This story contains spoilers for all of The Last Jedi.
“This is not going to go the way you think!” growls Luke Skywalker in a line that was, wisely, selected as the money quote for The Last Jedi’s trailers. Rian Johnson’s Star Wars sequel is a machine built to startle the audience again and again across two and a half hours, and he’s turned everything from lightsaber duels to celebrity cameos into not-what-you-think moments.
Surprise and suspense are at the heart of great entertainment. But when it comes to a huge franchise like Star Wars, familiarity often wins out over shock. Fans come to the Galaxy Far, Far Away not only to revisit the same locations and characters they love. They come to be told a certain kind of story, one that might squirrel newness into the specifics but still, in the end, feels like an updated version of an old model. The Last Jedi does this—but the quantity and quality of that newness is, well, new.
Disney’s Star Wars films to date succeeded by refurbishing the original trilogy’s feel, from the hand-worn sets to the story arcs about disabling a giant weapon and discovering the hero inside oneself. Johnson’s predecessor, J.J. Abrams, found novelty in casting, and packed in suspense about the nature of the new characters (who is Rey, really? will Kylo or won’t Kylo kill his dad?), but those characters mostly ran through a highly nostalgic obstacle course. Rogue One lavishly staged a story Star Wars fans had already heard, with one powerful—but perhaps inevitable—twist at the ending.
But The Last Jedi is a bolder leap, one that risks offending diehards with its swerves and subversions. Johnson understands that the most common kinds of OMG scenes in popular entertainment—big revelations or character deaths—are not the only way to make the audience gasp, though he does have plenty of those conventional shocks. The Last Jedi more fundamentally played with expectations about the story—and about Star Wars itself.
Performing Magic With Magic
The scene when The Last Jedi announced itself as, per Supreme Leader Snoke, “something truly special” will possibly be the most controversial part of the movie: General Leia getting blasted from the bridge of a Rebel cruiser into space and then, ever so gracefully, floating back to safety. It’s a gonzo sequence that invites groans alongside cheers, and it makes clear that The Last Jedi will do whatever the hell it pleases for the remainder of its significant runtime.
Part of the whiplash here is meta. The audience knows that Carrie Fisher died, and so it expects that her character may be killed off. But this soon in the movie, this suddenly? And yet, the majestic way Johnson depicts her hurling through space feels like a farewell. There would be meaningful irony in Leia being killed by her son’s minions, exactly at the moment her son chose to spare her.
Just as viewers resign themselves to a sad but inevitable goodbye … Leia lives.
She lives, too, in spite of the instant death the cold vacuum of space would obviously inflict. We are left to assume that the Force not only guided her back to safety but also protected her from suffocation, freezing, and the other biological nastiness. That’s a power that the audience hasn’t ever seen in Star Wars. Some people are going to cry foul, as if Johnson were cheating.
But he’s taking smart advantage of a few things here. One is that the rules of the Force have always been hazy, a fact he notes—and kind of solves—when Luke lectures Rey about it not just being a “power” that certain people have. Another factor is that while Leia has never had the supernatural spotlight on her as a Jedi, there’s no reason to think she’s not as powerful as her twin brother, a contender for the most powerful guy in the galaxy.
As importantly, The Force Awakens, starting with its title, made a movie-length assertion that the Force has agency and an agenda in this new trilogy. Every plot improbability in that film could be waved away as the work of destiny. Now, that overactive hand of fate has simply been caught on camera.
Which gives Johnson license to contrive other gasp-worthy mystical breakthroughs. Yoda materialises as the most talkative Force ghost yet seen. Rey and Kylo Ren teleconference across the galaxy. Luke confounds the First Order by projecting a body double from lightyears away—and then goes “poof” forever.
All of these gosh-wow moments extend and elaborate on powers depicted in previous Star Wars films: telepathy, mind control, and the like. In the case of Leia’s resurrection and Luke’s final trick, superhuman abilities get taken to their extreme at the moment of greatest need for the characters. If some viewers don’t buy that such powers can be pushed so drastically, the question is: Why not?
A Plot That Kills the Past
The most commonly talked-about type of twist for blockbuster fiction happens within the story itself. Characters betray one another, learn unthinkable truths, and die when no one expects them to.
Such manoeuvres are well within the Star Wars playbook. Darth Vader striking Obi-Wan Kenobi down, Luke meeting his dad, and Emperor Palpatine plummeting to his doom were all iconic surprises. And they each get echoed in The Last Jedi—but the new versions land powerfully because of how they differ from the old.
The most shocking of these is Kylo Ren turning on Supreme Leader Snoke. Yet how big of a shock is it, really? The entire point of Rey going to visit the two biggest bad guys in the galaxy is her conviction that the younger of them wants to betray the older one. But Johnson gets the jump on the viewer with timing and staging.
Proving Rey right about Kylo so quickly upends the arc viewers have ingrained in them from the original trilogy: The climactic Return of the Jedi moment comes a full movie early. So there’s a wild sense of possibility that’s unleashed with the evil puppet-master figure dead.
It also helps that Kylo slays the Supreme Leader in a manner that harkens back to his murdering of Han Solo in The Force Awakens. In both cases, Kylo wears a blank expression and his target believes they’re on the same side before enduring a close-quarters light-stabbing. The intrigue this time comes from the ideological switch: In Awakens, he betrays the light, and in Jedi, he betrays the dark.
After a well-choreographed showdown with Snoke’s guards, Johnson whisks the audience back into the realm of the familiar, with Kylo making an overture to Rey that paraphrases the one that Darth Vader offers to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Yet here, too, is a fun and shocking flip of an old memory. He informs her that her parents are “nobody,” rather than, as it had been in Empire for Luke—and as many fans had speculated would be the case now for Rey—very big somebodies.
Lots of other Last Jedi surprises work both on their own and as twisted callbacks. Luke’s phantom battle with Kylo is an obvious remix of Obi-Wan’s New Hopedemise. The codebreaker DJ selling out Finn and Rose recalls Lando Calrissian’s actions in The Empire Strike Back—a fact that sets up the expectation of a double-reversal back to the good that, in a twist of its own, never comes.
What about Finn and Rose’s big moment? As the former stormtrooper goes to make like Russell in Independence Day and destroy the First Order’s big blaster in an act of self-sacrifice, he’s knocked to safety by Rose. It’s a classic, shmaltzy deus ex machina, and it allows Rose to deliver a lovely thesis statement for the Rebellion and plant this trilogy’s first romantic kiss. But I can’t think of any precedent in the Star Wars movies for this particular kind of sacrifice to preventsacrifice, with individual love nobly winning out over the collective mission.
Which speaks to the yet-grander innovation of The Last Jedi: finding ways to complicate and deepen the good vs. evil dichotomy. We see well-intentioned missions end in failure and catastrophe (Finn’s arc). We see sharp and consequential disagreements between people on the same side (Poe vs. Holdo). We see intense explorations of what it means for light and dark to flirt (Rey and Ren). And the long-troubling notion that a person’s significance is simply a product of heredity is vaporised with the reveal about Ray’s junktrading parents, cemented by a coda that sees a force-wielding slave kid dreaming of rebellion.
A New Look
The other way Johnson enlivens and surprises is through the style of his filmmaking. Many shots do deeply recall what’s come before (see the Millennium Falcon angling through a crystal cavern in the manner of the Return of the Jedi Death Star run, even with references in the musical score). But they’re garnished with cinematic choices that are like nothing done in a Star Wars film before.
In this way too, Leia’s near-death journey into and out of space announced a break from the mold. It was balletic and ethereal, Gravity-inspired, yet also on the cusp of camp. When she was pulled through the cruiser’s wreckage by some invisible string, her arms outstretched, it was like something from medieval Biblical art—or a schlocky superhero film. The closest precedent in Star Wars might be the journey through the sea on Naboo in The Phantom Menace, yet even that didn’t have the air of surrealist cinema that this had.
Another spiritually infused moment was even more wondrous: Rey’s mirror world in the underbelly of Ahch-To. It’s true her flirtation with the dark side during her Jedi training was a clear callback to Luke visiting the evil cave on Dagobah in Empire. But that old scene felt more concretely within the same Star Wars world, set apart as a hallucination by some camera effects. The Force Awakens also staged a brief, freaky vision after Rey touched Luke’s lightsaber for the first time, but visually that felt like pretty standard-issue dream-sequence fare.
For The Last Jedi, though, Johnson came up with a bizarre vision of a legion of Reys, standing in a line, each one’s movements a micro-second behind the last. Crucially, he let the scene linger, allowing the viewer to ponder whether she was in the same physical location as before, somewhere within her mind, or in another realm entirely. Part of Star Wars’ charm has always been in making a completely made-up universe feel solid, real, grounded. But Johnson is finally allowing room for trippiness.
My pick for the movie’s best set-to-stun scene, though, took a familiar action twist and decked it in new style. The moment: When Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo set her cruiser to slice at hyperspeed through the First Order fleet, thus saving the rebellion and ending her life.
It’s not the maneuver itself that’s shocking. Using big ships to crash into other ones is a trope of Star Wars space battles, executed spectacularly both in The Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One. The Disney Star Wars movies have also toyed with the short-range possibilities of hyperdrive, as seen in Han Solo speeding onto the Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens and Poe zapping his X-wing into a hangar bay in this movie. So: Viewers saw this coming, perhaps shortly before General Hux did.
But they didn’t see coming just how beautiful it would look and sound. Rather than show a big, loud, flame-laden crash, Johnson takes a freakishly serene view of Holdo’s gambit happening in a split-second flash. The shots are way-wide, and the sound effects are nearly mute. For a moment it’s as if Stanley Kubrick, instead of George Lucas, had been the architect of Star Wars. What a twist.