You'd think it wouldn't be surprising that a movie that begins with the words “a long time ago” is in fact about the past, but here we are. By now, it's clear that Disney's Star Wars sequel trilogy (Episodes 7, 8, and 9) is defined primarily by its relationship to the past — and that Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi is doing its best to upend everything about how this works. The Last Jedi is a Star Wars film, but not how we know it. The key to all of this is history.
In some respects looking to the past isn't out of form for Star Wars. Theorist Fredric Jameson identified the original Star Wars as the key example of what he called the 'nostalgia film', for the way that it didn't directly represent the past, but rather revived the cultural forms of years gone by. In other words, Star Wars wasn't candidly about the 1940s and 1950s, but by evoking the mood and feel of old film adventure serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, it was nostalgic in its own way.
The Force Awakens weaponized nostalgia, and in the process became one of the key films in a recent and new Hollywood mode of storytelling — the legacy film. These are films that set about reviving dormant franchises – films like Creed, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Tron Legacy, Star Trek, Blade Runner 2049, and many others – by transferring the legacy of the past to a new generation. Think here of Indiana Jones almost handing over his fedora to Shia LeBeouf at the end of Crystal Skull, or of Jeff Bridges literally fighting a younger version of himself in order to let his son (Garrett Hedlund) escape in Tron Legacy, or of old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) meeting young Spock (Zachary Quinto) in the final scenes of Star Trek. These are films that function by reinstating the power of the past while simultaneously setting up the future of a franchise. They're about legacy and transference as a mode of sequelised storytelling.
J.J. Abrams, no stranger to the legacy film from his Star Trek days (not to mention Super 8, the ultimate Amblin Entertainment tribute film), perfected this with The Force Awakens. Despite the criticisms it later received for being a 'remake' of A New Hope, here was the perfect film to reinvigorate Star Wars as a franchise. From deep underneath the shadow of the deeply maligned prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens revived the myth and mystery of Star Wars.
By centering on the end to the Han Solo story (and by now Harrison Ford must surely be the good luck talisman for the legacy film) and distancing the events of the original trilogy to the point where they sounded legendary, The Force Awakens told viewers that it was okay to relax and let the past sweep them away. The nostalgia we felt for the original Star Wars trilogy? It was back, more powerful than ever, and with a doubling effect. Within the film's universe, history became myth. Outside of it, in the real world of marketing and hype, nostalgia was turned up to eleven.
Yet from what we can see of The Last Jedi so far, it's clear that Rian Johnson is dramatically reversing the pattern of the legacy film and questioning the importance of history. For The Last Jedi, the past is another country, and a harsh and frightening one at that.
What we can say so far is this: if The Force Awakens was about the importance of the past, then The Last Jedi is about destroying it. If The Force Awakens was about reinvigorating Star Wars as a franchise by looking to its past successes, then The Last Jedi is pushing it into the cold light of the future. For The Force Awakens, the past is “true, all of it.” For Kylo Ren, in the recently released The Last Jedi trailer, you have to "let the past die. Kill it, if you have to."
The rejection of all that has come before is palpable on all sides, both good and evil. Almost everything we've heard from Luke Skywalker so far is about trauma and loss and a failure to learn from history. "It's time for the Jedi," the ancient order who for over a thousand generations were the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, "to end," Luke said in the teaser trailer earlier this year. And now, in yesterday's full trailer, he embodies a series of frightened and reluctant moods, telling Rey that he has seen her kind of power before —presumably with Kylo Ren — and that in the face of it he was not scared enough. He is scared of his past, and the galaxy's.
The Last Jedi is drawing a picture of a world where people are no longer fascinated by a mythological past, but are instead going to great lengths to push away from it. Happily, this also ties in with the 'remake' criticism of The Force Awakens and provides Disney with a valuable new direction for the franchise just at the right moment. A Star Wars movie that is acclaimed for its originality and new direction will be just what the series needs to be sustainable in the long-term (and as Disney hopes to keep Star Wars as a year-in, year-out franchise for the foreseeable future, a new direction now that the nostalgia fires have been stoked is sorely needed).
Despite Empire Strikes Back-style walkers in the marketing material, Rian Johnson has repeatedly said that he's worked hard to make something new, and we can see that clearly now in the film's marketing. Anything that seems too similar to the Star Wars pattern would run the risk of critical suicide.
But beyond this, what's interesting about The Last Jedi is the way that it's turning the legacy film back in on itself. We won't know how it plays out until the film is released in December, but it feels like The Last Jedi is positioning itself almost as the anti-legacy film. Far from tapping into the power of the franchise mythology, The Last Jedi is actively rejecting it. It draws power from unsettling the status quo, from highlighting the mistakes of the past, and from the need to stamp out the failures of the history at all costs.
Let the past come at us and we will kill it, The Last Jedi says. We will draw power from its memory before crushing it and pointing to the future.