What J.J. Abrams Needs to Learn From The Last Jedi: 4 Don'ts and 1 Do
Star Wars made me into an obsessive nerd. Sure, it wasn't my first foray into nerdom but it was the first nerdy thing to ignite my passion. Space was cool, Star Wars was wondrous. The characters, the designs, the sounds, the sheer epic scale of watching a moon-sized space station become the horizon, it's magical. I have loved Star Wars for the vast majority of my life and like any long-lasting love I've had my share of heartbreak. The prequels were an absolute mess. Yes, the Prequel Memes Reddit page has given an audience a different sort of appreciation for those films but let's face it, they are easy to meme because they were incompetently scripted and directed.
Don't care. I love Star Wars and there were and are a bunch of moments in even the Prequels that are fun. Clone Wars the miniseries and later the Clone Wars CGI program were both excellent. Rebels were oodles of fun. The Force Awakens was a return to form that at once caught us up but also left us with burning questions and a renewed sense of excitement. Solo was a surprisingly fun jaunt despite a few lore inconsistencies. And then we hit The Last Jedi.
I admit I'm one of those people that enjoyed The Last Jedi despite its problems. But I also recognize that the film has a LOT of problems. While it never quite hits the halting stiltedness of the Prequels, almost a third of it is either tacked on, useless, illogical, or tone deaf. Abrams is back in the director's chair and he has a very divided community he needs to try to appease. So here's a few missteps from The Last Jedi he should be looking out for, but more importantly, the biggest achievement from The Last Jedi that needs to be kept.
Don't Introduce New Characters: Look I'm all for representation and I routinely subject what I watch and listen to, to the Furiosa Test (does it make whiny piss boys on the internet cry?) because if we want to live in a society as equals, we need to represent our societies as being so in our inspirational fiction. That being said, your characters should serve an actual purpose or else it just feels like pandering and worst of all, it gives the whiny piss boys a credible example they can turn to. Why would you introduce Admiral Holdo after killing off Admiral Ackbar? To have someone that the audience wouldn't trust so we would be rooting for Po/ giving him something to do? Same goes for Rose and the Slicer. All three of these characters serve exactly one purpose: to be a foil for the main character to grow off of. Po is supposed to learn to follow orders and think tactically while Finn is shown the two paths that he stands at the crossroads on. These characters don't actually advance the plot at all, they were introduced JUST so that Po and Finn could have a bit of character development. My question is, why couldn't this be accomplished with characters we already have? Ackbar would have been an amazing mentor to Po and Finn not being sure of his place because the Resistance fighters around him being distrustful of a Stormtrooper while they are being tracked and cornered could have served as a great catalyst for his arc. New characters are only well received if they are meaningful to the plot and narrative as a whole. We respected Ackbar because we saw him both plan and lead the naval assault against the Second Death Star. We don't remember Dax because, well, he wasn't needed. We rejected Holdo and Rose because their actions didn't make sense and they added nothing to the plot.
Don't Redeem Kylo Ren: Ben Solo is dead. That was the point of The Force Awakens. The test to see if he could sever the meaningful ties to his old life and truly give himself to the Dark Side. His hesitation to kill Leia was, in my view, a mistake since he should be fully lost to the Dark Side. This makes for something we haven't seen explored in Star Wars. A Dark Side user who actively chooses to be that. He admits to being a monster to Rey and refuses to leave the First Order or the path he's chosen for himself. That's the makings of a cool villain and it would be a disservice to his choices and character arc for two films to reverse that decision. But what about Vader's decades as a Sith you ask? Vader's redemption made sense because that was the goal for Luke's story. In order for Luke to become a Jedi, his final trial was to face Vader in the right way. Vader's redemption only became part of Anakin Skywalker's story with the introduction of the Prequel Trilogy's prophecy but even then, it was the destiny promised to him. Kylo Ren doesn't fit either of these examples. Rey is a far more independent and self-motivated Jedi than Luke was and there's nothing that hints at Ben Solo being some sort of messianic figure. His choice to be evil is interesting and central to his character.
Don't Pick Up Where the Last Film Left Off: The narrative advantage of the years between each film of the Original Trilogy allowed the universe to progress and change. We could get a sense of the actions of our heroes having some sort of impact and we were readily willing to accept newer character traits as off-screen growth. The ending of The Force Awakens pretty well cemented the need for The Last Jedi to start the way it did but as a result, most of the issues people had with the characters remained unchanged. Whatever credit Kylo Ren had been building up over the course of the film was pretty well wiped out by his tantrum moments after he deposed Snoke. A time jump of a few years would go a long way, allowing a more threatening and competent Kylo Ren to come to the fore while Rey uses the sacred Jedi texts to grow stronger and the Resistance rebuilds itself. You can use this as a building point by doing a soft reboot of certain characters the way the Luke we get through the original trilogy is different in each film as he grows between films.
Don't Have A Wider Message: Entertainment media is a great place to get a lot of eyes and ears paying attention to particular issues affecting our world. Star Wars is NOT the property to do that through. The Star Wars franchise has always been at its strongest when it's just a fun adventure story, that's all the original films were. Remember how much fun we had in Episode One with the critique of bureaucracy preventing meaningful and swift action? How about the attractive ideas around authoritarianism or the frustrations of the disenfranchised in Attack of the Clones? Episode Three is well remembered for its messages about charisma's threat to democracy and how points of view can alter the perceived morality of actions. Just like how The Last Jedi is beloved for its stance against war-profiteering and idolizing an imperfect past. It's not that the messages aren't something that bears talking about, it's that this isn't the stage for that discussion. Wimbledon knows not to host Presidential debates, Star Wars should know to be a fun adventure and leave culture commentary at the door.
Do keep Rey's Origin: Yes, I'm serious and I think it's the single best thing from The Last Jedi. It's the one idea that foils so perfectly with key themes and characters and it's perfectly presented in The Last Jedi. Let me explain. When Luke went to Dagobah, the thing that was constantly holding him back in his training was his ingrained ideas to counter force with force. He pulls a gun on Yoda, tries to brute force his X-Wing and is consistently questioning or second-guessing Yoda. His trial in the cave is a reflection of that and how his penchant towards violence will see him fall to the Dark Side. This pays off in the next film as Palpatine and Vader are able to so easily goad him to violence, leading Luke to nearly kill his father and fall to the Dark Side. The Dark Side challenges Luke in the cave by showing him his efforts will eventually serve the very darkness he is fighting against.
Now let's look at Rey. She is utterly convinced that there is more to her story than just being a scrapper in the wastes of Jakku and that her parents/wider family are the key to that. She mentions in The Last Jedi that she's always felt the Force within her bubbling beneath the surface but now that she's connected to it, she doesn't know what to do. This ties back to her family line since it MUST mean that she comes from something much bigger. But then Kylo tells her the truth and she admits what she's always known. She comes from a pair of drunkards already dead and buried in the very sands she grew up in. Her sequence in the cave reflects this. The copies of herself backward and forwards endlessly and breaking down when she just sees herself in the mirror. Her trial is that it's just her. She has immense power but it's not BECAUSE of anything beyond the Force manifesting within her. The flaw in her that the Dark Side exploits in the cave is that she can't accept herself as being enough. That's pretty fantastic.
I love this because that's in line with what we know about the Force. That it affects everyone. Take away the Jesus analogy with Anakin and he was literally a slave in the middle of nowhere. Several members of the Jedi Council came from humble beginnings. That's the point of the final scene with the slave boy who uses the Force to fetch his broom and the point that Luke was trying to make. That the Jedi became conceited to think that they held a monopoly or even a perfect understanding of the Force. It exists and lives in all living things. Rey being so in need to belong to something bigger was willing to go back to Jakku and waste her real potential. As a character flaw, that's pretty great and makes for cool opportunities for her to grow. We can all name protagonists who worry that they aren't strong enough to do what needs to be done. How many protagonists could you name who feel unworthy to wield the power they have?
This also makes her an interesting foil to Ben Solo. Rey actively lionizes the past even when confronted by the harsh truths of Han's failures as a father and his return to being a smuggler/con-artist as well as Luke laying out the repeated arrogance and failures of the very past that is so beloved to her. But she shouldn't be the inheritor of that legacy; it should be Ben. By the end of The Last Jedi, Ben's character arc has taken him from wanting to emulate Vader to hating the cyclical nature of history. Tear down what once was and build something truly new. Stop chaining yourself to the powers and expectations of the past; erase it if you have to. He is as powerful as he is because of the very past he rejects while the girl from nothing is the one strong enough to challenge him. That inversion is an interesting dynamic.
In the end, this is just my take. As I said before, I enjoyed a lot of the ideas bouncing around in The Last Jedi but I am well aware of the many, many failures of that film and the Star Wars franchise as a whole. The things that I love about Star Wars, my interpretation of its characters and events and the directions I hope it takes is based largely on what appeals to me personally. If you disagree, that's fine. At the end of the day, we just have to hope, wait and see what comes next. At least we know that that they are using some real sets.