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Part Kurosawa, part Wile E. Coyote, The Last Jedi boldly rewires Star Wars' origins

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This article contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s stylized contribution to the Star Wars mythos, returns to the series’ root influences—samurai films, pulp serials, 1940s wartime dramas—to create the most idiosyncratic Star Wars film to date. The humor is wacky and Spaceballs-and-Looney Tunes-ish, the staging stark and operatic, the sense of mythology expressive and terrific; it brushes away the prequel trilogy’s pseudo-rationalization of the Force, the mystical animating power of the Star Wars-verse, and makes it purely dramatic, even going beyond George Lucas’ original transcendental concept. (Star Wars may be set in a galaxy far, far away, but it was born in ’70s San Francisco.) In short, it’s bound to piss off some of this 40-year-old, multi-billion-dollar franchise’s more dogmatic fans. Johnson’s script—the busiest in the series, though it’s more nuanced than might appear at first glance—is driven almost exclusively by individual failures and foiled intentions, the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey torn into pieces.

Consider Lucas’ original film, an unlikely mix of the techno-futurism of his debut, THX-1138, and the retro nostalgia of his sophomore film, American Graffiti. The cultural life of what’s now officially called Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope has been curious; initially recognized as an ingenious pastiche, it has now completely eclipsed its sources in popularity. Its six prequels and sequels (not counting The Last Jedi or last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) form a contorting, decades-spanning narrative of Dickensian coincidences: the galaxy is vast and strange, but somehow it all keeps coming back to Tatooine, the Death Star, Chewbacca, and Anakin Skywalker. J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens took it further: not Tatooine, but a desert planet just like it; not the Death Star, but the derivative Starkiller Base; not Anakin Skywalker, but the grandson who wants to be just like him. (Chewbacca has remained a constant, however.)


Characters were that movie’s strength, and its most dynamic addition to the series came in the form of the aforementioned grandson: Kylo Ren, the ultimate Darth Vader fan, a tragic and moody Wile E. Coyote whose turn to the dark side is all too relatable. Kylo is an already self-reflexive creation for a sequel trilogy expected to repeat the past. But now comes The Last Jedi, which parallels its heroine’s search for guidance from Luke Skywalker, the protagonist of the original trilogy, by going back to the source material—not to A New Hope, à la The Force Awakens, but to its core inspirations, starting with Lucas’ Japanophilia. The influence of Akira Kurosawa is refashioned into graphically bold throne room and battle scenes, Rashomon-inspired flashbacks, a spectacular samurai-style light saber melee, red backdrops (theatrically implying non-Disney-friendly carnage), and images scrimmed with rain, sparks, and fog.


In other words, this isn’t Lucas’ Kurosawa. Aesthetically, The Last Jedi draws more from the director’s color films, like Kagemusha (which Lucas helped finance) and Ran, though Johnson doesn’t try to copy the pictorially flattened telephoto compositions of these late-period works; his visual instincts are closer to pulpier directors like Hideo Gosha (acknowledged as an influence on The Last Jedi) or Kenji Misumi, the latter known for his Lone Wolf And Cub movies. His ambitious pastiche substitutes the original trilogy’s Japanese influences—obvious in everything from Darth Vader’s armor to the prevalence of pseudo-Japanese names like Kenobi and Yoda—with his own; the most obvious example is a spaceship breathtakingly ripped apart in a sequence straight out of sci-fi anime.

From top to bottom, The Last Jedi rewires the cinematic and mythological influences of Star Wars to its own ends: the non-stop climaxes and cliffhangers that give this (very long) movie the structure of a compressed serial that’s unlike any other Star Wars film; the opening space battle’s quotations of World War II bomber-crew films; the extended side-trip into ’30s and ’40s Hollywood references that takes it to a Monaco-meets-Casablanca casino planet of war profiteers, complete with Benicio Del Toro doing his best Peter Lorre as a scummy code-breaker; the fantastical touches that bring the Force closer to the sorcery of fairy tales and medieval romance than it’s ever been, with some wuxia thrown in for good measure. No film in this series has been this strange, baroque, or internally conflicted, pondering why the world of Star Wars seems doomed to repeat itself in between gags and eye-catching action sequences.

One answer, which comes courtesy of Del Toro’s character, is that constant interstellar strife is good business; an entire hitherto unseen military-industrial complex is making fortunes peddling X-wings, TIE Fighters, and blasters. Another is that the Star Wars galaxy is one of self-fulfilling prophecies; the Last Jedi’s ensemble cast teems with wannabe heroes on thwarted quests, from the recklessly gung-ho hotshot Poe to the doubting Finn. At its center is a fight over narrative ownership. “This isn’t your story,” says Kylo to our heroine, Rey, late in the film, cementing his status as a twisted fan surrogate. She is a true nobody, an apparent glitch in what’s supposed to be the saga of the Skywalker bloodline. But then, so much of what happens in The Last Jedi—the psychic dialogues, the astral projections—suggests that the Force isn’t exactly what we’ve been told. Perhaps it’s always just been a cosmic expression of hopes and fears.

But, then, what makes Rey different from everyone else? A web of mentor-student dynamics connects all of the movie’s major characters, sometimes unwittingly; the theme here is the failure of the masters and idols. It seems to radiate from the relationship between Kylo and his uncle, Luke, who ages into a tragic hero out of Greek myth in The Last Jedi. In trying to keep history from repeating—from letting another Darth Vader loose on the galaxy—he has brought it back upon himself. This whole sequel trilogy is his fault. Fittingly, he dissipates into the unknown in nirvanic contemplation of his own origins. Framed in front of a sundown that instantly brings to mind the binary sunset of Tatooine—the series’ most lyrical image—he is at once the grizzled Jedi master and the fresh-faced farm boy. What is it that Rey says in The Force Awakens? “I’m no one.”