With ‘The Last Jedi’ Rian Johnson Becomes a Force to be Reckoned With (SPOILER FREE FILM REVIEW)

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A new Star Wars movie will always be unfairly considered against its predecessors. This is a series that has taken us through great highs and drastic lows over the last forty years. Sight unseen, a new entry into the franchise is going to have to contend with the fickle desires and expectations of its fanbase as well as compete against the great moments of its history.

Given the place Star Wars holds in the annals of pop cultural history, holding a new Star Wars movie up to compare it with the likes of The Empire Strikes Back, say, is a dubious endeavor. Empire has had 37 years to cement its place in our memories, to lock itself into our collective consciousness and make itself at home. To ask a new movie to immediately live up to that is to set yourself up for disappointment.

That was always going to be the problem for writer/director Rian Johnson, who has generations of expectation to live up to, on top of the unenviable task of following up the story begun by J.J. Abrams two years ago with The Force Awakens. Under that kind of pressure your options, as I see them, are two in number. You either give the audience what they want or you ignore them all together. Johnson, thankfully, chose the latter path.

The Last Jedi is a complete and total subversion of audience expectations in the best possible ways. Rather than kowtow to fan theories or audience wishlists, Johnson has delivered a spectacle entirely his own, destroying our conceptions of what Star Wars can be and proving that we honestly don’t know what we want until we see it.

Nothing you’ve been anticipating or expecting out of The Last Jedi comes to fruition in the final product, rendering moot the years-long process of  internet movie sleuthing. None of your predictions were correct, addressed, or even mattered. Neither Johnson nor LucasFilm are interested in delivering a movie that adheres to what you wanted. They’ve both got so much more to offer than the whims and desires of their fanbase.

What Johnson does is explore what Star Wars is rather than what we want Star Wars to be. He’s like a kid with a collection of Star Wars LEGO sets, deconstructing and redesigning the pieces until it resembles something new. The core is the same. The feel is the same. But it’s presented in a way we haven’t considered, giving us a Star Wars movie that stands apart from the saga every bit as much as it is a part of the saga.

This approach will be a thorn in the sides of many, but no matter. The fans who complain about The Last Jedi feeling too different to be a “real” Star Wars movie will be largely the same as the fans who complained about The Force Awakens being too similar to the original Star Wars movie. They’re never going to be pleased, and maybe they’re best ignored. Everyone else will surely be awed.

In reconsidering what a Star Wars movie could look like, Johnson remembered the most important aspect of what makes a Star Wars movie: the feelings it evokes. As new as The Last Jedi is, it feels the same as it ever did. Joyous, thrilling, suspenseful, engaging. The Last Jedi is all of these things, recalling the experience of seeing Star Wars for the first time.

Tension is expertly built and relieved and built again as heroes both old and new are thrust into drastic situations. As much as you’ll fret, you’ll also cheer—there’s nothing quite like being in a theater full of cheering Star Wars fans, is there? Johnson expertly holds off on big moments, making you wait and wait again to see the things you’ve been longing to see. Even then, it rarely plays out how you expect.

That’s the best part about The Last Jedi. It gives you everything you wanted in ways you never knew you needed. No matter what you were expecting, you weren’t expecting it to be like this. No matter what you theorized, you’re wrong. The disappointment might sting, but what you’re left with is a film that delights and surprises on every level, just like a Star Wars film should.

Most surprising is the humor of The Last Jedi. Unlike the attempts at humor in The Phantom Menace, which relied on slapstick silliness, The Last Jedi uses humor subtly, adding a rich texture to the world we know so well. Juxtaposed with the Star Wars action and the heartfelt moments—we get plenty of those, don’t worry—it forms a bold and stunning new idea of what the franchise is, and what it can be.

While a lot of reviews and buzz have leaned towards hyperbolic comparisons to the Star Wars of yore—“It’s the best since Empire!” or “It’s the best ever!”—I’m not sure that matters. Personal rankings are, by their nature, a subjective enterprise, and where The Last Jedi sits on your list of Star Wars movies is ultimately irrelevant. Was it as good as Empire, which has had nearly four decades to carve out an increasingly large space in our hearts? Is it the best of the franchise? The Last Jedi craves not these things.

No, its sole aim was to be a great Star Wars movie. It certainly is, but on top of that, with Johnson at the helm, The Last Jedi also manages to be a great movie, period. Never mind what you wanted; forget what you expected. The Last Jedi is bigger, and better, than all of that. Nine movies in, and with the third release in as many years, the Star Wars franchise still feels as fresh as it ever did. Thank the maker.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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