Amongst the nerdverse, there are few things that are universally agreed upon. Who is the coolest superhero? Which game console is the best? Ask these questions and the responses will almost certainly devolve into a flamewar of unabashed fanboyism. Despite this, it is amost always agreed upon that amongst the Star Wars films, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back is the greatest amongst them. While the original film was fun and iconic, Empire brought a greater sense of depth and gravity to the franchise and elevated Darth Vader to his spot as one of the most memorable fictional villains of all times. It is also, incidentally, the film in the original trilogy that George Lucas had the least to do with.
After a largely disappointing set of prequels, it was up to Disney to reinvigorate the franchise and remind us why we liked Star Wars in the first place. 2015's The Force Awakens served in this purpose reasonably well. Despite its rather rushed pacing, J.J. Abram's venture was an obvious and fun homage to A New Hope that introduced us to a new generation of heroes and allowed us to finally put Episodes I-III (mostly) behind us. It wasn't a groundbreaking movie, and paled in comparison to many of Disney's MCU films, but was still a fresh of breath air that told us we could actually enjoy this franchise again. Overall, I enjoyed TFA and was very much anticipating Episode VIII, hoping that it would be similar to Empire.
The Last Jedi not only delivered, but it managed to surprise me in many ways. At worst, I was expecting a movie that sloppily rehashed The Empire Strikes back. I was pleased to discover that while it was similar to Empire in overall tone and feeling, it managed to be its own movie and cleverly subverted many of the tropes the earlier films had been hanging on to. Many of its choices made were controversial and divisive, understandably disappointing some fans who had certain expectations of the characters, but I felt that the direction they took with it makes The Last Jedi the best Star Wars film since Empire.
Firstly, I loved that TLJ absolutely smashed the idea that Luke was going to similar to the wisened and near-omnipotent Jedi master that he became in the now-retconned Expanded Universe. There is nothing inherantly wrong with the concept, but it is somewhat boring. Instead of this, we got to see a character who was jaded and bitter. After failing his students, Luke reflected upon the history of the Jedi and came to the realization that the arrogance of the order is a large part of why the old Republic failed in the first place. His understandable solution was that the Force belongs to everyone, and that for true balance to be achieved the Jedi order must actually end. This conclusion was ultimately short sighted, but the reasoning that allowed him to arrive there was relatively solid. I also thoroughly enjoyed the ghost of Yoda appearing to knock some sense into him. This allowed Luke to finally face his failures as a teacher and ultimately have faith that the future could be entrusted to Rey.
Speaking of Rey, I also appreciated the way they handled the question of her lineage. In Empire, Darth Vader's big reveal that he is Luke's father is one of the most memorable scenes of all time. Many expected a similar disclosure in Episode VIII, and that Rey's parents would be a big deal. She is obviously gifted by the Force, which lead to speculation (both by her and the audience) that her relations must be important. Was she Luke's child, separated from her father because of his self-imposed exile? Was she Obi-Wan's secret granddaughter? This was all fun to discuss, but the fact is that the "secret relative" trope has been rehashed time and time again in fiction. If Kylo Ren's revelation is to be believed, then Rey's parents were nobodies, ultimately playing against our expectations. I have no reason to doubt his claims, because her vision in the cave ultimately showing just her lines up with this idea perfectly. Her parents don't matter. Rey is what matters, because the Force has chosen her. I honestly hope that J.J. Abrams does not reverse this idea in Episode IX. It would be utterly terrible if it is revealed the Kylo Ren was lying, or that she's a clone or was a magical force baby like Anakin.
Another point I enjoy about the film is how the villains are presented. One of the larger criticisms regarding The Force Awakens and this film by extension is that the First Order, Snoke, and Kylo Ren come off as a bunch of wannabes who are trying too hard to immitate the Empire. I somewhat agreed with this sentiment after watching TFA, but in this film I finally get that this is because they are actually wannabes. The First Order and its goons are a bunch of immitators. Snoke is a Palpatine knockoff in a Hugh Hefner smoking jacket. He may have been powerful in the Dark Side, but he was so focused on the theatrics of being a dark lord that he overestimated his hold over Kylo Ren, ultimately leading to his demise. Still, just because they are pretenders doesn't make them less dangerous. Pathetic as they may seem, they still have a destructive arsenal available to them. In some respects, the First Order is actually more dangerous than the Empire it attempts to immitate. Though undoubtedly evil, the Empire under Palpatine and Vader was disciplined and at at least a competant governing body. The First Order, on the other hand, lacks the restraint to even bring a stability through tyranny. Kylo Ren's irrational obsession with being as feared as his grandfather is likely to be ultimately self-destructive, but he is likely do do a lot of damage along the way in Episode IX.
One very important contrast between The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens is its approach to characters and scenes. I feel that the approach it takes not only makes this a much better film than its immediate predecessor, but is also another reason it has similar feeling to Empire. Episode VII is paced quickly and haphazardly, giving viewers very little time to really get a feel of the characters or the scenes they interact with eachother in. This was, apparently, an intentional choice by Abrams and I believe the movie suffered for it. It wasn't even until halfway through the movie that it was clear that Rey (rather than Finn or Poe) was supposed to be the main character. Fortunately, TLJ does not take this approach. It actually allows the viewer to to take in the scenes rather than rushing. In this film, we get a better sense of how the characters grow throughout the course of the story. Using Rose at the catalyst, Finn is allowed to grow from a coward to a hero who is willing to put his life on the line for his ideals. Poe is likewise allowed to understand the consequences of his hotheaded behavior and that sometimes going in guns blazing isn't the best option. Most importantly, we get a better feel of Rey's determination by watching her interact with Luke. We also get to see her often awkward connection to Kylo Ren, and genuinely understand the conflict he feels throughout the film as a result of this connection. I feel that I know these characters much better than I did at the conclusion of the previous film.
While The Last Jedi does not quite match The Empire Strikes Back, it comes close to hitting the mark and certainly does a great deal to further redeem Star Wars. While The Force Awakens, restored much of the fun that had been sucked away by the prequels (especially Episodes II and III), The Last Jedi is more important because it gives viewers a film to think about and contemplate, thereby restoring the franchise's soul. My biggest concern now is that J.J. Abrams is returning for Episode IX. Abrams is good at making fun, flashy movies but he can just as easily make horribly disappointing follow up films such as Star Trek Into Darkness. Let's hope he makes a worthy successor this time.