Obligatory spoiler warning for all Star Wars movies, and a few video games.
The original Star Wars trilogy established a whole host of expectations, which were then recycled by The Force Awakens (we will touch on them in detail below). The Last Jedi subverted many of them, and in doing soon, earned praise from a large number reviewers. The film holds around a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score. The audience disagreed, greatly, giving it 49%. The filmmakers and critics were quick to dismiss this score as the result of trolling by “angry fan boys”. This may be a legitimate sentiment. But even if true, it could not account for such a large discrepancy. Why is this? How could there be this chasm between the audience and critics in such an iconic franchise?
Let us start by defining terms:
Expectation: a strong belief that something will happen. For example, certain expectations exist around Rey, Kylo Ren and Snoke because of the experience with Luke, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine — the fallen party will be redeemed by turning on their evil master to save the conflicted hero.
Subversion: contradicting values or principles of a system in an attempt to transform the established order.
Audiences enter a story with certain expectations. These are produced by the audience’s cultural milieu, their preconceived notions about the particular story (trailers, previous films) and crucially, the expectations the story creates through world building and storytelling. On the flip side, if contrived circumstances are used to generate expectations, then the subversion is contrived as well. In other words, the expectation exists solely to be subverted, to fake out the audience, and nothing else.
Below we will deconstruct several of the prominent examples of subverted expectations presented in TLJ, dig down to see whether the praise was deserved, and why there is such disagreement on the film. This list isn’t comprehensive, but does cover most of the major plot points.
Luke’s reaction to Rey handing over his lightsaber
Picking up from the end of The Force Awakens, on the remote planet Ahch-To, Rey hands Luke his old lightsaber, only for Luke to throw it over his shoulder and walk away. This scene subverts expectations in that the audience did not expect Luke to have such a reaction. He is a Jedi Master who is given his old lightsaber. There is history and character development to suggest its importance to him. His entire existence is defined by his use of a lightsaber to defeat his father, Darth Vader, and bring about the death of the Emperor to save the Galaxy from the oppressive Empire. No one could possibly throw away such an artifact, unless they were a broken Jedi who has retreated from the Force.
The problem with the scene is that it is tone deaf in that it attempts to inject humor where humor is not warranted (the author heard no laughter in his theater viewing). Star Wars is not built upon gag scenes, and this moment was one of many entirely out of place attempts at comedy in TLJ. Imagine if Ellen Ripley did something silly in Alien, or John Rambo in First Blood. Or if Daniel Craig got all cheeky in the newest Bond movies (that would be fine if it were the Roger Moore era). Inserting a gag scene into a series which has not relied on such storytelling devices is contrived, and pulls the audience out of the narrative.
If, for instance, Luke had simply examined the lightsaber, then dropped it to the ground and walked off, the scene would still be effective as a subverted expectation. Luke is portrayed as rejecting his past — in essence himself as a heroic Jedi — and the scene no longer takes the audience out of the moment because its purpose is not meant to elicit laughter. While the scene is odd, it does not alter the narrative, so it’s overall effect on the movie is minimal.
Subverted expectation analysis: This subverted expectation was a success, despite the tone deafness of the scene in regards to Luke.
Finn and Rose will save the day with their Canto Bight excursion
But they don’t. Their entire side quest — to find a master hacker to get them aboard Snoke’s ship -served to illuminate an awful truth in the Star Wars universe: the real winners play the middle. DJ, the conveniently found master hacker, teaches Finn and Rose this when he sells out the Resistance to the First Order for some unknown reward — but seemingly worthwhile — reward
Their failure, that the hero’s quest can fail, is a subverted expectation. The storyline set them up to be the saviors of the Resistance fleet through their mission to retrieve the master hacker to sneak onboard Snoke’s flagship and disable the tracking capability. The problem with this subversion is that it is based on contrived circumstances.
The major examples of these circumstances are convenient stupidity (they are arrested for parking their ship on the beach), a lucky encounter (the man in their call also happens to be a master hacker), and improbably convenient timing (their exposure by the evil BB-8, the Resistance plan is leaked to DJ who overhears it when Poe calls at the exact moment Finn and Rose are locked up). Later on, after their capture and moments before their execution, they are saved by Admiral Holdo’s sacrificial lightspeed jump. This allows for Finn and Captain Phasma to have their “dramatic” showdown, in what could be seen as an underwhelming attempt to make up for Phasma’s disappointing appearance in TFA (deemed as such by a majority of moviegoers and critics alike).
To recap, Poe, Finn and Rose rested the hopes of the Resistance on an ill-conceived, last ditch plan which is propelled forward through a series of contrived and improbable circumstances, all to drive home a “morality is gray” message and allow for a dramatic action scene with a sliver of narrative stakes (Phasma vs. Finn).
Subverted expectation analysis: When viewed as a whole, the overall message of Finn and Rose’s journey — that the heroes can fail — is undermined by the contrived circumstances of its progression.
Poe vs Holdo
Based on TFA and earlier scenes in TLJ (destroying the Dreadnought), expectations are laid out that Poe will save the dwindling Resistance fleet, now with the help of Finn and Rose. That is the legacy of the dashing, hotshot pilot, to take on impossible odds and pull off improbable victories. However, after Leia’s space “flight” and removal from command, newly appointed leader of the Resistance, Vice Admiral Holdo, has other ideas. The Resistance flees from the First Order, only to discover they are being tracked. Poe asks Holdo what the plan to escape is, and she tells him they will continue on their course. She mentions no plan to escape, or even if she has a plan, and simply won’t reveal it to him. Poe then sets into motion the plan to disable the tracker on Snoke’s ship with the help of Finn and Rose. His actions are portrayed as insubordinate, and he is deemed as lacking leadership by Leia later on in the film.
Holdo is insinuated to be a good leader based on the mention of a notable battle, and ultimately, in the end her plan for the Resistance fleet is the “right” one. She was thrust into a difficult situation — replacing a legendary leader in Leia at a desperate moment with seemingly no hope. Yet, she comes into power with a workable plan which carries reduced risk save for the loss of the capital ships. Her failure to communicate this plan, or any indication she had a plan, to those under her command, and expect them (Poe) to trust her, is a failure of leadership. The problem with this storyline is that Holdo is the one displaying poor leadership, and Poe, despite his flaws, is acting in a reasonable way in this instance. From his point of view — and anyone else who does not know her plan — she is leading them to certain death (stay the course), while he has a plan that might save them all, yet she will not listen to him.
To actually have Poe in error here, the filmmakers needed to portray him acting against someone who is displaying good leadership. Given the plot line presented, two plausible scenarios are:
- If Holdo told Poe there was a plan in the works, but refused to reveal any details and told him to stand down, and the pilot went off with his rogue side plan anyway.
- If Holdo revealed the entire plan, and Poe disagreed that the loss of the capital ships was acceptable, and enacted his side plan anyway.
In either case, Holdo is displaying good leadership. Good leaders listen and share. In the film, Holdo does neither. It is her actions — her refusal to communicate that there was a plan, and her lack of a contingency plan(s) — which lead to her eventual downfall, and the horrible losses suffered by the Resistance. (Her contingency plan may have been the ramming maneuver, but this cannot be established within the viewing of the movie, for she makes no mention of it.)
The sad irony of the situation is had Holdo revealed the truth, and Poe relayed his idea to disable the tracking device, both plans could have been enacted, leaving open the possibility of saving the capital ships. This would have avoided the contrived situation of improbably convenient timing where Poe accidentally reveals the Resistance’s plans to DJ over the “phone”, and the subsequent loss of most of the Resistance personnel.
Subverted expectation analysis: This subverted expectation fails due to contrived circumstances, and the false proclamation that Holdo displayed good leadership, while Poe was insubordinate.
Rey will have some important heritage
Near the end of the movie, Kylo helps Rey to realize what she already knew all along — her parents were nobodies, and worse, junkies who sold her. Though this may be disappointing to fans, this subversion of expectation both works and does not work at the same time.
First, how it works.
There were hints of Rey’s connections to an original trilogy character during TFA, namely her force visions when touching Anakin’s lightsaber. The topic of Rey’s parentage generated numerous fan theories and debate. Thus, when she is revealed to not be related to any known force user, it is a successful subverted expectation. Rey’s visions could be explained by her force connection sensing the memories associated with the weapon. This explanation fits within the established narrative of the Star Ware universe.
Now, consider how this is also not a subverted expectation, but an expectation in itself.
Having a powerful Force user arise from nowhere is not something new to the Star Wars universe. The Skywalker bloodline started with a boy conceived without a father in the desert — Anakin Skywalker. Rey’s journey into the heart of the story relies on circumstance as much as Anakin’s did — picked up on a desert planet by important characters in the story arc.
Many reviewers have reveled in TLJ’s “takedown” of the Skywalker bloodline, paving the way for a “new generation”. The irony in the massive praise for the subverted expectation that was Rey’s lack of lineage was the fact that it is not subverted at all. It is in fact an expectation. Every Jedi should not come from a bloodline, as the Jedi Order rules do not allow marriage and children. They enroll Force sensitive individuals at a young age, and train them over a lifetime. The Skywalker bloodline is four people — Anakin, Luke, Leia, Ben. Lannisters and Starks the Skywalker are not. While the first six movies focus on the Skywalker family, the prequels contained a broader cast of characters to show how the Jedi failed in addition to Anakin’s descent to the Dark side of the force. The Jedi, the Sith, and every other major player are just as important as the young slave boy who happened to cross paths with a Jedi Master in the desert.
Subverted expectation analysis: Overall, this subversion of expectation works, as long as it is examined from a certain point of view.
To understand Snoke, we must understand his archetype — the Emperor. Strictly examining the original trilogy, there were sparse details on Palpatine’s rise to power. Mr. Johnson, director of TLJ, in his defense of Snoke’s lack of background details, stated as such in interviews. His assertion that they share the same unknown/undefined background — and hence, it was not necessary to expound upon Snoke’s — is unequivocally incorrect. Even though the Emperor’s rise to power was not examined until the prequels, the original trilogy made use of the Emperor’s little relative screen time to develop his character.
- In A New Hope, it is mentioned the Emperor dissolved the senate, thus giving some insight into how he was able to consolidate his power, and also his cunning and strategic thinking in getting into a position to do so.
- During the The Empire Strikes Back, he speaks with Vader about the threat of Skywalker and the plan to turn him to the dark side.
- In Return of the Jedi, the Emperor carries out a plan to crush the Rebellion at last, and unbeknownst to his apprentice, replace Vader with Luke. The Emperor is given a personality beyond pure evil villain — snarky and conniving as he trades barbs with Luke. He tugs at Luke’s soul, turning his strength (his compassion for his friends and people, the Rebels) into a weakness. He travels with a personal retinue, and is shown conversing with them, the context of which the audience can only imagine. He was the one who set a trap for the Rebellion above Endor, and almost succeeded in their destruction, were it not for Vader’s redemption to the Light (and the Ewoks. Credit must be given where credit is due).
There are enough subtle references and character development to make the Emperor’s presence felt over the course of three movies. He is defined by the Empire he controls. By its oppression, cruelty and arrogance. Stripped of Force powers, the Emperor would still be an intimidating figure.
Then we have Snoke, who follows a similar path — leader of a totalitarian regime, user of the Dark side, corrupter of a Light side follower, obsessed with finding a Skywalker. According to expectation, he will be slain by Kylo, who is redeemed to the light with the help of Rey. Instead, Kylo slays Snoke and takes his place as the ultimate villain in a subversion of expectations. This specific twist was lavished with praise by critics, though it is not a novel concept to the Star Wars universe — it is the destiny of a Sith apprentice, to take the place of the master (Granted Snoke and Ren are not Sith. But the audience expectation still exists).
Here is the problem with Snoke — without character development and storytelling, he exists solely to be subverted. He’s a copy of what came before, placed there with little to no context or explanation in the narrative. He is simply presented as another Emperor-type figure, lording over an Empire-type military, which has somehow come back stronger after its defeat in ROTJ. The Empire was not formed overnight. It was born from a corrupted and twisted bureaucracy which was then dissolved by the machinations of a master manipulator, all under the nose of the all powerful Jedi Order. The prequels, despite justified criticism of dialog and acting, portrayed this downfall with character development and storytelling.
Snoke was said to be worse than Palpatine by the filmakers, but nothing is shown to suggest this (other than he built the biggest planet destroying weapon of them all). His one unique power was the Force connection established between Rey and Kylo, which was an expansion upon Luke’s communications with Vader and Leia in ESB. This ability may have helped Snoke rise to power, and manipulate Kylo to the Dark side, but was not examined within the film(s).
The real harm of the contrived nature of Snoke and the First Order is that it diminishes the actions and sacrifices of the heroes to counteract them. With nothing profound to differentiate him from Palpatine, or explain his existence, Snoke’s death is hollow, and consequently, so is Luke’s (to be revisited later). If the filmmakers do not establish why Snoke and the First Order arose to be such a menace to the galaxy, then Luke’s sacrifice loses its impact. If a new Emperor type figurehead will arise every few decades regardless of the main characters’ actions, then there is no incentive for the audience to invest in them.
Consider, for a moment, that the Emperor was a paper cutout character. Even if he received no character development prior to his appearance in ROTJ, Snoke would still be contrived. Justifying a empty character on an existing empty character does not excuse the act.
Subverted expectation analysis: The contrived nature of Snoke and the First Order undermine their existence in the storyline, and the sacrifices of the heroes to oppose them.
Leia escapes death in space / Luke saves the day
During the First Order’s assault of the rebel flagship, Kylo Ren’s wingmen blow apart the bridge with missiles, which kills the Resistance leadership, including an unceremonious death for the beloved Admiral Ackbar. Despite Kylo’s hesitancy to shoot (a successful storytelling moment highlighting his battle between the light and the dark), Princess Leia is gone. Except, on the brink of death, Leia manages to pull herself back to the ship using the force. She is taken inside and placed in the med bay, while the remnants of the Resistance try to figure out a way to escape the First Order.
The context for Leia’s use of the Force fits within the established narrative, and is not even a particularly strong use of the Force. The amount of force (no pun intended) needed to accelerate an object in space is less than moving an object in gravity. The director’s reasoning was the near death state of her being propelled her to an outburst of her Force potential, allowing her to fly, for lack of a better term, to her ship. Though this scene caused a sizeable grumbling among the fan base, the context and application of the Force fit within the Star Wars universe.
Later on, after the Resistance is trapped in their base on Crait, Luke suddenly appears to save the day, and walks out the destroyed blast doors to singlehandedly take on the First Order. After apparently surviving a massive barrage from the AT-M6’s — the AT-AT’s big, bad brother — Kylo Ren flies out to face his former master. Luke apologizes for failing his nephew, and Kylo vows to wipe out the past. A few missed lightsaber strikes later, Luke warns Kylo on the consequences of striking him down. The next swing connects, or does it? Luke is revealed to not be on the planet at all, instead projecting his image via the Force from Ahch-To. He bids a snarky farewell to Kylo, and disappears from Crait. Collapsing to the ground, Luke gazes upon the twin suns. Having saved the Resistance, and fulfilled his destiny as a legend, he becomes one with the force.
The director has stated that between Luke’s fulfillment of his role as a legend, and the physical toll of the Force projection, he left his physical form and joined the Force. The problem with Luke’s death from Force strain is it is contrived solely so that he can sacrifice himself to inspire others (complete with twin suns to mimic his upbringing on Tatooine). It also conveniently fulfills the filmmakers desire to wipe away the old characters to make room for the new. Had Luke been on Crait, and died beneath the cannon fire, only to remain as a Force ghost, then he would have truly sacrificed himself to save the Resistance.
Subverted expectation analysis: though Leia’s save from death fit the narrative, Luke’s disappearance into the Force is contrived.
Upon examining each of the major storylines, it is clear the goal of the filmmakers wished to use subverted expectations to bring dramatic change to the Star Wars universe. It is also clear the contrived circumstances behind the majority of them — and the tone deafness towards many characters — undermined their intentions and alienated fans.
The new Star Wars movies (TFA & TLJ) are a battle of contradictions — rehashed plots flipped on their head through contrived circumstances meant to enable sweeping removal of the old guard; new, diverse characters balanced against cardboard cutout rehashes (how redundant that the First Order must be lead by another snooty, petulant man with a British accent. Of all the roles crying for a shakeup, it is the leader of the villain military); and high-level plots with powerful messages undermined by cliches, improbable circumstance, and inconsistent applications of the Force:
- Luke’s heroic sacrifice and embracing of his status as a legend is made hollow by the contrived nature of the threat he is counteracting, and the contrived circumstances of his sacrifice.
- The unexplained origins of Snoke and the First Order diminish the storytelling and world building of the new movies, and dismiss the consequences of the original and prequel trilogies.
- The Poe vs Holdo plot, in conjunction with Finn and Rose, led to the decimation of the Resistance due to bad leadership and contrived circumstances.
The road to failure
There are two paths for how TLJ came to be; first it was a response to the backlash against TFA, or it was done on purpose. In the first instance, it would appear to be an overcorrection to a self-inflicted wound (TFA was a rehash of ANH to “play it safe”). In the second instance, it would appear to be a poorly executed attempt to “wow” audiences with “daring” new directions.
The contradictory nature of the two movies is glaring, and evident in the hypocritical reviews. Many reviewers criticized TFA as being a clone, yet applauded TLJ for subverting expectations. They missed the obvious — a subverted expectation is not clever or praise-worthy if the expectation exists solely to be subverted.
The disappointing truth of the controversy is it was all completely avoidable.
Star Wars never needed to be rebooted — it already happened at the end of ROTJ. The Empire was defeated, Vader and Palpatine dead, Luke emerging as the last living Jedi, Han and Leia a couple. A clean slate was presented, and instead of embracing the countless possibilities, the filmmakers recreated the initial conditions presented in ANH, only to blow them away. This “reset” to enable a “passing of the torch” was unnecessary, for the narrative had already done this. Based on the ages of the actors, there was no doubt the new movies would examine the end phase of their character arcs, and most likely, their characters’ deaths.
Any notion that there would be resistance to focusing the movie franchise on new, non-Skywalker characters, or a concern of financial viability of new films, is misguided and even foolish, as evident by the success of non-Skywalker material. Had Star Wars fans been “unprepared” to accept new storylines and characters, there would have been previous uproars over the Expanded Universe, where Luke fell to the dark side in one instance, married a former apprentice of the Emperor and fathered a child with her, one of Han and Leia’s children fell to the Dark side, the Emperor was resurrected, and on and on. (To be transparent, there were storylines that were deemed poor by large segments of fans, and some controversies, such as Chewbacca’s death. But nothing ever reached the level of The Last Jedi). The Empire returned in various forms, but always with storytelling context, and some successful subverted expectations (Thrawn, a blue humanoid alien, and brilliant strategist leader of an Imperial fleet, was one of the top rated villains of the Expanded Universe). Numerous Star Wars video game franchises explored new characters and storylines, and experienced varying degrees of success. Based on the amount of material created after the production of the original movies, if the filmmakers wished to truly subvert expectations, having Luke die a fat old Jedi at his successful academy surrounded by his grandchildren would have been the path to do so.
Subverted expectations have already been done successfully
There have been compelling examples of subverted expectations explored in the Star Wars universe. Though the Expanded Universe has been deemed ‘non-canon’ and swept away, it holds multitudes of examples of well-crafted plot lines and character development. Consider Rogue One (which is canon), and the video games Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2 (KOTOR).
Second spoiler warning
In Rogue One, the lead designer of the Death Star is presented as a good-hearted family man who is forced to design the station against his will. He purposefully builds in a weakness for the Rebels to exploit, knowing if he didn’t build the Death Star, someone else would, and the station would be invincible.
Later on, the Rebels send a team — including the designer’s daughter — on what is presented as a rescue mission only for it to turn out to be an assassination attempt on said designer. The Rebels, the “good guys”, intend to murder someone. The main antagonist — Krenic, former friends with the lead designer — matches wits with rivals Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader for the Emperor’s favor.
During the final battle of the movie, the heroes’ plans falter and fail. In the end, they succeed in their mission to steal the Death Star Plans, but at the cost of all of their lives (of all the Star Wars movies, this one is the truest to the realities of rebellion and war). Tarkin kills Krenic with the very weapon he helped build, and the Grand Moff takes all the glory. The success of Rogue One proves there is a market for Star Wars outside the Skywalker saga.
In the video game KOTOR, the player controls an amnesiac Jedi who embarks on a journey to stop Darth Malak — a Sith Lord who usurped his master, Darth Revan — from taking over the Republic. Near the end of the game, when you confront the Sith Lord, the player discovers they are Darth Revan, the heinous Sith Lord who has caused so much death and destruction. They were the master that Malak betrayed, saved only by Jedi who healed and brainwashed Revan. From there, the player must decide whether to embrace their new identity, developed over the course of the game, or return to their former Sith self. This twist has been regarded as one of the best in Star Wars history, on par with Vader is Luke’s father.
But it is in the sequel, KOTOR 2, where TLJ might have benefited from learning by example.
In KOTOR 2, the player controls a different Jedi who served beneath Revan and became cut off from the force during a disastrous battle. Circumstance leads the player to believe they are the last remaining Jedi. A mysterious blind, elderly woman guides them on their journey. Near the game’s end, it is revealed that she — a former Jedi and a former Sith — is out to destroy the force itself. It is a compelling examination of the force, the Light side and the Dark side, and a successful application of subverted expectations. (For a more detailed analysis, please read this insightful article by Ms. Katherine Cross)
Given the opportunity afforded the filmmakers — a chance to start a new Star Wars trilogy anew with inspiration from mounds of source material — the path they have chosen is nothing short of a disappointment.
In the end, The Last Jedi’s liberal attempts of subverted expectations were its undoing — the contrived nature of them alienated a sizeable portion of the audience, including some of the life-long fan base, as reflected in reviews and scores. While the intent of these subversions carried strong messages, and were bold in there commentary on the concept of the hero’s journey and the conflict between good and evil, their contrived construction undermined their impact, and opened the door to future storytelling failures with the introduction of concepts foreign to the essence of Star Wars.
For the sake of the future of the Star Wars media empire, the filmmakers would be wise to follow the sage advice put forth by Yoda in their own film:
The greatest teacher failure is.