The Sequel Trilogy comes to a close and so does the Skywalker saga, but the question I am left with is, was any of this earned? Did audiences benefit from these sequels? I think the answer is a sad no.
These sequels are plagued with questions left unanswered. Most of this has to do with Abrams’ obsession with mystery boxes. I mean, we never do find out why or how Maz had the Skywalker lightsaber. It is ultimately something that doesn’t matter a whole lot, but it is left unaddressed and leaves a thinking viewer frustrated. All the mystery boxes plagued The Last Jedi and helped to lead to that film’s poor reception. The fact that these films were guided by two filmmakers who conflict in their filmmaking process does not help matters.
J.J. Abrams is not unlike an ameba. He has no backbone and when he boarded The Force Awakens he was terrified of making something that would upset anyone so he delivered a soft reboot by swapping the gender dynamics of the characters and slinging the meat on the structure of A New Hope. It offered almost nothing new, even to the frustration of George Lucas himself. Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who dissects and subverts genre with each film he makes and took to his Star Wars film to chisel away all the maudlin excess the franchise had been carrying since Empire, really, and excavated the skeletal core of what Star Wars was really designed to be in its original conception. Put another way, you have Abrams who understood the feeling of what it was like to see Star Wars when he was ten and impart that feeling on an audience so that they, too, felt like ten yearolds in awe; and then you have Johnson who firmly understood the philosophies, lessons and meaning of the original movies and was able to strip away the excess in order to communicate to the audience on an intellectual level what the Hero’s Journey is really about. Neither approach is a poor take on the subject. Both are valid, but the fact that they conflict with each other is unfortunate because the Trilogy doesn’t meld into a cohesive unit. The fact that J.J. gets final say makes it feel as if Johnson’s take is incorrect, but it is not.
The Last Jedi suffers from the fact that most people don’t understand it. If you listen, really listen, you will find that what it is trying to say is quite profound. Most objections fall on the handling of Luke, Rey and Kylo Ren. Most people think that the film is trying to say, “Destroy your past; Kill it if you have to,” which is quoted by Kylo Ren. That isn’t the assertion that film makes at all. Luke and Kylo Ren seem to be viewing the franchise through this prism, but people seem to forget that Luke asserts that Kylo was wrong to think this way during their showdown (and implying that he, Luke, was also wrong). This follows with a similar lesson Yoda imparts onto Luke; “Heeded my words not, did you. Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher failure is. Luke we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” The better summation of the film would come from Rose with; “We are not going to win this by killing what we hate but saving what we love.” The film is not about killing the past but embracing it and learning from it. It is saying that it is ok to have such reverence of this universe and characters but learn from them. Allow growth, not stagnation. So, the film trims the franchise fat by doing away with the concept of having an overarching Big Bad, allowing for an interesting and flawed character like Kylo Ren to just be a villain and not a shadowy figure worth saving, and cuts away familial lineage. I love that the film made a point to say that Rey’s parents were nobodies. It sets up so much meaning that has been lost since Vader said, “I am your father.” Rey was a hero because she just was. She is powerful not because of divine birthright.
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This concept gets warped once Rey is established as the granddaughter of Palpatine; the final film’s biggest injustice. This is problematic for two reasons. The first being, they try to keep what Kylo Ren said as true; that her parents were nobodies, but I am sorry—no, that does not work. The mere fact that Palpatine had a child makes them not nobodies! They can’t be nobodies and yet the film treats them as such. It is also problematic because it slights any feministic leanings the films try to assert with Rey’s character. Her being powerful without justification for that power is a powerful stance to take and wonderfully welcomed. By saying, ‘No, she isn’t powerful because she just is but rather because she is the granddaughter of the Big Bad,’ diminishes her importance. Yoda is unquestionably powerful, as is Obi-Wan and Mace Windu. Nobody questions why they have so much power. No one needs justification for this. Hell, Yoda has absolutely zero back story, but Rey is required to have justification and that is unacceptable to me. I will offer two solutions that the film could have used to make this work a little better.