Greetings fellow geeks, nerds, and Star Wars fans! My name is Matthew Kadish — author, evil genius, and complete failure, here today to bring you yet another analysis designed to deconstruct different forms of entertainment from a storytelling perspective.
My Storycraft series is meant to look at movies, TV shows, and novels from the perspective of a storyteller in an attempt to figure out how and why audiences react the way they do to these forms of entertainment. In this installment, we’ll be focusing on the concept of “theme” and how it is used in The Last Jedi, the most controversial entry into the Star Wars series of films.
But before we get down to the analysis, I just want to make it clear what this essay is NOT about. Storycraft is NOT about:
- Hating on a particular movie, TV show, or book.
- Attacking the artist who produced that movie, TV show, or book.
- Attacking anyone who liked said movie, TV show, or book.
- Convincing anyone NOT to like a specific movie, TV show, or book.
My goal with Storycraft is simply to take an analytical look at a piece of entertainment and break it down based on established and proven theories about how to properly tell a story for the purposes of educating those who wish to learn the art of storytelling. In essence, Storycraft is about the concepts behind telling stories effectively — nothing else. This is not meant to be a review, simply an in-depth narrative analysis based in professional standards of storytelling.
Of course, you’re free to disagree with my analysis. I don’t claim to be an authority on anything. But if you feel I’m wrong about something, don’t be afraid to debate me about it in the comments or on Twitter (@MatthewKadish), so long as you remain respectful. I always welcome feedback!
Okay, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s get to the nitty gritty of what this analysis of the over-arching theme within Star Wars: The Last Jedi is all about…
What Is A “Theme”?
Narratives are not always constrained by the plot when it comes to the story they want to tell. In many of the all-time great stories, there is an underlying message that the storyteller wishes to communicate that is woven into the story’s narrative. Sometimes this message is subtle, and sometimes it is integral to the narrative that is being communicated to the audience.
This underlying message is what storytellers usually refer to as “The Theme.”
In her book, Secrets of Screenplay Structure, author Linda J. Cowgill defines Theme as: the underlying unifying idea [as to] what the film is really about. Cowgill goes on to say…
Theme gives direction to the plot, defines the key issues for the characters and ultimately determines the depth of meaning for a work. It is the integrative force behind a great film and is essential for understanding what makes a great film great.
In his book STORY, author Robert McKee refers to a story’s Theme as a “Controlling Idea.” According to McKee:
[A] Controlling Idea [is] the story’s ultimate meaning expressed through the [story’s] action and aesthetic emotion ( . . . ) Storytelling is the creative demonstration of truth. A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action. A story’s event structure is the means by which you first express, then prove your idea… without explanation. ( . . . ) A Controlling Idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.
McKee goes on to further expound on this concept by saying:
Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer’s vocabulary. “Poverty,” “war,” and “love” for example, are not themes; they relate to setting or genre. A true theme is not a word but a sentence — one clear, coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning. I prefer the phrase Controlling Idea, for like theme, it names a story’s root or central idea, but it also implies function: The Controlling Idea shapes the writer’s strategic choices. It’s yet another Creative Discipline to guide your aesthetic choices toward what is appropriate or inappropriate in your story, toward what is expressive of your Controlling Idea and may be kept versus what is irrelevant to it and must be cut.
Back to Linda Cowgill, she expands on this concept of Theme and how it relates to story by saying:
Without a theme, a film is an aimless story, having little significance for the audience. Without the unifying focus of the theme, there is no purpose, no depth to the work. The theme is the ultimate subject of the film. Even “good triumphs over evil” or “love conquers all,” though broad, tell us someone’s point of view toward the world, which the audience can agree with or not.
What this all amounts to is the idea that a Theme can enrich a story by infusing it with a deeper meaning meant to resonate with audiences long after a story is concluded. It is a central message the storyteller wishes to leave with his or her audience in order to make them think or feel something long after the audience has disengaged with the narrative they experienced.
Typically, all the best stories throughout history have had a powerful theme associated with them that is able to draw audiences back to the story’s narrative. These themes can cause debate, create inspiration, or express a certain philosophy. (Many times, all three!)
The more a storyteller can shape their work around a single, clear theme, the more meanings audiences tend to discover in the story as they take that theme and follow its implications into every aspect of their lives.
But it should be noted that a story cannot have more than one “Theme” to it. By definition, a “Theme” is a “central controlling idea” woven into the narrative. By trying to incorporate multiple themes into a story, a storyteller runs the risk of over-burdening the narrative until none of the ideas introduced hold any real meaning to the audience because the story collapses into a rubble of tangential notions, ultimately saying nothing by trying to say too much. In fact, it is often the sign of an inexperienced storyteller to try to incorporate too many messages into their narrative.
That is not to say that there can’t be multiple concepts within a story. Concepts like “don’t cheat on your wife,” “lying is bad,” “crime never pays,” and so forth can indeed be incorporated and communicated within a story’s framework, but never should these extraneous messages be the central focus around which the narrative is based. To have a truly powerful theme is to have a singular focus and a central message that is being communicated to an audience.
What Is The Theme Of The Last Jedi?
Despite there being numerous messages woven into the narrative of The Last Jedi, I think there is a strong case to be made that writer and director Rian Johnson intended for the theme of his Star Wars tale to be centered around the concept introduced by the reappearance of Yoda.
When Luke is attempting to burn down the Jedi archives on Ahch-To, his former teacher Yoda appears as a Force Ghost and calls down lightening to destroy the ancient tree the sacred Jedi texts are housed in. When Luke asks Yoda why he did this, Yoda responds by saying:
“Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
In following with Robert McKee’s concept that a film’s Theme should be one clear, coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning, the theme of The Last Jedi can be found by distilling Yoda’s lesson to Luke thusly:
“The greatest teacher, failure is.”
Or, to put it another way, “We learn best through our failures.”
Now, with all the messages contained within the narrative of The Last Jedi, why is this the one that can be looked at as the film’s central theme? Why not any of the other messages such as “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” or “Win by not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”?
Indeed, there are a host of concepts woven into the narrative of The Last Jedi that could be argued to be themes for the film, but there is a big reason why this concept of “failure” appears to be the film’s central theme, and that is:
All the characters in the film fail.
If we look at the various sub-plots in The Last Jedi, it quickly becomes obvious that every major character (at least in terms of our protagonists) fail in their main quests until the final act where the characters acknowledge the lessons their failures were meant to convey.
Let us list the sheer number of failures endured by the characters of the movie:
- Rey fails to convince Luke to return and help the Resistance.
- Rey fails to redeem Kylo Ren and turn him to the Light Side of the Force.
- Finn fails to find the Master Codebreaker.
- Finn fails to disable the hyperspace tracker.
- Finn fails to destroy the battering ram on Crait.
- Poe fails to follow orders.
- Poe fails to defend the fleet from the attack by Kylo Ren.
- Poe fails to trust his superior officers.
- Poe fails to lead a successful mutiny.
- Poe fails to lead a successful attack against the battering ram on Crait.
- Poe fails to lead the surviving Resistance members out of the bunker on Crait.
- Holdo fails to protect the evacuation to Crait.
- Holdo fails to destroy the First Order fleet with her suicide run.
- Luke fails to train Rey.
- Luke fails as a Master to Kylo by attempting to murder him.
- Luke failed his students by allowing them all to be killed by Kylo.
- Luke fails to join the Resistance to help the galaxy.
- Luke fails to save Kylo from the Dark Side.
- Snoak fails to dominate Kylo.
- Snoak fails to kill Rey.
- Hux fails to destroy the Resistance.
Indeed, there are numerous examples of characters abjectly failing time and time again in their storylines within The Last Jedi. In fact, there are so many failures that it cannot be looked at as a coincidence. It has to be believed that these failures were put into the film’s narrative purposefully by writer Rian Johnson because he intended for them to reinforce the film’s central theme.
Further proof of this comes from the climax of the multitude of character arcs in the film which are a result of these failures. Examples of this are:
- Rey only becomes a “Jedi” once she stops trying to rely on those from the past to define her.
- Finn only becomes a soldier once he discovers something he believes in enough to fight for.
- Poe only becomes a leader once he sets aside his ego and puts the lives of others before his own goals.
- Luke only redeems himself after realizing he was being selfish by cutting himself off from the Force.
Despite what you may think of the validity of these character climaxes (there is certainly room for debate over how well done they are), it cannot be denied that these climaxes exist within the film’s narrative and that they were undoubtedly the intention of the film’s writer. Furthermore, within the film’s narrative as it stands, these transformations could only have been justified by the lessons the characters learned through failure within the course of the movie.
Because of the NUMEROUS examples of characters failing, the fact that the main protagonists all transform based on these failures, and the fact that a character flat-out states “failure is the best teacher,” I personally believe it is safe to say that this concept can be considered the film’s central theme.
And I appear to not be alone in coming to this conclusion, as many ardent defenders of The Last Jedi are quick to point this theme out whenever someone criticizes the fact that all the characters in The Last Jedi seem to fail at their respective storylines. In fact, on Twitter, a passionate defender of the film said to me directly:
Yoda LITERALLY tells you failure is the best teacher.
Due to this widespread acceptance of this notion being the film’s central theme, I think it’s safe to say that this is the message writer/director Rian Johnson wanted to communicate to the audience as The Last Jedi’s Central Idea.
That being said, there is a major problem with HOW Rian Johnson went about communicating this theme, and I will explain exactly what that problem is…
Why Failure Is A Bad Theme
When it comes to storycraft, our goal is to examine the elements of a story to help determine the right way and the wrong way to use them. It can be argued that from a purely analytical perspective, there is actually no incorrect usage of the film’s central theme of “Failure is the best teacher” in The Last Jedi, as from a structural perspective, the elements of that theme are indeed set up in the first 2/3rds of the narrative and paid off in the film’s third act.
But if we look beyond the simple fact that these elements exist within the narrative and look at how they are actually used within the story, we can see that there is a major issue with HOW this theme is communicated.
Basically, it is not that the central characters of The Last Jedi fail that is the issue, it is the WAY the central characters of The Last Jedi fail that is done incorrectly.
Allow me to explain…
In his book Writing Screenplays That Sell, author Michael Hauge lays out seven primary methods of creating audience identification with your characters. Two of these concepts are: Put The Character In Jeopardy, and Give The Character Familiar Flaws And Foibles. Michael Hauge writes:
“Closely aligned to creating sympathy for the character is getting the reader to worry about your character by putting her in a threatening situation. ( . . . ) The threat of capture, exposure, embarrassment, or defeat can be ( . . . ) effective, depending on the tone of your film.”
When it comes to having characters fail in their tasks within a narrative, both of these concepts of creating audience identification come into play. Audiences WANT to see the main characters of a story succeed, and thus are rooting for them to do so. And in failure, it’s possible for audiences to relate to the characters by either acknowledging the threat that lead to the defeat, or by acknowledging the relatable flaws of the character that allowed said defeat to happen.
However, from a storycraft perspective, Michael Hauge makes an important distinction when it comes to allowing your characters to fail, and that is:
If a character is going to fail, that character must do so despite their best efforts.
In other words, a character must do everything right, and STILL fail, in order for that failure to successfully allow the audience to identify with that character. Otherwise, if a character fails because they are stupid, lazy, incompetent, or dictated to do so by the plot, audiences will end up REJECTING the character and actively dislike him.
A good example of “failure” done right is Indiana Jones. If you look at all the Indiana Jones movies, whenever the character of Indiana Jones fails, he does so despite his best efforts. Audience members recognize that the character of Indiana Jones worked his hardest and did everything he could to succeed in his task, and when he fails, it was an unearned failure. This actually enhances an audience’s identification with a character because not only do they respect the skills and ability of a character as he strives to succeed, but they also sympathize with him due to the injustice of his failure.
This, from a storycraft perspective, is the proper and correct way to allow a character to fail.
Remember that narratives are not real life. In real life, failures can indeed be brought on through bad luck, happenstance, incompetence, stupidity, etc. However, when dealing with an audience and their expectations, a good storyteller will never allow their characters to be “dumber” than their audience, because doing so helps to turn the audience against the very characters they want the audience to identify with the strongest.
This is why characters in horror movies that “open the door” the audience is screaming for them not to open because a killer is on the other side are never sympathetic to those audiences. These characters suffer misfortune through being “dumb” in the audience’s eyes and performing actions the audience views as incorrect for the sake of a cheap scare. Thus, there is no empathy for the character when they are ultimately killed, because the audience has divested themselves of identification due to the character acting counter to the audience’s logic.
When it comes to the characters of The Last Jedi, this is an issue which is systemic to every single major plot thread in the movie. At no point do the main characters of the film ever fail DESPITE their best efforts. Their failures always stem from incompetence, happenstance, or plot dictation.
It is because of this that such a large segment of the film’s audience is critical of its main story threads, because the way in which these characters all fail serves to break audience identification and cause audience resentment instead. Though there are enough defenders of the movie to argue that it doesn’t matter that these failures were done incorrectly, if the writer of the film had allowed his characters to fail in the CORRECT way, it could be argued that a much larger segment of the film’s audience would have been far less critical of the film’s story and its characters.
Examples Of Incorrect Failures In The Last Jedi
Let us take a look at how the major failures of the characters within The Last Jedi were handled and why they can be considered incorrect from a storycraft perspective.
1. Rey fails to recruit Luke Skywalker
Rey’s entire reason for going to the planet of Ahch-To was to retrieve Luke Skywalker and have him rejoin the fight against the First Order. Ultimately, Rey fails to convince Luke to return, instead opting to leave the planet in an attempt to “save” Kylo Ren from Supreme Leader Snoak, and the Dark Side, on her own. Thus, Rey fails in her quest to “save” or “redeem” Luke.
If we look at the scenes of Rey on Ahch-To, we never actually see Rey try to convince Luke to return to the fight. She makes a couple of ineffective pleas to him, but most of her time is either spent “training” alone or speaking with Kylo Ren through a Force connection. Thus, when she ultimately abandons her mission, the failure seems hollow, because she did not really try to change Luke’s mind to the best of her efforts. She simply ends up giving up on him.
2. Rey fails to redeem Kylo Ren
Rey’s mission in going to the Supremacy and allowing herself to be captured was predicated on the idea that she felt she could save Kylo Ren from the Dark Side, based on her conversations with him through their Force connection. Her new mission is now not to recruit Luke, but to convert Kylo to the Light Side. However, ultimately, Kylo refuses to be converted, choosing instead to further entrench himself in the Dark Side and take the place of Snoak as the Supreme Leader of the First Order.
This failure is a mirror of Rey’s failure with Luke in the sense that Rey does almost nothing to try and convince Kylo to turn to the Light Side. Once again, she ends up running away instead of trying everything she possibly can to convert Kylo to the Light. It can even be argued that the whole set-up for her reunion with Kylo and final confrontation with Snoak was contrived from the beginning, as it didn’t make any logical sense from an audience’s perspective to abandon Luke and deliver herself to the “belly of the beast” where the odds of her surviving were almost zero. And the fact that she failed to succeed with either Luke or Kylo only strengthens the audience’s resentment over her failure.
3. Finn’s quest for the Master Codebreaker
Probably the best example of failure done poorly in The Last Jedi has to do with Finn’s subplot on Canto Byte. Finn’s mission is to find a Master Codebreaker on the casino planet and recruit him to help the Resistance escape the hyperspace tracker on The Supremacy. However, once on Canto Byte, Finn and his companion Rose are arrested because they parked their spaceship on the beach illegally.
The problems with this plot point are numerous. First, it’s never established why Finn and Rose decided to park on the beach when there are plenty of places to land a small shuttlecraft inside the city itself. Beyond that, it makes them appear incompetent, because logically, they should know not to do anything illegal which might jeopardize their mission (and the character of Slowen Lo specifically told Finn and Rose they couldn’t park on the beach, so they had to have known it was illegal). But in addition, when they are arrested for their parking infraction, it comes off as happenstance — a contrivance purely for plot reasons. In fact, the notion that they’d be arrested for a parking violation rather than their starcraft simply being impounded and them issued a huge fine goes against audience logic. Worse, the arrest is ENTIRELY the fault of the characters, and an issue that could have easily been avoided if they’d been smarter.
Next, Finn and Rose’s escape from jail and ultimately the city in a comedy of contrivances that further undermines their characters. First, they do nothing to escape the jail cell they are in. That occurs simply due to the plot contrivance (and subsequent Deus Ex Machina) of being locked up with a character who is able to hack the lock and break out. Then, their dramatic escape from the city on a Fathier ends up with them failing once again and having to be saved by yet another Deus Ex Machina.
In addition, the duo flee Canto Byte without actually accomplishing their vital mission to find the Master Codebreaker. Instead, they settle for an untrustworthy alternative that was dictated to them by the plot. Ultimately, the scale of the characters’ failure on Canto Byte was so massive, most audience members felt the entire subplot could have been dropped from the movie entirely and nothing would have changed in the main story.
4. Finn’s mission to shut off the Hyperspace Tracker
This is another example of failure by happenstance — or the plot dictating the failure rather than the character failing despite his/her best efforts. After successfully sneaking aboard the Supremacy and disguising themselves, Finn and his companions ultimately fail in their mission due to the plot contrivance of being spotted by an evil BB-8 unit. At no point do Finn or Rose almost succeed through their cunning and guile, overcoming major obstacles and setbacks only to fall short at the last minute. Instead, their failure is foreshadowed almost immediately upon the evil BB-8 focusing on them, and they are ambushed the second they enter the room with the hyperspace tracker. Worse yet, they never do succeed in turning the tracker off, thus making their entire sub-plot arguably pointless to the overall narrative.
5. Poe’s Mutiny
Probably the most bizarre subplot in the film belongs to the character of Poe Dameron, who is actually PUNISHED for succeeding in his mission at the start of the film. In the opening scenes of The Last Jedi, Poe actually leads a successful assault on the First Order Dreadnought. However, despite this victory, the audience is told this is meant to be a bad thing because Poe disobeyed orders and got many of the Resistance’s bombers destroyed while taking out the capitol ship. This message that the victory was actually a failure is confusing to the audience, especially once it is revealed that the First Order fleet could track the escaping Resistance ships and the presence of a Dreadnought at that stage would have undoubtedly meant the entire Resistance fleet would not have been able to escape the onslaught from the Dreadnought’s cannons.
When the character of Holdo is introduced, Poe even goes so far as to mount a mutiny against her, further showcasing his inability to trust in the chain of command and follow orders. However, his mutiny lasts all of two minutes and he is incapacitated by a stun blast from Leia. Yet another massive failure that seemed to happen due to plot demands and ignorance on the character’s part (silly, contrived ignorance to boot, since Poe’s lack of awareness of Holdo’s plan was orchestrated purely by plot demands as opposed to plot logic). If one were to look at the real intricacies of a mutiny, such as in a movie like Crimson Tide, you could see how an “earned failure” is much more powerful than the one we got in The Last Jedi.
6. Poe’s Defense of Crait
Beyond Poe’s failed mutiny is his failure to defend the Rebel outpost on the salt planet of Crait. He leads a whole squadron of speeders against the First Order ground forces with the intent of destroying the battering ram in order to save what’s left of the Resistance forces. However, while still on the charge, after a few speeders get destroyed, Poe orders a retreat. This is problematic because not only does a retreat instantly mean defeat for Poe’s forces, but he essentially gives up on his incredibly important mission without any type of fight. His forces never even get to shoot at the First Order ground vehicles before withdrawing back to the base. Yet another huge, lazy, unearned failure dictated by the plot. In terms of plot logic, the audience recognizes at this point that if the Resistance does not eliminate that battering ram, they will all be killed by the First Order forces, so the notion of retreat is still tantamount to suicide. Why not die trying to destroy the battering ram and save what’s left of the Resistance?
7. Luke’s Redemption
Probably the biggest failures within the narrative of The Last Jedi that grate on the audience the most lie with the character of Luke Skywalker. Though it is understandable that Luke would retreat after failing with his new Jedi Order, there are a myriad of failures which do not ring true with audiences when it comes to his character.
The biggest one is his failure with Kylo, his own nephew, whom he briefly considered murdering while Kylo slept. The next failure is running away and refusing to help the galaxy. Then there’s his failure to actually train Rey in the ways of the Jedi. Finally, there’s his failure to overcome his own grief and self-pity to once more become the hero the galaxy needs. Ultimately, Luke’s greatest failure comes down to him abandoning his nephew to the Dark Side and refusing to try to save him — something many audience members were stunned to see, since such an action goes counter to what was established for the character in Episodes 4–6. Even Luke’s ultimate “redemption” has no clear immediate purpose, despite being a visually stunning setpiece. At no time does he share his plan or reasoning with anyone in the Resistance, leaving the audience to wonder why Luke left it up to them to figure out what he was ultimately doing.
In the end, though The Last Jedi successfully establishes a central theme for the movie, it fails to properly execute the elements of that theme. By having each character’s failures stem from incompetence, stupidity, happenstance, and plot contrivances, the film successfully creates resentment among the audience that undermines positive identification with its main characters.
Indeed, because much of this was executed incorrectly, a greater portion of the film’s audience is more critical of the film than they would have been had the theme’s concepts been done correctly. From a storycraft perspective, proper execution of thematic elements goes a long way toward enriching an audience’s experience with a film and enhancing the audience enjoyment of the narrative. When these elements are done in an incorrect way, it creates a dissociation with large segments of a story’s audience, which can lead to enhanced criticism.
It is important to note that when crafting a story, if a main character is to fail, that failure must be achieved despite the character’s best efforts in order for audiences to not only accept the failure, but strengthen their identification to the character. A good storyteller always tries to write their characters to be as smart or smarter than the audience, in order to maximize the audience’s respect and identification to said characters. When a storyteller fails to do this, it harms the audience’s over-all enjoyment of the story.
Thus, ironically, though The Last Jedi succeeds in creating a theme surrounding failure, ultimately, the film itself fails to effectively communicate that theme.
Other Storycraft Articles
If you enjoyed this in-depth look at The Last Jedi, be sure to check out some of my other Storycraft articles: