It’s not an easy task to compare between the J. J. Abrams who directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rian Johnson who made The Last Jedi, simply because it is not A =B thing. They had different assignments: Johnson is the orange to Abrams’ apple, despite both of them being equally devoted to their jobs. But, all in all, the truth is that Abrams has been a better Star Wars movie director.
Abrams had a gigantic mission in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. His first challenge was to demonstrate that it was still feasible to make an original trilogy-style movie, thus, viewers would understand that they are not going to be fed another divisive prequel. Then he also had to entertain the viewers featuring the original trilogy’s characters in a believable style, after a gap of three decades. Last, but, not the least, he also had to create new heroes and villains who should be appealing to the old timers as well as the newcomers.
Abrams has been a Star Wars loyalist always, and he started post Return of the Jedi and a leap of 30 years without any hesitation. Critics call The Force Awakens to be something like A New Hope reboot, but, even if they are not wrong, nothing else would have worked without upsetting the old fans who wanted the Star Wars restart? The film was the “return” of Star Wars, and it served a cinematic portrayal of the buzz surrounding Disney’s launch of a new trilogy.
On the other hand, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an entirely different film. It is the second part of a trilogy, and its responsibility is to expand the story by taking into a new direction. There is no doubt that Johnson’s movie was more innovative than Abrams’, creating a new route and coming up with more passionate and individual stories for leading characters. It has led to the kind of Star Wars debates which had been missing for a long time. True that Episode VIII is considered to be divisive, facing a huge fan backlash, but, it has been received well. Therefore, to find out the real reasons, we need to dig deeper.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE FORCE AWAKENS AND THE LAST JEDI
If we evaluate the stories, both will reveal positives and negatives: The Force Awakens provides fans with realistic and likable new heroes in Rey, Finn and Poe, characters which need to be a part of a plot which is very different. The Last Jedi confidently strides beyond, testing the limits of a Star Wars movie, with most results being positive, but, certain things are baffling as well (Johnson’s portrayal of Leia akin to a Mary Poppins zipping through the galaxy).
But, the topic here is direction, and when we evaluate their talent and styles as moviemakers, Johnson is superb, but, Abrams has a mega crowd-pleasing style which can’t be equaled by Johnson. Abrams captures scenes in dynamic style; his camera is always on the move, his masterpiece ensures that your eyes don’t wander off the screen.
The Force Awakens might not be as innovative as The Last Jedi, but, it has a solid story which never meanders off (If we take out the Canto Bight thing from The Last Jedi, and it would turn out to be just the same film), story flows steadily, and it reproduces the iconic Star Wars feel in ways that The Last Jedi failed to do. Abrams story is sharp, each scene building towards the end sequence. The Force Awakens comes across as a film that does exactly what it was endeavored to do, and it delivered with such unflinching confidence and purpose which was felt by the viewer.
On the other hand, The Last Jedi has a compartmentalized feel, not only with its sense of humor. Right from the start, when the action sequence of the Resistance’s escape fro D’Qar comes to a lackluster halt in the early part of the film to incorporate a funny scene showing Poe Dameron stopping General Hux by making fun of him over the radio, it became clear that it will be a very different film. At times, it sure is fun, but, repeatedly it sees the story’s pace go down to an absolute zero for a scene or two, forcing the film to once again accelerate to reach the pace it had earlier. On the other hand, The Force Awakens depicted comedy, fierce action, emotions and other elements without stemming its flow. That’s the kind of storytelling which made the original trilogy such an iconic one.
We agree that The Last Jedi is superb in a lot of things, but, it doesn’t give that kind of experience that fans seek with a Star Wars movie. A good bit of the difference is intentional, and so it should be. However, there are moments when it goes too far with the innovation element.
IMPORTANT STAR WARS ELEMENT MISSED BY THE LAST JEDI
There is a specific style to make movies that are loved by masses, and it ramps up the tension before concluding just the right way, and it requires the directing, acting, editing, sound and music to all work in tandem to create an engaging, mighty crescendo. When it begins, the viewer’s excitement and fears rise when the stakes become higher. Then after a brief “it is all over” hopelessness which leads the viewer to wonder, “What’s going to happen? Will the good guy(s) prevail?” Ultimately it all finishes with a huge, relieving sigh of justice.
Finally, it ends with a big, cathartic oomph of a payoff.
That’s how things work at Star Wars. You can experience it at the end of A New Hope when Luke made that trench run on Death Star. Again in Empire Strikes Back, when Luke takes on the AT-AT walker, and once more when Darth Vader discloses his real identity. It is seen in Return of the Jedi when Luke dives off the plank at Jabba’s barge, and at various other times during the climactic battle. Abrams used it in The Force Awakens when Rey turns the Falcon around to allow Finn take down the last TIE Fighter, and it is exactly the same with Rey’s Force-induced vision. Abrams later employs this technique twice during the lightsaber duel between Rey and Kylo Ren.
Johnson is an exponent of various storytelling techniques, which are equally justified, but, they don’t have the kind of exhilaration which inspires the viewers. That’ excitement and catharsis is a must for Star Wars audiences. There are some exceptions to this rule though. Holdo’s slamming of Snoke’s ship at the light speed is a pure moment of jubilation. The fight between Finn and Phasma is similarly done. However, there is not much else which makes the audiences cheer for the on-screen happenings or grabs the Star Wars essence.
This debate about the better director, story and film will keep raging on for a long time to come, and there would never be a consensus on an answer. However, when we talk about directing a Star Wars film which strikes home with the expectations related to such a movie, Abrams wins hands down. We are fortunate that he is coming back for Episode IX.