Star Wars, Disney, & the Death of Creativity: What Writers Can Learn from The Last Jedi
Like many people this week, I saw The Last Jedi in theaters. Everything was perfect: I was wearing my Darth Vader outfit that makes me walk like a badass, I had my caramel popcorn (and some of my boyfriend's butter popcorn too), and I was PSYCHED to watch the latest installment of the Star Wars saga. Three hours later, I left the theater with a strong feeling of disappointment... and a lot of ideas about what went wrong.
As a writer, or any other creative, enjoying a piece of art is more than just having fun or appreciating its aesthetic qualities. It is always a learning experience about what's being done nowadays, what you could do to improve your art, and what you could really do well to avoid. The Last Jedi, for me, was a litany of examples of things writers should ALWAYS avoid when crafting a story. If you haven't seen The Last Jedi yet, be warned: ***THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!!***
7 Things Writers Can Learn from "The Last Jedi"
1. Do not begin a story in a way that has already been done. When the crawl text went across the screen, ending in a description of the First Order about to attack the Resistance while the Resistance desperately tries to escape... My writer boyfriend and I looked at each other with the same expression: "Are they serious?" Thankfully, the beginning of the movie was dissimilar enough from that of The Empire Strikes Back that it was not a direct correlation. However, the last thing you want to do when beginning your story is to make it seem like you are recycling stories you have already done. The fact that The Force Awakens was criticized for being too similar to A New Hope makes this trip up extra bad.
Lesson: Make sure your stories begin in a new and interesting way which tells the reader immediately that they are on a different and exciting new ride.
2. Do not brush aside grief. At the beginning of The Last Jedi, Poe is directly responsible for the deaths of many, many Resistance fighters because he refuses to follow his general's orders. Poe's character arc for the rest of the movie shows him coming to understand the value of saving people above destroying the First Order, but he never shows any true grief or sadness over what he has done. Just as egregiously, one of our fantastic new characters, Rose, is introduced by showing her crying over the death of her sister and then tazing Finn for trying to escape when her sister died heroically for the Resistance. Yet in the next scene, where Rose actually meets Poe, the man who caused her sister's death, there is absolutely no tension. No discussion of what he did. Not even a hint that Rose either blames or forgives Poe for his part in her sister's unnecessary death. Rose then spends the rest of the movie on a whirlwind adventure with Finn, eventually saving his life because she has apparently fallen in love with him somewhere in there... Her love and feelings of loss for her sister are only vaguely referenced and there is no clear arc for her feelings about it or how it has changed her in any way.
Lesson: If something truly traumatic happens to one of your characters, especially a main one, really think about how this has changed them as a person, their perceptions of the world, and their life. Even in an adventure story, characters dealing with grief should have moments where that trauma shows through in their actions, speech, and shifting character development. To brush it aside is to disregard the struggle that a real person would be going through in the same situation. For more information about how a character might handle a traumatic event, read up on the 5 stages of grief.
3. A low-speed chase is not an exciting conflict for an epic adventure. Yup, The Last Jedi is literally the Resistance running away from the enemy. Very. Very. Slowly. If you think of great chase stories throughout literature and film, movies like Catch Me If You Can, The Terminator, or The Fugitive may come to mind. What do these movies have in common? Is it the slow waiting of the good guys to escape before they run out of fuel and are blown up by the looming bad guys in their rearview mirror? No! All of these movies function by having multiple points where the heroes escape, the antagonist almost catches up, and the chase rebounds back into action. This keeps tensions high. The Last Jedi, unfortunately, turned into a ticking clock narrative more like a story where there is a bomb somewhere that is going to destroy everyone in a matter of minutes unless the heroes can stop it. Unfortunately, the heroes in The Last Jedi fail to do anything of the sort.
Lesson: A story which relies on the antagonist and protagonist chasing after one another needs to have multiple jump-start moments where one almost catches the other and the chase begins again in earnest. The point is that the chased can never relax, but the chaser is also constantly trying to get just one more step ahead to catch up. They are not waiting for their prey to fall into their lap.
4. Do not send some of your main characters off on a sideline adventure that is only vaguely related to the main plot. I was shocked, literally SHOCKED, when this happened in The Last Jedi. If the story was not a chase, then it was a ticking bomb story, which is only exciting if literally no one can escape. A ticking bomb is not a threat if you are far away from it, so some of the main characters literally leaving it behind in order to find someone that they need to help them get into the place and dismantle the thing and blah blah blah, killed the action right there. Frankly, there are almost no Resistance fighters left. If there is any chance that anyone can escape in a small ship, then pack as many people as you can in there and shoot them off through lightspeed. Poof! I solved the movie's whole conflict and now we can move on to something interesting! There is literally no reason that Poe and Rose should have been sent off-ship, but the convoluted reasoning for why they were, the political message that was slammed in the viewer's face while they were gone, and the ridiculous reason for their imprisonment and escape, all cause the entire middle chunk of the movie to drag down the story like an anchor.
Lesson: If you are sending some of your characters away from the main conflict, triple check why they are doing it. Did you manufacture a reason for them to leave, or is the antagonist forcing them to leave? This is the key. Their absence should amp up the tension, and also be a direct result of the antagonist messing things up for the protagonist.
5. Know your genre, and then follow its conventions. While I was watching The Last Jedi, I found myself comparing it to J.J. Abram's Star Trek, and finding Jedi wanting. It wasn't until after the movie that I realized this comparison popped into my head because of a fatal flaw which threw The Last Jedi's genre out the window.
Star Trek, as many Trekkies will brag, is generally based in the genre of Science Fiction, where conflicts and gadgets are explained in a believable way so as to feel like a realistic extrapolation from modern technology. Indeed, Star Trek-like technology now exists in the form of Google Glass, smart phones, and artificial intelligence robots. However, Star Wars is not even in the same ballpark of this genre, despite the similarities in their appearance. Star Wars is set "a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." It is literally second world, FAR outside of anything remotely related to the planet Earth. It is a Space Opera, which, in its conventions, is more similar to Fantasy than Science Fiction. These conventions include a suspension of disbelief greater than that of most other genres, a sense of awe and wonder attached to new and bizarre fantastical elements, and a general lack of explanation about these fantastical elements, which are part of the world rather than an extrapolation from the reader's world.
The Last Jedi failed to be a Space Opera as soon as it hinged absolutely everything on a technological advancement: the ability of The First Order to track their ship through lightspeed. This all-important plot element burst the bubble on the Star Wars fantasy and invited its world to be critiqued and questioned. Just as the main characters are trying to figure out a way to beat it, the viewer is as well, and the viewer is wondering, "How the hell does tracking even work in this world?" and "Why don't they just blow up the main ship? How the hell can a tracking signal jump to another ship?" Genre conventions may seem strict at times, but they give the story a structure which allows the viewer to extrapolate their own solutions just before the characters, usually so that they can get a delightful surprise when the characters do something even better. Once the genre of The Last Jedi shifted towards science fiction, the movie no longer felt like Star Wars and the viewer was jolted out of the adventure.
Lesson: Study your genre and then keep to the important conventions, which will help readers navigate and enjoy your story. If you really want to break those conventions, consider if your story should actually be in a different genre or subgenre. For more information on genres, check out this preliminary Writer's Digest list with descriptions. Don't be afraid to make your own genre, but chances are, your style of story has been done before. You just need to find it the right place to live.
6. Don't use sexist conventions of characterization. We have several huge female main characters in The Last Jedi, including General Leia Organa, Vice Admiral Holdo, Rose Tico, and of course, Rey. It is great that all these women were there, but when we look closer, we see that absolutely every single one of them acted as protectors, nurtures, and enablers of the men in this movie. W.T.F.
Here is what happened:
- Leia demotes Poe, goes into a coma, and eventually emerges to stop Poe's mutiny scheme, yet through it all she acts like a caretaker, gently guiding Poe towards the right way of thinking and smiling quietly when he gets things right. Her last act as Poe is leading everyone to safety and everyone turns to look at her--their commander--is to turn around too and say, "What are you looking at me for? Follow him!" She literally hands off her power to a man who has been disrespectful to her authority the entire movie.
- Holdo arbitrarily keeps her true plan a secret from everyone, because she "doesn't care about being seen as a hero" (because women aren't glory-seeking and can't be seen as heroes, duh!) After she crushes Poe's mutiny, she overlooks his insubordination and says to Leia, "I like him." I'm sorry--are you not the Admiral of this fleet? Did a Captain not just almost ruin everything by disrespecting your command? Even Holdo's sacrifice to save everyone felt manufactured to influence Poe's character arc from hothead to leader.
- Rose, of course, is struggling with the loss of her sister at the beginning of the story, but is pretty much fine when she's traipsing off on an adventure with Finn. Though she was introduced by tazing a main character, her strength and agency is cut off from then on, with Finn literally stepping in front of her to tell Poe about her plan, and her constantly looking to Finn for answers: "What do we do now?" Rose's declaration of love for Finn feels tacked on, unearned, and heteronormative. The fact that Rose could not save Finn just because she cares about human life and his friendship puts emphasis on her sexuality over her humanity. The fact that Finn and Poe had chemistry and camaraderie in The Force Awakens, yet were not put together as a couple as Rose and Finn were, reasserts that heterosexual romance is acceptable and expected, but homosexuality is not. Furthermore, the love triangle developing between Finn, Rey, and Rose is so cliche and overdone that it makes me want to throw up just thinking about Star Wars being derailed by something so infantile.
- Last but not least, Rey spends half the movie being badass trying to figure out if she can be a Jedi or not, and the other half warming up to the idea of turning Kylo Ren back to the good side. Her elevator scene with Kylo directly mirror's Luke's scene with Vader in The Return of the Jedi, but with the familial love replaced with sexual tension. Rey's arch is a muddled mess between her becoming the last Jedi and her desire to turn Kylo, as if her personal and professional growth was not enough to interest viewers without a man getting involved. Rey's shift of thinking towards Luke at Kylo's insistence further suggests that she is malleable and trusting of a man, even if she has every reason to disbelieve him. Her longing for love and acceptance of men is even the root of tension in her scene with Kylo where he offers to rule the galaxy with her. The viewer thinks that she might do it only because she is seeking the acceptance of a man. Um... Yeah, no.
Lesson: Women are people. They have feelings, desires, and goals separate from other people, EXACTLY the same way that men do. Take a look through your manuscript and see how your female characters interact with your male characters. Are their storylines separate and distinct, or do your female characters seem to do things only to help a male character's growth? If it's the latter, consider what the female character wants for herself, how she can get it without a man's assistance, and why she wants what she wants (Hint: it should not be related to getting, helping, or fixing a man).
7. Take the risk. Why are you writing this story? Is it to make many monies and buy a house on the moon and get on Oprah? In all likelihood, this is probably not going to happen (sorry). On average, authors sell 1,000 copies of each novel. Some sell a lot less and some sell a lot more, but the point is that you should not be in this for the money. Art is meant to say things that cannot be said any other way. Artists push at the boundaries of what is acceptable to get people to think. We take risks.
Companies do not take risks. Disney does not take risks. They incorporated diverse characters when people were literally screaming out for it, and their anti-war message is obvious and already widely believed. They are portraying what mainstream society is already leaning into, therefore protecting themselves from severe backlash. The Last Jedi would have been a much more interesting movie if it had taken even a few small risks, such as: making Kylo Ren turn his back on the Dark Side, or join the Resistance with his motives unclear; making Poe and Finn an item instead of Finn and Rose; actually allowing Leia to die and showing how the fleet falls apart without her only to be patched back together by Holdo and/or Poe; or making Rose into an expert codebreaker (we literally just met her, so she can easily be anyone) and sending her and Finn on a mission to board the enemy spacecraft immediately. Just thinking about all the opportunities The Last Jedi had to take risks, but didn't, makes me sad. It was a series of predictable and boring plot points that left the story feeling flat and pointless.
Lesson: To create a story that matters, you should be thinking: What will the reader/viewer expect ? How can I subvert those expectations? This will help you avoid cliches (like love triangles) and push boundaries to show people how to think and question the world, rather than just what to think.
The Last Jedi had a lot of great things going for it, including a wonderfully diverse cast of main characters, a female protagonist, and several VERY cool fight scenes. It is not the worst movie ever made, nor is it the worst Star Wars movie ever made (looking at you Attack of the Clones...), but it is also not an expertly done film. Sometimes though, the stories that stumble are the ones that can teach us the most about what to do right. So go enjoy the good parts of The Last Jedi, learn from the bad, and hope that J.J. Abrams can bring it back in episode IX. We're rooting for you, Abrams! Please ignore everything that Disney says, and embrace your own creativity!
Did you like the latest installment of the Star Wars saga? Why or why not? Do you think it would have been better if a smaller company were in charge of it, instead of Disney? Share your thoughts in the comments below!