Generally speaking, terribly titled Star Wars episodes mostly end up being terrible Star Wars movies. The Phantom Menace was presumably only so named because Trouble in the Galactic Senate would have alerted fans to the looming, nightmarish shift away from knockabout space fun towards Trade Federation blockades and endless Jedi councils in the first of George Lucas’s space opera prequels. Likewise, Attack of the Clones seemed to speak to its sequel’s endless conveyor belt of meaningless CGI aliens, planets and cityscapes as much as to the creation of the first proto-stormtrooper army.
JJ Abrams’s tamely monikered The Force Awakens hinted heavily towards the rather generic, if thrillingly realized, take on Star Wars presented in 2015’s Jedi party starter. Now the title of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII has been unveiled, and it couldn’t be more vanilla if it tried. “The Last Jedi” might easily have been created by the famed Star Wars rumor generator widget that briefly captured imaginations before the announcement of Episode VII’s title. Generic in the extreme, it seems to tell us nothing about the plot of the new installment beyond extreme basics. Or at least, that’s the initial reaction. Because it might actually tell us quite a bit, especially if Luke Skywalker turns out to be the title character.
At the beginning of Johnson’s movie, there’s little doubt that Luke is indeed the last Jedi around. The Force Awakens didn’t even give us so much as a pithy space-wisdom-spouting Force ghost to remind us of the good old days. Obi-Wan Kenobi died in a battle with Darth Vader during the events of Star Wars, while the former Anakin Skywalker had long since renounced his old order in favor of a future as the Emperor’s head shiny black death cyborg by the time of his demise in Return of the Jedi.
If Luke is the last Jedi, then it’s clear those of us who were left disappointed by The Force Awakens’ minimal use of Mark Hamill might be in for something of a treat. An entire movie with Hamill taking the place of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo as the episode’s returning elder is hugely tantalizing, not least because it’s been more than three decades since we last saw the actor in such a leading role in blockbuster fare. Speculation that Skywalker will be the next senior member of the original Star Wars fraternity to get an onscreen death presumably starts here.
But perhaps even more importantly for Star Wars’ long-term development, the title suggests the Jedis are done. With them goes the concept of the order as defenders of the galactic greater good, and one assumes it’s surely not likely to be revived in the near future. Were producers to give us such a movie before instantly reintroducing the Jedi in the new trilogy’s final installment, Colin Trevorrow’s Episode IX, there would quite rightly be rumbles of discontent in the fanboy underbelly.
This does not mean that the Force itself is diminishing in importance in Star Wars – far from it. But it does suggest that it is, as Lucas once feared, slowly getting “muddled into a bunch of gobbledygook” – even if this may not be such a bad thing as the mighty quiff once suspected.
The Force Awakens conjured up a confusing picture of the state of the all-powerful energy field, with blurred lines where the clear binary system of Jedi and Sith once sat. Rey’s powers are potent, but without proper training she is far from a fully trained Jedi. Kylo Ren is strong enough to stop a phaser bolt in mid-air using only the power of his mind, but he has none of the iron will and discipline that marked his grandfather’s reign as the Emperor’s right-hand hell machine. Finn is able to fight convincingly with a lightsaber, and seems to be virtually invincible despite the spectacular danger he keeps throwing himself into – suggesting the Force is with him – yet there’s nothing to suggest he has any special powers.
We’ve seen in Rogue One, via Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe, that you don’t need to be a Jedi to benefit from the Force. And there has been no suggestion that Ren’s mysterious Knights of Ren, nor Supreme Leader Snoke himself, are part of the old Sith order. So if the Force is regaining power, it is clearly doing so in entirely new forms unrelated to what went before.
In many ways, this makes total sense. The Jedi have always been infinitely more intriguing as semi-mythological figures, unobtainable and out of reach. The only Star Wars movies to really let them loose on the galaxy – to feature scores of Jedis spinning their wheels – turned out to be by far the least interesting episodes in the canon. Yoda as an ageing mentor, an almost impossibly wise teacher of men, was a fascinating creation, his past shrouded in mists of mystery as impenetrable as the steaming swamps of Dagobah. Yoda as the much-younger leader of the Jedi council was a tedious old syntactically challenged stick-in-the-mud who almost made us sympathize with the whinging emo teen Anakin Skywalker. The final demise of the order might just be a good thing, from a storytelling point of view.
Indeed, this new trilogy might just live or die on its ability to unravel the current muddle of the Force, to find the new modes in which it will flourish. This could be the glue that holds the entire story arc together.
That’s an intriguing prospect indeed for those hoping to see this long-running, much-loved space opera finally take some risks and break new ground. The Last Jedi might be a pretty generic title, but if Johnson makes good on his promise, the future of Star Wars could be far from vanilla-flavoured.