Learning the Wrong Lessons from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Introduction

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.

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.

  • 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.

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.

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.

Great Expectations

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.

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.

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.

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.

Critics vs. Fans

Exacerbating Factors

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.

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.

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.

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.

Spending Time on the Wrong Things

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?

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).

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.

Failed Themes

Love Will Save Us

Failure

Probably my biggest pet peeve in hearing people discuss the film, is the idea that the film “is about failure”.

  • 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.

Intent vs. Execution in Characterization

Kylo Ren

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?

Finn

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.

Rey

I don’t know who this character is anymore, or what motivates her, and I can’t relate to her.

Luke Skywalker

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.

Poe Dameron

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”.

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”.

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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Feminism

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.

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.

  1. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  1. 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.
  • Holdo doesn’t trust Resistance-hero Poe with her plan.
  • Rey patronizingly explains to Luke his own life story and decisions.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Conclusion

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.

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.

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.

The Desecration of Luke Skywalker

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.

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.

Specific Ambiguities

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.

How Did This Happen?

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.

Free-Market Politics

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.

  1. Generate a bunch of random solutions. Different numbers and sizes of spheres in all different locations in the vicinity of the original model.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. Repeat step 3 until you have at least as many new bubble models
    as old ones.
  5. Replace the old generation of bubble models with the new ones.

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.

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