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!). General consensus among fans and critics seems to be 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, this most recent look at the film provided new glimpses of a grumpy, grizzled version of Luke Skywalker, good guys 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, there’s even the suggestion that a bit of matricide might be on the cards, with tormented wannabe Darth Vader Kylo Ren seemingly poised to murder his mother, the former Princess Leia!
Ratcheting up the gloom factor has only served to further fuel comparisons between The Last Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back – the latter of which is widely considered not only the best Star Wars episode of all time, but a perfect example of the “darker sequel” done right. And whilst 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.
That’s because – despite its surface-level imitation of The Empire Strikes Back – this tantalising peek at The Last Jedi seems to have rewarded the faith of fans like me who hoped that incoming director Rian Johnson would finally taking the 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 beating up on The Force Awakens for serving as a “greatest hits” rehash of the original Star Wars trilogy is perhaps a little unfair. True, it does retread 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. In order 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 – and it didn’t hurt that this effectively reset the board for future sequels to build on, too!
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
So with audience interest in the Star Wars franchise now well and truly back at fever pitch, Johnson is 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 is 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 shares with the Empire Strikes Back, but which is 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. Whilst 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 hold the spotlight – claiming it was out of character.
Here’s hoping that Johnson is able to provide an explanation for this 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 maybe 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.
There’s also the inference that 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, although one wonders if Johnson might make an even bolder decision, having Rey succumb to the Dark Side just as Ren returns to the Light – switching protagonists mid-trilogy!
Looking wider afield, and 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, further reinforcing 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 UNFETTERED EXPECTATIONS
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 a satisfactory fashion, given Carrie Fisher’s unexpected death shortly after filming wrapped, nixing any previous plans to feature her send-off in Episode IX.
Yet even with these anxieties lurking on the periphery, it’s hard to not to remain wildly enthusiastic for the Last Jedi, which – for all that it appears headed into darker territory – looks set to be Star Wars’ brightest hour yet!