The following is a somewhat polished (but not very polished!), consolidated version of my response to watching The Last Jedi and the problems I had with it. The core of this was something I wrote on social media back in January, 2018; note that since this was originally intended for a small group of friends (some of whom have insisted I post it), the language here is a bit saltier than my usual fare and the organization a bit looser. It’s also quite long and there are no pictures. As I am posting this now, I am set to see Rise of Skywalker later today (a bit of a December tradition on the timing), so I haven’t seen it yet.
Before I dive in, I want to make one thing very clear: I know that this film sparked a lot of angry, contentious argument, much of which got quite out of hand for an issue that is, in the grand scheme, of decidedly little import. I will not have that culture-war-food-fight play out on my blog. You will be nothing but polite in the comments. Some people like this film; they are not wrong. Some people dislike this film; they are not wrong. De gustibus non est disputandum – there can be no argument about taste. It is neither right, nor wrong to like or dislike a film. I mostly disliked this film; I have good friends I respect who adored it. You may express your own opinions, in the spirit of charity and humility.
Part I: Poe and Huldo
This film badly wants to have a story where Poe Dameron – the hotshot X-Wing pilot – is, in fact, a testosterone-fueled fool, who makes some bad decisions, discounts reasonable female authority figures, can’t take orders from women, and has to learn and grow in the film to overcome these flaws.
This is, I want to stress, by no means a bad idea for a story. I’d say it’s a great idea for a story, actually, and a story that I think we could stand to hear a few times. Stories are part of how we equip ourselves, mentally and emotionally, to engage with one another. A story like this is valuable in two ways: it can help equip young men for a changing world where they will need to interact with capable women in positions of authority (something many older stories are not prepared to teach), and it offers the possibility of redemption and improvement – Poe can rise above his failures, rather than being defined by them. We could use a lot more contrition and redemption in our world.
So I am by no means upset that this is a story where a (male) pilot is wrong and the (female) admiral is right. That’s a fine story to tell. We have told stories just like this – where the brave, young hero ignores the wise counsel of their elders – many times in the past, because it is an important lesson to learn: to be open and mindful to the advice of those who have your best interests at heart. It is all the more important in our changing world and this is a wonderful way to update that ageless story.
But the film’s delivery of that story is deeply flawed – the cracks run down to the foundation and functionally wreck the entire plotline, sinking its ability to teach the necessary message. Let me explain why I think so, and then suggest how we could fix this plotline, without changing the goal we want the film to deliver on. So, the problems:
First: Poe’s initial ‘bad’ decision is actually clearly vindicated by the film: the decision to go in with the bombers against the dreadnought. It is made very clear that this super-ship has weapons far more powerful than normal Star Destroyers and it can both destroy bases and fleets quickly at long range. Poe makes a risky call to try to destroy it, and justifies his decision on that basis – this enemy asset is too dangerous to allow it to escape from a situation in which it is vulnerable. It is, in Poe’s view, worth risking his fighter wing.
And here is the problem: he’s right. Based on what we, the audience, were told about this ship’s capabilities, had it been present in the interception fleet later in the film, the resistance would have certainly been completely destroyed. Either in space (by the long-range anti-ship super-canons which we are told are capable of rapidly toasting all of the resistance cruisers) or on the ground (by the super-canon we see one-shot-kill a resistance ground facility).
Poe’s risk – for which he is demoted – saves the day. Leia was absolutely wrong, though for reasons she couldn’t have anticipated. A better screenplay might have made clear that Leia – thinking the resistance fleet would hyperspace away to safety in mere moments and assuming it could not be followed – had made a wise judgment call for the fact she had at the time. But those facts are wrong in the context of this screenplay, and it is a shocking failure of understanding her character by the writers that she doesn’t immediately admit this upon realizing it. Compare Leia’s begrudging “you have your moments” in Empire – this is not a character who finds it impossible to admit mistakes.
Second: Poe is absolutely right to expect to be in the loop regarding Admiral Huldo’s subsequent plans. Poe is, as near as I can tell, essentially the CAG for this cruiser and thus for the fleet. For those who don’t know, CAG (standing for ‘commander, air group’) was the title for the officer in charge of a carrier’s air-group (these days, air wing) on US Navy carriers in WWII; the term has remained even after the air-group was renamed to an air-wing.
Poe is in direct command of the air-wing in the initial combat scene, and while he’s demoted, he’s not sacked or replaced: his duties, and this his place in the command hierarchy, have not changed. Crucially, apart from Huldo and Leia (and the sadly deceased Admiral Ackbar – what a waste of a character to kill essentially ‘off screen’), Poe seems to be the most senior officer we see, even after his demotion. We see for instance that he’s able to give orders to the bridge staff (to conceal Finn and Rose’s launch) and that once Leia goes silent and Huldo is gone, Poe is in command of the ground defenses; he’s evidently the most senior surviving officer. And remember: he was on the same transport as the bridge crew – the only conclusion is that they’re all alive, but as the CAG, he outranks them. After the main bridge was shot out, it seems that Poe – apart from the catatonic Leia – was the most senior officer aboard (Huldo was on another ship).
That actually makes a lot of sense if Poe is, in fact, the CAG. Star Wars fleets are essentially modeled off of WWII-era fleets (war films for the period comprise the lion’s share of Lucas’ inspiration). The CAG reports directly to the ship’s commander and is one of the most senior officers on board in the command structure. Modern US Navy doctrine often actually describes the CAG as a ‘Co-commanding’ officer alongside the ship’s CO, rather than directly beneath him.
Consequently, Huldo’s decision to cut him out of the loop (for spite? She’s cutting the CAG out of the loop on a plan which requires the use of what are likely his transports) is an unexplained and unexplainable screw-up by her. But…
Third: Huldo appears to be a screw-up. This is a huge, huge problem for this plot, and I feel the need to reiterate here that I like the idea of this plot, I just want it executed competently, much like how I like the idea of Huldo, I just wish she had executed her duties competently. She does not, to a degree that makes me wonder if anyone, at any point in the crafting of this story, consulted someone who had any experience or knowledge of naval warfare. For this plot to work, Vice Admiral Huldo needs to be shown to be capable, competent and wise. Huldo needs to be good at her job.
And Huldo is garbage at her job. She fails utterly to maintain crew morale and cohesion to the point where we are told that multiple people are trying to escape via the escape pods, such that maintenance personnel have had to be posted to prevent it, and she suffers a major mutiny by many of her crew (including senior officers) mid-evacuation. Pointing to Poe being a jackass – and he is being a jackass – is no excuse. Managing these people is Huldo’s job. She either needs to deal with Poe, or stick him in the brig. Opting to do neither – to simply ignore him until the problem explodes in her face is dereliction. In a real mutiny, her reward would have been a kill-set blaster to the back – and being promptly relieved of command on her return, should she have survived. I cannot imagine a career surviving that level of command-failure (though real militaries never cease to amaze with foolishness…).
Moreover, all of her plans, except the suicide ram, fail. I do not understand how that survived the first draft of this script! Huldo’s big play is to 1) deploy the transports the enemy cannot detect and 2) hide in a base the enemy cannot destroy. Except that the enemy both does detect the transports (because Huldo’s failure to cut Poe in on the plan results in a catastrophic and avoidable operational-security-breach: again, in the loop or in the brig, but pick one) and the base is, in fact, very vulnerable. She sacrifices 100% of her military assets in this plan – far more than she’d have lost if the fleet just split up – and it fails completely. The plan is only salvaged because of the intervention of Rey and Luke which she could not have foreseen or planned for. Huldo ought to be good at this, it should be obvious that for that to work, her plans need to succeed.
Finally, fourth: Poe’s epiphany moment is expressed in ordering the speeders attacking the battering-ram-laser (which is silly, even by Star Wars standards) to back off. Except…this is the wrong call. There is no benefit to force preservation at this moment. If they lose, the First Order will obviously kill everyone, so there is no reason not to bet everything on the big roll. Finn’s suicide rush, assuming it could have worked, was the heroic and correct call – that cannon was worth a lot more than his speeder. This is the Dreadnought problem all over again: the writers have given Poe a target that absolutely deserves his damn-the-torpedoes approach, because allowing it to survive means losing the entire force!
The upshot: Poe’s journey isn’t one in which he learns a lesson to appreciate the wisdom of others (especially women) and learn to work in a team. Instead, it’s a story where he becomes as foolishly risk-averse as his superiors, and makes bad decisions, just like they do. While that is a fantastically realistic portrayal of the very real problems of strategic culture inside the military, it is clearly disastrously wrong for this movie and sends the exact opposite message as the one the plot clearly intends.
What frustrates me the most is that this train-wreck isn’t at all necessary. You can fix all of the problems, easily, without altering the overall message of the plot one damn bit and keeping Poe’s intended arc:
Step 1: Poe’s target in the opening scene with the bombing run should be important, but not something that would have been so useful to the bad-guys later. Perhaps a fleet of landing craft going to seize the planet? Or a command ship without super-canons? Something obviously valuable (so we get what Poe is thinking), but not something that is so powerful that Poe’s decision is obviously vindicated for anyone who thinks about it.
Step 2: Huldo cuts Poe into the loop from the beginning. Poe can object to the plan on the grounds that it’s ‘running’ and he’s more a ‘fight-than-run’ guy. Perfectly believable (if stupid) response. He gets angry and Huldo does the logical thing and relieves him from command. There is no mutiny subplot, because that makes Huldo look like an idiot. Instead, we see most of the crew rallies to this new and reasonable plan.
Sidenote: Put Huldo in a uniform. Every other member of the bridge crew is wearing a uniform. You need the audience to understand that Huldo is being reasonable and Poe is not. Give her a visual signifier of skill and competence: put her in a uniform. Do not Deanna Troi your expert military commander. I’m also going to suggest that, on a ship full of explosives and flammables in a combat situation, a pooling floor-length dress without pockets is probably not practical.
Note that Leia wears a uniform in ESB/RotJ when she’s acting in a command capacity. Mon Mothma doesn’t, but she’s not in the military chain of command – she’s a civil/political leader. Likewise, Leia in tFA is more of a political leader (Akbar seems to be the actual commanding officer of the fleet), so she’s dressed to match. So ‘Vice Admiral’ Huldo should be in a uniform.
Step 3: Poe’s plan is now a one-man operation, not a mutiny. He rushes on the bridge as everyone is preparing to evacuate in order to carry out his plan, alone. He’s stunned by Leia, as before, so it all works.
Step 4: Huldo’s Plan Works. The transports are concealed, and Huldo rams the enemy fleet to prevent their detection by a slower, more detailed scan, so literally nothing in the plot changes. Her sacrifice was always part of the plan she knew would be necessary – this is the detail she conceals, so that:
Step 5: Poe looks on, shocked by Huldo’s sacrifice, and realizes he’s been a jackass. He apologizes to Leia and promises to do better. She puts him in command of the speeder wing (but not the main force) for the base defense, because she knows he is still good at that.
Step 6: Leia gives the call-off order during the speeder attack on the super-battering-ram-laser (so stupid…), but only Poe hears it (communications problem). He has an epiphany moment, and orders the attack off. That shows that he’s grown – both in recognizing when not to take stupid risks, but also in being able to accept the judgment of people above him in the chain of command who can see a bigger picture.
Step 7: The speeders which are saved by the call-off order then do not all crash (as in the film) but are necessary to save the day in the fight sequence that comes after. Maybe they cover for loading up the Falcon with survivors. Maybe they punch through a defense line designed to keep the Falcon from fleeing. We need to be shown that saving parts of the squadron was the right call, in a military sense. Leia should have become aware of this danger when she ordered Poe to stop his attack – so that we know that she makes a good call in ordering the call-off and then Poe makes a good call in following through despite the communications failure.
And boom – we have our story. Poe is a jackass who doesn’t listen to reasonable, competent female authority figures (whose decisions, aside from sartorial, haven’t really much changed), but learns over the film an Important Lesson which leads to him making a crucial Right Call late in the film that saves the day. The film ends with Poe toasting Admiral Huldo as the better person than himself, and promising himself that he’ll do better.
But as it is, this part of the story is broken and badly so.
Part II: World-building
The world-building in The Last Jedi is straight up awful. Embarrassingly awful. And, to be fair, the world-building for tFA was hardly great, but this is somehow worse.
First, I want to be clear why world-building matters, and also what sorts of problems I think are real problems and what is excusable. Star Wars is not Hard Sci-Fi, so I do not care if things happen which are scientifically possible; this is not Star Trek, I do not need every bit of techno-magic laboriously explained.
But Star Wars is science fantasy, a merger of two genres (Sci-Fi and Fantasy), both of which have a strong emphasis on world-building. By that, I mean constructing a believable, internally consistent, if fantastical, world. I’ve been very much surprised by how many professional critics, for all of their expertise, treat this element as something disposable. It is not. It is a core part of this genre, just like managing meter is fundamental to writing sonnets, how musicals must have song and dance numbers, and being generally terrible is a core part of modern nostalgia reboots. If I went to watch a musical, and the song-and-dance numbers were bad, I do not think it could be saved by the plot; likewise, I do not think The Last Jedi‘s abysmal world-building is salvaged by the story (parts of which I actually really like).
The Last Jedi fails at this by both sins of commission (scenes that break the established rules of the setting) and of omission (there are serious world-building questions left unanswered in a way that makes one wonder if there ever was an answer).
A necessary note: I know some of these issues are answered in secondary material like books, comics, interviews, etc. I do not care. I don’t give the movie credit for things that are not in the movie because – (to steal a joke from SFDebris) wait for it – they are not in the movie. As a related note, while I was, in my younger years, a huge Star Wars nerd, I am not judging consistency through the lens of the old Expanded Universe, or the new Expanded Universe, or broader Star Wars lore. This is just a question of “does this film fit with the other films?”
So first: Sins of Commission.
Part IIa: Sins of Comission
Oh yes, there are so many, this is a sub-heading. Brace yourselves.
The Last Jedi does not obey the Star Wars rules for space combat. Some of the things we saw in tFA made me think that maybe the creators of the new trilogy did not understand how Star Wars space combat ‘works’ – and now I am sure they don’t. There are so many screw-ups on this basis in The Last Jed (mostly to do with visuals) that I don’t care to recount them all, but let’s at least hit some of the big ones:
The Rule: Larger ships are not generally vulnerable to attack until they have been heavily damaged, typically by heavy weapons. This is because they have shields, which protect them pretty much everywhere, which have to be damaged or disabled.
Examples: Star Destroy captains are 100% confident that the Falcon cannot hurt them (and are clearly correct). The Super-Star Destroyer in Jedi is cited as an exception, but that scene is actually well-crafted to set out the steps by which it is destroyed (check it out):
- 1) Ackbar calls for concentrated fire on the SSD from the capital ships.
- 2) This creates an opening for a group of fighters to destroy one of the shield towers.
- 3) This creates an opening for a fighter to smash into the bridge, wiping out the command crew and causing the ship to crash. There are also apparently counter-measures available for this (“Intensify the forward firepower!”), but they could not be activated in time.
Even the Falcon – a modified light freighter – can take multiple hits from a Star Destroyer on its shields (see: Empire, the asteroid chase scene).
How It Goes Wrong: The First Order Super-Dreadnought does not appear to have any shields at all. Poe takes out their point-defenses with the regular lasers of his superiority fighter, then the stupid bombs from the stupid bombers (more on them in a moment) just plunge directly into (and through?) the hull. Likewise, the Raddus has the bridge and hanger blown out by all of three enemy fighters. Capital ships are clearly not this vulnerable – check out the Endor battle again: fighters ram shielded starships and just poof out of existence on the shields. Now, supposedly this is justified by some line – honestly, I missed it on my first watching – that the shields were all angled to the back…which just turns a world-building problem into also being a character problem, because since when is the Victor of Endor that stunningly incompetent?
Related: Shields vs. Armor. Star Wars does not really do ‘armor’ for starships. With only a handful of exceptions, ships in Star Wars exist in two states: shields-up and fine or rapidly expanding clouds of gas. This is neatly explained by the absolutely massive destructive power of the weapons used in space – no amount of armor is going to save you if your opponent is barraging you with fire from blasters with megaton yields.
Sometimes, ships and fighters get ‘clipped’ with near-misses (the shots on Luke’s fighter in A New Hope, for instance) or a shot overloads the shields but does minimal damage. But solid, direct hits against unshielded targets means boom. The best example is actually up at the SSD link above – you can see an entire Star Destroyer just blow the hell up – and it’s just gone. Likewise, check out the cruiser at exactly 1:00 here – one solid volley and it lights up completely and instantly. Another large ship is basically cut in half by a single shot moments later.
But in The Last Jedi, ships routinely burn up, or get picked apart, bit-by-bit. The bombers appear to completely lack shields, but blow up very slow, with each hit tearing out chunks while the rest of the ship burns. The commander of the dreadnought is supremely confident in his armor, which makes no sense. Rebel X-Wings had enough firepower to rip up parts of the Death Star by blasting the surface with thier lasers, once the fighters were through the shields (an event explicitly noted in the approach dialog, “we’re passing through the magnetic field” – the ships shake – “set deflectors to double front.”)
Next up: The Stupid bombers. Let’s start with the obvious: gravity bombs in space are dumb. I understand the explanation is that they might be magnetic or something but I fail to see why this would be better. Even allowing for Star Wars not being hard-sci-fi, no weapon in Star Wars has been shown to work this way. TIE-Bombers have a dropped weapon, but it doesn’t fall; it’s clearly fired from the bottom.
But more to the point, the Stupid Bombers in The Last Jedi break jarringly from how we’ve seen bombers function in Star Wars before. To the point, Star Wars bombers, like the Y-Wings from A New Hope are torpedo bombers. Rogue One – easily the best of the new Star Wars films – gets this exactly right in showing the process to disable one of the Star Destroyers to use it as a battering ram. In space, I fail to understand what a set of level-bombers would even be for, and while I understand the idea here was to echo WWII films about American and British strategic bombers, honestly, the scene doesn’t even evoke them successfully.
And why are these bombers so huge and so terrible at their jobs? Evidently one bomber carries more than enough bombs to take out essentially any enemy ship, so why not make these things smaller and more survivable? They clearly are terrible at their jobs: they nearly fail to destroy a ship whose entire point defense has been disabled, and destroying large, slow ships seems to be their only function – do not tell me these things are supposed to function in atmosphere. Meanwhile, they’re the size of the Falcon, but apparently have nowhere close to the defenses other ships of that size have.
In short, everything about these bombers is wrong for the setting. They neither look nor act like any other weapon-system we’ve seen in the setting; this might be pardonable if they weren’t terrible but they very much are. So we’re left asking why the heroes are using giant, awful weapons when they already have smaller, better systems? The Y-Wing was basically old junk in A New Hope – how has bomber design gone backwards in the intervening time?
Ok, lightning round:
How Shields Work: Star Wars shields do not create a ‘bubble’ effect in space, only shields for land-forces do that (destroyer droids and army-shields). I realize they wanted a visual signifier that the Raddus was taking hits on the shields at long range, but come on, you have dialog to clear that up already. It’s fine.
What ships actually look like: so I actually like sci-fi warships designed around obvious primary weapons. But that is not how Star Wars does it – only the Death Star is built this way (and decidedly a unique vessel). Star Destroyers, rebel cruisers, etc – do not have giant cannons half the size of the ship mounted on them: they have batteries of smaller guns you can barely see at a distance.
But both the First Order battleship in The Force Awakens and the Dreadnought here have huge main guns that bulge out from the bottom of the ship like the First Order is compensating for some endowment problems. It looks and feels wrong in the Star Wars universe, like these ships snuck in from a Mass Effect game. Maintaining the right visual feel should not be hard. I know I said I wouldn’t judge this by the EU, but I want to point out that the EU contains hundreds of new ship-types and none of them that I can recall break from the aesthetic feel of the universe as badly as these. And I speak as someone nerd enough to still have the Ships and Vehicles Technical Guide I bought when I was in High School.
Part IIb: Sins of Omission
I think the best way to organize all of these is a long list of important questions that the film raises, but does not answer. I know that maybe Rise of Skywalker answers them – that’s part of why I wanted to get this post out before seeing it – but a film should be able to stand on its own (and also, my impression from the critics is that ROS basically trash-cans as much of The Last Jedi as it can, which – for all my complaints – is also a mistake). So, the list:
Who the hell is Snoke? If there are only ever two Sith (and both died in RotJ), where the hell did he come from? What did he want? Again, you get no credit for answers that are not in the movie because – wait for it – you didn’t put them in the movie.
The ‘Knights of Ren’ were mentioned in The Force Awakens – where the hell are they in all of this? We only see Kylo? Are they dead? Disbanded? Out to lunch?
How exactly does this movie’s timeline work? Rey got to Luke’s planet at the end of the last movie, but in this one she’s only just gotten there and the resistance are already on the run? Since time is important, how long was the resistance fleet in transit through hyperspace before we’re told they have 18 hours?
How are they even running out of fuel? The Falcon slow-boated to Cloud City (on emergency FTL maybe?) with a damaged hyper-drive and that took weeks (Luke’s training time). Surely a giant cruiser can fly longer than this? Was it low on fuel? If it was, why? They had time to fetch the stupid bombers, but not refuel the command ship?
The First Order is buying weapons and making weapons-dealers rich…where is all of that money coming from? Do they pay in Republic credits? Who actually supports – and bankrolls – the First Order? Who built all these ships? Where did they build all these ships? How the hell did they hide that?
Why does no one use repurposed civil-war era tech? Seems like there ought to be an absolute crap-ton of old rebel and imperial ships around – maybe they might come in handy? Especially in finding some bombers that work.
Where do the rebel bombers dock? They’re obviously too big for the Raddus’ hanger, but I would not want to be stuck in a bomber that small for weeks and weeks.
Why doesn’t the Raddus physically interpose itself between the enemy fire and the transports? Why are the transports unshielded? They weren’t in Return of the Jedi or Empire Strikes Back. Why does Huldo wait so long to pull off her fancy hyperspace ram?
Who are the resistance’s ‘friends’ on the outer-rim? Why aren’t they in the core, where the Republic was? Why are they so powerless? The First Order wrecked one system out of thousands and then lost the weapon they used to do it. The Separatists in the Clone Wars produced huge fleets with a minority of the Republic’s worlds – why can’t the Republic recover?
Why are these fleets so small? The fleets at Endor were massive and they were only a fraction of the Empire’s power (after all, the Empire had pretended to scatter its fleet) – the fleets we see here seem smaller than the Battle of Scarif, and that was a handful of rebel ships against an unprepared garrison. This is the entire Resistance? And presumably the lion’s share of the strength of the First Order?
Why do the ships carry so few fighters? We see crap-tons of fighters at Endor and Scarif – huge masses of them. But the rebels here have only a dozen total and the First Order only ever launches a few more than that. Remember that scene in Jedi where the Empire fighters are coming in everywhere? And that was with the limited technology of the day, before CGI (side note: the Battle of Endor, the space part of it, is an exceptional work of craft in making a battle seem huge when you can have, at most, only a handful of models on screen at a time). The First Order ships are bonkers massive compared to old-fashioned Star Destroyers, surely we ought to see hundreds of fighters, if not thousands.
Why does no one shoot at Kylo Ren’s fighter when he closes in? The badguy ships have point-defense, why don’t the good guys? Why don’t they have any combat air patrol? Escort ships? Why is Ackbar suddenly so stupid?
Why didn’t any Jedi ever use Luke’s super projection skill? Is that new? Why didn’t he glow blue like all projections, holograms and force-ghosts in this universe do? How was he able to leave a physical item (the keychain) but also have a lightsaber pass through his projection harmlessly? Since when can Yoda conjure lightning? Pretty sure that’s a dark side power?
But the biggest one by far is:
Part IIc: Where is the Republic Fleet?
We are straight up told in The Force Awakens that the Republic is much bigger and much more powerful than the First Order. So much more powerful that these space-Nazis don’t dare attack it. And I can say, with some confidence, speaking as a historian, that Nazis, space and otherwise, are absolutely terrible at figuring out who they can beat in a fight (Russia? The United States? Why not? What could go wrong? ::jump cut to Berlin in ruins:: oh).
So the power difference here must be huge.
So how does the First Order go from being a fringe movement with a few big ships at the edge of the galaxy that everyone hates to a super-power that no one can defeat, which apparently has a vast military industrial complex…somewhere…in the apparently 15 seconds between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi? Why does the Republic fold so hard? Fault the prequels all you like, but at least they answered this question for the Rise of the Empire. And again – I don’t care if this is answered in the supplemental material, the movie does not get credit because – wait for it – it isn’t in the movie.
I think we are supposed to believe that the entire Republic fleet was in the one system that got blown up in The Force Awakens. This makes no sense for two reasons:
First: Star Wars fleets do not work like this. In RotJ, we’re told that the Rebel fleet has to ‘mass’ near Sallust – it’s so big, it doesn’t generally chill out in one place (you know, like real fleets). Likewise, the Imperial Navy has so many ships that they can give the impression of being dispersed “in a vain effort to engage us” while still hiding 30 freakin’ Star Destroyers behind Endor.
Maybe this is supposed to be some kind of Pearl Harbor strike? Ignoring the fact that blowing up a planet should basically never threaten a ship in orbit with FTL drives, that very analogy points to the problem:
Second: The First Order should be totally hosed by what happened in The Force Awakens. They launched an unprovoked sneak-attack on a major, civilian planet, but then lose the terror-weapon they used to launch it, so there’s no way for them to intimidate the rest of the galaxy into submission. They don’t have the terror weapon anymore and the heroes know it. This is even worse than Pearl Harbor for the IJN – which, to be clear, the Japanese decision to strike Pearl Harbor ought to stand as one of the most catastrophic military blunders in human history; the war was effectively unwinnable for the IJN from the word go – imagine if Japan lost all six carriers of the Kido Butai the day after Pearl.
Why would the Republic just roll over? Galaxies are big, the First Order has nowhere near the ships or people necessary to rush and seize all of the Republic’s ship production facilities and economically developed planets. This film has just no concept of how industrialized warfare works. We are told they’re a fringe terrorist group, and yet apparently they can occupy half the galaxy on a whim? The troops we see in tFA weren’t enough to occupy a planet, and they all died when Starkiller blew up.
The answer, as best I can tell, is that no one really thought about it, so they wished away a plot point in the previous movie without working through or around it – something, I am told, Rise of Skywalker is sadly poised to do as well. This is actually fixable, which is part of why it is so frustrating:
- Make it clear that The Last Jedi really does pick up right after The Force Awakens. Starkiller base is destroyed, but the galaxy doesn’t know that. So everyone is terrified and the First Order is making demands based on bluffing that they still have the terror weapon.
- The Resistance’s goal becomes “get somewhere where we can broadcast the fact that we blew up Starkiller” before the First Order can occupy key systems and cement its control.
- The movie ends with them doing that (from the salt-planet-base) and we get a sense that the galaxy – not just little mop boy – is responding by rallying for a war (to be seen in the subsequent film), instead of the end we get, where the cavalry doesn’t come for reasons we are not told.
Part IId: Doing It Right
I want to address, briefly, one defense the movie’s creators have made. It ran something like “If we stopped the scene dead for 30 seconds to explain who Snoke was or something, it would kill the movie.”
Respectfully, no, it doesn’t. Do you want to know how I know? Watch this scene. Consider just how much we learn in that two-minute scene:
- The Imperial brass knows about the rebellion and it worries them
- There is an Imperial Senate
- It is sympathetic to the rebels and growing in sympathy
- The Emperor exists and just dissolved it
- There is an Old Republic, this senate was a part of it, but how now been swept away.
- There are Imperial Governors, the Emperor is focusing power in them, Tarkin is one of them.
- The Brass is openly skeptical about this plan.
- The Death Star provides a solution to a key problem (keeping systems in line) in this plan.
- Most people no longer believe that the Jedi are legit.
- Darth Vader is 110% legit.
- The Brass is concerned by the rebels possessing the plans to the station.
- The Rebels have a hidden base the empire must find and destroy.
I’m honestly surprised Tarkin didn’t arrive with a PowerPoint somewhere to clear up the details, maybe with a Clausewitz quote thrown in for good measure. But the scene is powerfully effective because it does all of this while building tension and establishing – building – the world. Without stopping the plot. This is easily one of my favorite scenes, and one I think shows some of the finest craft in the original trilogy – it’s one of the scenes that makes the universe of Star Wars feel real.
And that feeling of realness (fancy word: verisimilitude) is a key component of science fiction or fantasy. It helps us invest in the fate of these characters. Every time you mess it up, or the rules change arbitrarily, it pulls us out of the story. Because if the rules can change to suit the author at any time, why would we care about these characters or what happens? It makes everyone feel like puppets rather than people.
Rogue One nailed this sense of realness quite well, but the other new Star Wars keep messing it up for reasons I just can’t understand (confession: I have not seen The Mandelorian because I do not have Disney+ yet; I understand it is like R1 in hitting this nail on the head). It’s not that hard to get this right – have one solid Star Wars nerd just read the script! It’s not too bad yet, but if problems like this keep mounting, it’s going to sink the series, because it will slowly erode the suspension of disbelief the entire thing relies on.
Part III: Tone
I want to begin by explaining what I mean by ‘tone’ here before moving into specifics. Movie franchises, especially Sci-fi or fantasy tend to have a specific tone and genre they work in. This is especially important for speculative fiction franchises (Sci-Fi and Fantasy) because the worlds they create from one movie to the next need to work consistently and thus tend to have a consistent tone.
There’s wiggle-room in this. Rogue One, Revenge of the Sith and Empire Strikes Back are all way darker (and also mostly better) than, say, The Phantom Menace or Return of the Jedi. But many of the basic elements of the world, like how dialogue works, or how problems are solved in this universe, remain the same.
Perhaps the best encapsulation of the idea I can give is another example of it done very badly: Shadow of Mordor (a video-game based on the Lord of the Rings)’s bastardization of the tone and themes of Middle Earth. Rather than bore you with two essays, I will just link you Shamus Young’s excellent discussion here. Shadow of Mordor completely missed the ‘spirit’ of Tolkien’s work. Here, I am going to suggest that in important ways, The Last Jedi is also missing the ‘spirit’ of Lucas’ work. I’ll end by explaining why I think this is trouble for the franchise if it isn’t fixed.
Part IIIa: Dialogue
Star Wars: The Last Jedi rarely sounds like a Star Wars film. Now, I don’t mean that the pew-pew sound effects, or the screech of a tie-fighter is wrong – that is done flawlessly. What I mean is that the way the dialogue is written doesn’t fit within the way that characters in Star Wars talk.
Re-watch the original trilogy looking to diagnose the dialogue and it hits pretty strongly: these characters, all of them, speak like they’ve just stepped out of a Greek epic. Everyone speaks in nice, complete sentences; it is very rare that a line of dialogue is choked back or stepped on (the one solid example in A New Hope, where Luke cuts off Han’s daydreaming (“You think a princess, and a guy like me…” with an abrupt, “No.” is hilarious because of how different it is).
That dialogue style makes absolute sense in the context of these films, because they are epics, in the old fashioned sense (it is also, probably, a happy product of Lucas’ limitations as a writer). Big damned monomythic stories about mighty, larger than life heroes and villains, engaged in a (literally) fantastic war between good and evil. The dialogue is crafted to fit the scale and to take what might otherwise feel like a silly story (spaceships and laser guns) for children, and make it feel grand in scale and great of moment.
Sidenote: The humor of C3P0 is almost entirely that he’s a character in the wrong genre; he’s the archetypal advisor-as-chorus from Greek tragedy, but trapped in an epic and thus totally and hilariously out of place.
Sidenote 2: If you don’t like the connection to dialogue in epic, take it another way: characters in Star Wars talk like characters in a Kurosawa film. Those who know the backstory for the creation of the movies will find this obvious – Lucas was a huge Kurosawa fan and A New Hope riffs heavily off of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa does the same thing with his dialogue – make scenes feel BIG and IMPORTANT and EMOTIONAL by having character speak in quick, direct, declarative sentences with strong, super-sized emotions. If you want a story to be larger than life, make the characters so. It works.
The Last Jedi, like tFA before it, instead indulges in what I call Whedon-dialogue (after Joss Whedon) – lines are short, choppy and often incomplete. Characters frequently choke back words, misspeak words, or step on each other’s lines. This kind of dialogue isn’t necessary bad mind you – Whedon is amazing at it – but this is not how people in Star Wars talk. Whedon-dialogue derives humor from making the tremendous feel small and perhaps a little bit petty (the term for this is bathos), but this is the opposite of the ethos of Star Wars, which revels in the grandiosity of a…well…War in the Stars. Star Wars’ dialogue sounds big and grand because it rises to fit the occasion. Failing to match this tone makes tLJ feel cheap and petty in comparison. It also makes it sound samey: everyone is copying Whedon-speak these days.
Let’s take a character example: Luke Skywalker.
Rewatch the original trilogy again, paying attention to Luke’s dialogue. Alternately, if you are like me and spent your childhood being able to recite every Star Wars scene from memory with the aide of your sibling, you can just fall back on that skill.
Luke’s dialogue style evolves over the films, from the angsty, unsure teenager to the confident, controlled Jedi Knight of RotJ, but his basic cadence remains the same: Luke speaks in relatively short, grammatically uncomplex, declarative sentences (“I am a Jedi, like my father before me” “This R2 unit has a bad motivator, look!”). He remains surprisingly polite in nearly all situations (“You’ve failed, your highness”). And he is, from the beginning to end, straight-forward and almost shockingly earnest, saying what he thinks and feels in a direct and uncomplicated matter.
You can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farmboy out of the Jedi, it turns out. The take-away is that Luke has a style to himself that is consistent to his character – it is as essential a part of him as anything else, and endures even as he changes. It is markedly contrast by the quick wit of both Leia and Han Solo. Zoom forward to tLJ. Luke’s catchline in this movie is, “Amazing, every word in that sentence was wrong.” Mark Hamill sells it hard, but that’s just not something Luke would say (it made me instantly understand his quip saying he felt he had to play a different Skywalker, that this was no longer his Luke Skywalker):
- It’s snarky. Luke is abrupt, and occasionally ironic (“you’re lucky you don’t taste so good”), but never snarky or biting in his speech in this way.
- It’s not accurate. Jedi Masters are careful with their speech, and Luke now is one. Contrast how many of his declarations in the Throne Room in Return of the Jedi turn out to be true. That should show in his dialogue. The only time he should say something this sweeping is if literally every word in the sentence was wrong, including the articles and conjunctions. I’d only ever have a Jedi use this line if they then immediately follow it up by a rapid-fire word-by-word demolition of the sentence. Luke doesn’t, and it makes this line feel pat, petty and foolish. Luke may be dispirited and a bit lost, but he should still evince the control he demonstrated in Return of the Jedi.
- The structure is wrong. Young Luke would have blurted out the back of that sentence before his brain had thought it through (“But that might lead them to who they sold them to and….home…”). Mature Luke, by contrast, wouldn’t have said it to begin with – note that even his biting lines, (“your overconfidence is your weakness”) are still just as straight-forward as ever.
In short, this line is wrong for this character. It’s also wrong for Star Wars: this is not how Jedi masters talk. I know Luke is a bitter, angry Jedi master in this film (series lore: What I just said is a contradiction in terms, something that should have occurred to the writers – a bitter, angry Jedi is a Sith), but even then, he does not talk like this.
Speaking of Jedi Masters, Yoda. Boy howdy did they screw his dialogue up. How did a line like, “Much wisdom there is in them, but page-turners they are not” get through editing? This is Yoda, he speaks in koans and riddles from his first appearance to his last, not pop-culture references! I don’t believe he uses a single slang term in the entire original trilogy, or the prequels. Also, in a universe where books are basically forgotten technology (think about it: how many do you see in Star Wars?), why would Yoda even have a phrase for ‘page turner’?
The thing is, this line is easy to fix: we can make it sound like Yoda by cribbing some of his dialogue from Return of the Jedi. Rewrite it to, “Much wisdom there is in them, but what you seek, they have not. Already know you, that which you need.” The result is much better: It both sounds like Yoda now, and it echoes a lesson Yoda had already taught Luke, and now needs him to remember.
Sidenote: Why is this Yoda? Luke has a trusted mentor that he turns to when he is confused, lost and alone. His name is Obi-wan. Luke calls to Obi-Wan when he’s hanging from Cloud City, he turns to Obi-Wan when Yoda’s death leaves him confused and feeling alone. I know everyone loves Yoda, but quite honestly, he was the wrong person for this scene. Either CGI Sir Alec Guinness or roll a dump-truck of money up to Ewan McGregor to have him deliver the lines. Then be sure to actually write it to sound like Obi-wan: carefully spoken, each word carefully chosen, with most lines reading like quotations from an old book of proverbs or the musing of an ancient master. End Sidenote.
As I noted above, everyone is copying Whedon-speak these days, so it’s not surprising that the writing team on a Disney tent-pole would do the same, but I think they missed a real opportunity here to craft really fresh-sounding, unique dialogue by leaning into the traditional Star Wars style rather than copying the flavor of the month. Rogue One did this remarkably well. Notice how it lets the big lines (“We stand here amidst MY achievement, not yours!” or “We’ll take the next chance, and the next, On and on until we win. Or the chances are spent” and “Rebellions are built on hope!”) stand tall and proud. No one steps on them, no one chokes them back – they get delivered like a tragic actor on Aeschylus’ stage. It’s brilliant.
Part IIIb: Plots, Problems and Solutions
Putting aside Rey and Luke for a moment, this is not a Star Wars plot. Lets sum up the space plot, and you’ll see what I mean:
To save the fleet, Finn and Rose have to find the super-master code-breaker on [barely developed theme planet they were told about via a view-screen], they need him to tech-tech the sensors so they can tech-tech the enemy tracking tech-tech. Then the fleet can tech-tech jump away. But alas, the codebreaker betrays them, and gives the enemy the tech-tech means to break the tech-tech cloak on the transports! Huldo-sacrifice! Now the enemy has a tech-tech cannon which can pierce our defenses before our tech-tech transmitter can reach our allies, oh no!
If you will excuse me, this is not a Star Wars plot. This is a Star Trek plot. I say that with no animus towards Star Trek – I too love roughly 50% of the original series, exactly five seasons of TNG, DS9 and four or five Voyager episodes, like everyone else. But the most complicated technical aspects of a plot in the original Star Wars trilogy amounted to, “hit it in the weak spot for massive damage” or “remove the shield to attack the thing behind it.”
Because Star Wars isn’t about any of the tech-tech (Star Trek often is, but is better when it isn’t). It’s about the characters. The entire point of The Force is to explain why the tech-tech doesn’t matter. Because the Force – the great moral drive behind the universe – is larger, and more important. The Force – literally the energy of people (in the original rough drafts, it was called “the force of others”) is far more important both in the story and in the universe of Star Wars.
We might compare it to Middle Earth, where the technological and military power of Mordor comes up wanting against the moral purity and good-heartedness of the heroes, especially the small, powerless hobbits. Or, to put it another way, “Don’t be too proud of the technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the force.”
So we’re not told how the Death Star’s tractor beam works – it doesn’t matter. What matters is Obi-Wan’s skill and noble sacrifice. We’re not told how the reactor works – what matters is that the force lets Luke take the impossible shot to save the day. But The Last Jedi burns screen-time (and my patience) explaining the super-duper hyperspace tracker, how it’s on one ship, what it looks like, and how that ship has sensors which might detect infiltration, and how they’ll know if it’s destroyed and..and…and…
Again: it’s not just that these things are left out for storytelling efficiency in the originals. They’re left out because the very real message of the entire film is that they don’t matter: the greatest technological marvel in the universe is defeated by a farmboy with good intentions and destiny behind him, outnumbered, in an outdated, beat-up starfighter.
The Last Jedi flubs that note completely.
Part IIIc: The Worst Line
Returning to dialogue, I want to relate what I think is the single worst writing decision in the entire movie, not because it’s a terrible line, but because the better line is astoundingly obvious.
When Luke confronts Kylo, at the climax of the fight, he powers down his lightsaber and says, “strike me in anger and I will always be with you.” The point of the line as I parse it is not that Luke will force-ghost haunt Kylo forever, but that killing Luke would complete Kylo’s trip to the dark side and thus haunt him forever, a stain on his soul. Problems:
- Kylo’s trip to the dark side is obviously already complete. He finished it when he turned Rey in the throne room. Luke is a legendary Jedi Master, surely he should be able to recognize this.
- This line is lame. It isn’t memorable, or punchy. I had to go look it up. It’s a huge letdown in the climactic moment of the film and it doesn’t fit with the style of Star Wars.
But I think we all *already* know what the *correct* line is. Say it with me, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
Sidenote: Bonus points if you realized that Luke should have told Rey at some point, “You were right about me. Tell my sister” after he decided to follow her course of action. bonus points if you wondered why Luke didn’t explain his selective memory of his confrontation with Ren by saying, “well, what he told you, and I told you, was true. From a certain point of view. You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to, depend greatly on our own point of view.” Luke as a Master should echo his teachers!
The missed opportunity of having Luke, standing here, display his newfound wisdom by at last echoing his old master and now, at last, understanding the wisdom of that sacrifice by making his own here is profound. I do not understand how a professional writer could miss that opportunity so badly. This movie was Luke’s swan song, but also our chance to see what Master Luke would look like, and I think they missed an easy opportunity to let Luke echo his wise teachers and show how much he has grown.
So all of this – the world-building, the lazy plot construction, the Whedon-dialogue that is out of place, all of it – why does it matter?
When you put Star Wars in front of a movie, you are selling a certain kind of story in a very specific universe. I sympathize with writers and directors who want to strike out into new places; but a Star Wars movie is not the place. You need to spend a Star Wars movie, exploring Star Wars ideas with a Star Wars tone.
I don’t actually think you owe it to the fans. The price of a movie ticket, or a box set of DVDs, or VHS tapes, or – dear lord, I am old – does not give me one scrap of ownership over this property. But I think you owe it to the other creators who have labored in this space. That’s not just George Lucas, but at this point, dozens of writers, directors, actors, and artists of a hundred different types, who labored on this vision.
A creator working within a franchise – someone else’s franchise – owes a debt quite unlike a creator working on their own, and I think that is something that Rian Johnson, I think, rebelled against. I’m not saying he’s a bad movie-maker, but I think he was probably the wrong movie-maker for this movie (and I’m not convinced J. J. Abrams is a lot better).
To be more specific, I think the creator who works in a franchise they did not create owes two sorts of debt, one which faces the past and the other, Janus-like, facing the future.
On the one hand, a debt is owed to the labor of the past creators who made the current art possible. Because without that legacy, would any studio give Rian Johnson – or anyone as relatively unknown – a project on this kind of scale or budget? Maybe they should, you argue, but I caution, look at the fate of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which struggled to make a fraction of the revenue and audience of The Last Jedi. I would argue that not only Johnson, but all of Disney owes fidelity and even reverence for the franchise they now have, because it is precisely what has given them the platform to produce art on this scale and with this audience.
On the other hand, there is a forward-looking debt, to future creators. As I understand it, Rise of Skywalker – again, have not yet seen – was forced to jettison large chunks of The Last Jedi, in part because tLJ had essentially junked large parts of the plot-hooks built by The Force Awakens. To work in a franchise like this is to know that another artist comes after you. You do not own the property any more than they will: you are merely a steward, a caretaker of the mythology and universe for a time. You have a responsibility to break as few of the story-telling tools as possible to tell your story – to give the toolbox over to the next worker in as good a state, or better, as you found it.
If I may provide an example: the decision to kill off Admiral Ackbar, essentially off-screen. The death has no story resonance – I literally walked out of the theater thinking, “wait, did Ackbar die there?” It was pointless – Ackbar didn’t even need to be on that ship – he could have as well been on another planet, somewhere else (so as to create the conditions for Huldo’s field promotion). But now that story-telling tool – the old, battle-hardened wise admiral with a funny catchphrase (It’s a trap!) is gone, for everyone. They broke that tool, and replaced it with…nothing. The Last Jedi is a workroom floor littered with broken tools. I am profoundly unconvinced that any of them justified the cost.
Of course, that debt will be paid, one way, or another. The words Star Wars in front of a movie title – to judge the fate of John Carter or Valerian against The Last Jedi, Rogue One or Solo, are worth – or were worth – about a billion dollars. People come to these movies – and not those other ones (though I maintain that Valerian deserved better) because they liked what happened in them and they like the magic of them and that magic is maintained by paying that debt forward.
Disney’s bet seems to be that if they can just bring in the old actors, people will come and watch. And for a while, we have – but they’ve lost the magic, and now tragically, we are, one by one, losing the magicians too. Watching the original trilogy today, it’s amazing how fresh it all still feels. How potent the scenes and emotions still are. How much power there is left in the magic of it. Not the effects (which have aged unevenly), but in the story and the universe.
The sad fate of sci-fi reboots lately, both the rebooted film Trek series and now the mainline Star Wars, is to keep the branding but lose the magic. But without the magic – that mix of tone, style and plot that makes Star Wars or Star Trek what they are, which lies at the core of the debt – all you have is ‘generic sci-fi.’ As a fan of Mass Effect, BSG (original and re-imagined), Dr. Who, Warhammer 40k, and too many space video games for me to count – I like generic sci-fi. But I like Star Wars more.
And quite honestly, if the folks at Disney are not willing to pay the debt to recapture that magic, perhaps it would be better to let Star Wars die, and give some new creator a chance to try their own vision. As I finish writing this, I am a bit less than a day from seeing The Rise of Skywalker myself. I have high hopes, and low expectations.