“This isn’t going to go the way you think”, says Luke Skywalker to Rey early on in The Last Jedi. It may as well be Rian Johnson talking to viewers about a script which twists on hairpin bends sharper than its starfighters do. The Force Awakens, in moving back to classic Star Wars away from the intricate geopolitics of the prequels, has acted as a solid springboard for Johnson’s breathless leap into the dark.
The score and cinematography is stunning. We’re treated to mystic islands, crimson salt flats, opulent gambling dens, and nail-chewingly choreographed space battles that will go down as some of military science fiction’s sharpest. There are unanswered questions, from Snoke’s origin story to the apparent lack of impact of the genocide at Hosnian system (quite how the Republic’s capital relocated in the first place is also a mystery). But the film has something special, a more honest treatment of the struggle between light and dark.
The film lacks strong villains. Gone is Vader’s stentorian menace and the sinister silkiness of Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine that chilled seven-year-old me. Instead there’s Snoke, a poundshop dictator appearing larger than life in Awakens to compensate for ineptitude. There’s public-school bully-turned-army-officer-trope in General Hux, and in charge is whining child Kylo Ren. If Anakin Skywalker was for those of us with difficult childhoods - the “light side” had done little about a system where children were sold into slavery and his mother was murdered by an armed gang with impunity – then Ren is a boy who had everything and threw a tantrum. These are the men who lead empires; real-life villains can be as incompetent as anyone else. In the time of Trump, don’t we know it.
The heroes are also more complex. There’s cowardice and poor discipline. There’s diversity; women commanding battleships is expectation rather than exception. The late Carrie Fisher is on top form as older Leia; weary but with all her wit and compassion intact – the film is a moving tribute to her. Most importantly, the heroes have utterly different approaches. These different approaches clash violently and there are valid arguments for all of them, whether Dameron’s Top Gun attitude or Holdo’s quiet, measured, self-sacrifice.
The universe’s downtrodden get to become protagonists too – not just the ones who happen to be Force-sensitive but those for whom Empire or Republic never really made much of a difference, whose worlds were defined by the petty brutishness of gambling bosses or frontier strongmen rather than galactic leaders. In short - including bizarre strategic calls like concentrating all the Resistance’s forces in a single place - the rebellion resembles a real one. And it makes complex questions accessible in a simple, light-hearted way for younger audiences.
For the first time there is critical engagement with conceptions of light and dark. We meet Luke brooding alone in a windswept retreat, scared and grappling with his own legacy. He acknowledges the Jedi’s mistakes in the prequels; how the keepers of light became a high-handed entitled clique who didn’t see the end coming. Elsewhere, idealists Finn and Rose are confronted with arms dealers who sell X-Wings to rebels and TIE fighters to their enemies.
And if you’re left wanting to tear down the whole rotten edifice there is a warning; Ren appeals to Rey to ‘move beyond Jedi and Sith’, to leave the past behind – while birthing a new empire identical to the old one. It’s a push to link this to phenomena like the alt-right (and I’m no fan of those who insist on expressing their politics in fantasy references – leave my childhood alone, J K Rowling) but not a totally unreasonable one.
Killing your idols isn’t always the best idea. With the criticism of past canon, with mythical heroes and villains shown as flawed people, and with a recurrently self-deprecating script – “you think I’ll ride in with a big laser sword and fix everything”, the franchise could lose its epic quality. But the world’s most recognised space opera doesn’t skip a beat. It keeps all the swashbuckling grand adventure, and the ability to phase between comedy and tragedy at lightspeed which characterises a Star Wars movie.
The Last Jedi’s nuance enhances rather than detract from the excitement. Rey’s parentage, subject of two years of fan speculation, is dismissed in a few sentences by Ren. She wasn’t placed at the end of nowhere by famous fugitives; she has no key to her destiny miraculously unlocked by her heritage – she comes from nothing. Yet this changes nothing; a few scenes later she is back to saving the day with her nascent superpowers. There are other triumphs for Star Wars’ common people; Rose, for one. At the end, a wide angle shot silhouettes a potential future hero against a tapestry of stars. It’s a child cleaner holding a broom like a lightsaber.
Are there no more heroes or can we all be heroes? The Last Jedi’s answer seems to be both.