A Review of Star Wars: Episode VIII
**Spoilers for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi**
I’ve been looking forward to seeing The Last Jedi pretty much since I watched the credits roll at the end of The Force Awakens. But, now that I’ve finally found a free two and a half hours and gotten myself to the theater to watch it… I’m feeling conflicted.
The movie is fun, beautifully shot, and deeply flawed. There are two specific parts of the story that I found particularly disappointing- namely the story arcs of Rey and Poe.
Let’s start with Poe.
In The Force Awakens, Poe is introduced to the viewer as a fantastically skilled pilot whose bravery is balanced by his compassion. He is a soldier who has been fighting a desperate war against the First Order, but his experiences in battle do not keep him from embracing a friendship with Finn, a defecting storm trooper. In fact, the friendship between Poe and Finn is one of the most emotional components of the movie.
In The Force Awakens, Poe is a man who sees the humanity in everyone from an enemy combatant (He’s the one who gives Finn his name!) to his droid, BB8. In The Force Awakens, Poe is courageous, compassionate, and compelling.
In The Last Jedi, Poe is transformed into the hero of an 80’s action movie.
Instead of a man defined by his heart, he becomes an amalgamation of the least likable aspects of Harrison Ford’s more well known characters. When General Organa (i.e. Princess Leia) is incapacitated and forced to spend much of the movie in a healing bubble (no… but really… it’s a literal bubble), the Resistance’s chain of command is followed, and Vice Admiral Holdo is put in charge.
When Poe first sees Vice Admiral Holdo, he asks someone he’s standing next to whether the woman in front of them is THE Vice Admiral whose daring deeds he’d heard about.
When it is confirmed that she is in fact THAT Vice Admiral Holdo, Poe shrugs and says something like, “She’s not what I expected.” Since the movie doesn’t actually tell us what he had expected… we are left to understand that even in a galaxy far, far away, even in a world where a princess has become a general, even in a world where a woman has achieved the position of Vice Admiral, one of our main characters thinks that it is unlikely that the woman standing in front of him is the hero that he had heard so much about.
If that had been the end of Poe’s transformation into knock-off Indiana Jones/ Han Solo, I would have chalked it up to an unfortunate moment in the script and forgotten about it.
Instead, from the moment that Vice Admiral Holdo takes control of the fleet, Poe actively works to undermine her. He yells at her, accuses her of not knowing what she’s doing, convinces his fellow fighters to mutiny, and, finally, physically attacks her so that he can take the power that he’s “owed."
As the movie progressed, Poe’s transformation from a likable hero to a hyper-masculine jerk was so jarring that I found myself trying to come up with potential explanations. Every time Poe did something terrible to Vice Admiral Holdo, I found myself thinking, “She’s got to be evil... right? Somehow he’s the only one who sees that she's evil.”
But, alas, at the end of the movie, we learn that Vice Admiral Holdo has been an incredible, selfless, brilliant hero THE ENTIRE TIME. If logic had played a part in this script, the confirmation of Vice Admiral Holdo's heroic character should have meant that the film wanted us, the audience, to dislike Poe since we had just spent the last two and a half hours watching him as he consistently undermined the true hero of the Resistance. Instead, the movie explicitly tells us that Poe’s behavior is perfectly acceptable.
How does it lead us to that conclusion? By literally knocking him unconscious and then having General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo stand over him, smiling.
The Vice Admiral actually cups his cheek with her hand and tells Leia that she likes him despite his “hot shot” behavior. Leia laughs and agrees.
Holdo just survived Poe’s MUTINY. His behavior endangered the lives of every member of the Resistance. But, after leading and saving her people IN SPITE of Poe’s actively undermining her whenever possible, Holdo pats him on the cheek, smiles at Leia, and then laughs with the general as they bond over surviving the shenanigans of men.
Every cue in the movie tells us that we should like Poe, but his behavior is less “lovable scamp” than “mutinous traitor,” and the fact that the central female leaders of the film can’t seem to see the difference between the two is very, very problematic.
Speaking of problematic, let’s move on to Rey.
After The Force Awakens, I was really excited about watching the continuation of Rey’s journey, and I was pleased to see that The Last Jedi does include some great moments where her character shines.
But, her story arc in this movie was the most disappointing for me. As her connection to Kylo Ren grew over the course of the film, I found myself thinking that if this movie had come out when I was 13 years old, I would have loved their storyline. The idea that Rey is the only one who is able to see that Kylo could be saved from his darkness would have been incredibly romantic to my middle school self. At 13, I would have swooned over the film’s assertion that Rey’s true power was being able to see the goodness within Kylo.
At 31, I have NO TIME FOR THIS. I have literally no desire to see another story where a woman’s power is her ability to rescue a man from his own demons.
Kylo is a bad guy. He is a murderer who enslaved Finn, Rey’s very best friend, and who killed her surrogate father figure, Han Solo (Kylo’s actual father).
And yet, we spend a good amount of the movie being told that Rey can save Kylo.
Now, I know you’re going to point out the parallel between Rey and Luke. After all, Luke saw Vader’s conflicted feelings about the dark and the light and then helped his father embrace enough of the light to act heroically in the end.
To that argument, I say... fine. Parts of their stories are parallel. BUT (and this is important), the aspects of their story lines that aren’t parallel undermine Rey’s agency and heroic narrative.
Rey’s insight into Kylo’s soul doesn’t come from her mastery of the force or from the spiritual connection of familial ties. Instead, her insight is presented as being part of her romantic connection to Kylo. And, even though, at the end of the movie, we see that Rey rejects Kylo’s offer to “rule together,” we spend ¾ of the film watching them dance around one another- each step they take effectively trapping Rey more firmly in one of the most tried and true story arcs of "romantic" movies.
I was disappointed by filmmakers' choice to connect these two characters in this way. I really didn’t like that before we watch Rey, once again, take up the mantle of her heroic journey, we spend SO MUCH TIME thinking that Rey’s role in this struggle will be to use her love to turn Kylo back to the light and in so doing reestablish balance in the universe.
Again, my 13 year old self would have eaten this up. Even at that age, I had read enough books and seen enough movies to know that if their relationship had followed this path, Rey would be following in the footsteps of so many heroines- all of whom were defined by their ability to change the destinies of men.
But, here’s the thing. I’m not 13 anymore. And I have NO DESIRE to see another woman’s heroic journey be monopolized by her “responsibility” to save a dangerous and broken man.
Rey is a hero- full stop.
She uses her wits, courage, and strength to fight for the things she believes in.
She is a fierce friend, an awesome pilot, and, apparently, an amazing Jedi.
Despite all of these amazing aspects of her identity, we spend at least half of her story in this movie watching her try to "save" Kylo because she might have romantic feelings for him.
Because the filmmakers chose to frame Rey and Kylo’s connection romantically, every interaction between the two of them reinforces the long-established narrative that women are heroic when they are able to push the men that they love to do and be better.
I want to make sure that I’m clear about this- I am not arguing against ever making the decision to center one character’s journey around her ability to inspire others to be better.
But, I am DEFINITELY arguing against the decision to trap our only female heroine in a narrative that feeds into centuries (if not millennia) of gendered story telling.
I’m glad that Rey ultimately rejected Kylo’s invitation to join him in ruling the world. But, I wish that I had been able to watch a movie where our female hero spent the majority of her screen time developing the skills that she needs to fight for justice.
I wish that I had been able to watch a female hero work on developing her sense of self without having to put up with distractions from a moody, self-destructive “bad boy” who thinks that he knows more about her than she knows about herself. I’ve seen that story before. I’ve seen that story a lot.
Even though they supposedly belong to a galaxy far, far away, the stories in The Last Jedi feel far, far too familiar.
Do better, Star Wars. Do better.