Editorial: No, The Last Jedi Did Not Undo The Force Awakens
In a recent interview with the Light Fuse podcast, The Force Awakens editor Mary Jo Markey threw some red meat at the ongoing debate over whose vision of the sequel trilogy was better: J.J. Abrams, or Rian Johnson. Markey, who has worked with Abrams on several movies including both Star Trek films and Mission: Impossible III, came down where you’d imagine.
“It’s very strange to have the second film so consciously undo the storytelling of the first one,” Markey said of The Last Jedi, signaling a possessiveness about the trilogy from the Bad Robot camp that hasn’t really emerged before. Her comments also expose what has been a – mostly – polite regard from Abrams and crew toward Johnson as perhaps simply political. Now that the films are out, and the receipts are in, the gloves might be off.
It’s unfortunate. It’s unnecessary. And it’s incorrect.
In order for The Last Jedi to have undone anything in The Force Awakens, the first film in the sequel trilogy would have had to make decisions. It simply didn’t. Abrams, who has built his career on the Mystery Box concept, introduced a litany of questions he left to the creators coming behind him because 1) he had no intention of returning to the franchise and 2) I don’t believe he really knew.
Why is Luke on the island? Who are Rey’s parents? How did Ben Solo fall to the Dark Side? How did Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber get from Bespin to Maz Kanata? None of these questions had answers in The Force Awakens. Abrams may have had an idea about Rey’s parentage, but he declined to structure the story so that his intent was concrete. He may have intended Palpatine to return – a great idea in my opinion – but he abdicated the responsibility to set that up. He may have known why Luke retreated from his friends, family and the galaxy at a time of great peril, but he literally rolled the credits on that answer.
I’ve discussed Abrams limits as a director and his influence, good and bad, on the franchise before. They are also evident in his most pointed comments about The Last Jedi. Abrams said in an interview “I don’t think that people go to Star Wars to be told ‘This doesn’t matter.'” J.J. Abrams is an amazing director. He’s ridiculously successful. Supremely talented. He also does not understand the concept of meta.
There is nothing in The Last Jedi that doesn’t matter. There hasn’t been so much at stake – the character of Luke Skywalker – in a Star Wars film in over thirty years. The film subverts expectations certainly, but it’s not meta. Meta is defined as a creative work referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential. That does sound familiar, though. Abrams comfort and instinct is to echo what he has seen before. Johnson’s is to do the unexpected. Neither has ownership over the series and if Abrams had wanted to ensure his vision, he was given the opportunity to direct all three films.
Markey’s co-editor on The Force Awakens, Maryann Brandon, joined her for the interview. Brandon took a more diplomatic approach, though it echoes some of what we’ve heard before:
“It’s a completely different take on the Star Wars saga. To Ryan’s credit, he stuck to what he wanted to do. He wanted to deconstruct the saga and open it up to go in a different direction. That is the film he made. I know it’s controversial. Isn’t that kind of good in a way? You bring in new elements. That’s why I say I feel very much in hindsight that the trilogy, the last part of the trilogy, needed one vision.”
That last bit about needing one vision – that’s true. The sequel trilogy does suffer from a clash in visions, one that may have been exacerbated had Colin Trevorrow remained at the helm of Episode IX. But Abrams declined – understandably – to direct all three films. Johnson was evidently more interested in developing his own trilogy and corner of the Star Wars galaxy than directing the next film in line. Kathleen Kennedy’s approach, right or wrong, has been to gather up as much talent as she possibly can to make these films.
Without George Lucas, Star Wars lacks a coherent vision. There is a sense of what Star Wars should be – Kathleen Kennedy regularly jettisons those who don’t share it – but no singular creative vision or impulse. This is likely to be the state of things for the foreseeable future unless someone graduates to the role of creative director. A lot of people imagine Dave Filoni or even Kevin Feige in that role, but with the possible exception of Filoni, whose creative investment in Star Wars is fundamental, it’s hard to imagine another George Lucas. The franchise is now disconnected from its artistic intent, and all the remains now is interpretation.
You may not have liked The Last Jedi. I loved it, flaws and all. I’m a big fan of the sequels in general, but I prefer the attempts Johnson made to steer it toward something different from what we’d seen before. It seems from the outside the objection of Mary Jo Markey and J.J. Abrams is that Rian Johnson made them work harder to fit in references to films we’ve seen before. The goal of any filmmaker with Star Wars should be to respect what has come before and realize you are part of a wonderful, privileged legacy. Like the Jedi, you are handing off a legend and a duty to another. A Jedi has no possessions.