The Last Jedi and the problem with fan theories

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Dec 17, 2018, 7:00 PM EST (Updated)

“This is not going to go the way you think.” It was an ominous quote from Luke Skywalker at the time within the world of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but in many ways has come to define much more than that - including the film itself. When the movie premiered last week, it was at the culmination of months - even years - of fan speculation over any one of the big questions that some felt were unanswered after The Force Awakens. The biggest question of all was: would The Last Jedi offer any resolution?

As a Star Wars film, The Last Jedi takes risks. Even outside the legacy of a larger franchise that has spanned 40 years, it makes gutsy choices. If the plot hinges on a character going in the obvious direction versus a less predictable one, The Last Jedi picks the alternate route every single time. Unlike the previous installment, which capitalized on a lot of fan nostalgia and excitement over the resurrection of familiar faces, droids and ships, TLJ embraces the decision to move on from the comfortable past and look towards the uncertain future.

From a storytelling perspective, this is uncharted territory for many Star Wars fans, especially when you take the last several films into account. In Rogue One, not to mention the prequel trilogy that came before, there was always a general sense of what was on the horizon. We knew that young Anakin Skywalker would inevitably grow up to become Darth Vader. We knew that those Death Star plans would eventually make it into the hands of the Rebellion. Even The Force Awakens was primarily about merging the worlds of the old and the new, a means for fans to wade in after so many years removed from seeing the characters they loved on the big screen. By contrast, The Last Jedi marks the first shift from a somewhat predictable narrative to an ambiguous destination. It’s unsettling, it raises more questions than answers, and it’s one of the most cerebral Star Wars films within the entire franchise. Whether you loved it or hated it, there’s no denying that TLJ definitely gives you something to think about.

One of the most fascinating and somewhat perplexing consequences of The Last Jedi’s release hasn’t even been the film itself, but rather the polarizing fan response surrounding it. Many have thoroughly enjoyed it, some have deemed it the worst Star Wars movie ever, and others sit somewhere in between. A variance of reactions is to be expected, of course; Star Wars fans are not a monolith, and decades later many can still be found debating whether or not the prequel trilogy was actually any good. However, one of the largest complaints surrounding The Last Jedi has not been in regards to whether it was a solid movie, but whether or not it addressed any of the fan theories that have been floating around on the internet since The Force Awakens premiered back in 2015.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi- Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke

Some degree of fan speculation is normal regardless of which fandom you’re devoted to; a large part of fandom discourse revolves around discussing the story (known as “canon”) and delving more deeply into what happens. Many times, fans come up with their own “headcanon,” which can help to fill in narrative gaps that aren’t always satisfied within the main canon itself. This can be anything from a character’s backstory that never gets explained to a deeper inference of a relationship between two characters which may not be explored fully in canon. Fan theories are an extension of this, and speculation and conjecture have been a mainstay in not just Star Wars fandom but several other big fandoms over the years, like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. There’s nothing wrong with fan theories in principle, but problems arise when fans allow their predictions to dictate their expectations of what a property should conform to.

Two of the questions that dominated the conversation after The Force Awakens were never really posed within the movie itself. The identity of Supreme Leader Snoke wasn’t dwelled on by any of the characters or even given significant plot attention to. He was a mysterious, half-shrouded figure who was later revealed to be the individual who had lured Ben Solo over to the dark side, but TFA never spent time asking the audience to consider who Snoke really was after introducing him without a lengthy explanation. It was a debate fans took up after the movie, similar to the one being held around the real identity of Rey’s parents. The internet had theories about it - whether she was actually a Skywalker, a Solo or even a Kenobi - but it turns out the clues were there all along in countless interviews Daisy Ridley gave on its total lack of importance to the story. Regardless, fans began to wonder - and eventually, wonder turned into the presumption that The Last Jedi would definitely have those big reveals (in spite of bread crumbs to the contrary being dropped along the way). Some fans felt that TLJ gave less-than-satisfactory explanations - Open eyeClose eye Show Spoiler or, in the case of Snoke's identity, no explanation at all - leaving them to deem it a bad Star Wars movie, but it might be more accurate to say that TLJ is a better and bolder film for daring to subvert the biggest fan expectations.

This is why fan theories, as well as devoting significant media time and energy towards amplifying them, can be so harmful to the moviegoing experience. A story will always go its own way regardless, and fandom as a whole understands the sting of disappointment when something one personally interprets doesn’t become fully acknowledged as canon, but fanworks are always around to satisfy a different version of events - a missing scene, or a different ending, or even an alternate universe. Many of the negative reactions to TLJ have a familiar foundation; they stem from complaints about a film that didn't do what they wanted or maybe even predicted it to. But does that make TLJ an objectively bad movie, or is it just a Star Wars film worthy of an closer look?

The Last Jedi may not have given some fans the answers they were hoping for this time around, but it also doesn’t mean that these subjects won't be revisited in some shape or form. So many aspects of TLJ are left open-ended by the end of the movie: the fate of the Jedi is in question, as well as the future of the Resistance and its ongoing struggle against the relentless pursuit of the First Order. This might be frustrating for some fans, but it’s also incredibly intriguing. The Last Jedi is going to be the source of plenty to discuss for awhile, but one thing’s for certain: going in with little to no expectations about major plot is probably the best route with this franchise moving forward. If The Last Jedi has revealed anything about the destination of Star Wars, it’s that we have to set aside our working theories - because the answers we’re seeking won’t necessarily come from the past we know, but the future we don’t.

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