We've always *kind of *known where the modern Star Wars movies were heading: When George Lucas launched the prequel trilogy with 1999's The Phantom Menace, viewers were well aware that it would include Anakin Skywalker's turn to the dark side and Luke and Leia's birth (though none of us could have predicted its forceful anti-sand message). Before *The Force Awakens *was released in 2015, it was clear that the new trilogy would be an inter-generational hand-off from the original *Star Wars *team to the young Jakku-cuties taking their lead. Many even guessed, rightfully so, that Han Solo wasn't going to make it to Episode VIII. And now, with the premiere of the first trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we have a good idea where director Rian Johnson is taking us: Straight to the dark side—and right on schedule.
Take another look at that *Jedi *trailer, if you haven't watched it a hundred times already. There's plenty of thrilling Star Wars imagery to be found—are those AT-ATs looming in the far distance?—but what's perhaps most notable is that no one is having any fun. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to learn the Force from a cranky, Hoth-cold Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who tells her, "I only know one truth: It’s time for the Jedi to end." (When Luke is brooding, you know things are bad.) Meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega) looks like he's being carted around in some sort of portable medical-sarcophagus; Poe (Oscar Isaac) is watching his X-Wing get nearly blown up; and Kylo Ren's helmet appears to have been smashed in some sort of Sith-show hissy-fit. There's no Chewbacca laughing it up, no BB-8-provided comic relief, and nary a "Yippee!" to be heard.
All of which makes sense. Because if *The Force Awakens *was a nearly beat-by-beat refashioning of 1977's *A New Hope, *it was inevitable that *The Last Jedi would be the spiritual heir to 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. That movie jettisoned A New Hope's scrappy buoyancy, *replacing it with a vibe best described as "space-malaise": Luke lost his hand; Han was frozen and carted away; Darth Vader sprained his finger from too many Force-chokes. The movie ends with one hero psychologically and physically imperiled, another possibly dead, and everyone barely managing to smile.
Yet, fans widely consider *Empire *to be the best Star Wars movie ever made—especially older fans, who can remember those periods in the late '80s and early '90s when Star Wars wasn't exactly taken too seriously. Back then, the franchise had lost some luster, having subjected loyalists to a pair of lame Ewok TV movies and some increasingly crummy toys; Star Wars was stuck in a kiddie-friendly past, leaving some of us a little Yub-numb to its charms. But *Empire *gave the franchise an infusion of cinematic street cred. The fans who felt they'd grown past the films, and even the naysayers who never liked them in the first place, had to admit that Episode V was nonetheless still something special: A gloomy yet crackling bit of post-'70s funk—the depressive kind of funk, not the Max Rebo kind—that both deepened and threatened the characters' relationships from the first film. It forced you to take *Star Wars *seriously, even if you didn't want to.
Star Wars has never been afraid to be bleak, and while the wide-eyed fun that powered *The Force Awakens *was needed to jump-start the saga, it would be exhausting to maintain that sort of "Yay, we're in Star Wars!" brightness for Episode VIII. That's why Johnson's hiring inspired so much glee among fans. Here was a guy whose most recent work was the smart, stoic time-travel drama *Looper, *and several haunting *Breaking Bad *episodes. He knows how to balance the light side and the dark, but to let the dark win out by *just *a little bit. And that tension is just what *The Last Jedi *requires—not only to be the depressed middle-child in a new *Star Wars *trilogy (one which, we're calling it now, will end with a Return of the Jedi-shaped dose of relief courtesy of director Colin Trevorrow), but to be a satisfying bit of drama in its own right. So far, the movie looks like a total downer. And that alone is impressive…most impressive.