The Last Jedi was a controversial movie in the Star Wars franchise, but several key moments reveal Rian Johnson’s talent as a Star Wars storyteller.
With few exceptions, Star Wars movies tend to be pretty polarizing. It’s impossible to make everyone happy, but 2017’s The Last Jedi was arguably the most controversial addition to the Star Wars franchise yet. Rian Johnson, writer and director of such films as Knives Out and Looper, was at the helm of the movie, and he took some pretty big risks with the story.
While I wasn’t a fan of every choice he made, there are plenty of moments in The Last Jedi that reveal Rian Johnson to be an incredibly talented filmmaker. Here are four of the best contributions Rian Johnson made to the Star Wars story in The Last Jedi.
1. Rey’s character development
The Force Awakens established the character of Rey as a lonely scavenger looking for her place in the world, but it was Rian Johnson who truly developed her into the passionate and unflinchingly optimistic character who went on to save the galaxy in The Rise of Skywalker.
Rey has a refreshing childlike innocence about her, and this is most apparent in her short-lived training sessions with Luke. When Luke tells her to close her eyes and try to feel the Force, she eagerly reaches out her hand. When he tickles her hand with a leaf, she trusts completely that she’s experiencing the Force until Luke slaps her hand. She then understands that she wasn’t meant to take his advice to reach out literally. This is a funny moment, sure, but its strength lies in highlighting the childlike heart Rey carries into every moment. Even when she’s pulled to the Dark Side cave of the island, Johnson creates a clear contrast between who Rey is on the inside and the darkness that calls to her.
He further develops this contrast through her interactions with Kylo Ren, who she believes still has good in him, as Luke believed about Darth Vader.
2. The complexity of Rey and Kylo’s relationship
By creating what later came to be known as a Force bond with Kylo Ren, Johnson set up an intriguing interplay between Rey and Kylo that helped to shape both characters. They’re both able to see into each other’s minds, and Rey sees the conflict in Kylo over killing his father while Kylo sees the longing Rey has for the family she lost. The Force Awakens established them as enemies on opposite sides of the Force, but Johnson added an emotional complexity to their relationship while also developing them both as sympathetic characters through their connection.
In one of the most brilliant scenes of the film, Johnson has Kylo simultaneously project a belief into Snoke’s mind of his complete loyalty while blinding Snoke to his intentions to use the Force to ignite Luke’s lightsaber sitting next to Snoke, slicing Snoke in half. It’s a moment that makes you think, “Rey was right. Ben Solo has returned to the Light.” Rey and Kylo take on Snoke’s Praetorian guards together and manage to defeat all of them before we realize that Kylo hasn’t turned back to the Light. In fact, he’s embraced the darkness so fully that he found the resolve to kill his master and take his place. The brilliantly crafted twist by Johnson fuels the rest of the film and sets up the conflict that drives The Rise of Skywalker.
3. Luke’s wrestling with the legacy of the Jedi
When Rey finds the legendary Luke Skywalker, he’s a shell of the man he once was. We don’t get to see the Luke Skywalker many of us hoped to see after 30 years, but Johnson introduced some compelling complexity to the character that we didn’t expect. Luke is convinced the Jedi Order should end. If you think about it, it’s not much of a stretch to consider. Luke said it well: “[If] you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy. Hubris.” The Jedi were blinded to what was right in front of them and were destroyed as a result.
But it’s important to note that Rian Johnson wasn’t giving up on the Jedi. He envisioned something better. Something the Jedi were always meant to be. Rey wasn’t willing to give up on that, and, thankfully, by the end of Johnson’s story, neither was Luke. “I will not be the last Jedi,” he tells Kylo Ren in their final confrontation. It’s a powerful moment that promises a future where the Jedi return in a way that will correct the errors of the past.
4. Ben’s fall to the dark side and Luke’s role in it
One of the most powerful ideas in the Skywalker Saga is the idea that everything depends on your point of view. In Return of the Jedi, when Luke asks Obi-Wan why he didn’t tell him the truth about Darth Vader being his father, Obi-Wan tells him that Darth Vader murdering Anakin Skywalker was the truth “from a certain point of view.” He ceased being Anakin Skywalker when he chose the Dark Side and became Darth Vader.
Rian Johnson fleshed out this idea by showing us the moment that clinched Ben Solo’s turn to the Dark Side from two different perspectives, Luke’s and Kylo Ren’s. According to Kylo Ren, Luke tried to attack him in his sleep, and he woke up just in time to defend himself. Believing he’d been betrayed by his uncle, what had previously been a temptation to turn to the Dark Side became a clear calling he was more than ready to embrace.
The scene leaves us feeling as betrayed by a hero as it does Kylo Ren until we hear Luke’s version of the tale. He tells Rey that he sensed the growing darkness inside of Ben Solo and became convinced that he would destroy everything Luke worked toward. In a moment of pure instinct, he says, he ignited his lightsaber with the intention of killing his nephew before he had the chance to become the villain of the story. The moment passed in an instant, though, and Luke felt the shame of regret for even considering killing Ben. But Ben woke up to see the lightsaber ignited. He didn’t see Luke’s regret, and it was too late for Luke to explain himself.
In 2015, J.J. Abrams’ longtime friend Greg Grunberg, who plays Resistance pilot Snap Wexley in the sequel trilogy, told The Washington Post that Abrams read Rian Johnson’s script for Episode VIII and said, “It’s so good, I wish I were making it.” I imagine it was moments like these that convinced Abrams that Johnson’s script had all the marks of a great storyteller.