How Rian Johnson Finally Moved Star Wars into the 21st Century

 

Early in The Last Jedi, General Hux gives the kind of speech we’ve become used to in the Star Wars universe. It’s theatrical bordering on cartoonish with threats being made as the First Order is on the verge of battling the Resistance.

A real new order is established though when Poe Dameron snarkily pretends not to hear Hux and provides a distraction for the rest of his mates to escape the planet they were trapped on.

A few minutes later, we see the ending of The Force Awakens repeated. JJ Abrams showed reverence as Ray handed Luke Skywalker his lightsaber back. The music swells, and we are positioned for a historic moment. In The Last Jedi, Luke does indeed take that lightsaber…and throw it over his shoulder like it’s nothing.

These two moments will quickly establish whether you are in or out on this particular film.

JJ Abrams received praise for steering the ship in the right direction with a rousing, crowd pleasing retelling of the familiar Star Wars stories of the past (this time with a new more inclusive cast, lens flares, and a couple of patented Bad Robot mystery boxes). While I enjoyed The Force Awakens and to an even greater extent Rogue One, this still felt like a franchise stuck in the past.

Characters were still having a bad feeling. There were winks and nods to the past. Grand Moff Tarkin was even brought back from the dead. These movies showed reverence but also seemed to be stuck in the same pattern Star Wars has been stuck in for 40 years.

Rian Johnson shattered everything we thought we knew about Star Wars and finally brought the franchise into the 21st century.

The original film was about mostly ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, the main protagonists, are dragged into a war. Eventually, they become Jedis and generals, but in the beginning, Luke Skywalker is a whiny kid who shoots small animals for fun while Han Solo is shooting bounty hunters in public spaces. Somewhere along the way, the galaxy far far away became about Skywalkers, Solos, and Jedi. It was the extraordinary fighting wars, and after watching the prequels, doing a lot of talking.

Rogue One inched the franchise back into this direction. Ryan Johnson solidifies it.

Rey’s parents? Nobodies. Drunks.

Snoke? Killed in the second act to build up Kylo Ren as an even greater threat.

There are also some not to subtle moments. Kylo Ren smashing his Darth Vader knockoff helmet. Yoda burning down the Jedi temple. You could even argue Luke Skywalker reciting a Cracked article about how bad the Jedi are at their jobs is another of those moments.

It’s easy to see why The Force Awakens will be more crowd pleasing and why The Last Jedi is going to be more polarizing. The imagery is dark.

Luke Skywalker is a bitter old man who only redeems himself in the end after over two hours of being the primary antagonist for Rey.

Benicio del Toro, who I wasn’t really a big fan of, does his thing and is as morally complex of a character as there has ever been featured in the franchise. He plays both sides and doesn’t care about how he’s perceived.

Perhaps, and most important, is the political messaging of Johnson’s work. While the casino scenes are a failure in terms of bogging the plot down, there is a strong connection to the overall theme of the plot. Ray, Finn, and Poe are being asked to live up to the legacies of Luke, Leia, and Han. They are all challenged in three unique ways. In some ways, they all fail, just like The Empire Strikes Back. More importantly, they manage small victories and are reunited. Ray has preserved the past by bringing those stodgy old Jedi books aboard. Poe learns what it means to follow directions. Finn learns that running away and always trying to do something isn’t always the best course of action.

Johnson took the characters we knew into different places by creating a film that doesn’t mirror The Empire Strikes Back. Many questions have been answered. The mysteries in the box were taken out. Episode IX is a mystery, but it is one that will have few ties to any previous Star Wars film. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are dead. Princess Leia’s involvement is a huge question mark due to the real life passing of Carrie Fischer.

JJ Abrams is known for starting franchises and putting things on the right track. Now he will be asked to finish a historic trilogy, one which bridged two generations and brought Star Wars to a whole new audience. Rian Johnson proved with The Last Jedi that this franchise can change. It can be more than just Jedi, Skywalkers, and spaceships. I am very excited for what Episode IX brings and what Johnson will do in his own trilogy.

If Rian Johnson can finally get Chewbacca and Leia to hug, just imagine what he’ll come up with next.

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