‘The Last Jedi’ Has Enough Force to Save the Franchise
The Star Wars saga now belongs to Rey, Finn and Poe.
This is not your father’s Star Wars franchise. It doesn’t even belong to Luke’s father anymore.
What The Last Jedi, opening Thursday night, does so well over its two-hour, 32-minute thrill-ride is start to escape the gravitational pull of orbiting the same Skywalker family squabbles on the big screen for 40 years.
This saga now belongs to a new generation of heroes — Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) and my 13-year-old daughter’s generation off it. Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, one year older at the time of filming Episode VIII as Sir Alec Guinness was shooting the first “Star Wars,” is now the grizzled, old mentor leaving the heavy lifting (of rocks) to the new kid.
That makes it both certified fresh and certified as fresh.
But that’s not to say there isn’t plenty in this newest installment that creator George Lucas would recognize: The First Order don’t pretend to be anything but groupies of the Empire from the original trilogy; there are the requisite lightsaber and X-wing battles; there are still enough cute droids and critters to stock the local toy store.
There’s enough new and different in The Last Jedi, particularly the depth of the millennials now riding in the Millennium Falcon, to make it time for me to hand over the lightsaber to my own daughter off screen. (That’s not a metaphor, unfortunately, in our household.)
And that’s no small statement for a life-long fan who was so inspired by that first viewing as a four-year-old that he became a film journalist and pop culture critic instead of say, going into a lucrative career in business or medicine. (Curse you, Lucas!)
“What you have to understand, and I’m saying this for myself, is it’s not mine anymore, and it’s not George’s anymore” the 66-year-old Hamill told this critic for a New York Daily News article. “This is for a new generation…and their goals are much different.
“The challenge of making it relevant and entertaining and fun again and also the fact that Disney has invested so much to make it a series that potentially go on for long after (my generation) will be gone.”
Of course, 40- and 50-somethings can still enjoy director Rian Johnson’s tribute to the sci-fi franchise that clearly dominated his own childhood. But we’ll say it’s only the second-best installment, after 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back — clearly. Younger movie-goers will likely think that order backwards.
See, Disney didn’t invest $4.05 billion in cash and stock to pry Lucasfilm out of George Lucas’s hands a few years ago not to mine every last Kyber crystal out of this franchise.
There was no way to do that over the long-term by just continuing to the nostalgia of the grownup kids who first heard John Williams’s epic score in the movie theater in 1977 or first stared at Luke Skywalker staring at the twin suns of Tatooine via a VHS tape.
Sure, even the great George Lucas himself tried that strategy once upon a time… with the poorly received prequel trilogy. The pratfall comedy of Jar Jar Binks was aimed at a new batch of four-year-olds, not movie-goers who had seen the original 1977 classic when they were four.
The problem with those movies is most of those kids outgrew them by the age of eight.
So for a long time, the franchise has felt like something stuck a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Sure J.J. Abrams navigated it well with the last installment, The Force Awakens, but that episode felt almost like a set from a great cover band. Even the standalone films don’t stray too many parsecs from the original trilogy — with last year’s Rogue One a puzzle piece with the edges lining up directly with the first Star Wars.
This is the first step in a new direction, even if it’s in just a slightly new direction, and thus the great unknown. If nothing else, with The Last Jedi, Johnson showed why Lucasfilm was so eager to plant him in the director’s chair for a brand-new trilogy with brand-new characters.
“These movies in some way are all about adolescence, about navigating the waters between childhood and adulthood and finding your place in the world,” Johnson told me by email. “As a kid in Colorado, I saw this farm kid who feels like he’s a million miles from anywhere but knows he’s on the cusp of stepping into a bigger world, and just instantly responded to it.
“Now with these new films, that journey is carried on by the young cast, and Luke is playing a new role in their journeys.”