For the past two years, Star Wars fans have been speculating on all of the questions J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens posed. Who are Rey’s parents? Who is Snoke? Where the heck did the First Order come from? Etc. The moment finally came. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi arrived in theaters and fans’ reactions couldn’t be more polarized if we separated audiences on opposite ends of the planet.
You have your haters and your lovers and hardly anyone in between. But Rian Johnson doesn’t care about fans. He cares about Star Wars. If you search the internet hard enough, you’ll actually find a picture of Rian holding a postcard that says “Your Snoke Theory Sucks.” And this is entirely evident in the way he composed Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Rian Johnson isn’t any better than George Lucas when it comes to fan pandering (a good thing in my estimation) and in the next few paragraphs, you’ll find out exactly why.
George Lucas’s Legacy
Goerge Lucas is most likely the most hated and beloved characters in the Star Wars Universe except perhaps Jar-Jar Binks. In 1977 he launched one of the most influential films of the 20th century and the most popular franchise in the world.
But there is always a downside to being popular. Lucas created a monster, the Star Wars fandom.
When LucasFilm released The Phantom Menace in 1999, fans expected a spectacular return to the Star Wars Universe. They instead received a poorly written mess fraught with bad CGI effects, two-dimensional characters, and racial caricatures.
Yet, some fans stick by Lucas as a brilliant filmmaker. How can they back Lucas when his prequel trilogy was so obviously flawed? Isn’t he a washed-up hack who sold out to Disney?
The answer lies in the structure of the entire Star Wars Saga from Menace to Jedi. And if you watched The Last Jedi, you’ll quickly realize that Rian Johnson returned to Lucas’ structural roots and created a brilliant film on par with The Empire Strikes Back.
In 2014 a blogger named Mike Klemo wrote a long treatise on Lucas’ use of chiastic structure, visually and narratively, in the Star Wars Saga. He called this his Ring Theory. If you want to understand Klemo’s Star Wars Ring Theory (a simplified version), imagine a ring or a loop. Each Star Wars film fits somewhere on the loop.
The top of the loop represents a high point in the Saga and the bottom of the loop a low point. With Star Wars, the plot points revolve around the Skywalker family. We start out in A New Hope. Anakin is entangled in the Empire as Darth Vader a dark lord, Luke is hidden away on Tatooine, and Leia is on a desperate mission.
As we move forward in the trilogy, Lucas takes his heroes upwards to victory against the Empire and the establishment of the New Republic and Anakin finds redemption.
The Prequel Trilogy Repeats This Pattern in Reverse
At the end of the original trilogy, we are at the top of the ring. This is where Episode I The Phantom Menace begins. We find our heroes at the height of the Old Republic. Everything is shiny and brilliant. A veritable utopia exists in the universe.
The rest of the prequel trilogy outlines the fall of our hero, Anakin Skywalker. His transformation into Darth Vader returns us to the low point on the ring along with the galaxy shifting events around him.
Lucas’ Visual Structure Trumped Narrative Fidelity in the Prequel Trilogy (He Didn’t Care About Fans Either)
Lucas went into the film industry to make art films. He never intended on making blockbuster films (a term coined around the Star Wars phenomenon).
By the time he started production on The Phantom Menace he had built his own film studio and thus answered to nobody. He was free to make Star Wars into an art film. Except, he really couldn’t do this properly, it’s Star Wars, not the Criterion Collection!
His solution? Focus on visual structure more than the narrative structure throughout the prequel trilogy. He only basically followed the chiastic hero’s journey when writing the plot. What mattered to Lucas was that his Star Wars saga rhymed like visual poetry.
If you look carefully, the opening of Episodes 1 and 4 are framed exactly the same. This is a clear indication of where we are in the ring cycle. But from there everything is framed in reverse as we move in opposite directions on the ring.
When a ship moves from left to right in Empire, it will move from right to left in Attack of the Clones, which is parallel to Empire on the ring.
If you look at the shot of Luke shocked at the death of his master in A New Hope and a similar scene of Obi-Wan’s shock at the death of his master in The Phantom Menace, you will see they are exactly the same. The only difference you can see: opposite colors. Obi-Wan dies (becomes one with the Force) near the beginning of ANH and Qui-Gon Jinn near the end of Phantom. These narratives rhyme, but they play out in reverse from each other.
You can read Klimo’s extended explanation and see all of the comparisons he makes between the two trilogies. But warning, it’s a long read.
How Rian Johnson Made a Star Wars Movie Lucas Would Be Proud Of
When I reached out to Mike Klimo after the release of The Force Awakens and asked whether he thought Abrams had failed at Ring construction, he said, “Not sure, honestly.”
But Abrams clearly did not want to continue Lucas’ visual legacy. He wanted to make his own Star Wars. And he admits as much in various interviews saying that Lucas was too much of a structuralist. while The Force Awakens was an excellent film, it does not fit within the Saga’s chiastic structure visually. Yes, narratively we begin where we should. The New Republic controls the galaxy and the Empire is no more. And yet things are beginning to fall apart. The narrative spirals downward from there. But this only follows the hero’s journey and not ring construction.
Rian Johnson, however, seems fit to restore Lucas’ vision. And he’s done a wonderful job of returning the Saga to its original structure with The Last Jedi.
Two Scenes as Evidence Rian Used Ring Structure in The Last Jedi
First, a warning: From here on out there be spoilers. It’s on your head if you continue reading without having watched The Last Jedi.
I can’t cover the entirety of The Last Jedi here. I’d be writing for days. But I offer two prominent scenes as evidence Rian used ring structure in The Last Jedi.
First, some proof Rian even understood ring construction. In a recent interview, Rian compared Luke’s cave scene on Dagobah to Rey’s scene on Ahch-To and said, “These movies rhyme with each other.” While this isn’t proof positive that Rian intentionally used ring construction, it’s strangely similar to something Lucas said before as well. “It’s like poetry, they rhyme. Every stanza kinda rhymes with the last one.”
We’ve established that Rian already echoes Lucas. But what about actual evidence?
The Two Caves
The entire structure, both narrative and visual, of The Last Jedi is backward to the structure of Empire Strikes Back. We end Jedi Where Empire starts off, in a trench war with the Empire/First Order.
But one iconic scene sticks out prominently among all others, the cave scenes of both films. Ahch-To and Dagobah are opposites in their own right. The island where Luke and Rey hash out their future roles in the Star Wars Saga might as well be floating in the sky, whereas Yoda’s home on Dagobah is a fetid jungle deep within a swamp world.
But the visual structure of the scenes are both similar and opposite. They “rhyme.”
In Empire, Luke enters from the right and remains on the right every time we see from his perspective. The camera shifts as Luke confronts Vader/himself in the cave and we’re seeing the fight from the opposite end of the cave. This continues until Luke decapitates Vader and the faceplate explodes to reveal Luke’s face.
Likewise, in Jedi, Rey enters a cave (she falls into the cave, no real comparison there, but whatever), but she approaches the mirror in the cave from the left. We hear her inner dialogue as she talks about confronting the darkness there and wanting to know about her parents. The mirror is foggy. Now the great reveal happens first rather than last in this scene. A shape appears behind the fog and when the fog dissipates, all that’s there is her own reflection. And as she touches the mirror an infinite number of reflections appear. The camera shifts and we see the scene from two angles as Rey snaps her fingers. We hear an eerie echo that resembles the nothingness of her past.
The Escape From Canto Bight and the Approach to Cloud City
Cloud City or Bespin is a fantastical Las Vegas in the sky. Smuggler and gambler, Lando Calrissian is the Baron Administrator of the place and friend to Han Solo.
After evading capture by the Empire, Han Solo and his crew drop by Cloud City for repairs and refuge from the Empire. Their approach is one of the most memorable scenes in the entire series. Han’s ship, the Millenium Falcon follows two Bespin Security vehicles through the sky toward Cloud City. The city hangs magnificently over a gas giant.
Later Han and his crew are betrayed into the hand of the Empire by Calrissian. This all happens about midway through The Empire Strikes Back.
In The Last Jedi, Finn and Rose wind up in a similar city. Canto Bight is another extravagant city only this time it’s situated on the ground and by the sea rather than in the sky (another opposite to indicate where we are on the ring). Rose and Finn escape on a giant horselike Fathier, a creature with a long neck and too-big pointy ears (this scene also echoes Anakin and Padme’s escape in Attack of the Clones, further evidence of ring construction). The Canto Bight Police chase Rose and Finn through the surrounding fields until they lose them near a cliff.
It’s the visual aspects of this scene that rhyme with the Bespin scene in TESB. Our heroes are being chased rather than led like in Empire and there are two security forces chasing them just like the two Bespin speeders in Empire. The security forces appear on opposite sides of the screen from each other as they give chase or lead the Falcon to Bespin.
The visual similarities are striking between the two scenes. And if you understand ring construction, you’ll see it everywhere in The Last Jedi when compared to The Empire Strikes Back.
At the moment it’s impossible to create a visual comparison of The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi. Disney is just too good at keeping a tight reign on any photo leaks.
But I challenge you to watch The Last Jedi and spot all of the places where the visuals rhyme with either Empire or Attack of the Clones. I think you’ll be surprised that Rian Johnson really does take after George Lucas.