Like I said last time, Rian Johnson used The Last Jedi to explore and mess with Star Wars tropes. I found it frustrating, but other people loved it because it gave them wonderful moments that weren’t possible in the old framework.
If you listen to the folks who love / appreciate the movie, you’ll find all sorts of comments like, “Star Wars never showed us [thing] before, and it’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to see!” My favorite is this video from Jill Bearup, who basically went out and pursued stage fighting as a new career / hobby based entirely on her love for the throne room fight against the Praetorian Guard in The Last Jedi. I didn’t appreciate the movie, but I do appreciate how much other people appreciated it, if you see what I mean.
In any case, Johnson’s fondness for punking the audience with their own genre expectations creates room for a sort of meta-level analysis that pokes fun at the genre itself. “Yes, you expected A to happen because A is what these stories always do, but really B makes more sense, except it feels like it doesn’t because we’re used to A, but doesn’t B sort of render the whole thing nonsensical? But does that mean the genre itself is nonsensical?” It’s a style of movie that draws attention to its own genre and deliberately breaks your immersion to think about the fact that you’re watching a movie. See also: Spec Ops: The Line.
Q: Why do I have to stupidly drop white phosphorus on these people?
A: Because you always do this kind of thing in these sorts of games, except here you’re getting a “more realistic” outcome.
I love this sort of thing. I think it’s fun to examine a genre through trope perversion / subversion. Heck, half the jokes in DM of the Rings were pitting the tropes of High Fantasy against the completely incompatible tropes of tabletop gaming.
Having said all of that…
Genre demolition is not the sort of thing you do in the context of the second act of an ultra-traditionalist story, you absolute LUNATICS!
So on one hand we have traditionalists that find these genre-twisting tricks to be frustrating and off-putting because they just want their heartwarming adventure with the characters they love doing all the archetypical things we love them for. On the other side are people that have been waiting for a breath of fresh air like this and who found the slavish mechanical imitation of The Force Awakens to be obnoxious, distracting, and boring. These are both perfectly valid reactions to these moviesAnd I feel a little of both!, and the only reason we’re at odds is because Disney pulled this change mid-story.
What Was Disney Thinking?
Disney’s handling of the sequel trilogy is incomprehensible to me. They began with handing the series to J. J. Abrams. Abrams directed, and the script was written by Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan was a writer on both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Disney began this series by very deliberately embracing a sort of ultra-traditionalism that bordered on orthodoxy.
I’m not the biggest fan of Abrams, even though he’s an amazing imitative and technical filmmakerInsert worn-out lens flare joke here.. In Super 8 he did an incredible job of capturing the look and feel of early-period Speilberg. That’s not easy! Countless starry-eyed hopefuls have tried to imitate the Spielberg styleThe first Transformers movie has a lot of quasi-Spielberg moments that don’t work at all because Michael Bay is far too crass and cynical to sell it. and wound up creating cringy schlock. In fact, I think Abrams is the only filmmaker besides Robert Zemeckis to successfully capture Spielberg’s particular gift for manipulating the mood and attention of the audience.
Abrams gets the surface-level stylistic details right, but Super 8 lacks the heartfelt sentimentality that powers so many of Spielberg’s whimsical creations.
The Force Awakens is a similar kind of deal. On the surface level it looks and sounds like an amped-up version of the original movie, down to the relentlessly methodical recycling of plot points. But beneath the surface it’s lacking in conviction. It doesn’t have anything to say about the world or its characters. It’s the cinematic equivalent of someone posting “Yeah! I agree!” It was technically spectacularMan, those X-wings flying in over the water still gets me as something that never happened in the original trilogy, and yet somehow looks SO RIGHT. and emotionally shallow. It’s not a terrible movie, but also not something I’d watch more than onceFor contrast, I’ve watched the originals dozens of times..
So the fans complained, and Disney immediately over-corrected in the most extreme way possible. They went from slavish imitation to merciless deconstruction. Those two ideas are completely at odds, and you can’t construct a story when different parts of it disagree on such a fundamental level.
Then when some fans didn’t like the deconstruction, they tried to jump back to ultra-traditionalism. But you simply can’t make a traditionalist story using the deconstructionist foundation that Johnson left behind. It’s like trying to make Shazam a sequel to Watchmen. I love both of those movies, but they’re ice cream and chili. They aren’t designed to go together.
Worse, they didn’t even bring Kasdan back to write it. Disney left (or allowed) Abrams to write the thing. I can imagine very few pairings that are more incompatible than Demolition Man Rian Johnson and the mechanical style-over-substance traditionalism of JJ Abrams.
Fans complain that The Last Jedi didn’t leave any plot hooks for the third movie. Other people counter that no, you could totally do a third movie where Kylo is the main bad guy and both the Resistance and the First Order are in tatters. I think both sides are right. Someone could indeed make a good story out of what The Last Jedi left behind, but J.J. Abrams is not that someone. TLJ takes the universe in a new direction, and thus J.J. couldn’t continue the story by copying scenes and plot points from earlier films.
For Johnson, tropes are constructs to be questioned, subverted, or obliterated. For Abrams, tropes are a crutch that he uses to fill in the bits where emotions and logic would go. This pairing is like having a Frank Zappa / Rebecca Black double act. One flouts formulaic constructs and the other is constructed entirely of formula. It’s not just dissonant, it forms a feedback loop of ever-amplifying dissonance that tears everything else apart.
The other curious detail is that the movies don’t even do a good job of following through on character arcs. It would be one thing if Disney was experimenting with tone and style while sticking to some tried-and-true formula. I would understand if they took one of their standard story templates and fiddled with making them “darker” or “more nuanced” or whatever. But the trilogy seems to fumble on the basics. Our three leads Rey, Finn, and Poe don’t have particularly strong motivations, and the motivations they do have aren’t linked to the overall story of overcoming the First Order. This is something that Disney usually gets right, even if they fail at everything else.
This means that even if we could untangle all of the odd structural problems of the trilogy and fix the strange pacing issues, and even if we could get all the movies on the same page tonally and thematically, we’d still have this oddly unsatisfying story where it’s not clear what our characters needParticularly Poe and Finn. and the needs they do express aren’t always served by the overall plot of fighting the bad guys.
Note to people reading this article from the archives: It’s not part of this retrospective, but earlier this week I had a post on Rise of Skywalker. It’s not required reading here, but it does tie into this discussion of Disney’s handling of the franchise.
I think a deconstructionist take on Star wars is a fine idea. I might not personally dig it, but I’m old and I’m not in the 18-34 target demo here. Maybe the kids don’t want more of grandpa’s Star Wars. In a broad sense, experimentation isn’t just good, it’s necessary for the long-term survival of the work. Just, you know, do that experiment as a standalone movie, show, or trilogy and not in the middle of something completely incompatible.
Different is Good!
In a lot of ways, Knights of the Old Republic II was exactly that sort of isolated departure, and that game has tons of fans that love the game despite the rough edges and technical problems. That game challenged the established black-and-white simplicity of the Jedi and the ForceDisclosure: It’s been years since I played through KOTOR II and I’m SUPER hazy on the particulars of the story now. I’m just repeating the impressions and discussions I remember having in decades past.. It’s fine that it doesn’t agree with the idealism of the first KOTOR game, because the second one wasn’t trying to fulfill character arcs and story beats created by the first. Each story could stand on its own.
In short, Rian Johnson did his job. Disney hired a demolitionist, and he dutifully demolished The Force Awakens. Imagine if they hired Zack Snyder and he made a slow, colorless mope of a movie where the heroes don’t believe in anything and there’s no joy in victory. Do we blame Snyder for doing what he always does, or do we blame Disney for hiring the wrong person at the wrong time? I lean towards the latter.
I think it would have been better if they’d given Johnson the whole trilogy instead of just the middle. I might not have liked it, but someone would have liked it and Johnson’s trilogy would at least be tonally and thematically consistent with itselfOkay, I know one of the main criticisms with TLJ is that Johnson was wildly inconsistent when applying his themes. Based on the success of his other work, I’m sort of assuming this wouldn’t have been a problem if he wasn’t playing tug-of-war with Abram’s traditionalism. This is all speculation and your mileage may vary. rather than being this oddly unorthodox middle chapter in an otherwise hyper-orthodox story.
They over-corrected in the jump from Force Awakens to Last Jedi, and then again when going from Last Jedi to Rise of Skywalker. Both of these moves were gutless and fickle, and revealed a profound lack of artistic integrity. In trying to please everyone, Disney made a trilogy that couldn’t please anyone.
If You Fail to Plan…
I hear people defend Disney saying, “Lots of good series (like the original trilogy) aren’t planned ahead!” I heard the same defense regarding Mass Effect. It’s also true that George Burns smoked cigars and lived to be 100, but that doesn’t mean smoking is a good way to increase your life expectancy. Just because some people have successfully improvised trilogies doesn’t mean that doing so is a smart way to run a billion-dollar franchise.
Moreover, the original trilogy had freedoms that no subsequent story can ever have. Back then, the universe was a blank canvas. Did Darth Vader really kill Luke’s dad? Can anyone – like Han Solo – learn to use the force, or does it require some special gift? Are there any other Jedi hiding elsewhere in the galaxy that could join us in the second or third movies? What other powers can Jedi have? How many Jedi were there in the Republic? What did they do? Did they get married and have families? Is Vader the only evil Jedi, or is that a regular thing in this universe?
Each new entry in the series adds another block of continuity and lore that must be respected by later stories. It gradually becomes harder to find places to add new things that don’t contradict what came before. Like a game of Jenga, the longer it goes on, the less freedom you have. Which means you need to take your time and make careful plans before you do something, even though that sort of caution wasn’t strictly necessary when the world was new.
You can do a re-creationist story like Abrams was originally going forI mean, if you HAVE to. Not my first choice., or you can do an iconoclastic story like Rian Johnson madeTastes vary., or you could try to do something evolutionary like Rogue OneNot that Rogue One didn’t have its flaws, but it was a story that felt like it was trying to take the existing material in a slightly new direction rather than just repeating itself or flipping the table. or The Mandalorian, but you need to pick one of these and stick with it during a story. You don’t need to write out every script and plan out every merchandising tie-in ahead of time. Just… have a destination in mind. Figure out what kind of story you’re trying to tell before you film the fucking movies.
I can understand why some people embraced the way Rian Johnson switched things up, and I can also understand why some people found it off-putting in ways that were difficult to articulate. So many criticisms of The Last Jedi focus on the relative power levels of the characters, the nuance of chain of command, and the technical details of what Star Wars technology can and can’t do. I think these criticisms are symptoms of a more fundamental tonal problem that’s harder for folks to identify. If the movies had nailed the expected feel of Star Wars, then fans would have been far less inclined to focus on the mechanical details of the story.
It’s a bit like Commander Shepard suddenly working for Cerberus. Sure, there are lots of plot holes and contrivances with that setup, but the real killer was the fact that the writer changed the thematic and tonal thrust of the story so that Commander Shepard was no longer an explorer trying to solve an ancient mystery, but a soldier trying to prepare an apathetic galaxy for war. That shift blew the story apart, and all of the gripes about Cerberus are just collateral damageAlthough the fact that the Cerberus stuff was sloppily constructed didn’t help.. Most of us would have (very grudgingly) accepted the retcon of Cerberus if the writer hadn’t changed the direction of the story and the goal of the protagonist in the opening of the second act.
So What IS The “Feel” of Star Wars, Shamus?
Shit. Did I just plow through two entries and I still haven’t gotten to the point? Let’s just pretend I’m doing a deliberate nod to Mass Effect / Sequel Trilogy by wasting the second entry on things that ultimately go nowhere. In the third entry I’m going to somehow pull everything together and it’ll all suddenly make sense and result in a satisfying resolution and everyone will be happy and it’ll all be worth it and people will love me again.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to consult with a focus group and ask them what sorts of things I should put in this final entry.
 And I feel a little of both!
 Insert worn-out lens flare joke here.
 The first Transformers movie has a lot of quasi-Spielberg moments that don’t work at all because Michael Bay is far too crass and cynical to sell it.
 Man, those X-wings flying in over the water still gets me as something that never happened in the original trilogy, and yet somehow looks SO RIGHT.
 For contrast, I’ve watched the originals dozens of times.
 Particularly Poe and Finn.
 Disclosure: It’s been years since I played through KOTOR II and I’m SUPER hazy on the particulars of the story now. I’m just repeating the impressions and discussions I remember having in decades past.
 Okay, I know one of the main criticisms with TLJ is that Johnson was wildly inconsistent when applying his themes. Based on the success of his other work, I’m sort of assuming this wouldn’t have been a problem if he wasn’t playing tug-of-war with Abram’s traditionalism. This is all speculation and your mileage may vary.
 I mean, if you HAVE to. Not my first choice.
 Tastes vary.
 Not that Rogue One didn’t have its flaws, but it was a story that felt like it was trying to take the existing material in a slightly new direction rather than just repeating itself or flipping the table.
 Although the fact that the Cerberus stuff was sloppily constructed didn’t help.
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