Abandoning major themes: storytelling advice from The Last Jedi

Star_Wars_The_Last_Jedi
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Star Wars: The last Jedi came out in December of last year. It’s now April, so that makes this post just about 4 months later than it should be. I took the advice of a good friend and didn’t see it in the theater, so here we are after I finally got around to seeing it. The Last Jedi was a mediocre movie, even taking into account the rest of the Star Wars canon (and yes, I do mean the prequels), and it made a number of major mistakes along the way. The critiques of the story and the way that it treats the background lore of the Star Wars universe are many and varied, so I’m not trying to add to that mix. Instead, I want to focus on something that I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about when critiquing The Last Jedi: the major themes that the movie dropped from the overall story and what advice writers can take away from the failings of the movie.

First, some groundwork. In a story, the theme is what the story is really about. This is different from the plot in that the plot is all of the action of a story, and a theme is what the action is supposed to have us thinking about. Most good stories, and especially ones as expansive as Star Wars, have a number of themes that are supposed to draw our attention and get us thinking. In Star Wars, a good example of a theme is the way that various users interact with The Force. The Force itself is amoral, but the way that individuals use it determines its morality: they end up on the light side or the dark side. The theme, then, is getting us to think about how we interact with power, and what, as individuals, we should do with the powers and abilities we have. One of the ways that you can tell this is a theme in the story is that over the course of eight movies, it is an idea that keeps coming up again and again. This makes it different from the plot because each of the individual movies has its own plot lines. So far, so Star Wars.

As a storyteller, it’s important to think about what kinds of themes you are trying to write about, and how they interact with the plot, because the interplay between the two is what can make or break a story. Also, if you have a story that comes in multiple parts, a reader is going to be expecting the theme to carry through all the varying parts of the story. This could be individual chapters; this could be books in a series; or it could be individual movies. For example, I’m currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and a theme that repeatedly comes up all the way from The Hobbit to The Return of the King is that the humble halflings, the least of the peoples of Middle Earth, are the ones who save everyone. The idea being that it isn’t always the strong and the mighty who end up being heroes; sometimes, heroism comes from the least likely places. Now what would happen if halfway through, Tolkien just dropped this theme entirely? Say somewhere in The Two Towers, Gandalf takes the ring of power and uses all his might to blast open the gates of Mordor and throws the ring into Mount Doom. It would be an interesting twist, but would ultimately make for a very different story, and, at the same time, it would render all of what the hobbits had to do fairly useless.

The idea of this slight rabbit trail through Middle Earth is that if you abandon major themes of a story, you really fundamentally change the world you are writing in. Further, if you make those changes without solid explanations that make sense in the fictional universe, you’re going to lose your audience. That’s exactly the trap that Star Wars: The Last Jedi fell into, and it goes a long way in explaining the low audience score on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. There are probably more, but here are three themes that The Last Jedi abandoned without any good explanation.

  1. Family relationships: at the core of the Star Wars story is a theme about how fathers and sons relate to one another. What was Vader’s big reveal in to Luke? “I am your father.” What was Anakin’s surprise in the prequel movies? “There was no father.” Further, Anakin’s complaint about Obi Wan’s training? “He’s like a father!” The line that brings Darth Vader back to the light side? “Father, please!” A line Luke doesn’t finish because he’s getting electrocuted. Even more broadly, other family relationships come into the story as well. The thing that motivates Luke into nearly killing Darth Vader is that Vader finds out Luke has a sister. Anakin’s turn to the dark side happens after his mother is killed. You get the idea. The Last Jedi throws this theme completely out the window. There was plenty of buildup about who Rey’s family was going to be in The Force Awakens, and what was the payoff? Nothing. Rey’s family was no one. It’s interesting to see Star Wars branching away from the Skywalker bloodline, but there’s not really a solid, in-universe explanation for why this happens, and it completely drops a huge portion of what Star Wars is about. It also leads to problem number two.
  2. The Force: one of the single most brilliant things about the Star Wars prequels is that it made The Force biological. I know this got a lot of hate initially, but hear me out for just a second. This explanation of The Force took the abilities outside of the mystic mumbo-jumbo of the original trilogy and gave it a real explanation that works incredibly well in the Star Wars universe. This explains, for example, why Darth Vader is so powerful, and yet manages to be struck down by Luke. With Vader missing most of his limbs and being “more machine now than man,” he doesn’t have the organic tissue to actually harness and use The Force; however, his great power is transferred, genetically, to his son and daughter. Thus, Luke, having most of his limbs, is able to use The Force in a way that Vader cannot any more. This also explains why Leia is able to use the force in a limited way as well. Even without training, the biological power is such that she is still very strong in The Force. This even explains Kylo Ren who, although not a very impressive villain, is still very powerful: he’s still part of the Skywalker bloodline, and so still has the same power. Again, this is where Rey and her lack of a family becomes a problem. We get the idea that she’s incredibly powerful, but why? Where did it come from? Especially if her parents were just nobodies, how exactly is she so powerful? If it’s some kind of genetic mutation, wouldn’t that potentially mean other physical mutations as well? After all, we know she does have parents, so it isn’t some kind of born from The Force thing the way Anakin is. Dropping this theme creates too many questions, and, again, without a solid explanation, it isn’t doing the story any favors.
  3. Galactic Politics: answer this, if you can: why are the rebels rebelling? There isn’t much in the way of explanation given in the original trilogy, and from all we can tell, The Empire seems to be a fairly stable political structure with the infrastructure to employ plenty of people, and the funds to create enormous weapon systems. By all accounts, this makes the rebellion seem more like a force (no pun intended) for destabilization than anything else. There are two things that can go a long way in explaining why the rebellion is rebelling against The Empire, but we have to go slightly outside the movies. First, we need to ask a question: was The Empire really employing everyone? The actual answer is… no. In some of the books and comics set in the Star Wars universe, it gets revealed that The Empire is selling and keeping slaves to do the work. The movies touch briefly on slavery in the prequels as well, but this is mostly a non-canon explanation. That being said, it does go a long way in explaining how The Galactic Empire was able to grow: conquered planets weren’t just destroyed; instead, they were enslaved. Second, there’s a question of funds. Where exactly does The Empire get the money for what it does? The answer from logic and what we already know about real political systems is taxation. Yes, The Empire sells slaves, but that can’t be their only source of income. There must be some kind of taxation system in place. Additionally, there’s a lot of smuggling in the Star Wars universe, so we can make some interpretations about that too. Does The Empire set up trade regulations? Are they fixing prices or banning particular things? Since all of those tend to create black markets, we can assume that The Empire is doing all of that. So the crimes of The Empire are slavery, possibly heavy taxes, and possible over-regulation, banning, and price fixing. There’s one we haven’t touched on though: earthly empires do one thing the most: colonization. We can probably assume that The Galactic Empire was also setting up colonies on other planets, and we can also assume that colonization doesn’t look very different in space than it does on earth. So the cause of the rebellion, if anything, is quite possibly more libertarian in nature than anything else. They want freedom from slavery, taxes, regulation, and colonization. What does The Last Jedi do with this theme? Nothing. In fact, it changes it from liberty to hope for the oppressed and poor. This makes the rebellion in The Last Jedi more proletariat than libertarian. Now there’s the obvious response that The First Order is a different political system, and that’s true; however, from all that we can tell, they seem to be copying the political dynamics of The Empire. We can probably assume that they are also copying some of the crimes of The Empire as well. So is there an explanation for the change in motivations? Nope. At least, not an in-universe explanation.

These are just three examples of themes that The Last Jedi dropped without any good, solid explanation, and like the example I gave from Tolkien, it makes for a really different story. Basically, for a universe that has managed to stay more or less consistent in its themes for years, these were huge departures from established work, and, understandably, estranged the established Star Wars audience. So what is the advice here? Let’s say you’re a new writer. You have a story that you’ve written and a theme you’ve developed, but you’re also working on a part two that is going in a very different direction and has a different main theme, but you still want it to be connected to the same universe. If you don’t find yourself writing a different story altogether, then the advice is this: think of a convincing explanation. The theme-dropping in The Last Jedi is not necessarily the problem. It will divide loyal fans either way, but if it had a convincing explanation for the changes, then The Last Jedi would have been much more acceptable. So make theme changes if you want, but in a multi-part story, the important thing to keep in mind is that a convincing explanation for the changes will go a long way in making a coherent story and keeping readers convinced.

As an aside, this is true for a lot of other businesses as well. One of my favorite bars, for example, was an Irish pub that decided (seemingly on a whim) to become a tiki bar. That change had about the fan reaction that you could imagine.

Always have a good explanation, people!

-PWC.

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