One of the reasons that Rian Johnson had so many problems and so much of a backlash against SWTLJ is the exact same problem that I had with Looper–he relied on visuals rather than trying to create epic themes that SW (especially the original series). SW at its core is about relating its characters to the world and showing how much more you can be. SW is about themes that resonate through the characters’ (& by extension, our own) lives.
Star Wars: Believe in Something Greater/Higher than Yourself
The theme of SW is to believe in something greater/higher than oneself–to have faith. There are a multitude of scenes that illustrate this including the famous “Trench Run” scene where Luke is told by Ben’s voice to trust the Force and he turns off his targeting computers. In doing so, he is questioned by “ground control” as they wonder what is wrong. It is most explicitly talked about, however, during Luke’s “training” with the drone with Ben teaching him about the Force. We see that once Luke realizes that he can “see” beyond the physical and into the immaterial, then the Force “guides” his actions and helps to move him from good to great.
The Empire Strikes Back: 1) You May Not Have All of the Facts Even When You Believe You Do and 2) The Power of Belief.
The ESB is a darker movie, not because it is literally shot darker, but because it deals with more complex and more nuanced themes. Most specifically, one of the main themes that runs throughout the movie is the idea that even if you think you have all the information at hand, you actually might not not and a closer look might be wise. This happens to both Luke while training at Dagobah and to Han, Leia, and Chewie in Cloud City. In each situation, both groups think that they have all of the pieces of information they need, when in fact, they are missing valuable pieces that would greatly enhance their understanding of the situations they find themselves inhabiting. It really comes down to trust. Should Luke trust his teachers or trust himself, should Han, Leia, and Chewie trust Lando or not? Luke also learns from the raising of the X-Wing that he doesn’t really truly believe in the power of the Force. Yoda has given himself over to it completely where Luke has learned the lessons, but when things get hard, he doesn’t really trust in the Force to see him through it. This ties back into the first theme when Luke doesn’t trust Yoda enough to see his training through even though it might cost him his friends.
The Return of the Jedi: Point of View as well as Friends versus Lackeys
For RotJ the theme is trifold: 1) One’s Point of View, 2) the idea of having Friends vs. Lackeys, and 3) Don’t make the same mistakes. One’s Point of View is very important in orientating/grounding the character to the world and has an important bearing on how the person/character looks at the universe. Luke is angry with Ben Kenobi for not telling him the truth about his father, but Ben tells Luke that many of truths that we cling to in the universe depend greatly on our point of view. Had Luke not learned that lesson then he might have fallen into the trap of believing that his father was completely lost. Having friends that one can depend on was very important to the SW characters as they are always bailing each other out and formed an interconnected web. The Empire, however, relied on lackeys to serve and fulfill the Emperor’s will and this ultimately cost them the battle. Many fans hate the Ewoks because they reason that the Empire shouldn’t be able to be defeated by “teddy bears with spears,” but history is replete with examples of finer military forces getting upended by smaller, less advanced forces because those smaller forces have better “grit” for lack of a better word. Even the biggest Imperial Walker can be taken down with the right combination of grit and moxy–something the Ewoks had in spades. Finally, Luke learned a valuable lesson in ESB–that under the right circumstances he could find himself in the same position and be lured to the Dark Side. Luke was especially conscious of this based on his experience in the “cave.” When his time came to be tested, he saw what he had done and stepped away from the “precipice,” something his father couldn’t do. So he learned his lesson well and ultimately, it served to save his life as well as to ensure the victory of the Rebellion.
This is where SWTLJ ultimately failed in that it really didn’t go deep enough with the themes that the characters inhabited to make it a truly satisfying movie for fans of the original trilogy. There is a reason that many are calling Rey/Kylo Ren’s “relationship” “Reylo” and that is a true disappointment to me personally, but to many other OG SW fans out there.
Slight spoiler here–Skip down to the next paragraph if you want to know nothing about TLJ–you know you’ve gone off the rails somewhere if there’s a scene in a SW movie where Rey is telling Kylo Ren to put a shirt on (and yes, that scene exists). Why does that scene even exist? What function does it perform that either a) ties into the greater universe as a whole or b) reveals something unique about the characters or the world? It was simply a throw away line designed to get laughs and get tweens speculating on how cool it would be if Rey and Kylo “hooked up?” Gah! Please, someone get that out of a SW movie and put it in Twilight where it belongs!
We talk about suspension of disbelief–well, for me, that was the moment when the “magic” was broken and I saw SWTLJ as a movie rather than a story.