By now, we’ve all had time to digest the latest trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi (unless you’re one of the strong-willed souls who resisted the urge to watch it!). Overall, the online response to the trailer is overwhelmingly positive. That said, the consensus among fans and critics alike is that – adorable porgs aside – Episode VIII of cinema’s greatest sci-fi/fantasy saga looks like a far darker outing than its predecessor, The Force Awakens.
After all, the new trailer provided further glimpses of a grumpy, grizzled version of Luke Skywalker; the Resistance on the run; and Jedi-in-training Rey being tortured by big bad Supreme Leader Snoke (at last taking a break from his giant hologram Wizard Of Oz-schtick). Heck, a bit of matricide might even be on the cards, with tormented wannabe Darth Vader Kylo Ren poised to murder his mother, Leia!
The Last Jedi ratcheting up the sequel trilogy’s gloom factor has fuelled comparisons between it and The Empire Strikes Back – which is a big deal, since Empire is widely considered not only the best Star Wars episode of all time, but also a perfect example of the “darker sequel” done right. And while it’s hard not to see tonal similarities between these two sombre films – just as it was impossible not to draw parallels between The Force Awakens and series opener A New Hope – the trailer has left me feeling surprisingly upbeat.
Yeah, things look bleak for our heroes. But this tantalising peek at The Last Jedi rewards the faith of fans like me who hoped that director Rian Johnson would take the Star Wars franchise in a fresh new direction. “This is not going to go the way you think,” promises Luke at one point – and thank the Force for that!
The Force Awakens: a necessary reset?
Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that me beating up on The Force Awakens for being a “greatest hits” rehash of the original Star Wars trilogy is perhaps a little unfair. True, it does recycle many familiar elements of those films – including yet another Death Star, for crying out loud! – but there’s a certain shrewd logic to the approach taken by once and future franchise director J.J. Abrams.
After the lacklustre critical (if not commercial) response to franchise creator George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, it’s fair to say that the Star Wars brand had lost some of its shine since the heyday of the late 70s and early 80s. To win back audience goodwill, it made sense to relaunch the saga with a movie deliberately designed to echo the beloved plot points, characters, tone and aesthetics of the original trilogy. It didn’t hurt that this effectively reset the board for future sequels to build on, either!
In this regard, The Force Awakens was successful to a degree far greater than even its $2 billion box office haul would indicate. So, if The Last Jedi does wind up branching out from what came before it, credit should be given to Abrams and his team for giving the Star Wars mythos a tune-up first.
A new look at a familiar galaxy far, far away
With audience interest in the Star Wars franchise well and truly back at fever pitch, Rian Johnson is now free to explore new corners of this galaxy far, far away. Winding the clock back to a time when the saga promised us fantastic new worlds we could never have imagined, The Last Jedi looks set to bring us stunning new vistas, including an outrageous planet covered in crystalline flora and fauna!
But more much more importantly, the film promises to delve more deeply into the psyche of its characters – something it admittedly “borrows” from the Empire Strikes Back, but which is also inevitable when any story enters its middle act.
Some of these developments will make sense to fans. Struggling with the tremendous power within her – and dealing with the realisation that her hero, Luke Skywalker, isn’t what she hoped he’d be – Rey seems to have grown more conflicted than ever. And speaking of conflicted, Kylo Ren’s internal struggles look to have intensified, too. While this is bad news for the Dark Side acolyte, it’s good news for audiences, as Ren’s characterisation as fighting the light, not the darkness within him – one of the few aspects of The Force Awakens that felt truly unique – remains a brilliant, subversive inversion of a well-worn series trope.
On the other hand, there are some characters arcs in The Last Jedi that viewers might be less comfortable with – chiefly, Luke’s transformation from confident Jedi Knight to bitter Jedi Master. Some fans have already objected to Luke entering self-imposed exile in The Force Awakens (although this was done largely to allow the new characters to take centre stage) claiming it was out of character. Here’s hoping that Johnson is able to provide an explanation for Luke’s behaviour that satisfies non-converts to the saga’s new direction, even as he tries to push this familiar hero into unfamiliar emotional territory.
But what’s most exciting of all is the prospect of seeing how the relationships between these three characters will play out. Luke already has an unpleasant history with Ren – despite being Skywalker’s uncle and student, Kylo previously murdered all his other pupils and burnt down his temple! – and his interactions with Rey are strained, to say the least.
Ren might once again try to tempt Rey to the Dark Side along with Snoke, who fingers crossed evolves into something more impressive than a stock standard “withered evil dark lord” stereotype.
The trailer makes it seem as though Rey might actually be considering Kylo’s offer. That’s hardly new ground for the series, but I wonder if Johnson will have Rey succumb to the Dark Side just as Ren returns to the Light, switching protagonists mid-trilogy!
Looking wider afield, The Last Jedi also appears to have its sights set on delving deeper into the mythology of the Jedi Order and even the Force itself. It’s too early to tell how significant this expansion of existing lore will be, but the mere prospect that it will happen at all further reinforces just how committed to breaking new ground Johnson’s take on the material is.
Even the news that the movie will pick up straight after the events of its predecessor marks a first for the Star Wars saga, which has otherwise traditionally left a gap of years – decades even! – between its episodes.
You don’t know the power of unchecked excitement
Of course, all this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t approach The Last Jedi without some reservations. Much like the Dark Side, unchecked excitement is as easy to succumb to as it is invariably fraught with disaster.
For starters, the film’s adherence to The Empire Strikes Back’s template – however sensible it may be to emulate – is cause for at least mild concern for those eager for a fresh adventure. Then there’s a degree of wariness over how well Johnson will be able to juggle The Last Jedi’s wider cast of characters, many of whom (particularly male lead Finn) barely factor in the promotional materials released to date.
Finally, there’s a big question mark over whether the character arc for Princess Leia can possibly be resolved in satisfactory fashion. Carrie Fisher unexpected died shortly after filming wrapped, nixing any previous plans to feature her send-off in Episode IX, so it’ll be a minor miracle if Johnson manages to address this properly in Episode VIII.
Yet even with these anxieties lurking on the periphery, it’s hard to not to remain wildly enthusiastic for the Last Jedi, which – despite heading into darker territory – looks set to be Star Wars’ brightest hour yet!