Learning the Wrong Lessons from Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Going forward, I assume the reader has watched The Last Jedi and all eight of the feature films in the Star Wars franchise that preceded it. I will not be giving an overview of the plot, characters, or locations of any of these films. So… spoilers.
My primary agenda in this essay is to provide a useful explanation to anyone wanting to understand or learn something from the divided reaction to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Particularly, I intend to explain the feeling, which many people have, of having watched a completely different film than other people. Based on my understanding of the film, I conclude that many people, particularly film critics and the filmmakers, are taking away the wrong lessons from the film’s reception.
My analysis has less to do with agendas, politics, and unique circumstances, and more to do with the standard way films are made, and the typical way they are experienced by critics and general audiences. Specifically, my analysis has to do with how those standard processes reliably break down.
That doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about politics and other topics as they relate to the film and how it was made. But my purpose in publishing this essay is cathartic, intellectual, and informative much more than it is persuasive. So, I won’t bother with a prelude of qualifications and anodyne commentary before revealing my controversial points.
It’ll take a while, but I’m eventually going to discuss diversity, racism, feminism, and the term “Mary Sue”. I consider my thoughts on these matters to be informed, useful, and well-intentioned. I’m not going to argue against egalitarianism. However, I am going to discuss how the film’s attempts at greater inclusivity fall short and make the film worse. If you anticipate that the discussion of these topics will cause you undue mental anguish, then I suspect this essay is not for you.
I will not be reviewing the film in the traditional sense. While there are many things I liked about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there’s nothing to learn from those things. To the degree that the film is objectively good and people enjoyed it, it’s because of those things (including good cinematography, production design, and acting) which are apparent to everyone.
Though I don’t personally like the film, and the purpose of this essay necessitates a negative bias, that does not mean this essay is only for other people who didn’t like it. I will occasionally rant, but I will also deliver constructive criticism, including a fair amount of good writing and storytelling advice.
My analysis contains many objective and neutral observations which I expect will be informative to people who enjoyed the film and may enhance their appreciation of both it, and other films. My explanation for the reactions of people who didn’t like the film may also help those who liked The Last Jedi better understand and feel less animosity towards the people who didn’t like it.
I’m going to try to clear up some common points of confusion before getting to the heart of my analysis, but I don’t want to bury the lede. The Last Jedi is an example of what I call a Rorschach test. It’s a piece of media so riddled with ambiguity that it allows different people to interpret it very differently. Some look and see a muddled mess. Some see what they want to see, others what they fear they’ll see.
I’ll be demonstrating how The Last Jedi is inherently ambiguous in its execution, often intentionally so, on almost every level. From the construction of its themes, its textual and non-textual elements, its plot structure, its handling of fantasy elements, individual lines of dialog in the script, and even the film’s sound design. The film is on its knees, with puppy eyes, just begging different individuals to have completely different experiences and interpretations of it.
This is precisely why the film’s reception is so mixed. It seems like people watched different films because essentially, they did.
The Wrong Lessons
The takes I’ve seen from other people — critics, media, and fans alike — are as consistent as they are wrong. It’s honestly rather frustrating.
I’ve watched, quite literally, hundreds of reviews and rants for The Last Jedi on YouTube. Based on those, various articles, and my own experience, I’ve developed specific theories on why different people feel the way they do, and what mistakes were made in making the film.
I’ll be discussing each of the following points in detail in due time, but I’ll reveal that the first reason I find these explanations unconvincing is that I’m confident that none of them apply to me.
Not accurate explanations for the public (non-critical) reception of The Last Jedi:
- Miscalibrated audience expectations from fan theories, speculation, or EU stories.
- Misogynist or racist fans.
- Some fans being impossible to please.
- Mark Hamill’s public comments on his character.
- False audience-score and box office narratives.
- Objection to the film’s bold, creative choices.
- Fans misinterpreting the film.
To be sure, even some fans who didn’t like the film volunteer or at least suggest that these explanations have some validity. However, a cornerstone of modern psychology is the concept that people’s stated motives and rationale demonstrably reflect confabulations based on unconscious feelings and impressions. In other words, people don’t typically know why they think what they think… but they think that they know why.
This leads us to the first real lesson of The Last Jedi. We should be hesitant to take fan and critic responses literally.
If You Love It, Let It Go
This is one of the few sections aimed solely at people who didn’t like the film. To those people I say, as you read the rest of this essay, I want you to think of your own mental and emotional health, and keep something in mind: the subsequent films can’t be saved. You have to let them go.
All signs from director Rian Johnson are that he has no idea what mistakes he made with this film, which means he’s doomed to repeat them. There have been no indications that anyone involved in production disbelieves the reams of excuses that have been devised for the mixed reception.
One has to remember that, from a career standpoint, if anyone realizes Rian actually did make mistakes, he could be fired from future projects. If Kathleen Kennedy made a mistake in hiring him, she could also be fired.
It is always in the immediate interests of Hollywood filmmakers to blame everyone but themselves for any negative reaction to the film, which is precisely what they’re doing. It’s a very competitive industry, and no one wants to lose their job, and no one wants to think they worked really hard and did a bad job.
But the first step in correcting a mistake is admitting to it, and that’s not happening, and probably isn’t going to happen. The film made money, apologetics are plentiful, and that’s all anyone needs to silence their internal doubts.
So, I have full confidence that upcoming Star Wars films are going to get progressively worse until the brand has been completely destroyed.
That’s why I’m not going to bother to suggest any ideas for how the franchise can be saved, though I certainly have some. The franchise can’t be saved when the people who have the power to change things will refuse to do so. Thinking about how to make a good Episode IX will only lead to more heartache about what could have been, once the real film comes out.
I’m sorry. I truly am. We can cherish what we have. We can make our own fan edits and stories for fun. But right now, the best we can hope for is that other filmmakers, ones who weren’t involved in this project and can analyze it without bias, can learn from it and make better films in other franchises for us to enjoy.
Lies, Damned Lies, and Audience Scores
I would not swear to the accuracy of an audience score on a website such as Rotten Tomatoes, since there’s little vetting of the voters. But neither would I consider it a useless metric, since I suspect that most people who vote have probably seen the film, and probably only vote once (out of laziness if nothing else), and also because there’s no logical reason you can’t at least compare scores of different films to discern a genuine trend or relative comparison.
To the claim of bot-attacks though, for every devoted fanboy who tries to game the score in one direction, I would expect another one to be trying to game it in the opposite direction. Internet veterans should be accustomed to counter-balanced bot manipulations of internet polls by this point, so I’m not sure why anyone bothered to present that as an argument against the veracity of any user score for the film.
Next, I’m sure I’ll shock most readers by explaining that refusing to accept film ratings from people who haven’t watched the film is an arbitrary qualification. It’s not for you or me to decide what criteria someone uses to judge the film for the purpose of rating it. Someone who is determined to hate the film, merely because Luke Skywalker doesn’t get into a lightsaber duel, does not actually need to watch the film to rate it. They can read a plot synopsis and produce the exact same rating they would have produced had they actually bought a ticket and wasted three hours of their time. Their rating is no less accurate or meaningful in that scenario, and the box office returns are actually more meaningful.
I also haven’t seen it convincingly argued why the previous franchise installments have much higher unverified audience ratings. If the divisive fan reaction to The Last Jedi is just the same old fanboy moaning, what explains the difference? Did fanboys not have vote-brigade technology for the previous releases? Has Rotten Tomatoes’ security gotten worse?
Similar failed reasoning plagues the lauding of the Cinemascore. Sure, we know the people voting saw the movie, but we also know that the sample is not an unbiased one. You’re getting the opinions of the opening weekend crowd, which includes the people most excited to see the film and most likely to rate it positively. The typical Cinemascore response rate is ~65% according to an article from Deadline. That’s excellent for an exit poll, but it leaves open the possibility that only people who liked the film bothered to respond. What about people who walked out of the theater early? What about people peer-pressured into giving the film a favorable initial rating? What about people like me, who were committed to seeing the film multiple times before being willing to render a judgment on it?
I’ve seen the film four times. A number of mixed and negative reviews I saw featured people who also admitted to seeing the film multiple times in theaters trying to wrap their head around it, which should put a cloud over any box office success the film has. The question isn’t how many people saw the film, but how many of the people who saw the film didn’t like it, and even walked out early. How many won’t be coming back for the next installment?
When you’re making the ninth Star Wars film, it doesn’t make sense to fault people for their expectations in the first place. Lucasfilm had every opportunity to observe people’s stated expectations for the next film, to modify their story in response to them, and to direct their marketing to adjust expectations to better match the contents of the film.
The Extended Universe
I find it rather uncharitable to assume that people who’ve read the EU stories were not willing to enjoy the film because it didn’t conform to their headcanon, especially with regards to Luke Skywalker.
Now, I’ve never personally read any of the EU stories (now Star Wars Legends), or any of the new stories made after Disney acquired Lucasfilm, nor have I played any of the new games. But from what I’ve heard from fans, a number of the ideas presented in this movie have been seen before, outside of the films.
For example, the idea of cutting yourself off from the Force to resist temptation from the dark side, the idea that Force ghosts can summon lightning, the concept of ships needing fuel, the idea that arms manufacturers sell to both the Empire and the rebels, and the introduction of female Jedi with power rivaling Luke, Obi-Wan, and the Emperor — these have all been seen before in books, video games, and TV series.
Fans of the EU have also had plenty of time to accept the decanonization of the old stories and to start investing in the new canon. Plenty of EU fans have liked the new stories, though not all of them. In that respect, the new stories are no different from the old ones, with some being consistently rated higher than others among fans.
The idea that EU fans can’t stand new ideas or insist on things always matching their established headcanon strikes me as patently unevidenced.
I think the fans who have invested in so many Star Wars stories, just want more good Star Wars stories, and they have the experience to know what a compelling story in the Star Wars Universe looks like, and also what it does not look like.
Mark Hamill’s Comments
Many videos collect various promotional interviews with Mark Hamill where he recounts his initial concern when he saw how unrecognizable his character Luke had been written in The Last Jedi.
Many negative takes on the film referred to those comments, to the effect of, “even Mark Hamill knew this was a bad idea”.
I’m not sure if anyone actually thinks Mark’s comments influenced the reception, but just in case, I want to argue against the suggestion.
First, I had never heard of those comments until after the release of the film, and I doubt most people in the audience had either. But even if they had, those audience members who heard them would have had better-adjusted expectations going into the film. If anything, hearing his comments should have improved people’s reaction, not worsened it, if indeed we’re being consistent in blaming poorly calibrated audience expectations for the mixed reactions.
Second, his comments regarding his character accurately represent the feelings of many Star Wars fans. It was right of him to voice his concerns to the director. If that concern had been taken more seriously at the time, then Mark may never have had any concerns to make remarks about in the first place.
A Bold Direction for a New Generation
The idea that The Last Jedi is a good film, because it takes Star Wars in a bold new direction, is a contradiction. It’s a self-defeating argument.
Not because the film’s ideas are not nearly as bold or original as people suggest, though that’s true too. No, it’s because the film’s choices are only bold or new in comparison to the prior films. That is, you have to be an OG fan in order to enjoy the subversions as subversions.
This is part of the explanation for why the new Star Wars films have done poorly in China. The Chinese audience isn’t familiar with the franchise, and the new films lean on the old ones very heavily for their effectiveness.
For example, that Rey’s parents are no one in particular, would require zero explanation if this was an original franchise that started with The Force Awakens. “Some magic people have magic parents, and some don’t. Like in Harry Potter. Got it.” Rey’s parents being nobodies could only be considered unexpected in comparison to the established Star Wars mythology, and just barely even then.
Thus, it’s only Star Wars fans who could enjoy this film on the basis of it defying so many expectations. Subversiveness was not added to appeal to a new generation of fans. It was done to surprise current fans.
Every article written by someone explaining how great it is that this film wasn’t made to please existing fans, that instead, it chose to move the brand forward for new fans, is in some way confused. You can only say that if you’re an old fan, and yet you still like the film anyway.
Despite the apparent humility of the text of such articles, “I had my turn, now it’s someone else’s”, the subtext of many such articles seems to be, “isn’t it great that Star Wars isn’t being made to please all fans anymore, but just people like me?”
Subjectivity vs. Objectivity
I’m not a professional film critic, and so I have no incentive to watch films I don’t think I’ll like. This explains why I’ve only logged a bit over 1,000 films whereas professionals typically log an order of magnitude more. It’s also why if one organizes all my 10-point film ratings in a histogram, it peaks not at 5, but at a more generous 6, with tails falling off on either side with the slight asymmetry favoring the positive side of the histogram. I haven’t
watched any films that I would rate even as low as 2/10, and I’ve only rated four films 10/10.
So, I feel justified in saying I’m a reasonably moderate and fair rater of films, not determined to love or hate them.
While some critics are loath to compare all films against each other using consistent criteria, I feel it’s a completely justified and useful endeavor. If there wasn’t something objective in films to measure, then people’s measurements wouldn’t be as consistent as they tend to be. On any website where you can see quantified reviews of films summarized in a histogram, you overwhelmingly see a distribution with a peak centered around the average rating, and falling tails on either side of the peak.
But one must remember that the only thing numeric scores tell you is how well a film conforms to the average criteria that were used to produce those scores, and conformance to objective criterion only partially correlates with how much any individual will enjoy a film.
What often gets short shrift in the average professional critic’s rubric is extra-film context, even though it can make or break the experience of a film-goer.
The importance of context is easy to prove with a simple thought experiment. Imagine it’s a year after The Empire Strikes Back was released in theaters, and a new film is released. The new film is called The Empire Strikes Back, and it’s a scene-for-scene, line-for-line, shot-for-shot remake of the previous year’s film. The only difference between these two ostensibly identical films is that the first one is wonderfully entertaining and inventive and the second is a
horribly cynical and artless retread. The fact that the acting, cinematography, writing, etc. is equally good in both films from an objective point of view, is irrelevant.
This is why I’ve found defenses for The Last Jedi that compare it to old Star Wars films rather frustrating. You can’t simply copy effective elements from the old films into the new ones and have the new films be just as good, although I’m sure that’s what Lucasfilm would like to believe. If you’re not going to add something new, then why create a new film at all?
On this point of context, I want to clarify that for the purpose of evaluating a film’s quality, I find preceding films to be relevant, but not subsequent ones. That is, you can judge The Last Jedi as better or worse based on the prior Star Wars films, but not based on Episode IX.
This is because the prior films are a known entity and future ones are not. We know for a fact that TLJ was made with the context of the prior films supporting it, and we know how TLJ could have done things better or worse with regards to that context.
The next film doesn’t exist yet. Trying to determine how it relates to TLJ is an exercise in pure conjecture. If you’re willing to rate TLJ as better based on the next film, why stop there? You might as well say, “well, this film doesn’t seem good now, but 50 years from now after the second reboot, the new story (written by super-intelligent robots) is going to re-contextualize all of this and we’ll suddenly realize how brilliant it was.”
So with all that said, my rating of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is 6/10, my average rating. This is the same rating I gave to Rogue One and Return of the Jedi, among many other films. But obviously, the existence of this essay is predicated on the fact that the objective qualities of these films don’t have much to do with my subjective experiences of them, which differ wildly.
So, I will now echo what many professional and amateur critics of The Last Jedi have said. The film has problems, but it’s an objectively good film overall, if just barely. But subjectively, my opinion of the film is remarkably less generous.
This is a clue to the divisiveness over the film. The technical aspects of the film actually place it in a very neutral position. There are as many objective elements to praise in the film as there are to criticize, and few people seem to disagree much on any of these aspects. The pacing is bad. The production design, score, and cinematography are good. The editing is mixed.
The only place were interpretations significantly diverge is about the writing. The writing of the film is simply terrible, and I’ll be doing my best to show why, but essentially it’s because it’s too ambiguous. However, it’s lack of clarity understandably leads some people to interpret it as being much better than it actually is.
In fact, some people enjoy when writing is “open to interpretation”. Personally, I’m okay with a film occasionally having multiple possible interpretations when the main point of the film is to explore ambiguity or universal concepts (see Inception and The Matrix). In all other cases, I find it lazy and uncreative. If you don’t have a clear vision of the story you want to tell, and you want audiences to tell their own story, then you might as well make every frame an ink blot and fill the soundtrack with white noise.
Now, personally, I don’t think writing is the be-all and end-all for judging a film. I weigh it more equally with production elements than many other people do. But holding the writing as being more important is a valid perspective, especially in a franchise film where the narrative is supposed to be a foundation for future films.
People who say that The Last Jedi is objectively bad are usually saying so because of the writing. But for me, the other elements of TLJ are good enough to put the film on the right side of mediocre. In particular, I find the cinematography and production design of the film to be spectacular, though Rogue One’s high-contrast images and mixing of natural and artificial settings better satisfied my personal aesthetic sensibilities.
But even though I think the film is well made, and many people agree, I’m still thinking about it, and I’m increasingly annoyed by it more than a month after having first seen it. And many people still can’t understand how someone like me could exist — why anyone wouldn’t like the film apart from them being guilty of some form of close-mindedness.
One of the aspects of the negative reaction to The Last Jedi that convinces me that subjectivity is the prime explanatory factor for the reception, is the amount of diversity in reviewers’ opinions on other Star Wars films. Among the people disappointed by The Last Jedi you find people who like the prequels, people who hate them, people who like The Force Awakens, and people who found it horribly disappointing, people who thought Rogue One was the best Star Wars film since Empire, and people who thought it was a pointless waste of time, and every conceivable combination of those opinions. And yet, there was widespread agreement in the aspects of The Last Jedi that were disappointing, such as failed comedy, world-breaking uses of technology and the Force, and the treatment of Luke Skywalker.
Points such as whether the comedy worked for you are highly subjective aspects of the film. However, even among fans with widely differing subjective takes on other Star Wars films, there is substantial agreement on some subjective points in The Last Jedi, including the use of comedy. And there are good explanations for why those subjective elements consistently don’t work for people.
While not all Star Wars fans agree on all subjective points, there is consensus, and some points are definitely more important than others, with even proponents of the film admitting they would have been open to alternative choices that were in line with what the more disappointed fans wanted.
So, objectively, there are serious subjective problems with the film, and it largely boils down to each person’s assessment of a single production element which is usually taken to be objective: the writing.
Critics vs. Fans
Much has been made of the disparity between critic and audience reception of the film.
Mostly we’ve seen critics accusing audiences of not knowing how to watch a movie, or of being uniquely biased against TLJ in some way.
On the other hand, fans accuse critics of being Disney shills bought with money or privileged access.
I find none of these charges to be adequate explanations of the fan-critic divide. My interpretation is that TLJ is something of an edge-case. It’s the particular nature and construction of the film itself that is causing audiences and critics to be so divided in their assessment of it.
The first thing one has to understand about a film critic, is that they’ve seen a lot of films. They watch films with a much higher frequency than the average person does, and in particular, they watch films they have absolutely no personal interest in, because they have to meet the demands of the people consuming their criticism.
This is why critics typically embrace the approach of evaluating a film as a standalone entity and try to focus on and quantify the more objective aspects of the filmmaking.
A film critic can tell you how the pacing, editing, and cinematography of a film stacks up, because there are books you can read and courses you can take on how and why these things are done a certain way and plenty of examples of them being done better and worse that are easy to understand and compare with one another.
But a film critic can’t tell you if a film is objectively funny or not, because humor tends to be very personal and subjective. This is precisely why comedy films tend to be rated lower by critics compared with other kinds of films. The purpose of a comedy is to be funny, so the filmmakers focus on writing and executing the humor over spending time and money on the rest of production (in fact cheap sets and bad acting is often part of the humor).
This isn’t to say a critic doesn’t have their own subjective reaction to a film. Of course they do. And they can give you their opinion on whether a film was funny or entertaining overall. But part of a critic’s job is to provide consumer information; to tell people interested in seeing the film if they are likely to enjoy it. For example, most critics aren’t interested in seeing a Transformers film, and aren’t entertained when they see one, but they can still make
relative objective comparisons between the latest Transformers film and previous franchise entries that can inform interested consumers.
But there’s another side to being a critic besides answering the question of whether a film is worth your time and money to see, and that’s to analyze the film as a piece of art. It’s to examine the film’s artistic intentions and how well those intentions were executed.
Usually, these two goals of the film critic exist in harmony. Analyzing the film’s intentions and its mechanics can help fans of a film better appreciate it as art, and can help filmmakers make better art. But it can also make film-goers more savvy consumers, or give someone who’s on the fence about seeing a particular film the additional information they need to decide whether or not they should see it.
Part of the reason that the focus on objective and artistic qualities — that consumers often take for granted — is nonetheless helpful, is that the quality of the various pieces that make up a film are usually positively correlated.
A film that has a great soundtrack typically has better cinematography. A film that features great acting tends to also have a better script. A film that’s technically and artistically competent also tends to be more engaging and entertaining overall for its target audience.
So, if you as a consumer know that you generally like the basic type of film that was made with regard to genre, tone, etc., and a critic tells you that the film was well crafted, with a clear purpose or artistic vision in mind… then it’s very likely that you will enjoy the film when you go to see it. It’s irrelevant whether the critic enjoys the kind of film that was reviewed, or whether they personally had a good experience watching it.
In summary, if you think you will enjoy a film subjectively, especially based on experience with similar films, and critics rate it as objectively good, you are very likely to enjoy the film.
But here we’re getting to the place where film criticism can break down as a resource for moviegoers. The correlation between objectively good and subjectively good filmmaking is just that, a correlation. Though unusual, it is possible for a film to be objectively good, but subjectively bad in the eyes of the audience that actually went to see it.
Critics are not unaware of this problem. Most often it arises because a film is mismarketed. Maybe the film is made out to be a different genre of film than it actually is, or perhaps it features an actor known for their comedic prowess, and that actor used the film to showcase their dramatic chops, etc. Thus, the wrong audience shows up to see the film and ends up disappointed. The critics rate the film highly, but the audience rates it poorly, because the audience rating will tend to be much more subjective and dependent on expectations versus a critic’s.
In the case of The Last Jedi though, I don’t think critics realize how this perennial problem could be at work, when in fact, it very much is.
This is a Star Wars film; the ninth feature film in the franchise, the third from Disney, and the second in the sequel trilogy. How could anyone not know what this was going to be? How could the film have been mismarketed? How could the wrong audience have shown up to see it? How could there be such a weak subjective vs. objective correlation?
On top of this, many critics are themselves, Star Wars fans. So even assuming the fact that the film’s objective qualities or artistic conceits may have gone unnoticed by members of the audience, how is it that their subjective response to the film is also so far off from that of the critics, who were just as excited to see the film as anyone else?
The analysis of critics seems to be that the expectations of many audience members were uniquely distorted going into this film in a way that differs from how expectations were calibrated going into previous Star Wars films like The Force Awakens and Rogue One.
Critics suggest that maybe it was all those dumb fan theory videos — perhaps critics skipped them, or were better at taking such theories with a boulder of salt. Or maybe it was because the film features Luke Skywalker, and consumers of the EU Star Wars stories had overly-restrictive requirements for how the character should be depicted. Or maybe, as uncharitable as it is to suggest, some fans just couldn’t stand to see the baton being passed to a woman, or maybe the addition of a Vietnamese American to the cast was the straw that broke the racist camel’s back.
Ouch, and no. The audience is not to blame, the critics are, and that hypothesis is immediately more plausible than the reverse, even without further evidence, because it requires far fewer people to be confused in order to explain the disconnect.
The subjective experience of critics simply didn’t match that of audiences, and it’s because of differences in how a critic experiences a film, and how The Last Jedi specifically worked for someone experiencing it as a critic and not for the average person.
As I said before, the first thing one has to understand about a film critic, is that they’ve seen a lot of films. One of the things that happens when you watch a lot of films is that you get really used to seeing the same things over and over again. The same plots, the same tropes, the same one-liners, the same themes, the same motifs, the same everything.
This fact is often used to explain why critics tend to be kinder to crazy experimental films and harsher on more straightforward narratives compared to the average person. Critics crave films that are different.
However, there’s another more subtle thing that happens when you experience the same elements in films over and over. Your brain starts to ignore them. As soon as you recognize a familiar character type or a bit of symbolism, you stop looking and redirect your attention elsewhere. You’ve already seen it a thousand times. You already know how it’s going to impact the film, so you just make a quick note of it and shift focus to what’s unique to be explored.
It’s this automatic and unconscious psychological phenomenon that typically allows critics to provide a complete analysis of a film after a single viewing. They can process the information provided by a film at a faster rate. They’re able to notice many details and anticipate the lasting impression of a film in a way that a general member of the audience can’t do until their second or third viewing. This is necessary for them to be good at their job.
However, when it comes to providing an overall critical assessment of a film for an audience, this accelerated-processing phenomenon can lead to a few problems. First, a critic may fail to appreciate how information-dense a film is, and how hard it might be for an average person in the theater to successfully interpret it. Second, since they can start processing the film’s metaphors, subtext, and metatext at the same time they process its text, they can fail to realize how an audience could interpret the text differently when it’s separated from the clarifying context of the film’s non-textual elements. And third, they can make a false-positive error. They can think they’ve recognized an element of the film they’ve seen elsewhere, failing to see that from the perspective of less-jaded audience members, it actually plays quite differently versus ostensibly identical examples in other films.
The Last Jedi hits every one of these edge-cases. The film is too long. It’s oversaturated with structurally-important details. It’s too reliant on subtext and metatext to disambiguate its sloppy characterization, and the film’s plot and characterization choices seem too familiar to critics for them to fully appreciate how poorly they were executed.
Besides the fundamental accelerated-processing problem I’ve laid out above, there were a couple of additional factors that caused film critics to react to the film more positively than the average person.
First, because it’s a Disney Star Wars blockbuster film. What that means from the perspective of a professional film critic, is that lots of people are going to see the film, and thus lots of people are going to want a review of the film as close to opening day as possible. Because the number of clicks and views a critic can expect to get on their articles and videos goes down exponentially with each passing minute after release, and with each competing review that is published, critics had extreme incentives to get their reviews out as soon as possible for this film. The next episode of Star Wars is like their very own Black Friday. They stood to make, or lose, a lot of money depending on when they put out their reviews.
But most viewers find The Last Jedi takes some time to digest and think over. To their credit, a few reviewers noticed this and delayed rating the film, but most reviewers ended up putting out a review too soon for that review to really be accurate.
Consumers of criticism tend to be more forgiving when reviewers overrate films rather than underrate them, so even if a critic noticed they weren’t quite sure how they felt about the film, they may have erred on the side of giving a more positive reaction. After all, this is a film made by a competent studio and director, it must be good, right?
The second special factor? Film critics are suckers for films that are about films, filmmaking, or film criticism. Included in the subtext of The Last Jedi is the idea that the legend of Luke Skywalker is needed to inspire hope. At the end of the film, we see the Canto Bight slave children re-enacting Luke’s last stand as they play together. This is symbolic of how Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy films served to inspire young fans, including those that grew up to be the very critics who reviewed The Last Jedi.
Critic Response to the Non-Critical Reception
It’s no surprise that critics responded to the fan-critic divide by first trying to deny it existed, and then by blaming fans rather than themselves.
Even if they realized what really happened, what are they supposed to say, “sorry we rushed out low-quality reviews so we could pay our rent”?
They can’t blame themselves, or they undermine their credibility. They also can’t apologize for the mistake and revisit their rating, as that would also alienate anyone who agreed with their initial rating. If people start to believe they can’t trust the opinion of critics, critics start to lose their jobs.
Though, for the record, I’m not saying you can’t trust critics. I follow plenty. You just have to understand the limitations of critics and criticisms as I’ve described.
I’m not angry at critics for being human beings. However, the ongoing blaming and disparaging of the fans really grinds my gears. That some critics are defending their own shortcomings by leaning into the idea that many fans just “don’t know how to watch a film”, or that they’re a bunch of racist sexists, is leaving quite the bad taste in my mouth.
Basic Script Problems
The construction of The Last Jedi makes the film inherently more appealing to critics than general audiences. Those involved in making the film probably interpret it similar to critics, and have similar incentives for dismissing criticism. I’ve addressed some of the clearly unfounded explanations used to dismiss negative reaction to the film, and I’ll now move on to my main analysis of the film’s writing, the major point of contention among viewers.
Unfortunately, the script was fundamentally flawed due to a number of obvious missteps.
Not Building on The Force Awakens
The first mistake was not following up on The Force Awakens’ plot threads. Not because they were good setups. Not because the answers would have been surprising or interesting… but because we didn’t have time not to.
You’re telling a story spanning multiple films. You simply don’t have time, even in 152 minutes, to both resolve all the major plot threads of the previous film and move the story forward for the next film. That’s why only the former ends up happening and the film feels like the end of the trilogy instead of the second act.
Yet you find critics and defenders of the film suggesting it wasn’t important to follow from the preceding installment. That in fact, it was unreasonable to expect that it would. That fans had unwarranted expectations due to speculation and theorizing. That nothing was really set up or needed to be resolved in the first place.
Nonsense. There was nothing unreasonable about expecting setups to pay off, or that we’d get additional information about new characters. These are the same expectations one has for any franchise film.
Were Rey’s parents set up as important in The Force Awakens? Yes, they were. They are important to the audience because they are important to Rey, their main POV character. Her family is practically her only point of focus for both films she’s been in. Her backstory at large is important to the audience, because other characters repeatedly ask who she is and where she comes from. The fact that she’s as skilled in the Force as Kylo Ren demands explanation, because the films spend time to explain Kylo’s skill, but not hers, creating an inconsistency.
None of the fans forced the scripts for these films to spend so much time on Rey’s background. The writers could have skimmed over it. They could have come right out and said her parents were nobody. The other characters could have been indifferent about it. The script could have said Snoke took Kylo away from his junkie parents because he was amazed how talented Kylo was even though he had no formal training, correctly setting expectations for Rey.
And did we need to know Snoke’s backstory? Yes, we did. And no, he’s not the same as the Emperor. And I thought this film was supposed to be a bold new direction anyway. Is it, or is it a rip-off of the old films?
This goes back to my point about the necessity of evaluating a film in the context of the preceding ones. This is Episode VIII. Everyone who sees it is expected to have seen every prior Star Wars film.
In the original trilogy, it didn’t matter who the Emperor was because, beyond the fact that he was evil, his backstory had no relevance to explaining anything that happened in those films. And the films didn’t treat him as important. Characters didn’t repeatedly ask each other, “who is this Emperor guy and where did he come from?” Nevertheless, the prequel films gave the Emperor a backstory anyway, establishing a precedent and an expectation that another figure like the Emperor would have a similarly interesting backstory.
But even without the prequels, there’d be reason to want to know more about Snoke, because his presence suggests a pattern.
As an analogy, imagine you walk down a sidewalk and pass a dead bird. That’s an unfortunate oddity. But then you turn the corner and encounter a second dead bird on the sidewalk. Suddenly you’re asking yourself why two rare events have happened in quick succession. What is the cause of these birds’ deaths? Are they related? What explains that they’re both on the sidewalk? Should you be concerned about your own safety?
Snoke appears old, and more powerful than the Emperor. Did he know the Emperor? Does he exist for a similar reason? Is there a larger force at work that explains the presence of these two very similar characters? These are not unreasonable questions for a healthy human being to ask.
Snoke is also introduced in a much more dramatic fashion than the Emperor. He is literally built up as a massive figure in TFA. The film also treats him as being important, because he’s presented as the reason Ben Solo turns to the dark side.
In the original trilogy, it didn’t matter that the Emperor influenced Vader, because we didn’t know much about who Vader was before he turned and how plausible it was that the Emperor could change him from who he used to be. As we learned more about Anakin Skywalker in the prequels, we also learned how the Emperor interacted with him.
In The Force Awakens however, we have clear expectations for who Ben Solo should be. He was raised by Han and Leia and trained by Luke, three characters we know very well. Not only do we not expect Ben Solo to be a villain, we don’t expect him to have any reason to revere Darth Vader. Thus, the fact that Ben Solo embraces the dark side and is a Darth Vader fanboy requires some explanation. The fact that Snoke was credited with influencing Ben calls forth the question of how Snoke was able to take the character so far from what we’d expect him to be.
The stress placed on the backgrounds of Rey and Snoke may have been a mistake made in The Force Awakens that limited the story potential, and The Last Jedi may have been well-intentioned in trying to correct for those mistakes. But the result was that audiences lost confidence in getting a story that conformed to reasonable expectations.
Spending Time on the Wrong Things
Since the film decides to resolve the Rey and Snoke backstory threads in the fastest way possible — the way that requires the least additional explanation — it should not have spent so much time building up the reveal of Rey’s parents or emphasizing Snoke’s power. It was a waste of screen time.
But related to Rey’s background, the film also spends a lot of time on another idea: that a Force-sensitive person can come from anywhere; that they don’t have to be related to a Skywalker.
This was a bad choice for two reasons. First, we already knew that. I mean who were Yoda’s parents? Don’t care. Don’t make a film about it. Second, it’s not any more interesting than the alternative. The Force still “chooses” the people who are powerful in it. If it’s not a product of hard work, what difference does it make?
The film’s focus on this idea of Jedi coming from anywhere seems like a deliberate reaction against people wanting Rey to be related to an existing character, but… why? What’s wrong with her being Luke’s daughter, for instance. Is Kylo Ren a bad character because he’s Han and Leia’s son? Are there really that many fewer storytelling options for him because of that? Would having Rey be Luke’s daughter necessitate that the next trilogy star one of Rey’s kids?
Especially when these films are framing Rey as the new Luke, Poe as the new Han, and Finn, um — and Poe as the new Han, then why shouldn’t any of these characters be related to the old ones?
If they’re not going to be related to existing characters, that’s fine too. Just commit to that. I don’t see what the big deal is here. I don’t understand why we needed to devote so much of the film to this idea that connections between characters is this thing that Star Wars has to make a conscious effort to distance itself from, especially when many fans seem to like such connections.
Other than simple stupidity, there are only two other explanations I can think of for this fixation, and they are even less charitable.
First, Lucasfilm wants to be able to get away with lazy writing. They want to be able to introduce characters out of nowhere who are so strong in the Force that they can destroy planets with their minds, but they don’t want to do any work to explain why these new characters are so much more powerful than anyone we’ve seen before. They just want a blank check for gratuitous OP characters.
Second, and perhaps related, maybe Lucasfilm really wants more diversity in the cast and the audience and thinks this is the way to achieve it. Perhaps they think audiences can’t conceive in there being a black Jedi protagonist, for instance, because how could a black person be related to Luke, Lei, Han, or Obi-Wan? So when the film spends so much time stressing that your “family” doesn’t matter, maybe they’re actually referring to ethnic background.
The reason this last explanation occurred to me is based almost entirely on the final shot of the film and imagining if the boy had been black instead of white. Maybe it’s just my own cynicism and bias, but I can’t see how one would’ve been able to interpret that as anything but a marketing ploy. Not at this moment in history.
As it is, we see the Force-using broom kid playing with a black boy (he’s the one telling the story and moving the figures) right before he poses for the camera, possibly to get the same effect in a less obvious fashion. Interestingly, as the film was written, you really couldn’t have made the black boy the focal point, because the children are slaves abused by rich people, and black people are tired of seeing other black people depicted as slaves in films at least as much as anyone else is.
I wonder if we’re not making the old George Lucas mistake of thinking that little kids need to see these kids in the film in order to play Jedi or something. As if they’re thinking, “oh, if that little boy can be a Jedi so can I”. That’s not how kids think. They would rather pretend to be one of the adult characters.
But maybe Disney just doesn’t see an alternative. They really want more kids in minority groups to fall in love with the idea of being Jedi and start buying toys, but they don’t actually have the guts to make a film with a minority lead, so they settle for subtext instead.
Yeah, I know we kind of made it look like the black guy was going to be a Jedi in the marketing of the last film. And honestly, all Jedi are going to be white for the foreseeable future because we think we’ll lose the racists in the audience if they aren’t. But never mind that, look at these kids who are playing with Star Wars toys in the movie! See, one of them can use the Force, and you don’t see him getting his own movie, do you? If broom-kid can use the Force without being the protagonist, maybe his black friend can too! And hey, some people think broom kid actually is going to get his own movies, so maybe there’s hope for you after all! Anybody can buy toys, uh, I mean be a Jedi!
Apologies if my cynicism offends the reader. But I’d honestly prefer to think the filmmakers are as cynical as I am then that they were stupid enough to think that the “Jedi can come from anywhere” idea was really a worthwhile theme to devote so much time to in a film that’s bursting at the seams.
Alas, Hanlon’s razor probably applies: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Not Reducing the Size of the Cast
Introducing Rose was a mistake. It was hard enough giving the holdover’s from the last film something to do in this new outing. I mean, Poe was supposed to die in early scripts for TFA, but now we’re introducing another character? And we bring in the two brand new characters Paige and Holdo to kill instead of letting Finn and Leia bow out gracefully?
These cast decisions are unbelievably short-sighted. Not only does the script waste time by not building on the work of the previous film, and by spending way too much time on things that don’t matter, it goes out of its way to saddle the next film with the tasks of giving Rose something to do and writing out Carrie Fisher somehow.
Information Overload and Ambiguity
The film is so injudicious in allocating its storytelling resources, it’s no wonder the final product is so obnoxiously long and dense, even with helpful scenes and shots clearly having been edited out for time (we all know Rian Johnson can count to three).
I think the film’s density is another factor in explaining the divided reaction to the film. There’s so much going on in the movie that it’s literally impossible to take it all in. I noticed that a significant number of reviewers missed important information even after multiple viewings. This obviously led to many people in the audience having differing interpretations of the same scenes, and possibly the movie as a whole.
For example, many people didn’t notice that Rey had secretly taken the ancient Jedi Texts with her when she left Ach-To. You see them briefly as Finn fetches a blanket from a drawer to cover the unconscious Rose with on the Millennium Falcon. Speaking of which, many people mistakenly thought Rose died after “saving” Finn on Crait.
I heard again and again people expressing fondness over the scene where Luke encounters R2-D2, who plays the vintage Leia holographic message for him. Of course it would be the “cheap shot” of this bit of fan service that would bring Luke around to helping the Resistance after all. Except it doesn’t, something I didn’t realize until my third viewing. Luke continues to resist Rey’s calls for help for some time after this scene. It’s not until Yoda appears that Luke actually commits to helping.
Many people were confused as to why Luke dies at the end of the film, not sure if it was a conscious choice or due to exhaustion. They sometimes missed Kylo telling Rey earlier that she couldn’t be responsible for remotely connecting the two of them, because the effort would kill her. Or else they didn’t realize Kylo and Rey’s communications represented a small-scale version of what Luke does at the end of the film, indicated only by the transmission of some island ocean-mist to Kylo’s face, which some mistook for sweat. Viewers also missed when Snoke claimed responsibility for bridging the minds of Kylo and Rey.
Another commonly missed detail was the brief reaction shot of the codebreaker DJ on the stolen Canto Bight ship, which shows he overhears Poe telling Finn and Rose that Holdo was fueling transport ships. Without this detail it seems like a plot hole when DJ betrays the Resistance’s plan to the First Order, because how did he know what it was?
Some people also didn’t notice the stable boy force-pulling the broom into his hand before the film’s final shot. No, really. They literally missed the final punctuation of one of the most import (if misguided) messages the film was trying to convey simply because the film is too dense with details and they were too mentally fatigued to process it.
If the script can’t even effectively serve an artistic purpose let alone a functional or emotional one, it must be said that its failure is complete.
Embracing Subversiveness and Spoiler Culture
The next issue, is that the main controlling force in shaping the script seems to have been trying to subvert the audience’s expectations. This film has finally convinced me that the studio obsession with preventing leaks and setting up twists has got to stop, because it’s clearly hurting the final product.
The cynic in me realizes that encouraging a spoiler-phobic culture is an obvious ploy to boost the opening weekend box office. If everyone thinks that any spoiler will ruin the viewing experience, then we all have no choice but to avoid all reviews (especially the negative ones) and see the film as soon as possible to minimize the chance of being spoiled. Even many critics encourage people to see the film first rather than proceed with watching their spoiler-filled review.
But it’s bullshit. As multiple studies have now demonstrated, reading spoilers for a story has little effect on one’s enjoyment of it. If twists were what made stories great, you could get all the enjoyment of a film from reading a plot synopsis. It’s the execution that actually matters. It’s just the human tendency for loss-aversion that disguises this fact. We’re afraid of missing out on a better experience, and so the negative emotional reaction to hearing
spoilers is orders of magnitude greater than the actual emotional difference between experiencing the story spoiled versus unspoiled.
When every reviewer makes sure to give an elaborate and prolonged spoiler warning, and to cry about what they were spoiled on prior to seeing a film, they unwittingly reinforce the false notion that hearing a plot detail has any significant impact on one’s enjoyment. It’s analogous to profanity, where the more you avoid and censor certain words, the stronger you make them out to be.
Of course, I take the emotional harm inherent in the miscalibrated reaction to spoilers seriously, which is why I included a warning at the beginning of the essay, but personally I’m resolved to be spoiled on all films before I see them going forward. I’m tired of being manipulated into seeing a film at a time convenient to my corporate studio masters. I’m tired of investing energy into avoiding spoilers. And I’m tired of feeling horribly embarrassed for those
involved in production as they try to sell the public on their childish lies (“trust me, he’s not Khan”).
Even if twists could make a story more enjoyable… when every film has a surprise reveal, it’s not really a surprise anymore is it? Twists should be the rare exception, not the rule.
The culture of secrets also hurts during the process of making the film. When plot details are being kept secret even from the actors, up to the very last minute, there is no opportunity for anyone in the cast or crew to voice concerns about the film’s direction.
Any organization should allow its employees to escalate their concerns and suggestions for improvement, particularly through an anonymous channel where they don’t have to fear punishment. The fewer people voicing their opinions, the more likely it is that a critical misstep goes unnoticed until long after the time it could have been fixed.
It seems to me it’s the lack of such communication that contributes to so many set and story leaks in the first place. If you’re working on the set of a trainwreck of a film and you don’t feel comfortable being honest with the director about the way things are going, how else can you affect a course-correction other than giving the trades a juicy story about production problems that will force the studio to react?
In The Last Jedi, the slavish pursuit of subversiveness has created an utterly uncreative and ineffective script. Instead of going with an organic and straight-forward story so we could focus on the important work of executing it in a satisfying way, we were content in passing the outline through a computer program that negated every line, replacing yes with no, does with doesn’t, and succeeds with fails.
And how do we pad out the script to make up for all the things that don’t happen? By lingering on and relishing in the extent of our lack of progress.
To wit, instead of revealing Rey’s parents as nobodies and fleshing out the new motivation for the character going forward now that she’s done searching for surrogate parental figures, we repeatedly tease the reveal of her parents. First, when Luke questions her background, then again in the cave scene, then again when Rey and Kylo chat in the elevator leading to Snoke’s throne room, then again after Snoke is killed. Then with the audience successfully trolled and all our valuable script time wasted on giving our one-sentence answer the appropriate sense of weight and finality, let’s make sure the director announces post-release that it’s actually still up in the air! I mean if we commit to a decision, how are we going to maintain any mystery going into Episode IX!?
Love Will Save Us
That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.
It’s sappy, but it could have worked. Poe and Luke echo Rose’s sentiment by choosing not to fight to destroy Kylo or the First Order, but rather to save the Resistance that they love.
But then you have Paige and Holdo do both at the same time, saving the Resistance by destroying what they hate. And Rose “saves” the animals, by destroying the town she hates.
There’s nothing more to say.
Probably my biggest pet peeve in hearing people discuss the film, is the idea that the film “is about failure”.
No. People fail in the film. Failure is a theme of the film. But the film is not about failure, because it has nothing interesting to say about failure.
A film where a lot of people drive cars is not a film about driving. A film where a lot of people are seen cooking is not a film about cooking.
And I can just feel the people screaming, “OMG! Yoda looked right at the camera and explicitly stated the film was about failure and how we learn from it!!!”
Oh, I’m going to get to that, don’t you worry. For now I’ll just point out that it’s generally considered condescending or lazy writing when a film has to spell its messages out for the audience.
Another example of this from TLJ is when Rey lifts the rocks at the end of the film. I remember seeing that for the first time and thinking, “Ha ha. I get it, because she said the Force was a thing you use to lift rocks earlier in the movie”. And then Rey actually says it out loud, “lifting rocks”, and my eyes rolled.
What does it mean for a movie to be about failure? It can’t be enough that characters fail at something or things go wrong at some point, because that happens in most films. The film has to say something about failure.
So let’s look at some of the failures that happen in the film and see if we can’t find some unifying elements:
- The mission Poe, Finn, and Rose engage in fails. They fail to find Maz’s codebreaker. They fail to disable the lightspeed tracker.
- Holdo’s escape plan fails, because Poe’s mission failed.
- Luke failed Kylo as a mentor. He fails to let go of the past. He fails at stopping Rey going to Kylo. He fails to burn down the first Jedi temple.
- Kylo fails to kill his mother. He fails to win Rey to his side. He fails to see through Luke’s deception. He fails to overcome his emotions.
- Snoke fails to foresee Kylo’s betrayal.
- Rey fails to get either Luke or Kylo to help her fix things.
- The Resistance’s attempt to stop the firing of the First Order battering ram cannon fails. Their call for help fails.
- The First Order fails to stamp out the Resistance.
But what is there to take away from these failures? Most of these failures have no consequence, because the desired outcome is achieved anyway through some alternate means. Finn and Rose don’t find the codebreaker they’re looking for, but then they immediately find DJ. Their mission to disable the lightspeed tracker fails, but the Resistance still escapes, in part because Holdo improvises a last-minute defense for her failed evacuation plan. Kylo’s TIE fighter friends shoot his mother for him. Yoda burns the temple for Luke, and talks sense into Luke for Rey. Luke stalls Kylo to help Rey after she failed to turn Kylo, and Luke also helps the Resistance after their attack and their call for help failed.
So what’s the lesson here? “If you mess up, don’t worry, someone else will just come in and fix your mistakes for you”? Or maybe, “if you fail like Rey does, just give up and do something else instead”? Not very good messages in my opinion.
So let’s get back to Yoda’s statement about learning from our failures to see if that clears things up. Do any characters learn from their failures? That is, do they learn how to achieve a desired goal by virtue of having first learned how not to achieve it? You know, like Edison’s learning how to invent a good lightbulb by repeatedly failing to do so?
Well, Poe does, sort of. He learns that sometimes retreating is better than doing something daring. Although, I’d say he was actually making a mistake again during the run on the canon because that actually was the time for a gutsy attack and he shouldn’t have aborted it; he was overcorrecting at that point from his calls earlier in the film. But he did go from failing to save the Resistance, to succeeding in saving the Resistance by adopting a different strategy.
Finn changes his behavior in the opposite direction. He goes from running away, to charging straight at the First Order. But that actually has nothing to do with his mission failing. It’s more like he failed to get past Rose’s stun baton and she forced him to confront the First Order, and he didn’t resist. But essentially he’s fighting the First Order the moment he agrees to team up with Rose at the beginning of the film. He doesn’t actually ever try to abandon the mission to find Rey after that point. So actually, maybe the film’s failure theme was expressed through Finn having learned to park in the correct place on the First Order battleship once he realized how getting ticketed on Canto Bight had prevented him and Rose from succeeding in contacting the master codebreaker.
What about the other characters? Luke goes from not wanting to be a legend, to becoming one, but it isn’t clearly connected to his failure as a mentor. He learns that sometimes being a legend is a bad thing… and sometimes it’s a good thing.
Rey hasn’t figured out how to turn Kylo, or else defeat him. Snoke hasn’t learned how to not be cut in half anymore.
The failures of these characters don’t mean anything. They just failed.
Even in the case of Poe, the fact that he makes some mistakes, learns from them, and grows as a character isn’t something that happens just to connect to a theme. That’s called a character arc, and we’ve seen it in films all our lives.
So, it’s not that Yoda’s message to Luke is a sop thrown to dimwitted viewers who don’t understand what the film is about. No, it’s a red herring to manipulate naive viewers into thinking the fact that none of the plot threads lead anywhere is some kind of bold stroke of genius in the writing. Incidentally, the idea of exploiting the audience’s fondness for and trust in Yoda in order to plant the seed of a false narrative and salvage a directionless script… that actually was genius.
Take out that single line from Yoda, and what you’re left with is just sloppy, inefficient writing. And just as well, take any film that doesn’t fire Chekhov’s Gun, any film where all the characters accomplish nothing, and just end it with a character saying, “we learn best from our failures”, and then just cut to black and you’ve got an instant classic.
I’m sad I even have to point out that Yoda’s statement about failure isn’t even profound. In order to learn, you have to start with a flawed model of how something works, see where it breaks down, and then change your model so that it avoids those weaknesses, thus bringing it closer to the perfect model. Just like Edison.
Contrary to popular belief, then, you can’t learn from successes. Successes don’t give you any information about what you’ve done wrong or what you should change; they actually imply you should change nothing, even though thinking you’ve hit perfection is sheer folly. Ergo, correcting mistakes is the only way to gain knowledge. You can only learn from failure. Yoda isn’t laying down some sick wisdom; he’s reading Wikipedia.
This “failure as theme” angle is one of the reasons film critics rate The Last Jedi more positively than non-critics. As I said before, critics crave to see novel things in films. They rarely get to see a film where so many characters fail, and that makes TLJ interesting for them. Of course, the reason they rarely see films where all the characters fail in their goals, is because it’s a symptom of bad writing.
It’s impossible to miss the irony of Rian Johnson injecting this stupid idea into the script, to the detriment of the film, only to review the criticism post-release and publicly conclude that he’d made no mistakes with the film and there was nothing for him to learn from the experience.
Intent vs. Execution in Characterization
The main realized theme of the film is growing beyond one’s parental authority figures. Luke must let go of the failures of the Jedi Order and his idealized vision of himself. Kylo must sever his connections to his parents and Snoke so he can make his own decisions. Rey must move on from trying to find meaning in her parentage and the surrogate fathers of Han and Luke. Poe must grow as a leader so he can help replace the old leadership and ensure the survival of the Resistance. Finn must stop running from the First Order and his former Captain, fighting to overthrow them.
Mirroring the main theme among the characters, is a matching meta-theme. The film is asking the audience to let go of the original trilogy films, its main characters, and the expectation that future films will conform to standards set by prior films. The Jedi of the future don’t descend from Luke, they start from Rey, and like Rey and the anonymous stable boy, they can come from nothing and nowhere. The stable boy represents the new generation of Star Wars fans. He adorns himself with the symbolism of the Rebellion and the Jedi, inspired by the legend of Luke Skywalker.
Well, that’s all very nice in theory. But just because these themes were executed, doesn’t mean they were executed well.
By far the best character of the new series (an admittedly low bar), Kylo gets by mostly unscathed. My main gripe has to do with power-level inconsistencies. How can Kylo pull one over on Snoke when Snoke is more powerful than him?
This is not the same as Vader’s betrayal of the Emperor. Vader and the Emperor seemed much closer in power, and the Emperor had much more faith in Vader remaining loyal to him. He was also distracted with torturing Luke when Vader betrays him; the Emperor literally had his back turned.
In this film, Snoke pulls one over on Kylo, manipulating him by using a never before seen Force technique. Snoke easily overpowers Rey, who is presented as being of comparable abilities to Kylo. Kylo fails to overpower Rey when they fight over Anakin’s lightsaber. Kylo is then bested by Luke, and Kylo is even fighting with bumbling Hux over control of the First Order at the end of the film.
Kylo is shown to be incompetent and inferior at basically every turn. He’s constantly letting his emotions get the better of him. He’s always been in a state of conflict, a fact Snoke is well aware of. How can Kylo possibly pull one over on his master?
The only reason to forgive Kylo’s unearned success is that it’s hard to think of any way for the characters to get past Snoke given how powerful he was made out to be. Any solution was probably going to seem implausible, so this is more the fault of The Force Awakens. If this was the film’s only problem, I could accept it as ripping the bandage off so we could move on to something more interesting.
Finn starts by trying to abandon the Resistance to ensure the safety of his friend Rey. Rose gets Finn to help her disable the First Order’s lightspeed tracker as an alternative to putting him in the brig.
On Canto Bight, Rose tells Finn that the First Order destroyed her home. She shows Finn how the people on Canto Bight profit from selling weapons to the First Order, and how those people also abuse animals and children. Essentially, a guilt-by-association argument against the First Order.
Rose gradually convinces Finn that the First Order really is bad, and that he was being a selfish coward for not sticking with the Resistance in the fight against them.
Then DJ comes along to challenge Rose’s narrative, showing Finn that those Canto Bight Fat Cats sell weapons to the Resistance just as readily as they do to the First Order. That animal-and-child-abuse blood is on the hands of the Resistance as well. After his betrayal of Holdo’s plans, DJ comments “they blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow”.
And obviously the problem here is that there’s not much to counter DJ’s position. The rebels have plenty of blood on their hands as has been well established in this and the other films (Rogue One in particular). Little time has ever been spent on what evil things the Empire/First Order actually does, and what gives the rebels the moral superiority. The films do, in fact, seem to just alternate between the forces of one side blowing up the forces of the other. What, objectively, is the difference between the two sides?
So, when Finn ultimately decides DJ is wrong and that his loyalty is to the Resistance, it doesn’t seem to be based on any solid rationale. As a result, Finn’s arc is left feeling really tenuous.
This is especially the case when Rose is the main catalyst in driving Finn’s morality, and she’s completely morally compromised as written.
At first, at Canto Bight Rose says, “I wish I could put my fist through this whole lousy town”. Then they essentially do just that by releasing the fathiers (space horses). But when they get cornered against a cliff edge, ostensibly having failed their mission, and Finn says, “but it was worth it […] to make them hurt”, Rose pivots. She unbridles the fathier they escaped on and says, “now it was worth it”.
This is consistent with her infamous later line about winning, “Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love”. However it’s not consistent with her words and actions just minutes earlier — expressing desire to ransack the town she hates, and then actually doing it.
It’s also not consistent with her connection to her sister. You know, the one that sacrificed herself to destroy the First Order dreadnought.
But maybe her sister and her didn’t see eye to eye because Rose, again, infamously, stops Finn from sacrificing himself to destroy the battering ram cannon. Even though that was their mission. That they were both on. That she knew was likely to kill either or both of them. That would be the death of everyone if it didn’t succeed… The mission where we see her touch her necklace in remembrance of her sister’s sacrifice. Where we hear her tell Finn to lower his mono-ski so that he could better assist in it. In other words, the mission where she allows Finn and herself to assume the very same position her sister was in.
Now to be fair, maybe Rose thinking about how much she missed her sister is what changes her mind midway through the battle. Maybe she realizes she can’t bear to lose another person she cares about. Maybe she’s trying not to repeat her sister’s “mistake”. Maybe if she had the power, she would’ve stopped her sister back at the beginning of the film.
However, in either case it seems her actions would have plausibly led to the death of the Resistance. Paige stopped the dreadnought from firing on the main Resistance ship, and Finn was about to stop the battering ram cannon cracking open the Resistance stronghold, which only ends up not being fatal to the Resistance because of Luke’s surprise arrival.
In essence, Rose demonstrates that she wants to save individual people she loves, even if it leads to everyone else in the Resistance being killed. Awfully selfish if you ask me.
And how are we introduced to Rose again? That’s right, we see her chiding Finn for abandoning the Resistance to die, so that he can selfishly protect his friend Rey.
That’s Rose in a nutshell. A character that starts the movie by telling Finn off, because her sister just died to save the Resistance and Finn’s running away to save one person, and ends the movie saving one person, Finn, so she can tell him off for trying to die to save the Resistance.
And some people like this character? I’m sorry, “Asian fangirl” is not a character, it’s a stereotype. True character is not defined by appearance, personality, or words. It’s defined by actions.
This character — this despicably selfish, disgustingly hypocritical character — is what the script gives us to sell Finn’s arc.
I’m going to have to go with DJ on this one. “Live free, don’t join”.
I don’t know who this character is anymore, or what motivates her, and I can’t relate to her.
In The Force Awakens she was traumatized by having been abandoned by her parents, and she held herself back by refusing to admit it to herself. She was clinging to a fantasy, hesitant to accept a real opportunity to be part of a family and a larger cause. That was her internal conflict.
But by the end of TFA she seemed to have moved past that and had motivating grievances against Kylo Ren and the First Order for what they had done to her surrogate family members Han and Finn.
In The Last Jedi she carries over a desire to complete the revenge against Kylo that she was denied at the end of TFA, but then changes her mind over the course of her telepathic communications with him. But by the end of the film it’s not clear how she feels. Is she back to wanting to kill him or is she going to try again to turn him? It’s ambiguous. Open to the viewer’s interpretation.
Her character has actually made negative progress. Not only does she regress back to having a dependency on her real parents, but when she lets it go, for the second time now, she ends up with a weaker connection with her friends than she did before. Finn is going his own way, Luke and Leia are now more inaccessible than they were before, and she has ambiguous feelings about Kylo even though Luke and Leia apparently do not.
Perhaps she’s going to train some new Jedi given that she took the ancient Jedi texts with her, but she never expresses any desire to do so. Again, many in the audience didn’t even notice she had the books with her on the Falcon.
It’s not clear that making more Jedi would be a good idea though. Luke makes the compelling case that the old Jedi Order was plagued by a hubris equal to their power, and Snoke describes Luke’s desire to end the Jedi Order as extremely wise. If the Force really always seeks to balance itself, as exemplified in Rey’s power growing to match Kylo’s, then building up a new class of Jedi can only lead to an equally powerful band of Sith rising to match it. The only solution to that I can see is going the Gray Jedi route, but that idea isn’t explicitly explored in The Last Jedi.
So what does Rey want to do, and why does she want to do it? I really have no idea.
Luke tells Rey in TLJ that his failure comes from believing in the legend of Luke Skywalker. He was overconfident, and allowed a dark impulse to possess him and cause him to destroy his own legacy.
To me, that’s not an evolution of his character since we last saw him. That’s the same “I warn you not to underestimate my powers” Luke we’ve seen before. That’s taking the character backwards in a way that suggests his character growth by the end of Return of the Jedi was just temporary. It’s like saying, “sure, he tossed aside his lightsaber in front of the Emperor, but if the same encounter happened a day later he might have turned to the dark side instead”.
This is why making Luke a villain works for some people — because Luke was already arrogant and dark; just a moment away from doing something with his lightsaber he couldn’t take back. And after all, he didn’t follow through when he drew his lightsaber on Kylo in TLJ. He was tempted, and then he went on to do the right thing, the same as he did in front of the Emperor. Only this time his actions doomed the galaxy instead of saving it.
Ironically, Luke’s villain turn works for other people precisely because they think the opposite — that Luke really was a hero at the end of ROTJ, but it’s more realistic (and interesting) for him to evolve into a different character in the space of time leading to TLJ.
This latter interpretation is the one I’m going with, but which interpretation is the correct one is not clear, and that’s a big part of the problem.
So let’s say Luke was at one time an impulsive moody character tempted by the dark side, but then he grew into a better, more heroic person. Later in his old age, he grew arrogant and became a villain.
This heel turn is not a problem in and of itself. The problem is that if you’re going to put one of the most recognizable characters in American cinema through such a major character change, you should really devote a huge chunk of the film to doing that instead of handling it in a thirty-second flashback with voice-over. I know many people thought it was cool to see that pivotal scene three times through different lenses, but I would have preferred to see it once and have it be three times as long.
Nothing we were shown makes you understand emotionally why Luke changes the way he does. He says he sees terrible darkness in Kylo Ren, but we in the audience don’t see what Luke sees. What we see is Kylo constantly being conflicted. Kylo loses to Rey in the first film, can barely manage to kill Han in the last movie, and then fails to kill his mother and gets bested by Luke in The Last Jedi. We’re meant to believe that this is the guy that Luke says is going to “destroy everything I love”? It’s a fine idea, it just doesn’t feel plausible with this execution.
And yes, Luke’s characterization partly mirrors those of his predecessors. Yoda and Ben Kenobi became hermits after their personal failures too. But their failures didn’t come at the expense of their characters. They failed to physically defend their ideals, but they didn’t abandon their ideals. They were the same people, just laying in wait for the right opportunity to be of service in fighting the good fight once again. And, again, I thought this film was supposed
to be a bold new direction, not a copy of the prior films. Which is it?
It certainly doesn’t help the effectiveness of the Luke-as-villain redemption story either when the film insists on repeatedly having Luke practice bits from his stand-up comedy routine, from the very first moment we see him toss his father’s lightsaber over his shoulder all the way to when he brushes his shoulder off after ostensibly surviving a barrage of enemy fire.
The jokiness adds a stable element to his characterization that lessens the intensity of any of the attempts to make his character more dynamic. It also reinforces the fan impression that the character of Luke is being assassinated. If you’re going to betray everything this beloved character stood for to achieve your dramatic vision, you’d damn well better take it seriously. But the film doesn’t frame Luke’s new behavior as sad and disappointing, it frames it as funny. When he tosses away his father’s lightsaber? Funny. When he tells Rey to go away? Funny. When he grosses her out by dribbling green milk down his unkempt beard? Funny — as in, I heard the audience laugh at these things. Apparently, the fact that Luke betrayed everything he ever was or stood for is simply hilarious.
Beyond the problem of how the broad characterization of Luke was handled are some nagging details about the execution. The idea is that the confrontation with Kylo is what turns Luke into the reclusive coward that we see. However, Luke goes to “confront” his nephew, lightsaber in hand, while Ben is asleep, and violates not just the privacy of his quarters, but of his mind. This paints Luke as having grown more cowardly and gross even before the encounter. Later, when Luke meets R2-D2 for his fan servicing, Mark Hamill’s cantankerous facade momentarily lifts to reveal the same old farm boy from the OG trilogy. So, maybe Luke really hadn’t changed at all, and the confrontation scene is consistent with Luke’s OT characterization. However, Luke shrinking off after that confrontation and not doing anything to try and fix the damage still does seem out of character. And the irony that the old hero would go on to create a villain, an allusion to Obi-Wan’s role in creating Darth Vader, is undermined by Luke and other characters asserting that Kylo had already been lost due to Snoke’s influence.
Incidentally, a defense for the aforementioned R2-D2 tone-shift is that Luke was actually coming around toward helping Rey. He just goes back to being a grump when he catches her Force-communicating with Kylo, and all his worst fears catch back up to him. If that’s the correct interpretation, it’s an unnecessary complication to an already circuitous character arc.
So, to summarize, Luke was dramatically changed by this fateful encounter with Kylo Ren… but he had already significantly changed… or maybe neither time nor the encounter with Kylo changed Luke at all… or it did, but then Luke recovered thanks to R2-D2’s emotional blackmail… until seeing Rey and Kylo together made Luke revert back… but none of any of that matters because Luke actually believes Kylo had already turned evil and it wasn’t his fault… but then he feels ashamed about it anyway.
Am I the only one totally confused by all this? Who was Luke Skywalker? How did he change? Why did he change? And why should I even care anymore?
According to many fans though, all of this hasty serpentine characterization would’ve been forgiven if Luke had just been given his moment. This is not an element that bothers me personally. It is strange to me however that the same studio that just gave Darth Vader an extremely gratuitous close-quarters combat scene in which he endlessly shows off his badass mastery of the Force, a scene that was generally well-received by fans, wouldn’t do the same for Luke Skywalker when that’s clearly what many fans wanted.
And the way Luke’s final scenes are executed, it’s not at all clear why he had to be a Force Projection. The fact that he wasn’t physically there is a reveal. It’s a surprise for the audience. Sure, there are hints that some people picked up on that he’s not there on Crait before the fight starts, but most people were too caught in the moment for those hints to have given away the twist. So when Luke gets blasted by an army of AT-ATs and is unharmed, the audience
is expected to accept that as literally plausible. Kylo seems to think this “overkill” is necessary to defeat Luke Skywalker. We don’t see anyone giving a “wait a minute…” questioning look. And after all, we did see Kylo stop a single rifle blast mid-air in the previous film. The only reasonable conclusion to all of this is that, yes, Luke Skywalker could actually have done that if he was really there.
Was that my personal fantasy? The thing I really wanted to happen? No. That strikes me as a little silly and OP and creates problems for the films going forward. My complaint is in how the scene was executed. If Luke has the heretofore unseen ability to Force Project himself across the galaxy in front of everyone for minutes at a time and even temporarily manifest some solid Han-Solo dice to give to Leia, then he’s the most powerful Jedi who ever lived. More powerful than Kylo, more powerful than Snoke.
Therefore the reason he doesn’t show up to fight in person is not because he can’t, but because he chooses not to. There’s no reason for this other than that it serves the script. Because if Luke really was that powerful and showed up in person he would have beat Kylo and there’d be nothing to do in Episode IX. He would have been powerful enough to take on Kylo and Snoke at any time in the past. It just makes no sense.
It would have been much simpler to have a reasonably powered Luke duel Kylo and go out Ben-Kenobi style. But I suppose that wouldn’t have been subversive enough.
But pedantic power-level comparisons aside, I do, in fact, appreciate the symbolism of Luke’s exit. Whereas he begins the film cut off from the Force, Luke ends the film floating in the air meditating, similar to how he looked when he was training with Yoda so many years ago. He’s on the site of the first Jedi Temple, and the sun beams that illuminate him and symbolize his enlightenment also put a spotlight on the yin-yang-inspired mosaic on the floor of the chamber behind him. In the center of this mosaic is the figure of a Jedi half light and half dark. The counter-colored circles, centered in the classic Tai Chi symbol, are arranged in the mosaic to appear over the figure’s shoulders, evoking the binary sunset Luke sees at the sunset of his life. Luke has completed his journey in a state of perfect balance, with a connection to the Force that is so complete that he actually becomes one with it, to the point of vanishing, just as his masters did before him.
Here I reiterate, I don’t find The Last Jedi to be an objectively bad film precisely because of filmmaking like this. The symbolism here is wonderful and well executed.
But films are not just frameworks on which to hang symbolism. The textual reality is that when Luke Skywalker’s friends really needed him he didn’t even bother to show up in person. He just makes an appearance — he literally Skypes it in. Then he dies alone, and no one, not even his sister Leia, seems all that sad about it. None of the people who knew him even saw it happen. And why should they care? We already know he can come back as a Force ghost, so his sacrifice doesn’t really mean anything. He merely does a less heroic version of what Finn tried to do. The best thing you can say is that Luke embarrassed Kylo in a way that only the former master of Ben Solo could.
This is the character arc the script spends the most time on, and is probably the most debated among fans, so I’m giving Poe his own section.
The basic idea is that Poe learns to be a better leader by acting less hot-headed and remembering to keep the big picture in mind.
The mechanics are that Poe disregard’s Leia’s orders to return to the main ship (the Raddus) in the film’s opening battle, which leads to the First Order dreadnought getting destroyed at the cost of the Resistance’s entire bombing fleet. Leia demotes Poe from Commander to Captain as punishment, telling him he needs to consider solutions that don’t involve jumping into a ship and blowing things up, because sometimes the victory is outweighed by the cost.
When Leia is incapacitated during the subsequent First Order attack, Poe has to try and heed her advice absent her guidance. But he fails.
Given the problem of surviving the First Order’s assault, his solution is a daring mission. He directs a couple of subordinates to abscond to Canto Bight to find a codebreaking specialist, so they can infiltrate the First Order’s lead ship and disable the lightspeed tracker long enough for the Resistance fleet to escape.
Not only does Poe fail to develop a less complicated and risky plan, but he can’t even conceive of the possibility that such a plan exists. He ignores Holdo’s attempts to convince him that she even has a plan, and that keeping calm and exercising patience can lead to the survival of the Resistance.
Luckily, Leia recovers in time to stop Poe from mucking things up any worse than he already has. When he wakes up on the transport with Leia, Poe is confronted with his mistake.
Later, while leading the run against the battering ram cannon, Poe orders a retreat when he thinks the mission is going to fail. He seems to have learned from his earlier missteps.
Then, when Luke shows up and Finn thinks they should help him fight, Poe says it’s better that they take advantage of Luke’s diversion so they can retreat and ensure the survival of the Resistance. Leia confirm’s that Poe has grown into a better leader, one capable of taking over for her in her absence, by telling the Resistance fighters, “don’t look at me, follow him”.
All well and good. The big complaint from audiences: why didn’t Vice Admiral Holdo just tell Poe her plan?
It makes no sense. I very sincerely tried to come up with a logical explanation for this that didn’t make Holdo look incompetent. But to no avail.
Defense: Because I Said So
The simplest defense of Holdo is the appeal to the chain of command. As the superior officer, Vice Admiral Holdo doesn’t need to reveal any information to subordinates unless she determines they “need to know”.
This is the explanation I have the most problem with.
First, the fact that chain of command would be strictly enforced in the Resistance is kind of silly to begin with. When you’ve only got a few hundred people left, and they’re dropping like flies, the whole concept of title and rank and regulation starts to fall apart.
Why is Rose putting people in the brig instead of letting them leave? Where is the military court that’s going to try them for desertion? When exactly did Finn sign his enlistment contract anyway?
And with the situation so desperate and so few people left, what operation is not going to require the coordination of every last surviving member of the Resistance? At then end of the film we see Finn piloting a rickety ship despite having no training for this very reason. Everyone needs to work together.
In the case of escaping on transports, everyone should be involved. They should be prepping the transports, transferring or destroying data records, salvaging equipment, and gathering their effects so they can be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
Literally everyone needs to know the plan. But as far as we know, Holdo doesn’t just keep the plan from Poe, she keeps it from everyone. And apparently it’s not just the escape plan she’s hiding. When Finn tells Rose the First Order can track them through lightspeed, it’s a surprise to her. Apparently it wasn’t important to brief the main crew about why they weren’t making a retreat while the Resistance fleet was under attack.
As others have pointed out, the rigid disciplined military structure is more in theme with the First Order. I mean, “order” is right there in the name. That’s why Holdo’s embracement of it is one of the things that makes her (intentionally) suspicious.
Depicting the Resistance (or is it the Rebellion?) as being just as disciplined and subject to deserters and spies as the First Order represents a missed opportunity for demonstrating how the two organizations are not simply two sides of the same, scummy, coin.
That aside, just because an officer has the privilege not to disclose information to subordinates doesn’t mean they shouldn’t, especially when doing so would increase the chance of a successful mission. I mean what happens if Holdo is incapacitated? Who else knows the plan in order to execute it?
Defense: Holdo Was Hiding the Plan for Security Reasons
As soon as we learned that the Resistance had been tracked through lightspeed and Poe remarks “that’s impossible”, my first thought was, “unless there’s someone on the inside working for the First Order”.
This was many people’s explanation for Holdo’s behavior, and seems to be in line with the explanation offered by the Visual Dictionary accompanying the film. Holdo was being secretive for security purposes.
So why didn’t Holdo simply say, “I don’t know who to trust”, to explain her actions? Well, the real reason is that the audience is meant to suspect Holdo herself of being a traitor. We’re supposed to take Poe’s side and take a journey along with him.
That’s not an excuse available from the perspective of the characters however.
Some fans argue that Holdo has every right to be suspicious of Poe, seeing as she’s meeting him for the first time, and knows he’s just disobeyed orders and gotten a bunch of Resistance fighters killed, leading to his demotion.
That’s not how I see it. Poe Dameron is the best fighter pilot in the Resistance. He has a close relationship with General Leia. He led the bombing run that destroyed Starkiller Base, a military victory so significant that even the lowly engineer Rose knows that Finn, who’s not even officially part of the Resistance, played a role in it, calling him a hero of the Resistance. And on top of that, Poe just led a military operation that cost the First Order one of its most important assets.
Poe seems to interact with every other Resistance fighter as if he knows all of them, and all of them know him. And while Poe hasn’t met Holdo, he knows who she is and at least one of the battles she led.
Especially after the loss of the bombers, there are hardly any Resistance fighters left, period. How could it possibly be the case that the Vice Admiral doesn’t know who Poe is, or thinks he could possibly be a spy?
As an aside, it doesn’t even make much sense to criticize Poe over the dreadnought mission. Poe’s insistence on taking out the dreadnought got a lot of people killed, to be sure, but interestingly it actually seems to play to the Resistance’s advantage later on when Snoke’s ship join’s Hux’s. With a second ship to scramble TIE fighters from, it’s unlikely the Resistance would have been able to protect their bombing fleet in order to execute a successful attack
on the dreadnought. So, if Poe hadn’t insisted on destroying the dreadnought when they had the chance, it would have followed them through lightspeed and launched a lethal attack on the Resistance, which would be powerless to stop it. So the film strangely vindicates Poe’s strategy based on its consequences while condemning it for its misguided conception.
The fact that Holdo has no good reason to distrust Poe is not the only problem with Holdo’s secrecy. Her plan is to evacuate the entire surviving crew to Crait on transports. When this evacuation actually starts, we see that the plan takes at least several minutes to execute. This is long enough for the evacuation to start, for DJ to betray the plan to the First Order, for the First Order to scan for the transports and start an attack, and for Holdo to execute her lightspeed kamikaze counter-attack.
So if every Resistance crew member was going to board the transports and be on them for several minutes, it means that if even a single one of them was a spy, said spy would have more than enough time to inform the First Order and sabotage the operation. That’s even before they get to the planet. Once on the planet, a spy would have even more opportunity to reveal the base position.
Holdo’s plan only actually works on the assumption that no one is a spy. Therefore, keeping the plan secret for security reasons doesn’t actually make sense.
Defense: Holdo Was Teaching Poe a Lesson
But maybe there’s another reason she withholds her plan from Poe. For instance, maybe she’s just following Leia’s lead in trying to teach Poe a lesson so he can be a better commander.
This is really what I wish the film had established. You could have had Leia explain to Poe when he wakes up with her on the transport that she had instructed Holdo to help her coach him. Not only would that disambiguate things, but you’d be showing that Holdo had been following orders like a professional, modeling the very discipline she and Leia wanted Poe to exhibit.
The closest the film comes to this is when Holdo reminds Poe of a saying of Leia’s, “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you see it, you’ll never make it through the night”. But apart from that being a terrible analogy as well as a terrible message (the sun rises regardless of whether you believe it will, and one shouldn’t believe in things for which there is no evidence), bringing it up works just as well as a dismissive bit of rhetoric as it does as a teaching moment.
So ultimately, the film leaves it ambiguous as to what Holdo’s motivations were. And without having it explicitly stated, it’s not really plausible that Holdo would keep her plans from Poe just to teach him a lesson.
The big problem being that Poe makes it very clear that he’s not going to learn the lesson, and that as a result he’s going to put everyone in danger.
He ends up shouting at Holdo in front of all the crew on the bridge, calling her a coward and a traitor. And what is Holdo’s response to this? She says, “get this man off my bridge”, when what she should have said was, “put this man in the brig!”
At that point it was so clear that Poe was going to supplant her as commander, Holdo really has no excuse for failing to take him out of the equation. With the power of her superior rank comes a responsibility regarding the actions of her subordinates. Vice Admiral Holdo knew that Poe was a problem, had the power to do something about it, and yet chose to do nothing. Thus, she shares the blame in the consequences of Poe’s actions.
If Holdo had taken the simple measure of sequestering Poe after he literally shouted his disloyalty to her face, he never could have told Finn and Rose that the transports were being fueled. DJ wouldn’t have overheard Poe telling them, and Holdo’s plan would have stayed secret and gone off without a hitch.
Defense: Poe Did The Same Thing
Yes, Holdo didn’t entrust Poe with her plan. But what was Poe’s reaction? It was to distrust her, make his own plan, and keep it a secret from her! So one could argue he does the exact same thing, motivated by the exact same desire to ensure the survival of the Resistance.
The first problem with this argument is that it’s just, structurally, a bad argument. Just because someone else jumped off the bridge doesn’t mean it’s okay that Holdo jumps off too. At best we’re just saying Holdo is no worse than Poe, which is not a defense of her actions.
Second, their respective reasons for distrusting each other do not carry equal weight.
Poe is not characterized as being strictly disobedient to his superiors. He ignores Leia’s order to retreat in the opening battle, but he doesn’t ignore her admonishment for doing so. When the First Order starts firing on their ship on the other side of their lightspeed jump, Poe cheekily asks, “permission to jump into a ship and blow something up?” Poe acknowledges Leia’s criticism and reaffirms her authority to direct strategy.
It’s also made clear that Poe is thinking of Leia and trying to defend her wishes, as he ends up leading his secret mission using her room in the medical bay as his headquarters. So, Poe actually demonstrates great respect for Leia, even if he isn’t completely successful in interpreting or following her instructions.
Holdo is in a league of her own. When Holdo is introduced from out of left field, Poe whispers, “that’s Vice Admiral Holdo?” to one of his colleagues, who replies with a shrug. We immediately get the impression that no one really recognizes her.
Holdo then begins her command by setting a hopeless tone. Her delivery of, “may the force be with us”, comes off sounding a lot like, “may God have mercy on our souls”. It strongly implies that her plan is to watch the Resistance slowly die and hope that someone in the galaxy takes inspiration from the tragedy of their defeat to form a new Rebel military organization.
When Poe asks for the plan, Holdo does nothing to assuage anyone’s doubts. She says, “plan?”, in a tone that suggests she doesn’t even have one. She takes no action to make herself more trustworthy. We don’t even see the other female leader who introduced Holdo, and always stands beside her (both literally and figuratively) do anything to defend Holdo from Poe’s accusations.
And it’s not only Poe who doesn’t trust the Vice Admiral. Why do Finn and Rose go to Poe with their idea instead of going to Holdo? Why does Rose agree to keep the plan secret from the head officer of the Resistance, even though we just saw Rose laying down the law on deserters? Why doesn’t C-3PO spill the beans? Why does the young female officer (played by Carrie Fisher’s daughter) agree to help Poe by lying to Holdo, telling her the ship Finn and Rose depart on is just passing debris?
It’s exactly because crew members trust Poe more than they trust Holdo that Poe is able to execute his plan and stage a “coup”. They know him, they trust him, and it’s partly due to the fact that Poe has briefed them all on a survival plan that makes sense and gives them hope.
Notice I put “coup” in quotes. That’s because when a superior officer exhibits unfitness for duty, a subordinate has the right and responsibility to ignore their orders, and even to relieve them of command (hopefully subject to a later impartial legal judgment). Regardless of the fact that Holdo may have had good intentions, she exhibited incompetence in leadership which endangered the Resistance.
Purely based on the information presented in the text of the film, Vice Admiral Holdo exhibited incompetence and Poe was right to relieve her of command.
The fact that Poe’s mission failed while Holdo’s would have worked is irrelevant. It’s the decisions that each character made based on the information they had that’s important. Holdo’s failure in judgment in the middle of the film is no better than Poe’s failure in judgment at the opening of the film, and her good intentions don’t mitigate that failure any more than Poe’s did for his failure.
Holdo failed to manage the morale of the crew in her charge, failed to inspire faith in her leadership, and failed to isolate a rogue subordinate. Even though she had the power and opportunity to do all of those things. Even though there is no logical reason she shouldn’t have done so.
If Holdo had just communicated her plan, then when Finn and Rose came to Poe with their idea, he could have shared it with Holdo for her to consider. They could have dedicated a larger team to the mission to give it a better chance of success, or could have discussed why the evacuation plan was a better strategy and focused on executing it.
Again, the real reason for Holdo’s behavior is that the audience is meant to follow the conflict from Poe’s point of view so that we feel the impact of his “mistakes” and learn the lesson alongside him.
But on the literal storytelling level it just makes no sense. It’s the most obvious example of where the film’s screenwriting falls short.
Regarding the last topic, about Holdo’s motivations for withholding her plan, some people posit that the poor writing is not an accident, but rather a conscious trade-off designed to advance a “feminist agenda”. Something along the lines of teaching the men in the audience that like Poe, they should #BelieveWomen, especially purple-haired feminists, even in the absence of evidence. You know, because men are dumb hot-heads and their female superiors are always honest and know what’s best for them.
That’s not an implausible hypothesis for a Hollywood project, but it’s a difficult thing to prove. And, of course, if filmmakers want to use their privately-funded film to advance a particular message or agenda, that’s their prerogative.
The reason to ponder this charge is to draw larger conclusions about the source of problems in the film, or about why fans have responded the way they have to it, not to argue that trying to incorporate a feminist message into the film is inherently wrong.
However, there is a difference between a message that is feminist, and one that is Anti-Male, which is a stronger charge levied against the film. While filmmakers have the right to make a film with a message that depicts women as in some way inherently superior to men, I personally can’t defend a film whose text or subtext is sexist any more than I can one which is racist.
Unfortunately it’s very difficult to distinguish between a textual or sub-textual message that is present but poorly executed from one which is absent. In other words, there’s no way to know merely by looking at the film whether a feminist message was intended by the filmmakers.
They could have tried to incorporate such a message and just failed to execute it properly, and they could also have had no such intention and nevertheless the film could make gender commentary by mere coincidence.
The latter supposition is actually made more plausible to me just based on the makeup of the cast. With such an equal ratio of male to female characters in the film, how does one avoid incidentally suggesting something about men versus women, especially when individual male and female characters are in conflict with one another?
The only thing we can really do then, is see what if any messages we can discern in the film, intentional or not. Ultimately, since these messages should have been just as apparent to the filmmakers as they are to us, the filmmakers are at least partly responsible for them, since they chose not to alter their screenplay to avoid them.
In order to investigate the validity of a claim of feminist messages in the film, I decided to try and view the film through opposing lenses. The theory behind this analytic approach is that if it’s equally easy to argue for two opposing hypotheses, then it’s unlikely either is true. Rather, it’s more likely that the film is neutral or ambiguous, and that interpretations to the contrary say more about the person interpreting the film than the film itself.
The first lens assumes that the film is deliberately trying to depict women as being superior to men. The second lens makes the opposite assumption that the film depicts men as being superior to women. If both approaches are approximately equally fruitful, I would conclude that the film is feminist, as in the opposite of sexist. However, I could not say whether that message was intentionally created or not.
I make a special request of the reader that neither of the following lists nor any specific observation in them be attributed to me or this essay without reference to the surrounding context, particularly the list of opposite focus.
The Film Hates Men
Here we’re looking at aspects of the film that suggest men are inherently bad, that women are inherently superior to men, or that men do not deserve the same things as women.
Implicit in each of the listed observations is that a character was depicted as wanting, doing, or being something because of their gender.
- Men fall victim to their emotions.
- Kylo is blinded by rage.
- Poe is blinded by aggressiveness and over-confidence.
- Luke resists helping his friends due to guilt and cowardice.
2. Men need to learn from women, not vice versa.
- Poe is taught a lesson in leadership by Leia and Holdo.
- Rose teaches Finn why he should support the Resistance.
- Rey learns almost nothing from Luke. Instead, she takes the ancient Jedi texts (which Luke admits to not having fully read) so she can teach herself.
3. Men don’t respect women.
- Poe ignores Leia’s order to retreat, and gets many people killed.
- Poe distrusts his new superior officer Holdo, mutinies against her, and leads a secret plan that sabotage’s hers, again leading to many deaths.
- Finn tries to stand in front of Rose and prevent her from speaking when they explain their plan to Poe, essentially trying to take full credit for their shared work.
- Kylo doesn’t think Rey is capable of communicating with him via the Force.
- Luke is reluctant to help Rey. He rejects her call for help. He also isn’t fully swayed by the old Hologram of Leia. However, he does eventually listen to Yoda.
4. Men are evil.
- Everyone in the First Order with the exception of Captain Phasma is a man.
- In the absence of the influence of their respective masters, Kylo chooses evil and Rey chooses good.
- Luke doesn’t share Rey’s optimism in thinking Kylo can be redeemed. Rey believes in the ability of Luke and Kylo to come back to the light, but they both refuse her attempts to help them.
- DJ steals a ship and betrays Finn and Rose.
5. Women make more meaningful sacrifices:
- A new character, Paige, sacrifices herself to destroy the dreadnought and save the Raddus ship. This is despite the bomber attack having been Poe’s misguided decision.
- Rose is willing to give up her necklace (the one that matches her sister’s) to DJ as a deposit for his services.
- The anonymous male head officer of the Resistance’s medical frigate goes down with the ship, following the evacuation of an unknown number of its crew.
- The new character, Holdo, and not an established character like Admiral Ackbar, sacrifices herself to make up for Poe’s mistakes. Holdo’s lightspeed kamikaze scene is the highlight of the film for many viewers. It is usually described with more positivity than Luke’s final scene. Holdo’s
scene is more visually beautiful, and arguably more emotionally impactful than Luke’s. Her sacrifice also kills more enemy fighters and protects more Resistance fighters than any other sacrifice in the film.
- Finn tries to sacrifice himself on Crait. Since he helped leak Holdo’s plan to the First Order, he is partially correcting for his own mistakes. Rose stops Finn and reprimands him for the attempt.
- Partly because Finn failed, Luke sacrifices his life to save the Resistance, when it’s not clear he had to. He is making up for his past mistakes. No one, including Leia or Rey, is sad when he dies.
6. Men are cowards.
- Finn tries to abandon the Resistance.
- Before Finn, Rose put three people in the brig for desertion. The only one we see in the background appears to be a man.
- It takes years before Luke tries to fix his mistakes. He’s unwilling to face his sister or her son.
- Luke can’t bring himself to destroy the First Jedi Temple even though he knows it’s the right thing to do. He needs Yoda to do it for him.
- Rey chooses to leave Kylo behind after recovering from the destruction of Anakin’s lightsaber. Meanwhile, both Hux and Luke are shown contemplating killing someone in their sleep.
7. Men are incompetent.
- General Hux’s character was changed from being threatening to being a comical bumbling idiot.
- Finn is introduced in a medical suit, half-naked and confused, leaking fluid.
- Luke bears responsibility for creating Kylo Ren and the First Order, and for letting his students and friends get killed by them.
- Snoke is betrayed, even though he’s literally reading the mind of the person who betrays him while it happens.
- Kylo is tricked and humiliated in front of the forces of the First Order while Rey helps her friends in the Resistance escape.
- Rey “grows beyond” Luke even though he teaches her almost nothing. However, Luke is still learning lessons from Yoda.
8. Men are weaker than women.
- Finn is stunned by Rose.
- When TIE fighters hit the bridge of the Raddus, Leia is able to survive, rescuing herself with the Force, but Admiral Ackbar is killed off-screen.
- Poe is incapacitated by Leia’s stun gun.
- Snoke embarrasses Kylo with the fact he was beaten by Rey at the end of TFA.
- Luke is tempted by, and fears, the dark side of the Force. Rey can dive in and out of the dark side cave, encounter Snoke, and build a relationship with Kylo Ren without ever facing temptation.
- In their remote conversations, Rey can see more of Kylo’s surroundings than he can see of her’s. There is also evidence of her environment being physically projected into his, but not vice versa.
- Rey saves Kylo at the end of their fight with the Praetorian guards.
- Rey is the first to recover when she and Kylo are knocked back by the destruction of Anakin’s lightsaber.
- Holdo escapes from the mutineers holding her captive. That standoff is two women and one man (Holdo’s side), versus two men and one woman. The single odd-gendered person on each side is visually de-emphasized by being placed furthest from the camera.
- Luke dies and Leia lives. Kylo was able to kill both Han and Luke, but not Leia. This is despite the fact that Carrie Fisher died before the film was released and there was good reason and sufficient time to alter the story to have her die.
The Film Hates Women
Next we’re looking at aspects of the film that support the opposite idea, that women are inherently bad or inferior to men.
- Women are disposable.
- Paige, Holdo, and Phasma appear, serve their script function, then are promptly killed off. Holdo and Phasma have unique uniforms, and seem destined to be better remembered for their appearance rather than their actions.
2. Women don’t respect men.
- Holdo doesn’t trust Resistance-hero Poe with her plan.
- Rey patronizingly explains to Luke his own life story and decisions.
3. Women assault male friends.
- Leia slaps Poe. (I find it particularly interesting to imagine how the gender-flipped version would play.)
- Rose crashes into Finn’s ship, nearly killing him. Then she kisses him on the lips without permission.
- Rey attacks Luke when he’s unarmed and his back is turned.
4. Women are weaker than men.
- Snoke and Luke are portrayed as the most powerful users of the Force.
- Phasma, a military Captain in the First Order, is defeated by one of her former subordinates, who is known to have significantly less combat experience.
- Rey can defeat Luke in a fight… only by cheating. She has to pull a lightsaber on him while he is defenseless.
5. Women are hypocrites.
- Poe is criticized for incompetence in leadership by Holdo, an incompetent leader.
- Finn is criticized for being a selfish traitor by Rose, a selfish traitor.
- Rey criticizes Luke for thinking Ben Solo’s choice was made, even though they both base their reactions on Force Visions. Luke fails Kylo after seeing a dark future in his mind. Rey goes to Ben assuming he’ll choose to join her, the way she already foresaw him doing.
6. Women follow men.
- Rose idolizes Finn.
- Rey follows around Luke, then Kylo.
- Female alien caretakers put up with Luke as they tend to Ach-To.
- Poe leads Resistance fighters in the beginning and end of the film. Leia deliberately directs members of the Resistance to follow him instead of her.
7. Women are incompetent.
- The Resistance, led mostly by women in this film, ultimately has to run away from the male-led First Order. (If this is a victory, then The First Order won at the end of TFA).
- Admiral Holdo exhibits incompetence in leadership by failing to control her subordinate Poe.
- Paige and Holdo have to commit suicide in order to succeed in their missions.
- Rey naively thinks she can redeem Kylo. She fails.
8. Women fall victim to their emotions.
- Rose is introduced crying. Then she almost doesn’t realize that Finn is trying to abandon ship because she’s so enamored with him.
- Holdo is alternately enraged by and enamored with Poe. She and Leia both say they like him. Holdo calls him a “flyboy”, the same insult levied by Leia toward Han in the original film. This implies her failure to properly handle Poe was because she found him attractive.
- Rey holds herself back by wanting to believe she wasn’t abandoned by her parents. In her desire to overcome loneliness, she misreads Kylo’s intentions.
- Rey thinks she can “fix” Luke and Kylo.
- Rose tries to “fix” Finn on their side mission instead of reporting him for desertion.
- Rose “saves” Finn because she likes him, even though her actions would have led to the death of the Resistance if Luke hadn’t shown up.
9. Women regress while men progress.
- Finn learns to stop running away and being selfish.
- Kylo becomes Supreme Leader of the First Order.
- Luke redeems himself for his past failures.
- Poe becomes a better leader, and takes the lead from Leia in the evacuation of the Resistance fighters.
- Chewbacca is seen expertly piloting the Millennium Falcon without Rey’s help, while being distracted by Porgs. He also becomes a Vegan.
- Rose stops being selfless and becomes selfish.
- Holdo goes from hopeful and patient to aggressive and desperate.
- Phasma goes from being ambushed and subdued by Finn in TFA, when he had the upper hand, to apparently being outright killed by him when he was in a disadvantaged position in TLJ.
- Leia gives up hope, first for her son, then for the Resistance when her call for help goes unanswered.
- Rey revisits her TFA struggle, doubling down on trying to connect to a family. She ends up with more muddled feelings towards Kylo and her friends in the Resistance. Where once she wanted to get revenge against Kylo for killing Han Solo, now her motivation is unclear.
- Rey no longer flies the Millennium Falcon, instead taking gunner position while Chewy takes the helm, even though their main goal was just to pull away the TIE fighters from the main battlefield and Rey is the better pilot. However, she does shoot down three TIE fighters in one shot.
The first thing that should be apparent is that the film’s bias is not as clear cut as some people have suggested. One can convincingly argue for a misogynist charge as easily as a misandrist one.
However, there are a number of overlapping categories within the observations with a 2:1 or greater gender discrepancy.
People of both genders are depicted as weak, incompetent, and disrespectful of members of the opposite gender, but men significantly more so than women.
Men are uniquely depicted as cowardly, and women make more effective heroic sacrifices then the men do.
The most unequal of the overlapping categories was depiction of strength. Women were significantly more likely to come out on top in physical confrontations with men, with Phasma being the notable exception.
However, women are depicted as more likely to fall victim to their emotions. Specifically, Rey, and to a lesser extent Rose and Holdo, seem to play out the tired I Can Change My Beloved trope, in which they struggle to transform the male characters they are in love with into better people.
I consider most of the other observations I’ve noted to be much more circumstantial. They involve fewer total examples, and aren’t hard to explain in narrative terms.
The biggest, and most significant remaining difference is in the way characters are developed in the film. Women are overwhelmingly more static in terms of character growth. They even seem to make negative progress, often in service of the male characters.
My conclusion is that the film is superficially biased in favor of women. The female characters are usually presented as physically, morally, and intellectually superior to men.
And yet it’s the male characters that enjoy all the character growth, while the female characters follow them around and antagonize them into improving themselves, just to have the script kill, render unconscious, or sideline them the moment the arcs of the respective men have been resolved.
So, if the filmmakers had a feminist agenda for the film, I have to say it was rather poorly executed. Men and women are simply not treated equally by the screenplay, and I think women come out worse than men overall.
The film seems to prefer endowing its female characters more with physical strength than strength of character.
Rey, the POV protagonist of the sequel trilogy, seems to fare worst of all in this respect. She’s holds the moral high ground over Luke and Kylo, has small wins in fights against each of them, but they both grow as characters while she stays in the same place.
The Problem of Diversity
When you have a diverse cast, anything you do with any individual character has the potential to come off like a commentary on a particular gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity.
If you have a cast full of white men and one man is stupid, one man is selfish, one is charming, and one is heroic, then you know the characteristics attributed to a character do not represent a commentary on, or generalization of, all white men; just that individual.
Conversely when, as a hypothetical example, you have one black guy that’s the only one doing slapstick, and he and a Vietnamese girl are given the worst part in the film which is otherwise composed mostly of white characters, it ends up seeming a little racist. Especially if the Vietnamese girl’s completely unestablished romantic interest in the black boy seems to conveniently snuff out the flames of both a potential gay and a potential black-white interracial relationship that might have been hinted at in the previous film. You know, just as an example.
When every color, lifestyle, and identity must be represented, you end up with too many characters, and the writing of all of them suffers for that reason alone. You also don’t have room for multiple instances of one “type” of character to balance out positive and negative characterizations, and so you’re constantly tiptoeing around PR landmines.
In other words, if you have a diverse cast in your story, you’re incentivized to make every character strong and virtuous. Except for the white men, in which case we have so many positive examples of them in media that you feel they can take the hit.
Once we get more films featuring actors with historically underrepresented backgrounds, I expect this problem to largely go away. Until then, the Marvel direction seems to be the way to go. Start with a mostly white male cast, gradually add in women and black guys, then make a movie that’s a mostly black cast, and so on. Eventually, you’ll have developed enough credibility to get away with a film where the only black character is the main villain, or something similar.
It has to be baby steps, or else no one will like the final product. People will look at the box office returns and take away the message that diversity is bad or that everyone in the audience is a -phobe/-ist. But the real reason the film will have failed is because the white men will be evil but interesting, everyone else will be boring and unrelateable, and the writing overall will suck.
The Adventures of Mary Sue
Speaking of writing that sucks, screenwriter Max Landis is keeping a low profile as of late thanks to some sexual assault allegations levied against him. Regardless of whether or not those allegations prove to be true, I’m certain they won’t be his legacy. Neither will any creative project he’s worked on before, or that he may be involved with in the future.
No, from now, to long after he’s dead, Max Landis will only ever be remembered as the guy who called Rey a “Mary Sue” and launched use of the term to never before seen heights.
What is a Mary Sue? That, my friend, is the right question.
See, to hear other people talk about it, it seems the term means precisely what it needs to mean in order to be able to prove or disprove its applicability to Rey.
That is, if you don’t like Rey, she’s a Mary Sue. If you do like her, then she can’t be a Mary Sue.
It’s a term that was coined in a short story that satirized a certain kind of character frequently appearing in Star Trek fan fiction. Since that story is, by its nature, an exaggeration of the actual characters being commented on, and because it’s also so short, it can’t be used as the basis for any kind of useful definition.
So, the term has been vaguely defined from its conception, and time has not improved things. The only thing one can really say with confidence, is that a Mary Sue is a character in fan fiction that is, in some way, poorly written.
This is why it actually made sense when Max Landis used it. He criticized most of the main characters for being poorly written, and characterized The Force Awakens as being more of a fan fiction film than a proper sequel. “Rey is a Mary Sue” is just a pithy summary of his opinion on the entire film.
These days? There’s just no point to saying it anymore. Since all definitions are ad hoc, anyone saying “Rey is a Mary Sue”, or “Rey is not a Mary Sue” is just stating their overall opinion on the character.
So, let’s leave the term aside and just focus on the fundamental underlying question. Is Rey’s character poorly written?
When I first saw The Force Awakens, I was one of the people who thought Rey was a little too good at things. I didn’t understand why someone who didn’t want to leave the planet knew so much about flying. I didn’t understand how someone so intimately familiar with the mechanics of the Millennium Falcon, the effects of modifications on its performance, the history of Han Solo including the fact that he piloted the Millennium Falcon, and the history of the Falcon’s recent ownership going all the way back to (but not including) Han Solo, would nevertheless not recognize the ship and refer to it as “garbage”.
I also thought it was weird that Rey thought to try a Jedi Mind trick. I was also surprised by how good Finn and her were at fighting with a lightsaber.
Then, after having seen the film a couple times, I heard the “Rey is a Mary Sue” accusation. Since it connected with my experience and I heard it came from Max Landis (whose writing I’ve actually always liked, despite my intro joke), I took it as a true claim.
But following TLJ I revisited arguments for and against the claim and became less certain about it. I recently decided to watch both Episode IV and VII again for the purposes of clarifying my position. In order to facilitate comparison, I actually watched the films interleaved. I started with the first third of Episode IV, then watched the first third of VII, then the second third of IV, and so on.
My first takeaway was that filmmaking has changed a lot since the original film. These days pacing is much faster and cinematography is much more complex. Episode VII is much funnier.
TFA is also, literally, a remake of Episode IV. I know people have said that before. I know I’ve heard that before, along with some specific comparisons. I remember noticing it when I first watched the film. But my God, apart from the filmmaking style, it’s the exact same film. Even down to little details like how Rey whispers her internal monologue on the Falcon’s first flight after Finn asks for cover: “We’re about to get some! (I hope)”. Very
reminiscent of Han Solo assuring Luke the ship will hold together for the firefight and whispering, “You hear me baby, hold together”. Both characters are shown as having inner doubts masked by outward confidence.
That last point is one of the best arguments against a bad writing claim. Rey’s projected confidence is repeatedly shown as being something of an illusion. Of course, growing up as a beautiful young girl in a coarse environment, you’d need to learn to project a tough “don’t mess with me, I don’t need anyone’s help” attitude to dissuade anyone from attempting to molest or rob you. The environmental factor is also why I never personally had a problem with Rey
being so good at fighting off manhandlers with her staff.
I accept that when Finn goes up against the Stormtrooper, it’s implied that Stormtroopers have some kind of fencing training, which is why Finn can manage the saber. Rey’s prowess extends from her staff practice, a concept reinforced in TLJ. Kylo was injured when he fights Rey. And of course the real reason Rey is so good with a lightsaber, is so that we can have a cool lightsaber duel, and suspending any remaining disbelief is worth it just for that.
I think what makes a lot of what Rey does seem too good to be true is just that it all happens in one film. Seeing it take so long for Luke to do all those things implied that they took a lot of effort, even if that was never made explicit. And a lot of people would have wanted to think it took Luke a lot of effort, since the more effort it took, the more impressive of an accomplishment it was. In reality, it was ambiguous, leaving fans with conflicting interpretations,
and conflicting relative comparisons between Luke and Rey.
The only two things that still bother me at this point are Rey not recognizing the Millennium Falcon, and knowing about the Jedi Mind Trick.
I did notice on this last viewing of TFA that in her excited post-firefight bonding moment with Finn, Rey says that she’s flown ships before, but never left the planet. That certainly helps a lot, but this detail is easily missed by anyone watching the film, since Finn and Rey are hurriedly talking over each other.
I had to watch the scene multiple times at reduced speed to make sure I could make out what they both were saying. Finn confirms that Rey set up a shot for him to compensate for his jammed gun, but the piloting prowess was never really a problem for Rey, as it’s well established that Force-enhanced reflexes imply better piloting abilities, and with the knowledge that she’s flown ships before — close to the surface of the planet at that — I find the entire flying sequence is completely plausible.
But it’s still a problem for me that Rey knows every last detail of the Millennium Falcon’s engineering, performance, and ownership history, and yet doesn’t recognize it as the Millennium Falcon. Is it a contradiction? Not quite. But it’s awfully convenient to the script.
Rey knows everything about the Millennium Falcon, down to every last person who owned it after Han Solo, but not before — because then she couldn’t have a fun, wide-eyed fangirl moment with Han, and she couldn’t echo Luke’s “what a piece of junk” comment from A New Hope.
The Jedi Mind Trick is really in the same category. Rey knows about the Jedi and the Force. So she could know what a Jedi Mind Trick is… she certainly tells Luke she knows about floating rocks too in TLJ. So who knows what Rey was doing or reading up on to stave off boredom while living so long on her own, right?
Who knows? Well, no one. That’s exactly the problem. We don’t know what Rey knows until she tells us. And I mean that quite literally. Since Rey wasn’t making any friends on Jakku, there isn’t even a third party to give us any information about her. What she knows is literally what she herself tells us she knows, or that she demonstrates through her actions.
We knew everything that Luke knew about the Force from day one. Absolutely nothing. So whenever he did something, it must have been that either he was taught it or it was instinct. Force pull could be instinct. Mind Trick probably not, but Luke saw Obi-Wan do it.
But Rey seems to know exactly what the script needs her to know, and nothing beyond that. She knows all the basic Force tricks, but she doesn’t know the things Luke teaches her, because otherwise Luke wouldn’t have anything to offer her in TLJ. And since Rey now has the ancient Jedi texts, whose contents are a mystery to us, she can now know anything about the Force the screenplay wants, including never before scene Force abilities. After all, Luke didn’t read those books, and it’s easy to assume Kylo didn’t either. We could see Rey and Kylo fight in the next film, and she could just teleport past him, turn the ground into quicksand, reverse time… anything. The explanation could always be, “oh, she read it in one of the books”. Maybe Rey’s last name is Strange.
TLJ makes things worse by suggesting that Rey’s strength with the Force follows from the Force trying to balance itself to match Kylo’s power. This is just lazy writing and terrible framing on its face. Kylo somehow gets stronger, implicitly by training or killing his father and his master, and Rey automatically matches that strength. In other words, the female character passively benefits from her male counterpart’s hard work. And we wonder why men’s rights activists are railing about the film and its “agenda”?
Regardless of whether we can trust Snoke’s interpretation of events, the unambiguous reality of the script remains. Rey is always exactly as strong as she needs to be, either because the Force balances itself in her favor, or just because. Rey always knows exactly as much as she needs to know. We don’t have to see her doing any work or getting anyone’s help to accomplish her goals.
Rey also always does the right thing. She helps BB-8 instead of selling him for food she desperately needs. She helps the Resistance even though she isn’t established as having any specific grievance against the First Order, but is established as having no desire to leave the planet, even for a short time. She doesn’t join Kylo in TLJ, even though she has a deeper relationship with him than she has with any other character and the film goes to lengths to blur the lines between good and evil in her mind.
I even heard it suggested that the reason Rey is able to deliberately dive into the dark side with no hesitation and suffer no consequences, is because in order to fall victim to the dark side it has to be able to give you something. Perhaps power for power’s sake, or to save a loved one. But if what Rey really wants is to have biological parents that love her… the dark side can’t give her that. It has nothing to offer her and thus she can’t be tempted by it.
In any case, it seems Rey is just inherently, morally incorruptible.
So what do you call a character whose strength always rises to meet the challenge and who always does the right thing? A Mary Sue? Well, if you insist on inventing a new term to replace a perfectly good one that already exists. To me, that’s Superman. Rey is Superman.
This is why it’s so ironic that Superman-writer Max Landis criticized Rey as being “too good at stuff”. Though, to be fair, his American Alien stories have been the most tolerable I’ve ever found the character of Superman to be.
But I’m not here to endlessly slander Superman. Superman has his fans. But I’ve never been one of them. I say he’s a boy scout, and he’s boring, knowing that somewhere Max Landis is confused as to why he’s suddenly crying.
I feel the same way about Rey as I do about Superman. She’s boring and unrelateable. I mean, according to Superman fans she doesn’t have to be. She could be written in a way that emphasized some kind of inner conflict or thought process, or created stakes by forcing her to choose which people to save and which to let die. But I think so far the writers have fallen short with her. But again, I’ve never liked Superman, so it might just be me.
I suspect many young girls think Rey’s everything they want to be when they grow up (minus the deadbeat parents that don’t love them), and parents understandably want nothing to do with undermining Rey in the eyes of their daughters. I’m sympathetic.
Just because Rey’s not up to my standards doesn’t mean she’s not valuable or that I want to take her away from anyone. I mean, what kind of monster would want to tarnish the reputation of anyone’s childhood hero…
The Desecration of Luke Skywalker
As I discussed in the intent vs. execution section, the film doesn’t make it clear who Luke Skywalker is or even was. Either he’s never grown as a character since Episode IV, or he’s completely changed since ROTJ, but we aren’t really shown how or why.
In both cases, it’s an insult, and more so because it’s not clear which interpretation is the correct one.
Luke Skywalker, a childhood hero of many, was given a send-off in which he saves people from a problem that he created, and only a very few of them, because most have already been killed thanks to his inaction.
But it’s actually not the story, by itself, that’s the problem. You can do that story well. It’s just that outside Mark’s acting the execution of it in TLJ is simply awful.
We don’t really understand Luke’s culpability in creating the problem, partly because we have no information on the extent to which Snoke influenced Kylo.
And why does Luke make the mistake he does? Because he thought Luke Skywalker was a great Jedi Master that could handle anything. And why is believing in Luke Skywalker a bad thing exactly? Well, apparently it’s not, because the film ends with him doing it once again, and that time it’s a good thing.
Outside Leia and the droids, the people Luke saves (particularly our new characters Rey, Poe, and Finn) don’t even know who Luke is except by reputation.
And that green milk scene the character was put through? Hilarious. And when he got drunk and pissed himself? A riot.
Just imagine you’d never watched the original trilogy. What would your opinion of Luke Skywalker be based on only The Last Jedi? He’d come off as a strange hermit that sort of created the main villain, and otherwise does very little.
That actually sounds like Yoda and Obi-Wan right? Except for unlike them, he didn’t have any of his own wisdom to impart on a new generation that could fix his mistakes. And unlike them, he still had the power to correct his mistakes himself. He didn’t try to fix things and fail, like they did; he simply chose to do nothing.
So, the same, except minus all the integrity of character. The legacy of Luke Skywalker is failure punctuated by flukish successes.
And what did taking the character this direction accomplish? Did it enrich his character? Not this implausibly executed. Did it help us better relate to him? No, he was already relatable. Did it reaffirm his essential decency, showing that he could come back even after falling so low? No, it showed that he was just as much of a screw-up as he was a hero; it just depended on what day it was.
But did he at least step aside to pass the baton to the new generation?
There is no new generation. We wasted so much time on nonsense we haven’t bothered to develop any of the new characters, least of all Rey. Poe is a charismatic pilot, Finn is the script’s source for enemy intel, and Rey is “God Mode Activated”.
Rules of Engagement
The most damning thing you can say about The Last Jedi is that it left audiences unexcited for the next installment (myself included), which is never how you want someone to feel about your blockbuster film as they’re leaving the theater.
The film passively prevents the viewer from caring about anything, and in fact punishes them for doing so.
Even when you’re designing a slot machine, an inherently cynical and unethical project, you still want to reward the player somehow for playing the game, so that they keep playing. At the very least, they have to feel like they can win. They should feel like the game has rules, that it’s fair, and that if they are patient their investment will pay off.
But how can one come out of The Last Jedi thinking any of those things? Does Star Wars have rules?
Apparently not. There is now no reason to think setups will pay off the way they do in other stories. Even the most basic expectations are violated. The Resistance destroyed the Starkiller base in the last film, but somehow the Resistance is on the ropes at the start of TLJ.
The rules of the world are inconsistent. We couldn’t do lightspeed kamikaze attacks before, but we can now. New Force powers can pop in at the writer’s convenience. Space physics don’t even have to be internally consistent within the same film. It’s not clear if there is even a meaningful distinction between good and evil anymore.
There are no rules, so there are no stakes, and no reason to make a wager. There is no logical reason to believe that investing in the franchise will give you an emotional pay off.
Buy an action figure for that character you like, and then in the next film they’re a completely different character that you now hate. You read your Star Wars comic book, and then when a character from it appears in the film, they are totally unrecognizable.
In The Force Awakens, Leia sends Han to try to save their son, because she’s certain Ben can be saved. In this film, Leia and Luke are convinced he’s gone. On the other hand, Rey’s forgiven Kylo for killing Han right in front of her. We don’t even get to see Luke’s reaction to Han’s death. It’s almost like the murder of Han Solo doesn’t even matter to the characters or the narrative.
When not even the characters in the film care what’s going on, why should we?
Luke tossing Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber over his shoulder is not incorrect just because it’s comedic and undermines a serious moment. It’s inconsistent with where his character is supposed to be at that point in the film.
He’s supposed to be broken. Angry at the Jedi, angry at himself, terrified at connecting with the Force and with the past. He should have trembled. He should have cried. He should have tossed the saber away from him and took a step away from Rey, reflexively, as if he’d been bit by a rabid animal. Something. Anything.
Luke should have acted like the saber mattered to him, because it did. Just because he didn’t feel positively about it, doesn’t mean he felt nothing. Yet that’s exactly what tossing it over his shoulder conveys. That it means nothing to him. That he feels nothing.
Poe kills a bunch of people? Slap on the wrist… er face. Lei survives being blown into space and flies back to the ship… no one comments on how amazing that is. Luke doesn’t care about the plight of his friends, or even basic etiquette. The Resistance calls for help, and no one shows up. Luke dies, no one is sad. No one cares about anything, or anyone. At the end of the film, we’re in the same place we’ve always been. Rebels vs Empire. They blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow. Nothing ever changes. What’s the point?
But it’s not just that payoffs don’t exist. They are actually negative. Your experience is worse the more invested you are. For the things the film does ask the audience to care about — Rey’s parents, Snoke, the failures of various characters — it reveals nothing. No answers, no origins, no consequences.
See this box? Don’t you want to know what’s in the box? There’s something totally cool in this box, isn’t there? Let’s take a pea — wait not yet. Okay, wait for it. And… empty. It’s empty! What did you expect? Did you really think there was going to be something in there? Are you really that dumb? Do you know how boring and predictable it would be for there to be something in the box?
And commentators act like the expectation that questions might be answered or mysteries might have solutions is somehow a new thing that Star Wars fans made up just so they could be disappointed. As if this wasn’t a problem with Twin Peaks or Lost or countless other projects that have come before.
Yes, setting up a mystery box that’s ultimately empty is a great way to attract an initial audience, and an equally great way to permanently lose that audience once the box is opened.
Breaking the World
I want to elaborate on the handling of a few things like space physics that were immersion-breaking, because it’s one of those things critics can’t understand why anyone would complain about.
To a critic, things like that never do make sense, they never have made sense. In a fantasy film, the rules bend to serve the story and visuals all the time.
Not like this they don’t. But I can understand why a jaded critic wouldn’t notice.
See, me, I actually don’t usually notice those things myself. The things that end up in the Cinemasins video. Even the really obvious things like, “there’s no sound in space”, and “you wouldn’t be able to see a planet being destroyed in the sky of another planet”.
Stuff like that goes right over my head. I have terrible instincts for physics, and little interest in or knowledge of astronomy and space travel.
The Last Jedi stands out not because it breaks the rules of the real world, but because it breaks its own rules, even right after it establishes them.
The doors open on Paige’s bomber, and it’s jarring, because every other time you see an opening to space from a ship in Star Wars, it’s fixed open and there’s a clearly illuminated border around the edge of the opening to suggest the presence of some kind of force field. You see a classic example in the hanger of the Raddus just a few minutes later.
We introduce the lightspeed kamikaze attack in this film, which is so powerful and obvious it calls forth the question of why no one has done it before and how we’re going to stop characters doing it in the future.
We see Leia get sucked out of the bridge into the vacuum of space. Then minutes later, she re-enters the ship without the proper establishment of some kind of airlock that would prevent the same thing happening again.
It’s not the audience that is fixating on these details. It’s the script, by relying so heavily on the rules being a certain way, only to contradict them.
And the Force? The Force is not a a deus ex machina. What you should notice about its use in the original trilogy is that it was not a device to solve plot problems. Rather, it was used for characterization and world building.
For example, take the cave scene from the start of The Empire Strikes Back where Luke pulls the lightsaber to his hand. We didn’t really need that scene to begin with. When Luke wakes up upside down, it could have been that his lightsaber hadn’t fallen off his belt. You could still build tension just by having him struggle to gain his wits in time to grab it. Or maybe it does fall, and he just has to struggle to stretch far enough to grab it, perhaps swinging his weight around to partly break the ice gluing him to the ceiling of the snowy cave.
The use of the Force in that scene is only to demonstrate the ability and show Luke’s progression with the Force, not to get Luke out of the corner the screenwriter wrote themself into. When we see Luke do a Force pull later with less effort, it signals his skill progression.
When Luke uses the same Force choke power Vader does, it establishes Luke as being temptable to the dark side. When the Emperor summons lightning, manipulating the natural world, it makes him seem unnatural and demonic.
But what about Superman Leia in The Last Jedi? If Leia hadn’t saved herself with the Force, who could have? The Resistance X-wing ships had all been destroyed. We’ve never seen anyone dawn a full space-suit before to rescue someone without a ship. Could BB-8 do it? Does he have rocket boosters?
How else do you plausibly kill off the rest of the Resistance Command on the bridge while only rendering Leia unconscious to set up Poe’s arc, unless she has some kind of special protection that they do not?
And what does her using the Force say about her? That she can use the Force? That she’s tough? We already knew that.
The use of the Force in that scene solves a script problem, it doesn’t accomplish anything else.
Another bad example of using the Force came from The Phantom Menace, where we establish Jedi can run very fast. It’s a means to allow them to escape from some destroyer droids in the opening of the film. Instead of coming up with something clever to get the Jedi out of the situation, a new Force power was added. It creates an issue later in the film when Obi-Wan runs to the aid of his Master Qui-Gon and can’t quite make it through an energy field to help him fight Darth Maul. Why didn’t he just use the Force to run faster?
This is the problem with introducing new Force powers in the first place. Each one you add has the potential to create plot holes in future films, and also to demand the question of why the power wasn’t used in previous films when it would have been useful.
It also encourages an arms race that leaves all the characters OP. Then you end up in a situation where anything is possible, and there are no rules, and no stakes.
So, physics and magic are one thing. But what about perhaps the most commonly-raised complaint against the film: failed comedy. Isn’t that purely subjective?
It’s not an issue to put humor in a Star Was film. What is an issue is the inclusion of jokes which take you out of the Star Wars universe and into ours, like the opening joke about phone reception, or Finn’s cringeworthy “chrome dome” retort.
It’s much better to use the humor as an opportunity for world-building. When you call someone a chrome dome I’m thinking about bald guys. When you call someone a nerf herder I’m wondering what a nerf is, what they’re raised for, and if we’ll ever get to see what one looks like.
The other problem was the placement of jokes after serious moments, especially for Luke’s Scenes. You can insert a joke into a tense situation, but it only works when the nature of the situation is unclear. Is the situation dire or just a close call? In a close-call situation the humor comes off like a humanizing defense mechanism. The situation is ambiguous, and characters are calming themselves by trying to contextualize events through an absurdist lens. But once we see the hanger bay explode and the pilots get killed, we know we’re in a serious and dire situation. Seeing the droid fall to pieces after that isn’t funny, it’s in poor taste. The audience is in no mood for it.
The repeated attempts to re-contextualize serious situations as funny plays into the film’s Nihilistic tone. The film repeatedly asks us not to take anything seriously, leaving the impression that nothing matters, and we should not invest ourselves in the world.
Hopefully I’ve successfully demonstrated some of the ways the film opens itself up to varying interpretations and reception:
- Its weak point is its writing, which can be weighted very differently by different reviewers.
- How one interprets the success of the writing largely hinges on whether one buys into the idea that the film is “about failure”.
- The film is overly dense with details that critics are less likely to miss than a general audience is, but in any case can lead to different interpretations of the narrative.
- Luke Skywalker’s characterization is ambiguous, despite the fact
that the film’s subtext and overall plot structure reveals that it’s not supposed to be.
- The film can be successfully interpreted as either misogynist or misandrist, as promoting diversity, or as racist.
- Inconsistent world rules are more likely to be forgiven by critics than a general audience.
But besides these larger issues, I’d like to comment on some specific details in the script which are also ambiguous, and which contribute to audiences experiencing and interpreting the film very differently.
First, droid beeps. Both BB-8 and R2-D2 make beeps which are not directly translated. On the Millennium Falcon, R2-D2 ostensibly swears at Luke, but was it out of frustration or excitement? The viewer decides.
In the film’s opening, when Poe responds to BB-8’s noises with a call for “happy beeps”, we’re possibly meant to understand he said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”. So did this film keep with the tradition of prior films in including the phrase, or was it the first the leave it out? The viewer decides.
A similar thing happens with Chewbacca later in the film when Rey leaves to meet Kylo Ren on Snoke’s ship. She struggles to come up with something for Chewbacca to relay to Finn, in case he sees Finn before her. Chewbacca chimes in with a suggestion, which she agrees is good. But what did he say? What is the nature of Rey’s feelings about Finn?
This plays into an overall ambiguity created in romantic relationships. How does Finn feel about Rose? How does Rey feel about the possibility of Rose and Finn together? Is Rey going to develop something with Poe now instead? Or is she more interested in Kylo now? Pick a ship, any ship. Viewer’s choice.
Of course the “Reylo” ship calls forth the question of whether Kylo can still be redeemed. His motivations are unclear. Rey’s motivations are unclear. And even though Leia and Luke seem to say there’s no hope for him, Luke actually contradicts himself right before walking out to face Kylo by saying, “no one’s ever truly gone”, though I suspect that line may have been added in a reshoot in remembrance of Carrie Fisher.
And the question of Rey’s parents wasn’t actually settled. Was Kylo just manipulating her? Was he confused? Was she confused? The fan speculation continues, with some fans adamant she still has to be someone special, and others in love with the idea of her now-dead parents having sold her for drinking money.
And what was going on in that cave scene? What was the Hall of Rey’s about? Does it symbolize repressed memories? Or a lack of origin? Did the two shadowy figures in the mirror represent truth or Rey’s desires? Can an illusion seen in a dark-side cave be wrong? Again, viewer’s choice.
The ambiguous choices even extend outside the writing and into the sound design. While most people seemed to love the choice to put almost 10 seconds of silence into the track for Holdo’s lightspeed attack maneuver, I’m going to have to be the dissenting voice and say it was a terrible and uncreative decision.
It was such an unusual choice that there were reports of people in the audience leaving the theater to report a problem in the audio. It’s not an ideal experience to think one’s highly anticipated theater outing has been ruined by incompetent staff.
But moreover, I’m reminded of something I think I heard in some of the bonus content for Gravity that discussed how they approached designing the sound of silence in space. As was explained, you can’t really put silence into a soundtrack, because then you don’t convey silence, but rather the sounds inside the theater, which potentially pulls the audience out of the film and into the room it’s being projected in.
For some people, the silence during the Holdo Maneuver worked out well. They heard genuine silence. They heard gasps. Critic Grace Randolph reportedly had one of the best theater experiences of her life, as a lone woman perfectly delivered the line, “fuck you”, giving a voice to Holdo’s internal monologue and what her actions represented in the film, and to women in the audience.
You want to know what I heard on my first viewing? Someone opening the wrapper on a piece of candy. First they were oblivious. Then they realized the track had gone silent and they were distracting the other people in the theater, so they momentarily paused. Presumably, they thought the silence would only last a few seconds, and that since they had already made noise, they might as well just go back to opening the wrapper since the audio was about to kick back in. But of course it didn’t. So they paused again, waited a couple seconds, then gave up and went back to opening their candy.
Dropping the sound from a track for ten seconds is like showing ten seconds of black on the screen. In fact, since it’s commonly said that a film’s score is more emotionally important than the image, it’s even worse than that. It’s cheap, it’s lazy, it’s uncreative, it’s confusing, and I don’t ever want to see it in a film again.
How Did This Happen?
It seems the internet has largely settled on writer-director Rian Johnson to be the sacrificial lamb. Based on his public comments about his writing process and his rationale for specific decisions, I’d agree he bears the bulk of the responsibility.
I can’t quite bring myself to join the lynch mob against him though, since I really don’t know the conditions the film was made under. How much input came from other writers? How many stipulations did Disney have for the script? I have no idea, and nothing anyone involved in the production says on the matter can be taken at face value.
I’m sure writing a script for a Star Wars film is a challenging task, even if you’re a very talented writer. I have no idea what that’s like. I have no objective basis on which to hate Rian Johnson or declare him incompetent. I can only judge the final product.
I’ve tried to demonstrate the ambiguity in the film’s execution, and the problems it caused, but that ambiguity may have been intentional. It could’ve been an attempt to appeal to a wider audience by giving people with different conflicting desires what they wanted. It also could have been a decision to benefit Episode IX, given it hadn’t been written yet, especially with the context of Carrie Fisher’s absence.
I’m skeptical that bringing back J.J. Abrams will “fix” part IX and the trilogy. Again, I think dwelling on how things can be turned around in Episode IX is just setting yourself up for disappointment. It can’t be fixed. We’ll be happier if we just accept that.
Those of us familiar with J.J.’s previous projects know this wouldn’t be the first time he started a storyline by writing a bunch of checks that ultimately couldn’t be emotionally cashed out. J.J. is also known for being more of a mimic of other directors than having his own style, in which case I would expect his Episode IX to be equal parts The Last Jedi and Return of the Jedi, which I’m not sure anyone wants.
As I said before, J.J.’s “mystery box” fixation is part of the culture of secrecy that I fear is undermining the ability to create a good film, exemplified in TLJ. Secrecy affects the film before production because it encourages an inorganic and inefficient script, during production because it prevents early feedback, and after production because it makes it impossible to influence audience expectations in a way that will help them better enjoy the film for what it is.
I’m sure Rian Johnson and the higher ups probably had no idea TLJ would be anywhere near as controversially received as it was. That’s because they weren’t in the position to view the film from a neutral perspective. The storytelling is muddled and ambiguous. It is disambiguated, however, by the subtext which reveals the intentions of the filmmakers.
It reminds me of a fun demonstration many of have seen, where you hear a noisy audio clip that sounds kind of like a voice saying something, but it’s too garbled to make out. Then you are told an interpretation of what’s being said, and listen again. On that second listen it’s impossible not to hear the suggested words being spoken. It’s also completely impossible to stop hearing them. You can never again interpret the sounds ambiguously.
So, of course the people working most intimately with Rian on the film knew what he was trying to do. They had the whole idea of it in their heads before filming ever started. And so, they couldn’t see the film for what it was. They couldn’t see how they were failing to create an effective narrative, because as far as they could tell, the message was coming through clear as day. If anyone on the crew with a more neutral perspective was able to see the problems, they obviously weren’t comfortable voicing their concerns.
Because the film is so ambiguous, and so many Star Wars fans are desperate to love it, I’m sure test screenings went pretty well. You really would’ve needed a large-scale test that surveyed people several days after they had seen the film to see where their feelings had settled in order to have foreseen the problems. But then, why would anyone have thought to go to the trouble if all signs indicated there weren’t any problems?
Ignorance is Hubris
One of the reactions to disappointed fans that rubs me the wrong way is the accusation that they’re out to destroy the franchise. As if their intention was to whine and downvote future films into the grave.
The second strike of the uncharitable one-two punch is typically a classic “think of the children!” appeal. Can’t you understand the importance of giving girls a hero to look up to? Don’t you see how this film is making history in its casting decisions? Why are you trying to take it away?
Nonsense. You don’t see me writing articles complaining about Leia, Hermione, Sarah Conner, Ripley, Furiosa, Beatrix Kiddo, or Wonder Woman. Those were real characters. They had strengths, they had weaknesses, they were relatable, and they weren’t condescended to by having all the male characters surrounding them be terrible people so they could look better in comparison.
You also don’t see anyone claiming Finn is a better realized character than Lando, or ditto about Patty vs. Winston in the Ghostbusters franchise.
The Last Jedi is not a good film by virtue of handling women and people of color worse than films made decades ago. And its problems are more than skin deep.
Disney does not make Star Wars films because it has a deep love of the universe, pop culture, or artistic integrity. It makes Star Wars films to make money.
We are not lucky to have more Star Wars films. They are lucky to have our business. They are making a product for us, and we should demand that product to actually be good, or else they’ll just get more and more lazy to increase their profit margin.
Failing to criticize films for their flaws helps no one. Calling critics racists and sexists is not going to improve the box office returns, and nothing but the box office returns are going to influence Disney’s decisions.
The criticism tells Disney why some people didn’t want to buy their product and how they can make a better one. A better product is bought by more people. A profitable product continues to be made.
Critical fans want to save the franchise, before it gets run into the ground, so they can have more films (a futile effort). Criticism is good for Disney, good for people who didn’t like the film, and also for people who did, because it’s the thing that best helps the films continue to get made by ensuring people turn out to the theater to see them.
But then again, maybe people are more willing to buy a bad product than I would like to believe.
Though I do enjoy films, and analyze films perhaps a bit more deeply than the average person, and can put some words together in a sentence that starts with a conjunction because I’m l33t enough to know that’s not a grammatical error… my background is actually primarily in computer programming.
Part of programming involves the application of algorithms, which are abstract step-by-step methods for solving similar problems. One of the more interesting class of algorithms I’ve played around with is evolutionary algorithms, which are inspired by biological evolution. I’ll describe an example problem to give the reader an idea of how such an algorithm works. And yes, this is going somewhere.
Suppose we have a detailed 3D computer model, maybe of a person or a vehicle. For some reason, we want to approximate the exterior surface of the model using only a group of intersecting spheres. That is, we want to convert the model into something that looks more like a cumulonimbus version of itself, a “bubble model” if you will. Maybe we want to use the result to make a novel piece of art, or maybe we’re going to design some crazy airbag system for a concept car.
But for pragmatic reasons we need to use spheres in a certain relative size, and less than some maximum number of them, and we don’t know exactly what combination of sizes and placements for these spheres will most closely resemble the original 3D model.
An evolutionary approach to solving this problem would work something like this:
- Generate a bunch of random solutions. Different numbers and sizes of spheres in all different locations in the vicinity of the original model.
- Test each solution to see how “good” it is. For example, by taking random points on the surface of the original model, looking for the closest point on the bubble model, and calculating the average distance between all such points.
- Randomly choose individual models two at a time, in such a way that you are more likely to choose the better ones (e.g. the ones with a smaller average distance from the surface of the original model). “Mate” the two together, for example, by randomly keeping half the spheres of one model and half from the other model, then creating a mutation by adding, removing, or slightly altering the size/position of a sphere. Father’s eyes, mother’s hair, but that nose didn’t come from anywhere!
- Repeat step 3 until you have at least as many new bubble models
as old ones.
- Replace the old generation of bubble models with the new ones.
You would repeat this process thousands or millions of times, and after some number of minutes, hours, or days, you’d hopefully end up with an evolved bubble model that was a very clever and efficient approximation of the original model.
So, why am I telling you all this? Because my experience with such algorithms has taught me a very important thing about them. The only thing that really matters is step 2, the criteria you use to decide which individuals in your population are better and which are worse.
If your criteria (“fitness function” is the technical term) is not well defined, or in other words, if you don’t really know what you’re looking for, the population never converges on a solution, no matter how many generations you run.
Now it’s time to brace yourself for political controversy, because it’s partly because of this experience that I tend to be skeptical about purely free-market solutions to problems.
Businesses exist in a kind of evolutionary system. The new generation of startup companies look at what existing companies are doing. They copy the products, organizational structures, etc. from the more successful ones, making their own changes (mutations) to try to gain an edge. Some companies with bad strategies will go out of business, and others with better strategies, better fitness for the current marketplace, will continue to operate.
It’s tempting to think that the marketplace selects for the companies that make the best products, the most efficiently. And sometimes, it works out that way.
But the real step-2 test is not efficiency or value, but just longevity. Because corporations don’t have a natural lifespan, they survive not by eating healthy and exercising, but simply by not dying. And they can do that just as well by curing cancer as they can by making a deal with the devil, and everything in between.
Making a product that sells for more than it costs to produce is one way to stay in business. But a business can also just steal the money, for example by discretely double-billing customers or collecting personal information on them without their knowledge to sell to other companies. A business can be a front for illegal activity. A business can become too big to fail, or influential enough in the political sphere to have it debts forgiven. It just needs to survive; how doesn’t matter.
The same general idea can be applied specifically to wide-release films. While it’s tempting to think that the marketplace selects for more well-crafted and entertaining films, the real step-2 test is getting people to buy tickets to see the film. You can do that by making a good film that is well reviewed and gets good word of mouth. You can also do that by making a good trailer that makes the film look much better than it is, and encouraging a spoiler culture that gets people to see the film without needing to know its contents. You can also do that by making a dense ambiguous film that people feel they enjoy, but that they also feel they need to see multiple times to understand.
And, you can also sell tickets by turning films into political battles. You can cast a female lead and minority actors so that all detractors of the film can be written off as monsters. You can turn buying a ticket into a statement against the oppressors in favor of the oppressed. You can get media outlets to laud a film’s progressiveness, implicitly declaring anyone who refuses to see it or discourages others from seeing it to be a bad person.
Of course, if you go this route, you’ll want to tailor your messaging to the current audience. That is, your political message should probably appeal mostly to white men.
The irony this creates with respect to The Last Jedi tickles me to no end. The movie, which was written and directed by a white man, was also seen disproportionately by white men. It was disproportionately reviewed by white men. The white men who like it defend the film against the white men who don’t, and they call each other names while they argue among themselves about what’s best for women and people of color, who from the reviews I’ve seen disproportionately didn’t like the film. What’s even funnier is seeing videos and articles from women and POC (who criticize the film for its political messages) get bombarded with comments by white men telling them how wrong they are. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? Wait a second… I’m a white man… shit.
Based on all this and just the general trend in the quality of political discourse, my first instinct is that films are going to slowly devolve until they are just slide shows of talking points, with the box office results regularly announced by national news outlets to reveal to their respective audiences how many backward bigots or SJW feminazis still live among us.
But my second instinct, is that this phenomenon is going to be another nail in the coffin of traditional theatrical releases.
Films released on Netflix have no public box office figures anyone can use for virtue signaling. Which films you choose to see and which you don’t can stay just between you and Netflix. And Netflix will be more than happy to make every kind of film for every kind of person, and use its algorithms to model the perfect bubble for each of us to live in. No discourse required.
Improving the World Through Film
I’m not sure how many times we have to go over this. You don’t change people’s minds by calling them names or telling them they’re bad people.
That’s the way to shut them up, sure. But they just go underground into their secluded chat rooms to foment and build power while you lie idle under the delusion that the problems have all been solved.
Putting your politics in a film makes the people who already agree with them reach deeper into their wallets. The people who don’t agree, reach for a sword and shield.
People go into a Star Wars film looking for an anti-depressant, not yet another battleground. If one desires to lose all sense of joy and meaning, it’s cheaper to read the news.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use a film to make the world a better place. But the way you do that is to give hope. It’s to calm and to uplift. It’s to bring people together in a shared experience that helps them better relate to one another. It’s to help people leave the theater less angry, less resentful, and more optimistic, so that they can take those feelings into their lives and make better decisions about how they interact with other people. It’s to create
a sense that there’s something, like a force, that connects everyone and everything together, and that makes the world a place worth saving.