I went and saw The Last Jedi again last night, and I liked the movie a whole lot more the second time than the first. I thought about why for most of the day before I sat down to write this, and did some reading about other people’s responses to the movie.
My partner asked an excellent question in his second thoughts on The Last Jedi:
It was Force Awakens that crapped all over the originals. That’s the movie that turned Luke Skywalker from the galaxy’s greatest hero into a whiney coward, not The Last Jedi. (It is too bad that The Last Jedi chose to double down on Luke’s change.) Force Awakens is the movie that erased all of Han Solo’s character arc from the originals. The Last Jedi is just following what Force Awakens set up. How can audiences be blaming the second movie for what the first movie did?
I think it’s that bit of perspective that helps me to understand what Rian Johnson actually accomplished with The Last Jedi. Despite the breathless claims to the contrary, Johnson did not “burn down” everything we know about Star Wars, the Force and the Jedi. Instead, he did something much more useful and important. He burned down all of J. J. Abram’s “mystery box” bullshit from The Force Awakens. Remember all of the questions we had two years ago after the ending scene of TFA? “Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Who are Rey’s parents?” Johnson had the answer all along: who fucking cares?
Johnson had to accomplish two huge tasks in one movie. First, he had to deal with all of the nonsense Abrams left him after The Force Awakens, and secondly, he had to move the saga forward to its conclusion in Episode IX. He accomplished the former admirably, revealing Rey’s parents to be no one and taking Snoke out of the picture so that Kylo Ren could come into his own as an active villain and not just some whim of the battle between Light and Dark. However, moving the story forward suffered, and most of the film felt like the Resistance (and the plot overall) was spinning its wheels while Johnson cleaned up Abram’s mess. The Last Jedi was collateral damage from The Force Awakens, and once I realized that Johnson was doing his best after being saddled with a bunch of unanswered questions, I sat back and enjoyed it.
To answer my friend’s question, viewers let The Force Awakens get away with all sorts of ridiculous bullshit because it gave us that warm nostalgic feeling; it was basically A New Hope again. The Last Jedi doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt because it doesn’t shamelessly crib from the past to manipulate the viewers. My friend remarked that it sucked that Admiral Ackbar died offscreen, but I was actually glad about that because he shouldn’t have been in this trilogy in the first place. His role is just a cameo, a nostalgia bone thrown to the hungry masses so that we can wink and nod at each other while adding absolutely nothing to the movie itself. Killing him offscreen is a wonderfully symbolic act of throwing out the manipulative fuzzy feelings of The Force Awakens. That’s what Johnson needed to do with this movie, and he succeeded. That’s why I like it better the second time, because I could actually see what he was going for.
I fear that Johnson’s work will be all for naught though, as Disney has brought back J. J. Abrams to co-write and direct Episode IX. I expect that we’ll see all of Abram’s idiosyncrasies on full display, including a giant mystery box sitting in the middle of his script. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what Johnson can do, unencumbered with his own trilogy.