Why The Last Jedi is a Bad Force Awakens Sequel
The Last Jedi does a hell of a job honoring past films in the Star Wars saga. As mentioned before, it ties up loose threads from the prequels and honors the Skywalker storyline from Lucas' original trilogy. Ironically, though, despite their back-to-back placement in the franchise, The Force Awakens is the only film it pretty much ignores. Plenty of sequels from other franchises have gone the route of retconning films that preceded them (see Halloween H20, Evil Dead II), but Star Wars isn't just your standard franchise. It's a cinematic landmark.
Still, Rian Johnson didn't seem to have much of a problem with subverting expectations set in motion by J.J. Abrams. Before Rey storms off in the Millennium Falcon, Luke tells her: "This is not going to go the way you think" - which is also a message to the audience of die-hard Star Wars fans. Shortly after Rey and Luke's dramatic first meeting, Johnson has Luke casually toss aside his old lightsaber, despite all of the buildup from The Force Awakens' final scene. From there, the subversions only get more and more blatant.
Supreme Leader Snoke is introduced in The Force Awakens, brimming with power and shrouded in mystery. He's set up as the new trilogy's main villain, but in The Last Jedi, he is killed off in the middle of gloating. Narratively, it makes for a solid twist, throwing off the audience by making Kylo Ren the new Supreme Leader; on the other hand, it also arguably gives the middle finger to the character. Disney can easily release a comic or novel detailing Snoke's backstory, but given the fact that film audiences don't know A) where he comes from, B) why he's so powerful, and C) why his motives are so directly linked to the Emperor's, Snoke ultimately feels like a complete waste of a character. J.J. Abrams has garnered a reputation for having lackluster payoffs to layered setups (see Lost, Super 8), but in this case, he's off the hook. Johnson is definitely to blame.
Other characters given the shaft include The Knights of Ren and Maz Kanata. The former can be assumed to be Ben Solo's fellow Jedi Apprentice's training with Luke at the Jedi Temple, but why bother introducing them in the first place? Johnson has stated that his movie would have just been far too bloated had he included them, but leaving out even the slightest shred of an explanation just makes it seem as though Johnson didn't really care all that much about picking up threads from The Force Awakens. As for Maz, whether Abrams had a bigger agenda for her or not, Johnson saw fit to shoehorn her into a single scene just for the sake of showing a familiar face. There's no mention of how she came across Luke's lightsaber or even why she has such strong ties to the Resistance.
Even characters who show up in The Last Jedi aren't the same as how they were left in The Force Awakens, despite the fact that the former takes place directly after the latter. Luke, for example, has completely contradictory motives. In The Last Jedi, he tells Rey that he came to Ahch-To to die, disregarding the fact that Ahch-To is the home of the first Jedi Temple. One would assume that a person seeking death, while also disconnecting themselves from a certain way of life, wouldn't seek out a home on the very island where said way of life was first conceived. Obviously, this was a hole in which Johnson had no way of escaping given the setup in The Force Awakens, which only further defends the point that The Last Jedi is an unfaithful sequel.
It's worth noting that Johnson had finished the script for The Last Jedi before The Force Awakens was released. It's not as though The Last Jedi's changes or lack of follow-through was a deliberate reaction to everything Abrams had set up, but that also doesn't get him off the hook. Everything that prevents The Last Jedi from being a solid sequel is the sense that there was no dialogue between Abrams and Johnson, as well as the sense that Disney potentially gave their directors too much artistic freedom. Sequels, by definition, are supposed to "continue the narrative of a preceding work," and though the story that Johnson told made for first-rate Star Wars, it also reeks of apathetic continuity. Our best shot at closure is having Episode IX round out this new trilogy with an explanation for every setup The Last Jedi chose to neglect. With luck, this won't come at the expense of the story.
Do you think Episode IX will explain everything J.J. Abrams set up in The Force Awakens? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019