Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Very Strange Failure: Some Thoughts on The Last Jedi.

I’m not going to lie.  I never had a really good vibe when I heard they were making more Star Wars sequels.  Part of it is just temperamental, I didn’t think there was much else you could do with the story, or its characters.  All Harrison Ford’s exit from the franchise did was confirm my misgivings.  Because of the personal letdown that was The Force Awakens, I went into The Last Jedi with no great hope that anything would work out.  The whole “this was a bad idea” vibe was still with me even before the sequel came out.  Then there was the movie itself.

What did I think?  Well, I can’t call it a good film in any objective sense.  I know I was letdown.  I wondered (for a time, at least) if I was still a fan of this series.  The irony came later, when I had a chance to really sit down and think about the film as an objective whole.  After giving it a lot of thought, I have just one question.  Did the filmmaker’s actually want the movie to fail?  I know how that sounds, and it’s still the same question I always get drawn back to.
What made me ask in the first place was the growing awareness of the specific type of writing going with The Last Jedi.  It helps to understand what I’m talking about when you remember that the traditional elements in storytelling mostly boil down to just three concepts.  These are: Setup, Conflict, and Resolution.  Modern Hollywood seems uneasy with the last point.  I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles, however, that The Last Jedi is the first film I’ve seen where the writer appears determined to sabotage the narrative at every single step of the way.  The script actually reads as if the screenwriter wanted to ruin his own career by penning the most incomprehensible film in cinematic history.

The way the TLJ script goes about this is to take a basic setup, and then complicate and monkey-wrench the scenario with plot developments that do one of the following; (a) make no sense from a strategic point of view; (b) painting situations into inexplicable corners, and then refusing to fix any and all plot holes once they’ve been created; (c) making creative decisions that could be construed as being the exact opposite of their stated intent.

To take things in order, let’s unpack these three points one at a time, starting with:

The Dumbest Fictional Armies of All Time.

When they think of a great military leader, Americans will often point to figures like George Washington, or Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.  These men are exemplars for different, yet equally valid reasons. 
Washington was not without a sense of personal ambition.  However, this was always tempered by his experiences as a soldier in the British Army.  The constant short-sighted nature of his commanding officers was always made apparent, so that it was something Washington could never forget.  More to the point, he was aware of how the incompetence of the C.O.’s was often passed down to the grunts, when it was the mistaken thought of the officers that resulted in so much wasted life and effort.  Because of having these early learning experiences drummed into him time and again, Washington was able to learn both a genuine humility, as well as a practical experience he was able to put to good use once he started to help create the first American Armed Forces.  It is because he was able to learn from mistakes that Washington ultimately became such an effective leader on the field of battle. 

Eisenhower’s achievements lie in the way of being able to gain as thorough an understanding of his opponents as possible, in order to out-guess and out-flank them.  This is most evident in Ike’s skirmishes with Field Marshall Irwin Rommel.  Eisenhower would go so far as to keep both photographs, as well as copies of Rommel’s military records with him wherever he went, just for the sake of keeping in mind the psychology of his adversary.  This had two benefits.  On the one hand, Ike would be able to gain an actual working knowledge of Rommel, to the point where he could anticipate the Field Marshal’s next move, and act so as to gain the upper hand.  At the same time, none of this would have been possible if Eisenhower hadn’t had enough respect for his enemy.  Because he was able to develop a proper understanding of his enemies on the field of battle, Eisenhower was able to see which strategic choices meant a path to victory, and which to avoid.

In addition to this, Eisenhower also knew how to treat his subordinates in a way that inspired both loyalty, as well as group morale.  I can remember watching a D-Day documentary in which an old British soldier recalled being on passport inspection duty, and he ran across Gen. Ike.  “I'm sorry, sir”, the soldier told him, nervous as hell, “but I’ll have to see some ID”.  To which Ike simply handed over his papers, chuckled, and said “That’s alright son, you’re just doing you’re job”.

This anecdote is important, for it does have a reflection, albeit twisted and warped, in the form of the old Expanded Universe character, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  If Admiral Ackbar is the closest the franchise has to a George Washington or Ike, then Thrawn is something like Rommel.  Thrawn is not without a sense of ruthlessness, yet he was also a disciplined tactician.  He knew that more could be accomplished with simple hit-and-fade strike operations, than the needless waste of an all-out assault.  In addition, Thrawn knew when to encourage both loyalty and high morale for his troops.  It’s therefore a shame to see a character as intelligent as Ackbar dumbed down for the sake of such an ill-defined creative goal.

One of the strengths of the Original Trilogy is that there were parts of the plot that at least had a modicum connection to real life military campaigns.  It’s true there is a great deal of separation between real armies and make-believe ones, and it is a mistake to expect realism in works of fiction in general.  Still, the Originals still knew how to draw inspiration from real life military battles in a way that was able draw audiences in, based on a recognizability between Rogue Squadron and real-life Air Force exploits.

In contrast, the battles in The Last Jedi are little more than a military tactician’s worst nightmare.  What is seen on-screen goes beyond any concept of poor planning.  This like Ike going to bed the day before the D-Day assault and waking up to find all the Allies had been replaced with Nazis and vice-versa.  Dozens of examples have been cited by others, such as the inability of a bomber to drop its load in a zero-gravity environment.  That and the puzzling question of how a person can open a hanger into one great vacuum and not automatically strangle to death and get sucked out into to space at the same time. Other examples to cite: multiple instances of the bad guys not taking advantage of a situation and just opening fire when their opponents are defenseless, not sending one half of your army ahead to cut off the resistance at their rendezvous point, thus blocking them in on all sides, the First Order succeeding despite all the commanding officers having the military skill of a Three Stooges short.  “And so it goes”.  However, these flaws barely scratch the surface of what’s wrong with this film.

Nonsensical Plotting and Characterization.

While it is easy to cite all the gaffs and leaps in logic that the story requires, these are just bits and pieces of a greater problem.  The greatest insight I took away from TLJ is that it all seemed like a made to order failure.  In other words (this is going to sound crazy), I just can’t shake the idea that the screenwriter (whether it be Rian Johnson or some anonymous ghost author) always wrote himself in to a corner on purpose.  Whoever wrote this garbage knew it was tripe from the very first line.  For whatever reason, that seems to have been the motivating drive for the author, and maybe even the director.

I can already anticipate the possible objections to this premise.  Why would someone deliberately set himself up for failure?  Isn’t that just poor business sense?  The answer is that of course it’s a mistake to try to crash and burn on purpose, especially in a Post-Recovery economy.  None of this changes the fact that the film always sets up a scene, and it’s characters, with each new scene, only to bring all the action to an irrecoverable halt.  We need Luke Skywalker to save the day?  Well, he never wanted to be found because of “reasons”.  Our heroes are running out of fuel, and they need some plan to throw the bad guys off their trail?  Well, we’re not going to take any smart course of action, or do anything like craft a workable strategy to fight back or anything, even if, especially because, everyone’s life is the line.  All these creative choices show the guiding thread weaving through the whole film’s runtime.  

Everybody makes the choice that guarantees failure.  All characters must try and pass the buck before everything else.  Under no circumstance must any character try and assume and shoulder a genuine responsibility.  Under such a bass-ackward code of ethics, the one logical creative choice would be to reveal that the good guys we’re outnumbered from very start by a cadre of spies who we’re secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes, all the while steering guilt-racked and grief-stricken Leia further on to a dead-end trap from which she couldn’t escape.  It might be a downer ending, but at least such a scenario would help make a kind of sense out of two bloody hours many audiences will never get back.  In addition, the right way of handling this scenario would make a repeat viewing more suspenseful as audiences tried to piece together who was in on the act, and which actions were designed to make the Resistance fail.  It would also create the necessary suspense to leave things on a cliff-hanger, leaving the audience wanting more, and eager for the release of the ninth episode in the series.
Of course, none of this is what happens in the finished product.  Instead, we’re left with the same fact.  The story is pushed further into one big plot-hole from which nothing can be salvaged.  We’re also left with the uncomfortable feeling that the whole film was written with the intention of not only digging the pit, but also lying in it.  If there is any validity to that idea, then all I can do is sit and wonder why would an artist want to craft such a non-success in the first place?  What mind set could be so off-kilter as to perform an act artistic self-sabotage?  The most immediate takeaway is that whoever wrote this must be some kind of sociopath.  Where I’m supposed to go beyond such ruminations I just don't know.  I would need to know a lot more than what Disney or the filmmakers are giving us at the moment.  What I can say with a fair degree of certainty is that right now Star Wars seems to be in the care of people who don’t know what they’ve got on their hands.

That sort of begs the question though.  Just what is Star Wars?  What does it mean in terms of the kind of story it is, and its effects the culture at large?  Well, I’ve thought about that.  While I can’t say I have all the answers, I did at least find an opportunity to listen to something which helped me clarify just what drew people to the OT in the first place.  Since I don’t want to leave this series of posts on a sour note, and a bitter taste in the mind, I’d like to spend a few more essays on this topic by outlining a concept that might help clarify the question of why we fell for a place I now prefer to think of these days as The Far-Far Away.  In doing so, I’d also like to offer a few ideas that just might help clarify the age-old question of canon.  Stick around if you want the possibility of cleansing your pallet after such a hard slog.  Till next time, May the Force be with you.


  1. In my opinion, it's the third-best movie in the franchise, behind only the first two.

    1. Well, at least you got more out of it than I did.

      I'm still not entirely finished with this series, yet thankfully, the finish line is somewhere in sight.

      I'll get to future posts in this series soon enough, right now I'm just giving this post some more time me to see what kind of responses it generates. I wouldn't be surprised if I just walked into a minefield.

      C'est la vie.


    2. The entire internet is one big minefield, so far as I can tell. but the subject of Star Wars does seem to be especially dense with mines these days, no doubt about it.

  2. I haven't seen TLJ but TFA hasn't aged well in my head. (And I didn't see SOLO or ROGUE ONE, either.)

    Interesting parallels drawn with Rommel and Eisenhower and Washington, though. I'll keep that in mind when I eventually sit down to watch it.

    1. Spoiler alert. Ol' Ack takes the dirt nap and...Mary Poppins in Space. I wish I was making that up.

      As for "Rogue One", I knew something was wrong when the main cast took their final bow, and instead of tears in my eyes, my thought was something like, "Wait, huh?.....(snorts) Jerks."

      At least someone got a good parody trailer out of it, though:


    2. My argument on these would be:

      (1) Ackbar isn't a character; he's a makeup and a voice. He's lucky he even got to be in these new movies.

      (2) The "Mary Poppins" thing is actually one of my favorite parts of the movie. Leia is blown out into space, presumably dead. But no, her Force powers -- can't call 'em Jedi powers, exactly, I guess -- kick in and she literally plucks herself out of death's clutches. In this moment, she reveals herself to be MASSIVELY powerful, but in a very different way to any other Force-sensitive we've ever seen. I'll admit the staging of it does make her look a wee bit like Mary Poppins, but I'm unable to see that as a negative thing.

      (3) Pretty much the only things I didn't like about "Rogue One" were Forrest Whittaker, CGI Tarkin, and CGI Leia. I get why you'd swing for the fences with those digital characters; I'd also argue that if you couldn't do better than that, you should probably just recast.

      Otherwise, though, good flick.

      It's certainly not universally popular, though. My friend Trey (who passed away this summer at much too young an age) thought it was a complete bore.

    3. I feel I'm missing some jokes with that trailer, but I chuckled a few times.

      Some of the things I've read about the new SW movies really perplex me. Like, the idea that making "so many" standalone movies is a bad thing or what not. That one got started and then became part of an echo chamber and it just seemed to never make any sense. Who cares how many standalone movies they make? I don't understand that one. If you don't want to see it, don't go see it, sheesh; problem solved. But this was like an actively debated topic, day in and day out.

      Anyway, to be completely honest, I really have little interest in new iterations of both Star Wars or Star Trek. I wish everyone well. There's a type of Star Wars fan (the "OMG MY LIFE IS COMPLETE NOW THAT THERE'S NEW STAR WARS!" social media poster) that depresses, annoys, and kind of offends me all in equal measure. I overstate / exaggerate. I DO wish everyone well, including this sort of SW fan, it's just a posturing I'll never understand.

  3. Speaking of Thrawn, I'm reminded of one of the frequently-cited reasons why the new Star Wars movies are disliked: their discarding of the EU. I can't consider myself an EU fan, exactly; but I was at one point in time, and I can pinpoint for you precisely when that point in time began -- the day "Heir to the Empire" was released. That book was a BIG deal, because it seemed that there were never going to be any more Star Wars movies, and Lucas had publicly stated (or so I remember it) that these were the legit sequels.

    I haven't read any of those books in a long time, but "Heir to the Empire" and its two followups were thrilling as can be at the time. And some of the other books and comics that came after were just as good. Eventually, I dropped off the bandwagon; the quality dipped significantly, plus there were just too many of them to keep up with. But I retain a fondness for the best of that stuff, even though I don't really remember much about them.

    So for all that to be tossed out kind of is a tough pill to swallow. I get it. But adapting them into movie form was impossible given the ages of the original actors, so that was never going to happen; plus, it's just not how movie franchising works.

    That said, I would still be in favor of Disney someday making a series of animated movies based on the best of those EU stories. Or, someday when the inevitable reboot of the entire saga happens, maybe those could be used to fuel a different take on Episodes VII-IX.

    1. I can remember where I was when I first spotted a copy of "Heir to the Empire". It was in a chain called "Book Stop", one of those old brick and mortar franchises that got pushed out of the market (not that I'm bitter or anything!).

      The copyright date for "Heir" says it was released in 1991, so that must have been when I ran across it. It featured images of the Big Three, plus an image of a guy who looked like, but really wasn't Obi Wan Kenobi. I think my reaction was a mixture of, "Huh, whuuhhhh?", and, "Hmm, I wonder what that's about". Pretty inauspicious as far as taking an interest is concerned, but it seems to have paid off.

      I have a bit more to say about the EU in a future post. This is one of those deals that seem to take on a life of their own, I'm afraid. Overall, I'm in favor of it, though I'm not without criticisms, but none of them have been like the ones I've had for "Dis-Wars".

      On some other level of the Tower, the bad guys of the "Thrawn Trilogy" would be voiced by either Benedict Cumberbatch or John De Lancie, and Christopher Loyd respectively.

      As for animated adaptations, well...:



    2. I'd read about "Heir to the Empire" in advance of its release. I don't remember how soon after that I got a copy, but it was either on release day or very soon thereafter. I was on a day trip to Atlanta with some friends; if I'm not mistaken, we went to see "What About Bob?" while we were there. I think this was also the trip where I first found a copy of the "Conan the Barbarian" soundtrack -- on cassette! -- to buy after looking for it forever. Good times.

      I remember thinking the guy on the cover -- Joruus C'Baoth, right? -- looked like a Kenobi, too. He wasn't, but I remember thinking he was kind of cool anyways.

    3. C'baoth, yeah, that's the guy. Timothy Zahn released an annotated version of "Heir" a while back. He said he wanted to make the character an actual insane clone of Alec Guinness's character, believe it or not. The higher ups told him it was a bad idea, though he kept fighting for it, for a while.

      The idea sounds a bit interesting on paper, however, I don't think it's something you could pull off. I think it would have just confused and upset people a bit too much. Since I can't find any real complaints about the books as published, I'd say the higher ups made the right call, this time, at least.


    4. Just remember.

      "What about Bob", like "Ghostbusters 2", is one of those sadly neglected in Bill Murray's illustrious career, if ya ask me.


    5. I think it's a movie that nobody dislikes -- but for whatever reason, it does feel like it's been forgotten. Which is strange; it was a hit at the time, and by all rights ought to be considered a classic. I mean, Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss, Frank Oz ... what's not to like?

      I also like the movie that was sandwiched between this and Ghostbusters 2. Nobody remembers that one: Quick Change. But it's a lot of fun.

      Incidentally, I agree about the decision to NOT have C'Baoth be a Kenobi clone. It's an interesting idea, but I kind of enjoy when stories like this make their universe bigger. Having that character be a Kenobi makes it smaller. For the same reason, I don't need or want Rey to be a Skywalker, a Kenobi, a Calrissian, a Palpatine, or anyone other than a girl from nowhere.

    6. Haven't seen quick change yet, though it is on my "to watch" list.


    7. I always thought Weird Al should have done a parody of "What About Bob?" set to Heart's "What About Life." Sometimes I (attempt to) amuse my wife with improvising such a thing - it's been one of my "Dad Jokes for Husbands" for years. I enjoy that movie.

      You guys inspired me to hunt through my boxes for the Star Wars EU books I have. I've never read any of them, but I have that trilogy of short stories (Tales from Mos Eisley, Jabba's Palace, of the Bounty Hunters), the Bounty Hunters war trilogy, the original Zahn trilogy (Heir to the Empire and the 2 that followed), X Wing Rogue Squadron and X Wing Wedge's Gamble.

      If I were to focus on any of them, which should I read?

    8. And definitely see "Quick Change!"

    9. I would say the Zahn trilogy is definitely worth the read. Also, i would recommend the Dark Empire audiobook. It features Billy Dee Williams as Lando. I'll have more to say on that one later on.