THE LAST JEDI Didn’t Break STAR WARS. It Saved It.

Will a week ever go by where we aren’t talking about The Last Jedi? The eighth film in the main Star Wars saga came out two years ago, and yet it’s routinely the subject of mass hysteria on social media. Is it overrated or underrated? Did writer/director Rian Johnson break the franchise or shatter blockbuster storytelling boundaries? Was it a healthy thing for the fandom or a sign that it’s beyond repair; littered with folks who don’t know what they want, bolstered by a company that doesn’t understand its power?

The release of The Rise of Skywalker, the final film in the episodic franchise, is almost here and with it comes another refresh on The Last Jedi discourse. But this time, a lot of it’s coming from Star Wars cast members and creatives. In a recent New York Times profile, director J.J. Abrams–who kicked off the sequel trilogy with The Force Awakens and returns for Rise–spoke of the divisive Jedi. “It’s a bit of a meta approach to the story,” he told the paper. “I don’t think that people go to Star Wars to be told, ‘This doesn’t matter.’”

Elsewhere, actors Daisy Ridley and John Boyega expressed relief that Abrams was back. In the Times profile, Ridley said she cried at the news he’d return, because of the safety he provides on set. Boyega had a more pointed reaction: “Even as a normal person in the audience, I wanted to see where that story was going,” he said, referring to the story Abrams set up in The Force Awakens, and that was–in his opinion–thrown for a loop in Jedi. In a separate interview with Hypebeast, Boyega said he disagreed with a lot of the choices in The Last Jedi and said the movie felt “iffy” to him.

John Boyega as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.Lucasfilm

Abrams and the actors are certainly entitled to their opinions, but the specific way these quotes are angled seems intentional on the eve of The Rise of Skywalker. They feel like another one of Disney’s controlled marketing narratives to both have their Star Wars cake and eat it too.

The Force Awakens marketing put a lot of emphasis on the film’s use of “real sets” and “practical effects,” distinguishing it from George Lucas’s prequel trilogy while quietly throwing it under the bus. A “making of” documentary on the film’s Blu-ray never once mentions Harrison Ford’s unfortunate onset accident, one that derailed the production for months and forced major rewrites. The non-saga Star Wars films all faced serious behind-the-scenes troubles that were promptly swept under a rug. The Disney era of Star Wars, like most things Disney, prefers the denial approach to controversy. Reference it subtly, if at all, and move on.

Boilerplate answers from cast and crew during press interviews for The Rise of Skywalker maintain another narrative: That The Last Jedi didn’t derail Abrams’ masterplan, but the choices weren’t ones that he’d make. The repeated adage that Episode IX is an ensemble piece–emphasizing the relationship between Rey, Finn, and Poe–feels like a backhanded dig at Jedi, which kept the trio apart. “It was hard for all of us, because we were separated,” Boyega told Hypebeast of filming The Last Jedi.

Rey, Poe, and Finn in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.Lucasfilm

It’s a fair point. The Rise of Skywalker marks the first time the three main heroes will interact as a core group. But that isn’t the fault of The Last Jedi or Rian Johnson, and framing it as such feels misguided. The Force Awakens also kept those characters apart. They’ve never functioned as a trio or been set up as one. Rian Johnson inherited a host of cliffhangers and half-finished arcs in The Last Jedi that Abrams teed up in The Force Awakens. Abrams separated Rey from the main group, teased and obfuscated her lineage, left Finn in a coma without a pledge to the Resistance, never set up the state of the galaxy post-Return of the Jedi, plopped Snoke into the plot without any context, and put Luke into isolation. “Luke felt responsible,” Han Solo says of Luke’s disappearance in The Force Awakens. “He just walked away from everything.”

Johnson’s film took all of those dangling threads and weaved them into a beautiful story, one that demonstrably provoked a fandom a little too obsessed with idol-worshipping. It didn’t smear the legacy of characters so much as it deepened and matured them. It made them better. Leia’s loss of faith and Luke’s restoration of that hope–for her and for a galaxy–cracked open a universe of possibility. One that undercut the notion that the Force makes you inherently “important” and made Star Wars even more for everyone than originally envisioned.

Abrams critiquing the “meta” qualities of The Last Jedi feels backwards in a few vital ways. First, it insinuates that The Force Awakens wasn’t meta, even though it’s literally the story of a new generation of Luke Skywalker-worshipping Rebel wannabes implanted into a fantasy adventure stocked with recognizable characters and totems. That’s about as metatextual as it gets.

It also suggests that Johnson somehow compromised or undermined Abrams’ own vague world-building, when he never made clearly-defined choices in the first place. He outlined a trilogy, walked away, then returned with a simmering wave of internet vitriol that could either be eradicated or weaponized to sell the next product.

Rose Tico and Finn in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.Lucasfilm

The Times comments are soft enough that you can read them both ways. But the disappointing aspect comes from the coded commentary, and the things left unsaid. None of the promotion contends with the truly vile things happening in the fandom. Their own costar Kelly Marie Tran was bullied off social media and publicly derided by so-called fans after The Last Jedi. Boyega spent most of his screentime with Tran, so his vocal dissatisfaction with the group separation sounds like an added dig at her–a way to validate those bad fans’ mean-spirited rants, even if it’s unintentional. Likewise, others have been on the receiving end of targeted hate, death threats, rage campaigns, and personal attacks for simply liking things about The Last Jedi and expressing that fandom online.

No one is saying dissent is a bad thing. Healthy debate is necessary. The actors don’t have to love the movies they star in. But it’s all about presentation. Loading a New York Times profile with coded disses at The Last Jedi a week before The Rise of Skywalker comes out isn’t even a smart way to sell your movie. It makes the entire franchise look retroactively weaker, and it sets up major questions about what the sequel trilogy is even about. Will The Rise of Skywalker feel like a real movie, or just a checklist of ways to cater to backlash? Will it walk back the important themes of The Last Jedi–especially Rey’s realization that legacy doesn’t define her–just to satisfy some quota? Is Palpatine back just to woo the fans uncomfortable with a more challenging villain like Kylo?

It’s impossible say without seeing it. And it’s impossible to know what the future of Star Wars will be, regardless of how the film plays. The smart play for Disney is to listen to the wisdom put forth in The Last Jedi about how to rebuild–to make something new for the next generation of could-be fans. Something less obsessed with idols of the past than the awe and intrigue of worlds yet undiscovered. “We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda tells Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. “That is the true burden of all masters.” It’s time for Star Wars to grow beyond.

Featured Image: Lucasfilm 

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