Few remember back when George Lucas actually considered Star Wars a “director’s franchise.” Before going with names like Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand–not exactly household names–and returning behind the camera to take on those prequels, the guide behind that galaxy far, far away actually considered names like David Lynch, Stephen Spielberg, and David Fincher to bring their individual visions to the series.
Sadly, that never happened, but now with ol’ George out of the picture, producer Kathleen Kennedy has made some inspired choices. At least one didn’t work–Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were shown the door after the duo couldn’t see eye to eye on the approach for the stand-alone Han Solo film–but with certified fanboy J.J. Abrams helming The Force Awakens, they got their money’s worth…to the tune of over two billion dollars at the box office. Gareth Edwards also delivered a decent Rogue One, with a little help from Tony Gilroy.
Now, a filmmaker with vision has been given reign over the middle section in what promises to be the final trilogy in the Skywalker saga, and by doing so, they’ve delivered something astounding. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is unlike any of the previous installments. It takes the universe which has already become a religion for most and remade it in the image of director Rian Johnson, the man behind such cinematic novelties as Brick and Looper. Instead of falling for the familiar tropes and recognizable narrative beats, we get an electrifying narrative which both redefined the series while satisfying the Ewok in all of us.
We pick up right after the events of The Force Awakens. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and wants him to train her in the ways of the Force. Sadly, because of his failed efforts with Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), he is unwilling. In the meantime, the First Order has found the last rebel base, and as General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) prepare to defend it, opposing General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) plans his offensive. There is also a secret mission involving Finn (John Boyega) and his new sidekick Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).
With Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro showing up in supporting roles and a very personal POV among the characters, The Last Jedi is the richest, most dense Star Wars film in a long, long time. Matching the original middle section–The Empire Strikes Back–for pure emotional punch, there are moments in this movie that will move fans to tears…of joy…of pain…of satisfaction. The cast is critical to such a response, and everyone from the late Fisher to Hamill bring their sci-fi A-game.
What Johnson brings to the proceedings is a unique aesthetic that creates a truly lived in universe. Unlike Lucas who pushed the boundaries of CGI with the prequels overdone digital backdrops and cityscapes, there’s a poetry to what he puts up on the screen. Even the set piece action sequences meant to bring you to the edge of your seat and back have a poignancy. Johnson knows the genre and knows how to deliver within it. He proves that, when in the right hands, Lucas’ lark truly lends itself to outside ideas.
With Abrams back for Part IX, this may just be a one-off dip into art, but it is a very satisfying one. The Last Jedi continues to push the boundaries of this material while staying safely without the limits longed for by the devoted. When the time comes, it will be considered one of the best Star Wars films, and rightfully so. It is an entertaining, engaging ride, and it’s all thanks to having a true filmmaker behind the lens.