The Dresden Files: Skin Game shows other people how to write

I’ve been listening to James Marsters read the Dresden Files books for months now. I got the first one on sale from Audible more than a year ago and have been borrowing them from the library or buying them on Audible ever since. The first book definitely had its issues and especially early on read like someone who couldn’t stop thinking about sex for five seconds, but if you follow along the now 15-book (plus a handful of short story collections) series you can watch a writer – in this case, Jim Butcher – grow into his talents.

The series starts out good but far from perfect in Storm Front. By the time Butcher got to the fifth book, Death Masks, he had really started to hit his stride and the series went from being something I listened to idly for lack of an obviously better choice to one I devoured as fast as I possibly could. Skin Game, the most recent full novel released by Butcher, was easily the best, yet. It also showed far superior versions of flawed moments in movies I have written about, this year. SPOILERS for Avengers: Infinity WarSolo: A Star Wars Story, and The Dresden Files: Skin Game follow.

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

This book was terrific for a lot of reasons and if you want to read it I really hope you’ll turn back, now. Similarly, if you haven’t seen the aforementioned movies these are not little baby spoilers. They’re really massive ones on which the movies turn, entirely. Alright, I’ve warned as much as I can.

Skin Game is actually a heist story

Harry gets ordered by Mab, the Queen of Winter Faerie and his current boss, to help out Nicodemus Archleone, the head of a group of fallen angels melded with evil humans known as the Knights of the Denarius or the Denarians. Nicodemus wants to steal The Holy Grail from Hades. If you’ve ever heard a better setup for a fantasy heist story I want to hear about it. You immediately have what’s guaranteed to be a nigh-impenetrable vault owned by an incredibly powerful person who is likely to take offense at your attempted burglary, and you’re partnering the hero with the most villainous character and organization* he’s ever encountered. It’s going to be a good time.

*One quick note: Nicodemus and his crew are recurring villains in this series, but this is only, I think the third time they’ve been encountered. Butcher does a tremendous job creating villains that the audience is going to want to hear from again and then not overusing them. A lot of other authors, I think, would be tempted to put Nic behind every single problem Harry faces but we can go several novels in between appearances so he – and other recurring villains in the series – never wear out their welcome, for the audience.

The most important staple of a heist story is assembling the crew. And they do it. Nicodemus is joined by his alleged daughter Deirdre; a summoner and take on the traditional cockney ne’er-do-well who isn’t 100% evil, Binder; warlock, fire-specialist, and ally of Binder, Hanna Ascher; shapeshifter Goodman Grey, former cop and frequent Dresden ally Karrin Murphy, thief-with-a-grudge-against-Nic Anna Valmont; and a Bigfoot-like creature that can wield incredibly powerful magic known as The Genoskwa.

Each of these members gets a proper introduction. Each of them has a specialty which allows the team to function as a whole. There are conflicting personalities which raise the tension of the heist above and beyond the actual theft. And, like any true heist story, the setup for the caper is significantly longer, tougher, and more interesting than the theft itself.

If Solo had really wanted to be a heist film, this is the model it should have followed. Because it doesn’t really do any of these things it’s actually an action film starring thieves. That doesn’t make it a bad film, just not what I was expecting and not what it could have or should have been if it wanted to be more than a perfectly adequate summer popcorn flick.

Skin Game shows how to have a villain kill that which he loves

By far the biggest issue in Avengers: Infinity War was the bit about the Soul Stone. To jog your memory a bit: Thanos discovers, after finding the location of the Soul Stone, that to actually acquire it he must sacrifice that which he loves most. But the way he has been described and portrayed throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a person who is as incapable of love as Gamora takes him to be. Instead, Thanos informs Gamora that she is what he loves most in the universe before throwing her off of a cliff.

Some have argued that comparatively, the man who loves nothing might come closest to loving Gamora and that’s fine for an argument purely in response to nitpicking the logic. But the greater issue is that which it conveys to its audience about the nature of love and abusers. I’ve already written on the subject and here’s someone else writing more eloquently than I could if you want to read more about that. But the basic idea you should be getting is that it was a really poor choice on the part of the Russos.

Skin Game, though, has a lesson for the MCU, in this. It turns out Hades has blocked the way to his vault with three gates. The third and final gate is the Gate of Blood. To get through it you must kill someone in front of it and their shade must pull the lever to open the way. In this moment Nicodemus knows there is only one person on his team that he can trust to open the gate once he has killed them, his daughter, Deirdre.

Unlike what happens in Avengers, everything leading up to this moment has shown that Nicodemus and Deirdre absolutely care about each other, even if it is in their own twisted way. They both think they’re doing the right thing, for whatever reason, and so when Nicodemus kills her it’s also a moment of self-sacrifice for her. She chooses that fate for herself as much as he does. And the fact that Nicodemus loves her so much comes into play, later in the story, as well. His grief over killing her causes him to react stupidly multiple times. It’s the turning point for the climax of the novel, even.

Skin Game shows Solo how to have a friendly-appearing crook betray their allies

It was obvious from the beginning that Nicodemus, Deirdre, and The Genoskwa were going to betray Harry. Grey also seemed to be on their side, though less emphatically. Similarly, Anna and Karrin and eventually Michael Carpenter – he had to replace Karrin after an early confrontation with Nicodemus led to her being too injured to continue – were all on Dresden’s side. Binder and Hanna were anyone’s guess but they both seemed like they weren’t entirely evil and so the audience could hope they’d come down on Harry’s side and turn the balance in his favor.

Hanna, especially, just seemed like someone who had been dealt a bad hand in life and who, with a little bit of effort, could be convinced to work for the side of the good guys permanently. Perhaps a bit like a certain Tobias Beckett? But, like Beckett, she decides to betray our heroes and work for the villains. Unlike Beckett, however, her heel turn makes perfect sense.

She was close with Binder but not so close that it was unreasonable for him to be unaware of the full extent of her identity or plans. You’ll note how different that is from Beckett who had a woman who loved him and seemed to know him very well as well as a very relaxed, friendly creature on his team; it just doesn’t make sense that these two people with obviously good hearts could work for or with such a cold-hearted villain. When Hanna reveals her betrayal to Dresden she does so with a full explanation of how very much she hates him; that’s another huge difference from Beckett; betrayals work better with strong motivations and Hanna has one while Beckett had nothing but a shrug and I-told-you-I-was-going-to-do-thises.

It’s one of the saddest but strongest story moments in the entire book and even a highlight moment of the entire series. Because Hanna was everything she seemed to be. But there was more to her, as well. She wasn’t directly lying to Harry or Binder she just didn’t tell them the whole truth. When the reveal comes everyone realizes they’ve allowed themselves to be fooled. The entire thing is driven by strong character motivations and makes for a terrific denouement instead of just checking a box off on your storyboard.

Skin Game ends like a heist movie, too

Every good heist movie has a moment where it looks like the thieves have been outsmarted after all and are going to lose everything. The action is abruptly interrupted to go back in time to some seemingly unimportant moment that you hadn’t stopped to think about since it ended and it’s revealed that the protagonist(s) saw it coming all along and planned for this eventuality, too.

Harry uses Nicodemus’ grief against him so that Nicodemus will pick a fight with Harry. The obscure rules of engagement they were playing under meant that Harry couldn’t make the first attack but he also had no intention of letting Nicodemus leave The Underworld with The Holy Grail if he could help it. Nicodemus takes the bait but then puts Harry in a sticky situation. Not only is The Genoskwa on his side but so is Hanna. And they’ve both taken up Coins of the Fallen, meaning they’ve got fallen angels riding shotgun in the back of their brains giving them more strength and cunning than they had before. And then Grey waltzes over, ready to join the party.

It is at this moment, when all seems lost, that Harry flashes back to before the heist even started. He remembers the steps he had to take in order to hire Goodman Grey, whose loyalty is entirely to the person who hired him and who never betrays such a contract, before the heist even started. Back to the present and Grey takes Harry’s side against the enemy which turns the tide of the conflict and allows Harry and friends to become victorious.

There is, of course, more to the story before, during, and after the events I’ve described which combine to make it even better. If you’re interested in urban fantasy novels I can highly recommend The Dresden Files. The series, as I said before, starts out rough, but it definitely improves and you get a much greater appreciation for where the character is, where he’s been, and where he’s going by starting from the beginning. And if, on top of the urban fantasy, you want to read a good heist story or just see some terrific examples of common story tropes done amazingly well? Then Skin Game is probably the book for you.

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?

Titan A.E. is a hidden gem

Not enough people know about this cinematic masterpiece.

Some of you are sitting in front of your screens right now going, “What are you talking about? Doesn’t everyone know about Titan A.E.?” And the rest of you are going, “What’s a Titan A.E.?” You see, this brilliant movie flopped very badly at the box office; it didn’t even make back half of what it cost to make. Since then, however, it has become something of a cult classic. If it was such a good movie, what made it good and how did it flop so hard? If it was so bad, why is it so beloved, now? Why are some people madly in love with it while others have never even heard of it?

For starters, it had terrible timing. The movie was picked up by Fox Animation right at the end of that studio’s existence. It seems Fox was determined to kill the studio regardless of this film or its success and that certainly hampered development – forcing, among other things, Fox Animation to outsource a good bit of the work. Another problem was that it is fairly easy to draw a clear line from several character and story tropes in Star Wars directly to this film. Ordinarily, that might not be a problem, lots of movies have done this and gotten away with it just fine – heck, even Star Wars wasn’t the first one to do a lot of what it did – but this movie happened to come out smack dab between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. There isn’t a much worse time for a space movie that superficially resembles Star Wars tthan that. It was also a bit ahead of its time in genre; Harry Potter had not yet paved the way for a swarm of very successful young adult movies and anime hadn’t quite gotten a full grip on the young adult audience to make it cool for teens to still want to watch cartoons, either.

Critics roasted the movie and people didn’t know what to make of it. But the critics were wrong. You’ll note I said above that the story superficially resembles Star Wars, and that’s true. It absolutely has a chosen one young man who must save the galaxy from a threat that wields planet-destroying lasers. There’s also a sarcastic man who’s been around the galaxy a bit and pilots a unique-looking ship. But, as previously noted, those tropes are hardly unique to Star Wars and Titan A.E. certainly puts its own spin on them. Spoilers follow for the 18-year-old movie.

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The biggest and most obvious twist is that the “Han Solo” character, Captain Joseph Korso (Bill Pullman), turns out to be a villain. His primary side-kick Preed (Nathan Lane) also turns out to be a villain but betrays Korso along with everyone else. That causes Korso to have a change of heart at the last moment and ultimately sacrifice himself for the greater good, which ultimately makes him like Han Solo in that sense but ignores the very different motivations that get him there. The villains are also much more unique than George Lucas’ space nazis; they’re beings of pure energy who destroyed earth because they were afraid of what the humans could create giving them a motivation for their behavior a bit more narrative kick than a simple, “We’re just evil, ya know?”

The movie features far better humor than any Star Wars film. Including such terrific moments as when an early-20s Cale Tucker (Matt Damon) gets caught staring at Akima (Drew Barrymore) as she pilots her ship into dock and whips out a cloth to attempt to act nonchalant by cleaning the windows. This leads to an even better moment later on when Akima notes they’ve been searching everywhere for the person who can save humanity and it turns out to be “the window washer.” Another terrific moment comes when Preed stops Stith (Jeneane Garofalo) from simply blasting her way into a prison and attempts to con his way past the guard as the crew moves to rescue Akima midway through the movie (unlike Princess Leia she’s sitting smugly in her cell having incapacitated a horde of lecherous slaves and prisoners with a makeshift club.) This scene has been done a million times before, but it’s wonderfully subverted when the guard notices multiple tiny details and completely sees through the lie before Stith is forced to beat him unconscious anyway.

Even at its worst the story is solid and serves as a brilliant setup for every other aspect of the movie – and there is no aspect of this movie that isn’t above average. The animation style was a then-revolutionary blend of 3D CGI and standard hand-drawn animation that showed up again in later films like Treasure Planet and creates a very unique feel for the movie. It’s brilliantly executed as the Drej are very obviously animated differently and look very different – and therefore more alien – than the rest of the characters and creatures in the film. The chase through the ice asteroid field represents both an imaginative, unique setting and a stunning victory for the animation crew that created it. Had the film been better received, that sequence might well be an iconic part of cinematic history.

The score is very well executed by New Zealander Graeme Revell who is kind of a lesser-known version of contemporary Hans Zimmer. The music includes not only his terrific electronic and orchestral work but a good number of pop songs written by then-popular bands specifically for the film. Highlights include Electrasy’s “Cosmic Castaway”, Bliss 66’s “Not Quite Paradise”, and particularly The Urge’s “It’s My Turn to Fly”. The voice work is all terrific from a phenomenal, star-studded cast and the various sound effects bring the movie to life.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the movie is that it tells a complete story without glaring holes in only 94 minutes including credits. That amount of time combined with the strength and depth of the story means there is no bad filler. Everything develops the world or the characters further or advances the plot. It’s an incredibly efficient use of time.

In that short window of time, they not only told a high-quality story but developed an incredibly interesting universe where it seems so many more stories could have been told. I have always had a soft spot for sci-fi tales that include aliens and don’t make humans the center of the universe. The setting of this movie has humanity nearly ready to go extinct after 15 years without a home planet and treated as the bottomfeeders and second-class citizens of the galaxy. It’s a lot more interesting and probably a lot more accurate to how the universe would be – humans can’t always be the best at everything.

One of the weirder methods I use to determine if a movie is any good is to ask myself if I feel like watching it again. The sooner I am able to answer that question with a yes, the more likely it is that the movie is good. For example, I still have no desire to watch The Avengers again despite the fact that I greatly enjoyed the movie the first time I saw it. This makes me think my subconscious picked up on some flaws I missed while I was watching what Marvel was then proclaiming the most ambitious crossover event in history.  On the other hand, I feel like I might be ready to re-watch Thor: Ragnarok again sometime within the next month despite seeing it far more recently. What does this have to do with Titan A.E.? I watched that movie Saturday night – not even remotely for the first time – and I could happily watch it again, right now. Perhaps the method is a bit prone to subjectivity but it has never failed me before. If you haven’t seen Titan A.E. I definitely recommend it. And if you have, go ahead and watch it again!

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.

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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.