[Spoilers for The Last Jedi ahead.]
Back in my initial review of The Last Jedi, I predicted that the reaction to the movie would be divisive. I personally loved it, but it was unlike other Star Wars movies and I just kind of suspected the reaction would be similar to that of The Empire Strikes Back, which was not beloved upon release. (I tweeted Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review and a lot of the complaints he had about Empire are similar to the complaints we are hearing about The Last Jedi.)
Rian Johnson is a very different filmmaker than J.J. Abrams and watching these two go back and forth between Star Wars movies is extremely interesting. In The Force Awakens, Abrams did what Abrams does and introduced a lot of mysteries. Who are Rey’s parents? Who is Snoke? Then Johnson comes along and doesn’t care about any of that, basically destroying all of these questions with a sledgehammer. I mean, there’s even a scene where Snoke calls Kylo Ren’s helmet stupid looking, leading Kylo Ren to just smash it to pieces. I can now picture Abrams, somewhere, muttering, “Well, I thought it was kind of nifty looking.”
Also, I look forward to Abram’s passive-aggressive title crawl for Episode IX:
THE LAST JEDI WAS A DREAM
ROSE is dead. The PORGS are all dead. That crystal fox thing you liked so much? It’s dead, too. REY wakes up from her FORCE DREAM to see the now real LUKE SKYWALKER standing right in front of her…
Now, what I didn’t expect was that so many people would actually care about these mysteries. This is a new phenomenon because Star Wars was never about mysteries. Oh, sure, I remember the internet in 1999 — I remember the dumb theories like Kitster, Anakin’s buddy on Tatooine, was actually Boba Fett — but these were never real things. The movies didn’t set that kind of stuff up.
Oh, yeah, I can hear you right now, “Um, what about the reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back”? Yes, that was a huge surprise. But the reason it was a huge surprise is because no one was expecting a surprise. When the original Star Wars ended, there was no mystery about who Luke’s father was. It was pretty clear that Luke’s father was a Jedi who was betrayed and murdered by Ben Kenobi’s pupil, Darth Vader. And the reason this was accepted was that, at the time, it was true.
In Leigh Brackett’s original script for The Empire Strikes Back, Luke’s father appears to him as a Force ghost. It wasn’t until George Lucas rewrote her script (it didn’t work for many reasons, I wrote a whole thing about that first script a few of years ago) that Vader became Luke’s father. It was a shocking twist because we weren’t spoon-fed that there would be a shocking twist. Johnson revealing Rey’s parents are nobodies is about as shocking a thing that could have been done with that storyline and he should get a whole heap of credit for doing that. (Though, I suppose if it were revealed that Watto was her father, that would have been surprising.)
Of course, Empire ends on a cliffhanger, but that’s different than a mystery. The only true mystery in Empire was Yoda’s almost throwaway line about there being “another” as Luke flies off to Cloud City. It was never harped on, just a quick little thing. And at the time, it was pretty much confirmed that this “other” was going to be the protagonist of George Lucas’ versions of Episodes VII, VIII and IX. Then when Lucas decided he didn’t want to do a sequel trilogy, he shoehorned Leia into being the “another” as Luke’s sister, which was never supposed to be a thing.
And the prequels are the antithesis to mystery, almost to a fault. Looking back at those movies, it’s pretty remarkable that Lucas wrote and directed three movies where the same dude is in charge of both the good guys and the bad guys and every battle is essentially meaningless. Not just that, but to actually show us in the first few minutes of The Phantom Menace that Palpatine is controlling both sides is kind of insane. If anything deserved a big reveal later, it might have been that: the mystery of who is in charge of the Separatists. Instead, we knew all along and we had to wait for all the dumb Jedi to figure it out. (Those are not good movies.)
On a slightly different point, at least at first, Mark Hamill didn’t love the direction Rian Johnson took Luke Skywalker, telling Vanity Fair earlier this year, “I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character. Now, having said that, I have gotten it off my chest, and my job now is to take what you’ve created and do my best to realize your vision.”
Do you want to know who else Hamill didn’t love working with all the time? Irvin Kershner, who directed everyone’s favorite Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back.
When I spoke to Hamill back in January, I asked him about this. Specifically, if it was true that Kershner would frustrate him. Hamill replied, “He did. Listen, as opposed to George, George is more technical and he doesn’t really want to talk about motivation and backstory and that kind of thing. Kershner was much more of an actor’s director and we were both very headstrong and opinionated. So I think what he’s referring to is that we butted heads a couple of times over interpretation or whatever it was. And I’d say, ‘Well, fine. I’ll do it your way, but I’m not happy about it and I think you’re wrong.’ But I loved him and I think he appreciated the fact that I was opinionated and engaged, because that’s the relationship of a director and an actor, to collaborate like that.”
I am going to repeat a line for emphasis, “Well, fine. I’ll do it your way, but I’m not happy about it and I think you’re wrong.” This is exactly the kind of thing he said about Johnson!
So what Johnson did was bring us back to what the Original Trilogy did so well: focus on the characters we love. There was no mystery to be solved; we all just loved Han, Luke, and Leia. Johnson obviously loves the characters he loves, and he took great strides in getting the most out of them just like Kershner did with Empire. And, heck, he even mustered the same complaints from Mark Hamill, so he must be doing something right.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.