Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker finally realizes George Lucas’s mythically long-held plan for a nine-film saga that once felt like a pipe dream. Yet, while that film has Sequel Trilogy-launching helmer J.J. Abrams closing things out, the embattled director’s chair occupant of 2017 middle act Star Wars: The Last Jedi has provided seemingly revelatory comments regarding the divisive twists he took with his film.
In a recent appearance on radio.com podcast Swings & Mrs., Johnson, who recently achieved acclaim for November’s whodunnit, Knives Out, still stands by his Star Wars cinematic offering, which has been famously assailed for the direction in which it steered key characters. Johnson explains that the motivation for his arguably radical turns were due to his desire to subvert expectations and not slavishly cater to an unappeasable imaginary concept of a consensus. As he states:
“I think approaching any creative process with [satisfying the fandom] would be a mistake that would lead to probably the exact opposite result,” further explaining, “Even my experience as a fan, you know, if I’m coming into something, even if it’s something that I think I want, if I see exactly what I think I want on the screen, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay.’ It might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me.”
Aside from the toxic reactions hurled at The Last Jedi cast members by certain members of the fandom, the context of Johnson’s comments center on the podcast’s discussion of the two most controversial plot developments in the film, notably the choice to turn Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker – once the bright-eyed, whiney-but-Pollyannaish protagonist of the Original Trilogy – into a misanthropic recluse who rejected the Jedi ways and initially refused to train a desperate Rey (Daisy Ridley), undermining a wide expectation for Luke to fulfill some kind of Yoda archetype. Also, there is the persistent controversy over the climactic scene in which wayward Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) betrays and kills his master, Supreme Leader Snoke, which anticlimactically derails the arc of the latter, depriving viewers of the much-desired explanation regarding who or what he was.
Consequently, the comments made by Johnson – who also co-wrote The Last Jedi script – reveal a modus operandi to reject the typical job description for a director who tasked by the Disney corporate monolith to perfunctorily tick boxes of conventional expectations for its venerable franchise, instead opting for the element of surprise, which, for him, was what made Star Wars resonate with him as a child, further explaining, “I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard, I want to have things recontextualized, I want to be challenged as a fan when I sit down in the theater.”
Indeed, when it comes to surprises, Johnson points to 1980 Original Trilogy middle act The Empire Strikes Back, which, helmed by a similarly-positioned pinch-director in Irvin Kershner, remains frequently-cited as the best of the entire franchise. Johnson implies that it was his desire to create a similar experience of subverted expectations (the unassuming powerful nature of Yoda, the “I am your father” twist, Lando’s betrayal and redemption, etc.,) that are “emotionally resonant” and feel like they connect, getting to “the heart of what this thing is in a way that I never could see coming.”
While there are certainly valid arguments to be made in questioning the effectiveness of The Last Jedi’s plot twists, and if enough work was done to create the kind of emotional investment to generate Empire-like poignancy, Johnson’s comments may, in the very least, mitigate the branded reputation that he still holds as some kind of anarchic bull in the franchise china shop. Yet, the arrival of the follow-up, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, seems to be on its way to becoming just as (if not more) divisive than Johnson’s film, with advance reviews manifesting as a panorama of polarization. However, history will eventually have the ultimate say on the Disney-conjured Star Wars Sequel Trilogy – and Johnson’s middle act – which, removed from the myopic immediacy of social media and politics, might end up faring better in the eyes of posterity, just as the once universally-maligned Prequel Trilogy has – at least to a certain extent.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters (tomorrow) on December 20.