The Last Jedi has had quite the journey over its first week. It was anointed the boldest Star Wars movie ever before it came out. Initial reviews tabbed it as groundbreaking and “maybe the best Star Wars movie ever!” However, people began to notice a strange trend emerging. While the blockbuster had scored a 93% with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score on the site was a paltry 55%. This led to rumors (even articles) attributing these reviews to a targeted campaign by everyone from original Star Wars fans still living in their basements to the Alt-Right. But as more audience members came away underwhelmed, it was clear that the latest Star Wars movie had problems.
How big those problems are depends on who you talk to. But it’s concerning that even the people who liked the film hated the Canto Bight plot line, which took up an entire fifth of the movie. One place to measure a film’s success is at the box office. The Star Wars franchise is hard to judge since they’re big enough to hit 500 million even with a bad film. But The Last Jedi is an enormous 170 million dollars behind The Force Awakens over the same period of time (first 11 days).
If the box office continues to fall at this rate, Disney will need to make a hard decision. They’ll either have to paint the film as divisive and cling to the narrative that the original trilogy’s second film was divisive as well. Or they’ll need to make a public apology about the way this film was handled, particularly with what they did to Luke Skywalker.
This statement may sound ridiculous. But if you alienate the hard core fans of your franchise, which The Last Jedi has done, there’s going to be a trickle-down effect. When the most vocal cheerleaders of your franchise begin cheering for its demise, it’s an indication that you did something wrong. This happened with both Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman and the result has left hundreds of millions of dollars on the table.
I’m still flummoxed by what Rian Johnson did with this film. He claims to be a huge Star Wars fan and yet nothing about his film speaks to that. He actively blows up all the major plot threads JJ put forth. And he handles Luke in a way that’s almost vindictive. Luke spends the entire film being bitter, avoids a final fight with the film’s villain, then dies alone. The indie film lover – the hard core cinephile who loves being challenged – gets high on choices like this. But the majority of Star Wars fans and moviegoers aren’t interested in “artistic street cred” choices. They just want a good Star Wars movie.
Rian Johnson isn’t completely to blame here. He’s pointed out in his interviews that Kathleen Kennedy let him do “whatever he wanted.” There was no “white board” with “all of the story beats laid out.” He had carte blanche. This is terrible management on Kennedy’s part. The second story of a trilogy is supposed to build on established plotlines from Film 1 and build towards an impending climax in Film 3. It’s arguable that The Last Jedi does neither. And if we’re to believe that what Rian Johnson is saying is true – that Kennedy didn’t give him any parameters – that’s a devastating indictment on Star Wars’s overseer, as it’s one of her primary jobs. That mistake has made the third story in this trilogy almost untellable.
To understand how to tell the middle chapter of a trilogy properly, one doesn’t need to look far. In The Empire Strikes Back, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan builds up two major story threads by the end of his film. The first is that Han Solo has been captured and therefore needs to be rescued. The second is, will Luke defeat Darth Vader (and the Emperor)? In other words, Kasdan made sure his second film BUILT up two important questions that would make Return of the Jedi worth going to.
I’ve realized something about Johnson and it’s the primary reason we’re stuck in this predicament. He hates “mystery” or “question-based” storytelling. We saw this in the way he handled Force Awaken’s two major mysteries (Snoke and Rey’s parents), but you can also see it in the way he answers questions. One of the earliest mysteries fans gleefully speculated on was The Last Jedi title. Who was the “last Jedi?” Was it Luke? Was it Rey? Or, wait, wasn’t “Jedi” plural? Was it referring to multiple Jedi? When Johnson was finally asked this question, he shrugged out a, “Oh, it’s Luke,” the way a bully might march into your basketball game, take the ball, and boot it over the fence. Johnson has zero interest in the mystery/question storytelling form. And that’s fine. Every artist is entitled to their own style. But when the film you followed was built almost exclusively on that style, it’s confusing to the audience. This is something Kennedy should’ve kept closer tabs on.
All of this leads us to Episode 9, which has now become, if not the most difficult-to-write screenplay ever, definitely in the Top 5. You could go insane trying to figure out where the story should even start. Some people believe we’ll solve the problem of Johnson’s dramatically inert ending by jumping forward in time. Maybe pop in 5 years from now when Kylo has become as imposing as Vader and Rey is a Master Jedi. But would that work? The only thing The Last Jedi got right was the budding relationship between the two (whatever that relationship might be). You’re going to stop that cold and put five years in between their last meeting and this one? Not to mention you jumped between the first and second film instantaneously. Wouldn’t it feel jarring if, between the second and third film, we jumped ahead 5 years?
While the relationship between Kylo and Rey is interesting, it doesn’t have a story-friendly arc. The cool thing about Empire was that Luke was an ultimate underdog taking on two giants who couldn’t be beaten. But Rey is already a better fighter than Kylo. So there’s zero suspense in whether she’ll defeat him or not. I’m sure if Rian was making the third film, this wouldn’t concern him at all. He’d be more interested in Rey’s and Kylo’s internal struggles while they fought. That’s great for Sundance. But in a real Star Wars movie, we need suspense. We need to doubt that our hero will defeat the villain. Since The Last Jedi squashes that opportunity, I’m not sure what the audience is supposed to look forward to.
You could lay all the suspense on the Rebels vs. First Order plot. There’s a clear underdog in that scenario. But there are major challenges with that story as well. JJ can no longer use a super-weapon as a major plot device. It would’ve been nice, with the limitations on the character side, if we had a big weapon to alleviate some of that plot burden. But JJ used up the last super-weapon in the Star Wars bag on Force Awakens. So there’s no central “thing” to destroy anymore.
On top of this, Episode 9 has the task of explaining why two entire movies have gone by where the hero has become a trained Jedi without any training. And this is where Johnson’s and Kennedy’s mis-management has really placed the trilogy in a bind. There’s no question that Rey was related to a previous Star Wars Jedi in JJ’s version. That’s how he could explain Rey being as powerful as Kylo. With Johnson making Rey’s parents nobodies, it invalidates that reasoning, which means JJ has to come up with a new reason why Rey is so powerful without training. As a result we’re going to get some clunky explanation that will undo everything Rian set up, who ironically undid everything JJ set up. Watching these three movies in succession is going to be really jarring.
Where does that leave Episode 9? Is there any way to salvage the trilogy? Don’t get me wrong. I’d take the 7 figure check to give it the old college try in a heartbeat. But I don’t envy the job that JJ and Chris Terrio have. Here’s my best guess at where they’ll take it…
Episode 9’s opening crawl will alert us that a year has passed, enough time to fill out some of the Rebel ranks. On the character side, Kylo will be ruling the galaxy with reckless abandon, attempting to take over every planet in sight. He wants to do more than Vader did. And he’s gone even more nuts than Vader was in trying to accomplish that goal.
But Kylo will be lonely. His mentor is now half-and-half. His nemesis astral-projected himself to death. His parents are both goners. Which is why he’s consumed with getting Rey to join him. For this storyline to work, there’s only one place for JJ to go. Kylo and Rey have to be brother and sister. It’s going to be a miserable bout of exposition explaining how this happened (why her parents ditched her, or if Leia had a child with someone else once Han left), but it’s the only way this trilogy can be wrapped up nicely. Kylo and Rey need to be siblings.
Meanwhile, Poe and Finn (who’s hopefully left Rose in the trash compactor) travel to a planet known for having fierce but morally questionable fighters. They need soldiers to take down the First Order and they’ve come here to try and convince this planet to join the cause. They’ll have some adventures on this planet and eventually convince the people to come help. Yippee dee, the Rebels have an army again.
Now we have to destroy the First Order somehow. We don’t have a Death Star as an option. Trying to destroy an entire fleet of ships is too logistically complicated and wouldn’t play well. So I’m thinking that the goal will be to infiltrate the First Order’s base planet – wherever that is – and destroy it. This will mean coming up with an elaborate plan that will require pin-point execution from all our beloved characters: back in ground control, in the air, and inside the First Order headquarters.
That’s the plot I’m expecting. But what is the plot that I want? Here’s the way I see it. You don’t need to honor anything Rian Johnson did since he sure as heck didn’t honor your story. Kathleen Kennedy can’t fire you under any circumstances. You’ve always been tabbed as the “big idea” guy who can’t answer questions, only ask them. Why not make Star Wars Episode 9 your big bad JJ Abrams experiment?
Make it 3 hours long. Not just cause that’d be nuts. But because it’s needed. You have to spend the first hour undoing most of what Johnson did then build up a whole new set of circumstances to play out. Bring in a new villain. That’s insane to do this late in the game but remember, you’re proving that JJ can be just as experimental as Rian. And make him badass. Give us Darth Maul but with more meat. Then, of course, make the Knights of Ren a major part of the plot. Maybe they’re out there scouring the galaxy for more Jedi for Kylo to train. I don’t know. Next we need more aliens in key roles. All the key characters now are played by humans. We need new good aliens, like Chewbacca. And new bad aliens, like Jabba. Get some bounty hunters in there. The Rebels have no choice but to hire them. That should be cool. And just get weird. I mean, who cares at this point? The rule of thumb now is make whatever movie you want. You might as well take advantage of that. And there’s nothing more that I’d like to see than unhinged balls-to-the-wall JJ. Sign me up!