Much has been made in the entertainment media about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and if you’re a Star Wars fan, you can’t help but have heard most of it, both the reasonable and the unreasonable. Like most fans, I have my opinions on the ‘why’ of what happened and is happening, but for this article I’m putting that aside to focus on the story itself and simple changes that, in my opinion, could have made this the best Star Wars movie, instead of the most contentious.
To begin with, I’ll digress very slightly for those convinced there was nothing wrong and that it’s just whiny fan-boys who didn’t like the movie. My own evidence, speaking with people who have seen it, suggest that most of those who were not fans, either thought it was ‘okay’, or did not like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, citing that it was ‘missing something’ — I’ll describe what shortly. So, the battle that currently rages is essentially within fandom itself. That alone should suggest that the arguments should not be too easily disregarded.
My own view of the discussion is that it results from the movie have so many of the right pieces, but putting them together in the wrong way. This leads to a kind of cognitive dissonance when watching it. The movie almost feels epic, but something’s not quite right.
On the Role of Epic Heroes
There’s one more point we need to get straight before I continue. Something that, apparently, the directors and producers have either forgotten or failed to realize. Star Wars is an epic space fantasy of larger than life battles and larger than life heroes. When you remove or devalue the heroism of those you set up to be heroes, you fail to live up to the promise of the franchise.
In the original series, those heroes were Luke, Leia, and Han. They each had their strengths and flaws, but each did great feats of heroism in the name of what they believed and within the structure of their character and skill sets. Therefore, any new series that ties up their loose ends and moves on to new heroes must do justice to the old heroes in a way that satisfies the fans and follows on their legacy.
Furthermore, when setting up new heroes to take the reigns, these characters need to feel like more than real people, flawed, but able to overcome their flaws and triumph against overwhelming odds. They should not be cartoon cut-outs. In addition, the story needs to allow them to actually be heroic. Otherwise, there’s no point in focusing the story around them. Part of that heroism is triumphing over one’s own weaknesses. The heroes in the new series are Rey, Finn, and Po. Yet, arguably, none of these heroes are allowed to be real heroes. One is overpowered and flawless to the point of boredom, the other two are shown to be hopeless and flawed, with their attempts at heroism being dismissed or criticized at every turn. How can a franchise build on such a shaky foundation?
I’ll leave you to contemplate that while I continue on with…
The story problems of Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The major issues with Star Wars: The Last Jedi can very roughly be broken down into seven points (sure, I could talk about many more, but seven seemed a good number to me).
Oh yeah, Spoilers Ahead (quite obviously).
1. Crazy Poe (no heroism allowed)
In the name of full disclosure, I will state that I didn’t originally like the character of Po. When we first meet him in The Force Awakens, he felt like a cartoonish character made to appeal to eight-year old boys and no one else. He started off The Last Jedi in much the same way. Yet I felt that in this movie, he really could have grown into something more, if he’d been allowed to…
After the over the top ‘homage’ of the first movie, the opening scroll of The Last Jedi, alluding to a Hoth-like escape, was probably not a good way to start the movie. But it still could have worked, since the directors took the perspective of space fleet, rather than the ground forces. But then they ruined it by giving Po a ludicrous scene that was a very poor attempt at humour with an absurd phone call reference. Compounding this was the equally ludicrous response by the inept First Order leadership.
Such a terrible opening could have been forgiven as it led into a dramatic action sequence. But even that was destroyed with Leia’s sudden inability to do math and realize that their trade for the Dreadnought was a good one (Po’s choice was later vindicated during the space chase).
And yet, even this sequence could have been saved if the plot line was Po being a hero who doesn’t play by the books, gets chewed out by his supervisor, and then is ultimately vindicated (as there was no Dreadnought to destroy them in the chase). Perhaps he could have discovered a double agent among the Resistance (Admiral Holdo would have been perfect for many reasons). Or perhaps his plan to remove the tracking device could have, eventually, succeeded. Or, failing that, he and Finn could have come up with another last-minute discovery to save the fleet. There were many, many opportunities to create a real hero out of Po, but each time the directors passed up the chance for his redemption, continually making Po the failed would-be hero, who continues to fail, until he learns to run away (with Leia’s approving nod at the end).
Not only is this bad character building, since the ‘hero’ learns a lesson in non-heroism, but it’s bad writing since it doesn’t fulfill the promise made to the audience.
2. Forceful Leia (superwoman in space)
Leia is the one original character who has been treated well by the producers. She is also the only one of the original trio still alive in the movie series. Ironically, she’s the only one of the three actors who has died in real life. So, when I heard from critics that The Last Jedi was a good tribute to Carrie Fisher, and then I saw Leia being blown into space in a dramatic battle with her son, I thought ‘this is it’, as I’m sure did many fans. It would have been a moving, dramatic tribute to the actress and the character who gave her life for the causes she believe in.
But no, the producers felt that suddenly giving Leia uber force powers, having her pull herself to the ship, which in space would be kilometers away, and somehow get in a destroyed airlock without killing everyone inside, was much more reasonable.
If the legacies of Han and Luke have been destroyed by this new series of Star Wars movies, I’d also argue that this one sequence destroyed the legacy of Leia. Even worse, it didn’t make sense, and was unnecessary for the story. Had Leia died, we could have had a very clear chain of command to Admiral Holdo and an excellent way in to a ‘traitor on board’ plot. It could have also made The First Order look like a competent threat, as there would be the suspicion they orchestrated the attack specifically for this purpose.
Instead, we were given an incapacitated Leia so that a character we don’t know, or care about could show up for a short time to make Po look like a paranoid idiot, and send Finn and Rose on a completely meaningless side quest…
3. Cantonica Crazy (side quest of side quests)
There’s not a lot more I can say about the ludicrous Cantonica side quest storyline than has already been said by many. How did they get there and back in time when the travel itself should have taken most of their time? If their shuttles had lightspeed than why not use that to escape instead of the slow death drop to the nearby planet of Crait? And that’s ignoring the side quests on the planet itself (freeing the children and the animals and destroying the casino while remarking on how bad capitalism is).
However, let’s assume that it was reasonable to create a place like Cantonica. After all, George Lucas has said that he wrote each Star Wars movie to have three main locations. To keep with this trend, we needed a third. So, what to do with Cantonica?
To be honest, I kind of liked the idea of finding a master hacker…up to a point. However, to make this entire plotline less ludicrous, several things were needed, in my opinion.
First, the planet needed to be closer to them. The transit time back and forth for Finn and Rose, plus the mission time should have been unrealistic if they were leaving the system. This suggests Cantonica needed to be different than envisioned in the movie. One possibility is that it could have been a smuggler’s moon orbiting the barren mining planet of Crait. This would have made it reachable, and much more interesting that a rich resort city in the middle of a meadow. Of course, the directors wouldn’t have had as much opportunity for social commentary…
I also liked the character of the Master Hacker, but his knowledge of the Resistance was highly suspect. Had the Cantonica social commentary sequences been shorter, Finn and Rose could have been betrayed and captured, tortured for information before escaping with Rey or Po. Or they could have had an entirely different plot with a new smuggler faction. Then, the resistance would have to make a decision on whether to ally with the underground or not, and at what price, thus opening up interesting venues, characters, and subplots for later movies.
4. Snoke Snore & the double ending (power is no shield against inattention)
Snoke was one of two characters that everyone was curious about. Who is he? How does he fit into the Star Wars universe? How did he gain such tremendous force abilities, and how did he manage to form The First Order to be such a dominant force in the galaxy? As fans, we were looking forward to the answers to these questions almost as much as seeing the rest of the movie…
…and we were let down. The Last Jedi answered precisely none of these questions before killing off such a powerful, all-aware, leader with a child’s trick.
This did lead to what was potentially a very powerful moment, with Rey and Kylo allying against The First Order in an epic battle aboard Stoke’s ship while everything was falling apart around them as the Resistance was fleeing for their lives and Finn and Rose had been captured. This entire sequence was built as a massive set-piece that mimicked the likes of the final battle of Return of the Jedi aboard the new Deathstar.
But alas, the directors couldn’t even get this right. Instead of using this sequence as the final, climatic, set-piece, they used it as a stepping stone, leading to the boring and ultimately disappointing battle on Crait. The throne room battle could have been the game changing moment in the series. Instead, as easily as Rey and Kylo had come together, they instantly revert to type the moment the battle was over, and go their separate ways.
In truth, this one sequence could spawn several articles itself, but suffice to say, the directors dropped the ball and finally lost the game here.
5. Rey who? (overwhelming power, itty-bitty backstory)
Of course, the other character everyone was curious about was Rey, someone with overwhelming power, zero responsibility, and flawless decision making.
Much has been made of her being overpowered. However, to be fair, there have been two other characters I can think of in the Star Wars universe (including EU) that had her level of abilities. Those both being named Anakin.
The original Anakin was a child of prophecy, having been born directly of the force. Even as a child, he demonstrated amazing abilities at all aspects of the force. Rightfully, such a character needs a strong flaw to allow us to relate to him. His flaw was his fear for those he loved, a fear that led him eventually to attempt to gain as much control over reality as he could, leading him to become Darth Vader.
The second Anakin was the youngest son of Han and Leia in the EU. Like his grandfather, he also had great control over all aspects of the force. Writers eventually killed off this character, presumably because it’s difficult to write an overpowered character with any believably. If left in, he would be a constant Deus ex machina.
So, Rey’s problem as a character is not so much that she’s overpowered, rather it’s that she has no flaws to balance that power. The one flaw (small as it was) that was initially built into her character was that of her family. It was also the question that drove us to want to know more about her. Who could she have inherited the power from? Why did they just leave her on the planet? What will she do if she finds them?
As family has been an important part of the Star Wars universe, Rey’s family would be a great way to build in a flaw for her character. Just imagine if she was a child of Luke! Let’s say she was born at the academy, but the mother fled with the child when there were stirrings of The First Order awakening and Sith returning (maybe the academy story Luke tells isn’t so cut and dry). She flees with young Rey but has to leave her with a friend on Jakku when she gets into trouble. The mother is killed, and so, eventually, is the friend, leaving young Rey to fend for herself in the harsh wastelands of Jakku with none of her family aware she still exists. When Rey finally learns the truth, she has to sort through her feelings of abandonment. Doubly so now that her last parent has just died while she had been so close to him, without knowing it.
Wouldn’t that be a better backstory than having nobody drunkards for parents who sold her off just to be rid of her? Would the version above fit much better into the Star Wars mythos and the plotline of the current series, instead of the lazy writing we ended up with?
6. Slowburn in Space (the space battle to outlast all other space battles)
Now, we come to the most boring space battle in the history of cinematic space battles. Starting right after the opening battle sequence, the few remaining Resistance ships discover their flagship has a tracker than allows The First Order to trace them through hyperspace. Moreover, they’re almost out of gas (I kid you not!) and have enough for a single hyperspace jump, but it would be pointless because they’re being tracked. However, they’re ship is fast enough to stay just ahead of The First Order fleet.
Well, their flagship is. The other ships slowly fall behind and get picked off one at a time under amazing (we’re told so!) Admiral Holdo, super-Leia’s temporary replacement. Po sees the futility of the strategy and questions Holdo, who tells him to be a good soldier and shut up. Po and Finn then hatch a plan, which is interrupted by Rose, who later joins them. They do a pointless side-quest that only makes things worse as the Master Hacker somehow knows of the Holdo’s plan to evacuate the fleet to the nearby planet in cloaked lifeboats. The lifeboats are picked off one by one as Holdo watches. After about twenty are destroyed, she decides to weaponize the single remaining lightspeed jump on the flagship and devastates the First Order fleet in her suicide run while the Resistance land on the planet where they have a hidden base, and prepare for an attack.
This, the slowest space battle in history could have been vastly more interesting with a few changes. Had Admiral Holdo been a traitor, the movie could have featured Po attempting to uncover her deception, and thus could have featured a battle of wits. This could have been enhanced with a parallel smugglers’ moon-type plot on a nearby underworld moon of Cantonica (instead of a distant grassland planet). Instead, this slow race to oblivion was only an excuse to show how Po and Finn were undermining the Resistance leadership, as the characters waited around for their inevitable doom, relying on the stupidity of The First Order to maybe escape to the planet below…
7. Madness on Crait (no heroism allowed, part 2)
On Crait, and in a battle vaguely reminiscent of Hoth, the Resistance defends against an attack of AT-ATs. In old mining junkets, they try and fail to fight off the First Order until Finn, seeing no other option, launches a suicide run at the battering ram laser that is ready to blast through the base doors.
The scene is set, the music is moving, we have the close up of the heroes determined face… and at the last moment, he’s bumped out of the way by Rose, dooming the Resistance as the base doors are blasted wide open. Why? Because apparently, the directors of The Last Jedi have decided that heroism is an outdated, flawed ideal and that it’s much better to run away from a fight, even when all you hold dear is on the line.
This sequence is followed by Rey helping in the millenium falcon via a reskinned edit of the Deathstar run from Return of the Jedi. And then, the moment everyone was set to geek out over… Luke shows up to take on The Last Order single-handedly.
Only, it’s only a delaying tactic and he’s not really there. So his death from force exhaustion is pretty much pointless. Another failed attempt at heroism (is that 4 or 5 now?).
They end with Po realizing the importance of running away and Leia giving an approving nod, while Rey works the force like never before to easily lift a small mountain and allow their escape.
What would fans have liked instead?
Well, Finn’s sacrificial run could be spoiled by circumstance. Either the old ship falling apart, or his wing being clipped by a shot from an AT-AT. Almost anything would make more sense than what happened.
Also, was it too much for Luke to do some really cool force work? Bring in Rey to help out even. This sequence could have been a very cool force throw-down ala The Phantom Menace. But no. We didn’t get any of that.
Bonus Mess: Ghost Yoda’s lightning.
Yoda’s use of force lightning to destroy the tree was meant to be symbolic of burying the past. However, like much of the movie, it wasn’t thought through well. For example, this is the first time we’ve see a force ghost interact with the real world in a meaningful way (i.e. other than sitting on something). This implies that the force ghosts could become a military group — essentially unkillable jedi.
This, in conjunction with weaponized lightspeed from the space chase, has completely rewritten the Star Wars universe.
Why was The Last Jedi So Frustrating and Divisive?
I hope I’ve demonstrated my biggest problem with the movie. Essentially, the directors/producers had all the puzzle pieces in front of them, they had the potential for some very cool scenes and a story that fans would have universally loved. They just put the pieces together in the wrong order (and sometimes upside down).
How to fix it
Without stretching the point any further than necessary, here’s a general outline of the story, using the same or similar scenes that I believe would have made it much better. It relies on two ideas. First, allow heroes to be heroes. Second, get the pacing right.
Resistance is escaping the planet before bombardment by First Order can commence. Po leads a daring attack on the Dreadnought as a distraction. He takes it too far, deciding they can destroy the vessel. He ends up being right, but the cost is high and Leia chews him out as they jump to light speed.
Luke is reluctant to train Rey, but comes around when he sees her determination and prowess. He shows her some of what he’s learned from the ancient texts. (i.e. more on training and force, less on drinking space cow milk. I didn’t have issue with a fallen Luke, because he’s lost everything at this point — the academy, his trainees,… his daughter).
The First Order follows them through lightspeed and they realize they’re being tracked. Since there’s no way to track through lightspeed, there’s a traitor aboard. But no time to think as they’re under attack. Leia is blown into space and dies. Admiral Ackbar takes over but soon turns up dead, giving Po only a cryptic message as his last breath expires.
Admiral Holdo takes over and is determined to fix them on a course of running away while the ship is turned upside down looking for the traitor. Po and Finn don’t agree with the plan and hatch their own plan. Po, the expert pilot, will go to the nearby smugglers moon of Cantonica to find a black-market fuel source (smugglers would love to have the Resistance indebted to them) while Finn snoops around to find who the traitor is.
As they’re going over final details by the shuttle, the plan gets messed up when Rose interrupts, knocking Po unconscious. Finn explains, convincing her of the mission’s importance and short time frame. Finn can’t fly, but Rose can, so they take off, leaving Po to recover. But he’s captured by Holdo, who frames him.
Meanwhile, Snoke manipulates Rey and Kylo into meeting and draws to his ship. Luke says not to go, but she goes anyway. We see him looking after her with fatherly love and concern.
Finn and Rose have difficulty, finally acquiring fuel and transport, but are forced down to Crait by a bombardment from the First Order.
With help, Po escapes and pieces together Ackbar’s message, learning Holdo is the traitor. He confronts her with support and there is a battle. She’s killed, but the bridge is badly damaged and they have to evacuate to the planet below.
The Resistance lands at their hidden base, while squad of AT-ATs are sent to attack.
On Snoke’s ship, Rey arrives, and Kylo is sent to join the attack on the planet. He initially refuses, but the threat of Snoke’s power is too much and he leaves. Meanwhile, Chewbacca and porgs sneak through ship disabling systems.
The battle of Crait occurs below with Finn and Po fighting against the First Order while Rey is on the Flagship facing Snoke. In desperation, the Resistance sends for help and, shortly after, Luke arrives.
Using power like Kylos, he negates the AT-AT laser blasts and Kylo and Luke have an epic force duel, while Rey is combatting Snoke.
Then Snoke’s ship begins to explode from the inside out. Rey escapes while Snoke’s throne room becomes it’s own ship.
Rey and Chewbacca meet up and escape while Kylo’s anger finally wears down a weary Luke who accepts his fate and joins the force. Rey reaches the planet in time to finish off the remaining AT-ATs with the Millenium Falcon even as Kylo escapes in his own ship.
The Resistance is left decimated with only the three heroes a handful of soldiers and one ship.
Love it or hate it, I’m happy to hear any thoughts on the ideas present here.
Insight and Longevity,