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WHEN I SAW RIAN JOHNSON WAS DIRECTING STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017), I knew we were in for something different. Well, that’s what we got.

About the Acting

The acting in this film was solid.   One of the few new faces to the main cast was Kelly Marie Tran playing Rose Tico, who I can’t say anything about without giving something away. Suffice to say, she was unexpected, and did well in her role.

The actors introduced in The Force Awakens (2015), already having done surprisingly well in that film, are better in this one, with any possible awkwardness, by now, fully evaporated. In some cases, these actors were seemingly freed to do more with their characters due to the more challenging writing of this film.

Daisy Ridley played a more comfortable, open and softer Rey, still charming in her naïveté. 

John Boyega as Finn was more of the same, but I had zero complaints from the last film, where he seemed to be possibly the most at-home of all the new faces.

Oscar Isaac gets a ton more screen-time in this film as Poe Dameron, filling the role of classic hard-headed rebel character that we lost in Han Solo, and does a good job of it.

The original-trilogy actors were reliable as always, with Mark Hamill playing Luke as we’ve never before seen him and Carrie Fisher seeming more at home as General-Princess Leia Organa than in the previous film.

I always love a good villain, and the performances by Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke and Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux were as satisfyingly interesting as they were entertaining. 

The stand-out performance of this film, for me, goes to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, whose acting had more than the sufficient emotional breadth and depth needed to make a very convincing villain. Ren is an emotional train-wreck, combined with a roller-coaster ride, wielding a lightsaber, and still somehow manages to be relatable. Doesn’t that sound entertaining?

I won’t leave out the very welcome addition of Laura Dern, a surprise to me, due to my avoidance of any and all information about this film prior to its release. Dern is always excellent, and she showed in this film that she is just as at home in a David Lynch film as she is on a blockbuster sci-fi/fantasy one. Great job, Laura.

the Direction, Writing and Story

I’ve been following Johnson’s work since I saw one of his earlier films, Brick (2005), a hyper-stylized neo-noir populated by high-schoolers, which was interesting enough that I began to follow the director’s work. His subsequent work on The Brothers Bloom (2010), Terriers (2010), Looper (2012) and Breaking Bad (2010) proved his love for highly-stylized visuals and dialogue, as well as a desire to root that stylized flashiness in solid reality, whenever possible. With Looper, Johnson also proved his ability to tone this stylization down when necessary, a very important trait when directing blockbusters.

The Last Jedi is no exception to Johnson’s history. As well as his visual artistry, this film showcases another of Johnson’s core attributes: A sometimes almost-obsessive desire to pointedly flaunt expectations and cliches time and time again. You can view this practice as confident or self-conscious, depending on your perspective. Either way, for me, in Last Jedi, it works.


Let’s Compare: The Force Awakens (2015)

The Last Jedi is better than The Force Awakens. Hold on, bear with me for a second. I actually like them both, and think that The Force Awakens is one of the best Star Wars movies ever. I’ll explain.

The previous installment in this particular Star Wars film series, The Force Awakens (2015), was directed by J.J. Abrams, and as you’d expect, it was good, but less daring. Less daring, that is, only when compared to Last Jedi, and no other Star Wars films. Force Awakens was more like a good pop song than something you’d be likely to call an art piece. This isn’t a bad thing, and it was definitely a good film. One of the best in the franchise, in fact, and definitely a huge improvement on the Star Wars prequels.

Abrams achieved this by treating The Force Awakens more as a normal film, and less like Star Wars. Sure, there are many parallels and call-backs to previous films, but overall, the characters, writing, cinematography and story were very different and new, despite their cosmetic similarities to the rest of the franchise. Taking any chances at all on a film like this is commendable, and Abrams took many. This is no small feat, and by doing so, Abrams blazed a trail for future directors like Johnson to come in and take even greater chances with subsequent Star Wars films. That’s what happened here.

I believe that a director not being intimidated by the massive popularity of the Star Wars brand is key to making a good Star Wars movie, and I thought Abrams did a good job of expressing himself while retaining whatever the essence of a Star Wars film is. It felt different, but right. In short, I enjoyed it, but didn’t find it challenging. This, also, isn’t a mark against the film, but at the end of the day, I’d rather a film be challenging than not.

This is nothing new for Abrams, who has his name on relatively uncomplicated, solid films on a regular basis. The Abrams-stamped Mission Impossible films are a great example of that. Good, enjoyable films that doesn’t leave you with a lot of baggage. As an aside, Abrams’ television work is a whole different, (better) thing. I am a big fan of both Lost and Alias, and enjoyed Fringe enough to re-watch it. I’ve re-watched all of those series, in fact, and am well aware that the constraints of blockbuster film-making are totally different from those of television. So, this isn’t a knock against Abrams at all. I’m a fan.

That being said, Rian Johnson’s film work has historically been more challenging than Abrams’ and Last Jedi continues that pattern.  

Rian Johnson Wants to Challenge The Viewer  


What stands out most in this film is Johnson’s focus on the following storytelling elements. These are the things that he obviously cares about, above all others:

  • Flaunting convention and predictability
  • Beautiful and consistent visual themes
  • Non-standard character interaction
  • Rooting what could normally be superficial flashiness in reality
  • Leaving lots of loose ends in the storyline
  • Creativity with source material and the existing Star Wars universe


Flaunting Convention and Predictability

Throughout the film, Johnson regularly sets the viewer up with an expectation, often proceeding to dash it in dramatic fashion. Whether this be with a familiar Star Wars phrase left uncompleted, a common Star Wars plot arc that goes in a different direction, or anything else, really, this tactic remains consistent throughout the film, and a great deal of time and effort is dedicated to it.

Done differently, this could have made the film predictable in its unpredictability, but Johnson avoids falling into this trap by being deliberately inconsistent. There are still a few crucial moments where what you would normally expect to happen actually happens, but because of the inconsistency, I found myself second-guessing my predictions up until the last moment. This is a good thing.

Beautiful and Consistent Visual Themes

Red. Lots of red. This is, by far, the most visually artistic Star Wars film to date. To me, this was the most laudably notable aspect of the film. I loved the attention Johnson paid to the visuals, which go far beyond the standard big-budget slick CGI and into something greater. I can’t go into too much detail here without spoiling the film, so just watch it.

Non-standard Character Interaction

Throughout the film, Johnson deliberately abandons cliches and tropes with a ruthlessness that feels personal. Sometimes with unexpected humor, the mistreatment of a storied element of the Star Wars universe, or with brief-but-important dialogue that might be a little hard to catch.

Johnson takes this hostility toward the familiar into the characters and story, giving voice to his opinions of what the film should be through them. There is a certain irreverence to the specific instances of when, and how, this tactic is employed that suggest Johnson felt it was his personal mission in directing this film to make something completely new, violently killing the attachment to the old as necessary. For me, this was a welcome treat that raised the stakes while keeping me guessing throughout the film as to what could happen next.

Rooting Flashiness in Reality

The “local color” of the Star Wars universe has always been fairly shallow. The creatures, locales and strange locals are all seen, but not expanded upon. In every Star Wars film, we see lots and lots of visually striking things, but very rarely receive any kind of explanation as to how or why these things exist.

There have often been instances in past films where characters see the strangest creature imaginable and barely flinch, even if it’s made clear that what they’re seeing is as new to them as it is to us. The examples of this are endless, and I’ll go into detail in a future spoiler-filled article about the specific ones Johnson chose to expand upon in Last Jedi. Suffice to say that Johnson, on multiple occasions, successfully tied what would normally be a throwaway element of visual flavor to a practical function, thereby legitimizing its existence. This is an entirely new, very welcome, element now added to the Star Wars franchise.

Leaving Lots of Loose Ends

In a big-budget film like Star Wars, we typically know a lot about what we’re watching, receiving all the exposition necessary to make our experience clear-cut and easily digestible.  We know who the characters are, where they come from, what their motivations are, whether they’re likely to succeed, etc.

Usually, any exceptions to this rule stand out in a way that makes the movie “good” or “bad”. The essence of the film that really pulls viewers in (and keeps us there even after the film ends) is more about what we don’t know than what we do. In Last Jedi, Johnson again goes against convention by keeping exposition to a minimum, causing the viewer to be left in the dark about a lot of what may be really important in the context of the film, and what questions may or may not be answered at any moment.

The Force Awakens was a much more clear-cut film, and left us with clear-cut questions:

  • Who are Rey’s parents?
  • What caused Kylo Ren to go to the Dark Side?
  • Can Kylo Ren be turned to the Light Side?
  • Why is Luke in hiding?
  • Who is Snoke?

There are more questions, of course, but these are the main ones we’re meant to wonder about once the film is over, and knowing that keeps us comfortable. By contrast, Last Jedi is less clear-cut. This is done through its deliberate ambiguity, leaving many loose ends that are not addressed directly in the film. For me, this ambiguity loaned a sense of realism to the film that is missing from other installments in the franchise. This is an element of storytelling that is clearly important to Johnson, and I’m a fan of it, too.

Creativity With Source Material

Growing up watching Star Wars for as long as I can remember, I, along with others, perpetually wondered: Why don’t the characters use the Force… More? Beyond that, why don’t they use it more creatively?

For the more powerful Jedi and Sith especially, the immense power they have at their fingertips has largely gone unused, and we are never told why. This has been addressed in some of the fringier Star Wars works, the most remarkable of which is a wonderful animated series titled Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003). In this series, we see the Force used with great power and efficacy by its users. From a storytelling perspective, doing more with the Force opens up a whole new world of possibilities, and Johnson made sure to take advantage of that.

Beyond the use of the Force, Johnson also goes in directions with characters that may be unexpected to the viewer. I’ll say no more here so as to not spoil the film.

A Note About The More Fantastical Elements of This Film

There are creatures in this film that are, visually at least, way more Neverending Story than they are Star Wars. The crystal foxes, giant horse-like mammals with big ears, and penguin-otters called Porgs all fit into a visual style that hasn’t been seen in a Star Wars film until now, and I’m cool with that.

I liked the Porgs, which are a big improvement upon Ewoks, perfectly filling their intended role as the cute semi-sentient comic relief in a way that can be difficult for film-makers to nail. There are some additional elements in this film that fit with the lean towards fantasy and away from sci-fi, but I can’t go into detail about them without spoiling the film.

In Conclusion

This may be my personal favorite Star Wars movie of the franchise. I need more time to process it, but its unpredictability, artistry, attention to detail and depth really make it exceptional, especially for a Star Wars film. Yes, I have different standards for Star Wars.

Will this adventurous direction of a Star Wars film lead to even further creative chances being taken with the Star Wars franchise in the future? I’m hopeful, and the recently-announced possibility of Johnson directing his own new Star Wars trilogy says “yes”. 

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