Rian Johnson pulls off a magic trick with The Last Jedi, revealing that JJ Abrams’ purposefully empty ‘mystery box’ is actually Pandora’s box, and that it’s been open the whole time… and all the evils our heroes must face have already been unleashed.
But, of course, hope still remains.
In the time that The Last Jedi has been in cinemas, I’ve been to watch it four times…
The experience of watching a Star Wars film in the cinema is a novelty that never fades, it always feels momentous. I’m still laughing at all the jokes; I’m still realising, in the aftermath of certain scenes, that I’ve been holding my breath; I still reach the credits with a ridiculous grin on my face – trying, in vain, to articulate coherent thoughts to the person I watched the film with…
What can I say? I loved the film. I daresay it even ranks in my top three of the Star Wars saga. It just clicks with me because Rian Johnson’s vision for the delivery of this film speaks to a lot of my own storytelling sensibilities.
One of those is a storytelling technique that is of central importance to how The Last Jedi deals with the big questions set up by The Force Awakens, one that the Star Wars films have never really dabbled with before – what we will refer to as ‘narrative substitution’.
(Deflector shields for spoilers are down.)
Mystery is one of the most interesting and loaded aspects of storytelling, one that is greatly appealing to a text’s audience because it is perceived as the story being handed over to you with the allure of filling in the world with your own story. Your own interpretations, your own way of understanding the pieces of the puzzle.
Abrams explains his idea of the ‘mystery box’ in a TED Talk from 2007, where he was then (in)famous for his work on Lost. In relating his love for the concept to a literal mystery box he purchased decades ago with his grandfather that he never opened, Abrams tries to puzzle out exactly why he hasn’t opened it.
“And I started thinking, why haven’t I opened it? And I realized that I haven’t opened it because it represents something important – to me. It represents my grandfather.
[…] The thing is that it represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential. And what I love about this box, and what I realize I sort of do in whatever it is that I do, is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility, that sense of potential. And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination. Now, it’s not the most ground-breaking idea, but when I started to think that maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge. I started getting interested in this.” [JJ Abrams, The Mystery Box, TED 2007 (4:22-5:48)]
From his explanation, it’s easy to see how this philosophy was one that Abrams drew on to articulate The Force Awakens – the beginning of a new trilogy and a new era of Star Wars, with new characters and a new setting, and so on.
While The Force Awakens structures itself around the old, bringing back and reinterpreting all that familiar and comfortable iconography as a celebration of the franchise’s rich legacy through the eyes of a new generation of characters, it poses a lot of important questions that it pointedly doesn’t look to answer.
It gives us a mystery box.
An empty mystery box.What’s important to remember is that the ‘mystery box’ narrative is not exclusive to JJ Abrams, it’s a term he’s coined to illustrate his particular philosophy towards applying something all stories have – mystery. Raising questions and not answering them, that’s just something you do to keep the audience engaged, entertained, and, above all, interested.
But here’s the rub: the mystery box is unsustainable.
The mystery box can work wonders for a first act or for a standalone story, but the way Abrams articulates it is problematic for second and third acts and ongoing stories.
This problem is exacerbated with Star Wars because this series is ultimately one about characters, not about mystery. Mystery is definitely a big part of Star Wars, but it has never been done with the ‘Abrams mystery box’ treatment before.
The biggest, most lasting moments in Star Wars are those of discovery, particularly of identity – whether it’s Darth Vader revealing that he’s Luke Skywalker’s father, the reveal that Palpatine is Darth Sidious, and so on. The problem with Abrams’ mystery box is that it seeks to deny that which is the essence of Star Wars, the reveal that dramatically shifts the story in a new direction.
When Rey approaches Luke, standing at the edge of a cliff, reaching out to him with his old lightsaber, the film… ends. It’s a deliberate type of cliffhanger that Star Wars hasn’t done before because it doesn’t set any particular course for the next film.
All we’re given is the emotion of that scene; there’s no dialogue, just the music, Rey’s desperate and hopeful expression, and Luke’s reaction – the nature of which we’re left to speculate on.
“The most incredible sort of mystery, I think, is now the question of what comes next. Because it is now democratized. So now, the creation of media – it’s everywhere. The stuff that I was lucky and begging for to get when I was a kid is now ubiquitous. And so, there’s an amazing sense of opportunity out there. And when I think of the filmmakers who exist out there now who would have been silenced, you know – who have been silenced in the past – it’s a very exciting thing.” [Abrams, TED 2007 (14:15-14:43)]
Here, Abrams is referring to a low-resolution video he showed in his presentation made by some people with visual effects experience using long-outdated software, telling their own story without a Hollywood budget or a sizeable team of industry experts. These things can be made by anybody now, we’re all empowered to tell our own stories.
Which brings us to the next problematic element of the mystery box (which I have helpfully depicted as it commonly appears in the image below).
Fandom.It’s interesting to step back for a second and look at just how differently we receive, consume, interpret, and talk about media is today compared to, say, fifteen years ago and beyond – something which is tied up with the evolution of fandom.
Once upon a time, you got your thoughts out there by writing to a magazine and hoping that your letter would be included in the next issue. Now, of course, everyone is on Twitter and countless other forums where communication of thought and feeling is instant. We’re all a lot better connected with each other, moreso in this era of Star Wars films than with the prequels and certainly the original trilogy.
Fandom is faster-than-light. Ideas spread far quicker and with greater vivacity than ever before, which is amazing… but also presents its share of issues.
There have been some truly rotten showings of fandom’s toxicity with Rian Johnson being harassed on Twitter; people petitioning for the film to be ‘removed from the canon’ and remade, with demands for Rian Johnson to apologise for making a film that entitled fanboys don’t like; racist and misogynistic comments and ‘review-bombing’ coming from neo-Nazi groups who have taken credit for the backlash against the film.
These insufferable, cretinous manbabies complaining about it “introducing more female characters into the franchise’s universe,” along with other highlights such as making Poe “victim of the anti-mansplaining movement.”
It’s impossible to boil down why people are angry at The Last Jedi down to any one thing, and there are certainly valid criticisms to be made of the film (I certainly have my own)… but, to bring this back to mystery boxes, there are some people who don’t quite ‘get’ why Johnson made some of the choices he did.
And that’s quite understandable because it’s light years away from what most people would recognise as ‘convention’ in a franchise so comfortably built on that.
But some of it comes from very vocal, knee-jerk reactions to Johnson not making the film to fit the fan theories that have been so prevalent in the two years since the release of The Force Awakens. It comes from people who feel a kind of ownership over the story when they’re convinced they’ve got it all figured out, who built up all this self-assured certainty over their theory being the only way things can go, spiralling into resentment when they realise that this isn’t their story.
We know, of course, that this new trilogy was not mapped out from the beginning. Abrams left something of a blank slate for Johnson to pick up on, with one of Johnson’s own terms for doing The Last Jedi being that he would have that set-up:
“The fact that I would basically be able to write it from scratch in a way – obviously by continuing on from The Force Awakens but getting to find my own story and write and direct it – was important […] I know it’s Star Wars, it fits into a bigger picture. But it also feels as personal to me as any of the other films I’ve made.” [‘Rian Johnson Didn’t Want to Direct Somebody’s Sequel. Then The Last Jedi Came Along’ (15/12/2017)]
There was no foregone conclusion as to what was going to happen with this story and where it was all going to go with its plot, characters, setting, and so on. Just as was the case with the original trilogy, the ‘sequel trilogy’ has been built from the ground-up as it moves along.
That has undoubtedly had an effect on the fan theories, with people trying to dig into Abrams’ mystery boxes without realising that they’re empty.
They were always empty.
So Rian Johnson was faced with the same questions the rest of us all were at the summit of Rey’s climb up the island on Ahch-To, facing Luke Skywalker.
What the hell happens next?An empty mystery box in an ongoing story does nothing short of incite collapse. If Johnson had chosen to pursue the opening of the mystery box the way we, as fans, have for the last two years… The Last Jedi would simply collapse in on itself.
The Last Jedi needed somebody who was able to think outside the mystery box, who recognised that this story should not be weighed down by its predecessor and the fan theories it spawned of people trying to make sense of something that very intentionally doesn’t.
This is where ‘narrative substitution’ comes into play, a term which I wish I could take credit for – that goes to El Sandifer, who coined it in an article examining its use in Doctor Who, which, I must admit, absolutely plays a notable role in why I’m so happy to see this technique used in Star Wars…
Narrative substitution is where you appear to tell one kind of story, but later reject it and reveal that this was actually a different kind of story all along.
It’s not so much tossing the
lightsaber mystery box over the edge of the cliff as it is recontextualising your understanding of the trap you fell into by indulging the mystery box and creating your own story to fill it.
It changes your perception of the emotional need of the story’s outcome. Where a collapse causes the pillars of a story to fall apart, narrative substitution asserts a new structure that builds in a new and unexpected direction – but still on what was fundamentally established by the mystery box. Hence what I said at the beginning: Johnson reveals the mystery box to have been Pandora’s box all along and goes from there.
Naturally, this rubs people the wrong way because people don’t like being misled; people don’t like being told that they were asking the wrong questions all along. But that’s the reality of the mindset that dictates the first act’s establishment as the insular limitation of what story can be told.
The mystery box questions of The Force Awakens sets up the expectation of a big, continuity-laden epic that deals with all these things we’ve come to regard as sacred, but The Last Jedi instead scales itself down to a much more intimate – and much more necessary – character-driven story that focuses on themes of irreverence and failure.
The Last Jedi reminds us that our heroes are flawed. They’re human.
Strip away the legend, give up your ‘hero worship’, don’t put people on a pedestal – they will let you down.
“We got the whole story of Palpatine’s rise to power in the prequels, but in the original films he’s exactly what he needs to be, which is just ‘The Emperor’. He’s a dark force: the scary thing behind the thing. That was entirely how I approached Snoke. I wasn’t interested in explaining where he came from or telling his history, except where it serves this story.” [Empire, ‘Rian Johnson Talks Snoke And Kylo Ren’ (6/9/17)]
This new trilogy was never about Snoke.
There may well be more to do with Snoke in the future, just as there was for Palpatine, but his role in the ‘sequel trilogy’ is not that of a central character whose tortured backstory needs to be explained.
Snoke is not the central villain. We assumed he would be because he’s set up as a Palpatine figure, which is the perfect trap for the use of narrative substitution. If The Last Jedi had followed through on Snoke being the ultimate evil to be defeat, then we’d just be repeating the same old story beats from the past that six films already covered with Palpatine.
Kylo Ren was introduced to us as Darth Vader’s number one fanboy, but every bit of his arc has been about purposefully subverting that – from his barely-constrained temper tantrums contrasting Vader’s icy-cool stoicism, to the moment where he removes his mask and reveals that there’s just a young man underneath.
In facing the question of where to take Kylo next, you have to ask yourself what the most interesting direction is to go with him.
Do you cling to old things?
Do you continue down the well-travelled, expected path of making him, as Snoke says, “a new Vader”?
Johnson answered the question by saying making him the Emperor instead.
Furthermore, the way the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren builds up throughout the film to this point, she believes, based on the vision of the future she saw of him turning against Snoke, that he will be redeemed. But this is where the next bit of subversion comes into play, as killing Snoke does not suddenly redeem Kylo or make him a new person. In fact, it made him worse than ever.Similarly, the question of Rey’s parentage has obviously been a huge matter of contention over the last few years, with numerous fan theories articulating how she’s going to be a Skywalker, or a Kenobi, or a Palpatine, and so on.
We’ve done this before. It’s kind of one of the most famous twists in the history of storytelling, with Vader revealing that he is Anakin Skywalker – Luke’s father.
So the question then partially becomes one of how to subvert the expectation of repeating this beat from The Empire Strikes Back and doing something that will chart this trilogy on a different course. More importantly than just ‘doing it differently’ though is the question of what is right for the character. What is going to challenge them? What is the hardest revelation for them going to be?
Instead of giving into the sort of ‘wish-fulfilment fantasy’ of having Rey be the next in a particular bloodline that is held by fans as prestigious and prodigious (which really has some rather unpleasant implications), Johnson reveals that the answer we’ve been looking for has been in front of our faces the whole time.
Rey is nobody.
She’s the daughter of junk traders on Jakku who sold her for drinking money. The perceived importance of her bloodline is jettisoned from the narrative, refocusing our attention to where it should be…
On Rey herself.
Who Rey chooses to be is more important than who she’s related to.
If there’s a parallel to be drawn between Rey and a legendary character, it’s… Yoda. Kylo Ren has become the Emperor and the path that Rey is put on for the future is more akin to Yoda’s than anyone else’s. It’s not her job to rebuild the Jedi so much as it is to reform the Jedi. As such, I would absolutely love to have a scene in Episode IX where Rey is going over the Jedi texts she recovered from Ahch-To, crossing out a passage and rewriting it.
I have no doubt that if this had gone any other way, it would have felt exactly like the twist in Star Trek: Into Darkness where Benedict Cumberbatch announces “My name is… Khan.”
Khan is a legend from Star Trek history, one that means absolutely nothing to anybody but the audience familiar with the character.
What’s more, Johnson interweaves this reveal with what emerges, by the end of the film, as one of the main themes of the sequel trilogy – the value of ‘nobody’.
Rey, Finn, Rose, Paige, the children on Canto Bight… none of them are the offspring of legends, but that doesn’t make them any less heroic than they are by the choices they make; whether it’s Paige’s sacrifice to take down the First Order’s dreadnought, or Rose and Finn freeing the fathiers from cruelty and abuse, or a child holding a broom like a lightsaber staring up at the stars – so full of hope despite being one of the downtrodden, lost under the weight of the world’s heel.By the end, it’s not just been a simple case of playing around with Abrams’ mystery boxes, but a fundamental revision of our expectations as to where Star Wars can and will go, achieved by altering our perception of the emotional need of this story’s outcome.
In a way The Last Jedi takes a lot of big steps to reset the board, making this trilogy built on the cyclical nature of conflict set-up for the children who will lead the next generation, which is not the story people anticipated. That’s going to be jarring and divisive, but it in no way diminishes its value as a poignant and necessary restructuring of Star Wars.
While Kylo Ren, the latest in the Skywalker legacy, consolidates his position as a villain (despite numerous chances at turning back to the light), Star Wars now has a future as a story that can be more than a cycle of generational tragedy.
I’m incredibly excited for that future, particularly with Rian Johnson at the helm of a new trilogy because I find his narrative style and storytelling techniques so compatible with my own sensibilities as a writer.
The Last Jedi thought outside the mystery box, laying the groundwork for the series to embrace a new and positively uncertain future.
Star Wars is, like its struggling and hopeful heroes, what it grows beyond.