenant Connix? If the future of the franchise will rest on fresh faces, then having these two as part of the Rebellion should not be totally forgotten.

Right, and lastly, Porgs. No, Porgs are not like the daftly inept Ewoks nor the absurd goofiness of the Gungans. (Those are two strikes on George Lucas that cannot be forgotten.) But damnit, Porgs are adorable and cute and I need to have one on the dash of my car.

And now J.J. Abrams, returning to finish precisely what he started, will have the task to top this instant classic. Yes, classic. Because, despite this film being part of science fiction genre, the dynamic thematics and raw emotion planted among Johnson’s script makes The Last Jedi just immensely fascinating to watch unfold. The 152-minute runtime draws your attention at every turn of the narrative as you attempt to conceive how all of the subplots will converge towards the film’s finale. Yes, you’ll shed quite a few tears, that fact is inevitable. If your expectations were quelled with The Force Awakens, you’ve nothing to fear this time. Rian Johnson has created a movie seemingly plucked from yesteryear, a shining staple for both 2017 and beyond, a tale of finding your place in the world and discovering your true purpose in life. Now the agonizing wait for Episode IX begins, imaginations scurrying trying to reckon what Abrams will do to wrap everything together. Abrams may have his work cut out for him but this is one franchise that’s regained my full trust.

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Jerrold spent his childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania ingesting far too many TV shows and movies, thus creating a stark-raving mad geek. He’s a movie aficionado, binge-watches Netflix, and is a total TV junkie. His addiction has led to an unhealthy and rabid obsession of various geek pantheons – Star Trek, Star Wars, both DC *AND* Marvel, cult 80's and 90's television, Supernatural, The X-Files, Doctor Who, and, and...holy overload. He's still waiting to run away in a 1967 Impala or a blue police box.