Star Wars: The Last Jedi Has a Writing Problem
CONTAINS SPOILERS: Read at your own risk if you haven’t seen The Last Jedi.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi just hit cinemas and, in some ways, has rebounded off the screen to sprawl sadly on the popcorn-strewn floor. As of my writing this there’s a disparity of just under 40% between the critic and audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes making it a divisive movie to say the least.
A few of those half and one star reviews no doubt belong to the same fans that were offended by the idea of a black stormtrooper and female lead in The Force Awakens because The Last Jedi is probably the most diverse Star Wars movie to date.
Women are everywhere — wielding the force, sacrificing themselves for the cause, and just… well… existing. X-wing pilots, admirals, tech runners, control room operators. It was legit lovely to see.
But for every review screaming PC Culture Gone Mad there are some very solid, very relevant arguments against The Last Jedi having earned it’s 93% critic review score.
This post is going to lean away from discussing characterisation and the consistency thereof because a) a LOT of people are writing about this already and b) characterisation can be somewhat subjective. I’m also going to leave critiquing the editing and design to people who know more about that shit than I do.
What I am going to focus on, dear reader, is the story. Particularly the choices the writers made and why they might have made them. Because my dudes, my guys, my pals, this movie made a lot of very basic writing cockups and it is frustrating the hell out of me.
So without further ado, here is a list of writing sins The Last Jedi committed and a couple of points on how they could have been fixed.
1. If Your Conflict Relies on Characters Not Communicating for No Reason, That’s Shitty Writing
Different genres will play hard and fast with this one, in many ways because miscommunication can be as much beloved trope as hair-pulling frustration. If The Last Jedi were a romantic comedy, this point might not have galled me as much. But it’s not. And it did. Ohhhhh it did.
I’m talking of course about Vice Admiral Holdo and her buttoned lip in regards to all things Plan to Get Away From The First Order.
The entire resistance arc (including Finn and Rose’s foray to Canto Bight) relies on Holdo not telling any of her trusted crew the plan to ferry resistance members down to the mineral planet Crait under the First Order’s noses. Specifically not telling Poe, but since it becomes obvious Poe has allies in the control room willing to help him mutiny later, it stands to reason one of them probably would have been like, “Bro. Chill. She has it covered.” if they’d known.
Poe mentions Holdo’s reputation as the leader of a famous resistance victory so we’re to understand Holdo is a competent leader with experience under pressure. She’s also someone who holds Leia Organa’s favour which is a Big DealTM in-universe.
The resistance is also not given to the same sort of real-world military rank segregation when it comes to their war room planning. In The Force Awakens, half of Poe’s pilot squad are gathered around the Starkiller schematics as they plan their final assault.
Given all this, Holdo has literally no reason not to fill people in on the plan. Except if she does, half the movie doesn’t happen.
The writers needed her to keep mum and so she did, damn the motivation or logic.
What makes this point particularly frustrating is how easily it could have been avoided.
The First Order is tracking the resistance through hyperspace. How about instead of introducing Hyperspace GPS — and casually changing the rules of the WHOLE STAR WARS UNIVERSE *ahem* — we lean on an already established gadget: the binary tracker that’s connecting Rey back to the resistance.
If the Resistance works out that there’s a second binary tracker in play connecting the transport ship back to the First Order suddenly there’s a possible mole in the resistance. Friends and neighbours suspect each other. Calamity! Holdo now has the best excuse in the world to keep the escape plans under wraps.
It’s also the perfect incentive to throw Finn into the thick of it — after all, he is a former Stormtrooper, it stands to reason suspicion would fall on him the heaviest.
2. Your Characters Should Drive the Plot, Not the Other Way Around
As a writer, you’re often aware ahead of time that a character needs to be in a particular place to do a particular thing at a particular point in the story. The challenge is getting them there in a logical, believable manner.
It can be all-too-easy to hand-wave your characters’ reasoning or conveniently ignore an in-universe rule to facilitate your stage direction, particularly if the next part of your story is Super Cool and you just need everyone in place to get it underway.
That, my friends, is why we have editors. Something I think The Last Jedi could have benefited more from.
Our example for this one comes, once more, from poor Vice Admiral Holdo.
The writers obviously needed her on the Resistance transport ship to make her final sacrifice for the cause by jumping to hyperspace through the First Order. I won’t lie, this scene was very, very cool. But, awesome moment or not, it’s setup was damn sloppy.
As the Resistance survivors pile into shuttles Holdo must stay behind to pilot the ship, a move I think is supposed to harken back to ye olde “the captain goes down with their ship” trope but which, in the Star Wars universe, makes not a damn lick of sense.
Because autopilot is a thing. Has been a thing since A New Hope debuted in 1977.
Add to this the fact Leia just lost the Resistance’s entire leadership in a fiery explosion (RIP Admiral Ackbar) she might not be inclined to casually sacrifice her current Second In Command to a mission a droid could pull off.
Admiral Holdo staying on the Resistance transport made no logical sense within universe or circumstance. But the plot required her to be there later so stay she did.
Make the escape to the shuttles a more harrowing affair. Perhaps the transport’s shields are faltering and someone needs to go back to the bridge to stabilise them. Holdo is cut off from the main group because explosion/falling debris/whatever and turns back in a moment of self-sacrifice that will foreshadow her actions later.
3. Coincidences Belong in Real Life, Not in Fiction
Storytelling is all about maintaining the audience’s belief. Belief in the setting, belief in the character motivations, belief in the cause and effect. That last one’s a biggie.
There’s nothing an audience hates more than coincidence.
Unlike in real life, where coincidence can inspire amazement and delight, a coincidence in fiction is the quickest way to tank your audience’s suspension of disbelief. Because, as an audience, we know a fictional coincidence isn’t actually spontaneous or inexplicable. The writers wrote it and, in doing so, may as well have walked on screen wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt to remind everyone that what they’re watching is fiction.
Star Wars has been guilty of this before.
In The Force Awakens Finn, Chewie, and Han practically trip over Rey on a base five times the size of the Death Star.
But since we’re talking about The Last Jedi right now, let’s have an example from that.
Finn and Rose are sent on an urgent mission to find a codebreaker to help them break through The First Order’s defences to disable their Hyperspace GPS. They’re told to look for a man at a casino table with a flower emblem.
They go, they find, but before they can approach Mr Flowers they’re arrested for parking illegally on a public beach because that’s apparently an offence worthy of jail time on Canto Bight.
In the cell, they meet Benicio Del Toro’s character, DJ.
Here’s where it gets a bit messy. DJ is obviously a codebreaker himself and a good one because he gets them through First Order security but Maz was very specific about there being only “one man” that could get the job done. This would indicate that DJ is Maz’s contact.
It also means Rose and Finn were just lucky enough to get thrown into a cell with the very dude they were looking to hire.
BUT. The story isn’t clear on whether DJ is, in fact, the codebreaker they came looking for. There’s no flower emblem for starters and he’s not exactly dressed to be parked in front of a craps table with Canto Bight’s high rollers.
So if DJ isn’t their intended contact, that means Rose and Finn were lucky enough to be thrown into a cell with ANOTHER codebreaker who just HAPPENED to be good enough to get through the First Order’s defences, a skill impressive enough to have Maz Kanata sure there is only one being in the universe that could do it.
Making it explicit that DJ was their intended contact would have made their meeting less of a stretch. Probably enough so that the example might not have made this merry list. That’s the beauty of fiction: sell your audience on the little things and they’re more inclined to forgive the occasional ass-pull.
4. Stories Are About Change
The circumstance(s) or character(s) or both must go through a process of change over the course of a story for it to be successful. This is what we mean when writers say that the plot must move the story forward. Without that sense of progress — of change — the audience is left with the impression they’ve watched a filler episode.
This can be fine if you’re literally writing an episode of something on the cartoon network. It’s not so crash hot in the second instalment of an epic movie trilogy.
A lot happens in The Last Jedi, but for all the Force Skype angst, animal liberation chase scenes, and aborted self-sacrifices, not a lot actually changes from the opening crawler text to the closing credits.
Luke starts off in self-imposed exile and ends in self-imposed Force exile.
Rey begins the movie needing a teacher and ends it still needing a teacher (though I guess she gets some sweet Jedi books).
Kylo Ren starts off an evil man-child, is hinted at turning to the Liiiiight… but no. Curtains down and he’s still an evil man-child, now with a promotion.
The Resistance opens the movie running from the First Order and closes it… running from the First Order in a different ship.
All of this could be forgiven if the characters themselves were given solid arcs but where The Force Awakens followed in the footsteps of A New Hope by grounding itself in the simplicity of the Hero’s Journey, The Last Jedi seems too busy including the DisneyTM levity to give any of the characters proper substance.
What’s left is a visually stunning, mostly fun romp of a movie that a casual viewer could skip entirely with one or two sentences to explain where Luke and Snoke went.
Listen, I Didn’t Hate This Movie
I left the cinema with a genuine smile on my face. I just get my kicks analysing stories and story structure, particularly when it comes to media I have a vested interest in.
I loved The Force Awakens. Rogue One is also a fave. Both are examples of neat, well-crafted storytelling. The Last Jedi, while enjoyable, makes the writer in me want to throw a book at Rian Johnson’s head. Not just because the movie has some particularly glaring writing flubs, but because they’re such fundamentalmistakes. The sort of mistakes that would get caught by any script doctor worth their salt and fixed by a writer willing to take criticism.
I don’t know where in the writing process The Last Jedi hiccupped — whether the timelines were tight or the writing team was running on too much caffeine — but fuck-ups were had. And I got to witness them with my own two eyes in a multi-million dollar blockbuster.
But hey, the Porgs were cute.