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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Looper. Go watch those movies if you haven’t seen both.]
For some people, the 2014 announcement that Rian Johnson would write and direct the second chapter of a new Star Wars trilogy was about as exciting as the existence of the new trilogy. Johnson started out in features with the high school-set neo-noir Brick, culminating in his 2012 science-fiction story Looper. That thriller, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the same person, was one of the best films of the year, and suggested so many exciting possibilities for the auteur. But the flip side of joining a monolithic franchise could have downfalls: would Star Wars: The Last Jedi feel like a Rian Johnson film? Or would it not have traces of his distinct personality?
The personality of The Last Jedi is gleefully, readily apparent from the first scene after the opening crawl. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is leading a daring mission to take out a fearsome weapon of the First Order’s, and his plan begins by trolling the uptight General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) with a variation on calling someone and asking “Can you hear me now?” The puckish humor extends throughout other scenes that might seem incredibly tense or major. During the first training session between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Luke razzes her for not grasping what the Force is: when she closes her eyes, he lightly touches her with a leaf, and when she thinks she’s felt the Force, he smacks her with the leaf. Moments like these don’t suck out the suspense as much as alleviate it, as some of the best gags in the series do.
Humor aside, much of the tension in The Last Jedi feels similarly high-stakes not only to the franchise, but to two of Johnson’s most high-profile works: Looper and the climactic Breaking Bad episode he directed, “Ozymandias.” One major setpiece in Looper, where the Gordon-Levitt character realizes the depths of telekinesis that a little boy he’s encountered while in hiding is able to display, is echoed at various points of The Last Jedi. The very manifestation of the Force, at least as Rey experiences it, is depicted often in slow motion, as when she’s able to split rocks and let them levitate; the way that Johnson treats the Force here, as something truly awe-inspiring that must be both respected and feared, feels like an analogue to the treatment of telekinesis in Looper. And the ways in which Johnson ties threads together, cutting between the First Order and the various members of the Resistance during a climactic battle on the salt-mine planet Crait, is further proof of how he was able to build tension and pay it off masterfully both in Looper and that iconic Breaking Bad episode, in which Walter White’s alias comes back to haunt his family in tragic ways.
Even though the film may be beholden to the greater Star Wars universe, the way that Johnson lets the plot play out feels distinctive as opposed to walking a company-mandated arc. (To repeat the warning from the top, spoilers ahead.)
It’s in The Last Jedi that our hero faces off against the malevolent Big Bad, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and it’s in this film that Snoke is snuffed out. In the original trilogy, such a massive battle was held to the finale of Return of the Jedi. It’s in The Last Jedi that the eponymous character, Luke Skywalker, not only comes back to give the Resistance a measure of hope but sacrifices himself for the greater good. And it’s in this film, not the eventual Episode IX, that we find out that Rey’s parents weren’t anyone special, and that what makes her special is not her birthright but just her intense capabilities with the Force. In other franchises, with other studios, the plot might be doled out more deliberately, but here, you get the sense that Johnson had so much he wanted to do in the world of Star Wars that he couldn’t resist offering up surprise after surprise.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a remarkably entertaining film, a fine and worthy follow-up to The Force Awakens. Best of all, it pays off on the promise and potential of an indie standout like Johnson taking the reins. Five years ago, he showed how capable he was in science-fiction with Looper, and The Last Jedi feels a lot like he’s been given a much larger sandbox in which to play with a surprisingly long leash. What’s more, watching The Last Jedi makes the already exciting proposition of Johnson creating a whole new trilogy in the Star Wars universe even more logical. If Johnson isn’t going to get to close out this trilogy, he might as well kickstart a new one. The Last Jedi suggests that his potential keeps growing, and his abilities keep expanding too.
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Jean-Claude Van Damme