ANALYSIS: The Last Jedi, Failure, and How Not to Write a Story (Part 1 of 5)

There are plenty of things wrong with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly advise you not to.  If you like Star Wars, this film insultingly treats you like a retard and seems to have been written by people who haven’t seen any of the previous eight films that bear the title—not even The Force Awakens.  If you dislike Star Wars already, the film isn’t coherent enough to be appropriate as an attack on the franchise, either.  Worse than being a jumbled, incompetent mess, the film seems to be a joke at the audience’s expense, treating them mostly as idiots too stupid to notice contradictions in what is said versus what is depicted.

With a film so baffling in its shortcomings, so massive in its budget, and so highly-profiled as a flagship title of seemingly the largest movie studio in the world, it’s been curious seeing the defenses its proponents have tried to prop it up with.  Most of them rank along the “It’s just a movie, bro. Turn your brain off!” Marvel-style dismissals, which just about lobotomizes storytelling right off the bat.  Claims that Star Wars doesn’t always make sense and halfhearted attempts to compare this film’s incoherence with some minor details from the other trilogies usually devolves into the same sort of assertions: you aren’t supposed to spend time trying to understand what you’re enjoying.  Naturally, this pits the act of enjoying something directly against the act of understanding something, which anyone with an IQ above room temperature knows is complete nonsense.

But leaving aside assumptions that fantastical children’s stories don’t have to make some form of sense, there’s another implication: that the original Star Wars never made any sense either, and so any new Star Wars films as abhorrently absurd as The Last Jedi are simply doing the Star Wars thing so long as they have lightsabers and the Millennium Falcon.  This of course is nonsense, but contemporary audiences have grown so ignorant as to understanding what it means for a story to make sense that it’s come to be somewhat expected.  The old Star Wars movies may have had their inconsistencies in plot details or character minutiae, but they fundamentally made sense; there was a coherent moral framework and an understandable teleology at play.  Characters did things for reasons that made sense, their mistakes and their triumphs fit realistically in with the nature of their characterization, and the unfolding story worked to depict the epic struggle between good and evil, even while it explored the intricate ways in which these forces interact with the human heart.

The Last Jedi, as with The Force Awakens before it, depicts nothing so familiar.  But while in The Force Awakens it could be said that the absence of familiar themes involving good and evil, self-assertion, and moral coherence was due to writer’s oversight and being more interested in the façade of telling a story, the same can’t be said for The Last Jedi.  Quite the contrary: The Last Jedi not only brings up the familiar archetypes that built Star Wars, but then not-so-subtly attempts to subvert them.  In doing so, it subverts the very relevancy it has and reveals itself to be a movie in which nothing is learned, because nothing is sensible.

In defense of this problem, those who enjoyed it seem to think that the film is a meditation on failure.  To be sure, failure pops up everywhere in the movie.  The irony is that it fails even at being this.  The Last Jedi lifts a lot of cues from its spiritual predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back, the biggest of which being the archetypal nature of being the second act in a three-act trilogy.  Failure is crucial to the success of any second act.  It has to naturally lead to character developments, though.

Ruminations on failure don’t have to result in bad stories.  Quite the contrary; the failure of a protagonist to achieve his goals heightens drama by revealing his fallibility.  A main character who never fails at anything he does never has to mature, and if he never has to mature, then there’s no substantive reason for the audience to invest themselves in his success.  The story doesn’t make him someone for the audience to root for.  It’s worth noting that static characters have their place in fiction, and in general, contemporary narratives are chock-full of them—thrillers, mysteries, and action-adventure plots can function fine enough with characters who are little more than tools of the plot.  Star Wars, however, as it came to be defined in the Original Trilogy and later the Prequels, isn’t one of those narratives.  The characters have to grow and the story has to make sense.  That’s the whole reason we’re watching it.

On that note, the second act of three is usually the darkest because it most depends upon the failure of key protagonists and the success of their opposition.  In the Lord of the Rings, the second book ends with Sam and Frodo having failed one another, Gollum’s moral failing, and more viscerally, Frodo having been stabbed by a giant spider and captured by orcs.  In a slightly more relevant example, The Empire Strikes Back ends with Luke having failed to rescue his friends, quit his training, and dramatically lost his first major engagement with the Dark Side of the Force.

But in both cases, these failures lead places and move along the plot.  Luke, after the events of Empire, is in a worse position than he was before—but he has a more nuanced understanding of the Force, a better grasp of Darth Vader as his enemy, and a deeper respect for the warnings and teachings he received from Yoda.  This all pays off when he willingly surrenders himself to Vader prior to their climactic dual before the Emperor.  Luke, wary of the Dark Side, yet inflamed by both the Emperor’s and Vader’s taunts, succumbs to his passions and actually overpowers his Father with brute strength.  But it was the experience of his previous failure that stays his hand and grants him that moment of clarity necessary for him to defeat his real enemy.  Throwing his lightsaber aside, he breaks the dialectic the Emperor forced him and Vader into, and he builds a new one in which Vader redeems himself, Luke is saved from death, and the Emperor is hurled into a giant pit.  But it was only Luke’s failure at the end of Empire that makes Luke’s reasoning and development here come across realistically, and in fact, that makes the entire scene relevant to the audience.

Failure only carries weight when the audience expects the characters to grow from the experience and learn from their mistakes.  That’s the very definition of a character having an arc—they begin at one point in their lives, and through a series of events, they are forced to change their ways and bend their moral fortitude toward virtue.  A protagonist falling into darkness and submitting to evil is relevant to an audience only when we know that he can be redeemed.  When there’s no expectation of redemption, the character becomes little more than a threatening set piece with some dialogue.  And you can get away with that as a villain, but not as a protagonist.

You can probably guess where I’m going with all of this.  The Last Jedi is a movie about failure in which no one seems to learn anything, and worse, the lessons they are supposed to learn directly contradict what the action suggests are the real morals.  The Last Jedi seems like it attempts to subvert the classic structure of the play’s second act, and to some extent perhaps it does.  But in doing so, it reminds us of all the reasons why the classic second act is structured the way it is.  Having characters fail for the reasons depicted in The Last Jedi is neither clever nor interesting; it reeks instead of literary incompetence.  In fact, this pattern is so specific as to come across as intentional, as if director Rian Johnson was purposefully showing us that he and his crew could have made a real movie, but decided very deliberately to instead play a prank on you, the audience.

With this in mind, I intend to address the main plots of the film by looking at the central characters involved.  This analysis will be divided up into several parts.  The first part will address Poe’s and Finn’s arcs and how the theme of failure undercuts any sensible moral relevancy to their stories.  Then I will address Rey’s and Kylo’s arcs and how failure relates to their understanding of each other, themselves, and the Force.  After that, I’ll address Luke’s role in the story, his struggle with the dogmatic principles of the Jedi code, his failure as a mentor, and the contradictions raised between the Luke of The Last Jedi and the Luke of The Return of the Jedi.  The final part of this analysis will briefly review the overall themes and moral consequences of each particular character’s arc and the troubling implications that this has for contemporary audiences.

Stay tuned for a wild ride.

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