The 4 best and 4 worst things about Solo: A Star Wars story

The movie has ups and downs but ultimately comes out ahead.

Solo: A Star Wars Story came out last weekend. I put it in a poll against Deadpool 2 and it squeaked out as the movie for which people wished to see me write a review. So here we are. Here’s an odd thing. When I walked out of the theater I was pretty sure I hadn’t enjoyed the movie. But the more I thought about it as I was preparing to write this review the more I realized that yeah, I did enjoy it.

It was a pretty generic summer blockbuster but there’s value in that kind of movie, too. They don’t make you think hard, they don’t make you cry too much, they don’t piss you off. They’re there. They’re the pretzels at the bar. Comforting and offering a pleasant distraction with their familiarity even when they aren’t particularly note-worthy.

One thing I think is of particular interest is that this movie demonstrates Disney’s continued desire to implement large chunks of the old Expanded Universe stories that they axed out of the canon in one of their first moves after purchasing the IP. We’ve seen this before in Disney asking Timothy Zahn to write a new Thrawn book to add to the new canon before they added the character to the TV show Rebels. The writers of this film also borrowed from the young Han Solo trilogy written by Ann C. Crispin. The original story was a trilogy of books so some chunks of the story are condensed while others are left for possible future films and some of the details are different but many of the same major character moves for Han still exist in both stories very similarly.

Even being a very generic movie, there were a few things that stood out, both good and bad, in the movie. Let’s look at those, shall we? SPOILERS ahead!

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

The trailers were misleading

The trailers made this movie look like it was going to be a heist movie in the vein of Ocean’s 11 set in space. You may recall that one of the first articles ever posted on this website was one in which I hoped that Jon Snow’s trip beyond the wall in Game of Thrones was going to be turned into a miniature fantasy version of a heist flick. Heist movies are one of the few genres that greatly intrigue me outside of fantasy and sci-fi. Every time I think I see a meshing of the heist with one of the other two I always get excited and this movie was no exception. But it didn’t really happen at all.

The train robbery that the latest trailer focused so much on was really just the end of the first act of the movie. It involved something of the highly specialized crew but the recruitment phase that is a staple of the genre doesn’t really exist and the entire story arc is over so quickly that it doesn’t feel very heist-y. The infamous Kessel Run was used as part of the second act of the movie, but again it only gets an act devoted to it instead of an entire movie and again omits the necessary crew building step as they only make one stop to add to their team and there’s little to no specialization among the various group members. The movie also ignores all three opportunities it has for describing intricate plans, another staple of the genre.

The movie works as the generic sci-fi action flick it ends up being but it’s always confusing and frustrating when trailers lie directly to the potential audience like that.

It reintroduced the Kessel Run workaround

As I mentioned above they included a story arc about the infamous Kessel Run. For those of you who are not nerdy enough to remember what that is, let me explain. In Star Wars: A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo for the first time Han brags that the Millenium Falcon is one of the fastest ships in the galaxy and that it even made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Now, in the context of only that movie, it was probably a writing error because parsec sounds like a fancy futuristic unit of time. A parsec is a unit of distance, though, and some people endlessly made fun of the movies. (The script apparently indicates that Han was lying through his teeth in an attempt to con Obi Wan and so one could interpret that to mean that Han was the one making the error rather than the writers. George Lucas also later indicated that Han was both telling the truth and that the distance unit is used because the Falcon accomplished the feat with superior navigating rather than velocity. So there’s definitely some mystery, here) In the expanded universe a workaround was introduced wherein getting to Kessel required flying past a cluster of black holes known collectively as The Maw. A faster, smaller ship could do the run in less distance because it would be able to fly closer to the black holes while trusting the lack of mass and velocity to keep it from sucked in.

The movie changes some things. Instead of flying through/past The Maw ships are forced to navigate a deadly combination nebula and asteroid field known as The Maelstrom (which is pronounced bafflingly by Lando as “The Maw-lstrsom”). When they flee Kessel after successfully performing their theft they are forced to flee through the Maelstrom without using the safe route that has been inexplicably blockaded by Imperial forces (Yes, it’s a pretty glaring plot hole but is really just a means to an end, so we’ll let it slide.) During their flight through the nebula, they do come across The Maw, but it’s not the same. It’s described by the characters as a single massive gravity well instead of a cluster of black holes. I’m not sure what the difference between a massive gravity well not created by a planet or star and a black hole is, but that’s how they describe it. Eventually, Han and company escape and he immediately starts crowing about how they made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It was a nice call-back to both the original series and the Expanded Universe many of us grew up with.

The action was abysmal

As I’ve mentioned before, I am by no means any sort of expert on combat sequences. But even I could tell that the action scenes in this movie were abysmal. I’m not sure what led to the issues but the majority of the fight scenes were so shaky and filled with so many cuts that it was quite impossible to figure out who was doing what to whom at any point until the fights were finished.

The relationship between Han and Chewie was great

The action was abysmal, but a lot of the emotion was terrific. I think if you asked casual fans what they most wanted to see in this movie they would say the beginnings of Han and Chewie’s relationship. I don’t know that that item would be as high for the more hardcore fans but it would probably be on the list, too. And you absolutely get to see that relationship from the very beginning and follow through as they gradually go from guys working on a criminal crew because they don’t even know what else to do into lifelong friends who just want to stay one step ahead of everyone and anyone who might want to kill them.

Perhaps the best part of their relationship is how the movie allows it to grow alongside the plot instead of trying to force things. It happens very naturally and organically as the story unfolds and it’s really terrific. Aldon Ehrenreich was not a 100% pitch-perfect Han Solo, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the rumors indicated he might be and his best moments were always with Chewie which would be the place I’d want the strongest moments to go, anyway.

Emilia Clarke is maybe not a very good actor

Emilia Clarke gained fame and notoriety for her role as the Dothraki Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s a hot ticket for any movie that wants to add some female star power. But the more I watch her the less convinced I am that she actually has much acting talent. I noted in several of last season’s Game of Thrones reviews that while the plot was still treating her as a superhero her actions and emotions were far less consistent with that reading of her character. Watching her as Qi’ra in this movie I again felt like her actions and emotions were out of sync with who and what the movie wanted us to see her as. In Game of Thrones, I figured it was bad writing, but now that the sample size has increased I start to wonder if it’s actually the acting.

Her character doesn’t seem to feel anything strongly throughout the entire movie. The most animated she gets is when Han kisses her, but she doesn’t otherwise act particularly as though she likes him. Unless you count that she seems to stick her neck out for him at the beginning of the second act but that could also be read as her seeing an opportunity to take out Vos. The problem with either interpretation is that she never expresses a desire to accomplish either of those things until she gets the latter at the end of the film.

Apparently all she ever wanted was a chance to kill Vos and take his place in the dastardly criminal organization, Crimson Dawn. But without any sort of foreshadowing for that moment it reads as a writer choice to keep her separated from Han so that it will be just him and Chewie when Luke needs a ride off of Tatooine in a decade rather than a reasonable conclusion for her character arc.

Don’t get me wrong, it could still definitely be the writing. For all Solo’s high points it’s got some low ones and not writing her character well would easily fall within the bounds of the other issues with the movie. But this is the second time I’ve been able to watch her and think, “Clarke seems to only be able to act one beat per scene, max, and it isn’t even always one of the beats that belongs there.” and that probably isn’t all on bad writing.

Donald Glover’s Lando was amazing

When I saw 2009’s Star Trek reboot there was one actor who completely out-did everyone else, for my money. Karl Urban was given the responsibility of bringing DeForest Kelley’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy back to life on the big screen despite not looking anything like the original actor. Urban was so good in the role that he solidified his position as one of my favorite current actors. He didn’t just duplicate the acting and emotional choices the original actor might have made but he also duplicated mannerisms and intonations that Kelley may never have even been consciously aware of.

I bring this up because Donald Glover did the exact same thing with his version of Lando Calrissian. His first lines were spoken from off-screen and, out of context, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you whether that was a line spoken by Donald Glover or Billy Dee Williams. He brought that level of authenticity to the character throughout the entire movie. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone, though. Even from the very first trailer, it was obvious that Glover embodied the charisma of the Williams’ interpretation of the character and during the press tours it came out that Billy Dee actually met with Donald for lunch and answered questions about how to play the character. My one complaint about Lando Calrissian in this movie was the decision to change him from a gambler who was so very good at it that it was nearly a super-power into a common cheater and grifter. But there could definitely have been worse things. There are rumors swirling that Disney may greenlight a Lando spinoff and if they can get Glover on-board for it I think that might be their best decision with this IP, yet.

Tobias Beckett is inconsistent for the sake of the plot

Tobias Beckett, as played by Woody Harrelson, is a complex character. But he’s a bit…too complex. When Han meets this character he’s a very happy-go-lucky scoundrel, much in the vein Han grows into by the time of A New Hope. He puts on a tough face, but you can tell he has a heart of gold. The easiest way to tell if a scoundrel has a heart of gold is always by the crew they surround themselves with. Chewbacca seems threatening in ANH, but he never hurts anyone. His actions tell a story of giant furball who knows his strength and size are intimidating to strangers and has enough of a sense of humor about it to mess with them from time to time. If Han is hanging out with an honorable warrior with a sense of humor like that then you can tell he can’t be as bad as he wants you to think he is.

Tobias’ crew is much the same way. He has a woman who has a clear, strong sense of honor who obviously desperately loves him. The pilot is a good sort with a calm sense of a humor who tries to draw the new guys out of their shells. There is no way a truly evil dude would have worked with a crew like those two for very long. And, yet, the movie telegraphs very early in the second act to even the least genre-savvy viewer that Beckett is absolutely going to betray Han at some point. That’s not entirely unexpected or unreasonable; scoundrels with hearts of gold are still scoundrels, after all. We’ve seen before how such characters might abandon the other heroes for selfish reasons – heck, just look at how Lando abandoned Solo and Beckett at the refinery when Enfys Nest shows up. But when Beckett’s betrayal comes it has nothing to do with personal gain or keeping his hide. He does it simply because he apparently likes working with Paul Bettany’s evil criminal mastermind character, Dryden Vos.

There are some villains who disguise themselves as scoundrels with hearts of gold but there’s always something foreshadowing about their behavior or their associates to give it away. It takes more than a warning to assume everyone will betray you to make that shift work.

Han shoots first

After Beckett betrays Han he also betrays Vos and then tries to make off with the hyperfuel. Han wants to give the fuel to the rebels because it’s the right thing to do but once Han escapes Vos and catches up with Beckett. Beckett, unfortunately, is not interested in splitting the treasure and so he monologues for a moment as he tries to distract Han, who already has the drop on him, so he can shoot him and escape with the booty.

There has been a grueling debate among the Star Wars fanbase ever since George Lucas released the special editions of the original trilogy. You may recall that in ANH Han runs into the Rodian bounty hunter Greedo after agreeing to transport Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids to Alderaan. In both versions of the scene, Han is forced to sit down at a booth at gunpoint by Greedo. In both versions, they have a conversation where Han tries to convince Greedo to let him go. In the original version, this conversation is mostly a distraction so Han can get his gun out and blast the villain, ruthlessly but necessarily in order to save his own skin. In the modified version, Greedo shoots first but inexplicably misses a seated Han from less than three feet away before he gets blasted. Lucas wanted to make Han look less scoundrel and more heart of gold but it’s a far weaker interpretation of the character and most fans argue that “Han shot first”

As Beckett tries to distract Han in Solo, Han doesn’t fall for it and he doesn’t hesitate. He guns down his mentor and friend before Beckett can shoot him. This is Han the scoundrel with the heart of gold. He didn’t want to shoot Beckett, you can tell from his actions before and after he does so, but he knows he has no choice if he wants to live and Han is a survivor. You can’t survive in the criminal underworld without being a little ruthless sometimes, and it was good to see that acknowledged as we continue to hurtle to a new world with fresh takes on Star Wars.

Solo is not a perfect movie. It’s not even really a particularly good movie by most measures. But it’s a fun movie that does nostalgia in a significantly better, if more specialized, way than Ready Player One. It’s easily the kind of movie that your average Star Wars fan can keep around the house for a bland but quite enjoyable palette cleanser in the years to come. As long as you aren’t entirely opposed to the idea of a Han Solo origin story, you’re not expecting some sort of cinematic masterpiece, and you have a large, friendly bucket of popcorn to munch you should find this movie plenty enjoyable.

Before we see Solo, let’s fix The Last Jedi

I trashed this movie pretty hard, but it wouldn’t take much to fix it.

So it’s no secret that a lot of people didn’t like The Last Jedi. A lot of people did, too, which is fine. But for the most part, it seems to me that the people who like it do so because they see what it was trying to do and give it a pass for not actually accomplishing those things. There’s honestly nothing wrong with that approach, but it doesn’t work for me for this movie.

So instead, I’d like to pontificate for a moment about a few things we might do to actually fix this movie. I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about this and my suggestions might not be perfect but I think they would get us closer to what Rian Johnson actually wanted to accomplish.

So here, in no particular order, are the things I would change to help The Last Jedi accomplish its goals.

Canto Bight

Let’s not change anything here. I know a lot of people hate this sequence because it ultimately doesn’t solve the problems they set out to solve. That’s OK, though. Some people also dislike it because ultimately nothing Finn and Rose accomplish there sticks – the damage is repaired, the horse things are recaptured. But that wasn’t the point either. The point is in that final moment with the kid who force pulls the broom to himself. He was inspired by their actions. A rebellion is built on hope, I’ve heard, but it’s sustained with inspiration. The kid sees a different path, now, and he probably isn’t the only one. That is because of Finn and Rose. The sequence does everything we need it to.

Poe’s plot

OK, so, let’s actually have Poe screw up. I think the simplest way to do this is to change the initial plan. Instead of having a plan to destroy the enemy cruiser that Leia tells Poe to abort let’s have the plan always be about Poe distracting and annoying people. And then let’s have him audible in the bombers. At this point, ensuing deaths would be 100% his fault because instead of just insisting they follow through on a plan to which everyone initially agreed he really appears to be seeking glory and heroism. This much more closely fits what everyone accuses him of.

Then let’s actually remove him from the command structure. Don’t demote him; bench him entirely. Confine him to quarters while you try to figure out what you need to do with him and have that decision delayed by the First Order’s follow up attack and Leia’s coma. Don’t let him out to try to fly against the Imperials. Keep him locked up and frustrated. Then, when he comes up with the plan with Rose and Finn that counters what General Holdo wants to accomplish, he’s really acting out. Instead of just acting on command authority without consulting others who are technically above him but practically in a different command structure. He’d be using authority he shouldn’t even have anymore. The rest of this can play out more or less the way it actually did in the movie only it will fit a lot better.

Rey and Kylo’s plot

Actually, this isn’t bad either. the biggest change I’d make here is that I’d have Rey learn the truth of her parentage in the cave. As things stand the cave is entirely pointless. She stands around snapping her fingers and absolutely nothing happens. Why is this sequence here? Let’s kill two birds with one stone. I had the light shown to me when I read somewhere – I forget where so if you know please tell me so I can properly credit the writer – that the way Rey’s parentage is revealed is a tad on the icky side because it could have been a moment of empowerment for her but instead becomes something Kylo gets to wield against her. So let’s take that away from him – he doesn’t need it – and give it back to her.

After meeting with Luke and realizing he doesn’t want to train her she’s probably already feeling rejected, again, so let’s let her face her past on her own terms. The follow through where she continues to resist the temptation to slip to the dark side then follows a bit more strongly, as well. I think it was intended to show her hitting rock bottom but it never really feels like that so I think a different angle might do better.

General Holdo

For starters, let’s put her in a uniform. There’s really no need for the dress and it’s distracting as hell. Then, now that we’ve fixed Poe’s place in the story, we don’t have to change her much. Everything she does makes sense in this new context. Except for one thing. The way she acts after sending the transports off to Crait. First of all, she always should have adjusted course to try to block line-of-sight to the transports just for added security and safety. But let’s assume that wasn’t an option because the very act of changing course would have given the game away. That seems reasonable. You know what would have been a hell of a lot more distracting than just trying to fly along on her merry way? (Which, ya know, flying straight is probably something the autopilot could have handled anyway.) Doing the thing she eventually did, anyhow. Flip the cruiser around and use it as a giant weapon against the First Order fleet.

This moment of self-sacrifice would be even more of an excellent lesson for Poe about “Glory” and the costs it has if it had been planned from the beginning and made clear to Poe that that was the case. It makes Holdo a stronger character with firmer convictions and noble purpose instead of the helpless incompetent who stood there and watched half of her allies get slaughtered before she finally coming up with a desperate plan.

Luke Skywalker

Finally, we get to Luke. We’re going to need to make a couple changes here. I still, for the life of me, can’t see Luke Skywalker being the kind of guy who would whip out his lightsaber and wield it against his sleeping nephew before realizing that’s probably a bad idea. But I can see a couple other options that would work just as well to motivate Ben – keeping in mind that Luke losing an apprentice in any sense, but especially one which saw students or staff die at the hands of a traitor could still lead him to run away and lick his wounds as he ends up doing. He could see or sense Ben meeting with Snoke and arrive on the scene wielding his lightsaber which caused Ben to move up the timetable for his betrayal; it’s already canon, after all, that Ben was being tempted to the Dark Side. Luke’s fears did not come out of nowhere. Or perhaps Ben could overhear Luke having a conversation with ghost Obi-Wan about Luke knowing that Ben has been meeting with Snoke and maybe Old Ben tells Luke he should just kill young Ben, now. Heck, you could rip a page out of Final Fantasy XV and have Snoke use a Jedi mind trick on Luke that causes him to think Ben is Snoke or someone else just as evil and have Luke attack him unintentionally.

The point is that you can move the characters to the same places with the same feelings without turning Luke into such a cowardly figure. I think most Star Wars fans are willing to go along with you to a world where Luke isn’t perfect. Where Luke is scared, or confused, or angry. But to ask us all to believe in a Luke who is so cowardly that he would so seriously consider killing his own student and nephew while he slept in cold blood is just a bridge too far.

I know I spent some time in my original review complaining about Luke dying. I didn’t think it was necessary and I didn’t like the way it was done. I still don’t think it was absolutely necessary but I can see how it works even if it wasn’t. Luke’s continued existence in the franchise would be something of an Avengers problem for every subsequent movie where people would ask why he doesn’t come out of retirement to help solve this latest problem the same way they ask why the Avengers don’t always show up to help out heroes in every solo superhero movie.  I also still don’t like how Luke’s death was done with what amounts to a fakeout followed by the real death. But I’m actually not entirely sure how I’d fix that. The best I’ve come up with is maybe to show him straining more when we flash to his real body after the reveal so that it’s more apparent that what he’s doing will kill him.

And that’s it. Well, one more thing, I’d like to see Rey ditch the ancient Jedi texts. In a movie that goes on and on about letting the past die it still feels incredibly odd that the absolute worst part of the past – the texts of an order that did stupid things in the name of stupid ideals and hurt people and ultimately got themselves killed – survives. And I wouldn’t have Rose fall in love with Finn after knowing him for less than 24 hours. That seems way too convenient.

OK, so that’s it. As you can see most of the movie survives intact. It’s just a few key changes to actually communicate the messages and ideas Mr. Johnson appears to have been trying to tell through this movie. He doesn’t have bad ideas it’s just like he didn’t bother to completely plot out all the details and trusted the audience to just accept whatever outcome he gave them. How about you? Do you like these changes or would you rather make different ones?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

A ridiculously long, overly-detailed review.

Two years ago Star Wars fans finally received the first cinematic entry in the universe since  Revenge of the Sith came out a decade previous. The Force Awakens was not a perfect movie but it was a strong return all the same. Star Wars fans rejoiced, sure that this prototype had proven that Disney could successfully create decent movies and would likely improve as they continued their plan to release yearly entries into the new canon.

Unfortunately the first stand-alone Star Wars movie, Rogue One, was a giant mess. There were people who loved it but in a fan base as rabid as Star Wars boasts there will always be a vocal group who love the movies regardless. But that was a stand-alone movie. And it was in an awkward place as another prequel. And it had had shooting issues. Surely The Last Jedi would be better? This was the mainline series, it had Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in it. Disney and Rian Johnson had to know what needed to happen to ensure a terrific experience for their adoring fans, right?

Wrong.

To put it bluntly – and spoiler free for the moment – Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a mess thematically, character-wise, and story-wise. The movie does have it’s good moments. For all his flaws as a writer Rian Johnson really knows how to set up a gorgeous shot. There were some original shots and some re-creations of shots from the original trilogy that were both gorgeous and terrific homages. The fight scenes – outside of one particular fight – is terrific, well-shot and just about everything you could ask for across a variety of battle types and environments. Not everyone enjoyed the humor in the movie but it wasn’t anything drastically different from the kind of stuff that’s been present in the series from the beginning despite the protests of some that it has been “Disney-ified.”

OK now the Spoilers are coming. ALL THE SPOILERS because I want to dig into why the story and characers are so very bad. You’ve been warned.

Spoilers Banner

First I want to reiterate that the movie is not without its good points. The cold open – as remiscent of The Empire Strikes Back as it is – is terrific. It’s got Poe Dameron doing over-the-top amazing X-Wing stuff, last minute escapes, and exciting explosions. It’s got classic Star Wars humor with BB-8 attempting to repair a short in the X-Wing and a bit of dialog where Poe attempts to distract and delay his enemy with unusual remarks that is very remiscent of Han Solo’s attempts to delay the storm troopers when he and Luke Skywalker invade the prison block on the original Death Star, though Poe’s attempt is significantly more successful.

But ultimately the good stuff is just a candy shell on solidified, raw sewage. There are many people complaining about the pointlessness of Finn’s subplot but by the end of the movie absolutely nothing has changed in any meaningful way for the state of any of the surviving characters as compared to the beginning. At the beginning the resistance fighters are fleeing from an Imperial attack on their lone base, greatly outnumbered and with practically no resources. At the end of the movie they are even more outnumbered, have even fewer resources, and are fleeing from a different base but that’s it.

In the previous paragraph you’ll note that I specifically mentioned the “surviving characters” that’s because almost all of the Resistance fighters died. This includes Admiral Ackbar unceremoniously being blown out into space – don’t worry I’ve got more on that in a minute – and Luke Skywalker dying at the very end. Luke’s death was problematic for a variety of reasons. First, though most subjectively, I doubt very seriously that any of the Star Wars fans who have been begging for a sequel trilogy for so long were doing so in the hopes that they could watch their childhood or young adulthood heroes die one by one. I know that’s definitely not what I had hoped for. There exist plenty of ways to pass the torch to a new generation of heroes without killing the old. Unfortunately as we learn from a snippet of an internal e-mail that somehow made it into Adam Driver’s script Disney’s plans for these movies are, “Let the past die. Kill it if you must.” Some people will laud this as creative story telling or a maturation of the series. I’ve long argued that character deaths are the crutch of writers who want to raise the stakes but can’t think of a creative way to do so and so they fall back on the easiest trick in the book. That’s not necessarily the entire motivation here, but they’re certainly using that shortcut and eliminating all those old, ugly people so they can have fresh, more attractive faces for the next generation of Star Wars collectibles.

Luke Skywalker's death was troubling for old fans, it breaks a cardinal rule of writing, and it ignores multiple more satisfying narrative choices for no apparent reason.

By far the bigger issue with Luke Skywalker’s death, however, is the how and why of it. There was a moment when it appeared Luke would die the same way as his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, sacrificing himself following a lightsaber duel with his old apprentice in order to distract the enemy so his allies could escape and bring hope to the galaxy. That death would have been actually pretty good and full of symbolism, especially since Leia’s old message to Obi-Wan Kenobi was what spurred Luke to even consider doing anything useful to begin with. However, that’s not what we got. We soon discovered that Luke hadn’t come to actually face his old apprentice, he had stayed on his hidden island and done some sort of force-astral projection to confront his enemy. This could have been a fine moment where Luke proved that he was both smarter than Kylo and that he had learned from his master’s mistakes. That’s not what we got either.

Instead what we got was the following:

  1. Proof that Luke had not overcome his fears. He stayed on his hidden planet, did not come to help his sister, and lost the opportunity to redeem his earlier cowardice by facing Kylo Ren now (both the attempt to murder Ben Solo and then running and hiding instead of cleaning up after himself are high cowardice for the once-hero of the Rebellion)
  2. A cheap death fake-out.
  3. An immediate reversal where Luke, apparently over-taxed by his force exertions, dies anyway.

The fake death has been overdone to almost the same degree as the character-death-solely-to-raise-the-stakes trick. But the cardinal rule of the fake death is that if you do it you don’t then kill that character in the same movie, book, or television season. If you do you are insulting your audience, not wowing them. Furthermore this particular death, happening so quickly on the heels of the fake out and resulting in no body, apparently lead to plenty of confusion:

Luke sample
A sampling of the search results for “Is Luke Skywalker dead”

Let’s go back to an earlier moment in the movie; Ackbar, Leia, and apparently the entire command staff of the rebellion are on the bridge of their primary cruiser. The bridge is destroyed and they’re all killed. except Leia. She floats in space, her body freezing for several seconds, apparently dead before the force finally takes over and wills her back into the ship. The moment would have been weird and pointless even if Carrie Fisher had not tragically passed earlier this year. Given that she did it was incredibly uncomfortable for an audience that was already hyper aware that every moment she was on screen they were watching the last artistic effort of a dead woman. To sit and stare at her seemingly lifeless body for several long seconds was among the most awkward things I’ve ever experienced. To watch her force powers zip her back into the ship felt like the height of nonsense and disrespect. This scene really should have been re-worked following her death. Some people suggest she should have just died then and there. As much as I think many were there to drink in as much Carrie Fisher as they could before the movie ended she really wasn’t allowed to do much of anything after this point beyond standing around existing as Carrie Fisher and throwing out a few quips. So this probably could have worked with a couple of reshoots. Alternately they could have simply had a rescue shuttle recover her and claimed that she was wearing some sort of forcefield tech that had protected her from space temporarily until they could get to her – this actually fits into previous canon which showed that pilots could eject from their spacecraft and survive for a period of time before rescue shuttles retrieved them. Nothing else in the movie would have had to change, it just would have allowed us to avoid this awkward scene.

The reason, of course, that Leia is rendered into a prop for the majority of the film is to allow the conflict between Poe Dameron and Vice Admiral Holdo. This conflict is utterly inane and doesn’t even come close to conveying any sort of moral, though it pretty confidently struts on the screen as if it did. Leia’s last act before being blown out into space is to demote Poe Dameron – the problem is that neither she nor anyone else bothers to promote anyone else to be the leader of the pilots. Since this is only a rank change and not a responsibility change it ultimately accomplishes nothing and serves no purpose. Leia does it because she’s mad at him for disobeying an order, which is fine, but she says it’s because he’s too concerned with appearing to be a hero and not with being a leader. The reasoning for his disobedience has nothing to do with appearing to be a hero and everything to do with his assertion that if they didn’t take out the dreadnought now it would just hunt them down again later.

Enter Vice Admiral Holdo, a flag officer in a fleet of three ships that already has an admiral and a general, who wears a fancy party dress instead of a uniform, and is destined to teach Poe how to be a leader. Or something. She does this by completely ignoring him for most of the movie. When he finally storms on to the bridge and demands she reveal her plan for dealing with the main crisis of the movie – that the fleet is running low on fuel and cannot lose the First Order because they are being tracked, even through hyperspace – she still refuses to tell him, or anyone else, what her plan is. He investigates the bridge and comes to the conclusion that she is planning to have everyone disembark from the ship in the unarmed, unarmored transports that lack hyperdrives and flee when the cruiser runs out of fuel. He accuses her of being a traitor though “Criminally Incompetent” would probably be the better descriptor based on the information he has. Of course, when she discovers his plan to have Finn and Rose attempt to disable the tracker, she accuses him of endangering everyone’s lives but Poe and Rose don’t know anything that could possibly put the resistance fighters in any more danger than they are already in so I guess they’re even in the stupid accusations department. In any case, Holdo allows Poe and everyone else to believe she really is a coward, an idiot, or a traitor. When she finally orders the evacuation on to the transports he performs a mutiny with the help of his fellow pilots who were never removed from his command, and attempts to wait for Finn and Rose to complete the plan they came up with at the beginning of the movie. Holdo still doesn’t tell him or anyone else the plan. When Finn and Poe’s plan fails Leia storms the bridge and stuns Poe – her last true action of the movie and something that could as well have been done by someone else or no one else considering what happens next.

Poe wakes up in the shuttle bay again and, finally, Holdo reveals the true plan. Leia tells Poe, “She was more concerned with doing the right thing than appearing heroic.” Which is great, I guess? It’s the thing she wanted him to learn. But this particular example makes no sense. There was never any reason to not tell people the plan. Holdo gained nothing from not telling people the plan. In fact, she cost everyone valuable time by not telling people the plan because Poe wouldn’t have mutinied if she had told everyone the plan. That’s not leadership and while it is being willing to be seen as something less than you are, it’s more in service of pointless secrecy than leadership. It’s also still better described as incompetence. She continues this incompetence by staying behind on the cruiser to distract the enemy fleet but she doesn’t even bother to do so much as to maneuver the cruiser to block the line of sight of the First Order ships and her incredibly vulnerable transports. This directly leads to the destruction of half or more of those transports before she decides to do something. She ultimately sacrifices her life by aiming a hyperspace jump directly at the enemy fleet, destroying most or all of it. That… actually would have been a better plan, come to think of it.

Pause here in the description of this idiocy for a moment because the scene is truly well shot and directed. There are approximately 10 seconds of silence and bright visuals that allow you time to just gawk at the sheer destruction she has wrought upon the enemy with her sacrifice. It’s beautiful and terrifying and everything you could ask for in that moment.

Anyway, General Holdo, who is supposed to be an example of the best kind of leadership for her people and for Poe to learn from, is an example of terrible leadership who keeps people in the dark and waits far too long to do the job that needs doing. Poe who is supposed to learn from this that appearances are less important than actually just doing the right thing doesn’t ever get an opportunity to show that he learned that – not that the example provided him was actually a good one. And, as previously mentioned, Poe didn’t really exhibit this tendency to begin with. Is he reckless, insubordinate, and impetuous? Sure. Is he overly concerned with appearances? Not so far as we are ever shown. People talk about Finn and Rose’s trip to the casino planet being a complete waste of the time because the hacker they get ends up being unable to do the job in time, but the true waste of this movie was in the Poe/Holdo plotline which spins its wheels, albeit loudly, for approximately the same amount of run time.

Speaking of wasted time, how about when Rey follows another Empire Strikes Back plot point and goes into an area of Dark Side Force Energy despite the pleading of her master? When Luke did it back in Empire he was shown that if he allowed his anger to continue to dominate him he would become like Vader. When Rey did it it took longer, involved much fancier special effects, and resulted in…nothing. She went in looking for the answer to who her parents were and left having observed some trippy mirror special effects but gained absolutely nothing from the experience beyond knowledge of what the back of her head looks like.

Let’s go back to Finn and Rose for a moment because their trip to the casino planet actually has my favorite moment from the movie. There’s plenty of heavy handed stuff about evil rich people, followed by some other foreshadowing stuff about how people who want to survive/profit in this galaxy must be willing to work with both sides from their hacker friend, DJ. But in between there’s a fun moment where Finn and Rose set free a bunch of abused, giant horse-equivalent creatures. Finn and Rose ride one of these majestic beasties into chaos and property destruction but eventually find themselves trapped at the precipice of a cliff. As the enemy hovercraft close in they realize they won’t be able to escape and Finn says to Rose, “Well, it was worth it, right?” referring to the destruction they wreaked on the jerk weapons dealers. Rose unsaddles the horse creature they had been riding and sends it to join its herd and replies, “Now it is.”

You can point out that the horse creatures are quite likely to be recaptured in short order all you want. The point isn’t the actual end result, it’s what you see about Rose’s character and what she represents for the Resistance through her actions. A desire for freedom for everyone, freedom for even the least creatures, freedom for those you might have used for your own goals. It’s one of the few ‘victories’ for the heroes in the entire movie and a very touching moment. Also, listen everybody, plans fail. All the time. If every plan in a story had to succeed to be interesting that would actually make for a lot of dull stories where you know the moment a plan is introduced that it will succeed. Following plots with failed plans is natural, then, and can progress a story even without solving a problem. In The Force Awakens Han develops a plan to go to a smuggler planet to get aid in getting Finn and Rey to the resistance. His plan fails because the First Order shows up and starts blasting everything before they kidnap Rey. Does that mean it was a wasted trip? Of course not. We learn more about the situation of the story, new characters are introduced and old characters learn and grow. Or how about in Independence Day when President Whitmore finally OK’s a nuclear attack against the aliens over Houston. That plan also fails. But you learn more about situation and the characters because of it.  That’s all true after the trip to the casino planet, as well.

I’ve already spent nearly 3000 words on this review so I’ll just provide the rest of the errors in this movie as a list in no particular order:

  • There is no way for Don’t Join, aka DJ the Hacker, to know about the cloaked transports. Finn and Rose can’t know because no one knows except for Vice Admiral Party Dress until after they’re captured. It’s a giant plot hole. I just hope we don’t get a Rogue Two to try to address it. It turns out that Poe does tell them they need to hurry up because the transports are being loaded up. So that’s a miss on my part.
  • Throughout the movie various resistance members assert they do have allies in the Outer Rim, that they might have allies in the Outer Rim, or that they do not have allies in the Outer Rim but someone might decide to help them anyway if they send a distress signal. Any of those assumptions would have been fine – even as it turns out they do not have any allies and no one is willing to become one – but the fact that they acted confident it had never been stated any other way was awkward and annoying. Pick one of those and stick to it!
  • If the First Order had been smart during the opening battle they would have used their first volley from the dreadnought’s cannons on the capital ships. Then the resistance members in transports between the surface and the ships would have had nowhere to go and could have been picked off easily.
  • Kylo Ren is an incredibly boring villain, now. There existed a possibility where he turned to the dark side for some interesting reason – to try to infiltrate Snoke’s group or any of a hundred other reasons you might imagine – but the end result is that he’s just another spoiled white boy throwing a tantrum. Sure he had a right to be upset about his uncle trying to kill him but he was apparently turning evil before that. It also doesn’t justify attempting to destroy the entire galaxy or killing your own father. He’s apparently not even conflicted anymore and may never have been. What a terrible, one-note character.
  • Turns out all the theorizing about Supreme Leader Snoke’s “true identity” was pointless. Not only was he not someone we had ever heard of before, but he died unceremoniously without directly affecting the trilogy other than being the original impetus for Kylo Ren’s turn to the dark side. Kylo might as well have turned because he prefers to set his marshmallows on fire for all the difference it makes in his character or the story.
  • As with the prequel trilogy all of the actors appear borderline incompetent. As with the prequel trilogy I’m left to assume it’s terrible writing and poor directing that cause it because Oscar Isaac, at least, has been nails in other roles I’ve seen him perform. Other than him, Adam Driver, and Mark Hamill the acting was subpar to say the least. Actually, I take that back, Kelly Marie Tran did the best she could with some admittedly dumb dialog. Before you flame me, Carrie Fisher wasn’t given a role to act, she was a given a prop to be. Just in case you missed the fact that Rian Johnson, in particular, doesn’t want any of those old people messing up his perfect movie.
  • The huge deal they made out Captain Phasma’s existence continues to be mind boggling as she continues to do absolutely nothing.
  • Finn spent the entire first movie and the beginning of this movie having a major character flaw of being a coward despite confronting his cowardice at the end of the last movie. The character flaw suddenly switched to naivete, instead, when he got to the Casino planet.
  • When Leia uses the force/the force guides her back into the cruiser through the destroyed bridge and the blast door is opened to admit her air comes into the corridor from the bridge. That’s the opposite of how vacuum works. Even if you want to argue that there were magfield emitters that we just couldn’t see it seems unlikely that the bridge would be over-pressurized compared to the hallway immediately after it had been so thoroughly depressurized.
  • Why is every First Order ship capable of tracking the Resistance Fleet through hyperspace but only one of them does at a time? Why don’t they track the Falcon when the handful of Resistance survivors flee in it at the end of the film? It’s not like there was a tracking device on the cruiser or they could have spent time trying to find that instead of having stupid contests of who can tell who the least about their plans. Actually, since we established in A New Hope that tracking devices existed which could be tracked through hyperspace I’m not sure why they were using some fancy tracker instead of one of those devices, anyway. Or why everyone assumed there wasn’t a tracking device, at least.
  • If you use miniaturized Death Star tech it counts as putting another Death Star in your movie. Also, lasers aren’t battering rams. They’re lasers. Even in the Star Wars universe they use focused energy to melt, not force to break. Look at the blast door after the cannon fires, it isn’t broken, it has a hole melted in it.
  • For all their desire to replace the old Star Wars heroes with the new they sure can’t be bothered to give them any kind of concrete motivation. Luke’s goal was to become a great hero and then a Jedi Master like his father and then to redeem his father. Han Solo wanted to make enough money to pay off a crime lord then he wanted to woo a Princess. Leia worked hard to use her position and talents to bring freedom to the downtrodden people of the galaxy. Rey wanted to find her parents in the first movie but kind of forgot about that except when people mentioned it and then it turns out that she apparently knew her parents were dead drunks all along? Finn wanted to escape war in the first movie but now he wants Rey? Except if someone else kisses him? Does Poe even want anything in particular? It seems like he’s only part of the Resistance because the script put him there.
  • Why did the frigate captain stay on the frigate when it ran out of fuel? There was nothing he could do and I find it hard to believe there wasn’t room for one more person on the escape transports. Also, why didn’t anyone think of the kamikaze hyper jump idea earlier and use those two ships to clear the First Order off of their trail?
  • Similarly, why did all of those soldiers with rifles go out to fight the walkers and TIE fighters on the salt planet? Rifles have never so much as scratched the paint on any of those vehicles so those guys all basically just went out there to die and they had to know it.
  • There are just so, so many ways the Jedi failed and Luke can only give Rey that they were at their strongest when Palpatine rose to power? That’s the best you’ve got? What happened to third lesson?
  • I think we’ve pretty well established through third party articles and essays at this point that the Jedi order was actually pretty messed up and might be more properly classified as a dangerous cult than a beacon of light, hope, and justice. I was actually really happy when Yoda destroyed the tree. He certainly implied that it was time for the Jedi to end. That’s all undercut by the end of the movie when you discover that Rey stole the ancient Jedi texts and apparently means to train at least herself and possibly a new generation of Jedi, after all. I guess it might be interesting to see if she can do it without turning them into a cult but only time will tell.

I’ll leave you on a positive note because I hate to spend too much time dwelling on the bad without acknowledging the good. John Williams knows how write a score to make you feel things so strongly you can’t even think. He writes beautiful themes for characters and locations and then expertly blends them together based on what’s happening on screen and then adds in the necessary movements for the emotion on the screen. John Williams isn’t just a conductor or composer, he is the Supreme Leader of movie music.