The Last Jedi, and a new hope for weird Star Wars

The Force Awakens isn’t a bad movie. It does what it sets out to do. The issue I had with it is it didn’t seem to aspire to do very much. It played it so safe, over-pivoted so hard from the unrestrained zaniness of the Lucas prequels that, while a fun ride, it left me wanting a whole lot more.

A common refrain heard when The Force Awakens was released was that JJ Abrams had essentially remade the original 1977 Star Wars (now known as Episode IV: A New Hope). Revisiting TFA and digesting it more in the time since its theatrical run, it struck me that JJ hadn’t remade A New Hope at all, but instead channeled Raiders of the Lost Ark as his template in some substantial ways. From the selection of Lawrence Kasdan as his writing partner (not a writer on A New Hope, but the main writer on Raiders) to the desert locales, practical effects, Indiana Jones-esque fireball explosions, an old lightsaber mulligan driving the plot, and even Harrison Ford back in action, TFA’s callbacks to Raiders are many and varied. Add to that the fact that JJ’s directing style, both in TFA and his career in general, is unabashedly modeled after Raiders director Steven Spielberg, with absolutely none of the esoteric flourishes used by George Lucas providing any influence at all. TFA is a glimpse at the Spielberg-directed Star Wars film we never had.

None of this is a critique. Raiders is one of the greatest action-adventure movies of all time and there are far, far worse things to use as inspiration. Delivering a high-octane action romp, introducing an entirely new generation of characters, and setting the stage for perhaps decades more worth of Star Wars stories is no small feat, and JJ completely pulled it off in TFA. But for anyone looking for a sequel to Return of the Jedi, the continuation of the Skywalker saga was basically punted to the next films. My favorite scene in The Force Awakens is its last. Rey discovering long-lost Luke Skywalker on his island refuge (or is it prison?), once again calling back to Raiders– a sort of reverse unpacking of its final scene showing the Ark being shelved in a vast, soul-crushing government warehouse. There’s a strong similarity to both endings for me, particularly in how they reverberate with uneasy energy and leave you with a strange sense of closure laced with lingering questions.

Which brings us to today and the arrival of a new trailer for a new Star Wars episode (already!). It’s called The Last Jedi, and so far I love what I’ve seen. It’s tough to make sweeping judgments from a few short sequences, but the overwhelming sense I get from The Last Jedi trailer is that we should expect the unexpected from this entry. There’s no “Chewie, we’re home” applause line comfort food, and no hype-ratcheting mystery box techniques at work. Quite the opposite. The Last Jedi looks to be jumping into the story deep-end with both feet, putting forth its premise directly and boldly, and in the process challenging everything- its characters, young and old, and perhaps its audience too.

For me, everything about The Last Jedi is clicking in a way that The Force Awakens never did, from the trailer footage to its starkly beautiful poster. Maybe it’s due to it having a singular purpose this time around. Unshackled from the complex corporate mandate of making Star Wars stable again and all the various ramifications involved in relaunching a billion-dollar property for a new generation, it looks like director Rian Johnson and producer Kathleen Kennedy have swung the pendulum solidly back into unsafe territory, to a place of unafraid storytelling with all the risks that entails. The prequels were deeply flawed, but damned if they weren’t endlessly creative and strangely daring in their determination to tell their story. Where TFA delivered a safe steadying ground for Star Wars to regroup, The Last Jedi looks ready to shake things up again. It gives me renewed hope that the franchise will get a little dark and a little weird.

The cinematography here is richer and more naturalistic than the high-gloss action look we got from JJ’s film, and the overall tone seems more intense. Luke Skywalker, the character who defines all things Star Wars to me and probably most others who cut their teeth on TV broadcasts and battered VHS copies of the original trilogy, is featured quite prominently. The Force Awakens jump-started Star Wars, but The Last Jedi looks like the movie I’ve been waiting for since the credits rolled on Return of the Jedi. There are hints in the trailer that the answer to the question “Whatever happened to Luke Skywalker?” may be more complex than we thought.

Watch the trailer here:

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