This year I’ve made it my mission to defend Star Wars: The Last Jedi because I believe it has been unfairly criticized by some who can’t see past their own wants and wishes that weren’t met in the story and others who disagree with the direction of one character or another, or those who are frustrated by the apparent “fly by the seat of their pants” storytelling approach to this sequel “trilogy.”
It’s on that last point that I want to focus. But first, if you’ve missed the previous entries in the series…
When discussing the differences between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, we have to begin with JJ Abrams and his infamous “Mystery Box.”
Abrams’ approach to storytelling—particularly with how he engages his audience and sustains their interest—is through the use of mysteries. He asks lots of questions, visually but sometimes outright with characters wondering aloud about this or that, and gives few answers because he knows as long as someone is speculating, wondering and debating someone or something, they are invested in it. As his stories roll on he doesn’t answer questions, as the typical storyteller would. Instead, he layers the previously-established questions with newer, more nuanced questions, making the first ones seem mundane and simple compared to the new ones. All the while he stimulates your eyes with brights lights, whiz-bang camera work and quick-cutting edits, to keep your brain moving, but never letting you be satisfied.
He was the perfect choice to helm the opening of a Star Wars series.
More than anything, the Sequel Trilogy needed a hook. It needed something to grab fans and make them spend years debating. But therein lies the downside to Abrams’ as a storyteller: He’s great at setting things up but the payoffs are usually underwhelming. He’s a master at laying pieces on the board so that you’re titillated. but when it comes to executing the final move. his stories—with their massive, deeply woven layers of plots—often end up collapsing under their own weight. Still, if you need a guy to launch your ship, he’s your man. Asking him to land it, however…
What happened with LOST was the audience started to pick up on the fact that they were being strung along. Viewers realized that the crazy mysteries surrounding the island and it’s sudden inhabitants had no simple answer, or even a profound one. People were only able to take so much of questions being answered with just…more questions.
The Force Awakens was great about asking questions: What is Rey’s past? Where did Luke go? Why has he been missing? Is Rey a Solo or a Skywalker or something else? Questions like that are great for “first movie” because it fuels discussion until the next movie comes out. As long as people are discussing the questions, there are no bad theories. Anything goes because anything could be the eventual explanation.
It’s the job of the rest of the series to answer those questions. And once you start answering questions, you start establishing “truth” and truth is, by definition, exclusive and narrow. Rey either is or isn’t a Skywalker. Why Luke isolated himself has an answer. Whatever you think no longer matters once the questions start being answered by the people writing the stories.
And that’s where fans struggle.
We don’t just want answers; often we want our answers. After all, they make so much sense in our heads. Why can’t they just do this?!
Keenly aware that fans were frustrated with The Force Awakens “naked and obvious retelling of A New Hope,” which I vehemently defend here…
…Rian Johnson knew he needed to do something else. The Episode VIII writer/director was also aware he needed to take JJ’s many mystery box questions and give them some solid answers, whether or not they were the answers fans had in their heads. JJ’s job was to introduce us to these interesting characters; Rian’s job was to make them three-dimensional.
His solution was to say “you think it’s this but actually it’s that.”
You think Snoke is the new Emperor and Kylo is the new Vader, but really Snoke is no one important and Kylo is really the bad guy to focus on. You think Hux is the new Tarkin, cold and calculating, but really he’s a boob; a boy soldier who grew up in an Imperial Navy suit and is puppeted around by Snoke, while really being derided by the true generals in his army. You think Luke is Kwai Chang Caine or some superhero with a lightsaber but really he’s a broken old man who failed big time one time and is afraid he’ll fail again so he quit. You think Finn ended The Force Awakens a hero ready to die for the Resistance, but really he’s still a guy who wants to run away from the fight (and only fought in the last one because he has the hots for Rey. He literally says this to Han but people seemed to have missed it).
What Rian did was deconstruct the characters that JJ merely dropped into the world. Rian give them flaws and purposes and set them on an arc that will conclude (or maybe continue, who knows) in the next film.
For example, Poe’s entire character arc was a deconstruction of the “hot headed fly boy who is technically a grunt solider but because he’s cool he gets to yell at his bosses, defy orders, and swoop in to save the day” trope.
Rian took that character and said “what would really happen would be a ton of casualties and a boss that didn’t trust him.”
People say Admiral Holdo was dumb for not just telling Poe her plan but why should she do that? He’s already shown himself to be insubordinate and reckless. Besides, he’s a solider and she’s the boss. She doesn’t owe him anything. That’s tough for us to watch in TLJ because (1) we know Poe and Holdo is new, and (2) it’s so much easier to turn a blind eye to the cool hero’s flaws and expect him to get special treatment.
Fans also complained about how different Kylo is between the two movies. JJ seemed to present a guy obsessed with Vader but Rian has him smashing the Vader-like helmet. But this is growth: Kylo is moving on from simple fanboyism and is trying to be his own man (especially after Snoke openly mocks the helmet). That’s not a contradiction, that’s character development.
And then there’s Snoke, whom everyone expected to survive until movie three, at which point there’d be a big throne room scene and then the hero would kill him, etc. In other words, fans—the same ones who criticize TFA for being a retread of A New Hope—are angry that Snoke won’t be in a retread of The Return of the Jedi.
But see the way Rian took both Kylo and Snoke and deconstructed the stale Star Wars cliche to forge a new path for the series: In becoming his own man, Kylo does what Vader couldn’t; he kills his master and takes his place as ruler. This isn’t Snoke’s story; it’s Ben and Rey’s. It’s different in the Original Trilogy: In the OT the story was Luke and Vader’s (at least by the time ROTJ rolled around) and the climax was about turning Vader against the emperor and over to Luke. That’s not the story here (which is good, because who wants that much redundancy?). Thus, Rian gave us the ROTJ throne room scene a movie earlier with a MUCH different ending, meaning we now go into the third film of the trilogy without any idea what to expect.
The whole point of Snoke getting offed was that Kylo did it, not Rey (the hero). The bad guy killed the other bad guy so he could grow into an even bigger bad guy. That’s new to Star Wars. That’s what Vader only teased in Empire Strikes Back. Now we get to see it play out in Episode IX.
If Rian had opted for a safe sort of movie, a retread of Empire‘s beats, we’d all be complaining how the Sequel Trilogy is just a Disney cash-grab with nothing new to say. Instead, Rian took JJ’s many mysteries and questions, answered them, and left us to enter the final chapter in this story with a whole galaxy of unknown possibilities to enjoy.
And for that he is hated.
Nuts to that.