The Last Jedi: Star Wars finally rises above a sanitised children's film, courtesy director Rian Johnson
To truly make diversity integral to the Star Wars universe, the franchise needed a new-age voice — just like that of The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson.
If you have not yet watched The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson’s previous film, the sci-fi action thriller Looper, now is when you do it; preferably after you’ve watched Episode VIII of the Star Wars franchise, so you can marvel at the leap Johnson has taken, in terms of sheer scale.
Johnson caught attention with his debut Indie feature Brick way back in 2006, and his films since then have all been indie at heart, with a layered story at the core and a penchant for making the most of the existing budget constraints, to best tell the story without ever seeming low on production value. It goes without saying that The Last Jedi is his biggest film to date by some distance, but with Johnson’s touch, we finally get a Star Wars film that boldly goes where no Star Wars film has gone before. (No, that wasn’t a specific attempt at offending Star Trek fans.)
Just like life, the travails of the galaxy far, far away are endless. The stories to be told and seen are infinite, and this is perhaps the reason why the Star Wars franchise has the kind of following it does — it packed in a lot of good, clean entertainment, with spectacular visuals. Yet, even while they were reflective of real world politics in some way, they were always seen as sanitised entertainment for children of all ages.
Forty years and eight films later, if there was one thing the Star Wars franchise was sorely missing, it was a fresh, new voice. To be fair, Gareth Edwards did that to some extent with the last spin-off film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; but the new trilogy itself was badly in need of a makeover.
Episode VII: The Force Awakens stoked nostalgia, with JJ Abrams largely sticking to the same formula that had made the first trilogy so beloved. What it did best, though, was introduce a smidgen of diversity into the Star Wars universe, in keeping with the times we live in. The lead character Rey — ‘the Chosen One’ in the new trilogy, so to speak — was a young woman. Her first sparks of romance came with a Black actor. But to truly make diversity integral to the universe itself, the franchise needed a new-age voice — just like Johnson’s.
Johnson is a self-confessed fanboy of the series, which is perhaps why, like Abrams in The Force Awakens, Johnson chose to shoot The Last Jedi on film rather than digital. (George Lucas, in comparison, shot Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith completely on digital.)
But even a quick viewing of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi back-to-back will reveal the differences between the two directorial styles. For instance, Johnson cuts often from a wide frame to an extreme close-up, with the latter meant to create a perspective you would not otherwise have considered in a Star Wars film. In fact, a lot of the shot-taking in Episode VIII is new to the Star Wars franchise.
Then, there’s the cheeky (and sometimes clever) humour, another first for the series. Most of the attempted humour in Star Wars so far was courtesy the lowbrow antics of C-3PO and R2D2, or Jar Jar Binks in the second trilogy. Yes, Han Solo had spunk but he depended more on banter than anything else. And the Skywalkers are a humourless clan, the most bland of them being old Luke. (We will excuse poor Anakin, because at least he went on to become the best thing about Star Wars)
In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker brings him with him an amount of unexpected sass, which definitely is no courtesy of all those years in exile. Perhaps borrowing from what has been working for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the humour in the film is a refreshing addition to the franchise.
But sassy Skywalker is not the only change. In fact, by the end of it, the film ends up stripping the Skywalker name in particular and the Jedi clan in general of much of their historical aura, shifting the responsibility of saving the galaxy onto characters that do not have the weight and privilege of their bloodline to save their sorry a**.
Now, for the first time in forty years, the onus of the future does not lie on a white man named Skywalker, but on a plethora of characters, some from the bottom of the galactic barrel of privilege.
In developing all the strands of these various characters and bringing them together, The Last Jedi ends up becoming a tad longer and clumsier than you would like it to be but through it all, you can see Johnson striving hard to ensure that he does not lose the essence of the franchise while infusing it with so much unfamiliarity. Even the antagonist, Kylo Ren, had to shed the mask he wore to emulate his personal hero Darth Vader, and become his own version of evil.
And in one of the most unlikely situations in the Star Wars franchise so far, a sequence in an intergalactic casino shows you just how blurry the lines between good and evil have become as both sides purchase their weapons from the same set of arms traffickers.
You can see now that no one person is going to save the galaxy from the tentacles of darkness. Instead, the future now rests on a motley bunch of unlikely heroes, each coming from different backgrounds, bringing different strengths to the table.
Star Wars finally has the opportunity to carry many different kinds of viewers along with it, and much of that credit must go to what Rian Johnson himself has brought to the table, as an unexpected indie voice helming one of the world’s favourite film franchises. A leaner film would have helped its cause immensely, but Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson infuses the series with a new hope.
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