The Last Jedi is Poor Storytelling

Timothy Mably
Dec 19, 2017 · 10 min read

[Spoilers follow]

Although critics praise director Rian Johnson for taking Star Wars in a bold and new direction, I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed something. The Last Jedi is easily the best directed film in the saga, but there are still fundamental script issues that many have overlooked for the sake of enjoying the sequel.

In this analysis, I’m going to focus on why the script for The Last Jedi is mechanically weak. This isn’t about a matter of taste, like some criticisms have stated about misplaced humor making the film “not feel like Star Wars.” Instead, I’m going to make an argument for something that isn’t up to debate — the fact that the story doesn’t go anywhere.

There are no consequences.

In The Last Jedi, a lot happens. But not a lot happens for long. Leia’s sudden and unexpected death only precedes her jarring return to life.

Kylo Ren’s betrayal of Snoke, which leads to a team-up with Rey and himself against Snoke’s guards, implies his redemption… But it isn’t long lasting as his actions hardly reflect his intentions. After the fight, he has to explain himself to Rey, and how they still aren’t on the same side.

This is a classic break from “show, don’t tell.” Kylo has to tell us his motives for the scene to make sense. He essentially retcons the entire sequence, because it might as well not have happened. The scene ends up telling us nothing new. Kylo Ren is a bad guy. But we were already aware of that. Actions should speak for a character, but in the most powerful scene of the film, they don’t.

The Force Awakens already established how deep Kylo is in the dark side when he kills his own father, Han Solo. Despite the film questioning Kylo’s allegiance with the First Order, it doesn’t follow through. The only impact it has is a title change for Kylo Ren, who now takes on the role of Supreme Leader.

Lastly, when Luke finally faces Kylo, there’s a moment where we’re meant to believe this is the end for the Jedi Master. It seems as if Luke has accepted his fate as Kylo runs toward him with his blade drawn. Luke literally tells him something similar to what Ben Kenobi tells Darth Vader: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Luke seems fearless. But then, we realize Luke has nothing to fear after all. He’s not even actually there. This scene is meant for us to anticipate Luke’s death, only for it to be revealed he’s fine… Only for it to be revealed a moment later that he dies anyway.

In a matter of minutes, Luke fades into the air twice. He may have taken away Kylo Ren’s satisfaction in killing him, but does that really change anything? Luke might go out on his own terms, but his final appearance before Kylo leads to his death regardless. It’s contrived.

The twist is there isn’t a twist.

The Force Awakens sets up two big mysteries. First, it questions Rey’s backstory. In multiple scenes, we’re teased that her lineage matters in the grand scheme of things.

When she meets BB-8, she asks, “Where do you come from?” and after it beeps, she replies, “Classified? Me too. Big secret.” When she’s with Finn, she tells him she has to get back to Jakku because her family is supposed to return for her. When she leaves Han to find the lightsaber in Maz’s castle, Maz asks, “Who’s the girl?” and before we can hear an answer, the scene cuts away.

In Force Awakens, Rey has to face the fact that her family is never coming back. Once she overcomes this, she continues on her adventure. But, the audience is still left wondering who her family is. What happened to her parents that they would leave her on Jakku? Why are we spending so much time hearing about her family? The implication is that they have relevance beyond reasons given in Episode VII.

The twist in Last Jedi turns out to be, her family just didn’t care about her, and she’s still in denial over it, even though she overcame some of that same denial in Force Awakens. Not only is it a repetitive plot point, it’s unnecessary to what she’s already come to terms with. Her family isn’t coming back, and she knows it.

However, this is also problematic in another way and breaks away from the continuity and narrative arc of Force Awakens. It seems as if Johnson and LucasFilm forgot that Rey isn’t concerned with who her parents are. We are. The audience cares about who her family is. Rey cares about when they’ll come back, and what happened to them. The film confuses the audience’s questions with the characters’ questions.

It’s understandable that Johnson would’ve been so focused on who her parents are, like the fans were, that he forgot this is meant to be a multifaceted reveal. The answer to who Rey’s family is has direct implications on what happened to them, how she is gifted with the force, and possible new motivation that will strengthen her character throughout the rest of the trilogy.

The second mystery we’re given in Force Awakens has to do with Snoke, a character who seems to be pulling the strings of the First Order. We’re shown snippets of him, hinting he has a larger role in the story than we see.

But he doesn’t. Similarly to the reveal of Rey’s parents, Snoke is purely a plot device. His death is for shock value, and there isn’t the sense of satisfaction there could’ve been had we known more about his intentions.

The Last Jedi dismisses these two purposed questions as being the wrong questions. Rey doesn’t come from anywhere meaningful, and exists to be a hero. Snoke is no one important, and exists to be defeated so another character can be the lead villain.

That’s not what a red herring is.

Critics have discarded these questions that were raised in Force Awakens as being red herrings. But the thing is, they aren’t red herrings at all.

A red herring is “something, especially a clue, that is or is intended to be misleading or distracting.” A red herring is meant to “distract from the real issue.” If these were red herrings, they would be distracting us from something else going on.

So, what were we being distracted from? Were we being distracted from Rey being a strong character? (We knew this from her actions in going up against Kylo Ren despite not having any experience.)

Were we being distracted from Kylo Ren being strong enough to kill Snoke, a character he has little emotional connection with? (We knew this from his actions in killing his own father, who he has emotional connection with.)

The most classic example of a red herring happens to be in A New Hope, when Ben Kenobi tells Luke his father was killed by Darth Vader. This gives Luke motivation to fight the Empire. Eventually in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s revealed Vader is his father. This gives him motivation to try and redeem Vader.

It’s as if the red herring and reveal from both films were switched. We’re introduced to Rey as being somebody integral, mirroring how Luke comes to realize he’s the antagonist’s son. In Last Jedi, we’re told she’s just a scavenger after all, mirroring how we assume Luke is just a farmer’s nephew when we first meet him.

This reversal de-elevates the plot in how it takes away potential character motivation. Worse, it tells us we already know everything we need to know.

And that’s the most boring, uneventful thing a story can tell an audience.

Rey’s motivation ends up being the same as Kylo’s motivation as they both follow their own paths. While this mirroring might be interesting, it’s also underdeveloped. We’re told they both pursue light and dark, simply because that’s what they want. There are no real complications or conflicts of interest in their pursuits depicted throughout the film. They are easy decisions.

Kylo’s hesitation to blast Leia during a space battle might seem as if his internal struggle has weight to it. But, Leia’s section of the ship is blown apart anyway by another Tie Fighter. Again, Kylo’s conflict has no real impact on events that take place. His reaction to Leia briefly falling into space is glossed over. He isn’t angered, and he doesn’t even seem to be aware of what happens.

Character arcs are repetitive.

Like how Rey faces further denial to overcome issues of belonging, Finn also faces something he’s already dealt with in The Force Awakens.

When matters become increasingly dangerous in Episode VII, Finn packs up his stuff at Maz’s Castle and is ready to leave… until the First Order interrupts and he realizes he needs to use his training for the greater good. He needs to save Rey. He needs to fight for what he loves, not just fight against what he hates.

This is Finn’s character arc in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

After a maintenance worker named Rose catches Finn attempting to leave the Resistance, she prevents him from abandoning the cause. She knows about Finn from stories she’s heard, and she wouldn’t let such a hero turn his back. In a lot of ways, she stands in for the fanbase. She holds her heroes to a standard. Rose wants honesty and integrity from the people who have inspired her. She wants Finn to be a selfless hero, not a selfish coward.

But we’ve seen this already. Finn faced Kylo Ren after Rey was thrown against a tree and knocked unconscious. Finn already proved himself when he risked his life for a girl and the rest of the Resistance.

This theme undermines itself.

When Finn lives up to Rose’s expectations that we already knew he lived up to, she prevents him from following through on his sacrifice.

Rose and Finn’s positions are flipped. Now, Rose selfishly saves Finn because she cares about him. She decides she was wrong before. Her heroes shouldn’t have to sacrifice themselves… Except, that’s what heroes do. That’s what her sister did.

This is how the film wants to have its cake and eat it too. Finn is made selfless once again, and he’s still alive. The First Order can destroy the Resistance in this moment, but it doesn’t. And that’s one reason as to why we’re presented with nothing to fear.

The antagonists aren’t a threat.

This criticism about the First Order seems to be common. General Hux was turned into comedic relief. Snoke was defeated unceremoniously. The villains end up lacking substance and come off like cartoon bad guys.

Even when they have all twenty or so defenseless members of the Resistance in their midst with numerous armored tanks and a blaster cannon at their advantage, they don’t do anything about it. Again, there’s no consequence to a dire situation where the stakes should feel higher than ever. The First Order could win the war and end the saga by pressing a button. But nothing happens.

The film further minimizes its villains when we see the origin of Kylo Ren in a flashback sequence that’s expanded upon a few times.

The way Ben Solo initially turns on Luke Skywalker ends up being a classic case of “it’s not what it looks like” — even though it’s exactly what it looks like. We might understand where Luke is coming from, but we side with Ben.

These flashbacks are meant to show Luke’s failure and Kylo Ren’s tragedy, but they’re at the cost of believable storytelling. Ben’s turn to the dark side is finalized by a scene that feels laughable.

Anakin’s lure to the dark side feels more plausible in Revenge of the Sith when he sees a vision of his wife dying, and knows only Palpatine can help him.

We end in the same place we started.

Finally, this fits in with my first point: The Last Jedi is surprisingly inconsequential despite killing off two of its most influential characters. If Luke and Snoke have weight on the film, shouldn’t their deaths feel like they matter?

Unfortunately, the second episode in a trilogy breaks the most fundamental rule of storytelling: progression. Everyone knows the age-old rule. A story either opens on a downer and ends on a lighter note, or vice versa. Instead, this film opens and closes with both the Resistance and the First Order in bad places, particularly the Resistance is losing both times.

This is what makes it cheap storytelling. It’s just as cohesive as the stories told by children going around in a circle, making up sentences one at a time to tell one larger improvisation.

The Last Jedi suffers from neglecting why its predecessors worked, trying too hard to “let the past die” and follow its own course. But the most detrimental narrative flaw is, nothing that takes place has an effect on anything else that takes place.

Character motivations are only slightly altered, if at all. The state of the war remains the same, if not simply worse for both sides. Character growth feels stagnant, if not nonexistent.

Stories, especially epics like Star Wars, should follow through on the impact characters have on one another, but The Last Jedi fails to present anything truly groundbreaking.

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