Star Wars: The Last Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd. © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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Anyone who has watched the trailers for The Last Jedi has heard Luke Skywalker murmur the words, “This will not go the way you think.” It turns out that cheeky play in the marketing with his dialogue defines exactly what Rian Johnson is doing with The Last Jedi, and how he is trying to move the Star Wars franchise forward. As a long time fan of the films, it’s hard not to want to see a series you have loved for so long stay in a neutral gear, moving forward in exactly the way you want and expect, while also learning to let go and let the series evolve beyond what you know. If we grow as individuals, it’s only fair to let the art that defines many to grow as well. So it should come as no surprise that Rian Johnson has taken it upon himself to deliver not only one of the strongest films in the Star Wars saga, but maybe the most essential in the way it completely alters the series moving forward.

While J.J. Abrams brought the series back in a familiar yet exciting way in The Force Awakens, Johnson takes the familiar and then flips it on its head. The Last Jedi is as much a love letter to the entirety of the Star Wars franchise as it is a commentary on how we need to let go of our expectations to accept things for how they are, no matter if they’re not exactly what we were hoping for. Every character seems to be faced with that very dilemma, from Rey and Luke to Poe and Finn, and each character seemingly represents the audience who has spent years feverishly trying to learn everything they can about the series, only to have it come out much different from what fans were expecting. It’s almost too funny that Johnson takes it on himself to really commentate on fan culture in a film series that has become synonymous with the loud fanbase around it, but if anything, it’s necessary. The Star Wars franchise has always had a bit of self-reflection on the world we live in, and here it may be one of the most fundamental points the series has tackled so far.

Not only has Johnson really delved into the commentary of life and fandom, the most important thing is that he’s a huge fan of the franchise, and he wants to see it go in new directions. After many fans spent so much time lambasting Abrams’ The Force Awakens, calling it nothing more than a retread of A New Hope, Rian knew those same fans would expect a film very similar to The Empire Strikes Back. That gave him the freedom to flip those expectations in a big way, and while there are some similarities to the Irvin Kershner’s film – – even down to a some shots in the film that are clearly a nod to Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography – – the films are in no way similar. Where The Empire Strikes Back feels like the middle chapter in a series, in a lot of ways The Last Jedi feels more like a new beginning. Yes, it’s picking up the threads that Abrams started, but Johnson uses those threads to try and build something much more unique, and creates something that’s much more game changing for the series moving forward. In a lot of ways, The Last Jedi unshackles the series to certain things that many may not expect, and leaves the series in a place where the opportunities honestly feel limitless.

Thankfully, this isn’t a detriment to the series, and really takes the cast of characters we know and love – – both new and old alike – – in new and interesting directions. It’s fascinating watching someone like Johnson pushing younger talent like Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver into territory we’ve never seen. Driver in particular is doing excellent work as Ben Solo – – or also known by his evil bad guy name, Kylo Ren – – giving what is maybe one of his strongest performances on film. It’s absolutely fantastic watching him work this time, with a swagger or arrogance, much like his father, but while fighting the darkness his grandfather Anakin struggled with. Ridley as well gives a magnetic performance that truly cements her as a rising star, and you can’t help but rally behind her character, pulling for her to not only persuade Luke to join in the fight against the First Order, but also hoping she finds the answers to the pain she faces in not knowing her past. However, the truth is, the standout in the film is Mark Hamill, who makes his triumphant return as Luke Skywalker, giving what is not only maybe the best performance in the film, but this is his best performance in the series by far. Luke is so different now from that young flyboy who we first met on Tatooine, having fought Darth Vader and destroying the Empire, only to see the seeds of it rise again, while watching his work to reignite the Jedi Order come crumbling down around him. Hamill plays it with so much pain and remorse, it’s a truly fantastic evolution for the character, and you can see just why it threw Hamill himself for a loop when he read it for the first time. But the thing that makes it such a compelling performance is that underneath it all, you can still see that glimmer of the young man who watched the twin suns on Tatooine, looking for a way off that wayward desert planet. There truly is a youthfulness at times to the performance that makes you realize that while Luke may be broken, he’s still got hope inside himself, and sees that he can possibly help turn the tide. It’s whether he can fully embrace that or not.

The film’s B storyline, which has Finn, Poe, Leia, and Rose standing off in their final hour against the First Order also gives us some fantastic time with these characters. Though at times, the Finn and Rose side of the story doesn’t always feel as cohesive as everything else in the film, it still works thanks for John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran. The two are so much fun to watch together on-screen, and the spark they have share is undeniable. But of course, much must be said about Carrie Fisher in her final performance as General Leia, honestly giving the perfect cap to her character in a way that only she could. It’s honestly a little heartbreaking to think we’ll never see the tough as nails, though sympathetic, and overall kick-ass actress on-screen again, bringing her most iconic character to life. Though in a lot of ways, her final performance, which is arguably her best in the role, under Rian’s watch feels incredibly special. Johnson loves the character, and he brings her back to a place of power, and really lets her stand out in a way that we haven’t seen in almost thirty years. It’s also interesting that Leia is instrumental in the idea of not only letting go of the past, but reigniting the fire in those to preserve the future of the galaxy, and that may be the best place to leave that character.

Enough can’t be said about just what Rian Johnson has accomplished with The Last Jedi. This is not only a monumental step forward the series, it’s also an important love letter to what’s come before, while letting go of it. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing an incredibly talented director like Johnson, who is also a fan of the material, get to really go all out and play in a big sandbox like the Star Wars universe, but I’m certainly glad that he got to. Not only has he taken so much of what we love about the series and infused it with new life, but he’s also created what will largely become some of the most iconic moments for the franchise in the future. The film’s entire third act plays as one of the most purely wonderful, emotional, and downright fantastic pieces of the series to ever be put on-screen, and while forever altering the series forever. It’s an incredibly fine line to play nostalgic and trying to change things, but Rian has done a magnificent job doing just that here.

Fans of Star Wars may not love everything Rian Johnson has done within The Last Jedi, but make no mistake, he’s made a fantastic film that will be long remembered. In a lot of ways, this is exactly the film this saga needed, even if we weren’t asking for it. This is not going to go the way you think, and for many that may be uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary push forward for the Star Wars saga moving forward, and I for one am glad to be a part of that ride. The Last Jedi is the tip of the iceberg for what the series can be moving forward, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.