The following article was written before the global premier of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and we decided to keep it up because it proves a significant point – that our predictive powers are other-worldly. Forget what the “fans” say, it was a thoroughly entertaining affair and that was the whole point of the movie. – Editor in Chief.
Let me begin by being completely honest here: Lucasfilm is spoiling us. We went from having no Star Wars movies for fifteen years, then a trilogy of overstuffed, misappropriated, and darn near irredeemable prequels, then another decade of zilch, to there being at least one Star Wars movie released every year starting with 2015’s The Force Awakens and seemingly no end in sight.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this franchise. I think George Lucas achieved something truly special with the original trilogy. Which is why I am so troubled by this new status quo knowing that every year will bring with it either a new entry into the main episodic saga (i.e. Episodes I to ?), or an anthology film (i.e. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story), it’s an unfamiliar and quite frankly an unsettling sensation.
When J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of The Force Awakens, I was equally ambivalent. On one hand, Abrams is an excellent character writer with an unparalleled eye for casting, and has experience tooling pilots for new franchises than most in Hollywood (just take one look at his IMDb credits). It made sense, Disney hiring Abrams to helm a movie meant to resurrect a beloved space opera franchise that had failed its fans in the past. He had done it before with 2009’s Star Trek reboot. They required his expertise in crafting new characters that equally be as lovable as the originals’. And judging by the overwhelmingly positive response Force Awakens received from the world on Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, BB-8, and even Kylo Ren and his cross-guarded lightsaber, we can conclude that J.J. has done the job he was hired to do (not to mention the $2 billion the movie raked in at the box office).
On the other hand, Abrams lacks a basic story sense that holds back most of his directorial credits from creating a lasting impact on the audience. The Force Awakens was no exception to this. Sequences in the movie were slapped together with a great sense of momentum masked in familiarity, simply shuffling characters along to the next scene, a trick Abrams uses in order to hide the fact that there is no actual through line to his film’s story. One sequence stands out to me as particularly jarring:
As Rey and Finn are fleeing from First Order forces on Jakku, and the Millennium Falcon just happens to be sitting among a pile of garbage. Okay, fine. The most iconic vehicle in the entire franchise dropped in their laps as part of a run-on joke with no story significance whatsoever? I’ll accept it. So then, Rey and Finn commandeer the Falcon and escape Jakku, only to be captured immediately by none other than Han Solo and Chewbacca…
What? There has been no precedent set in the story thus far for such a monumental return. Is the galaxy really that small? Have Han and Chewie done nothing but search for the Falcon for 30 years? How did they find it so soon after Rey and Finn (vanguards of the new films) steal it? Such questions are played off with throwaway lines (and growls) from Han (and Chewie). The scene felt exploitative of the fans waiting for a meaningful return of these ironic elements of the original film. Abrams capitalized on the yearning we all knew the audience had for the return of the original characters in order to expedite his story and deliver a film that is quickly but surely realized to be a beat for beat reread of the original Star Wars from 1977 (as A New Hope was first called upon theatrical release). Things just happen inexplicably in his films with little to no application of cause and effect, a basic tenet of storytelling in any medium. But it’s all good for Disney and Abrams, because the new characters are now beloved and perfectly capable of carrying the franchise forward and making some more billions. Star Wars is now a safe bet for Hollywood once more.
But is that all the Star Wars legacy is supposed to be? A box office footnote? In 1977, the original Star Wars was a groundbreaking sci-fi fantasy masterpiece precisely because George Lucas chose to approach making the film from entirely outside Hollywood’s conventions. It was unlike anything that came before it, innovative enough to change what was possible in theaters forever. It came with a galaxy that felt familiar, and was rich with lore. Most of all, the original trilogy contained well written and remarkably directed stories that felt relatable and mature while being about space samurais that can move things with their mind if they focus real hard. And I think this is all part of what makes this franchise so captivating and fruitful. It is the reason why we are still talking about it and Disney is spending billions after it in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Disney continues to make safe bets without giving innovative filmmaking a second thought, there is no way they can remain relevant.
Well, lucky for us next up is The Last Jedi, written and directed by indie darling Rian Johnson. Johnson is the mind behind great films such as Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper. And every single one of his movies are cinematic wonders. If you haven’t seen it yet, Brick is a highly stylized neo-noir that takes place in and around a high school. It’s played vehemently straight as the characters fire off rapid, tongue-biting dialogue at each other with reckless abandon. They take turns evoking cool, sultry, menace, all the hallmarks of real noir without ever touching a shred of irony. And it actually works. Brick is a genius idea that sees itself prime into one of the best debut feature films ever made because of Rian Johnson’s thirst for taking the familiar in cinema and flipping it on its head to amplify those same ideas. And by doing so he creates something truly new.
So, now that we’ve established that Johnson is more than willing and capable of going the extra mile for his stories, let us consider what he might do in the genre sandbox of sci-fi fantasy. Oh hey! It seems his last feature effort, Looper, is an original sci-fi story set in the future involving time traveling hitmen who are all forced to kill their future selves as their final victim in an attempt to protect the syndicate that employs them. Oh, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young Bruce Willis. Might sound like the most cliché action film ever, but the film’s high concept themes are all grounded in just about the most human story imaginable: that of a mother protecting her son ,a powerful telekinetic prodigy. I’d rather not spoil any further but it is needless to say the movie is powerful and vulnerable at the same time, amplifying each side of the story using the other. Looper sees its sci-fi concepts all the way through in every aspect of its cinematic execution, from its electric cinematography to its grandiose projection of a desolate but fantastical future world, to give us another enthralling Rian Johnson original.
All of which makes him precisely the storyteller Star Wars needs right now. Even from what we have seen of the film from the unyielding teasers so far, The Last Jedi looks immediately more visually striking than Force , the story feels fresh and more urgent, and Luke Skywalker’s disavowal of the Jedi Order is an angle that looks increasingly like the upending of our very comprehension of the Star Wars universe that it didn’t even know was missing. After J.J. Abrams’ cursory attempt at filling out the storied sci-fi world of Star Wars, Rian Johnson’s eye for detail and world-building, mastery over cinematic storytelling, and undeniable alacrity to create something new from something old is the trifecta that might just make The Last Jedi one of the most fulfilling Star Wars films ever made.