Warning: this article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
This is not going to go the way you think!
—Luke Skywalker, The Last Jedi
Ambiguity (noun). The quality of being open to more than one interpretation. It’s just a word, until you realise that somebody’s talking about Star Wars.
“He’s very much trusted the audience’s intelligence that they can handle ambiguity,” Adam Driver told press at Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s world premiere, neatly summing up the rug-pulled-out, world-tipped-over approach of its director, Rian Johnson. Considering The Last Jedi peels back Kylo Ren’s soul with the rawness of a scalping, Driver would know.
The Last Jedi digs its fingers into the spaces between Light and Dark, muddying the idea of what one means to the other: Rey and Kylo Ren are struggling to choose their sides; Poe’s belief in how to win is faltering; Finn is learning that a pretty surface can hide an ugly truth. Simplicity has gone out the window. To say that the original trilogy, or even the prequels, lacked complexity would be an injustice (not least to we love who them); but to say there was no obvious side to root for is not. “I can turn him back to the good side,” Luke says of Vader in Return of the Jedi, (emphasis on “good”). There’s not much ambiguity in that.
Fast-forward through 35 years and three prequels, and someone has breathed on the glass, fogging up what was once clear-cut. “I wasn’t coming in to [the film] thinking, ‘We gotta freshen this up! How do I evolve this?’,” Johnson told Wired. “But I also came in trying to be unafraid of going to some places if that’s what the story ended up requiring.” With the blank slate gifted to him by Lucasfilm, those “some places” were not the extremes of Dark or Light, but the grey cracks in between. In Johnson’s universe, when Luke finally lets Rey open up to the Force and asks her “What do you see?”, it’s light, darkness – and balance.
Balance. Noun (a situation in which different elements are equal) and verb (counteracting or equaling their effects). It’s a concept given life in the prequels – “You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force” – but still the idea is that balance must mean the death of darkness. Anakin Skywalker’s supposed destiny is not to coexist with the Dark, but to bury it.
Not so for The Last Jedi. Perhaps it was inevitable that a director like Johnson would feel drawn to more complex ideas of morality and maturity. His previous film, Looper, cast the future’s villain as a terrified child with raw power; here, in The Last Jedi, when Luke recalls the moment of Kylo Ren’s genesis, the villain is no more than “a frightened boy.” It all pays off with startling emotional honesty. “That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Johnson has said of his Star Wars. “Find what the honest moment would be, and then find the most dramatic version of it.”
At its “most dramatic”, The Last Jedi leads its quest for balance with Rey and Kylo Ren. Last seen tearing chunks out of each other with lightsabers, now they’re having late-night “ForceTime” chats about the conflict within. Connected through a Force bond (ostensibly by Snoke, but still suspiciously active after his death), these voices of Light and Dark “commune” with rising intimacy. It’s not the first time a hero has been pulled towards a villain – in another middle film, Luke had his own vision of the Dark – but the emotional tax has never really been on both sides. In The Last Jedi, the Dark and the Light are bleeding together. “You’re not alone,” they say. “Neither are you.”
Perhaps we should have seen this coming in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, because Johnson, writing The Last Jedi while it was shooting, clearly did: “Once I started watching the dailies of what they were shooting in London [for The Force Awakens], and started seeing Daisy and Adam… that’s when I started rubbing my hands together.” It would be unfair to deny The Force Awakens its own intricacies, or that any progress made by Johnson isn’t built on its strong foundations – “they react to a feeling that passes between them,” chirps the script, “AN ENERGY THEY RECOGNISE IN EACH OTHER” as Kylo Ren interrogates Rey – but by the end of it they are separated by a literal chasm, and it’s Johnson who has decided to take that metaphor and run with it; not towards a separation, but towards “two halves” of a whole.
It’s not just the Force users who get to play in the complex moral sandpit; the idea of an entwined Dark and Light runs through The Last Jedi like quartz through rock. “Each one has a little triangle,” Johnson says. “Rey has [Luke and Kylo] on each of her shoulders. Finn has DJ (Benicio Del Toro) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Poe has Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Holdo (Laura Dern).”
For Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who shone through a relatively small amount of screen time in The Force Awakens, it’s a confrontation of the cocky-but-loveable pilot trope he’s been strapped into. Keen to blow Siege Dreadnoughts out of the sky, his “shoot first” policy is (unlike other people we could name) directly called out, first with a demotion by Leia and then the unravelling of his derring-do plan to save the Fleet. Only when Poe understands that “there are problems that you cannot solve by jumping in an X-wing and blowing something up” is his permission to do said blowing up granted again.
And yet. The conviction our three heroes have carried from The Force Awakens – that there is a good fight, and a bad – faces the strongest challenge in a subplot which at first seems slightly superfluous. Finn and Rose Tico, a plucky Resistance mechanic who seems to love Star Wars as much as we do, take a side-trip to Canto Bight. It’s a city of casinos and racetracks, where the profits of war can be spent and gambled. Beneath the glamour, children live in poverty and animals are misused for sport.
Johnson brings his themes alive in small moments; escaping Canto Bight with DJ, a vaguely sinister thief they’ve picked up for the sake of Poe’s plan, Finn tells him, “At least you’re stealing from the bad guys, and helping the good.” Perhaps it’s our own lesson to learn when DJ swipes through the records of the stolen ship’s owner; a TIE fighter, an AT-AT walker, and a Resistance X-wing. “This guy was an arms dealer who made his bank selling weapons to the bad guys – and the good.” There have always been politics in Star Wars (perhaps a little too much, sometimes), but The Last Jedi exposes the dirt underneath – on both sides.
“Finn, let me learn you something big. It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.”
It’s the payoff for a trove of visual cues. Even if the sci-fi grime isn’t as omnipresent as it was in Looper, The Last Jedi doesn’t only feel like a Rian Johnson film, it looks like one too. Sometimes it’s obvious: Rey and Kylo Ren framed in the bisected black and white backdrop of an elevator; a necklace in two halves; an island where the highest point is Light and the deepest is Dark. Colour schemes run in unnaturally saturated blacks and reds, then in calmly pale shades of green and blue.
Sometimes it’s so subtle we have to find the image in the background, or in the sweep of the camera, or under the characters’ feet. Luke’s Jedi Temple boasts a mosaic, but it never does more than hide in plain sight; unmentioned and buried under the narrative, it’s a detail you only see if you’re looking for it. You have to dive into the book Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi for the clearest look, but when you do, you’ll find the Force’s own version of a taijitu (yin yang). The images build like dominoes; an island, a necklace, a symbol. Ambiguity and balance. It’s clear that Johnson, painting in a technicolor palette, is filling in Star Wars’ shades of grey.
Letting Rey get angry, telling the fly-boy pilot to “take your head out of your cockpit”, tearing into the villain’s head and showing us the “child in a mask” underneath. Parenting the newest trilogy through what could have been its difficult teenage years, Johnson has instead crafted a Star Wars film which is bold and brave and unafraid to kill our darlings (although unlike last time, Johnson is (mostly) metaphorical). The Last Jedi keeps the connection with the original trilogy alive, but its separation of Light and Dark has – to quote Yoda, wise as ever – become what we grow beyond.