Star Wars: The Last Jedi intelligently observes that battles between good and evil perpetuate conflicts that distract from the real issues. The irony of its execution is that it materialized this profitable dissent in its fanbase, with one half attacking the other while The Rise of Skywalker smashed ticket presale records for the series. The Last Jedi has been accused of subversion as often as assassination, with writer-director Rian Johnson caught in the middle of a divided fandom (based on his Tweets, it's a place he enjoys being). Since its release five years ago, the film’s intellectual intentions have rarely been distinguished from its technical execution – they’re lumped together into one inarguable blob, causing its debates to rage on in quiet passive aggression. It’s become the fandom’s Cold War. Any time it comes up on Twitter is a cause for alarm, a conflict where both sides imagine themselves as the rebellion. It’s no wonder the good and bad have become blurred.
A warm initial response can no longer prevent The Force Awakens from seeming like more than a glossy, short-sighted homage now that the trilogy has finished. J.J. Abrams thwarted the narrative potential of its sequels so persuasively that Johnson had an impossible task with The Last Jedi of making a sequel to a remake that would not also be a remake. The attempt alone is the first credit Johnson deserves – Abrams passed a torch whose handle was on fire. Perhaps fearing predictability more than failure, Johnson ripped open Abrams’ hollow recreation with tricky yet necessary choices.
He killed the big villain early to give the interesting characters like Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) more agency over their destiny. With Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Johnson broke Abram's appealing recreation of mythology, maybe just to see what would be left. Despite aggressive fans suggesting that Luke’s changed attitude ruined his allure, Toshiro Mifune was Lucas’ original model for Obi-Wan and Johnson brings it full circle with this Luke, stewed for 30 years in some samurai-esque angst on a planet of rustling grass. When he deflates Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) impression of his heroism (“You think what? I’m gonna walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order?”) he’s unsubtly addressing the fanbase’s expectations for him. The Last Jedi does not thrive on catharsis like The Force Awakens does. It doubles back on its own audience, setting the whole trilogy on edge. Its revelations have the tone of a final argument for Star Wars as a concept even while its plot structure is bound up by necessity with a frustrating lack of finality. It clearly should have been the last film.
These lessons make more sense for The Last Jedi as a standalone idea. In the context of its predecessors, the problem with even its most intelligent subversions is that The Empire Strikes Back already presented the hero (and the audience) with an ambiguous moral universe that challenged this idea of heroism. By recreating Star Wars, Abrams cornered Johnson’s script into recreating old disillusionment as though it was new. This is how Johnson ends up with another Lando betraying another Rebellion, another Jedi master that wasn’t what the hero expected, another trip into a dark cave, another set of weary lessons, another romantic subplot and a battle in the snow (salt), another confrontation with a villain who asks the hero to join them, another hero who turns them down, and another dark apprentice killing his emperor. Few of its beats are new, yet they are all presented with the tone of revelations. Both sides of the film’s reception accept its creativity on principle (even if they estimate it differently), but no matter how Johnson tried to re-estimate old surprises, he never outruns the shadow of the film that did them first.
Following The Force Awakens, this means that whatever fans hoped to get from The Last Jedi becomes the bait for its anti-catharsis, which Johnson seems to prioritize. The expected conclusions of setups from the previous film are teased, then subverted for an implication of deeper truths, but finally concluded with the original expectation anyway. The result is an illusion of complexity, which especially for the older fanbase took on the flavor of an extended con. Fans expected Luke to have an epic lightsaber fight, so Johnson overrules it with somber truths, starting with that strong statement of purpose when Luke tosses the lightsaber that Abrams gave him with mythic significance. But Johnson then writes a double take on the disappointment with the expected epic confrontation anyway, negating the new truths to rescue the old heroes from the hole the film dug for them with the tone of doing fans a favor. It's amped up with a tone of revelation, but it’s all a big tug-of-war with expectation. A smaller example is the DJ character (Benecio Del Toro), whom Johnson wrote as too obviously deplorable to turn to good but then baited the original assumption that he would fulfill the Lando role by having him fake being good until inevitably turning bad anyway, as anyone would suspect to begin with. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of “stop hitting yourself.”
Johnson’s tone adds to this disillusionment not by being silly but by passing silliness off as enlightenment. Like those cul-de-sac revelations, the tone negates the serious posturing of The Force Awakens, at times wisely, but it does it so single-mindedly that it often overrules its own subversions. For example, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is reimagined as a squealing henchman-fraud out of a Saturday cartoon in the place of Abrams’ venomous supremacist. Johnson sets him up for a fall in the prank phone call sequence with Poe (Oscar Isaac), as though Poe dealt it so Hux has to smelt it (it is tonally the worst imaginable opening to such a long and self-important movie, like a mansion that opens into its bathroom). The scene attempts to clarify the cost of the irreverent pilot-hero character trope. The problem is that Hux’s original personality was better suited to that purpose since without it, Poe’s irreverence matches the situation. When Leia (Carrie Fisher) chastises him, she’s out of touch with the audience’s experience with the scene. By going out of his way to negate Abrams’ film for comedy relief, Johnson negated the subversions that would have made more sense by keeping some of Abrams’ constructs intact.
This problem climaxes with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn’s (John Boyega) escapade, which can’t justify its thematic text in the pacing language of the film’s tone. Finn from the previous film had a certain self-preservation instinct that Johnson acknowledges, but when pushed into the corner of his over-complicated plot machine, Finn is just one of the things thwarted out of his importance by obvious fumbles. They blow their all-important mission on a parking mishap and a theme park donkey ride, justified with a moral tone that doesn’t match the other characters’ struggle (“it was worth it though, to tear up that town”). His growth into an honorable soldier is then re-thwarted back to self-preservation because of love. That in itself might have contained truth, but the pacing, which spreads these segments out as comedy relief in the film’s 152-minute structure, over-stretches the point of their whole subplot with circular thematic ramblings and donkey chaos.
Whole hours of what could have been the plot for the trilogy squish in this script into hurried sentences (someone tells them to find a codebreaker in a casino to hack a tracking beacon, introducing the planet, the concept of a beacon, and all the relevant characters between the lines). This script paces itself by pulling people through the busywork of its logistics regardless of what motivation would be consistent for them. Even after that labored introduction to the situation, Rose and Finn lose the intended codebreaker and “happen” to find another one after they get arrested for a parking violation, who tells the First Order to run a decloaking scan, which reveals the Resistance escape pods, because that’s what has to happen to tell the story Johnson planned. It makes no room in its logic for what else might happen if a character could assess a situation critically or act naturally. Nothing in that entire hour would matter if any First Order officer suggested the obvious protocol of running a decloaking scan without being told first by a turncoat (looking out a window would have worked too). Rose and Finn can’t even try to park properly because there’s no other way for them to be caught later. They lack the basic logic to act naturally because the plot is too self-absorbed to acknowledge contingencies, no matter how human.
These events tie into the film's themes but only in reverse. Holdo (Laura Dern) withholds information from Poe to force him to create the Rose and Finn subplot, but she doesn’t back it up with a great plan that would be worth hiding to begin with. “Releasing escape pods” is how the script placates the audience from realizing this (it even strategically forces Poe to be amazed at its complexity despite its ridiculousness). That scene tries to sell the theme of Poe’s disobedience, the critique of the hero-pilot trope, in reverse. But for that theme to work, the First Order can’t even scan space without a character telling them to in an act of ham-fisted betrayal, since that character is the only way for the mission’s failure to thematically relate to Rose and Finn. Holdo can’t save her crew’s integrity by reassuring Poe even with false information because any reasonable reassurance would cancel his subplot. The themes are the puppet strings in the film, blinding every natural reaction the characters could have. They’re the only obstacle for this screenplay that was even greater than The Force Awakens.
Johnson clarified his writing strategy in the behind-the-scenes footage, stating that “The object is not to subvert expectation. The object is drama.” This is where talking about the film gets frustrating because the object can’t be drama when the film wastes Gwendoline Christie yet again, relegating her entire Star Wars presence to little more than statuary. It can’t be drama if Luke’s reaction to Han’s death doesn’t get a single second on-screen despite being one of the most significant emotional turning points of the saga. Yet, the same film devotes minutes to a robot soccer ball shooting gold doubloons at Monsters Inc. side characters while the heroes take a 10-minute animated rodeo ride trashing space Priuses with the tone that kids say, “Look at me, mom!” Cartoon penguins flatten as they crash into windows like Alvin Chipmunk. Drama would be supported by characters making rational dramatic decisions that establish and develop subtext, even if the backdrop is comedic. What The Last Jedi does in the place of drama is manipulate or omit reactions with overcomplicated plot devices and then state what it all "meant" at the end to pass off a dramatic impression regardless of the tone or logic that got it there.
This is not entirely Johnson’s fault. Disillusionment was a crucial tool for him because of how confidently Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy re-established the series on an illusion of nostalgia. But he was too single-minded in his rejection of Abrams’ setups to sell his subversions as anything but retrogressions. They make it back to the original lessons eventually, to the point that The Last Jedi barely needs to be watched to get from Episode VII to Episode IX. Not even Rey’s seemingly complex spiritual journey amounts to much since she has too much marketing armor to be meaningfully challenged. Even her journey into the dark cave is more a pep talk than a warning, while Luke can’t take a step without walking into the screenwriting equivalent of a competency hearing. The film acts like Rey being a "nobody" is a dark revelation even though it was the fans who were invested in revealing a famous lineage, not her. When she blasts three fighters with one shot, whooping like a kid tipping over a sandcastle mere minutes after learning of her friends’ demise (“WHOO! I like this!”), it becomes clear that these themes of questioning overpowered heroic lineages aren’t a reformation. They’re just a changing of the guard of the brand (out with the old). Even when the film meticulously sets up every aspect needed to develop an actual subversion, with Rey telling Kylo "yes" instead of "no" and becoming a force for moral reformation in a universe constricted by old absolutes, the film still drops all of its inspiration to hastily recreate the original trilogy with new graphics instead.
Risky character performances, shimmery cinematography, and moments of funny intrigue (such as Kylo’s tantrums) elevate The Last Jedi above its wacky priorities, which seem to troll the audience’s expectations more passionately than dive into a new direction. But none of this is what broke the sequels, as many detractors of the film claim. Abrams and Kennedy broke them when they included the meta of Star Wars in the universe of Star Wars, rather than just the meta of the adventure stories on which it’s always been based (“This is the Millennium Falcon! You're Han Solo!”). When the characters became aware of their status as Star Wars icons and fans, a status that they embrace or deny depending on their personality, the series’ tropes blurred with the fandom’s desires to be included in the universe they love, a universe which had shrunk to the size of three hero's lives. Abrams made the audience an active participant in the film’s expectations, like viewers of a special effects stunt show at a theme park, basing narrative decisions not on logic but on managing the dramatic impact of predictability. The sequel trilogy couldn’t even begin to work out its flaws as films because it was too busy trying to work out its flaws as fanfiction.
This led Johnson, an ambitiously subversive filmmaker anyway (just watch the undervalued Looper or Brick), to make a film that by design does not distinguish between what would be natural for its characters and revelatory for its fans. The result uses subversions to recreate the same subversions that other sequels did better decades ago, caught in the battle between nostalgia and revelation. That conflict has absorbed the whole brand, finally pushing the series past the possibility of serious discussion. It has become a debate of experience only, of who “prefers” what, which is easier to market since that usually changes with each generation. The bigger picture goes beyond the tug-of-war between these two directors, which ended with Abrams steamrolling everything that worked in The Last Jedi and thwarting the whole trilogy, partly out of creative vanity and partly out of frustration that Johnson seemed content to end without leaving any threads for a third film to use. Though many fans accept that Disney did not set up a consistent narrative with the sequel trilogy, it’s even more important to realize that it found more than enough time to set up its ability to profit from fans disagreeing about that inconsistency with extreme efficiency. I’d expect nothing less, from the Empire.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Walt Disney Studios/Lucasfilm Ltd.