STAR WARS: The Last Interesting Character
Let’s begin with the two most exciting moments of The Last Jedi. First is the fight scene between a dozen or so imperial guards and a Rey/Kylo duo. Second is where Vice Admiral Holdo splits the First Order Dreadnought in half by jumping to lightspeed. These scenes were fun to watch, unlike scenes of Luke fishing and milking thala-sirens. However, some poor choices by the writers stripped these exciting moments of needed emotional content.
Kylo and Rey’s fight scene, for instance, seemed entirely unnecessary because it took place after Supreme Commander Snoke was already dead. Why do his imperial guards bother to keep fighting? And what would happen if they won? Would they promote General Hux? Why can’t Kylo, now Supreme Commander, simply order them to stand down? These factors make the fight feel less impactful. It was as if Rey and Kylo were fighting for the fun of it.
A similar problem affected Vice Admiral Holdo’s moment. Before she chose to make the jump to lightspeed, Holdo had already decided to stay behind and die with her ship. Because she was already doomed, her choice to destroy the Dreadnought came across as a clever tactical idea rather than a heroic self-sacrifice. How much better would this moment have been if she had retained hope of escape up until the very moment she chose to turn the ship around? Or, better still, what if Leia had been the one to stay behind and do it? Such a thing might have elicited standing ovations!
These scenes could have been better. But, even as they were, they were welcome distractions from the larger problems that plagued the film. No, I’m not talking about Leia’s “Mary Poppins” flight through space, as awful as that was. I’m talking about deeper, systemic flaws.
Anyone who undertakes to make a new Star Wars movie has the difficult task of making something interesting and creative still feel like a Star Wars movie. If too much stays the same, the movie is stale. If too much is different, it no longer feels like Star Wars. Both sequels (episode VII and VIII) attempted to thread this needle, but in exactly the wrong way. Directors Abrams and Johnson get creative with what needs continuity, and rehash what needs to change.
One of the major reasons many people consider Return of the Jedi to be inferior to the first two Star Wars films (despite cool elements like Boba Fett, Jabba the Hutt, and metal bikinis), was that it rehashed the plot of A New Hope by having the Rebels blow up another Death Star. The new sequels compounded this problem.
In “The Force Awakens”, J. J. Abrams rehashed the plot of A New Hope yet again, complete with a new Tatooine (Jakku), a new Han (Poe Dameron), a new Empire (First Order), a new Emperor (Snoke), and a new Death Star (Starkiller Base). In The Last Jedi, Abrams and Rian Johnson rehashed much of the plot of The Empire Strikes Back: the Rebel Alliance (Resistance) stranded on ice planet Hoth (Crait), pursued by Star Destroyers, AT-ATs, and Vader (Kylo), while Luke Skywalker (Rey) heads to distant and trippy planet Degobah (Anch-To) to find Yoda (Luke) and be trained in the Force. This plot was in desperate need of some fresh new ideas. And, sadly, this is where creativity was most absent.
The directors instead chose to get creative in areas they should have left alone. They messed with the physics of the Star Wars universe, making bullets and bombs strangely affected by gravity, and having ships burst into open flames in space. They changed the mechanics and meaning of “the Force”, which I will talk more about below. And, worst of all, they irreparably marred the story-arcs of major characters. These are precisely the elements which should have been left alone for the sake of continuity.
The reason people watch new Star Wars films is because they want to step back into the universe they know and love from the original films and meet their beloved characters on new adventures. Instead, those watching The Last Jedi hear the same adventure story told with different characters, and set in a universe that doesn’t quite jive with the original trilogy.
I find it difficult to love ruffian-turned-hero Han Solo after Disney transformed him into a deadbeat father. Leia Organa as galactic mother-figure hardly lives up to the feisty and self-sufficient princess who fell for bad boys. I nearly gagged in the theatre when Chewbacca, once a bounty-hunter’s frightening-but-lovable guard-dog, became a bleeding-heart vegetarian. Luke as a self-loathing hermit was humorous, but this new comic relief character has little in common with the eager-student-turned-warrior from the original trilogy.
Whatever you like about these characters now, it’s not what you liked about them in the originals. They feel different. Space feels different. The Force feels different. The Resistance feels different. Something has changed.
The Galaxy Changed
The backdrop of the original Star Wars trilogy was the Rebellion’s struggle to restore an old republican political system that a tyrant had usurped and turned into an Empire. The Old Republic was kept in balance by an aristocratic class of warrior monks, whose wisdom and sensitivity to a universal Force enabled them to maintain a spiritual balance in the galaxy.
In this old framework, it mattered that Luke went to Yoda to be trained, because Yoda possessed a necessary wisdom that enabled Luke to become a “true Jedi”. It mattered that the remnants of the Rebellion survived the Empire’s attack, because this remnant was what possessed the memory of the old order and the hope that it could be restored.
Contrast all of that with the backdrop of The Last Jedi:
There is a looming class conflict between the rich/powerful and the poor/downtrodden. In the words of Luke Skywalker, this war is “only just beginning” in the eighth volume of a nine-volume movie series. Luke teaches us that the troubles facing the Resistance in its current form are actually the fault of the Jedi religion itself, which means that the First Order is merely the “dark side” of an old system which needs to die out entirely.
In this new framework, it doesn’t matter that Rey goes to Luke to be trained. As Yoda explains to Luke, the Jedi texts “contain nothing that Rey does not already possess”. It also doesn’t matter that the entire Resistance fleet and army are destroyed by the First Order. As Leia opines, a Resistance with twelve survivors still has everything it needs. After all, the sole purpose of the Resistance was to be a “spark” that ignites the inevitable galaxy-wide struggle.
Whether you like this new framework or not, it entirely destroys the old one. The original trilogy’s focus on the Skywalker family is reinterpreted as mere “vanity”, as new Luke now explains. No one needs a Skywalker. We now know that The Force can attach to anyone, regardless of lineage or birthplace, or even religion. What makes characters “good” or “bad” has changed as well.
Good guys let animals out of captivity. Good guys won’t eat poultry, even if it has already been cooked (fish is okay, though). Good guys enjoy indiscriminately destroying rich people’s luxury items. These factors do not cohere into an intelligible morality, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that these actions were driven by compassion.
Bad guys are rich and powerful. They smoke cigars. They gamble. They ride yachts. They mistreat horses. But it is the rich part that really matters. Riches are evidence of guilt. As Rose Tico says to Finn, the only way to get that rich is to exploit the resources of the poor and sell weapons to evil empires (and the supposed good guys). The implication is that only a person who has deadened themselves to compassion could possibly live like that.
The simplest explanation for this new ideological framework for The Last Jedi is that it was intentionally imposed by the director and producer, who share Disney’s WASP-ish Unitarian religious views and generic Left-wing political sensibilities. This explains why the doctrine and dogmatism of the old Jedi orders must die. This explains why the characters in the film can simply assume that any random poor and downtrodden person in the galaxy (especially a child) will be virtuous (and, thus, on the side of Resistance), as Rose correctly and safely assumes about the orphaned children on Cantonica. This also explains why the survival of the Resistance fleet is unnecessary, since the progressive understanding of history views the actions of individuals as less important than widely distributed social forces (pardon the pun).
The new slogan for the Resistance should be: “Poor orphans of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a galaxy to win!”
Toxic Masculinity as Sub-plot
If you follow the story arc of Poe Dameron, another theme emerges that is worth examining directly. The first thing to notice is that the surviving leadership of the Resistance is entirely female, while the leadership of the First Order is a patriarchy. By itself, this would mean nothing. But the meaning becomes apparent as you follow Poe Dameron’s character development.
Poe is a typical Rebel hero. He leads a team of X-wing fighters into battle to destroy major imperial vessels. The fight scenes are deliberately reminiscent of the original trilogy. But we are no longer supposed to feel good about this kind of fighting. Leia has counseled against Poe’s warrior instincts, and calls off Poe’s battle plan. When Poe carries the plan to successful completion anyway, Leia pensively reflects on the heavy casualties. Then she rebukes and demotes Poe for valuing victory over Resistance lives.
After Leia later becomes injured, a new female officer takes her place. Her name is Admiral Holdo, and she is a warrior so famous that Poe has heard stories of her valor. The movie makes clear when he first sees her that he is surprised that she is a woman. His first words to the Admiral are an attempt to “mansplain” the current battle situation to her. The Admiral rebukes him sarcastically (“so kind of you to make me aware”). Poe demands to know her plan, but Holdo refuses to tell him. Poe responds by throwing a violent fit.
Thus begins a major subplot of the film: the misguided coup of an uppity male pilot who refuses to respect the leadership of his female overlord. Of course Poe’s plans fail.
In a stroke of what (to feminist viewers) probably feels like justice for Poe’s many misogynist microaggressions, Leia blasts him with a stun-gun, leaving him lifeless until the Resistance plans are complete. As underlings carry away Poe’s body, Holdo and Leia turn to each other and both agree that they “like him”, demonstrating to the audience that their act of violence against Poe was done out of maternal love, and for his own good. When Poe finally wakes, Leia lovingly “womansplains” to him what the plan was really all about, and Poe admits his mistake.
Poe, having learned his lesson, soon gets the chance to teach that lesson to someone else. In the battle against the “battering ram cannon”, newly “woke” Poe takes the place of Leia, while Finn becomes the new unenlightened Poe. As Leia had done earlier, Poe calls off an attack due to heavy casualties and a high probability of failure. Finn, concerned only for victory, decides to sacrifice himself for the greater good, against Poe’s orders. Rose then swoops in and saves Finn from his own toxic masculinity. “I saved you, dummy!”, she explains.
Now the movie gives us the moral: you shouldn’t “fight what you hate” (masculinity), you should “save what you love” (femininity). In other words, masculine violence perpetuates wars and is evil. Feminine violence is a good thing, like a loving mother-bear protecting her young, sometimes even from themselves.
The final stroke of feminist awakening comes when Poe figures out that Luke Skywalker must also be feminist. Poe and the audience had assumed that Luke was powerfully resisting the First Order. But Poe now realizes that something else must be going on. Luke’s valor must be feminist in some way. Aha! He’s not fighting what he hates; he’s saving what he loves! Luke wants us to escape!
Poe then takes the lead in the escape. When he says “follow me!”, everyone looks to Leia for approval. She gives a maternal nod, and grants feminist Poe the right to lead again, by saying, “What are you looking at me for? Follow him.”
Do you remember how much the prequels stunk? Yoda was jumping around. Jar-jar was being stupid. Every fight scene destroyed thousands of droids that looked like they were designed to fall apart. George Lucas created a cartoonish world fit for children, and there was simply no way a reasonable person could become emotionally invested in it.
The Last Jedi did not live up to anyone’s expectations for a similar reason. The world created by Abrams and Johnson is cartoonish in its own way. It’s cartoonish because real people don’t act the way Leftist professors and academic feminists would want them to. The stifling ideology of the new Resistance makes every good character uninteresting, by making them unrealistic.
On the flip side, Kylo Ren’s realism is grasping everyone’s attention. Like most men, he craves power, status and recognition. He lashes out with angry childish tantrums, which is precisely how a boy without a father might behave. Snoke’s power appeals to him, and he follows it regardless of the pleas of his mother. And yet his conscience won’t let him pull the trigger against her, even though he proved capable of killing his deadbeat father. And then he suddenly throws away everything he had been working toward for the sake of a connection to a pretty girl, killing the Supreme Commander who empowered him. Fascinating. Believable.
Because of the appeal of Kylo, audiences everywhere are misinterpreting Rey’s character away from what the writers intended her to be and toward something they see as more realistic. The writers intended Rey to be a peer to Kylo, equal in her own right, and an antagonist. This was typified by their evenly matched force battle over a lightsaber that split in two. The directors tried hard to depict Rey as immune to Kylo’s Dark Side overtures. Her request for Kylo to put his shirt on was supposed to seem flippant and dismissive of Kylo’s masculinity.
But this intended characterization of Rey proved too unrealistic. To prove it, imagine Rey in a relationship with Finn, or even Poe. The directors might support such an idea, but it just doesn’t seem right to viewers. Everyone watching knows that a pretty orphan girl like Rey would be susceptible to falling in love with Kylo, whatever her beliefs about good and evil might be. It is not surprising, then, that many observers already sexualize their force connection. No matter how stoic Rey’s reaction to the sight of Kylo’s pectorals, the audience was ready to interpret her as flustered.
Misinterpreted Rey is more interesting than intended Rey, just as Kylo Ren is more interesting than Poe Dameron or any of the other Resistance characters (with the possible exception of BB8). If the writers continue the pattern laid down in The Last Jedi, forcing unrealistic ideology onto the Resistance, the audience will continue to identify with the realistic and human character of Kylo Ren. They’ll subconsciously root for him to get the girl and will dread the thought of him learning his lesson, becoming “woke” to his toxic masculinity, and submitting to his mother’s condescending matriarchal tyranny.
Episode IX might need an inordinate number of “kick the dog” scenes to prevent entire audiences – especially the boys – from turning to the Dark Side.
* The other reason was, of course, the “Ewoks” (“wookies” in pig-latin), a tribe of aboriginal warrior teddy bears who implausibly destroy imperial mechs.
** Yes, I realize that Captain Phasma, a low-level First Order leader, is a woman. However, we learn at the end of the movie that she is a white woman, which puts her lower on the intersectional hierarchy than Finn, who is a black man. This allows Finn to kill her.