Star Wars wasn’t made to be sexy. George Lucas’ original trilogy established the franchise as family entertainment, a descendant of classic swashbucklers and movie serials featuring gallant heroes, plucky damsels and sexless romance. It’s an example that subsequent Star Wars films, from Lucas’ prequels through 2015’s The Force Awakens, followed.
Characters have been eaten alive, bisected and needlessly tortured, but there was never the impression that anybody was knocking boots in this universe. How was Anakin Skywalker conceived? Not in the traditional way, but through the Force impregnating his mother.
Acknowledging the existence of sex and sexuality in the galaxy far, far away is just one of many ways Rian Johnson defies expectations with his Episode VIII. Aside from a kiss between Finn and Resistance fighter Rose that feels like typical Star Wars romanticism, The Last Jedi is unusually sexy. It deals in blatant sexual imagery (think to, on Ahch-To, the eternally erect Force tree and mysterious gushing cavern that both call to Rey) and euphemism. Before Finn and Rose hit up casino planet Canto Bight, they seek counsel from Maz Kanata, who hints that the Master Codebreaker they need to carry out their mission can do a lot more than just penetrate enemy spacecraft.
Finn and Rose glimpse Maz’s apparent ex-flame only briefly, but as played by a twinkling Justin Theroux as a mixture of 007 and Cary Grant (and seen with a Bond girl-alike Lily Cole on his arm), we fleetingly envision a whole other Star Wars franchise starring this guy pulling heists and bedding space-women. Denied the Master Codebreaker’s assistance, Finn and Rose are forced to turn to a slippery thief played by Benicio del Toro, radiating such scumbag allure as ‘DJ’ that, wrote David Edelstein for Vulture, he “only has to gaze on a female character to lift a film into the realm of a borderline R rating.”
It’s not just these two (or, indeed, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, who seemingly has tension with everyone) whose Last Jedi scenes crackle with sexual energy. For all the surprises and rug-pulls that Johnson confronts his audience with in Episode VIII, arguably the director’s boldest move is in his framing of the relationship between hero and villain. Light years apart for much of the movie, Rey and Kylo Ren communicate until the third act in a personal telepathic space, periodically connected by a Force-manifested psychic bridge. Their “ForceTiming” sessions are intimate and sensorial, filmed in close-up, Rey isolated on Luke Skywalker hideaway Ahch-To in one frame and Kylo alone inside Snoke’s flagship in another, the sound reduced to just their breathing and gently echoing voices, lending the scenes the aural sensuality of an ASMR video.
In this private place, where they hide conversations from respective surrogate fathers like two teenagers conducting a secret relationship, Rey and Kylo confess deeper feelings of pain and yearning. It all feels shudderingly romantic. In one of these scenes, through some miracle of the Force, these two lonely, conflicted figures touch hands through the void, something which leaves the pair practically in rapture. In another, as Rey gasps, Johnson indulges the female gaze to cut to a shot of a shirtless and obscenely buff Kylo (kudos, Adam Driver’s personal trainer) that practically salivates over his humongous pecs. For the first time ever, a Sith uses not just mind tricks and manipulation, but also sex appeal to seduce his Jedi prey.
In moments, it all gets a little Fifty Shades of Rey. At first the damaged hunk attempts to manipulate the apparent naïf into doing his bidding, but, slowly, it’s she who learns how to “tame” him. Even the color palette in these Rey and Kylo scenes is erotically charged. Pinpricks of red—it could be flashing battleship instruments, the flames of a campfire licking Rey’s face, the exaggerated rouge of Driver’s lips—appear in almost every frame of the movie, but use of the color occasionally bursts. Throughout The Last Jedi, red is used as a substitute for two things a film of this kind can’t actually show: bloody violence, as in the claret of the alien clay that marks the battlefield on mining planet Crait, and sex.
In certain scenes, the color signifies both: In Snoke’s chamber following his shock execution, the bright red walls are an appropriate backdrop to the savage melee Kylo and Rey enter into with Snoke’s Praetorian Guard (also all in red), and for these two’s suddenly unleashed desires. As they fight back to back, initially in mesmeric slo-mo, with she violently defending him and he her, Rey and Kylo finally declare their passion before a background of crimson and fire. “You come from nothing, you’re nothing—but not to me,” he tells her with brutal affection after they lay waste to Snoke’s crack troop, the scene an explosive, tension-relieving consummation of a movie-long courtship.
Star Wars has been to more “mature” places before, punishing our victorious heroes in The Empire Strikes Back and carrying out Jedi genocide in Revenge of the Sith, but never has a Star Wars film explored human sexuality like The Last Jedi does. If it feels a little unusual, then it’s not just because Star Wars is normally so chaste. (Leia’s gold bikini moment in Return of the Jedi doesn’t count; even if a grotesque space slug wasn’t constantly slobbering on Carrie Fisher in those scenes, director Richard Marquand’s camera is entirely passionless.) Blockbuster entertainment on the whole is rarely ever overtly sexual. In a four-quadrant movie, a certain level of violence is deemed acceptable, but even a hint of sex is most often off the table. Hulk may smash, but Bruce Banner can only go as far as making doe eyes at Natasha Romanoff.
Why, then, has Rian Johnson decided to give us a legitimately sexy Star Wars? Judging by the rest of his film, Johnson will have likely found some pleasure in breaking from the tradition—in its defiance of series norms, The Last Jedi feels like the first new movie in the saga in 12 years—but there’s more to The Last Jedi’s randiness than a drive to be different for different’s sake. The Last Jedi is different because it’s been 40 years since A New Hope, and the director knows it’s about time to modernize. It’s 2017: Why should Star Wars still subscribe to pure traditions regarding sex when violence in popular cinema is now approached relatively so liberally? Society, right this moment more than ever, is getting frank about sex and sexuality. There’s no reason why our blockbusters shouldn’t follow suit.