How “The Last Jedi” Fell Short
It would be an understatement to say that reaction to the The Last Jedi has been divisive at best. Critics seemed to love the movie’s “fresh” take on the Star Wars universe, but audiences didn’t seem to agree: the latest installment fared poorly on Rotten Tomatoes’ public ratings, and it saw the biggest drop-off in word-of-mouth and 2nd viewings for any Star Wars film.
While the film has both dedicated enthusiasts and adamant haters among Star Wars fans, if you’re a casual viewer chances are you walked out of The Last Jedi underwhelmed and maybe slightly annoyed — but you couldn’t pinpoint exactly why.
Some who had misgivings at first have tried to come to terms with them on subsequent viewings, grudgingly accepting things they initially disliked. But there’s still a widespread sense that something just doesn’t fit right about it, something wrong that goes beyond plot holes and mischaracterizations. Sure, Luke’s personality doesn’t quite fit what we should expect, Admiral Holdo’s decisions are questionable at best, the humor was spotty, the casino scenes on Canto Blight could probably have been cut, and so on. But the Star Wars franchise is full of pacing and character issues that audiences have largely forgiven, especially with the much-derided prequels. As with those films, however, something more fundamental is amiss here, something that feels “off” somehow beyond the unusual plot and character choices.
As it turns out, there is something.
Last Jedi director Rian Johnson set out less to make a movie than to send a message: “Don’t Be Brave: Just Try to Survive.” Every plot point and narrative arc serves to reinforce the the message that true leadership isn’t about being a hotshot. It’s about just surviving to fight another day.
Sending a message is fine. All art does this to a certain extent, including the Star Wars films. But Johnson’s is not a message that fits the Star Wars universe. In fact, it’s almost the antithesis of everything Star Wars is about. While some have found that refreshing and praiseworthy, it’s no surprise that the film has been so controversial.
The beating heart of Star Wars is The Force. But the Force is not just about lightsabers and telekinesis, nor is it about the interplay of Light and Dark. The Force operates in at a much more important level: it makes the impossible possible, creates opportunities from serendipity, and rewards those of good heart who trust their instincts. These are ultimately religious movies for a secular culture, steeped in a combination of Western dualism and Eastern transcendental mysticism. The presence of the Force not just as a tool of its adepts but as a conscious being unto itself ties the franchise together, and is responsible for some of its most powerful moments. It allows us to believe that it is possible for people to overcome their fear and do brave, risky things in the face of impossible odds — and that they will be rewarded for those risks through faith in the transcendental power of the Force. Star Wars is full of little coincidences that aren’t really coincidences at all, and one-in-a-million shots that weren’t actually quite so lucky.
Without this core element, all that’s left is laser swords, magic powers, pyrotechnics, a standard coming-of-age hero’s journey, and some not-very-credible science fiction technology.
Rian Johnson very deliberately set out to subvert and and destroy that narrative by making a movie in which every risk-taker turned out to be a failure and a fool, where the most risk-averse characters turn out to be right, and where despite its supposed awakening the Force never makes its presence felt to reward bravery over cowardice or good over evil. There are no happy coincidences in this movie: in fact, each time we think one has happened, it turns out to blow up in the protagonists’ faces. Instead, fear and caution are rewarded, and the Force appears only either as a danger or as an easily manipulated plaything — but never in its warm, invisible religious majesty.
Ideologically, this is a flat rejection of what drives the franchise, and every broken character and plot hole stems from trying to shoehorn an unwanted message into a series whose very core inoculates itself from it. Many fans know that something is broken about this movie, and they’re right. It’s broken in its very soul.
To show how this is true, we’ll look at each major problem in turn, and how Johnson’s plot and character manipulations in the service of his message exacerbate them. But first, it’s necessary to briefly tackle the political elephant in the room: the anti-social-justice dudebro.
Star Wars is one of the few universal pop culture narratives in modern America, but its fandom is overwhelmingly white and male. As such, it shares a large element of the toxic masculinity, racism and sexism so prevalent among many white men. A large component of the negative reaction to The Last Jedi is not because of its failings as a Star Wars movie, but rather for what it does right: empowering women and people of color in a narrative that thankfully no longer places white men at its center. Some white male fan boys resent changes to Luke’s character not because they don’t fit his persona and break the narrative, but because they dislike the idea of characters like Finn, Rey and Rose displacing the young white farm boy from Tatooine as the moral center of the universe. They dislike Admiral Holdo not because of her terrible decisions, but because she’s a woman in command. Unfortunately, this dynamic (particularly in the Trump era) has understandably caused many cultural progressives to defend the film almost instinctively, which in turn has made legitimate criticism somewhat more difficult. But the fact that many deplorable white men have chosen the movie as a battleground for white male supremacy should not make it immune from legitimate critique on its merits — particularly since some of the film’s narrative failures inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes that hurt the cause of social justice.
So without further ado, let’s look at the problems one by one, starting with the opening crawl.
Much as with The Phantom Menace before it, we know instinctively that something is wrong right from the opening crawl:
The FIRST ORDER reigns.
Having decimated the peaceful Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke now deploys his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy.
This makes no sense upon the slightest reflection.
Let’s recap what we know from the films, absent any explanatory secondary material. The end of Return of the Jedi saw the defeat of the Empire and the death of both the Emperor and his apprentice Darth Vader. A few decades later the opening crawl of The Force Awakens informs us that the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire in the absence of Luke Skywalker, and that the Republic has given General Leia permission to lead a “Resistance” to it. We are later informed that the First Order is striking from deep space well beyond the reach of the galactic core worlds.
The new trilogy starts on shaky ground here in order to make the good guys the underdogs and replicate the feel of the original trilogy. If the Republic is the sole political power in the galaxy, why is Leia’s military force “The Resistance,” and why is it so small? If the First Order is striking from outside the known political universe, whence is it deriving its resources and recruits? If it took a monumental, decades-long effort by the whole galactic Empire to produce the Death Star, how did the insurgent First Order manage to build the much larger and more powerful Starkiller Base in total secrecy? Who is its leader Snoke, and from where does he derive his authority? Yes, some of this is explained in novels and comics, and some of it was left on the cutting room floor of the first film in the new trilogy. But the failure to explain the astropolitical and military dynamics is by far the weakest element of The Force Awakens, and needed to be rectified in Last Jedi.
Instead, the latest installment only exacerbates the problem. In a galaxy of trillions, the only military victory for the First Order was the destruction of the one single star system that contained the seat of the New Republic government. The First Order paid the price for that terrorist attack with the elimination of Starkiller Base and, presumably, a large portion of its fleet.
It seems almost unthinkable that even if they had intentionally disarmed prior to the event, the remaining Republic systems would not have geared up militarily in outraged response. It’s virtually impossible that the First Order would have the continued strength and resources — again, from where? — to mount an assault of conquest over the entire galaxy. This would be similar to assuming that after launching a terrorist attack destroying Washington, DC, North Korea would waltz over the ocean and conquer the whole of the United States without resistance except from a few plucky bands of underequipped midwestern high schoolers. It’s the space opera version of Red Dawn.
In the original trilogy, the Emperor had gained military control of the entire galaxy by taking charge of a republican government and creating an authoritarian state centered around him. Even at that, there was enough political opposition to him that the crawl of A New Hope says explicitly that “It is a period of civil war.” Without the help of the Senate, Emperor Palpatine had to rely on the Death Star to keep local systems in line and under control of the regional governors.
We are being led to believe that Leia’s Resistance to Snoke’s terrorist incursion is even less prepared and less organized than the rebellion against Palpatine’s totalitarian government, and that every system in the galaxy is surrendering without a fight. Many fans rightly argue that this cheapens the accomplishments of the original trilogy and makes their work and sacrifices seem in vain. This is true, but could be mocked as nostalgia for the heroes of another era. What’s more important is that it makes no sense politically, historically, militarily or strategically.
This level of desperation was not required for the story to present the good guys as the underdogs. A civil war in which the First Order had the upper hand would have been adequate to the task, actually made some modicum of sense, and provided the canvass for massive space battles that audiences had never yet seen in Star Wars.
But that’s not the story Rian Johnson wanted to tell, or the message he wanted to send — which, again, is the whole problem.
The first battle
The opening battle of the film is classic Star Wars. (We will ignore the already dated juvenile humor and jarring “your mom” jokes, an issue beyond the scope of this review.) The Resistance fleet is under assault and may not survive. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron distracts Admiral Hux and the First Order fleet long enough to allow the good guys to escape, in shades of the evacuation from Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. But then Dameron decides to take matters into his own hands by unilaterally disabling the defenses of the First Order dreadnought with derring-do worthy of Errol Flynn. He succeeds in thrilling fashion, and with the dreadnought’s defenses down, Poe calls in a bombing run to destroy it.
General Leia objects that it’s not worth the cost, but Dameron reminds her that they won’t get another similar chance at eliminating an enemy dreadnought. This exchange recalls a similar conversation in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fleet approaches the second Death Star only to realize that its shields are still active and the Empire is ready for their assault. It’s a trap!
When the Death Star destroys a rebel cruiser, Admiral Ackbar orders a retreat because they cannot repel fire of that magnitude, but Lando Calrissian reminds him that they won’t get another shot at taking out the Death Star. They have to give Han more time. That argument carries the day, and good thing: Ackbar turned out to be wrong and Lando was right. Was it the tactically responsible call? Probably not, but with the help of the Ewoks and a little help from The Force, it was the right decision in a galaxy far, far away. That’s part of what we love about this universe: that the Force tips the balance toward justice in ways that our cruel world so often does not. It is an alternate spirituality for a secular society.
Dameron and Leia have a similar conflict. Dameron calculates that the danger to a few bombers and fighters is worth it to eliminate the First Order capital ship, and decides to risk it.
What follows is also classic Star Wars: as the bombers approach, the First Order redirects its attention to them and the good guys start suffering heavy casualties. All seems lost: one bomber remains, and it is disabled. Its pilot (who we later find out is Rose’s sister) has fallen and is presumably paralyzed. The release for the bombs sits on a ledge far away. She kicks at the support, seemingly futilely. And then, at the last minute, she gets lucky! The detonator falls. Even more improbably, she catches it. The bombs are released, the dreadnought is destroyed, and her heroic self-sacrifice is rewarded.
But we know it wasn’t luck. In the Star Wars universe, it never is. In our experience, there’s no such thing as luck. The Force stepped in and rewarded the selflessness, courage and heroism of our protagonists. It’s a feel-good moment in spite of the loss.
Director Rian Johnson, for some reason, feels the need to punish us for that. When Dameron returns in jubilation, Leia scolds him rather than give a medal for his courage. The losses were too steep. The assault wasn’t worth it. Caution, we are told, would have been the better part of valor.
But here we must again scratch our heads in confusion.
In any credible military calculation, the elimination of an enemy capital ship is a fantastic trade for a few bombers and fighters — even in desperate circumstances. This was, after all, the strategy of the Japanese Empire in ordering kamikaze assaults on American battleships. If the Resistance is so weak and undermanned that it’s not a good trade — and again, how is that even possible? — then there’s no point in even having a resistance as a military or political force. A small space bomber literally only exists to conduct precisely such runs on capital ships, and should be scrapped for parts if such a run is bad strategy. If the audience is confused here, it’s not our fault: we should be confused.
This the first of many times that Johnson will cheat the audience to subvert our expectations and make us feel bad about things we have every reason to celebrate, in a way that doesn’t make sense under scrutiny. The conflict between Leia and Dameron is based on two different understandings of the war: Dameron is operating under the same expectation as the audience, namely that the Resistance is capable of fighting brief pitched battles against the First Order, and that substantive military victories in personnel and material can make a difference in winning that war. Leia is operating under the calculus of a guerrilla force in asymmetric warfare, where pitched battle is always a bad idea, the enemy has insuperable resources, and survival is the only option.
We the audience have no reason to believe that the entire Resistance to the First Order is a merely a Sandinista operation striking at targets of opportunity. We have no reason to believe that the First Order is so powerful and well-resourced that it can afford to lose a dreadnought without significant consequence. Johnson indirectly tells us these things to give Leia the right of the argument, but in so doing renders the Resistance an essentially irrelevant force in the galaxy. Implicitly, it no longer even matters if our protagonists survive or not so far as anyone on Coruscant or Naboo are concerned (and by the way, what is happening on Coruscant all this time? Isn’t that sort of important to know, at least by way of exposition?) Johnson had better hope that we are deeply emotionally invested in the characters on whom he is focused, because their fates and that of the galaxy are no longer intertwined.
But there’s another problem, too: it is made clear that if the dreadnought had not been destroyed, the Resistance capital ship would likely have been blown apart, taking Leia and presumably all that remains of the opposition to the First Order with it. If so, was Dameron’s strategy wrong after all, even in the calculus of asymmetric warfare? Even Johnson’s manipulation of the narrative to reinforce his message doesn’t make sense under scrutiny.
These movies feel small compared to the original and prequel films in spite of their visual grandeur and epic scale because the two sides operate without a broader political consequence, and because the Resistance itself is so overmatched that every battle feels like a tiny skirmish.
This need not be so, and makes no sense to be so. It’s only required to be so for Johnson’s “don’t be a hero, just survive” message to work in context. But it still doesn’t work for the universe, or even within the script itself.
Of all the divisive features of The Last Jedi, few have caused as much consternation as the transformation of Luke Skywalker’s character. Arguments about it usually devolve into a shouting match between (usually older) fans who feel that their heroic idol was maligned beyond recognition, and (usually younger) fans who feel that Luke was always a poorly written character given to whiny selfishness, and needed to be knocked down a few pegs from his pedestal.
But one doesn’t need to take a side in that fight to realize that Luke’s characterization in The Last Jedi is problematic on its storytelling merits — again in the service of a message that doesn’t fit the galaxy or its known characters.
Like most everyman protagonists in a coming-of-age hero’s journey, Luke Skywalker has some archetypical flaws and strengths. His core positive traits are innocence, courage and faith in redemption. His core negative traits are naivete, impulsiveness, overeagerness, whininess and a touch of savior’s complex.
It was incumbent on the writers of the new trilogy to push Luke gently out of the way in order to develop the new protagonists. This understandable necessity meant that Luke would necessarily be hampered by his faults despite his mastery of the Force, and Rey would be required to step in to solve what Luke could not after learning from him what to do — and hopefully what not to do as well.
But Luke’s failures and flaws should have been in keeping with his familiar characterization. Actor Mark Hamill found Johnson’s interpretation so jarring and out of sync with his understanding of the character that he had to think of himself as playing a different person altogether. “This is the next generation of Star Wars, so I almost had to think of Luke as another character. Maybe he is Jake Skywalker.” Hamill has regretted airing his differences with Johnson in public, but he’s not wrong. Luke doesn’t need to be the center of this story and he doesn’t need to be perfect, but he does still need to be Luke.
There were many possible directions to take a flawed and failed yet still believable Luke Skywalker. Luke’s unwillingness to see evil in others could have left him blind to Ben Solo’s conversion to Kylo Ren. His impulsive overeagerness and touch of narcissism should have led him to confront Snoke unprepared once he realized his failure, with disastrous consequences (this would have also helped to develop Snoke as well.) His savior complex could in theory have led him to endanger all of his friends by rushing to their aid and exposing them when they rather needed to stay hidden. All of these mistakes would have been in keeping with Skywalker’s character, and he could in theory have then overcompensated for them by hiding himself away for the greater safety of the galaxy.
But that’s not what we are told. Instead, we get a picture of Luke that doesn’t match what we know about him at all. We learn that Luke recognized the darkness building in Ben Solo, and knew that Snoke was responsible. But instead of confronting Snoke directly or attempting to reconvert Ben to the light, Luke inexplicably steps into Ben’s bedroom — his nephew and the child of Han and Leia — and briefly considers murdering him in cold blood in his sleep.
Then, after Ben wakes up and sees the threat, Luke apparently loses the fight to his barely trained apprentice and falls in the burning rubble of his academy. Ben/Kylo for his part apparently can’t feel that his master is still alive and leaves him there rather than finishing the job. And again, rather than confront Snoke as he once did Vader and Palpatine, Luke simply retreats to find the ancient Jedi Temple on an uncharted island, having realized that it’s time for the Jedi to end. In so doing, he leaves all his old friends, including his sister, to die at the hands of the apprentice he failed.
But…wait. If Luke was seeking an obscure death rather than answers, why go to the ancient Jedi Temple? Supposedly it’s the “hardest place to find in the galaxy,” but wouldn’t that be one of the first places the bad guys would look, especially since those “who knew him best” already knew that ‘s what Luke was seeking? Practitioners of the Dark Side presumably have their own ways of finding such a place. Similar McGuffins have been used in many expanded universe stories and video games, with the bad guys and good guys in a race to find some lost holocron or temple.
If Luke simply “came there to die” and was not awaiting a new apprentice to train, why not simply vanish into the Force where he could do no further harm? In the original trilogy we are given to understand that Old Ben Kenobi and Yoda were waiting, watching Luke and Leia at a distance, until the Force would indicate the right time to spring into action. If Luke was not waiting for a similar moment, what was he doing? If he wasn’t seeking revelations from the Ancient Temple, why go there? If his immediate reaction to Rey returning his father’s legendary lightsaber was to throw it over his shoulder in disgust, why was he clearly in tears when she delivered it to him at the end of The Force Awakens?
The maddening thing about all this is that we didn’t need to do this to Luke to center Rey in this story. But the writer needed to do this in order to make the galactic situation as pointlessly hopeless as possible.
If Luke had been his real self, he could have mitigated the rise of the First Order, impacted Ben Solo’s destiny, learned something about the Force and properly trained Rey. If the New Republic had been something other than a joke, it could have marshaled a fleet to stand up to the First Order after its strike on the Hosnian system. But those conditions wouldn’t have been well adapted to a movie whose message was to avoid heroism and embrace retreat.
Sitting on his island, Luke famously serves as the director’s mouthpiece and says, “This isn’t going to go the way you think.” True. But we have to ask ourselves why it’s going this way at all.
Snoke and Kylo Ren
Dive into a Star Wars fan forum and you’ll inevitably see the following argument about Snoke:
Fan 1: “Why didn’t we learn more about Snoke? It’s kind of important to know where he came from and how he rose to power.”
Fan 2: “You’re just upset your fan theory wasn’t addressed. We don’t need to know about Snoke. After all, we didn’t know where Palpatine came from in the Original Trilogy. Snoke was only important to develop Kylo Ren’s character.”
Fan 2 seems to have the more sophisticated argument at first glance. But only at first. If we think just a little more deeply, Snoke’s unexplained presence in these films is a serious problem.
The reason we don’t need a backstory for the Emperor in the original trilogy is that it’s a political story as old as the Caesars: a democratic republic falls under the spell of an authoritarian dictator, who proceeds to consolidate power and rule by fear. We don’t need to know more than that. History serves as our guide, even in a futuristic fantasy universe with magic and laser swords. Even so, George Lucas (inspired in part by the Bush/Cheney administration) thought it was an interesting enough question to devote an entire trilogy of films to chronicling the end of the Republic and the Emperor’s rise to power.
By contrast, we have little historical grounding for the end of an empire and a return to unstable republican order. Perhaps our best known historical precedent is the Napoleonic era in France, but that isn’t exactly kitchen table knowledge. If a remnant of the Empire has continued to thrive, we deserve at least a few sentences of exposition about that.
Beyond that, there’s Snoke’s pedigree with the Force to be reckoned with. If Snoke was present in the galaxy this whole time, how did none of the Sith lords and apprentices, nor any of the Jedi sense his existence? The Sith Order was limited to only two at a time, so clearly Snoke must not have been a trained Sith Lord. If not, whence he did he learn his dark powers? He is clearly scarred and deformed, so someone must have harmed him greatly in combat. Who is that someone and what is their story? The vexing nature of these questions led many fans to believe that Snoke could be none other than Palpatine’s old master Darth Plagueis the Wise, hiding from both his old apprentice and from the Jedi. Though that answer itself would open a whole other can of worms, it would at least resolve some major contradictions in the lore.
The film robs us of any answers to these questions with the stroke of a lightsaber, ostensibly because Snoke doesn’t matter. Only Kylo Ren matters.
But does he? Kylo Ren didn’t build the First Order. Kylo Ren didn’t maintain knowledge of the Dark Side of the Force in the absence of Vader and Palpatine. Kylo Ren didn’t pull together the remnants of the Empire into a force that could topple the New Republic. Kylo Ren didn’t corrupt and destroy the students at Luke’s Academy. In fact, the biggest question we need answered about Kylo Ren is why he turned to the Dark Side in the first place. It was an important enough question about Darth Vader that Lucas felt he needed three extra films to tell the tale, and Darth Vader wasn’t the son of two cherished heroes of the Rebellion. What did Snoke offer him? How did he make young Ben so obsessed with his grandfather? The film doesn’t just deny us key plot points about these things — it doesn’t even bother to hint at them via exposition.
Instead, Snoke just dies, as do all his bodyguards. Who, by the way, are also force adepts because why not? Were they the Knights of Ren who helped Kylo topple Luke, as alluded to in The Force Awakens? Who knows? Certainly not the audience. If they were, shouldn’t they have been conflicted in trying to kill Kylo Ren? If not, why were they trained in the force? What is going on here?
Director Rian Johnson seems to care so little about these questions that it’s almost an explicit taunt to the fans: “You know those things you cared about? They don’t matter. Only Kylo Ren’s character development matters.”
But they do, Rian. They do matter. The fact that the entire First Order appears to have been a cult of personality around Snoke means that Kylo Ren should have had some difficulty commandeering its leadership for himself. Even Darth Vader would have had no small difficulty securing the obeisance of the Imperial generals in the event of Palpatine’s death. Kylo Ren’s ascension to power should be controversial, and we should be curious to know how his priorities might differ from Snoke’s — particularly if he is as morally conflicted as he appears.
With Snoke gone, a freed Kylo Ren in charge of the First Order should be able to set his own terms of engagement. Clearly he still feels a connection to his mother in refusing to fire the killing blow. He feels a powerful connection to and perhaps a romantic interest in Rey. Why, then, does he pursue an even more aggressively murderous campaign than Snoke’s?
None of this is ever explained. For all the odd hullabaloo The Last Jedi received for its supposed moral complexity, we are left with an antagonist who still seems more a spoiled child than a terrifying dark lord, who seems an even less complex character now than at the end of The Force Awakens, and whose motivations are even more unclear than before.
A story in which Luke Skywalker had sacrificed himself to destroy Snoke would have left an angry yet confused and ambivalent Kylo Ren, setting up a complex interaction with Rey in the final act of the new trilogy. But it would also have glorified heroic self-sacrifice and given the Resistance a tangible military victory.
And that, again, is not the story the director wanted to tell. Instead, Kylo Ren inexplicably takes over from Snoke as the psychopathic tyrant in charge, having learned nothing from his interactions with Rey, ruthlessly cornering our heroes into such a hopeless position that their only option is retreat on board a single tiny ship.
That is convenient for the story Johnson wanted to tell. But that doesn’t make it a good story.
Admiral Holdo and the Casino Side Plot
If your idea of a good message for kids is “always trust authority, even when it’s aloof, condescending, non-transparent and doesn’t appear to have a real plan” then The Last Jedi is the perfect movie for you. For the rest of us? Maybe not so much.
We are introduced to Admiral Holdo about a third of the way through the movie after Leia is incapacitated by injury, and Rian Johnson clearly intends for the audience to dislike her from the moment she arrives. Played to perfection by Laura Dern, she is by turns cagey and imperious, smug, guarded and sharply critical of subordinates. We see no indication of strategic brilliance or tactical ability beyond the fact that the chain of command has placed her in charge. We are told that she has the chops for it, but we aren’t shown it.
The situation isn’t tactically complex. The Resistance flagship has little fuel left and only one jump to hyperspace. Unlike the Imperials before them, the First Order can apparently track the ship through hyperspace, so there’s no salvation there. If there’s a plan beyond following the playbook to expend all their fuel and then jump to hyperspace, neither the audience nor the characters are made aware of it — nor does Admiral Holdo bother to give a hint that there even is a plan. Not even a “trust me, I know what I’m doing here and we’re going to make it.” Nope. Holdo just pulls rank on Dameron and dismisses him as an upstart flyboy. She provides no inspiration to the crew and instills no confidence either in them or in the audience.
Johnson does all of this intentionally. He wants us to side with Poe and against Holdo precisely so that he can subvert our expectations later and give us a teaching lesson about heroism and leadership. But it’s a bad lesson. If leadership appears to be out of its depth and sticking to a bad plan, it’s right to challenge those leaders. If those leaders fail to give an accounting of their actions or at least instill confidence that they can be trusted, their leadership should be challenged. It’s a message we embrace continuously in our popular culture, even in stories with a strict hierarchical military setting from Crimson Tide to A Few Good Men. We especially embrace authority-challenging narratives in fiction designed for kids and for good reason. Leaders need to be questioned and subverted when necessary to create a better world.
Understandably, Dameron takes matters into his own hands and hatches a plan to disable the First Order’s hyperspace tracking system. He reaches out to wise old Maz Kanata who notably does not attempt to dissuade him, but rather points him to a person who might be able to help. He asks Finn and Rose to embark on the mission; both of them understand the necessity of putting their lives at risk to save the fleet. Rose in particular does not want her sister to have died in vain.
What follows is a very long, visually chaotic and much-criticized side quest to the casino world Canto Bight to find a master codebreaker who can sneak them onto the First Order ship. Nitpickers have taken it apart in depth, but our focus here is on the grander themes, not the pesky headscratching details.
Finn and Rose are eventually caught and thrown in jail, but just when the situation seems hopeless we get another classic Star Wars moment. Out of nowhere, a drunken thief named DJ (played with bizarre affect by the legendary Benicio Del Toro) appears and says he can do the job. Finn and Rose are skeptical, but clearly DJ is more than what he seems. Together they break out of jail, trash the casino, free the space horses and head out on their stealth mission.
And here again we feel the power of the Force at work. Time and again in Star Wars our heroes get unexpected help from the humblest and unlikeliest of places, whether it’s a rusty bucket of bolts piloted by a walking carpet, or a little green muppet in a jungle, a group of silly forest teddy bears, or even a bumbling floppy-eared amphibious rabbit. Their providential arrival is usually mistrusted and mocked by our protagonists, but their help is invaluable to the mission. It’s a reminder never to overlook the seemingly weak and irrelevant, for in them do we often see the hand of God and the eternal Oneness of Being, the Force that surrounds and binds all living things.
For some unknown reason Rian Johnson seems to believe that, rather than central to the very heart of Star Wars, this trope is a source of undue comfort that requires explosion and subversion. So instead of being the source of salvation for a doomed mission, our unlikely accomplice DJ sells out our heroes — and not only that,betrays information that will likely doom the entire Resistance fleet. The Resistance would have been better off if Finn and Rose had just languished a few days in the Canto Bight jail and never met DJ at all. So was finding DJ really just coincidental bad luck? Or is the Force complicit in sabotaging our heroes to teach them a lesson about not being heroes and meekly obeying authority without reason? While some prominent critics have described the Canto Bight plot as pointless, others have more rightly noted that it served explicitly to mock the mystique of heroism within the fandom itself. Again we must ask ourselves: why do this at all?
DJ also casually tells us in a forced expositional side note that all the villainous plutocrats on Canto Bight are arms dealers (really — all of them?) not only to the First Order (with what tax base is the First Order buying all these weapons rather than constructing them?) but also to the Resistance (doesn’t the Resistance only have a few dozen ships?) This is a child’s pantomime of moral complexity, ground that was already covered more effectively in Rogue One when Jyn Erso discovers that the Rebellion isn’t quite as morally upstanding as it’s cracked up to be. In Rogue One the moral equivocation gave depth to the story, genuine conflicts of choice to the protagonists, and actually made sense in context. None of it makes sense here, but making sense isn’t the point of this story. Making Star Wars fans feel bad about our moral instincts and our faith in the Force is.
In one of the film’s more controversial twists, Poe Dameron leads an armed mutiny against Admiral Holdo to give Finn and Rose more time to disable the tracker system. But all Finn and Rose manage to do is allow DJ to discover and sell to the enemy the leadership’s real secret plan: offloading cloaked transports to the nearby planet Crait while the First Order is focused on the capital ship. Dameron’s gambit is proved disastrous, he gets the business end of Leia’s stun gun, and total annihilation is only prevented by Admiral Holdo’s hyperspace kamikaze maneuver (more on that later.) Holdo was proved right all along, and Dameron shown to be an upstart arrogant fool. One imagines the director smiling with glee as the audience is forced to grapple with its own subverted expectations and inner conflict. Were we too quick to side with the hotshot pilot? Why didn’t we give Holdo the benefit of the doubt? What does that say about us as an audience? Tough stuff, right?
But as before with the initial conflict between Poe and Leia, this is a cheat. In order to give Holdo the right of the argument, several suspension-of-disbelief twists and audience-deceiving sleights of hand were necessary.
First, at no point in any of the prior films are we made aware of the existence of “cloaked transports,” nor is it remotely believable that with the entire First Order in hot pursuit they would have any prayer of going undetected. Second and more importantly, at no point were we ever told that the planet Crait was nearby. Was the planet there off to the side the whole time during the interminable high speed chase through space? That clearly wouldn’t make sense. But if the Resistance was speeding straight to Crait with the last reserves of its fuel, wouldn’t the First Order blockade the planet as a matter of course? Wouldn’t it be obvious that escape to the planet’s surface would be part of the plan, regardless of whether the flagship disappeared into hyperspace? Admiral Hux is an incompetent to be sure, but he’s not that stupid. And Leia understands enough about the Force to know that either Snoke or her own son would almost certainly be able to detect the easily predictable feint. The only way to make Holdo’s plan make any sense at all is to deprive the audience of information and dazzle us with faux subversive twists before we start to think too long about what just happened.
If the writer had had the full courage of his convictions, he would have seen Poe Dameron court martialed and punished for his disastrous insubordination. Some have clamored for exactly that, feeling that Poe got off far too easy. But Rian Johnson knew he could only push the audience so far before they seriously questioned the whole conceit and revolted themselves. Instead, we get a storytelling mishmash in which the leader of a failed armed mutiny that nearly gets everyone killed is forgiven simply because the admirals who put it down “like him.” This is bad writing.
Unfortunately, many politically progressive fans have taken to the barricades to defend and celebrate Admiral Holdo as an example of firm feminist leadership against the assaults of misogynistic young men. Many women have dealt with their share of cocky, disrespectful men and are understandably glad to see an empowering female figure in such a prominent tentpole film — and who could argue with that? The problem is that despite the director’s manipulative attempt to make her the better leader, Admiral Holdo only serves to reinforce many negative stereotypes of women in leadership: cautious, defensive, aloof, opaque and officious. The fact that she improbably turns out to have been right in Johnson’s narrative does not do a service to the cause of breaking bad stereotypes. It only tries to force the audience to accept that those stereotypes represent good qualities in leadership. They never have, and they never will — regardless of gender.
Most frustrating here is that a far more culturally effective female Star Wars protagonist appeared just last year in the superior film Rogue One, where our heroine Jyn Erso made laudable rebellious decisions almost exactly parallel to those of Poe Dameron.
In Rogue One, Jyn Erso tries to convince the Rebel Alliance to make a shorthanded assault on an Imperial position to obtain the Death Star plans. But the Alliance’s leaders — mostly a collection of officious old men — are reticent to move. The male leadership isn’t convinced that Erso’s father told her the truth about the Death Star’s weakness and won’t risk their position. They’re afraid it’s a trap to lure them into an open pitched battle. They want to hide to fight another day. Cue Jyn Erso:
JYN: What chance do we have? Run, hide, plead for mercy, scatter your forces. You give way to an enemy this evil with this much power and you condemn the galaxy to an eternity of submission. The time to fight is now! Every moment you waste is another step closer to the ashes of Jedha…Send your best troops to Scarif [the location of the Death Star plans]. Send the Rebel Fleet if you have to. You need to capture the Death Star plans if there’s any hope of destroying it.
SENATOR PAMLO: You’re asking us to invade an imperial installation based on nothing but hope.
JYN: Rebellions are built on hope.
But the Rebel Council refuses to fight. General Mon Mothma declares that the odds of failure are too great. So what does Jyn do? She goes rogue. She disobeys the orders of the ineffectual council and instigates the fight of her own accord, drawing the unwilling alliance into an unwanted battle. It was the right call. Thanks to her insubordination — and with a little help from the Force — the Rebellion managed to survive.
Would only that Jyn Erso had survived to become second-in-command of the Resistance. She would have found a kindred spirit in Poe Dameron and provided some desperately needed leadership.
Broken combat and an inept villain
Unforunately, it’s not just characterization and world-building that suffers from the script’s contrivances. It’s also the basic mechanics of Star Wars combat and space travel.
Space battles in Star Wars tend to be fast and chaotic affairs. Even large ships are generally lightly shielded and can’t sustain much damage. Small ships tend to be able to outrun larger ones, and lengthy chases are prevented by the ability to jump to hyperspace. These rules of engagement aren’t just to keep the films exciting, or because they’re based on World War II air combat. They’re also what gives the heroes a fighting chance against insurmountable odds. When the Empire catches our heroes as on Hoth, they can mount an escape if only they can buy themselves enough time. With a series of quick strikes as on both Death Stars, they can also win short pitched battles that would be numerically impossible on longer time frames and with more effective Imperial defenses.
The long, drawn out chase in The Last Jedi breaks most of these rules in the service of poorly considered plot contrivances intentionally designed to render futile any armed resistance to the bad guys.
The notion of a lugubrious space chase in which the First Order and Resistance flagships have identical rates of speed is ludicrous on its face. Even worse is the notion that the Resistance vessel can sustain continuous damage to its shield for hours and hours on end but cannot actually escape, giving the audience a permanent sense of boredom, claustrophobia or both. We are fed this tactical information through clunky exposition on board both ships, and in so doing the director breaks our suspension of disbelief and reveals the puppeteer pulling the strings behind the proscenium.
But that’s not all. We are told in the opening crawl that the First Order has essentially conquered the entire galaxy. If that’s the case, why not simply bring in reinforcements out of hyperspace from the other side of the galaxy to catch the Resistance fleet? Since the First Order can clearly sustain the loss of a single dreadnought without feeling the pinch, surely they have at least one other dreadnought hanging out in another quadrant of the galaxy? And why didn’t the First Order ever scramble its TIE fighters and other small craft to pummel the Resistance flagship from all sides? Are their snub ships also limited to the same speed barriers as the main vessels? If so, how did Finn’s little ship get away? You may not have openly considered these problems while watching the film, but your subconscious probably did.
Now we come to that scene: the one where Admiral Holdo is given the film’s only meaningful act of sacrifice and tactical efficacy by (oh boy) using a hyperspace jump to destroy the First Order’s fleet. This is going to require a bit of deconstruction, but it’s important.
Granted, the hyperspace problem can be a bit confusing because the films tend to use the terms “hyperspace” and “lightspeed” interchangeably even though they’re not at all the same thing. Without delving into a physics lesson, let’s just note that light speed isn’t terribly fast by space travel standards: it would take over four years traveling at the speed of light just to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun. Further, actually traveling at the speed of light would atomize organic bodies and generate all sorts of physics paradoxes. The only way to make space travel in a universe like Star Wars remotely credible is to assume the bending of space time, taking shortcuts through wormholes. That’s what hyperspace is. It’s not linear travel in a direction through Newtonian motion. That’s why this image of “light speed” seen here:
was replaced with this one in later films:
Those with sufficient interest can read all the hardcore nerdy details on hyperspace travel here if they care to. Disney’s official canon will certainly try to retcon its way out of this mess (probably by postulating an extremely short-range jump pinpointed on the First Order position), but suffice it to say that Holdo’s maneuver simply should not have been possible.
Either the ship should have rammed the First Order vessel at normal speed — which it had neither the speed nor the shields to do — or jumping to hyperspace should have warped it directly out of local space without physically impacting surrounding ships. Instead, in a dumbstruck moment of silence we see the jet trail of the linear path Holdo’s ship used to impact the First Order flagship and decimate the surrounding vessels.
This isn’t a small nitpick, either. If hyperdrive can be used as a kinetic weapon against enemy ships, then every laser-based weapon in Star Wars is instantly obsolete. All that would be needed to eliminate entire planets and fleets is a sufficient number of heavy unmanned objects attached to commonly available hyperdrive engines. In one ill-considered twist, Rian Johnson has ruined space combat in Star Wars permanently in such a way that Disney will now be forced to either pretend it never happened, or find some difficult way of explaining why it was only possible in that one situation.
Moving past all that, the First Order’s tactical blunders and inconsistencies continue in the assault on the Resistance position on the salt and red rock planet of Crait.
Once the First Order had the good guys cornered in Space Helm’s Deep, why didn’t they surround the entire mountain instead of just camping out in front of the door? When Rose scuttles Finn’s Independence Day style suicide run on the ground cannon by crashing into his speeder, how did the First Order not kill or capture them both before she apparently dragged him all the way across the salt flats to safety? How did Rey approach the planet, land the Millennium Falcon and leave with the tattered and irrelevant remains of the Resistance unnoticed? How did the fearsome Kylo Ren not feel her presence nearby as Vader once did Obi-Wan’s, given their unprecedentedly powerful connection through the Force?
Is everyone in the First Order completely incompetent?
These are pesky questions with troubling answers. The truth is that the director wanted to kettle the audience into a rat trap with no hope of salvation beyond that provided by Poe Dameron’s gambit — and then twist the knife by making us feel like fools for siding with him while giving Admiral Holdo the sole moment of improbable glory. But to do so he had to break all of the rules of engagement we implicitly understand in this fictional universe and ruin its space combat mechanics. Not a good trade.
Rey and The Force
But what of Rey, you ask? She’s the movie’s central protagonist and yet we’ve spent little time so far discussing her. But that’s very much the problem: for a film in which she is supposedly the main character, she has very little impact on the narrative. And what little character development she does receive makes her less interesting as a result, and cheapens the power of the Force.
For all her valiant efforts, Rey is unable to persuade Luke to come out of his shell. (Yoda must intervene to do that, instead.) She fails every test of what little training she does receive from Luke. She is equally unable to convince Kylo Ren to turn back to the light, and is hopelessly overpowered against and outwitted by Snoke. She does refuse the temptation to join Kylo Ren and turn to the Dark Side, but there is nothing in her past behavior to suggest that she was ever in real danger of falling into darkness. We never believed she would take his offer seriously: she is far too innocent and full of hope to do so, much as Luke was before her when made the same offer by Vader — and Luke’s temptation was far greater both because of the family connection and because his alternative was near certain death. She does lift a pile of rocks at the end of the film to save Leia’s tiny crew of survivors, but this act feels far smaller and less awe-inducing than her mid-air theft of Luke’s lightsaber from Kylo Ren toward the end of The Force Awakens as John Williams’ force theme swells behind her.
Rey’s one character flaw in both The Last Jedi and in The Force Awakens is her longing for her parents and her inability to let go of the past. It’s the one thing that holds her back from truly achieving her potential. But she’s also so incredibly skilled in the Force — even without training — that the audience must assume something special about her lineage. The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams left enormous hints that Rey must be someone of important stock, from her characteristic British accent to her offhanded declaration to BB-8 that her parentage is a “big secret.” It’s not just wishful thinking by the audience and the character: it’s deliberately and carefully foreshadowed.
Many critics found the film’s revelation that Rey’s heritage is insignificant to be refreshing, a signal that the Force is open to everyone and not just an elite few from birth. But the intense focus on the Skywalkers notwithstanding, this has always been true in Star Wars. Not every Jedi (or Sith) in the academy came from force-wielding parents, and many more who possessed the gift were never trained. It’s not groundbreaking for a powerful force adept to come from humble origins. But Rey is so extraordinarily powerful that it requires some sort of explanation, which makes it doubly frustrating when Rian Johnson simply brushes aside all of J.J. Abrams’ foreshadowing to that effect.
Ironically, Snoke does provide an answer of sorts when he says “Darkness rises, and the light to meet it.” Snoke seems to be suggesting that the Light Side of the Force itself settled on a single individual on whom to bestow its gifts as a counterbalance to the First Order’s rising darkness. But if that’s the case, then it’s not exactly a democratization of the Force as many critics contend. Rey is rather simply the beneficiary of a capricious universe that just so happened to pick her out of nowhere.
With her refusal to join Kylo and the exposure of her insignificant parentage, every interesting conflict in Rey’s character is suddenly gone in one blow. She is a character of pure light, bearing no doubts or insecurities and having no limits on what she can achieve.
And that, too, is a problem, because we no longer have a grounding in what the Force even is or what its adepts can do. Perhaps the best moment of The Last Jedi comes when Luke shows Rey that the Force is not limited to light and dark, but contains in both the entire balance of the universe:
Luke Skywalker: What do you see?
Rey: The island. Life. Death and decay, that feeds new life. Warmth. Cold. Peace. Violence.
Luke Skywalker: And between it all?
Rey: Balance and energy. A force.
Luke Skywalker: And inside you?
Rey: Inside me, that same force.
We are opened to the possibility of the Force as something beyond Jedi and Sith, a mystical and transcendental power freed from old doctrines. The Jedi of old were sexless, passionless monks who failed Anakin Skywalker and the galaxy through their blind rigidity. The Sith were murderous monsters so unable to slake their passion for power that they were forced to remain in the shadows and unable to build an organization larger than two at a time.
Luke speaks truth when he says that the Jedi must end. In their place we are made to hope for a more spiritual awakening, one that comprehends both yin and yang within it and achieves a greater potential in so doing. This vision of the Force has the power to guide our protagonists in unexpected directions, leading Rey to lose her innocence and Kylo Ren to bestill his insecurities.
But those hopeful expectations of moral growth and complexity are shattered. By the end of the film Rey is even more purely light than she started, and Kylo Ren more hopelessly lost in darkness. In spite of the film’s initial seductive hints to the contrary, the moral topography of the universe winds up even more Western and inflexible in its dualism than it was before.
As for the Jedi? When Luke Skywalker gathers the courage to finally burn the ancient Jedi texts but finds himself unable to finish the job, a mischievous Yoda gleefully steps in to do it for him, casting a bolt of lightning that burns the ancient tree to the ground and telling him not to worry: Rey already possesses the core knowledge in the texts, and “page turners they were not.” But then we learn that the books were not destroyed after all; rather, Rey stole them away and has them on board the Falcon. So…what is the message here? In what way is it a spiritual break from the rigid organized religion of the past to destroy an ancient living creature in the flames, but preserve dusty old doctrinaire tomes?
In the end, the one ray of hope Rian Johnson provides us is the awakening of a new generation of force adepts inspired by the example of Luke Skywalker’s impressive feat of projection on Crait, personified by the broom kid on Canto Bight. Here again, though, we must ask some uneasy questions: in a galaxy so weak in media presence that the events of the Return of the Jedi have been lost to myth and the very Jedi Order cast into doubt, how would the galaxy even come to hear of the tiny skirmish on Crait? The members of the Resistance were busy escaping out the back tunnels, and officers of the First Order are unlikely to regale children with tales of their enemy’s heroics. Was the battle somehow streamed on Galaxybook Live?
And even if the Force is awakening through the galaxy, what does that even mean? Are force powers now available to any child who believes? What about to adults? Will they need either physical or moral training to use these powers?
Johnson seems to fundamentally misunderstand the Force. The greater living Force should be easy to tap into, to flow alongside with by trusting one’s instincts, and to observe in its serendipitous wonder — even for those not adept in controlling it. I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me. The Force is my ally — and a powerful ally it is.
But manipulating the Force should be difficult and fraught with risk. Johnson takes the reverse approach. He views its sublime, invisible power to render the impossible possible as a lazy trope in need of subversion. But when it comes to performing magic tricks, it seems that almost anything is possible: Leia can, apparently without training, push herself back to safety through empty space like Superman; Rey can lift dozens of rocks with merely a thought while Luke could barely lift a single one with supreme effort; and random children can now play with brooms like magic wands.
These two simultaneous errors weaken and cheapen the Force, changing it from a galactic consciousness of binding energy into an anything-goes Harry Potter-style magic tool. If this is supposed to be our one note of hope after an entire film dedicated to retreat and failure, it’s a sour note at best.
So what now?
J.J. Abrams has a lot of work cut out for him in Episode IX. Rian Johnson’s insistence on forcing an unwanted narrative on the Star Wars universe has left Abrams in an unenviable position.
The Episode IX must wrap up the trilogy by either reversing course on many of Johnson’s narrative decisions, or by embracing a narrative in which a boring and morally perfect protagonist in a hopeless strategic position faces off against a militarily overpowered yet underwhelming and irredeemable antagonist, with only the help of an army of newly force-enabled children. Yikes.
May the Force be with him — and with us all.