If you're already fatigued at the idea of reading yet another Star Wars article, I hear you. And I sympathize.
As a fellow surfer of the world wide weird, I've sampled from the same buffet line of reactions to The Last Jedi as everyone else. I saw the euphoric celebrity tweets trickle in from the Hollywood premiere, the numerous reviews from professional critics (almost all positive), the wave of backlash from the hardcore fans, the wave of backlash against the backlash, the detailed video breakdowns, the Episode IX theories… it’s exhausting.
While many people are embracing The Last Jedi and trumpeting its success, the complaints are undeniably numerous, and the anger hasn't subsided much. Among those complaints, one common thread seems to be emerging: most of them seem to incorporate preconceived notions about what makes a worthy Star Wars trilogy, or movie, or scene, or character moment.
Because they didn't get the Star Wars movie they anticipated, many hardcore fans are expressing that they feel ignored or forgotten by Disney and Lucasfilm. But I would argue that the filmmakers were not only hyper-aware of fans' expectations, they actually cleverly incorporated fanbase culture into the themes of the movie itself.
Of course, just because they acknowledge the fans, doesn't mean the fans aren't allowed to be critical. But I still believe this is a thread worth pulling at, because it speaks to the enormous challenges of crafting a new Star Wars trilogy in modern times. And it may help some folks appreciate what writer/director Rian Johnson was trying to accomplish with this film. Let me explain...
The Force is awake... now what?
Before The Force Awakens was released in 2015, Disney's new Star Wars trilogy was shrouded in secrecy, with hardly any plot details revealed to the public before the movie opened. Being the first entry in a brand new batch of Star Wars stories, TFA served as a fitting trial run for Disney to see how the massive internet-driven Star Wars fanbase would behave with this new trilogy. And, as we all remember, the internet was pretty patient and chill about the whole thing.
I'm just kidding. The internet exploded in a fireball of nostalgia, wishful screaming, and wild theories about every tiny detail. I fully admit to participating in the feeding frenzy. And to be fair, Disney brought it on themselves by touting the return of the original dream team (Han, Leia, Luke, Chewy, C-3PO, R2-D2), not to mention those incredible trailers they insisted on releasing.
Once TFA was released, audiences were mostly delighted to find that this was indeed the Star Wars they knew and loved. Not the counterfeit prequel stuff, but vintage Star Wars, in mint condition. Han, Chewy, the droids, they were all just as we imagined they'd be after 30 years – the same, but older.
Even Leia, who had left Han and risen in the ranks to General, was still the hopeful freedom fighter she once was. However, TFA shared more in common with past entries than just the characters.
Some die-hard fans were frustrated by the recycled story beats from A New Hope, the first entry in the classic trilogy. Rey, the mysterious new protagonist, makes a fantastic central character, but her desert planet origins and orphan status did mirror Luke Skywalker's beginnings on Tatooine. The evil Galactic Empire was a figment of the past, but it had been replaced by the First Order, which had more than a passing resemblance to the Empire. Not to mention the desperate final X-Wing attack on the enemy's gargantuan enemy base, and the death of a beloved older character at the end.
For many fans, there was simply too much overlap between A New Hope and The Force Awakens. The new film didn't surprise them. If anything, it made them realize that they didn't want more of the same. The fans were willing to forgive the nostalgic callbacks, so long as Disney gave them something truly novel in the rest of the trilogy. Something unpredictable, shocking... even game-changing.
The fanbase awakens (for better or worse)
And so, with the events of The Force Awakens posing a litany of questions about the saga ahead, the fans began the 2-year process of looking for answers. They dissected every detail from the existing movies, and other content from the new Disney canon... comics, video games, novels, even leaked box art from LEGO sets. And in the golden age of nerd cinema, who can blame them?
But now Rian Johnson, charged with the daunting task of writing and directing Episode VIII, found himself in a preposterous conundrum: the fans still wanted twists in their Star Wars movies. Big ones. Like, "I am your father" size twists. And I'll include myself in this: we fans can't help but gobble up every new Snoke theory on the internet, share it, add to it, then share it again... and yet when our butts hit the seats on opening weekend, we still expect major plot revelations we never saw coming.
So the question was, what could Rian Johnson possibly do to contend with this vast internet hive-mind of intelligent superfans, hellbent on ruining their own surprise party?
Ignoring the Star Wars fanbase completely wouldn't work – what if he unwittingly wrote like 4 or 5 existing fan theories into his movie? Most likely, he'd be accused of plagiarism. And simply giving away the spoilers wouldn't work either, because dammit Rian, no spoilers! Those are the worst, why would you do that to us! (By the way, Snoke is totally Jar Jar Binks. I know because I watched 16 YouTube videos about it.)
The central thesis of this blog article awakens
The first time I saw The Last Jedi, I was in shock. I wasn't accustomed to being so disoriented by a Star Wars film. I loved so many things about it – the space battles were spectacular, the soundtrack was poetic, the art direction and cinematography were stunning, and I couldn't have imagined a more perfect Yoda cameo in my wildest dreams. But I still felt cheated out of answers to so many of the burning questions I was left with after The Force Awakens.
However, after watching it a second time, and a third, I began to see that I had been burdened with preconceived notions all along, based on the established patterns of past trilogies – Star Wars and otherwise. I was asking all the wrong questions, and in doing so, I was depriving myself of the appreciation of something awesome.
If that epiphany sounds familiar, that's because it parallels Luke's guidance for Rey. And therein lies the brilliance of Rian Johnson. As a Star Wars fanatic himself, he knew that fans would be shackled by the trappings of the old 'legends'. And he knew that if we wanted truly compelling Star Wars stories going forward, we'd have to move on. He knew it would be a tough pill for us to swallow, which is why he gave the same pill to Rey. So that Luke, her reluctant mentor, could show her (and us) how to move on – and more importantly, why.
He wanted Luke's path to enlightenment to be in direct response to Rey's preconceived notions about him and the Force. Like so many die-hard Star Wars fans, Rey was asking the wrong questions. Her preconceptions were putting the Force in a box, just as the fans' preconceptions were putting Star Wars in a box. In both cases, I figure, why not destroy the box and see what happens?
I submit that in the same way The Force Awakens was an ideal movie to reunite Star Wars fans and get everyone back on the same page, The Last Jedi was an ideal movie to propel the saga into uncharted space – freed from so many expectations that had bogged it down for so long. Imagine the brand new possibilities of a Star Wars galaxy where the Force belongs to everyone, not just the Skywalkers. The franchise has never had such fertile ground for great storytelling as it does now.
Side note – isn’t it refreshing that we’re finally getting new Star Wars movies that don't feel the need to spell everything out for us like we're toddlers?
OBI-WAN: "Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil!"
ANAKIN: "But from my point of view, the Jedi are evil!"
That's from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, in which the two main characters kindly blurt out a brief summary of their beliefs during a lightsaber duel. Surrounded by lava. At the climax of the entire prequel trilogy. That, friends, is what bad storytelling looks like.