Movie trilogies can generally be categorised into two distinct groups. However, The Last Jedi breaks the newest Star Wars trilogy off into uncharted space.
In the first group are those trilogies that consist of three self-contained stories which are only loosely connected, and (usually) weren’t originally intended to be trilogies at all. Examples include:
- The Toy Story trilogy
- The Dark Knight trilogy
- The Godfather trilogy
- The Dollars trilogy
- Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy
- Star Trek II – IV
The second kind is arguably rarer, in which the films were either conceived as a single story spanning three movies right from the beginning, or were refactored as such immediately after the first film became a hit:
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy
- The Hobbit trilogy
- The original Star Wars trilogy
- The Star Wars prequel trilogy
- The Matrix trilogy
- The Back to the Future trilogy
It is inconceivable to imagine that the new Star Wars trilogy (if it is a trilogy – more on that later) wasn’t likewise intended to be the latter. The problem is that Episode 8 achieves the mind-boggling feat of being so slight that hardly anything of any consequence actually happens, while simultaneously wraps up all the loose ends, leaving the last film nowhere to go.
But hey, that’s not Rian Johnson’s problem.
A DVD Extra
On the one hand The Last Jedi feels utterly perfunctory – a big budget dvd extra on the The Force Awakens disk – yet it ends on a note conclusive enough to wrap up the entire saga.
We’re forced to ask: did this story really need to be told at all? And, now that it has been, is there still a need for Episode 9? Weird.
It’s the equivalent of Rian Johnson using up a saga movie to show us the story of Han, Luke and Leia running into the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell. It’s a minor adventure that would’ve worked better as a one-liner from Poe, in the midst of our heroes getting on with the real story:
Poe: “I dunno General Leia, this plan is risky. Remember when we were holed up in that base during the Battle of Crait? We were lucky to make it out alive.”
Leia: “You mean, we were lucky Rey rescued us. She’s going to be a fine Jedi someday, I can feel it. She reminds me of my brother.”
It is background colour, not the main event.
While it’s true that the events of The Empire Strikes Back did little to advance the larger-plot of the Rebels fighting the Empire, but it’s crystal clear why we absolutely needed to see them. Empire showed us the critical moments in the lives of the characters that defined their relationships. We see Leia & Han’s spark of attraction blossom into a love affair; the ‘Mary Sue’-esque Luke Skywalker learned the price of failure as he is left beaten and maimed by his father; secrets are revealed and themes of betrayal and loss permeate the story.
By contrast, in Episode 8 we discover absolutely nothing about our protagonists, and the plot barely advances at all. Sad to say, in terms of the saga, Episode 8 is skippable.
It entirely fails as the middle entry in a trilogy even in the most basic terms of setting up the next movie. I would give Johnson credit for being gutsy enough to break all the rules of narrative, if it weren’t for the fact that he knew he wasn’t going to be making the third movie. That shit is someone else’s problem to figure out: specifically, it’s J.J. Abrams’ problem. Again.
Imagine James Cameron leaving Aliens the way he did if he knew Alien 3 was planned to immediately go into production to complete the story. Indeed, part of the reason why Jonathan Mostow’s 2003 Terminator follow-up T3 was so abysmal was because Cameron’s 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day conclusively ended the series, leaving nowhere to go.
Breaking the Rules
We only have to look at the famous examples cited above to understand the job any middle film is supposed to accomplish. It boils down to this: put the heroes through the wringer, leaving them at their lowest ebb, but still with the faintest glimmer of hope of achieving their ultimate goal (which should be crystal clear to the audience by now).
Will Frodo reach Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring before he’s caught?
Can Bilbo and his friends slay the mighty dragon and restore the Dwarves to their homeland?
Can Luke defeat Darth Vader and the Emperor? Will Han Solo be rescued from Jabba the Hut? Can the Rebel Alliance finally overthrow the Galactic Empire? Will Han and Leia get together at last? Is Darth Vader really Luke’s father?
Will that boy-band-reject somehow become Darth Vader and kill all those boring monk-guys… or something. Will any of the cast learn how to convey a convincing human emotion?
Can Neo destroy the Matrix and free all the trapped slaves, while also saving Zion?
Can Marty McFly rescue Doc Brown from the Old West and restore the timeline to its proper order?
In each example there are clear problems, clear stakes and clear goals. As audience-members we need to know what happens next, and how the story gets resolved. (Or in the case of the prequels, we just need it to be over.)
Now let’s look at where The Last Jedi leaves us: Rey is strong with the Force and is destined to become a Jedi. But then, we already knew that at the end of Episode 7. Finn’s situation is the same: just like at the end of Episode 7 we understand that he has chosen to fight against the First Order. We have also learned more about Poe - rather too much actually. Inexplicably, it seems he is going to be the new leader of the Resistance... whatever. Meanwhile, his opposite number – the equally unlikeable Ben Solo – has also usurped the evil throne to become leader of the First Order. Boo. Hiss. Yawn.
So, what is there left to be done in the Star Wars universe that necessitates yet another movie? Do we need to check in on the Ewoks? Does a second Starkiller Base need blowing up?
There are no romantic tensions left to be resolved (at least, I dearly hope so for all our sakes. Let’s just pretend the icky romantic ‘tension’ so awkwardly hinted at in Episode 8 never happened). Nor are there any doubts about whether Rey will become a Jedi – she continued to connect with the Force as easily in Episode 8 as she did in Episode 7. Not to mention that – one way or another – our beloved original trilogy heroes are all dead now (or just forgotten).
All that’s left is to get to the big battle where the Resistance (or are they Rebels again?) defeats the First Order forces (or are they the Empire again?). Except, that’s definitely not going to happen folks, because Disney still has a few hundred Star Wars movies in the pipeline.
What is Episode 9 actually going to be about? Beats me. Episode 8 is so flimsy I actually can’t think of any way that a satisfying trilogy can be made out of this mess, just by bolting on another film. There’s just too much heavy lifting required.
Good luck J.J. – but something tells me we’ll all be back again in a couple of years for Episode 10.