George Lucas created Star Wars in 1977 as a fusion of the classic pulp style adventure serials he enjoyed as a child and the dramatic hero's tales often found in myths and legends across the globe. What he tapped into, perhaps unintentionally, is the cyclical and perpetual nature of these hero stories. As folklorist Joseph Campbell detailed in his seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Face, "[...] It will be always the one, shapeshifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told." These are stories we all have experienced and our subconscious minds pick up on them so easily.
Perhaps that is why the previous entry into the Star Wars Saga, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, felt so similar to many audiences. It took the trail laid out by the original Star Wars series and infused it with modern sensibilities when it comes to cinematic storytelling, accompanied by the no frills direction of J. J. Abrams. I still love the hell out of Episode VII and think it's a good movie.
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is more than a good movie. It is a phenomenal movie.
Taking place immediately following Episode VII, The Last Jedi finds breaks it's narrative down into three interwoven stories. Rey has found the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker in self-imposed exile. Finn and Poe Dameron assist General Leia Organa in the Resistance flight from the First Order with the small remnants of their fleet. And Kylo Ren, the conflicted son of the now dead Han Solo and Luke's former apprentice gives chase, godded on by his master Supreme Leader Snoke.
Okay, all the pieces are in place for a harrowing adventure with a much darker tone akin to Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, right?
Wrong. And thank god for it.
I think writer/director Rian Johnson knew going into this that audiences would feel the siren's call of the earlier Star Wars movies and mythic cycle they now represent in our collective unconcious. So, he decides to f#&% with us a little bit by taking every single preconceived notion you had about how to tell a Star Wars story and twisting it just enough to make you actually give a damn about what you're watching on screen. And it worked.
All of the characters are faced with complex moral quandries that make them, and by proxy the viewer, question what they know about the never ending conflict of Light and Dark. This is epitomized in the interactions between Rey and Kylo Ren. Both made decisions and expressed geniune emotions that felt right. It had me asking questions about my fundamental understanding of the Star Wars canon - of which I have enjoyed since I was 8 years old. This is accomplished through stellar writing by Johnson and truly authentic performances from Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. Mark Hamill supplements this conflicted state of mind with his long awaited return to the role of Luke Skywalker. And from his very first scene, I realized this was not the Luke we have known since 1977. Hamill gives the Jedi Master a harder edge and more jaded facade with an excellent performance. While he may be more widely known to this generation as a prolific voice actor, this proves he's still got the chops for screen and stage acting.
The minor complaints I had actually kind of rectified themselves. Because almost all of the character introductions were done in Episode VII, the opening portion of the film is truncated and the second act is extended, leading to the unfortunate structural problem of two climaxes in the movie. But after I reflected on it, I think it worked. Without spoilers, the first climax releases the tension built up throughout the film regarding the unclear nature of the Light and Dark Sides of the Force. The second climax, and the denouement, is much more personal. The characters reflect on their situation and the spark of hope is relit within them and the audience. I was exhausted by the time we got to the final act, but I was never once bored or stagnant sitting in the theater.
Deconstruction and playing with expectations is more common now then ever in fiction. Personally, I grew sick of it a while ago. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi does not deconstruct the hero's journey, it takes the expectations of that cycle and tweaks them just enough that I felt more engaged with that galaxy far far away than I have ever been.