Since the divisive response to 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson has carried a heavy burden.
If the internet is to be believed (and when aren’t they), he’s the man who killed Star Wars. He allegedly dropped the ball after the success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The reasons that some fans didn’t like Star Wars: The Last Jedi are many. But do they really hold water?
Should Rian Johnson have to carry the burden for “ruining” Star Wars? No. He shouldn’t, because he didn’t.
Complaint-by-complaint, I’m going to do my best to debunk the reasons so many have responded to this movie with such disdain.
In preparation for this piece, I’ve changed my name and moved my family out of the country. This is my defense of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“That’s Not My Luke Skywalker!”
Here’s the big one. People don’t like what Johnson did with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
They complain that Luke was a pillar of optimism and that his turn as a bitter recluse was out of character. Johnson took the idealistic young farm boy and turned him into a cipher. A pessimistic old man who’s given up.
Let’s break this one down a little bit. From the onset, before a single foot of film was shot, it was a no-brainer that Luke would be the Obi-Wan Kenobi of this new trilogy. So let’s not pretend, especially considering Luke was the McGuffin of The Force Awakens, that anyone thought he would be front-and-center leading the Resistance.
And, speaking of The Force Awakens, after all the complaining about that film being a retread of the original Star Wars, why would Johnson write Luke to be hopeful and ready to help from the jump in Star Wars: The Last Jedi?
Yes, Luke is a very different character in The Last Jedi than he was when he and Han Solo blew up the Death Star.
And that’s the point. His place as a man in hiding is informed by the events of the intervening 30-plus years. At some point after Return of the Jedi, Luke decided that the Jedi and the Sith are more trouble than they’re worth. And he disappeared. He became kind of a strange old hermit, if you will.
What’s more, Star Wars: The Last Jedi tells us why he feels that way. So what gives with the fans feeling swindled?
Johnson’s approach to Luke wasn’t a popular one, even with actor Mark Hamill. But it was the right one.
“How Can Rey Be A Nobody?”
Fans speculated left and right as to Rey’s parentage. Was she a secret Skywalker? Or would she turn out to be a descendant or a relative of Obi-Wan Kenobi?
None of the above. Kylo Ren revealed to Rey that here parents were nobodies. A pair of “filthy junk traders” who sold her “off for drinking money.”
This was the twist from Johnson that a lot of fans simply could not abide. How could Rey, the heroine of the sequel trilogy, just be some girl?
Again, that’s the point. The prequel trilogy was all about Anakin, the “Chosen One.” Ultimately, the original trilogy is the story of Luke redeeming his father and carrying out his destiny.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a film about the old world and ways losing relevance. So its hero isn’t bound to the old rules.
Furthermore, isn’t there something to be said for a hero not born of some kind of noble lineage? Isn’t that the element of most fantasies that makes them fantasies? The notion that anyone – even you – can come up from modest means and make a difference?
Frodo Baggins wasn’t some great hero whose coming was foretold in ancient prophecy. He was nobody who’d rather be left alone. There’s even precedent within the Star Wars universe for Jedi to be “nobodies.”
In the prequel era and earlier, Jedi were trained from birth, and they came from all over the galaxy. From all walks of life. Mace Windu wasn’t the child of renowned Force-users or legendary heroes. He was just some dude.
Johnson presenting Rey as being no one particularly special in Star Wars: The Last Jedi is what the whole sequel trilogy hinges on. She’s one of us. We could be that hero.
“That Canto Bight Sequence Was Pointless!”
The Canto Bight sequence with Rose and Finn in Star Wars: The Last Jedi gets slammed as being pointless to the plot.
Rose and Finn head to the casino planet in search of a master codebreaker. They fail. Instead, they come back with DJ, who seems like he would be a relatively-okay codebreaker. He fails. And he betrays them.
So what was the point of that? How does it serve the plot?
On one hand, that’s fair. It doesn’t. Everyone ends up right where they started. So no, it doesn’t serve the plot.
It serves Finn, as a character.
In The Force Awakens, Finn was an ex-stormtrooper who didn’t want anything more than to escape the First Order. Through the course of the movie, he learns to care for another person, Rey, and becomes devoted to her well-being.
Fast forward to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Finn’s obsession with Rey hasn’t changed. It’s his first question when he wakes up from his coma, and he even mentions her at the casino itself. His goal isn’t to save the Resistance from the First Order. It’s to make sure there’s a Resistance for Rey to come back to.
And in the course of his adventure with Rose, especially the freeing of the Farthiers, that teaches him what it is that the Resistance is doing and why he should be helping.
It’s this whole sequence that leads him to his attempt at self-sacrifice at the end of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. On the surface, the Canto Bight scenes don’t accomplish much, plot-wise.
But in an era of set pieces and action sequences, it’s easy to forget that a movie is a narrative. This trilogy, more than either of its predecessors, is about characters.
“Hey, Wait, Who Was Snoke?”
The death of Supreme Leader Snoke was another touchy subject after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Snoke’s introduction in The Force Awakens established him as the person running the First Order from afar. And that’s all.
No franchise-busting backstory was teased. There were no hints that Snoke had some hidden identity. At no point did The Force Awakens tease that he was the reincarnated Darth Plagueis. Or that he was controlled by a resurrected Emperor Palpatine. To be fair, that may well be the case after Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
The point is, nobody got tricked. Nobody got swindled.
Speculation is an activity engaged in by fans. Is it sometimes encouraged by the properties about which they develop their fan theories? Sure.
But to say that Johnson somehow ruined the potential of Snoke by killing him off in Star Wars: The Last Jedi is just silly beyond my comprehension.
If fans are disappointed because there was no jaw-dropping reveal about Snoke, then that’s their own fault. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a story about failure. The Resistance fails to contact their allies, Kylo Ren fails to turn Rey (and vice versa), and Snoke fails to eliminate the spark of the Jedi.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi was very much like The Empire Strikes Back in that regard. In that film, the bad guys won, but even the evil Darth Vader failed.
Speaking of Empire.
“It definitely wasn’t as good as The Empire Strikes Back!”
Thirty-seven years ago, people were saying the same thing about The Empire Strikes Back. Even George Lucas expressed embarrassment until the whole world came around and decided it was one of the greatest movies ever made.
Discounting the point about fans not liking Rey being just a regular person in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, every complaint above would be completely applicable to Empire.
Wait, we’re supposed to believe Luke can be trained by a frog puppet? So this Emperor that’s supposed to be Darth Vader’s boss is just some hologram in a robe? What was the point the Millennium Falcon escaping the asteroid field if they’re just going to be caught on Cloud City anyway?
Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits all the same beats. It approaches them from a very different angle. Rian Johnson’s vision relied less on tried-and-true fantasy analogues and tropes. Instead, it focused on the characters and how they interact with the constantly-changing world around them.
It isn’t the same movie by any means. But it serves the same purpose and drives Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a very similar direction.
Rian Johnson accomplished a very, very difficult feat. None of the sequel trilogy has been part of a broad design or a grand vision. The filmmakers have been picking up the work that preceded them and done their best to create something that can succeed them.
But it seems as though Johnson’s work will be that which the fans leave behind. And with the release of The Rise Of Skywalker coming up, his work may even be that which fans will – for a time – grow beyond.
That, ultimately, is Rian Johnson’s burden. The true burden of all masters.
All images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Lucasfilm.