I’ve been trying to find a way to articulate this for two years now. With Rise of Skywalker coming out, I might as well try to get it down. I think J.J. Abrams was more interested in making Star Wars than making a sequel to the Star Wars trilogy, and that undermined Rian Johnson’s job in actually making a sequel to The Force Awakens.
First, let me say a bunch of nice things about The Force Awakens, because I really do like that movie, and by the end of this you might think I hate it:
- All the costume and set designs are superb.
- Everything with Rey in it. Daisy Ridley’s performance, her toughness, her bewilderment at Finn’s attempts at chivalry because she has no basis for understanding why a woman would need a man to help her, the way she looks longingly into the sky/horizon at the beginning, looks at the woman cleaning scrap and wonders if that’s her in a bunch of decades, her competence, how she can speak fluently to Chewie, the way she slowly starts to understand her Force abilities. Need I go on? Because I could.
- Everything about Adam Driver’s performance. The way he’s so clearly a wanna-be Darth Vader, with a purely cosmetic helmet complete with a voicebox and a lightsaber that’s trying to look cool by doing something new (cross guards) even though cross guards on a lightsaber aren’t a particularly useful idea but he’s young so he doesn’t quite grasp that the OG lightsaber design was already perfect; no need to modify it, because that’s what young people do.
- The design of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber having a crackle to it, which shows that it’s homemade and not done with the guidance of a proper Jedi/Sith and also reflects that Kylo is unfocused and spitting undirected hatred at the world for no particular reason, because he’s really just an entitled prick.
- The general theme of the First Order as Neo-Nazis, who had nothing in particular to be upset about but organized against the new Republic, anyway.
- Han Solo’s death. You know it’s coming the moment he steps onto that bridge but you and he know it has to happen, anyway.
- The moment when Rey Force pulls the saber.
I could go on. Point is: I like the movie. It has some smaller issues (in trying to ape the Star Wars formula it treads over the line and feels too much like a remake, Luke being missing has no actual bearing on the plot), but they’re ultimately minor. The real problem I have with The Force Awakens is that the setup relies on a premise Abrams has little interest in establishing. Namely, it begs you to ask:
- Why did Leia fail to establish a stable new Republic?
- What is the First Order?
- Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?*
Or, more succinctly: What happened after Luke and Vader defeated the Emperor?†
And The Force Awakens’s answer seems to be: We’re just not interested in telling you. In fact, would you mind more or less pretending that the end of Return of the Jedi sorta didn’t happen? Because that would be more convenient for us. We want to have imperial officers and stormtroopers and rebels without having to bother explaining where they came from. Thanks.
That works when you’re making the first movie in 1977. You can say: There’s an evil empire and there are good guys fighting it. In fact, the movie just starts by making you read a few paragraphs saying literally that so that it can get on with its story.
I really want to argue that that’s not okay when you’re making sequel. The events need to proceed from what came before. If it’s a mystery that will be revealed in time, that’s totally fine. Why did Han and Leia’s relationship end? Because their son fell to the Dark Side and it tore them apart. Great. That works. Why did Luke not train a new Jedi Order? Well, he tried, but then his star pupil went evil and murdered them all. Cool. But simply ignoring the victory the characters achieved in the third movie? Not cool.
So when Johnson goes to make The Last Jedi, he’s stuck with Snoke, who’s been given no backstory whatsoever. He shows the stalwart Resistance finally finding its resolve, but we were never shown why they didn’t have it or really even why they were fighting, since we don’t know who the First Order are. Sure, you can blame Johnson for not patching this stuff in, but it would have made the movie flabbier. I think instead Johnson just pretended that this basic premise stuff had been explained and proceeded from there.
Something to consider: What are these movies even about? My take might be:
(prequels) “How do you lose a republic?”
(originals) “How do you get it back?“
And if so, then the sequels should probably be: “How do you keep it?” (to quote Ben Franklin). But Abrams doesn’t seem terribly interested in going that deep, so instead he’s just continuing the question as if Jedi hadn’t already answered it beautifully (through peace and love). His characters are still fighting the same basic battle that’s already been won in an earlier movie, and they’re even doing it on a silly copy of the same battle station.
All of which brings me to: Why are these movies episodes 7–9? How are they actually a part of the Skywalker saga? If the first two parts are “Father turns evil” and “Son redeems father,” it’s pretty clear the sequels need to be, “Grandson: ???“
I’m pretty sure in Rian Johnson’s eyes the answer goes back to Hegelian Dialectics. You take the thesis of the Light Side, smash it against its antitheses, the Dark, and come up with a new synthesis of the two. Luke’s realizations on Ahch-To speak to this: he’s come to feel that the Force isn’t just a simple, two-sided thing. Kylo Ren kills his master, seemly rejecting the Dark Side, but then he also doesn’t go with Rey. Finn and Rose discover that the bad gamblers sell guns to both the First Order and the Resistance. Poe learns that leadership is more complicated than just winning a fight. Nothing is as simple as light vs. dark, win/lose, good/bad. There’s something more out there. I just wish I had the confidence that Abrahms knew what it was. We’ll see in another week.
* You might be tempted to add a fourth, “Who are Rey’s parents?” but I’d argue that’s not a question the movie really asks. Rey wants to know, but it’s much more a question the viewers think is supposed to be important rather than one the movie ever spends much time with. The answer—that their identity isn’t important because anyone can grow up to be a hero regardless of who her father was—is subversive in a way I really like. ↩
† I’m not at all interested in whether this stuff is fleshed out in a comic or a novel. The movies need to provide this. That’s like serving me unsweetened iced tea and then giving me a sugar packet. That’s not sweet tea! ↩