That’s a heck of a title ain’t it? The novel — free for a limited time over the Christmas period — is as surprising as it is delightful.
5 fixes for Rogue One’s Biggest Problems
I did one of these for The Last Jedi a while ago and it was a lot of fun to think about, so what the hell: here’s my fixes for Disney’s first Star Wars spin-off.
A lot of Rogue One works very well, but the fundamental reason it doesn’t stick the landing (and often seems to be pulling itself apart) is because the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether it was a heist movie or a war movie. They never fully committed to either genre; in the end, they just made half of each and squished them together, sort of like a shepherd’s pie-trifle.
Classic heist films tend to be either light, breezy capers (Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair (remake), A Fish Called Wanda) or violent, bloody thrillers (Heat, Reservoir Dogs, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). Surely, a film set in the family friendly Star Wars universe would have to veer firmly toward the former. War movies don’t tend to have quite as much tonal range, but still span everything from Mulan to Lawrence of Arabia to Apocalypse Now.
Therefore, to make either type of story work, it needed to be either a light, funny, frothy ‘Erso’s Eleven’ caper, or a gritty, bloody, all-or-nothing ‘Where Rogues Dare’ thriller. Rogue One was neither. (However, as I’ll go on to say, I don’t think the film itself wants to be any of these things.)
[Aside: by comparison, George Lucas’ original 1977 Star Wars is remarkably single-minded and tight. It’s the first ever big budget action-adventure-space-opera-fantasy, and has no right to be as cohesive as it is. Forty years on, Rogue One really has no excuses.]
1. Plot overload
Challenge: describe the story of Rogue One in one sentence.
Well… as best I can make out, it’s the story of a girl whose family was torn apart by the Empire, who grows up determined to exact revenge.
Except… it’s also sort-of the story of a once innocent girl who becomes a bitter, cynical, hard-bitten loner.
And it’s also about an Imperial Officer who is desperately trying to save his job — and his neck — by completing a crazed dictator’s superweapon on time.
Or, is it the story of how a group of disparate Rebel factions came together in a crisis and united behind a single cause?
And there’s also something about stealing blueprints.
Throw into an already confused script a deserter from the Empire (another one), a scene at Darth Vader’s castle, Saw Gerrera (who?), a prison break, Kyber crystal mines (what?), Jedi monks, a mind-warping squid, an X-wing attack, murdering spies, a ground battle on a beach, infiltrating an Imperial base, a wise-cracking reprogrammed Imperial droid, another space battle and those two guys from the Mos Eisley cantina.
However, it’s not really about any of those things. It’s really about how cool X-wings are, and how awesome the original Death Star looks, not to mention the Rebel base on Yavin and Darth Vader’s lovingly recreated red-hued helmet. Did I mention X-wings look cool?
In which case, why make the plot so excessively complicated? As the film is little more than a lovingly made SFX reel, then just cut straight to the bit where we see all the fancy uniforms and neat spaceships.
Fix 1: Pick one story and tell it well (and lose everything else)
As sometimes happens with films that get away from their directors, Rogue One apparently revealed its true identity in the edit. The standout, indelible moment of the film is in fact a scene that was added in a reshoot, and involves none of the cast. This is telling. Darth Vader’s brutal assault is a breathtaking sequence, in which our favourite bucket-headed dark lord slices his way through the last desperate rebel fighters while the Death Star plans are frantically passed from hand-to-hand, just out of Vader’s gauntleted reach. It is the entire film distilled down to 90 exhilarating seconds.
Despite being conceived as ‘SEAL Team Six in space’ the film really wants to be an edge-of-your-seat chase film, in the mould of The Terminator or Mad Max: Fury Road. So, I would bite the bullet and drop the ‘heist’ angle entirely and make the film something like a feature-length version of the Star Destroyer pursuit of the Millennium Falcon from The Empire Strikes Back:
We open with Director Krennic arriving at the Erso’s isolated farm. He tells Galen he’s been looking for him for a long time, then he and Jyn’s mother Lyra are escorted into Krennic’s shuttle. Lyra slips a gemstone ring off her finger and tries to surreptitiously drop it in the grass. However, Krennic sees her and becomes suspicious, demanding to know who else is there. Lyra refuses to say and is murdered for it. Krennic orders his troopers to burn the farm; Galen leaves believing Jyn dead along with his wife. Jyn watches the scene unfold from her hiding place and is left all alone.
Then, after the opening credits the action picks up again with the attempted defection of the Empire’s Chief Engineer Galen Erso to the Rebel Alliance. An ageing Galen is standing beside Krennic in full military dress in front of a line of engineers and scientists. They are receiving medals for service to the Empire. It is a lavish ceremony in the Emperor’s throne room. The Emperor is looking down on them from a great height, studying their faces. All are trembling with fear, and even Galen is afraid to raise his head as the medal is pinned to his chest.
After the ceremony, as the group are being escorted back through the compound’s vast palatial grounds there is a huge explosion in the palace walls. A firefight breaks out between palace guards and unknown assailants. In the chaos and confusion Galen throws off his cape and sprints toward the hole in the wall, emerging straight into the filth and poverty that surrounds the palace. After a split-second of uncertainty he is spotted by a Rebel agent and bundled into a transport. However, they have underestimated the Empire’s swift response, and the Rebel fighters are swiftly rounded up and killed, while the transport is shot out of the air. As alarms sound across the planet and garrisons of Stormtroopers are deployed to the streets, a mortally wounded Galen staggers alone through Coruscant’s shadowy underworld. In his hand he clutches a precious disk containing the plans to the Death Star.
Meanwhile, Cassian Andor and the second extraction team — which includes Jyn Erso (known to her comrades only as “Jyn”) — are waiting in a seedy bar on the lower levels of the sector. They can hear booming announcements that the planet has gone into lockdown. Cassian suddenly spots Galen alone on the street below. Ignoring warnings that it might be a trap the team rush out to meet him.
Jyn steps toward her dying father, suddenly pale. Cassian looks up sharply as they exchange words. “You know him?”
Jyn demands Galen tell her why he never came back. “Jyn, is it you? I couldn’t get away... Forgive me”. She tearfully berates him, saying he would rather spend his life dreaming up monstrous machines than protect his family. Galen’s eyes widen in shock, “Jyn, the weapon… it is no dream, it’s finished! You are all in danger! Isn’t that why you came for me?”
Cassian shakes Galen by the shoulder, “What’s this? What weapon?”
Galen takes a shuddering breath. “None of you know, do you? Commander, the Rebel Alliance will be finished in a matter of days. Trillions are going to die. There’s only one chance… a flaw… tell the Alliance it is booby-trapped. You must get the plans to them”. He hands them the bloody disk. As he closes his eyes, Cassian sees stormtroopers flood the street. “Jyn, he’s gone. We have to run!”
So begins a first act chase across a dirty, oppressive Coruscant, as the dwindling team narrowly escapes the clutches of the Empire. Bail Organa helps smuggle them onto a departing freighter, but it is attacked by a Star Destroyer and the wreckage crashes onto a planet. The survivors search for a new ship and the pursuit continues across many different worlds and stolen ships until only Cassian and Jyn are left. They eventually end up on Jedha where they seek refuge in one of the few friendly places left in the galaxy — the ancient Jedi temple ruins. Here they meet non-Force-sensitive Jedi monks Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe.
Bail Organa pleads with the Alliance via hologram to send the fleet to rescue Cassian and Jyn and retrieve the Death Star plans, but the fractured Rebel leadership refuses to believe that the Death Star even exists. Mon Mothma is convinced that Organa was fooled into stepping into an elaborate trap set by Orson Krennic and Galen Erso. However, the Mon Calamari leader Admiral Raddus angrily says that the Alliance did nothing while his race was enslaved by the Empire, and if there’s a chance this planet-killing superweapon exists then it’s now or never: they must fight. The Mon Calamari withdraw from the Alliance and dispatch the last of their battle-cruisers to Jedha.
The Death Star appears in orbit over Jedha and prepares to test the weapon on the old Jedi city.
[The rest of the film proceeds along the lines of the film’s third act, swapping the events on Scarif for Jedha. Jyn kills Krennic and just before he dies he asks Jyn who she is, and she presents him with her mother’s gemstone ring.]
2. The Jedi ‘Monks’ are wasted
Rogue One’s best addition to Star Wars lore is the idea of Jedi ‘monks’, i.e. religious zealots who believe in the Force, yet cannot actually feel it themselves. They keep the Jedi religion alive even though the Jedi are extinct in the galaxy.
Sadly, the characters of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus (played by Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, respectively) are entirely wasted, as the film has no idea what to do with them. In fact, by casting a martial arts icon in the role, Edwards clearly succumbed to the temptation of having Yen perform for the camera — dispatching stormtroopers as easily as Neo swatted away agents in the Matrixsequels — despite his character being blind and having no Force powers.
The film wants to explore the idea of the Jedi as a bona-fide religion with all the trappings of dogma, temples, worshippers and priests — but can’t resist the urge to just give everyone superpowers anyway.
Fix 2: Good things come to those who… wait
Chirrut and Baze are barely characterised additional members of the Rogue One ‘team’ who just end up as cannon-fodder. Their inclusion raises tantalising questions about the Force and the Jedi religion which are never answered or even explored. Either get rid of these guys, or do something interesting with them.
Assuming the latter, the movie should’ve given the duo clear arcs: Baze has clearly lost his faith and no longer wears the religious robes, now his only loyalty is to his best friend and companion; Chirrut has also never felt the Force, but longs to do so. His faith is absolute, trusting the Force to guide his movements — even through gunfire.
During the final battle of Jedha, the pair help Jyn and Cassian escape the temple ruins while they are under siege by stormtroopers. Jyn, still in possession of the disk containing the Death Star plans, manages to board a dilapidated ship and prepares to take off. Cassian sees that the ships’ docking clamp is still engaged, and is in the process of deactivating it when he is tragically shot and killed. Imperial forces enter the hangar.
Ignoring Baze’s warnings for him to stop, Chirrut starts to cross the hangar bay heading for the docking clamp panel, somehow evading all the laser blasts. Then, finally, a shot hits him in the chest and he falls to the ground. Shocked, Baze races after him, mowing down stormtroopers with his laser cannon but then he too is killed. A stray blast also ricochets into Jyn in the cockpit, and she slumps in her seat. All seems lost.
Then Chirrut’s eyes flutter open and he gazes up at the sky. In the wide blue expanse he can see a tiny black dot: the Death Star. His face creases in anguish; even now, at the end, the Force remains distant to him. And then… a calm passes over him and his eyes widen. He looks over at the lever on the locking clamp panel…
[Luke Skywalker’s Force theme starts to play, softly at first, then stronger and stronger. The Force has begun to return to the galaxy]
Chirrut raises a trembling hand, his fingers straining to reach through the Force.
Close up of the lever as it wobbles, then suddenly flicks back. Tears roll down Chirrut’s cheeks.
Suddenly free, Jyn’s ship lurches forward and she comes to, grabs the controls and steers the ship skyward…
3. The film doesn’t nail the big moments (or worse, doesn’t know what they are)
Star Wars has long been described as a ‘space opera’, and for good reason. Much like the Rocky series, Star Wars works when the big moments are emphasised and underlined by big scores, iconic visuals and meticulously constructed narratives — all laser guided to deliver the most rousing payoffs cinema has to offer.
With Star Wars, you can’t go too big.
Every great Star Wars episode has at least one grand, iconic moment: we all instinctively know what they are. Consider the score, pacing and editing in each of these key scenes:
A New Hope:
The Empire Strikes Back:
Return of the Jedi:
The Force Awakens:
If these don’t make your hair stand on end then you’re not hooked up right.
Rogue One also has these moments, or rather, it has placeholders where they should be. In playing it cool and going for some kind of ‘realism’, the film only succeeds in fluffing its lines. The result is that none of these moments land with the weight they need to elevate this kind of material:
Fix 3: Less Realistic, More Operatic
i) Death Star Disbelief
In A New Hope George Lucas emphasised the scale of the Death Star by having an experienced pilot (Han Solo) mistake it for a small moon. As the Millennium Falcon is drawn toward it via tractor beam, the previously impressive Falcon becomes increasingly — preposterously — dwarfed in successive exterior shots.
By contrast, in Rogue One the shock of finding out that the Death Star is in fact terrifyingly real is conveyed by the concerned reactions of characters standing around a table.
“If the Empire has this kind of power what chance do we have?”
If the Death Star must be offscreen when this information is conveyed, then those reactions need to be a lot more dramatic and impactful:
[Galen is dying in the street on Coruscant (see Fix 1)]
Galen Erso: “Jyn, the weapon, it’s finished… it’s…”
[Bail Organa leans in and roughly shakes Galen’s shoulder]
Bail Organa: “What? What weapon? Say that again!”
Galen Erso: “Senator Organa? They call it the “Death Star””
[Bail Organa recoils in horror]
Bail Organa: “No! It can’t be true!”
Galen Erso: “You know of it. How?”
Bail Organa: “Rumours. But I never dreamed… it could really exist”
Cassian Andor: “What’s on that disk?”
Galen Erso: “Death. Destruction. The end of all things. The Emperor… he’s quite mad… drunk on death. He demanded a machine with which he could destroy the universe… and I built it for him.”
[Galen coughs and spits blood]
“…my greatest achievement… my legacy. Jyn, you must destroy it.”
[Galen fades. Bail Organa composes himself, now determined. He takes the blood smeared disk]
“This is now the most important object in the galaxy. Cassian, Jyn, I’ll do everything in my power to help you, and get this disk to the Alliance.”
ii) Rebels Unite
[As the (mostly human) members of the Alliance dither about what to do and consider surrendering to the Empire, the Mon Calamari angrily rebuke the assembled leaders.]
“You’re all happy to give the orders for others to risk their necks, but when there’s real fighting to do you want to hold up your hands and surrender.”
[They walk away from the Alliance and decide to act alone. Arriving in orbit around Jedha, the Mon Calamari ships duke it out with Star Destroyers, suffering heavy losses. As Jyn makes her escape from the planet’s surface, Admiral Raddus gives the order to provide cover by ramming the closest Star Destroyer. All appears lost.]
[Then, over his comms channel he hears broken radio chatter:]
“Form up… Red Leader in posi… prepare to drop out of lightspeed in 3,2,…”
[Suddenly dozens of rebel cruisers of all shapes and sizes, plus a hundred fighters — the entire fleet — drop out of hyperspace all around. The score swells…]
Gold Leader: “Sorry we’re late Admiral”
iii) See Fix 2
4. The problem of the Death Star Plans
Rogue One has an inherent storytelling problem that it never really overcomes: Galen Erso needs to tell his daughter/the Rebel Alliance about the weakness he’s planted in the Death Star in order to kick-start the plot and give the rebels a reason to try to steal the plans. Except… if he’s telling her what the weakness is, why not just tell her how to exploit it? But if he does that the Rebels wouldn’t need the plans, and there is no movie.
It’s a gnarly one.
In the end, the film fudges the issue in two ways: first by Galen telling Jyn he planted a weakness inside the Death Star, but that she still needs the plans to figure out a way to get to it (apparently, station architect Galen Erso couldn’t figure out a way to trigger it — even though he put it there and worked on the Death Star project for decades — luckily the Rebel military figured it out in less than twenty minutes in A New Hope); second, his message conveniently cuts off mid-sentence.
It’s one of those unsatisfying plot contrivances (think the Holdo deception, or the Holdo manoeuvre, or how Rey gets back on the Falcon or Luke in The Last Jedi) that the film hurriedly races past so that the audience doesn’t dwell on it.
Fix 4: Hitchcock’s bomb under the table
“The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock, and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!””
The characters don’t have to be aware of the ticking bomb (the Death Star) for there to be suspense, so long as the audience does: in fact, it’s moresuspenseful if the audience knows more than the characters.
It would’ve been simpler and more satisfying if Galen Erso’s emotional message to his daughter was allowed to be delivered in full — including the details about targeting the Death Star’s exhaust port — and he should conclude by saying that the rebels can confirm it by looking at the Death Star’s technical schematics. Then the camera pulls back to reveal that Orson Krennic is the only recipient of the message, and he looks worried. (He dare not tell his superiors — or anyone in fact — about the supposed vulnerability, lest he face the wrath of the Emperor, yet he now suspects the superweapon he built is fatally flawed.)
During the medal ceremony at the Emperor’s palace (see Fix 1) Krennic has to suppress his rage as he watches as Erso is presented with the Empire’s highest honour. Later, when he learns of Galen’s escape the panic really begins to set in. In the aftermath he immediately goes to the Imperial Military Archive on Coruscant to analyse the Death Star plans himself, and discover if Galen was telling the truth. When he enters his code to retrieve the schematics from the databank, the readout says that a copy has already been downloaded to disk — by Chief Engineer G. Erso. At all costs — and without anyone finding out — he must recover that disk.
5. Jyn Erso
Star Wars is a franchise blessed with great, indelible characters: Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Yoda, Darth Vader, Rey, Ben Solo… the list goes on and on. Jyn Erso is not on that list.
Felicity Jones is a fine actor, but she’s always fighting the script. Forget timeless and iconic, Jones has to juggle a multitude of character motivations just to make Jyn moderately coherent.
Lucasfilm clearly wanted the character to be a tough, independent, adventurous, slightly spiky young woman — and also one free of any romantic entanglements. Great. But that’s a description that belongs on a casting call-sheet, not that of a fully fleshed out, well-rounded, flawed character. Sadly, the Jyn we end up getting is whatever any particular scene needs her to be:
When she’s broken out of prison she’s a tough, cynical loner.
Next she has to be even more rebellious than the Rebel Alliance can handle.
Then when the script needs her to lead the crucial Death Star mission she gives a rousing motivational speech to her new comrades (the ones she met five minutes ago and now somehow commands).
Even in the original Star Wars in 1977 it was enough for our protagonist Luke to be a pilot in the attack on the Death Star; he didn’t have to come up with the plan and then be squadron leader.
She’s every bit as jaded and world-weary as Han Solo, as noble as Leia, fights like Darth Maul, and is as earnest about the Force as Luke. In fact, this movie doesn’t need any other characters — Jyn can do it all.
Fix 5: Character drives plot
This is a story about stealing the Death Star plans, so why are we following the story of Jyn Erso? What is it about the daughter of Galen Erso that means we can’t tell this story without her?
The film posits that Jyn is driven by two factors (I think): the loss of her parents and the knowledge that her father was forced to build a terrible weapon. That’s a complex motivation for an action adventure fantasy movie character, and would require an exceptional script to sell to an audience.
Gareth Edwards needn’t have made life so hard for himself — it would’ve been far simpler for Jyn to be solely motivated by the murder of her mother by Orson Krennic…
Jyn always wears her mother’s ring, and is driven by a desire for revenge. While she tells the Alliance she wants to enlist because she believes in the cause, she really just wants to get into a position to kill Krennic. She has grown up believing that her father is equally to blame for her mother’s death, and that he is a collaborator to boot. She works hard to keep their familial relationship a secret.
She volunteers for the mission to extract Galen from the Imperial headquarters on Coruscant in the hope that it will give her the opportunity to get close enough to Galen’s boss (Krennic) to assassinate him.
When the mission spirals out of control and her father dies, her impulse is still to go after Krennic. Cassian must convince her that Galen’s smuggled disk, and the Rebel cause is more important than her personal revenge, and this forms the basis of the tension between them throughout the movie.
"No, no! He was supposed to have attitude!"
- Roger Meyers, Producer/Creative Visionary
When President George W. Bush reduced the complexities of global politics down to the simple proposition “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” the mainstream media rightfully (and righteously) eviscerated him for it. When George Lucas somehow made that line even more infantile for Anakin Skywalker to repeat (“If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”) in his laughable space opera allegory Revenge of the Sith, audiences collectively rolled their eyes. But when media critics draw the same easy, binary divide — us, and them — regarding the modern phenomenon of franchise fandoms turning sour, twitteristas, bloggers and commentators fall over each other to get to their keyboards and frantically hammer out their agreement. What’s going on?
Marc Bernardin’s piece for The Hollywood Reporter “Toxic Fandom Is Killing ‘Star Wars’” on the subject of the harassment suffered by Kelly Marie Tran by Star Wars trolls means well, but manages to get almost nothing right.
This is particularly disappointing because the usually reliable Mr Bernardin is himself a fan and a nerd: “The first thing I ever identified myself as was a nerd…I didn’t get to be black until we moved to the suburbs”, and I was hoping he would deconstruct this sorry tale in his usual, insightful fashion.
However, right in the first paragraph he sets out his stall:
"Racist harassment of ‘Last Jedi’ star Kelly Marie Tran and the ‘Solo’ backlash: Lucasfilm’s problem isn’t the movies, it’s trolls who want only the nostalgia of their youth […] Fandom has always been an us versus them proposition."
- The harassment of Kelly Marie Tran was racist in nature, and entirely because she is Asian and female;
- The trolls behind it are driven by fears of Star Wars suddenly becoming more diverse;
- The movies themselves are not the cause of any backlash;
- It’s us (the enlightened champions of The Last Jedi), verses them (everyone else)
It’s a damning indictment, but surely he doesn’t mean to cleave all fandom in two as neatly as George W. Bush once carved up the world? Helpfully, Marc goes on to clarify his position:
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which — despite making $1.3 billion worldwide — proved itself an incredibly divisive film. While critics loved it (judging by the 91 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes), fans were split.
Some loved the bold liberties of writer-director Rian Johnson. They understood that there was room under that big tent for characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), women placed alongside Carrie Fisher’s Leia and Ridley’s Rey at the center of the Star Warsdrama.
But others hated it. Hated everything it stood for. Hated what they saw as a social justice warrior remix of the Star Wars they grew up with. And they hated Tran’s Rose most of all because they decided that she was the avatar for all that was wrong with the franchise. Those fans — a minority but a loud one — found their “them” in the very thing they used to love."
Not much wiggle room there. You’re either with us or against us. Either you love the film or you’re a racist. Either you loved the character of Admiral Holdo or you’re a sexist. No-one, it seems, had issues with the movie for other reasons, such as bad character development, bad writing, or Rian Johnson just plain not understanding Star Wars. Who would want to risk a critical opinion and end up being cast out onto the wrong side of that divide? Least of all Mark Hamill, who changed his deeply critical stance on The Last Jedi to one of unqualified praise just after the vitriolic fan reactions started to emerge. It was a 180 degree reverse fast enough to make a Jedi’s head spin.
And so, before I go any further I feel the need to make my own statement, lest my position be misconstrued (wilfully or otherwise). Racist, sexist or any other kind of abuse directed at any artist is appalling, unjustifiable and inexcusable. I’ll go further and say it’s particularly objectionable when actors are targeted, since they (usually) have nothing whatever to do with the script, character or story in question. All the evidence points to Kelly Marie Tran being shamefully forced off social media by Star Wars trolls.
Marc could’ve simply made this statement, and I’d have nodded in agreement and moved on. However, because he’s a critical thinker and a former journalist, he attempts to answer the not unreasonable question: Why? Why her? Why now?
"What is Star Wars fandom against? Turns out, the answer: itself. Or, rather, the realization that Star Wars is and always has been for children, and they aren’t children any more. Star Wars fans — I count myself among them — look to the original trilogy as an anchor of youth. They want anything Star Wars to make them feel the way they did when they saw “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” roll across the screen 40 years ago."
This is certainly the easiest answer, and it must join all the dots together perfectly if you’ve already decided that all the fans — like Force users — can be seperated out into two distinct camps: the light side and the dark side. However, the real world is not as simple as Star Wars movies, which are, as Marc says, for children. As adults, we’re forced to accept that not everyone likes the same things we do, and if they don’t it’s not because they’re prejudiced or stupid. We are forced to contend with and consider a range of different views without resorting to name-calling and threats. It’s what ultimately separates politics in a democracy from the pronouncements of dictators.
Western democracies are good examples of this: in most countries the views of the electorate — and their representatives — cover a range of reasonable outlooks, also known as the political spectrum. Most people, whether they’re primarily Left, Right or Centrists are able to talk to everyone else reasonably, even if their views are diametrically opposed. Then you have the fringe groups — the hardcore few on the extremes— who can only plot, scheme and hurl abuse. It is my contention that Star Wars fandom is no different. There are clearly huge swathes of the fan community, from all genders, races and backgrounds who despised the abuse directed at Kelly Marie Tran, and who also deeply disliked The Last Jedi. Lumping all of them in with the trolls — not making that distinction — isn’t going to help Lucasfilm going forwards.
The Last Jedi and Diversity in Star Wars
I’ve written before about my own reservations over the supposed advancement in diversity in The Last Jedi, and how I don’t feel it actually stands much scrutiny, but Marc disagrees:
"(It shouldn’t go unnoticed that when this stripe of fan decides they don’t like a new take on an old favorite, they level their hate on the woman of color. Leslie Jones bore the brunt of the backlash to the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters and the racist, sexually violent tweets she got also caused her to withdraw from social media to find her balance.)
No diehard fan wants to imagine himself as old Luke Skywalker, hiding on an island from everything new, anything that might shake his steadfast belief in how the world is supposed to be. But if you saw the original Star Wars in the theater, that’s who you are, unless you find a way to open yourself to heroes designed to hook a new generation while still resonating with yours."
Racist, sexist trolls made Kelly Marie Tran’s and Leslie Jones’ lives miserable because they are women of colour, this is clear. What’s not so clear is that this is directly connected to the wider fandom being uncomfortable with diversity on screen. Why did some fans (not trolls) dislike the character of Rose so much? If it’s just because she’s Asian, why was there no similar fan meltdown over the characters of Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) in 2016’s Rogue One? Or for that matter, why was there no backlash against the film itself, which easily bests The Last Jedi over the diversity of its cast?
The truth is that a complex spectrum of views exists inside any fandom, rather than just a good/bad binary divide
When the Red Letter Media crew disembowelled Rogue One over its shoddy storytelling, character-less characters and rampant fan-service, the reaction from diehard fans was swift, brutal and overwhelming. These fans didn’t seem to object to the diversity of the cast, the female lead, or lack of any white male heroes, in fact, they took such offence at any criticism of the film that Mr Plinkett posted a rare follow-up video commenting on the backlash — in his own distinctive style.
As Marc points out, Kelly Marie Tran is far from the first person involved in Star Wars to be the target for online abuse:
"All of this raises the question: What exactly do Star Wars fans want? For so long, all they were asking for was more. It was 16 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, and then 10 years between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. Just getting Star Wars on the big screen was enough … at first. But then fans wheeled on the prequels: too much Jar Jar, too convoluted. (The vitriol was strong enough to chase Lucas away from directing and perhaps from Star Wars altogether.)"
And not just George Lucas, no-one involved with the prequels escaped the pressure-hose of fan criticism, least of all both white, male leads Hayden Christensen and Jake Lloyd. Arguably the torrent of abuse levelled at Lloyd was even more inexcusable than that suffered by Tran, as he was only a child at the time he took on the role — a decision he now bitterly regrets. There was a time when Lloyd was the butt of every joke, and even Marc evidently couldn’t resist a bit of ribbing:
Nor have white male actors in the sequel trilogy avoided social media bullying, with Adam Driver nastily — and relentlessly — mocked for his appearance:
Okay, need this for science. Is Adam Driver ugly? — @isthatmattdoyle
And there are thousands more like that. Even our beloved Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill can’t avoid the occasional mean-spirited personal comment:
Fandoms are many and varied, and all are complicated
"As expected, the movie opened well boxoffice-wise […] despite mostly terrible reviews on rottentomatoes.com […] Of those who did like it, many strike a tone similar to “Access Hollywood’s” Scott Mantz, basically acknowledging everything that’s wrong with the movie, and then urging people not to listen to the critics who panned it.
“Haters will continue to hate it, but it’s not for them anyway,” he writes — assuming that the negativity is entirely motivated by preconceived notions, not the movie itself.”
— From Brian Lowry’s Variety review of Sex and the City 2, but it could’ve just as easily been written about The Last Jedi.
Sex and the City is an interesting case in point, with the series having a devoted, mostly female fanbase. While it’s tempting to think of all ‘fandoms’ as male dominated (the term ‘fanboy’ seems to be even more synonymous with fandom than the word ‘fan’ itself), but of course this is not the case, and female fans can be just as protective of the thing they love as any other.
BBC critic Mark Kermode‘s Sex And The City 2 review culminates with him yelling that the characters are “imperialist American pig-dogs of the highest order”.
In Bidisha’s piece for The Guardian “Why the Sex and the City 2 reviews were misogynistic”, she wrote:
“Sukhdev Sandhu in the Telegraph sneered at the women for “all getting older” adding that Sarah Jessica Parker “looks like a cross between Wurzel Gummidge and Bride of Chucky”, while Miranda “looks badly embalmed”. In the Observer, Philip French ridiculed the “bitchy heroines” who enjoy “an orgy of self-pity” and described Carrie as “equine” (horse-like, people).
So, the critics didn’t like it. Neither did I. But they went one further. They used the opportunity to open their mouths and spew out a sexist torrent completely out of proportion to what they were reviewing.”
On the other hand, one group of fans reacted badly when they felt their franchise was being turned into a bland corporate product and was no longer progressive enough. In 2009 J.J. Abrams was pilloried by Star Trek fans because his soft reboot wasn’t ‘real Star Trek’, because even though it spun classic Trek canon off in a new direction, it was populated with all familiar (mostly white male) characters. However, the same fans fully embraced 2017's Star Trek: Discovery, which had a black female lead and returned the franchise to its episodic roots of examining moral dilemmas while exploring space.
Abrams must've felt like he couldn't win, because he would next be criticised for making his 2015 Star Wars "requel" ‘too familiar’ and 'unoriginal', despite it having an all-new cast. The lesson: fans are hard — but not impossible — to please.
I’m not trying to make a false equivalency here; quite the opposite. Trolls abusing actors for just doing their jobs is not on, regardless of the circumstances, and that is clearly a very different thing to fans being upset at the depiction of characters, or at the quality of a film’s script or storytelling. I just wish media commentators would remember this.
And I while I thought Kelly Marie Tran gave a memorable performance in the role, and did a fine job with the material she was given, I still hope that in Episode IX Rose dies on her way back to her home planet.
Cards on the table: I hate The Last Jedi. It is a cynical mess that commits the ultimate sin of being boring while leaving the viewer wanting no more. Despite The Force Awakens managing to rekindle the spark of the original trilogy, Rian Johnson’s effort brings back nightmares of those prequels-that-shall-not-be-named.
While I have no desire to recount the film’s numerous missteps again, I have begun to observe a curious phenomenon amongst my fellow Last Jedi sceptics, which I feel the need to push back on. Like me, they’re hurt, they’re upset, they feel betrayed, and they need someone to blame. The question is – who?
Not the cast – even the most vitriolic Last Jedi hater can see that the actors did the best they could with the inept material they were given.
Not the studio either – Disney/Lucasfilm gave the production an appropriately huge budget and blitzed the marketing.
So then it comes down to two individuals: Rian Johnson, who single-handedly created the story, wrote the script and directed the film; and Kathleen Kennedy, who signed off on the whole enterprise (which is more-or-less the same thing as signing off on Johnson himself).
Once the first “oh God, it’s a stinker” reactions started to appear, blame was aimed squarely (and fairly) in Johnson’s direction. However, as the dust settled, disappointment turned to anger, and fans bitterly picked over the corpse of the franchise - a new, bigger target emerged: it was all Kennedy’s fault.
I understand the line of thinking that leads to this (incorrect) conclusion, which can be summarised as:
“The Last Jedi is proof that the whole direction of the franchise is wrong”
“Kennedy is a ‘social justice warrior’ [ugh] who cares more about political agendas than storytelling”
“Kennedy is the boss of Lucasfilm so it’s ultimately all her fault”
Of these arguments, only the last holds any water.
To see why, we need to dig a bit deeper. First of all, what elements of the film did work? The direction for one. Johnson directed the movie with style, visual inventiveness, and also extracted terrific performances from his cast. (Imagine what he could’ve done with a decent script.)
Similarly, I find it hard to criticise Kennedy for appointing Johnson and signing off on his singular vision. She took a risk and it backfired – spectacularly. But I’m glad the boss of this multi-billion dollar franchise is prepared to take risks by hiring – and sometimes firing – talented young directors. It was this instinct that led her to bring in J.J. Abrams, who righted the Star Wars ship after George Lucas had almost scuttled it. Abrams is not some director-for-hire who can be pushed around and forced to produce a bland corporate product. Nor is he a Michael Bay type, happy to turn in empty, brain-dead, special effects-driven blockbusters. If I praise Kennedy for handing the keys of the kingdom over to Abrams, I can’t condemn her for doing the same with Johnson.
No, the problems with The Last Jedi boil down to story and script, both of which were Johnson’s doing, and his alone.
I’m also certain that Kennedy is aware of the fan backlash and yet hasn’t chosen to throw Rian under a bus, as well she could. That speaks to a certain integrity under fire.
My greatest hope is that Kennedy will learn a lesson from the Last Jedi debacle, rather than bury her head in the sand. I wouldn’t be surprised if (behind the scenes) Johnson was under much closer scrutiny developing his new trilogy than he was on Episode 8, but meanwhile Kennedy, and Star Wars will keep moving on.
It just won’t be moving on with me. I hated it that much.
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, George Lucas agreed to hang up his laser sword and the original trilogy cast signed on to return, the future of the saga looked assured. Under Kathleen Kennedy’s confident stewardship as the most successful movie producer of all time, it seemed an inevitability that the series would once again crush the box office underfoot with the ease of an Imperial Walker trampling Rebel snowspeeders. Indeed, the first film out of the gate — 2015’s The Force Awakens — did just that. Yes, some fans had nitpicks here and there, but overall it did exactly what was expected, i.e. engage wide audiences, smash box-office records and make Star Wars cool again. But, with the benefit of hindsight, were there signs of trouble right from the start?
Burying the Prequels
The Force Awakens is as much a critique of George Lucas’s prequels (the Star Wars films that immediately preceded it) as it is a return to filmmaking values of the original trilogy. In many ways, it’s the exact polar opposite of the prequels, for better — and for worse.
It is lazy (and incorrect) to think of The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) as universally terrible, with no redeeming qualities whatever. Yes the writing is comically wretched, the acting (mostly) wooden, the direction workmanlike at best, and the special effects simultaneously too rich and too cartoon-like — any one of these would be enough to sink a franchise blockbuster, even one aimed at children. And yet I must give Lucas credit for his world-building, and for trying to tell a completely different story than before, with a different aesthetic. For many fans of the 1970’s originals, these just didn’t feel the same — which is because Lucas didn’t intend them to. He took a big risk and it didn’t pay off, but he was still brave enough to try.
When the tide of public opinion turned against him after the much hyped debut of Phantom Menace, Lucas (perhaps understandably) became outwardly defensive:
He repeated this mantra so often that I wonder if he began internalising it, to the point that forgot about the audience entirely. The fundamentals of storytelling (the art of which he had once been an absolute master) started to slip, and he became apathetic, to the point of laziness.
His successor J.J. Abrams wanted to show the world that yes, it was possible to make new Star Wars films that felt right, and that the original classics weren’t lightning-in-a-bottle one-offs. In doing so he reacted strongly against the prequels and strove to put as much daylight as possible between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. Perhaps too much:
Abrams already had one eye on the previous films, whereas his one and only objective should’ve been to delight an audience. Unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens was light, funny, character-driven, engaging, favoured practical effects, and wasn’t overly concerned with franchise baggage. However, it also diverged from the positive aspects of Lucas’s second trilogy: the galactic politics were muddled and confusing; the story was unoriginal and repetitive; the visual aesthetic (particularly the ship design) was unambitious.
The saga was starting to furtively eye its own tail.
Let the Mystery Box Die
The production of Disney’s 2017 sequel to its own The Force Awakens is an account of a franchise starting to self-harm. Rather than the exercise in close collaboration that one would expect from writers Abrams & Kasdan handing the baton on to Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi (2017) feels more like the result of a stuck-up prom queen being handed a love letter by a geeky kid, who relishes the prospect of ripping it to pieces in front of his face.
Episode VII left us with several questions that needed addressing somewhere down the line. Instead of coming up with interesting answers (or at least deferring them) Johnson contradicts the previous film by insisting they’re not important questions at all. Expectations subverted? Definitely. Contemptuous? Sure looks like it.
Eyebrows considerably raised.
- Who were Rey’s parents? “Nobody”
- Why does the lightsaber call to Rey? “No reason”
- Who is Snoke? “Not important”
- What are the implications of the Resistance’s victory in destroying Starkiller base? “None”
- What will we learn of Finn’s origins? “Nothing”
- How will Finn & Rey’s relationship develop? “It won’t”
- Who are the Knights of Ren? “Not important”
- Why was it so important for Luke to return? “It isn’t; he won’t”
The more you look at it, the more Johnson’s effort appears to be a disdainful dismissal of everything Abrams and Kasdan set up in Episode VII, as well as a direct contradiction of what Star Wars meant to those guys. This is a film with very little interest in appealing to a general audience or satisfying longtime fans. Quite the opposite: it was clearly written with the express intention of tearing down everything that came before. The more angry and upset fans became, the more Johnson was satisfied, as is evidenced by his social media posts.
Star Wars has become self-obsessed and navel-gazing, while trying to appeal exclusively to people who don’t like Star Wars. The tail may taste good for now, but this is a franchise in its death throes.
The fallout from The Last Jedi has brought to light a fundamental misapprehension among some fans, critics and even filmmakers themselves. Interestingly, it seems to be a reliable indicator of how a person responds to the movie itself.
In the film we see Luke Skywalker sneaking up to his sleeping nephew—an innocent boy—lightsaber drawn, about to commit murder. Sensing terrible darkness in him, the old Jedi Master momentarily succumbs to the temptations of the dark side.
At that moment, millions of fans cried out in horror, “Luke would never do this!”. But countless others replied, “What? Yes he would, he’s done it before! It’s his character flaw!”
So the question is: are Luke’s flirtations with the dark side a character trait or his character arc?
And thus the Fan Wars began. But which side is correct? How are we to know the good side from the bad? As Yoda says:
Well, the fandom is pretty far from peace, but I think I know what the issue is here. The confusion arises from the conflation of character traits and character arcs.
As audiences, we love watching arcs play out because we get to see a character struggle with a character flaw, and ultimately either overcome it, or succumb to it. The arc serves to permanently—and fundamentally—change them, and, (unlike in real life), the pivotal moment is usually encapsulated in a single, defining event. In contrast, traits are intrinsic parts of the character and are unaffected by the arc.
Generally speaking, audiences need neither know nor care about this technical distinction—nor should they: well told stories work on an instinctual level. But certainly it is easier to distinguish in some characters more than others.
For example, if we look at Mowgli from Disney’s 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book: he is determined to stay in the jungle, despite the jungle animals’ best efforts to return him to the the man-village for his own safety. Like another co-opted Disney character *Peter Pan*, he is trying to preserve his childish innocence forever. This is reflected in Mowgli’s character traits: he values his freedom, independence and the his forest home above all else. He stubbornly rejects human civilisation. Just as the animals have all but given up trying to send him back, he happens upon a girl collecting water and is transfixed, “Just a minute, I’ve never seen one before”, and then happily her into the village. This deftly (and amusingly) resolves his character arc. But we don’t for a second think Mowgli will *always* be reduced to a babbling fool every time he sees a girl. We instinctively understand this moment to be transformative: Mowgli is entering adolescence and it’s time for him to move on. Much to Baloo’s disgust, he *is* a man after all.
The Space Trucker
One of cinema’s all-time great character arcs is the one that transforms Ellen Ripley from deep space cargo haulier to gun-toting heroine. It miraculously spans two films (Alien & Aliens) by different writers and directors, while being entirely cohesive. In Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, Ripley battles a terrifying alien creature which wipes out her crew. Her character traits – such as clear thinking, steely determination and an iron will – enables her eventual triumph. While these traits keep her alive, it is also clear that she remains absolutely terrified of the monster. Indeed, in the famous final scene she is literally paralysed with fear.
Likewise, at the start of James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Ripley is still suffering from nightmares and refuses point blank to return to LV-426. However, Cameron’s marvellous script gives her a surrogate daughter to care for and protect, and when that child is threatened, Ripley’s maternal rage is so powerful that it entirely consumes her terror. In a brilliant third act reversal the tables are turned: now it’s the monster that is afraid of her. The creature will never again disturb her dreams. But this still isn’t a character trait: it doesn’t mean that Ripley is now a killing machine who isn’t afraid of anything.
Archaeologists, Writers and Regional Managers
Some more examples picked at random:
David Brent, The Office (UK)
- Character traits: socially awkward, clumsy, self obsessed, cowardly.
- Character arc: at his lowest ebb he finally forms a romantic connection with a woman and then finds the courage to stand up for himself.
- Defining moment: in the final episode of the series he challenges the behaviour of his erstwhile idol, the loathsome bully Chris Finch.
Edward Lewis, Pretty Woman
- Character traits: afraid of heights, shrewd businessman, socially reserved.
- Character arc: he finally discovers someone (and something) he loves more than the empty pursuit of money.
- Defining moment: he defends Vivian from his abusive lawyer and announces that he’s going into the ship-building business.
Amy (Amy Schumer), Trainwreck
- Character traits: career-focused, ambitious, dismissive of relationships
- Character arc: she overcomes her fear of commitment
- Defining moment: she participates in a cheerleading team as a demonstration of her willingness to change and her desire to commit to a relationship with Aaron
Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Character traits: adventurous, academic, grizzled, worldly
- Character arc: his secular, scientific worldview is challenged by the presence of a genuinely divine artefact and he discovers his latent faith
- Defining moment: “Shut your eyes Marion, don’t look at it”
Leave the lightsaber, take the cannoli
In many ways, the closest comparison to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is to be found in another famous – but much more grounded – sequel: Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II (1975). Micheal’s arc, which began in 1972’s The Godfather – as well as its defining moment – exactly mirrors Luke’s, except with the inverse outcome. Both Luke and Michael struggled with the temptation to resolve their crises by doing evil.
After retrieving the gun hidden for him in a restaurant bathroom, Michael returns to his table and wrestles with his conscience as he tunes out of the conversation. It is a battle he is fated to lose. When he looks up he is a changed man: cold and resolute. He calmly stands and guns down his enemies, and so begins his downward spiral into the abyss. By the end of the second film we are left in no doubt that he has fully descended into hell; the internal conflict has long since been resolved.
To demonstrate just how far Michael has fallen, the sequel shows us a replay of his original sin, as he orders the killing of his own brother. This time there is no struggle, no hesitation. The killing of Fredo is horrifying because we are watching evil incarnate at work. The full, terrible consequences of Michael’s actions at Louie’s Restaurant have been realised.
In his turbulent youth Luke Skywalker could’ve gone that way, for sure. Hisexistential crisis played out not in an Italian restaurant but in the Emperor’s throne room on the Death Star II, in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Taunted by the prospect of the final defeat of the Rebel Alliance and the death of his friends he struggles to keep his composure.
Luke is trapped in a devilish paradox: to save the galaxy he knows he must kill the Emperor (and perhaps his own father), but Yoda’s teaching is crystal clear:
The Emperor also wants Luke to go for his weapon, to choose the quick and easy path and condemn himself to the dark side.
Luke had been trying to convince himself he was a Jedi for three movies, and each time Yoda told him, “Not yet”. Now, he no longer needs to ask the question: he is a Jedi.
Luke experiences a spiritual transcendence and achieves a kind of enlightenment, an inner calm (reminiscent of the protagonist’s arc in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha). Luke finally understands what Yoda has been trying to tell him; that the Jedi Order is about attaining inner peace, not magic tricks, levitating rocks or lightsaber skills. Like Michael Corleone, Luke Skywalker’s struggle is definitively resolved – but in the opposite direction.
Luke is still courageous, reckless, and willing to risk everything to save his friends, but his character arc is done. His battle with the dark side is won, and – like Harry Potter’s scar after the vanquishing of Voldemort – it will not trouble him again. All is well.
Sadly, the one person who evidently didn’t understand any of this, is also the one person who really needed to:
When Star Wars fans say Johnson ‘ruined Luke’s character’, or that this Luke ‘bears no resemblance’ to the character they know and love, it is the literal truth, not sour grapes.
Not only has Luke’s arc been reversed, his traits are also now different: he’s resentful not courageous, reclusive rather than reckless, and won’t risk anything to save his friends. He’s just going to sit on his rock damnit. He has also become an unreliable narrator and a liar. This Luke Skywalker (Luke Skywalker!) is definitely not someone you’d trust around your kids – or Princess Leia’s kid. The only connection to the character we know is that Hamill is playing the role again (which he agreed to on trust, without being given the opportunity to read the script in advance, unlike Fisher and Ford).
Once again, The Godfather: Part II is the touchstone. Michael’s decadent descent is brilliantly contrasted with his father Vito’s scrappy rise to power 40 years earlier. A much younger Robert De Niro takes over the role from Marlon Brando, posing a real danger that audiences would not be able to connect the two performances. However, the writers took pains to ensure that Vito’s character traits were fully present and correct (i.e. he is cunning, loyal, ruthless, honourable and devoted to his family), and so the magic trick was pulled off with aplomb.
For Hamill, the situation was very different: there was nothing left of Luke to hook on to or reconnect with:
I've got a bad feeling about this.
Speaking with THR, Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis expressed his concerns at Solo: A Star Wars Story’s box-office nose-dive into the Sarlacc Pit:
While they’re digging, they might want to think about why Disney’s other mega-franchise – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – seems to get bigger, draw more fans, and bank increasingly humongous box-office with each new film.
Why is their immediate presumtion that Star Wars films are – like Tie Fighters around a moon-sized space station – coming in too fast? Frequency doesn’t seem to be an issue with their galaxy of superheroes. Quite the reverse.
Anecdotally, most people I know (who couldn’t have told Iron Man from Doctor Strange ten years ago) can’t wait to see Infinity War Part 2, while die-hard Star Wars fans are apathetic of even catching Episode IX when it’s released on DVD.
Apparently, denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, it’s also the Star Wars executive comfort blanket.
Movie trilogies can generally be categorised into two distinct groups. However, The Last Jedi breaks the newest Star Wars trilogy off into uncharted space.
In the first group are those trilogies that consist of three self-contained stories which are only loosely connected, and (usually) weren’t originally intended to be trilogies at all. Examples include:
- The Toy Story trilogy
- The Dark Knight trilogy
- The Godfather trilogy
- The Dollars trilogy
- Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy
- Star Trek II – IV
The second kind is arguably rarer, in which the films were either conceived as a single story spanning three movies right from the beginning, or were refactored as such immediately after the first film became a hit:
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy
- The Hobbit trilogy
- The original Star Wars trilogy
- The Star Wars prequel trilogy
- The Matrix trilogy
- The Back to the Future trilogy
It is inconceivable to imagine that the new Star Wars trilogy (if it is a trilogy – more on that later) wasn’t likewise intended to be the latter. The problem is that Episode 8 achieves the mind-boggling feat of being so slight that hardly anything of any consequence actually happens, while simultaneously wraps up all the loose ends, leaving the last film nowhere to go.
But hey, that’s not Rian Johnson’s problem.
A DVD Extra
On the one hand The Last Jedi feels utterly perfunctory – a big budget dvd extra on the The Force Awakens disk – yet it ends on a note conclusive enough to wrap up the entire saga.
We’re forced to ask: did this story really need to be told at all? And, now that it has been, is there still a need for Episode 9? Weird.
It’s the equivalent of Rian Johnson using up a saga movie to show us the story of Han, Luke and Leia running into the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell. It’s a minor adventure that would’ve worked better as a one-liner from Poe, in the midst of our heroes getting on with the real story:
Poe: “I dunno General Leia, this plan is risky. Remember when we were holed up in that base during the Battle of Crait? We were lucky to make it out alive.”
Leia: “You mean, we were lucky Rey rescued us. She’s going to be a fine Jedi someday, I can feel it. She reminds me of my brother.”
It is background colour, not the main event.
While it’s true that the events of The Empire Strikes Back did little to advance the larger-plot of the Rebels fighting the Empire, but it’s crystal clear why we absolutely needed to see them. Empire showed us the critical moments in the lives of the characters that defined their relationships. We see Leia & Han’s spark of attraction blossom into a love affair; the ‘Mary Sue’-esque Luke Skywalker learned the price of failure as he is left beaten and maimed by his father; secrets are revealed and themes of betrayal and loss permeate the story.
By contrast, in Episode 8 we discover absolutely nothing about our protagonists, and the plot barely advances at all. Sad to say, in terms of the saga, Episode 8 is skippable.
It entirely fails as the middle entry in a trilogy even in the most basic terms of setting up the next movie. I would give Johnson credit for being gutsy enough to break all the rules of narrative, if it weren’t for the fact that he knew he wasn’t going to be making the third movie. That shit is someone else’s problem to figure out: specifically, it’s J.J. Abrams’ problem. Again.
Imagine James Cameron leaving Aliens the way he did if he knew Alien 3 was planned to immediately go into production to complete the story. Indeed, part of the reason why Jonathan Mostow’s 2003 Terminator follow-up T3 was so abysmal was because Cameron’s 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day conclusively ended the series, leaving nowhere to go.
Breaking the Rules
We only have to look at the famous examples cited above to understand the job any middle film is supposed to accomplish. It boils down to this: put the heroes through the wringer, leaving them at their lowest ebb, but still with the faintest glimmer of hope of achieving their ultimate goal (which should be crystal clear to the audience by now).
Will Frodo reach Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring before he’s caught?
Can Bilbo and his friends slay the mighty dragon and restore the Dwarves to their homeland?
Can Luke defeat Darth Vader and the Emperor? Will Han Solo be rescued from Jabba the Hut? Can the Rebel Alliance finally overthrow the Galactic Empire? Will Han and Leia get together at last? Is Darth Vader really Luke’s father?
Will that boy-band-reject somehow become Darth Vader and kill all those boring monk-guys… or something. Will any of the cast learn how to convey a convincing human emotion?
Can Neo destroy the Matrix and free all the trapped slaves, while also saving Zion?
Can Marty McFly rescue Doc Brown from the Old West and restore the timeline to its proper order?
In each example there are clear problems, clear stakes and clear goals. As audience-members we need to know what happens next, and how the story gets resolved. (Or in the case of the prequels, we just need it to be over.)
Now let’s look at where The Last Jedi leaves us: Rey is strong with the Force and is destined to become a Jedi. But then, we already knew that at the end of Episode 7. Finn’s situation is the same: just like at the end of Episode 7 we understand that he has chosen to fight against the First Order. We have also learned more about Poe - rather too much actually. Inexplicably, it seems he is going to be the new leader of the Resistance... whatever. Meanwhile, his opposite number – the equally unlikeable Ben Solo – has also usurped the evil throne to become leader of the First Order. Boo. Hiss. Yawn.
So, what is there left to be done in the Star Wars universe that necessitates yet another movie? Do we need to check in on the Ewoks? Does a second Starkiller Base need blowing up?
There are no romantic tensions left to be resolved (at least, I dearly hope so for all our sakes. Let’s just pretend the icky romantic ‘tension’ so awkwardly hinted at in Episode 8 never happened). Nor are there any doubts about whether Rey will become a Jedi – she continued to connect with the Force as easily in Episode 8 as she did in Episode 7. Not to mention that – one way or another – our beloved original trilogy heroes are all dead now (or just forgotten).
All that’s left is to get to the big battle where the Resistance (or are they Rebels again?) defeats the First Order forces (or are they the Empire again?). Except, that’s definitely not going to happen folks, because Disney still has a few hundred Star Wars movies in the pipeline.
What is Episode 9 actually going to be about? Beats me. Episode 8 is so flimsy I actually can’t think of any way that a satisfying trilogy can be made out of this mess, just by bolting on another film. There’s just too much heavy lifting required.
Good luck J.J. – but something tells me we’ll all be back again in a couple of years for Episode 10.
If the latest Star Wars saga entry has taught us anything, it’s that the legitimate complaints of huge swathes of fans can be dismissed, ignored and ridiculed if a small number of morons shout loudly enough.
The Last Jedi was easily the most polarising film of 2017, with the division most prominently demonstrated on Rotten Tomatoes, which — at time of writing — has a critical approval rating of 90%, compared to a mere 47% of audiences.
That clearly translated into a lot of column inches praising of the film, and a heck of a lot of dissatisfied cinema-goers grumbling on social media. By contrast, The Force Awakens did stellar business at the box office, by-and-large winning over lifelong Star Wars fans, the general public and critics alike. So what was it about Rian Johnson’s followup — which featured largely the same cast and plot-threads introduced by previous writer/director J.J. Abrams — that led to such apathy for that galaxy far, far away?
The principle of Occams razor tells us that the simplest explanation is usually the most likely: while critics are likely to be impressed by the film’s artistic merits (The Last Jedi is undeniably visually dazzling, is directed with panache and boasts fine performances from its committed cast), devoted fans will be far more concerned with the the film’s place in the broader story and signs that the filmmaker truly ‘gets’ Star Wars. Put simply, fans want to check under the hood and kick the tyres before getting carried away admiring the bodywork.
Indeed, up to now, critics and fans have largely been in agreement about Star Wars. Neither would deny that the original trilogy was spectacular entertainment, imbued with iconic characters, dazzling spectacle and moments of brilliance. The prequels were universally reviled, not just for their considerable artistic failures, but also for horribly botching Anakin Skywalker’s backstory. Similarly, when critics noted that although The Force Awakens was somewhat lacking in narrative ambition, it still delivered the classic Star Wars ‘feel’, with great new and returning characters, and none of Lucas’s ear-scraping dialogue — fans nodded their agreement.
However, The Last Jedi was very different. Ambitious? (Arguably) yes. Beautifully shot? Undeniably. A fully realised directorial vision? I guess.
But: beloved characters were not honoured. Storylines were muddled. Important Force Awakens characters were pushed to the side. Star Wars lore was fundamentally misunderstood. To many, it seemed as though Johnson didn’t really understand Star Wars. It was all very odd.
Inevitably then, the reaction from long suffering, prequel-scarred fans was swift and brutal. This was not at all what they’d waited four decades for.
I bet the back of Kathleen Kennedy’s neck prickled a bit when the negative reactions started appearing on social media from the (supposedly) revered fan-community. Just a couple at first, before becoming a steady stream, then a torrent. While critics were sold on the film, and it did work for a chunk of the audience, it landed with a dull thud for a great many others — perhaps the majority. I’m sure Kennedy was scrambling to figure out what went wrong.
Fortunately, detailed, extensive and thoughtful critiques were not hard to find. Complaints of weak characterisation; plot threads abandoned; jokes that seemed out of place and just didn’t land; mysteries set up by The Force Awakens summarily dropped; character arcs repeating themselves; contradictory, muddled storytelling; the film telling us it was charting a bold new direction while simultaneously pushing the big honking reset button; dubious racial stereotyping; and, worst of all, a beloved hero from the original trilogy inexplicably dragged through the mud.
Surely, just for a moment, Kennedy must’ve wondered if she had a stinker on her hands. Had she sunk the reborn franchise before it even got off the ground?
But then, just as serious concerns perhaps began to creep into her mind, some stupendous moron gifted her with the release a re-edited version of the movie in which all the female characters were removed. This emboldened a bunch of halfwits to scream sexist vitriol across twitter.
Phew! What a relief! The movie didn’t have problems after all; everyone who hated it was just a racist misogynist. Thank the maker! Crisis averted. All-hands meeting with Disney’s top brass cancelled.
All that was left for Lucasfilm to do was put the word out there that the vast majority of the franchise’s formerly beloved fanbase were actually disgusting, sexist racists. You can probably picture the type without much effort: middle-aged, fat, white men still living in their parents basements. These countless millions of dorky mouth-breathers had suffered in silence through the long dark years of Princess Leia (the least distressed damsel in cinema history) and Lando Calrissian (the black leader of a technologically advanced utopian society four decades before Black Panther’s cinema debut) not to mention Mon Mothma, Padme, Captain Panaka, Mace Windu, Captain Phasma, and Rey and Finn. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Rian Johnson cast two additional women in the seventh sequel. They could hold their tongues no longer. These guys knew deep down that The Last Jedi was a masterpiece — but a couple more female/non-white characters in Star Wars? Over their dead bodies.
And so Abrams, Frank Oz, Mark Hamill, Johnson himself and just about anyone else they could round up were wheeled out to make statements praising the Disney franchise entry, all repeating the mantra that to hold a contrary opinion was to align yourself with human excrement.
The conversation around the film was no longer over its artistic merits, but whether sexism and racism are good or bad things (spoiler: they’re bad things): if you’re in favour of diversity and representation then you must defend The Last Jedi; if you dislike the film then, be honest, you just hate women, right?
This shift actually placed Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself — in a tricky spot, since he was the first to voice his displeasure. His concerns — related to the crass, dishonourable way Johnson had written his character — precisely mirrored the fan reactions to follow.
“I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character”
- Mark Hamill
To be clear, Luke Skywalker is not a character in the original Star Wars movies, he is the character. He is not a protagonist, he is the protagonist. Fans do not demand that his character shouldn’t be challenged, or put through the emotional wringer, but there should be respect, and, dare I say it, a degree of reverence. At least as much as was afforded Han and Leia and Yoda and Chewie. There was certainly never a question of making any of them child murderers. Of course, Hamill isn’t movie-star royalty like Ford, nor a feminist icon like Fisher. But to Star Wars fans, he is everything. I wonder if Disney really understood that, or indeed ever will.
So, once the tide began turning against dissenters — once the massed artillery of Disney’s marketing divisions started working on reinforcing the narrative that the outrage fans felt was really only a front for their insecurities — Hamill faced a choice: retract and repent, or risk being lumped in with those guys.
Naturally, he changed his mind (at least publicly). Who could blame him? Sure, Star Wars is important to Mark, but not nearly as important as his commitment to promoting equality and diversity — as it should be for everyone. It was an easy decision for him: he just buried his criticisms and got on board with the film. It is only a film. Luke Skywalker is only a character in a movie. But a part of me will always be sad about what they did to him*.
As for the rest of us? Disney and Lucasfilm have made it clear exactly how much they care about fans. So long as we’re shelling out cash for the next unasked-for origin flick and Darth Vader soap dispenser they love us, but the second we show a hint of dissent they’ll call us the sort of names that would make your mother blush.
*True fans will always be able to hold on to Hamill’s delicious act of sabotage during production. If the actor playing a role decides in his own mind that he is portraying someone else, there isn’t a damn thing the writer or director can do about it. May the Force be with you Jake Skywalker. The adventures of Luke Skywalker are free to live on forever in the minds of those who know him best: the fans.
There’s something off about this new Star Wars film. Far from the giant leap forward for diversity the film supposedly takes—in terms of Star Wars, it could be seen as a step backwards. I’m calling bullshit.
Why are all the figures of authority in The Last Jedi white?
Rian Johnson’s movie opens with an extended sequence in which we cross back-and-forth between First Order Generals (hot on the heals of the Resistance fleet), the Resistance leadership, and below-decks saboteurs hatching a plan of their own.
There are lots of powerful figures on screen all at once, probably as many as there ever have been in the series — which normally tends to focus on the plucky underdog. Let’s break down what Rian Johnson shows us:
First Order Leaders:
- General Hux (white)
- Kylo Ren (white)
- Supreme Leader Snoke (a white special-effect)
- General Leia (white)
- Vice-Admiral Holdo (white)
Resistance workers below-deck:
- Rose Tico (Asian-American)
- Finn (black)
- Poe Dameron (Guatemalan-American)
Hey, that’s odd.
Worse, Leia references a handful of unsavoury stereotypes while reprimanding Poe, such as “get your head out of your cockpit”, and goes so far as to actually slap him across his face. The worst she ever did to Grand Moff Tarkin was give him a dirty look, but then again, all he did was blow up her home planet. Poe though, he was out of control.
And what of the other figures of authority dotted around the film’s ensemble cast? Well, we have Rey (white), Jedi Master Luke (white) and Captain Phasma (white). Hmm.
On the flip side, Benicio del Toro (American-Spanish, Puerto Rican-born) was seen as the ideal choice for the part of DJ, an untrustworthy thief and jailbird. Hmm.
Later, our intrepid band of non-white bunglers (Poe, Maz, Rose, Finn and DJ) manage to completely screw-up their mission before returning to the protection of their stern-but-forgiving white leaders. Also, somewhere along the way mechanic Rose and “I need a pilot” Finn learn to be fighter pilots, then, despite Finn’s best efforts to follow in Holdo’s noble footsteps and sacrifice himself to save his friends, his attempt ends in failure (again), and he gets another lecture for his trouble.
By comparison, thirty-seven years ago The Empire Strikes Back was released, with Princess Leia similarly in a leadership role and giving orders on Hoth, but the film also introduced Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Baron Administrator of Cloud City. If The Last Jedi is notable for its depiction of (white) women in positions of authority, then it’s nothing compared to the sight of a black character in 1980 as ruler of a technologically advanced utopian world; a figure of such status that he was seemingly one of the few civilians in the galaxy who could converse with Lord Vader as a peer.
Lando would go on to be “General Calrissian” in Return of the Jedi, and was “Gold Leader” in the Battle of Endor, where he served under Admiral Ackbar (a non-human) and Mon Mothma, the new (female) leader of the Rebel Alliance.
Likewise, the wise Jedi Master of those films was also a non-human, in the form of Yoda, our beloved, diminutive, green alien. (And heck, even a giant slug got his own palace.)
How does The Last Jedi treat these non-human characters? Sadly, not well. Yoda is made to regress back to putting on the pantomime cackling-frog act from Empire, which he used to get Luke to reveal his prejudices. However, he got off lightly compared to Ackbar, who wasn’t even granted the dignity of an on-screen death.
The Last Jedi deserves some credit for getting Laura Dern in the movie… but that’s about it.
Luke’s character is thrown away
There are two views on Luke’s nature (and character flaws) in the original trilogy, which can be summarised as:
a) Luke always had darkness in him, like his father. The fact that he almost killed Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi shows how the dark side of him is always there, lurking beneath the surface.
b) Luke always had darkness in him, like his father. The fact that he almost killed Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi — under utmost provocation , but then pulled himself back from the brink, turned off & threw away his lightsaber—is the defining moment of his life, and indeed of the entire saga. Luke was able to walk the knife-edge that his father never could; in the end he faced his fears, overcame them and in so doing finally became a Jedi. He achieved the inner calm and aura of peace that is the mark of a true Jedi.
[As an aside, and disregarding the prequels nonsense, it has always been my contention that Anakin Skywalker had never actually ‘qualified’ as a Jedi Knight, and only became one in the last minutes of his life after conquering his own personal demons, in the form of the Emperor. For all their physical strength and power in the Force, both father and son were crippled by deep rooted fear and weakness, which they resisted confronting for years—or decades. It is this test—rather than making things float or prowess with a lightsaber—that a padawan must pass to become a Jedi Knight.]
Regarding Luke, clearly Rian Johnson is firmly in the first camp, while I’ve always been in the second. (If I wasn’t, I doubt Star Wars would even mean that much to me.)
But that’s fine, people see things different ways. However, as I’ve said, you can have Luke be a ruin of a man — wracked by shame and failure — without needing to write a clumsy child-murdering flashback scene.
I also have an issue with the veneration given to Yoda, which in turn regresses Luke back to the juvenile kid that couldn’t lift his X-Wing out of the swamp in Empire. Johnson is so intent on remaking The Empire Strikes Back that his Luke must be Luke from Empire, forever fixed at that point. I think it would’ve been far more interesting if the Luke/Yoda dynamic was reversed. If J. K. Rowling was willing to deconstruct Albus Dumbledore—the greatest wizard-mentor character ever created, with more depth than Obi-wan, Gandalf and Merlin put together—why is Yoda untouchable?
“The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
-Darth Vader, Star Wars (1977)
Really Darth? That’s a quite a boast. We’ve never seen a Jedi power in any of the films that remotely justifies such a statement. Maybe this is our chance…
After Rey has set the Jedi Tree-Temple on fire and departed, Luke watches it burn, slumped on the ground. Through the flames Yoda finally appears, although he is looking abashed. Luke tells Yoda that he now understands why he went into hiding on Dagobah. He understands the shame and remorse he felt. Yoda replies that yes, Luke now knows that same sickness that infected both Obi-wan and himself.
“But”, says Luke, “the galaxy needed you. I needed you. Out there in the fight, not hiding in your hovel.”
Yoda looks at his feet uncomfortably. “I didn’t know what to do. I had allowed the forces of darkness to spread across the galaxy and I couldn’t defeat them by myself. I didn’t have the answers the galaxy needed Luke. I was old, much too old. You were our hope.”
Luke shakes his head.
“Yoda, it has taken most of my life, but I finally understand something: you don’t always have to have all the answers, the kids will figure it out for themselves. Sometimes, you just need to be there: to make the struggle a little easier; to tip the odds a little in their favour.”
Yoda looks up at Luke contemplatively, and with pride. His student has outgrown him.
Luke gets up.
“I’m done hiding.”
THE BATTLE OF CRAIT:
The massed armies of the First Order — ground troops, Walkers, Tie Fighters, Tie Bombers, Star Destroyers and more are pummelling the old Rebel base. The great shield is cracking and starting to crumble. Newly instated Resistance leader Holdo is facing total defeat. Poe is blinded and near death in his cockpit, following the explosion that brought down his X-Wing.
Rey tries to talk Ben into fighting by her side [she had managed to pursuade him to escape the First Order with her]. However, he refuses and, terrified, tries to hide inside the base. Rey takes to the battlefield alone, lightsaber raised. She is their last hope.
Rey cuts through a barrage of laser fire, bringing down Walkers, First Order troops and Tie-Fighters in great swathes. Her aggression turns into anger and rage. Suddenly a stray laser bolt slices through the lightsaber and into her chest. She falls back, finally defeated.
Through half-closed eyes she sees thousands of First Order reinforcements march ever onward.
Then, through a gap in the red dust clouds she sees a solitary figure standing before them…
For a moment, her eyes meet those of Luke Skywalker, before he smiles, takes a deep breath and raises his open hand to the night sky.
[cue a John Williams theme to make your hair stand on end]
Every laser blast stops in mid air. The Walkers move as if in slow motion, as do the troops on both sides, First Order and Resistance. Their guns fly out of their hands. Tie Fighters spin slowly, gracefully through the air; high in the sky Star Destroyers tumble out of orbit. Silence.
Rey holds her hands over her eyes as the light emanating from Luke (that only she can see) is unbearably bright and fills the universe. She is able to raise herself up and finds that her wounds are healed. Then Ben emerges from the base, takes a step toward Luke, and stops.
All around, Stormtroopers remove their helmets and stand around with Resistance fighters.
Luke winks at Rey, then glances at Ben just as another dust swirl sweeps over him, and he’s gone.
Supreme Leader Snoke is little more than a wasted opportunity
In The Last Jedi Snoke is a nothing character — he’s a joke. Like a spoof of The Emperor, he’s a scarred, wrinkly old man on a throne in command of the true, dynamic villain. However, unlike The Emperor, he has no backstory, he’s unthreatening and uninteresting, and he’s lopped in half to get him out of the way so Johnson can focus on the character he’s actually interested in: Ben Solo.
However, the true value of Snoke is not as a character in his own right, but as the lynchpin between Luke and Ben. Somehow Ben met Snoke, turned away from Luke and became Kylo Ren. That bit of the story is fascinating, at least to me, and we get none of it. Johnson has said there was nowhere to insert an expository bit of dialogue explaining Snoke’s backstory… which is a worrying comment.
Because this history is left untold, we don’t know how Ben diverged from the light side of the Force, so, to fill the gap a second, unnecessary ‘inciting incident’ is inserted — that of Luke contemplating slicing up his nephew in his sleep. It was at this point someone should have realised just how badly Johnson had gone off course.
Jettison the entire wrong-headed idea of Luke unravelling his character arc of the original trilogy to the point where he would consider murdering a child. Good lord.
Instead, invert expectations by having Snoke as a shadowy, predatory, revolting old creature who lingered at the gates of Luke’s Jedi temple, and who crucially does not have any Force powers [little in The Force Awakens proves he does]. Rather, he is a reptilian individual who craves the company of young Force-sensitive children, and succeeds in grooming young Ben.
Luke, following his Jedi oath — and showing the flip side of his refusal to fight in Return of the Jedi — can not just attack Snoke and is somewhat powerless to get rid of him and his influence. Ben later feels betrayed by Luke for not defending him, and putting his Jedi principles above his nephew’s wellbeing.
When Luke witnessed Ben Solo’s return to the school as “Kylo Ren” and how he butchered his former classmates, Luke was paralysed by guilt and hopelessness. He told Leia that he failed as a Jedi teacher, and went looking for the first Jedi temple and original texts, but also let Leia and Han believe that Snoke was entirely to blame.
Snoke taught Ben what he knew of Sith-lore and set him free to indulge himself and build the First Order from nothing into a grand army.
Meanwhile, Luke just wanted to run away and hide his shame — just as Yoda and Obi-Wan had done.
This brings us to the film’s biggest issue, which I’ll cover in Point 10.
Holdo’s noble death directly contradicts Finn’s ignoble rescue
Holdo’s (wish-it-was-Leia’s) brilliantly conceived and executed third-act sacrifice of ramming her ship at lightspeed into the First Order fleet... is sadly punctured moments later when Rose prevents Finn doing the same thing, for exactly the same reason. Rose then caps it off by telling him — the way one explains to an infant that two plus two equals four — that they’re going to win by saving what they love, not destroying what they hate. Err… tell that to Holdo.
It’s things like this that leave me utterly baffled when defenders of the film say it isn’t a muddled mess.
How does Johnson want us to interpret this? What’s his message meant to be, other than “follow your whims”? Are we not supposed to connect these two near simultaneous-and-contradictory events?
Perhaps we’re meant to think Rose is right, and Holdo’s noble death was actually pointless? Or, maybe we’re to think that Rose put her comrades in danger by not allowing Finn to save them? Or, are we supposed to understand that Finn’s sacrifice would’ve failed to cripple the giant laser and Rose saved him from a pointless death? If so, it didn’t read that way in the film—especially as Finn was the one who knew about the “Death Star tech”, and so presumably also knew its weaknesses better than anyone else.
If Rose had allowed Finn’s sacrifice to happen, the battering-ram-laser may have been destroyed, which would have protected the Resistance fighters (“Rebel fighters”?) inside the base long enough for help to arrive. Then, Luke wouldn’t have needed to sacrifice himself. Don’t forget, Luke’s sacrifice, like Holdo’s, was clever, brave and noble. Do only white characters get to possess these traits in Johnson’s Star Wars universe? Luke’s noble act supposedly also inspired the whole galaxy, didn’t it? (Don’t ask me how or why.) Ultimately, there are no answers. Events happened in The Last Jedi because the script said so. Poor Finn just couldn’t catch a break.
Just let Finn die. Johnson obviously has no interest in him anyway, nor any idea what to do with him.
Holdo teaches Poe a lesson
Let’s take a look at one sequence that everyone seems to agree is utterly nonsensical — even fans of The Last Jedi. You know the one.
What Johnson wants to convey is a power struggle between Holdo and Poe in Leia’s absence. Poe, the cocksure hothead that he is, needs to learn to follow orders, and that sometimes doing nothing is the wisest course.
These are fine ideas in and of themselves, no issues so far. However, the way the message is delivered is highly problematic, bordering on idiotic.
First, lets dispel the notion I’ve heard from some fans that Holdo was written as an arrogant, aloof character who is herself meant to be at fault, and it is she who learns leadership isn’t as easy as Leia makes it look. No. Johnson’s script and direction makes it perfectly clear: Holdo is the misunderstood hero and Poe is just plain wrong. There’s no grey area here.
So, Holdo has a clever plan to do x, y, z which will save everybody if they would just trust her, hold their stations and do nothing. Except she gives no-one any reason to trust her, least of all reckless Mr Dameron-who not twenty minutes earlier ignored a direct order from Leia that got a bunch of people killed.
Just tell everyone your damn plan Holdo! Or at least, tell them you have a plan.
What she does is akin to pointing a loaded gun at a child’s face in front of a crowd of onlookers and start squeezing the trigger—all the while refusing to explain why. Then, when Poe intervenes, she gets to say:
“You fool, the child has the rare Bullshitius Bacterius disease, and shooting him in the head is the only known cure — now he really will die, you reckless flyboy!”
And we’re all supposed to nod and cluck our tongues and think “Poe really got taught a valuable lesson there”.
And I suppose the secondary message that Disney wants to convey to all its young fans is that you should always blindly follow orders, no matter how insane/suicidal they might seem, and never ever question your leaders…?
Screenplays have second, third, fourth drafts for a reason, and films regularly spend years in development hell because often a writer’s first ideas are not their best. Obviously, Star Wars franchise tentpole movies are not going to tolerate any such delays, which must account for a lot of the sloppily writing in The Last Jedi.
Off the top of my head… the Resistance fleet scatters and Holdo’s ship is drifting alone in space, nearly out of fuel. Poe insists they use their very last jump to get to a nearby Resistance-friendly system where they they can repair, refuel and rearm. Holdo considers his idea, then rejects it and dismisses him—bluntly telling him she knows what she’s doing.
Poe ignores her and goes to the engine room, forcing the ship to jump to the previously allied system. When they arrive — to Poe’s shock and dismay — the leaders there tell him that word has reached them of the Resistance’s crushing defeat in the Ileenium System, and they’re scared of retaliation by the First Order. It is just as Holdo predicted. The balance of power in the galaxy has shifted quickly and without Poe fully appreciating it. At that moment, as the spent ship drifts in space and all eyes look accusingly at Poe, an urgent plea for assistance comes in: the First Order has found Leia…
’Iron Man 3 syndrome’
What does the Batmobile attack on Axis Chemicals in Batman (1989) have in common with Iron Man’s rescue of the passengers of a stricken private jet in Iron Man 3 (2013), and Luke Skywalker’s showdown with Kylo Ren/Ben Solo in The Last Jedi (2017)?
Well, they’re all deliriously exciting, iconic scenes — that fall flat on their faces moments later when audiences realise they’ve been tricked. If the hero never places himself in jeopardy then it’s just empty spectacle.
The sequences need not be altered in any way to have Bruce Wayne be driving the Batmobile, or for Tony Stark to be wearing the Iron Man suit, or for the real Luke Skywalker to actually be on Crait, risking his neck.
In each case the filmmaker made a choice: trickery instead of emotional investment. Gags over heart.
I hate this trope. I always feel cheated by the film not entertained, and it forever tarnishes the film in my memory.
My biggest complaint with The Last Jedi is that at almost every turn Johnson does choose the cheap trick over heart and character. Luke tosses his father’s lightsaber aside for laughs; Virtual-Luke ‘comedically’ brushes dust off his shoulder; Virtual-Luke ‘defeats’ Ben Solo using a very Loki-like trick.
Um, Luke actually goes to confront Ben Solo, and face his demons… you know, the way the the real Luke Skywalker always did in real Star Wars films. This stuff isn’t that hard.
Slow, credibility-stretching chases are slow and credibility-stretching
Let’s be honest, The Last Jedi is a fairly straightforward remake of The Empire Strikes Back, with a bit of Return of the Jedi spooned in. It’s a packet of instant mix. Therefore, because Empire had a long spaceship chase involving Star Destroyers hot on the heels of the rebels, we must get one in The Last Jedi… because Johnson has no other ideas.
The chase in Empire focused solely on the rebels we knew and cared about (Han, Leia, Chewie and C3PO — and the Millennium Falcon), while affording the characters ample time to bond and deepen their relationships. It was also an extremely tense and exciting sequence: they fly through an asteroid field, hide inside a slug-inside-a-cave on an asteroid, launch a head-on attack on a much bigger ship and even attach themselves limpet-like to a Star Destroyer.
It’s inventive, clever, thrilling, varied and always believable.
How does The Last Jedi accomplish the same story beat? Well, the Resistance ships fly just a little out of range of the Star Destroyers in pursuit - until they run out of fuel. That’s it.
You know that feeling when you’re struggling through a bad remake and you wish you were just watching the original...
After the attack on Resistance base in the Ileenium System, the Resistance fleet jumps to hyperspace and is promptly found again by the First Order. Suspicions run rampant through the fleet as people turn on each other — do they have a traitor in their midst? General Leia orders ships to scatter in all directions, without giving a rendezvous point. None of the ships know the fate of the rest of the fleet as they each try to find safe harbour somewhere in the galaxy.
We follow Leia’s command ship, but each time it jumps, the First Order quickly finds it. Leia orders them to make for the planet Crait, which is orbited by a known ship graveyard, filled with debris. There, she gives the order to abandon-ship and get to the abandoned rebel base on the planet below.
However, Leia stays on-board and hides the battered ship amongst the debris of a thousand others. Snoke’s Super Star Destroyer arrives, and, when Leia ascertains that Ben Solo is no longer on board, she flies the ship at lightspeed straight at Snoke’s throne room (ala the Holdo manoeuvre).
Leia’s character is poorly handled
Obviously, no-one expected Carrie Fisher to pass away during post-production, thereby sadly also scuppering plans for a Leia-centric Episode IX. Still, I can’t help but be exasperated by the script for The Last Jedi putting Leia in a coma for the bulk of the movie.
I was equally perplexed by the decision to essentially replace Leia with a barely distinguishable Leia-clone, in the form of Resistance leader “Admiral Holdo”.
However, when top-drawer actor Laura Dern was cast for the part, hopes rose once more: was this to be a fitting passing of the torch, from one tough-as-nails broad to another? It certainly seemed that way, until Holdo herself died heroically at the end. Did Holdo steal Leia’s part — and her exit? If so, to what end?
I can scarcely think of a more heroic, bittersweet and fitting send-off for Leia than staying behind on her ship in order to ram it down Snoke’s unsuspecting throat at lightspeed.
Personally, I wanted less stoicism and more rage from General Leia. I wanted to see her burning with anger and desperate for revenge against Snoke for what he‘d done to her son. I wanted the cathartic moment of watching her target his ship with relish (echoing the way Ben had targeted hers — except of course Leia would actually have the balls to go through with it).
Indeed, it would then have been natural for Holdo to take over leading the Resistance into the final chapter, and a much better fit than that chump Poe Dameron. Holdo would've been unsure of herself in full command, and perhaps her first act would've been to oversee another crushing defeat on the planet of Crait. We could've seen her leadership skills put to the test, and her mettle under extreme pressure. Perhaps we could've even seen a different side of her than the arrogant, aloof dismissal of the concerns of her subordinates that we got in Johnson's ham-fisted script.
[As an aside, if someone had asked me before the movie which would be the more impressive Force power — Force-flying through outer space or Force-projecting an image of yourself, I’d have said the former by a mile. Odd then, that Leia (who as far as we know was never trained, her latent Force-powers dormant and untapped) appeared to have better command of the Force than Jedi Knight/Master/Scholar/Teacher Luke?]
Finn is also reduced to a minor character
The original trilogy had a central trio of heroes — Luke, Leia & Han — who became a foursome in The Empire Strikes Back with the addition of Lando. The Force Awakens was conceived differently, with Rey and Finn as a twosome unburdened by any franchise baggage or complex lineages, who would guide us through this new trilogy. Poe Dameron was a one-note addition who wasn’t originally supposed to survive the first act, but ended up getting promoted to third-wheel on the strength of Oscar Isaac’s charisma.
Personally, I still think writers J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had it right. While I don’t dislike Poe, or Holdo or Rose or DJ, I found that any moment Rey and Finn weren’t on screen dragged. Worse, when Finn was allowed to do something, he was largely overshadowed by the terminally bland Rose. Kelly Marie Tran is a fine actor, but she was saddled with the thankless task of portraying ‘honest’, ‘principled’ and ‘sweet’.
Certainly cut or revise Rose’s character (at least make her more compelling) and, as outlined in Fix 2, give Finn a proper adventure of his own. I suggest giving him what he said he wanted in the first movie, i.e. a chance to escape. I would happily watch him wrestle with his conscience for a good chunk of the movie. Would he attempt to rejoin the Resistance? Or would he try to find Rey? Or would he just run away? And who else might he bump in to on his travels… perhaps another beloved scoundrel from the past…
Rey and Finn are separated for the entire movie
Perhaps the rarest phenomena in all cinema is the magic of on-screen-chemistry. It is an elixir impossible to generate artificially, even between gifted and accomplished actors. Filmmakers either get it, or they don’t. Luckily, the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher jumped off the screen in Star Wars in 1977, and The Empire Strikes Back screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan made the simple and obvious choice to glue those actors at the hip for their 1980 sequel.
However, lightning rarely strikes twice — no two actors in George Lucas’ entire prequel trilogy displayed even the faintest fizzle of a spark. So it goes. But, due to some miracle (and great casting), it happened again in 2015’s The Force Awakens, with Daisy Ridley’s Rey and John Boyega’s Finn making a wonderful, sparky on-screen pairing. Would they end up as a romantic coupling, a brotherly/sisterly team or as warriors-in-arms-buddies? Who could’ve said, but it was clear that the prospects for this new trilogy depended greatly on how much screen-time Daisy and John shared together.
Bafflingly then, Rian Johnson chose to keep them apart for the whole of The Last Jedi, the characters barely exchanging a word—or backward glance. The movie, and the saga, is immeasurably the poorer for it.
The First Order are tracking the fleet through hyperspace, causing the Resistance to turn on each other as suspicions run wild. Is there a First Order spy in their midst? While under attack, Leia orders the dozen cruisers and smaller ships to scatter in all directions. Meanwhile, on her ship Admiral Holdo believes the First Order are somehow tracking one of the two new Resistance recruits: either former stormtrooper Finn, or Rey via the cloaked transponders connecting Rey and Leia. Secretly — and against Leia’s wishes — she puts the transponder in Finn’s medical pod, then ejects his pod and the entire medical bay into space.
[The real explanation for how the First Order are tracking the fleet need not over-complicate matters: it should’ve had nothing to do with some sub-Star Treknobabble. Ben is simply using his Force connection to his mother to find her.]
Finn, unconscious in his medical pod, tumbles through space, eventually crashing onto a strange new world where he’s lost to everyone — except Rey.
When Rey abandons her Jedi training with Luke the first person she should find is Finn, and they’re therefore together for much of the rest of the movie.
Oh, I am going to complain. A lot. Actually I’m starting to wonder if Rian Johnson’s real aim in writing Episode VIII was to give me an aneurysm. However, point taken, I am going to endeavour to throw out a “fix” for each of my complaints. I’ll let you, dear reader, be the judge of whether any of them are up to snuff.
Now let’s start cutting through those gnarly weeds…
Rey doesn’t drive her own story
The character of Rey was hands-down the best part of The Force Awakens. She is front and center throughout the film, events are seen through her eyes and she propels the story on at lightspeed. She discovers the Force by herself, frees herself from captivity and fights her enemies single-handedly. What I wanted most from The Last Jedi was more Rey.
So, what went wrong?
While Daisy Ridley is as wonderful as she was in the first film, she just doesn’t have enough to do. The Force Awakens was her film, whereas she’s just in Last Jedi. Heck, I would’ve been happy if Johnson had made the film a series of skits involving her antagonising the Ahch-To caretakers. Alas, we take far too many lengthy sojourns off to follow much less interesting characters — namely anyone who isn’t Rey or Ben Solo.
Unfortunately, while Johnson’s remake/reimagining/reboot/whatever of The Empire Strikes Back hits all the same story beats it also completely misses the point.
Empire isn’t special because it features a training sequence with a Jedi master, or because it has a thrilling spaceship chase, showcases a spectacular land battle with Imperial Walkers on snow, or because its themes are of failure and loss. Well, not just because of those things. While Rian brings all this stuff over to his version, what he misses is the why. Why did Empire approach Star Wars 2 the way it did?
Let’s take the character of Luke Skywalker, i.e. the character that was re-moulded in the form of Rey in the remake. In 1977’s Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was the golden-haired-blue-eyed-farm-boy-hero-messiah who could do everything:
- Incredible pilot? Check.
- Great shot with a blaster? Check.
- Great shot with a gun turret? Check.
- Saviour of the rebellion? Check.
- Nascent lightsaber skills? Check.
- Super-Force-sensitive Jedi prodigy? Check.
As many have pointed out, the Rey in The Force Awakens is similar to Luke in these respects, and I think it’s an entirely fair comparison to make. Also like Luke, Rey is a bit too competent, and could do with a challenge or twenty.
In 1977 Star Wars was the biggest blockbuster ever made - it was more than a movie, it was a phenomenon. How do you make a sequel to the biggest movie of all time? Play it safe, surely. The standard expected way to have made *Star Wars 2* - and kept those tills ringing - was to essentially do Star Wars over again. Indeed, that was what audiences were expecting. Something like:
Boy did The Empire Strikes Back confound expectations. Luke is physically, mentally and emotionally put through the wringer. He fails and flounders his way through events and ends up a bloody mess: shell-shocked, humiliated and defeated.
First he’s nearly killed by a monster and has to be rescued by Han; following this he crashes his snow-speeder, and then his X-Wing; next he’s shown to be dismissive of ‘lesser’ creatures; fails raise his X-Wing from a swamp; fails to control his temper during Jedi training; fails to rescue Han and Leia; is humbled in a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader - losing his hand in the process - and learns just how ignorant he is of a universe vastly more complex than he imagined. Most painful of all, he’s forced to put his friends in danger by begging Leia to rescue him.
It’s quite a journey for our farm-boy.
By contract, in The Last Jedi Rey has no such ordeal to contend with, and is in fact given little opportunity for her character to grow. She starts the film as we left her in The Force Awakens as a Jedi hopeful: like Luke she initially stumbles on a few of the Jedi challenges. However, she then shows her teacher the error of his ways, berates him for his past mistakes, goes on to defeat her enemies in combat (again) before successfully escaping the clutches of the First Order (again). And again - though she disappears from the narrative for a while - her story ends on a note of triumph: she lifts a pile rocks (yes, seriously) to save her friends.
When I hear people talk of The Last Jedi being the boldest, riskiest entry in the series so far my eyes have a tendency to roll in their sockets so fast I worry they may plop out and spin away like little BB-units. Remaking the best film in the series is the opposite of ‘risk-taking’.
Aggravatingly, Rey is also now strangely passive.
For example, when Rey finds that her mind is being invaded by the murderer of her father-figure from Force Awakens, rather than immediately demanding that “Master Skywalker” show her how to block the connection, she just engages in some ‘Force-Time’ small-talk.
When Snoke implants in her mind the idea that she can turn Ben back to the light side, she immediately rushes off to fall into the trap. Then, after she watches Ben kill his 'master' Supreme Leader Snoke (can Star Wars please get over the whole ‘master’ thing already?), he tells her that her parents are nobodies, which she accepts unquestioningly.
There's a lot of stuff going on in Rian's movie; it’s just a shame that Rey gets a bit lost in the mix.
Rey sorely needed a personal struggle, a personal failure and a moment of realisation. And the camera should have been pointing resolutely at her face for 95% of the running time. Allow me to offer an alternative vision of her journey:
After she hands Luke his father’s lightsaber he contemplates it for a moment, but then hands it back to her. [Mere Jedi Knights carry laser-swords, but Luke (like Yoda) no longer needs one.]
Initially rebuffing her, Luke relents and tries to teach Rey about the spiritual nature of the Force. [Johnson’s scene of Luke tickling Rey’s hand was actually rather good, if an obvious rehash of Yoda's lessons in The Empire Strikes Back.]
We learn that Rey has little patience for this mystical mumbo-jumbo. Indeed, we saw in Force Awakens that Rey is essentially practical by nature, while also handy with a staff. What she really wants is to learn how to fight like a Jedi - spiritual, ethereal stuff is a much bigger struggle for her. However, Luke tells her that being a Jedi has nothing to do with waving swords around. But, as Luke has permanently shut himself off from the Force [another great addition by Johnson], he cannot properly connect with her or demonstrate, and Rey is disbelieving and frustrated. Finally, Luke tries to get through to her by telling her that the word ‘Jedi’ literally means ‘open handed’ in the ancient language of the Whills [that one's mine].
Rey takes to training alone with the lightsaber hoping to impress Luke with her skills. Luke watches her and sighs, telling her she won’t find what she’s looking for with him.
Rey feels rejected by him, by the Jedi order - by the Force itself. She observes that his main obsession is translating the ancient Jedi texts by candle-light, but that it also brings him no solace. He endlessly dwells on the failure of his Jedi school and says perhaps it is time for the Jedi to end. He sinks ever further into despair, not able to understand how his school collapsed despite his best efforts, and why his nephew turned away from him. Luke eventually throws down the old books and cries out for Yoda and Obi-Wan, but they seem to have also abandoned him.
Seeing that the old Jedi texts are like anchors weighing him down, Rey goes to the temple in the dead of night intending to burn it. Luke realises what she’s about to do and chases after her. However, at the entrance Rey can’t bring herself to do it and drops the flaming torch. Then, in a sudden moment of realisation, Luke himself picks up the torch and hands it back to her. His mistake was failing to ever let go and trust his students. He tells her to burn it all.
Luke slumps to the ground, watching the flames, hopelessly lost. Rey finally sees Luke as he really is — a pathetic, frightened old man, and she knows she cannot stay. She departs on the Falcon with Chewie, following the signal of the cloaked transponder beacon, which leads her to Finn, who’s having an adventure of his own...