A long time ago, I gave up on Star Wars. Grew tired of bad acting and vague catchphrases. “What this franchise needs is a rebel,” I thought. Now it has found one.
Light and darkness. Good and evil. Empire and rebellion.
There is a reason why this binary vision of the world is the cornerstone of any nutritious blockbuster. Kids love it because they get it, while older fans accept being tricked into seeing the world as black and white.
That’s why we have heroes and villains. Sometimes the hero breaks bad but, once that happens, there is seldom any hope left for him.
Since the Star Wars franchise was reinvented nearly two decades ago, it has been plagued by cliches and bad characters.
Episodes went forward to the past. We found ourselves in a backstory to characters we already knew. Nothing changed, nothing was challenged.
When JJ Abrams was brought in to reboot the franchise with The Force Awakens, he promised to introduce a new generation of rebels, Sith and Jedi.
Knowing JJ Abrams, I anticipated a – using a painfully witless but appropriate internet term – Throwback Thursday.
It would be nostalgic, bringing back old characters in trailer-friendly taglines like “Chewie, we’re home” – and then take them away for contractual reasons.
It was also going to have cute, cuddly creatures to sell by the pound. It would be modern enough to appeal to children but classic enough to make millennials tweet about how they miss the old days of VHS and fax machines.
Sure enough, The Force Awakens ticked all the boxes, and made Disney more than $ 2bn to rule the world.
When news broke that a small, relatively unknown director named Rian Johnson had been chosen to take over the franchise, I wondered if maybe there was a new hope.
Johnson, unlike Abrams before him, decided to write the script for the film himself.
For months there were concerns over the director’s rogue style, and reports of problems he was having with some of the oldest stars.
“At long last,” I thought, “Star Wars has found a rebel.” I was right.
The Last Jedi is not just a bold, fresh and humorous new addition to the franchise – it’s the one that will change it forever.
At the first London screening of the movie on Monday, Johnson came on stage and told the audience to “have fun”. It was a perfect prelude to a film that doesn’t shy away from the silliness which characterises the cult favourites we now watch with teary eyes.
Sci-fi films in the 1980s were odd, sometimes a bit gross and ridiculous – and that’s what made them great. Johnson understood this, and brought it back in the form of a giant sea creature pouring green milk from its enormous breasts. The audience laughs, it reacts. Of course it does.
All through the movie, there was laughter and cheering. The movie was engaging with a giant IMAX cinema, and the cinema was talking back.
It’s a rare sight these days, and one I had feared would be lost forever.
And Johnson doesn’t just salvage what the franchise lost – he also propels it forward, introducing ‘grey’ characters in a galaxy painted in black and white.
Johnson’s Jedi are a little Sith, his Sith no longer monsters but humans.
In a widely advertised scene in the casino city of Canto Bight – reminiscent of the Mos Eisley cantina of Episode IV – a new character played by Benicio Del Toro explains how the same arms dealers who supply the Empire also supply the Resistance.
Heroes don’t kill villains, rebels don’t die for the galaxy. The Sith is no longer a grotesque version of the Jedi – he is her peer. They are one. Light and darkness, mixed together.
It is confusing for the characters, and for us. It makes them want to find out more about themselves and, in consequence, it makes us want to find out more about them.
Johnson’s biggest accomplishment is his characters, and the actors cast for them.
In a franchise plagued by awkward performances and hollow dialogues, The Last Jedi introduces us to a brilliant, layered Mark Hamill and a surprisingly charismatic new character called Rose.
But all eyes are on Adam Driver. The actor I once thought was too good for Star Wars has raised the bar to an unprecedented level.
And others around him seem propelled by his strength – determined to be better.
The same happened with Johnson, I think. My fears that a small indie filmmaker could be crushed by a billion dollar franchise proved immaterial.
Johnson defied the empire and built a resistance. He is the rebel we were looking for. He really is our new hope.