The Force Awakens relaunched the Star Wars franchise. It was a typically smooth JJ Abrams soft reboot. Visually spectacular and occasionally conceptually ridiculous – I’m talking ludicrous mega-Death-Stars – it set the scene for the two that were to follow. This was to be the long awaited final trilogy of George Lucas’s extended saga. A hallmark of JJ is his hanging questions, the intrigues with which he peppers his narratives. The Force Awakens didn’t disappoint. We were left wondering: what was the story behind Luke’s blue Lightsaber? Where did Supreme Leader Snoke come from? Who are Rey’s parents? Why was Rey counting down the days on a desolate planet? Why she was so good at fighting with a lightsaber – to the point where she bested Kylo Ren?
The Force Awakens left us asking these questions, but it did more. It moved the story on considerably from the Return of the Jedi. There had been large space battles raging across the universe, the detritus of which Rey salvaged for a meagre living. The Empire is gone, as is the Rebelion. Instead we have the Resistance and the New Order. The two having reached some form of balance, as the one gained in strength and the other weakened. To the point at which we see the New Order fleeing from the Resistance during The Force Awakens. The New Order goes even goes so far as to acknowledge this weakness, sighting it as the reason for creating their preposterous Death-Star-planet-thing.
This was the order of the new universe when we arrived at the next installment, The Last Jedi. When Rey hands Luke the had won blue lightsaber from The Force Awakens, Luke takes one look at it and promptly throws it away. This symbolic of new director Rian Johnson’s attitude to The Force Awakens in general. Suddenly the Resistance are wildly outnumbered by the New Order, any questions that were raised in The Force Awakens are promptly dismissed – not answered, just dismissed. Rey is good with a lightsaber, just because. We had found her on a planet counting down the days, because her drunken parents ditched her there. Blue lightsaber, what lightsaber? Supreme Leader Snoke…gone. Even Kylo Ren’s distinctive headpiece is quickly destroyed.
The problem is that Rian Johnson wanted to write a sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. He didn’t want to respond to JJ Abram’s Force Awakens. Johnson fails to engage with the plot of Force Awakens, he axes whole story threads that don’t suit his vision and he resets the Star Wars universe and timeline in his own fashion. Star Wars is suffering from the fact that there is no story, no one person has an overview of the narrative, directors are able to plump the story out in whichever direction they choose.
Supporters the the new Star Wars film claim that the Last Jedi is not afraid to deviate from traditional storytelling, what I see is a director scratching out story lines he is uninterested in and starting again. Presumably now JJ Abrams will take up the story and remove those interests Rian Johnson has introduced that he is unhappy with. All of this offers no reward to the repeated viewer. Why did I sit through the Force Awakens, and engage with the premise of that story, only to watch the Last Jedi and see those threads swiftly severed or reinterpreted.
This is not to say that the Last Jedi is necessarily bad, it is just to say that the franchise is suffering from the absence of its maker. One thing that George Lucas is excellent at is providing an enduring concept behind his films. Why would they not have taken George Lucas’s original framework for the films and get fresh young talent to weave visually extraordinary story telling around his structure?
George Lucas could have been brought in to oversee the broad story and then we they would have someone with irrefutable authority overseeing the broader narrative. As it is, what we are seeing is JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson write and then rewrite each others’ work. This kind of franchise cinema resembles a long running television series more than is does Star Wars’ origins. Disney have famously thrown out George Lucas’ original vision of this final trilogy. If we are going to create that trilogy, why not tell his story? …Or don’t do that, tell something new within the universe, but leave his story untouched. Also hand a supervising vision to one of the directors and have them oversee the narrative. Marvel have done this successfully in the form of Kevin Feige. This doesn’t have to be a dictatorship, ideas from individual directors can be embraced, but it does mean that ultimately there is somebody answerable to the story that is being told.
We have seen where this form of storytelling leads and it looks like one of JJ Abrams’ earlier projects, Lost. The story thread become increasingly tangled. It becomes more and more far fetched, and ultimately we find a weird time-traveling absurdism, which is far removed from what initially made it compelling. It’s not storytelling, it becomes tangled adlib which ultimately falls over itself. The Star Wars prequels were poorly realised visions of George Lucas’s universe. This trilogy is very well executed, but has no comprehensive vision at all.