Tag Archives: Rian Johnson

When (And When Not) To Listen To Fan Backlash

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In Hollywood, there’s somewhat of a paradox when it comes to ego. You need to have a certain amount of arrogance to believe you can make the kinds of movies that fans, critics, and executives who love swimming in pools of cash all love. At the same time, you also need to be humble enough to know when your ideas are crap.

I’ve been writing almost daily since I was 15-years-old. I’m humble enough to know that I’ve written some pretty crappy things in that time. However, I’m also arrogant enough to believe that I have many great stories to tell, some of which I put in my novels and some of which I put in sexy short stories.

It’s a bit easier for someone like me because I’m not a famous director, artist, or novelist just yet. I can still walk down the street without body guards and not be harassed by fans or stalkers. For someone like Rian Johnson, though, I imagine it takes a very different blend of arrogance and humility to navigate the creative process.

I’m sure that blend has been more erratic than usual for the past several months for Mr. Johnson. There’s already a sizable contingent of Star Wars fans who see him the same way Batman fans see Joel Shumacher after “Batman and Robin.” To say fans had mixed reactions to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” would be the most polite way of saying that these have been the most difficult times for those fans since the days of Jar Jar Binks.

While I made my sentiments on the movie clear last year, I don’t deny that fans have some legitimate gripes about the movie. There are indeed times when it feels like the movie is trying to push an agenda and it doesn’t push it very well. There are also fairly sizable plot holes that are difficult to overlook, which may also reflect some creative upheavals that occurred behind the scenes.

Regardless of how you feel about “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” or the criticism surrounding it, there’s no denying that it had issues. That was going to happen, regardless of how the movie turned out. However, it’s the way Mr. Johnson reacted to those issues that’s most revealing here. It’s also somewhat of a lesson in both arrogance and humility.

Since the film’s release, Rian Johnson hasn’t been willfully ignorant about fan criticisms. To his credit, he hasn’t resorted to name-calling or scoffing. He’s been fairly diplomatic, for the most part. In an interview with Business Insider, this was his primary response.

Having been a “Star Wars” fan my whole life, and having spent most of my life on the other side of the curb and in that fandom, it softens the blow a little bit.

I’m aware through my own experience that, first of all, the fans are so passionate, they care so deeply — sometimes they care very violently at me on Twitter. But it’s because they care about these things, and it hurts when you’re expecting something specific and you don’t get it from something that you love. It always hurts, so I don’t take it personally if a fan reacts negatively and lashes out on me on Twitter. That’s fine. It’s my job to be there for that. Like you said, every fan has a list of stuff they want a “Star Wars” movie to be and they don’t want a “Star Wars” movie to be. You’re going to find very few fans out there whose lists line up.

And I also know the same way the original movies were personal for Lucas. Lucas never made a “Star Wars” movie by sitting down and thinking, “What do the fans want to see?” And I knew if I wrote wondering what the fans would want, as tempting as that is, it wouldn’t work, because people would still be shouting at me, “F— you, you ruined ‘Star Wars,'” and I would make a bad movie. And ultimately, that’s the one thing nobody wants.

And let me just add that 80-90% of the reaction I’ve gotten from Twitter has been really lovely. There’s been a lot of joy and love from fans. When I talk about the negative stuff, that’s not the full picture of the fans at all.

While I agree with most of what Mr. Johnson said, it’s the bold parts that I find most questionable. It’s at that point where Mr. Johnson goes from being diplomatic to showing signs of the kind of arrogance that undercuts criticism, as a whole.

First off, the idea that George Lucas never made the original “Star Wars” with fans in mind is an unfair comparison. For one, that movie had no fan base to build from and no fans to please. Moreover, Lucas purposefully employed the kind of hero’s journey narrative that had been pleasing fans for centuries. The fact that Luke Skywalker’s story fits Joseph Campbell’s heroic archetype to the letter is not a coincidence.

Secondly, the passions of fans aren’t just built around wanting to see more light saber battles and/or Princess Leia in a bikini. Fans may be unruly and unreasonable at times, but they are the ones that make franchises like Star Wars so successful. They’re the ones who wait in line at the theaters, dress up at comic cons, and spark heated discussions on message boards.

The fans matter is what I’m saying. When there’s an obvious disparity between what the fans are saying and what critics are saying, then there are clearly larger forces at work that go beyond fans being petty. That’s when backlash becomes more than just complaining.

It’s one thing for a handful of fans to overly scrutinize a movie. It’s quite another when there’s a large contingent of fans express a wide variety of concerns, ranging from agenda-pushing to real gaps in the plot. That kind of variety implies that there were missteps beyond not making clear whether Han or Greedo shoot first.

When the criticisms don’t have to get that petty, it’s usually a sign that you should grit your teeth, thicken your skin, and sift through the anger and outrage to see what didn’t work in the final product. Doing so doesn’t mean admitting that you’re a bad director or artist. It just means that you’re willing to take in criticism and learn from it.

Rian Johnson, as well-mannered as he has been since “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” came out, never gives the impression that he, an admitted fan, took the criticisms of fans too seriously. It was akin to getting information from a test screening and completely throwing it out, something movies often do at their own peril.

It’s one thing to have a vision that you want to see through. I certainly felt that way when I wrote some of my novels. It’s quite another when that vision becomes so rigid that you stop listening to people trying to tell you that parts of it are flawed. Mr. Johnson seemed to ignore those flaws while listening to those who told him what he wanted to hear. Being a successful Hollywood type, that’s kind of unavoidable.

That’s also why maintaining a sense of humility is so important. I never assume that a vision that I have for a novel or short story is inherently flawless. In fact, I work under the assumption that it’s crap and needs refinement. The creative process itself is always ongoing and anyone who isn’t trying to improve their craft is dooming themselves to stagnation. Listening to fans, even annoying ones, is part of that process.

Now, I don’t know Rian Johnson and won’t pretend to understand the kind of pressure he faced from Disney to make “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” another billion-dollar hit. I also won’t pretend to understand what it feels like to see all sorts of hateful comments about how he ruined an iconic franchise. That takes thick skin that not a lot of people have.

However, when there’s an obvious disconnect between your vision and the sentiments of fans, one that is backed up by more than a handful of mean tweets, then ignoring the backlash is one of the worst things you can do. Trolls can be mean, but at a certain point, blaming trolls is no more credible than blaming the Illuminati.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and Rian Johnson, it’s that there are times when backlash is an unavoidable part of the creative process and there are times when it’s a sign that there’s a flaw in that process. The signs were there for Mr. Johnson. He chose to ignore them in the name of pursuing his own vision and arrogantly believing that it would work.

That arrogance isn’t necessarily a bad thing in terms of creativity, but it is a major risk and the fan backlash implies that the risk didn’t entirely pay off. J. J. Abrams played it safe in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” sticking to the tried and true formula that the original trilogy made so iconic. While it also had its share of criticism, it was minor and narrow compared to what Mr. Johnson got with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

The fact that J. J. Abrams is coming back to direct the next Star Wars movie is another sign that there was more than just trolling behind the backlash surrounding “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” While I still enjoyed the movie, personally, I believe the movie would’ve benefited by listening to the fans.

For Mr. Johnson and Mr. Abrams, I don’t envy the difficult position they’re in, having to direct the path of such an iconic franchise. However, if I could offer them any feedback whatsoever, it would be this. Fans are usually pretty forgiving. If Star Wars fans can forgive Jar Jar Binks, then they can forgive the flaws in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” It just takes one solid story that reminds fans why they love Star Wars in the first place.

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My “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Review: Hope, Inspiration, And Risk

How does anyone go about meeting impossible expectations for an iconic mythos with an insanely passionate fan base? Hollywood may be in the business of delivering fantasy on a scale that defies imagination, from talking animals to snakes on a plane, but even movie magic has its limits.

That brings me to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” by far, the most anticipated movie of 2017. It’s predecessor, “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” kick-started a new trilogy on the foundation of the first one. Granted, it did so in a way that was very safe, very measured, and extremely low-risk. However, by all accounts, it worked.

With “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” that approach just isn’t viable. The story set up in “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” as well as the inherent differences in the characters involved, requires that there be at least some degree of novelty in this movie. The key is not pushing it beyond the point where it loses the magic that makes “Star Wars” special.

Before I try to judge just how much or how little “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” stayed on target, to so speak, there’s one point I want to make before I go any further. It’s probably the most important point for anyone assessing this movie, especially in the context of its iconic predecessors.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a GOOD movie.

I’m okay saying that with a straight face because by the standards of story, plot, spectacle, drama, heart, and emotional impact, this movie checks all the right boxes. It has so many powerful elements to go alongside its epic, sci-fi backdrop. There are memorable moments, iconic characters, and scenes that’ll brighten your day.

There are times when the movie gets your heart racing, regardless of whether this is your first “Star Wars” or you’ve watched “The Empire Strikes Back” a million times. There are also times when the movie drags, but with “Star Wars,” there’s a grading curve the size of 15 parsecs. Those high standards are bound to skew any review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

While I’m willing to call this movie good, if not great, by those lofty standards, I still won’t put it in the same category as the original trilogy. I wouldn’t put it in the same category as the Jar Jar-fueled failure that was “The Phantom Menace,” either. This movie dares to be much more ambitious than “Star Wars: the Force Awakens” and that’s a good thing. Its ability to realize this ambition, however, is a very different story.

The movie hits the ground running. Like “The Empire Strikes Back,” this movie puts the Resistance led by Princess Leia in the same dire position we saw the Rebel Alliance in the original trilogy. Even though they scored a major victory at the end of “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” it didn’t stop the First Order from continuing their ascent.

For much of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the Resistance is on the ropes and on the brink of annihilation. Every moment counts from the moment the iconic screen crawl ends. There’s always a sense of action and tension. It makes clear from the beginning that this is the kind of movie where you’ll want to push your bladder capacity to the max.

This makes the movie exciting at every turn. It’s even exhausting, at times. However, it’s definitely a strength. When there are epic space battles, secret missions, and tense moments between characters, that strength only grows in terms of scope and scale. If you like adrenaline in your movies, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is basically made for you.

Usually, that kind of action comes at the cost of character development. Remarkably, this movie manages to avoid that. The respective stories of Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron each continue in their own unique way. They each carry with them a great deal of importance for the overall story and they all come off as characters who are easy to root for and love.

Some do far better than others. Poe Dameron definitely benefits most from having more face time in this movie. Unlike “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” he has much more influence over the direction of the plot. He stands in stark contrast to everyone around him, from Finn to Princess Leia. If there were a Poe Dameron fan club, then this movie would be their favorite, by default.

The other characters shine in their own ways, as well. Finn’s story is compelling in that it picks up where he left off. He’s still very much a reluctant participant in this conflict, much like Han Solo before him. He has his share of opportunities to run from or confront his past. His struggles in making those decisions help strengthen his character even more.

With Rey, though, it’s a bit more complicated. In fact, I would go so far as to say that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” made it much harder for her to establish herself as an icon within the “Star Wars” mythos. The mystery of where she came from, who her parents are, and why she’s so strong in the Force really fall flat. However, she still finds plenty of ways to be compelling.

This brings me to parts of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” that I think fell flat. I won’t say they didn’t work completely, if only because nobody like Jar Jar showed up. However, there are flaws in this movie that keep it from achieving the kind of iconic status of its predecessors.

If this movie has a major flaw, it has to do with how it handles Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke. These two were set up in “Star Wars: the Force Awakens” to be the new version of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. However, the way their story plays out is very different and not necessarily in a good way.

Part of what made Darth Vader such an iconic villain was how far he fell to the dark side and how he managed to fight back, despite Emperor Palpatine’s influence. It’s clear that Kylo Ren is on a similar dark path, but there’s never an explanation as to how Supreme Leader Snoke corrupted him. There’s not even a sense of who Snoke is and why he reached out to Kylo Ren in the first place.

That lack of context makes many of the events surrounding Kylo Ren seem somewhat empty. He makes clear that he’s on a dark path and he wants to pursue that path to the utmost. Rey, in her need to see the light, tries to connect with him. It helps make for some of the most dramatic moments in the entire movie. However, without a greater context, they don’t have the kind of impact that made “The Empire Strikes Back” so great.

That still doesn’t stop Kylo Ren from stealing the show in his own way. Towards the end, he ends up going much further than Darth Vader or any Sith ever dared. More than anything else, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” establishes Kylo Ren as the ultimate adversary for Rey, the Resistance, and the entire galaxy. There’s no redemption for him. There’s no chance he’ll come back to the light. Even Princess Leia acknowledged that.

It’s a huge departure and a very different direction that is somewhat new to the “Star Wars” mythos. Some fans may see that as a bad thing. Others may see it as a good thing. Personally, I think it’s good because it clearly sets this trilogy apart from the others. It makes clear that this trilogy is not going to follow the same patterns as the others. That’s exciting in some ways, but jarring in others.

Overall, I consider that approach a net positive for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” There are a few other minor flaws. Some of the newer characters, like Rose Tico, don’t really do much to endear themselves to the audience. They don’t pull a Jar Jar, though, and completely derail the story, either.

There’s a lot more that could be said about the flaws “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” but those flaws are petty in the sense that they stem from the simple truth that this movie is not “The Empire Strikes Back.” Those expecting it to be that way are setting themselves up for disappointment. Those expecting similar themes will be disappointed too.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi” doesn’t try to be “The Empire Strikes Back” and that’s a good thing. It tries to succeed in its own unique way and by most measures, it succeeds. The movie never drags. It never gets confusing or chaotic. Every story and sub-plot manages to come together in a fairly concise manner. It has polish and focus, as well as moments that are just pure fan service.

Again, this movie is not going to be as iconic as “The Empire Strikes Back” and that’s worth belaboring because, if some of the fan reactions to this movie are any indication, that’s what a lot of people were hoping for. Unlike “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” this movie took chances and dared to do something different. In terms of expanding the breadth of the “Star Wars” mythos, those chances paid off.

More than anything else, though, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” establishes the importance of maintaining hope in the face of the most dire situations. So much of this movie is spent with the good guys on the brink of defeat. At times, it seems as though they’re just delaying the inevitable. That makes the hope they inspire that much more special.

That’s what makes “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” a great movie experience. It doesn’t just expand the story of an iconic mythos. It does it in a way that inspires hope. Given how fragile hope often is in the real world in the face of some pretty grim headlines, that kind of hope is more important than ever.

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