Saturday, December 23, 2017
Subverting Expectations aka A Writer's Defense of The Last Jedi
No matter the medium—books, TV, movies, comics—we consumers enjoy stories. And if the stories are serial in nature, many of us enjoy dissecting every detail to discern some greater meaning. One of my favorite things about watching the TV show “Lost” in real time was the water cooler chats the day after each episode aired. Me and my office pals discussed in great length every shred of evidence from the episode, crafting in our minds what a shot of a book might mean. Then, the following week or later in the series, we might get answers. Sometimes those answers matched our expectations; other times the answer were not what we had crafted in our minds.
But we were not the storytellers. We were the consumers. We read or watch what the creators create.
When it comes to genre, certain tropes come along for the ride. If you’re reading an Agatha Christie mystery, you know you’ll get interesting characters, all the clues, all the evidence, and a chance to solve the mystery before or alongside her detective, be it Poirot or Marple. If you are reading an Elmore Leonard novel, you know you’ll get snappy dialogue and criminals who are self-aware. If you’re reading a western, you’re going to get a gunslinger, a corrupt cattle baron, a beautiful woman, and a horse with some character. If you’re watching a rom-com, you know you’ll get the charming leads, their funny fiends, and a situation that’ll put them together.
Creators of these kinds of stories know this and plan accordingly. As a beginning writer, we are all instructed to know the genre in which we’re writing and put in the tropes readers expect. We call them obligatory scenes. Take romance. Here are the must-have scenes in any romance: the leads are introduced separately, the leads meet, the leads solve a problem together, a situation arises in which one lead questions the relationship, the break-up scene, the realization scene, and the getting-back-together scene. It’s a roadmap readers and viewers come to expect, but it’s a gifted creator who can play with those tropes and present them in a fresh way, maybe even subverting audience expectations along the way.
Star Wars is not only a science fiction series (with all of those tropes) but it brings in its own set of tropes unique to the franchise. All those tropes were in the first movie, now forty years old. You know them because you’ve absorbed them for four decades. Farm boy with dreams of adventure has adventure land in his lap. Evil galactic empire after a small band of rebels personified in a princess. Lovable rogues who help the farm boy. Wise mentor who sacrifices himself so farm boy can escape. The plucky band of rebels attacks the “small moon” of the Empire’s base and destroys it. And, taking a cue from the second film, a big revelation that the bad guy is actually the farm boy’s dad.
Back in the early 80s, we spent three years wondering if Vader spoke the truth. Some of my friends didn’t think it was possible; others thought it was the truth. Either way, when Return of the Jedi debuted, we got our answers directly from George Lucas’s movie. I suspect there was some grousing from a certain sector of fandom, but there it was, out in the open.
Up until 2017, we had seven numbered Star Wars movies and one off-shoot. All but one (Empire) arguably played from the exact same playbook. Every movie showed a big thing to destroy, a lightsaber battle, lovable rogues, earnest heroes, bad villains, and robots that made us laugh. Like almost every Perry Mason TV show episode, the Star Wars movies all but lulled us into a routine. As good as Erle Stanley Gardner was as a writer, when you picked up a Perry Mason novel or tuned in to the TV show, you knew exactly what was going to happen. There is a certain comfort in that knowledge. I understand it, but every now and then, isn’t it more interesting to have a creator take a left turn when you were convinced, through repetition and constant reinforcement, the creator was going to take a right turn?
Now comes Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Viewers have had two years to ruminate over all the details of The Force Awakens. I think most of us did exactly the same thing when we saw that 2015 film: put the new characters into the positions of the legacy characters. Rey was the new Luke, Poe was the new Han, Finn was the new Leia (more or less), Snoke was the new Emperor, and Ren was the new Vader. After watching that movie, we were convinced we knew exactly how The Last Jedi was going to play out because we had seen it all before.
But writer/director Rian Johnson did something we writer/creators should have the guts to do every now and then: show us something different.
(Spoilers start here, by the way.)
If Johnson had simply remade The Empire Strikes Back with The Last Jedi, complete with a bunch of shots we fans had been conditioned to expect, most of us might have been happy, or at least comforted. Oh, there’s Luke’s X-Wing under water? Well, then, we expect to see Luke lift the craft out of the water just like he couldn’t do in Empire. Johnson likely considered it and then made a different choice and likely for a specific reason: Luke’s a Jedi Master. Of course he can lift an X-Wing. Why do we need to see it? Much speculation was made about Rey’s parentage. Based on the past movies and the internal Star Wars tropes, she just had to be Luke’s daughter or Kenobi’s granddaughter or something like that. Johnson likely thought long and hard and realized there was a better choice to be made. He made it.
And, lest we forget, Disney signed off on it. Disney: one of the biggest trope machines on the planet, but a company who is willing to change things up every now and then (Wall-E, Up, Inside Out, Ratatouille).
So Star Wars fans are up in arms that the latest movie didn’t go along with the established Star Wars pattern. What did they get instead?
Well, they got a story that did not conform to established patterns. Isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t you have liked to have seen Perry Mason lose, at least once? We got a movie from a gifted writer who made the conscious choice to go against expectations and not service every whim of the fans. We got a refreshing film from a director with a certain point of view. Arguably, we got the most unique Star Wars film since Empire.
In short, Rian Johnson subverted viewers’ expectations.
And I loved it.
I have always contended that the best time to be a Star Wars fan was from 1977-1980. You see, up until Vader revealed himself to be Luke’s father, the Star Wars galaxy was wide open with thousands of stories to tell. Afterwards, it’s merely a family saga. The galaxy got very, very small.
Luke Skywalker goes to great lengths to liken the Force as not belonging to just the Jedi but to everyone in the galaxy. I think the negative reactions to the film are largely from a cadre of fans who think Star Wars is theirs and theirs alone. Every movie since the original trilogy has been made for the die-hard Star Wars fan, complete with callbacks that only we’d know.
The Last Jedi, with writer/director Rian Johnson, has gone to great lengths to shed the franchise from many of the shackles it has carried through the decades. It was a brave choice he made to write a movie that went against almost all the audience expectations, but how neat is it to leave the theater not really knowing how Episode IX will play out.
The galaxy is, once again, wide open.