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Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Last Jedi: Character Arcs, Part 1

This post contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

It's great that The Last Jedi continues to make the franchise more inclusive, but I am not ready to sing its praises. The fact is, Episode VIII is primarily about two white men: Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker. Yes, there are a handful of strong women and people of color, but their development in the film leaves a lot to be desired.

At the beginning of the film, Poe Dameron is a headstrong, independent and overly optimistic pilot who doesn't like to follow orders. He wants to lead the Resistance in its fight against the First Order, but his dramatic conflict in the film is not with anyone in the First Order. It is with Leia, who censures and demotes him when his insubordination results in an extreme loss of life, and who even shoots him when he attempts a mutiny that almost kills the entire Resistance. He needs to learn restraint and humility, though there is little evidence that he overcomes his limitations. Yet, at the end of the film, he commands the remaining members of the Resistance to follow him. They hesitate and turn to Leia for guidance. Leia quips, "What are you looking at me for?", as if Poe has earned their unquestioning loyalty.  In this light-hearted moment, Leia hands the baton of leadership over to Poe, signaling the completion of his character arc.

There is some evidence that Poe has changed, though not necessarily for the better: He may be less willing to sacrifice soldiers, and less confident in his ability to succeed against enormous odds. He suggests this when he calls off the mission to charge the First Order at the last minute, seeing his comrades being too easily picked off. However, this decision doesn't make Poe out to be a more competent or trustworthy leader, since he doesn't have a better plan for the Resistance's survival. What did he think was going to happen when he started the mission? Did he think they would be able to charge the First Order without significant casualties? It was a last ditch effort--of course there were going to be significant casualties--so why give up at the last minute? His actions make little sense and don't suggest an improved approach to leadership, so why does Leia now expect everyone to follow him? Is it just because she likes him?  For whatever reason, Leia is satisfied with Poe, so we are supposed to be, too.

Leia's role in the film is particularly disappointing, as she has no arc to speak of at all. Her desire is to keep as many members of the Resistance alive as possible, but her actions are only in relation to Poe. She has nothing else to do but be an obstacle for him, until she decides he doesn't need her anymore. Admiral Holdo serves a similar role: She is a stand-in for Leia, and she sacrifices herself when Leia returns. Consider how much more powerful it would have been if Leia stayed behind to "pilot" the ship at the end. Why did Holdo do it? There's no sense of character here. They're both just props, there for Poe to resist and then to tell us that Poe is entirely likable and worthy despite his devastating choices.

On a more positive--if tragic--note, Luke has a lot going for him in this installment. Luke was never an impressive Jedi. While he did manage to learn many tricks without much training, he was never as powerful as Darth Vader, let alone the Emperor. He was always tempted by the Dark Side, too. So it is perhaps believable that his devastating failure with Ben Solo would turn him away from the Force completely. Still, it is hard to imagine how Luke's backstory could have played out. Luke Skywalker once walked into the belly of the beast to confront his father and turn him away from the Emperor. How did he become so overcome by fear that he would consider killing Ben Solo in cold blood, just because Ben was gradually turning towards the Dark Side? What had Ben done? What had Snoke done? While I like the Rashomon-style of storytelling--giving us three different versions of the past, and leaving the audience with uncertainty--none of the stories tell us what led Luke to that pivotal moment in the first place. It's a significant gap that would probably take a whole separate film to fill.

Still, there is a clear redemption narrative here. Luke's goal is to find a way to live with his guilt and anger, but he cannot let go of the Jedi in him. For most of the film, he just wants to be left alone, thinking that he cannot be helped. He tries to destroy Rey's hope, though it's not clear if he has any compassion for her, or if he is just bitter. But he is not willing to destroy the ancient Jedi texts. Perhaps he hates the Jedi for still wielding power over him. He hates himself and the entire Jedi Order for all of their failures. He has shut himself off from the Force, even though he knows it is the greatest power in the universe. He's basically in hell. Then, Yoda frees him from bondage by tricking him into thinking he has destroyed the ancient texts. Yoda knows the texts aren't in the tree: Rey has taken them already. Yoda wants Luke to find his way back to the Force on his own. Freed from the burden of the past, Luke reconnects with the Force and finds hope again. It is perhaps ironic that Luke becomes a Jedi legend through an act of trickery. While Luke may be a fool, he is redeemed with his triumph over Kylo Ren--an act which sends waves of hope throughout the galaxy.

Luke's character arc in The Last Jedi is more or less compelling . . . until he dies. It's not so much how poorly motivated it is: It's a little frustrating that we don't see much reason for him to die at that moment at all--he did not seem weak at all--but the biggest disappointment is how quickly his death is passed over, as if it is not the most devastating moment in the entire Star Wars saga. It doesn't seem to have a profound effect on any of the other characters, even though many lives had been lost in the effort to find him and bring him back to the Resistance. We don't even get a reaction to his death from R2D2? The shallow treatment of this crucial moment takes away some of the power of Luke's arc, and the film as a whole.

While Luke's development has its good and bad points, Finn's is overall just bad. He changes from a person who is only out to protect himself and the people he loves (that would be Rey, at least at the beginning of the film) to a person who believes in compassion and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. This comes about due to his connection to the compassionate and inspirational Rose, though his transformation (and their relationship) is rushed and mostly buried under a cartoonish escape and rescue sequence. Finn suddenly shifts from potential runaway to hero when he realizes he and Rose can help the Resistance escape. Within moments of meeting Rose, he eagerly goes on a "mission impossible" without the slightest hesitation. There could have been a compelling, even endearing, narrative here about compassion and self-sacrifice: Rose could have forced Finn to go along with the plan, threatening to expose his attempt to run away; he could have abandoned her at the casino, only to decide at the last minute to help Rose save the animals and return to help the Resistance. But no, we just get a magical shift in attitude early in the film.*

Kylo Ren's arc is a bit muddier, and his conflicts are not entirely resolved. For one thing, Kylo's interests and desires are always in question. Does he want Snoke's approval, or is he just using Snoke so he can become stronger? Is his goal to start a new world order? He asks Rey to join him: Is this a tactical decision or does he want her companionship, or both? Does he just want to be loved? Does he want revenge on Luke Skywalker for not believing in him? What about his mother? He didn't want to kill her, but he seems fine when he thinks she is dead. Does he ever discover that she is still alive? With so much in doubt, we cannot say for sure if he changes at all over the course of the film.

Early in the film, Snoke ridicules him for wearing a mask, knowing--as we all did--that the mask was keeping Kylo from reaching his true potential. Humiliated, Kylo immediately destroys the mask, but it doesn't have the effect Snoke had expected. The newly confident Kylo won't kill Leia, and when given the chance, he seems to explore his compassionate side with Rey. But was he really opening up to compassion? If so, wouldn't Snoke have noticed? Didn't he sense Kylo's inability to kill his own mother? How could Snoke let Kylo trick him like that? It's hard to make sense of it. In any case, when faced with the choice between killing Rey and killing Snoke, Kylo chooses to kill his master. He is free from Snoke's influence, free from the past, and ready to create a future of his own making--but has he only done it so he can be with Rey? He is still an incompetent leader prone to temper tantrums. He has not gained compassion or self-control. And while he may be leading the fight against the Resistance, he's going to have to sleep with one eye open, since nobody in the First Order wants to follow him.

That leaves Rey, whose arc I will analyze in Part 2.

* Is Rose supposed to teach Finn something at the end about saving those you love? Because that's what Finn was trying to do at the beginning of the movie: Save himself and Rey. And at the end, wasn't Finn also trying to save people? That was the purpose of his attempted self-sacrifice. Is Rose saying self-sacrifice is never a good idea? Or was this just a moment of weakness for Rose: Was she being selfish, trying to keep Finn alive at the expense of the Resistance? As I noted above, Poe was wrong to call off that mission. Finn was right to keep going. Rose risked her life and Finn's by colliding right in front of the First Order. She had no reasonable hope for saving anyone's life, and good reason to think that she was destroying any hope for the Resistance. Rose was even wronger than Poe. And as with Leia and Holdo, Rose has no dramatic arc of her own. She is only there to aid Finn's development.