The kitchen-sink approach of the story in Star Wars: The Last Jedi has taken some glancing criticism even if reviews and reactions are mostly positive. The length isn’t necessarily what concerns me as a fan, though. I’m dumbfounded to know what the next writer has left to work with.
Here we go, team: Spoiler alert, because I will be discussing critical plot elements in specific detail.
The Last Jedi was written like a season or even a series finale, leaving no loose ends except Rey and Kylo Ren’s rivalry, and even there I’m not sure what the next step is for either. So a whole lot of whole cloth must be spun for Episode 9. We could see so many new characters that it looks like a trilogy premiere, not a conclusion.
Ostensibly, this is a good thing and an opportunity. But every new concept and character must be supported by the story as much as they are entertaining within it. Those are some pretty big variables for a project that fired its director in September and brought on J.J. Abrams — whose proclivity to work with existing, familiar storytelling parts is well known.
Let’s look at what Rian Johnson left him in the office fridge:
• The Resistance is effectively smashed. How many people do they have, two dozen? That’s some nice gauzy stuff about being a symbol of hope all over the galaxy. But last I checked, the heroes sent out that distress call to their allies across the Outer Rim, and the reply was an interstellar “New phone, who dis?” A writer could set Episode Nine a dozen years into the future to quickly resolve the problem of reconstituting the Resistance and a fleet that can fight a space battle. But that’s restricted by the presence of Kylo Ren and Rey if this is still a story about them.
• Similarly, Rey’s alignment is effectively decided. Snoke is dead, so the bad guy who could manipulate or crush her will, is gone. And not only was Snoke the more powerful bad guy, he was the most powerful bad guy. Rey and Kylo Ren have already duked it out to a stalemate twice. They are mortal enemies. Not only would she no longer, plausibly, listen to any appeal to join the Dark Side, I don’t understand why Kylo Ren would want to make one now. Besides, his offer was more to run the galaxy than join a group of spooky Force-users.
• Luke is dead, and if he’s available for duty, it’s pinch-hitting as a Force ghost only. Leia is gone because of Carrie Fisher’s untimely death. Han is out of the picture. These folks were already being rotated out (in sensible ways, too) but there’s now no chance to go back to the Original Trilogy well. (Chewbacca and the droids largely function for aesthetic familiarity.)
• Of the major characters (not droids or comedy relief) we have Poe, Finn, Rose and Hux. I’m at a loss to explain what the clear goal is now for any of them. Poe has literally been a seat-of-the-pants inclusion; he was supposed to die in The Force Awakens until a late change was made. There appears to be a budding romance, or at least very strong feelings, between Finn and Rose, and that’s nice, but they have to make that journey together in pursuit of something. Where are they headed? All we have is this vague idea they’re all going to reconstitute a Rebellion that currently has no spacefighting force.
• Just about every set piece or action theme was used up in an overindulgent sequence of climactic moments. Monolithic evil dude destroyed. Giant space weapon destroyed (by a killer idea). Ground assault. Hot pursuit. Desperate attempt to find someone. Infiltration of the enemy base. Horrible secret revealed. Big saber duel. It’s not say these can never be reused. But if you thought J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens has a sameness problem, wait until he sends another lone vessel against an enormous cruiser.
This is, admittedly, the pessimist in me speaking up. But I’m anxious, because looking back on the Original Trilogy — three stories that told a story in concert — I remember components in each film that were present in the earliest drafts of George Lucas’ scripts for “The Star Wars.” A chase through an asteroid field. A city in the clouds. Fuzzy animals battling high technology. They all had different writers and directors, sure, but they were working off a larger text with some idea of how things should resolve.
I get no such feeling from the story arc of this trilogy, and a middle act should not leave so much ambiguity. It’s good that The Last Jedi did not mimic The Empire Strikes back as The Force Awakens did A New Hope. But at the end of Empire, I knew what the goals were: Rescue Han, confront Vader. Even with Kylo Ren and Rey due for round three, I don’t see one clear purpose coming out of The Last Jedi, much less two.