Why Star Wars: The Last Jedi Was a Surprising Sequel

The Last Jedi is one of the boldest Star Wars films yet. Here's how it set the stage for The Rise Of Skywalker...

In December 2017, Rian Johnson and the team at Lucasfilm unleashed Star Wars: The Last Jedi onto an unsuspecting galaxy. The eighth instalment in the mainline Skywalker saga went off like a thermal detonator lobbed into the heart of the fandom, sparking arguments between old friends and igniting an online discourse comprised of endless hot takes and a fair bit of nastiness.

One thing that can’t be argued is that the film was a huge success financially, raking in upwards of $1.3 billion at the global box office. That’s a fair way off The Force Awakens’ total, but it is more than Solo earned and slightly more than Rogue One‘s billion-dollar take. The film also received mostly positive write-ups, with Rotten Tomatoes giving the movie a 91% aggregate score.

With the discourse reigniting two years later on the eve of The Rise of Skywalker’s release, it seems that everyone who loved The Last Jedi in the first place still loves it now, and everyone that didn’t still doesn’t. You may have given up trying to talk about it, fed up with the stalemate conversations where nobody’s opinion changes, but to consign The Last Jedi to a darkened corner would not do Johnson’s film justice.

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Despite following on directly from the nostalgia-fest of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens (marking the first time a Star Wars film has picked up from the very moment where the previous one left off), Johnson made heaps of bold choices to create a sequel that zigs where you think it should zag and does “Luke drinking from the teat of a space creature” where you think it should do “cool training montage.”

The scenes that Luke Skywalker and Rey share on the remote island of Ahch-To pick up the lightsaber-shaped narrative baton, explaining why the iconic Jedi “vanished” before The Force Awakens by serving up three different versions of the fateful flashback in which Luke sensed the darkness within Ben Solo and felt the urge to strike down his young apprentice in fear. Both Luke’s exile and Ben’s transformation into Kylo Ren make a bit more sense because of it, and the villains feels more fully realized as a result.

While Rey is witnessing all of that (and also having a creepy vision, practicing her lightsaber skills and honing her connection to the Force), the Resistance is having a tough time of it. With The First Order able to track the Resistance fleet through hyperspace, our heroes have no option but to crawl across space in hope of a miracle. An attack from Kylo and company sends General Leia blasting into space unprotected, and Carrie Fisher gets a showstopping moment to display her character’s long-teased Force powers as Leia pulls herself back into the ship.

Leia goes into a coma of sorts, leaving Laura Dern’s Holdo to take on the mantle of leadership. With Poe Dameron already demoted (because his antics in the opening scene caused an entire bombing fleet to be destroyed, taking lots of pilots with it), Holdo makes an understandable decision to leave the brash flyboy out of her plans. Unsatisfied with being benched during the most crucial hours of the Resistance’s existence, Poe throws his support behind an off-the-books plan that he cooked up with Finn, Rose Tico and Maz Kanata.

The resultant side plot sees Finn and Rose sneaking off to the casino town of Canto Bight in search of a master codebreaker that can help them break into a massive Star Destroyer, which would allow them to deactivate a tracking device and create a chance for the Resistance to escape. Although this arc may seem like the sort of smaller story that is usually reserved for spinoff novels or animated series, it does allow us to see one of the saddest realities of the galaxy: the super-rich slimeballs that frequent this glamorous resort will happily make a profit from both the Resistance and the First Order. This darkly apolitical moneymaking mindset is perfectly summed up by Benicio del Toro’s DJ: “They blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow,” he says after betraying our heroes. “It’s just business.”

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This subplot widens the Star Wars galaxy by presenting another way in which people think about the eponymous space-based conflicts, and it makes the Resistance’s plight seem even more hopeless: no one is coming to save them (despite Holdo’s attempts to reach out to allies) and a bunch of people don’t even care what happens. This amps up the tension in the action-packed third-act and makes the Resistance’s eventual escape feel even more triumphant.

Best lightsaber bit: There are a couple of great ones to choose from, but the winner has to be the epic moment where Kylo and Rey team up to take on Snoke’s red guards (who wield an array of high-tech weapons). A particular shoutout goes to the moment when Rey throws a lightsaber to Kylo, who switches it on immediately and sends the laser blade straight through his enemy’s skull.

Kylo using the Force to rotate and ignite the Skywalker lightsaber, tricking and killing Snoke in the process, is also pretty cool. But the runner up for “best lightsaber bit” must be the standoff between Kylo and the Force-projected Luke on the white sands of Crait: as Luke dodges his angry nephew’s attacks, allowing the Resistance to escape, a new chapter is written in the legend of the Skywalkers (which children in Canto Bight will soon be reenacting for themselves).

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Best non-lightsaber bit: We’ll go for Holdo’s dramatic sacrifice, which gave the Resistance enough time to make landfall on Crait – there are few moments in the Star Wars franchise that use visual effects and sound design quite this powerfully, and there were gasps aplenty in cinemas when Holdo made this unprecedented short-range hyperspace jump to smash up Snoke’s Star Destroyer. Poe, having watched his own plan fall flat and promptly been told off by a reawakened Leia, learns here what true leadership and heroism look like.

As for also-rans, there are loads. The funniest moment in the film may well be Chewbacca’s attempts to eat a Porg while another one looks on in fear, and the island’s Caretakers also bring a surprising amount of comedy. The big emotional moments include the reunion between Luke and Leia in the old Rebel base on Crait, Luke looking out at twin suns before shuffling off his mortal coil, and Rey being told Kylo’s version of the truth about her parents. Also, other memorable moments include Rey’s creepy vision featuring a queue of finger-snapping clones, Luke emerging from the smoke after being shot up by an AT-AT, and the brilliantly silly sight of BB-8 controlling an AT-ST.

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Jedi Wisdom: Another excellent moment sees the ghost of Yoda popping up on Ahch-To to give Luke a much-needed kick up the arse. While doing just that, Yoda says one of the wisest things anybody has ever uttered in a Star Wars movie: “The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” Luke finally gets over his beef with the Jedi Order and moves on from all its failings, and Yoda ceremoniously burns down the ancient Jedi tree. Rey had already made off with the sacred Jedi texts, though.

Rules of the Force: The Last Jedi expands on the ways of the Force in several big ways: Leia’s flying moment proves that the Force can still have its pull even in the vacuum of space; the Snoke-enabled “Force-time” calls between Rey and Kylo build on the long-held tradition of Force users being able to communicate in their heads; and Luke’s intergalactic self-projection shows that Jedi, if they’re willing to exert a lot of energy, can pull off much grander illusions than simple mind tricks. We also see ghost Yoda summoning lightning, which is a good trick.

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Who has a bad feeling about this? Although nobody says the famous line in English, Rian Johnson later confirmed that BB-8 expressed some bad feelings to Poe in bleep form during the opening sequence (when the daring pilot is staring down a Star Destroyer from inside his X-wing). Poe replies, “Happy beeps here, buddy. Come on.”

Galactic stop-offs: After the planet-hopping roadshow of Rogue One, this feels like one of the most restrained films in the franchise in terms of how many different worlds are crammed in. As well as the casino of Canto Bight (which is actually the name of the city – the planet is called Cantonica), the red-soil planes of Crait, and the remote island of Ahch-To (which was actually filmed in coastal parts of southern Ireland), the only other planet we visit is D’Qar (which is the greenery-heavy planet that the Resistance used as its base in The Force Awakens). The trip to D’Qar is brief, though, because the Resistance has to abandon its HQ right at the start of the film.

Who wins? Despite the odds being stacked against it for most of the film, it still ends up feeling like a victory for the Resistance. With Luke distracting Kylo while Rey levitates some rocks, the remainder of the galaxy’s freedom fighters cram into the Millennium Falcon and make their escape. It feels reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back’s ending – nothing is solved, but hope remains.

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And that spark of hope is represented by the film’s final shot: a boy playing with his Star Wars toys, using the Force on a broom, holding said broom like a lightsaber, and then staring out at the stars.