(Spoiler warning: I will discuss aspects of the most recent Star Wars film as if my readers have seen it or simply don’t care if I ruin it, so if you wish to see the film and not know what happens before you go, stop reading, go see the movie, and come back and read this afterwards)
I have undertaken to write an apology for Star Wars. No, not that kind of apology. An apology, as in a defense. I must begin by clarifying that I do not consider myself a huge fan of Star Wars; I’m still not sure that I’ve watched A New Hope beginning to end in one sitting. I enjoy the movies moderately and therefore am fairly level-headed when it comes to assessing them. I have no particular love for them that makes me idealize them in my mind, nor do I have such high or low expectations that those color my surprise or disappointment at whether they exceed or fail to meet my expectations.
But recently I went with my brother and my kids to watch The Last Jedi, and I left pleased with the film. The next day on Facebook, however, I found several posts, articles, and comments that criticized the film heavily. Many commented that “nothing” happened, or they had other disapproving thoughts on the plot. Other comments said the handling of Luke’s character was shameful. Still others thought the character development pitiful. Each person certainly has his or her own tastes, and I am the first to admit that I am often mocked for mine when it comes to movies I can tell you stories of my preference of Maleficent over Forrest Gump and nearly anything over most Superhero movies. But being entertained by a movie and recognizing its objective quality or lack thereof are different things. I enjoy Maleficent more than Forrest Gump, but I don’t think for a moment that Maleficent is even in the same ballpark of quality as Forrest Gump is. Regarding The Last Jedi, I have no problem if someone doesn’t like the movie or find it entertaining. But I would disagree vehemently with those who says it lacks plot, character development, literary quality, or overall objective “goodness.” I was surprised by the number of negative reviews of the film, particularly with respect to these categories, because I did like the film, and precisely because of its plot, character development, and literary quality.
So, since I foolishly told some friends on Facebook I would write an article, here it is. Rather than writing a typical review, however, I have focused my attention specifically on the “literary merit” of the film; that is, I aim to show how Star Wars: The Last Jedi successfully represents elements typically identified as vital for a Great Book. I will begin with certain literary qualities such as plot, character development, and literary devices/techniques. Then I will consider certain themes that the movie promotes that coincide well with the Great Ideas of the Great Books throughout history.
I think that the plot is criticized unfairly because of certain expectations about good plot that I actually don’t think constitute good plot. What I mean is, we have become trained (incorrectly I would say) that good plot equals maximum action. The Superhero genre is perhaps most to blame for this phenomenon as those movies tend towards fight scene after fight scene. They are entertaining and fun, and there is nothing wrong with entertaining and fun. But entertaining and fun should not define a good plot. The Last Jedi, by comparison to the recent release of Thor: Ragnarok, certainly leaves one thinking little happened in The Last Jedi. But the plot of The Last Jedi has a number of excellent literary qualities that action-packed plots lack.
Flashback and Enthymemes
One such quality is the use of flashback. The viewer is well into the movie before the full story of Luke’s final interaction with Kylo Ren is revealed. It seems that Luke, sensing the power and darkness in Kylo Ren, pulls out his light saber to kill Kylo Ren, but changes his mind. Kylo Ren, however, waking to find Luke standing over him with a lighted saber (is this the proper way to speak of the light saber equivalent of a drawn sword?) thinks Luke is about to kill him and defends himself. He sees Luke’s actions as treacherous, and they seem to be the action that sends him once and for all to the Dark Side. Besides the obviously huge implications these scenes have for character development (discussed below), they have a great deal to say about plot as well. In utilizing the flashback, the viewer learns of certain key events that happen between Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi and Episode VII: The Force Awakens. This brief flashback, however, is heavy with implications for the state of relationships and the context at the beginning of Episode VII. For example, viewers likely left Episode VII wondering: “Why are Han and Leia separated? Why is their son, Ben, now Kylo Ren? Why is Luke hiding in the far reaches of the galaxy instead of training young Jedi to fight? Why is Kylo Ren so “angsty” and imbalanced?” And so on.
Through the use of flashback, the producers succeed in creating a type of enthymemes. Enthymemes is a classical rhetorical technique in which the speaker crafts his argument in such a way that the audience helps support the proof. This technique is precisely what the producers accomplish through this plot element. Rather than telling a lengthy story (or making another $1billion movie) to fill in those gaps, the producers allow the audience to make the connections in light of the few scenes that are shown—and from different perspectives at that!
One of the more brilliant, but also most criticized, elements of the plot was the Kylo Ren and Rey scenes where they were joined from galaxies apart by the force. Admittedly the “put something on” comment when Kylo Ren has no shirt was not a bright spot of the movie, but it did at least demonstrate that these meetings were unexpected, intimate, and powerful for both characters. These scenes also introduce an important theme, namely the temptation of both characters to be turned to either the Light or the Dark (more on theme below, but seriously, for a movie made mostly by non-Christians, how thoroughly Johannine is the Light and Darkness imagery in these movies?!). Much of the plot for this movie and what is set up in subsequent movies is contingent upon the decisions of these two key characters, so the plot decision to bring them together in this way serves a significant purpose and is immensely helpful. Moreover, with characters scattered all across the galaxy, these meetings serve as a unifying thread throughout the narrative to tie together various subplots into the more central story of Rey and Kylo Ren. Finally, in the movie’s closing moments, we hear the same sound used throughout these encounters and we see Rey turn around, suggesting that the connection with Kylo Ren has once again been established. However, since Snoke was supposedly the one who made these meetings happen, and Snoke is now dead, the viewer is again left to fill in the gaps as to how this has happened. Has Snoke’s power passed on to Kylo Ren? Does Rey have this power? Has Snoke created some kind of Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort-type connection that cannot be broken while both live? One of the elements of good plot is that it involves the reader in the explanation of the narrative, and this feature of the plot certainly accomplishes this task.
A third significant strength of the plot is its narrative arc. And I don’t simply mean the narrative arc of this movie, though I think it was a success; I also mean the narrative arc of the series. The most common and most angry criticism I have seen of the movies relates to the way the writers poorly use and then cast off Luke’s character. Perhaps Luke could have been used differently to great success, but I am inclined to think the narrative arc of the series is far better off for removing him.
Consider a highly regarded book series that bears some similarity to this situation. J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, made a similar decision in his own books to what the writers did to Luke in The Last Jedi. In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is a likeable character who admirably succeeds as the unlikely hero. He returns home a hero to the dwarves, a bit of an eccentric to the hobbits of the Shire, but beloved by readers. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien picks up the story years later when the darkness has begun to grow in Mordor. Who better than our beloved Bilbo to serve as a hero once again? Only, Bilbo is old, so Tolkien almost immediately removes him from the story. Enter young Frodo, barely introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring before he becomes our new hero. And yet, we as readers are immediately inclined to like him, to trust him, and to root for him because he was chosen by both Bilbo and Gandalf for this quest.
Now let’s return to The Last Jedi. Years have passed and darkness is rising. Who better than our beloved Luke to serve as a hero once again? Well, basically anyone in my opinion. Luke is old, but the writers charitably give him more of a role than Bilbo got, yet the stage is set for a new hero, Rey. We trust Rey because Han, Chewbacca, R2D2, Leia, and eventually Luke, also trust her, choose her, and send her. Had The Last Jedi depended heavily on Luke’s character, the arc of the series remains rooted in the past. By passing the baton to the next generation, by passing the light saber from Luke to Rey, just as Tolkien does by passing the ring from Bilbo to Frodo, the writers have given hope to a new generation of Jedi. In fact, this is precisely how the movie ends, with the hope found not in the numbers of the Resistance, which are incredibly small, but in the next generation of Jedi.
And finally with respect to plot, is it really true to say “nothing happened”? And not just in the literal sense, but even a figurative one. Poe leads a foolish attack on a Dreadnought; Rey tries to convince Luke to train her in the force; Kylo Ren and crew track the Resistance through Light Speed and kill the leadership (except Leia, and whereas that scene would normally seem a bit ridiculous, with Carrie Fisher’s death I think 99% of people thought that was how they chose to end her character in the movie, so I give the writers props for that fake-out even if it was in the script before she died); Poe sends Finn and Rose on a crazy mission to another planet, and after getting arrested, stealing a ship, and successfully boarding the enemy craft, we are led once again to believe in a miraculous success (e. g., Rogue One) only for them to be caught, that plan to fail, and the Resistance to have actually had a plan all along but Poe was too impulsive to know about; and the death of Snoke, an exploding ship, an epic showdown, and more. Maybe it’s slower than Thor, but a lot happens in this two and half hour movie.
Much of what I explain with respect to the plot has implications here, particularly when it comes to Kylo Ren and Rey. However, I think it may still prove helpful to consider both of those characters a bit more here.
Kylo Ren appears as a villain with no past in The Force Awakens. We know that he is the son of Han and Leia, and we learn that something went wrong with Luke, but little else is clear. His character, although important to the plot, is left a bit of an enigma. In The Last Jedi, his character is fleshed out more, including what exactly went wrong with Luke. One of the more important things we learn about Kylo Ren is that he is still struggling to shut out the light entirely. He is conflicted, seemingly desiring to be the next Darth Vader yet without the sociopathic instinct to succeed. Unlike in The Force Awakens when he succeeds in killing his father despite his hesitation, in The Last Jedi he is clearly shown with an opportunity to kill his mother but he pulls his finger off the trigger. Despite having killed his father, he is still unable to completely embrace the darkness and kill his mother. I find this to be deep and compelling character development. His conversation with Snoke when Snoke does not trust him, followed by his tantrum in the elevator when he destroys his mask, is an excellent external portrayal of his inward struggle. Still further this theme is developed when Rey speaks with him and sees the conflict within him. At the moment when he has once again received Snoke’s trust, he protects Rey and kills Snoke. One could argue that his subsequent action shows his desire to rule the Empire, but even so he offers to Rey that they could rule together. His motivation, both in saving Rey and asking her to rule with him, suggest that he cares for Rey in some way he is unable in his brokenness to express. What seems common to Kylo Ren, regardless of the context in the films, is that he is absolutely overcome by fear. We are uncertain of the exact nature of his fear, but it is evident in his actions and his words. Surprisingly, yet seemingly by intention on the part of the writers and producers, is the reality that his fear is the character quality he shares most closely with Darth Vader. One of the best qualities of Episodes I-III is the steady decline of Anakin from a young, ambitious boy into the hateful, dangerous Darth Vader, a precipitous decline that is directly linked in those movies to his fears. I have difficulty seeing how this fails to meet the expectations for good character development.
The development of Rey follows a similar trajectory. She, too, seems fearful, specifically with respect to the identity of her family. She seems to fear that the power within her will be untrained. But unlike Kylo Ren who caves to these fears and embraces darkness, she courageously stands on the side of the Resistance; yet the combination of power and fear, which led to evil in Anakin, Kylo Ren, and so many throughout world history, leaves us wondering if she can remain faithful.
Rey’s character is also developed through her interactions with Luke. As he stubbornly refuses to train her, she stubbornly follows him and pleads with him until he does. She is resilient, determined, and committed. She also possesses kindness, love, and courage. She is the embodiment of many of the qualities of classical (cardinal) virtue: Courage, Temperance, Prudence, and Justice. More significantly, perhaps, she also embodies the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love/Charity. Rey is an embodiment of virtue in the face of temptation and tyranny—let us hope she remains faithful.
Poe, Finn, and Rose
I’ll keep this brief, but Poe, Finn, and Rose all receive significant and deep character development in this movie. In The Force Awakens, Poe is a great pilot who does stuff; that’s pretty much the end of it. In this movie we learn about his brashness with the Dreadnought and his insubordination and lack of trust with Vice Admiral Holdo, yet near the end of the movie he seems to have learned some prudence when he tells Finn to pull back from the cannon and shows some leadership when Leia tells everyone to follow him deeper into the fortress in search of another way out.
Finn begins The Force Awakens as a number—FN-2187. His character, unlike Poe, is developed quite a bit in that movie. Yet Finn’s development in The Last Jedi continues, and not always positively. Finn spends much of The Force Awakens looking to run from the First Order rather than fight for the Resistance. By the end of the movie, however, we see a change in Finn. Yet early in The Last Jedi, Finn seeks to run away from peril in an attempt to save himself. Rose, however, steps in and takes charge. As Rose’s character is developed throughout the movie, her development also leads to a change in Finn, who once again becomes brave. His fight against Phasma, although the outcome is predictable, is nonetheless a great moment for his character and shows how far he has come.
The literary devices and technique that help make good books into Great Books are present in many ways throughout this movie. I’ll try to keep these short, but much more could be said and explored with each of these.
One literary technique that is well-utilized in The Last Jedi is what I would call echoes, but could be called repetition, allusion, or several other names based on its particular context. One of the echoes that comes off well is Rey’s comment about the force. She says that the force is “a power that Jedi have that lets them control people and make things float.” Luke responds, “Impressive. Every word in that sentence is wrong.” Late in the movie, Rey is trying to help the Resistance escape from the fortress that they are trapped in. The secret exit, however, is covered with large boulders. Rey, using the force, is able to lift the rocks and make them float. The echo is all the more clear because she comments on the irony as she prepares to move the rocks.
Similarly, this follows closely after the battle between Kylo Ren and Luke, or what the view learns later is only a phantom Luke. (Although, the change in his hair color, the fact that he is using the recently destroyed light saber, and the fact that his feet don’t kick up the dust to reveal the red earth, all are well written and produced elements that speak to the quality of the film). Near the end of this battle, after Kylo Ren threatens Luke, he repeats, as he did with Rey: “Every word in that sentence is wrong.” These echoes help tie the story together and show how various events are interwoven.
A third echo that shows an excellent writer’s touch is the final moments of Luke’s life. After conjuring his phantom to save his friends, we see him back on his island dying as a result of the exertion needed for his final heroic act. As he prepares to die, he stares out at a horizon with two suns. In A New Hope, Luke is introduced looking out into a horizon of two suns from Tatooine. Thus, Luke’s death echoes his introduction, and thus serves as a fitting inclusio on his life.
That Star Wars has employed a type of parallelism has been noted by others. (I recommend Seth Woodley’s piece here). Not only do the writers utilize a type of synonymous parallelism, but a unique kind of parallelism exists in a key idea in The Last Jedi. When Kylo Ren successfully kills Snoke and then he and Rey take out the rest of Snoke’s bodyguards, Rey thinks Kylo Ren has turned from the Dark Side. However, Kylo Ren has other ideas, and he says that it is time for the Jedi, the Resistance, and everyone else to die and start over. Luke, however, though not on the Dark Side, echoes a similar sentiment when Rey is seeking his training. He, too, thinks it is time for the Jedi to end. These similar sentiments from vastly different characters hint at a deeper parallel between the two characters and their ideologies, yet simultaneously put the similar themes in tension.
One final point of interest was Yoda’s comment to Luke that the library held nothing that Rey did not already possess. When Finn looks for a blanket for Rose late in the movie, he opens a drawer in the Millennium Falcon and we can see the Jedi Texts. Clever, Yoda, very clever.
Great Ideas Found in the Movie’s Themes
Finally, the movie not only contains elements of good plot, character development, and literary technique, but it also deals with many of the Great Ideas. Already I have discussed the Cardinal and Theological virtues, so I’ll leave those alone here. But several other Great Ideas are explored and promoted as well.
Bravery vs. Brashness
In his excellent work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that virtue is the mean between excess and deficiency. Thus bravery, for example, should not be defined by an ever-increasing distance from cowardice. One might lack cowardice but still not be brave because he recklessly runs into danger without cause. This action is not bravery, but brashness, according to Aristotle. In the opening scene with the Dreadnoughts, Poe exhibits brashness, not bravery, and it leads to the death of many of the Resistance. Poe doesn’t understand the difference, but Leia does, and immediately demotes him for his actions. This exchange is a beautiful picture of a leader who understands the value of human life, the cost of its loss, and the difference between bravery and brashness. This scene is an excellent portrayal of an important virtue and one of the most common Great Ideas in the history of literature.
Love vs. Hate
The nature of love and hate are common Great Ideas throughout the literary canon, but not all great works succeed as clearly and succinctly as The Last Jedi does at capturing the difference it makes in which one motivates one’s action. In a key scene, Rose saves Finn and says that they will succeed “not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” The enemy may be the same, but the motivation makes all the difference in the world. Rose is right that the Resistance, in order to be successful, cannot simply fight against Evil but must fight for good. This is precisely what is lacking in Kylo Ren. He does, in a way, fight against evil by killing Snoke, but he does so as one fighting against what he hates, not for what he loves, thus he is still lost.
Few handle failure well, and yet those who seem most successful in life have failed. Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, and many others were first viewed as failures before they were viewed as successes. Yoda says “the greatest teacher, failure is.” The question of life is not whether or not we will fail. The question of life is what we will do in response to our failure. Luke spends most of The Last Jedi sulking over his failure with Kylo Ren, but when it counts, he eventually moves past that failure to do what is right. Most of the great coming-of-age stories, or stories of the great heroes in Western literature, teach the same lesson—if we will learn from failure, we will have the opportunity to succeed when it matters most.
In bringing this review to a close, I wish to simply mention a couple other Great Ideas that arise in the film. The pride of Snoke and Kylo Ren, leading to failure. The mask of Kylo Ren and the mirror Rey stares into both speak to the theme of identity and the age-old question, “Who am I?” And other themes could be explored as well.
In concluding this lengthy review, I would simply reiterate that not all will find this movie exciting. Not all will like it. It may not be fun and entertaining. But I hope my remarks above have satisfied at least a few readers that this is nevertheless a well-written, well-made movie, worthy of serious attention.