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Star Wars: The Last Jedi: The subtle art of not giving in

Thanks to a franchise-saturated movie market and studios unwilling to gamble on anything without a guaranteed worldwide audience prior to its release, we’ll never have another Star Wars.

This article was originally published on Hunter and Bligh

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: The subtle art of not giving in

Rian Johnson isn’t kowtowing to expectations in The Last Jedi

If JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens was about paying lip service to fans—remaining close-mouthed about midi-chlorians, showcasing the original trilogy’s familiar faces—and reassuring them that the project was being taken seriously, then Rian Johnson’s sequel is about pushing fans and newcomers headfirst into a new Star Wars, whether they’re ready for it or not.

And thank god for Rian Johnson.

Audiences flocked to see The Force Awakens and critics were kind to it—as they ought to have been, it was an entertaining and well-made movie—but it felt awfully safe. With old movie stars shuffling back into frame to spout off one-liners and a plot about another Death Star, as new characters waxed poetic about the plots of the original trilogy, it came across as a movie hyper-aware of its legendarily dedicated fans. Abrams treaded very carefully, trying—pretty successfully—not to offend anyone.

When Lucas released the original Star Wars in 1977, he unleashed something unseen in the movies before. When my mum talks about seeing the first movie at the cinemas, her eyes light up describing how new it all was, how strange and exciting. When he tried to do it again in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, all of the original dorky, enthusiastic charm was replaced by stilted dialogue and emotionless lead characters. It wasn’t until Revenge of the Sith that Lucas got to tell the only story worth telling in that trilogy, of which he did a damn good job—Revenge remains my favourite Star Wars movie to this day.

Thanks to a franchise-saturated movie market and studios unwilling to gamble on anything without a guaranteed worldwide audience prior to its release, we’ll never have another Star Wars. Luc Besson’s space opera adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets came and went without a whisper. In studio terms, that’s $200 million down the drain and don’t trust the artsy French director again. What we can get, and what we do have with The Last Jedi, is a ballsy take on a familiar franchise that stays true to its roots while bringing artistic integrity, originality and a bloody great spectacle to our movie screens—something I’ve been starved of all year.

When we left The Force Awakens, the only real cliffhanger that left us guessing was a bearded, haggard Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) looking back at Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her outstretched hand, holding his lightsabre. In Awakens, this weapon was treated like an authentic prop among Star Wars geeks: it held tremendous power, Rey experienced convulsive flashbacks just touching it and it appeared to be the key to bring peace once again to the galaxy.

In Jedi, Luke takes the antique and lobs it over the cliff behind him, before moodily storming off. It’s a weird, comic moment, one that suggest Johnson is saying, ‘There. That’s what I think of your expectations.’

Peppered throughout the film’s somewhat convoluted plot, there are a lot of these moments. It’s difficult to talk about them without spoiling anything, but there are big battles fought not for victories but for narrow escapes, an old character returns to rouse mischief instead of spout wisdom and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the best villain since Vader, has a backstory eked out in a Rashomon-esque narrative of conflicting interpretations. Where Awakens seemed to be laying groundwork for another safe tread through a familiar galaxy that used to be far, far away, Johnson wants to remind audiences that surprises can still happen in the Star Wars universe, and we shouldn’t be sitting in the cinema eagerly anticipating the items on our checklists. Johnson, who is billed as the film’s sole scriptwriter, has impossibly been allowed to make the film he wants to make.

In allowing us his own vision of the franchise, Johnson doesn’t forget that the grand spectacle of these movies needs to be front and centre. It was visually stunning when the Death Star-junior raked its laser beam across a planet’s surface in Awakens, but it was tiresome to sit there thinking, ‘Really? We’re doing this again?’ Johnson’s movie has a battle take place on a planet whose snowy surface gives way to a red salt underneath, making it appear as if the planet itself is bleeding, and a lightsabre duel with Snoke’s Red Guards, the fate of which feels as if it could go either way. When I saw Awakens at midnight, there were dutiful bursts of applause every time Harrison Ford or Carrie Fischer or C3PO’s famous heads popped into the frame, but this time, the applauses came after big fights and shocking reveals. The audience weren’t congratulating the director for wrangling old movie stars back to his franchise, we simply couldn’t contain our excitement for what was happening in the story.

JJ Abrams is set to return for the 9th instalment of the franchise, which could mean a return to Awakens’ safe and familiar approach. That’s fine. It’s enough for me to know that studios are still willing to give the keys to established directors and allow them to put their own visions on the big screen.

The Last Jedi is a triumph; all it took was a little artistic freedom. Who knew?

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