In March 2016, after three months of careful consideration and impassioned forum activity, I finally gained the clarity to compose my thoughts on The Force Awakens.
It was hard to do. On the one hand I had enjoyed returning to the galaxy, loved the new characters, and thrilled at the lightsaber fights and moments of the score (the remainder of Williams’ work for the film has grown on me immeasurably since). On the other hand I was sorely disappointed with the failure that had befallen the OT cast.
As Han Solo was the focal OT character his failure was the most explicit; a deadbeat absent father who abandoned his duties and returned to a criminal lifestyle after his son turned to evil. It wasn’t subtle. At the time I was astounded by the reception that The Force Awakens received, at least from fans, but found myself firmly in the minority of the wider discussion. People loved Han Solo, people loved the film, and the more prominent criticisms of the story being a rehash of A New Hope (neither entirely accurate nor that big a problem) dominated any discussions about the films’ merits and flaws.
It’s not the subject of this blog article, but I just want to make the point: everything that happened to Han Solo is precisely why the outpouring of anti-The Last Jedi sentiment is so stupid. We already knew that the OT heroes had failed, it was explicit in The Force Awakens. Why people are upset that Luke Skywalker made a terrible mistake and struggled to live with the consequences now, two years after we were told just as much, only goes to show how little attention some actually pay to these films.
Anyway, moving on. As I read more spoilers for The Last Jedi and started to understand the themes at play a little more, I re-watched The Force Awakens in order to refresh my memory and to try and understand it within the new context. Did some moments still grate? Sure. But has The Last Jedi changed my overall opinion of Episode VII?
Absolutely. And here’s my reasoning why…
1. Failure was inevitable
The single most explicit theme running through The Last Jedi is that of failing to learn from the failures of the past. Luke had learned with great personal cost that the very existence of the Jedi Order is enough for an equal force of darkness to rise in opposition, continuing a cycle of destruction that had raged for millennia.
Now, just saying that Luke, Han and Leia’s failure was inevitable isn’t enough to give The Force Awakens a pass; such an approach would be more akin to acceptance rather than understanding. By making this cycle of failure a core structural theme of the entire ST that looks set to be resolved by the new generation (Rey’s vision in the cave points towards this), Lucasfilm has shown that they’re telling a story on the grandest of scales and giving us a true end to the Skywalker saga. The OT heroes only being a part of that story doesn’t make them any less valuable; and in fact, against this context the actions of the characters in The Force Awakens become that much more palatable.
2. Snoke doesn’t matter
Snoke and the First Order, introduced with no backstory in The Force Awakens, became a major point of contention for me. I understood why JJ Abrams wanted to keep things moving forward and not focus on the politics of the saga, but as a sequel it seemed imperative to at least give us the basics of background information. This is where The Last Jedi made it clear that I’d been focusing on the wrong story.
By focusing instead on the overarching cycles of failure and inevitability, it becomes apparent that it doesn’t matter who Snoke or the First Order are; they are entirely interchangeable with any other evil. Understanding this makes the political gulf between the OT and the ST entirely irrelevant, as the concerns of good and evil take centre stage.
Admittedly this approach may not be for everyone. But given the polarities of A New Hope, it’s fair to say that the basic conflict between good and evil is the very essence of Star Wars.
3. Tone counts
Despite noticing that The Force Awakens looked and sounded like the OT, I didn’t give Abrams enough credit for getting the tone of the telling more or less correct. In fact, it took the only real missteps of Johnson’s film to highlight how well Abrams more or less nailed that “Star Wars feeling” with Episode VII.
Beyond fan expectations/entitlement (delete as applicable), the one complaint to really stand firm against The Last Jedi is the overuse of humour. Now, while making fun of Nazis (space based or otherwise) is entirely A-OK, there are some jokes in the film that come at the expense of the overall feeling of the story, particularly during the Battle of Crait. While Abrams may have misfired during the battle at Maz Kanata’s castle, it’s fair to say that he generally captured that hard-to-define Star Wars tone successfully.
Of course, something that you may have considered all along is that it’s impossible for one film to make another one better, as the original film never changes. That’s entirely correct. All that The Last Jedi has done is force me to reconsider my assumptions about the ST in light of the broader story that’s being told. And now that I can see more of the bigger picture, I am well and truly behind what Lucasfilm have planned. It’s with that in mind that I unreservedly apologise to JJ Abrams for being so dismissive of what he managed to achieve with The Force Awakens. Of course I very much doubt he’d ever read this, but at least I’m putting it out there.
If The Last Jedi has disappointed you then I genuinely feel your pain; the year in-between The Force Awakens and Rogue One was horrible for me. Star Wars is in every fibre of my being and I felt entirely left out.
Perhaps the ST just isn’t for you, and as much as that might hurt it’s totally OK. This really is Star Wars for the new generation, and that’s completely fair. I believe Disney will have more films like Rogue One in the pipeline for us older fans in the near future, (and on paper the Kenobi film is the most exciting prospect of all).
However, if you loved The Force Awakens, or if you want to get on board but feel disappointed with The Last Jedi, all I can advise is to look at the story as it is, rather than as you expected it to be. As someone who’s already been through the pain I can promise you this: it’s much better when you strap in and enjoy the ride.