It always takes me a bit of time to process a new Star Wars movie, and The Last Jedi more than most. I don’t expect that I can add much to the current discussion around the movie, but I don’t like the fact that I haven’t written anything in a while.
I should point out that I will wander directly into spoiler territory, but if you haven’t seen the movie by this point you probably don’t care, so I think we should be safe.
Many aspects of this movie have been attacked since its release, and I don’t think it makes sense to defend against most of them, since they are nitpicks or personal preference. Star Wars has always been complex. Even in the prequels, if you can get past the horrible dialog and cringe-inducing on-screen chemistry, there is a depth to the subtext that is worthwhile.
One aspect that I think is particularly deep with pathos is the interplay between Leia, Poe Dameron, and Admiral Holdo. A lot of the criticism of their interaction is based on a need to have a good side and a bad side. Depth of character is not needed or desirable. In that mindset, the whole sequence is upside down and badly written. I think that misses the point, and I’d like to share my thoughts on the underlying struggles that I see.
First we must consider the mental state of General Leia Organa. She has just lost her estranged but still beloved husband Han Solo to the futile murderous ambitions of her only son, after seeing a planet full of colleagues and friends incinerated in a senseless attack. The cost of war is becoming more than she can bear, and she says as much to Holdo. In short, she is going soft in her old age.
Enter Poe Dameron, darling of the Resistance and in many ways the son that Ben Solo never was. He is clear-minded and tenacious, personable with a charisma that makes his fellow pilots trust him with their lives. His piloting skills are legendary. Everyone assumes he is on the fast track to a leadership position, and he is a de facto general, even if the rank isn’t official.
When a devastating threat appears, Poe does what he has always done, relying on his wits and skills to turn the tide. Although the cost is high for the Resistance, he destroys the First Order’s Dreadnought, protecting many others. This turns out to have been especially fortuitous when only moments later the Resistance learns that the First Order is tracking them. If the Dreadnought had not been scuttled, its considerable firepower could have ended their sublightspeed chase before it began.
So the first question that arises is how could Leia demote Poe? He did everything right, didn’t he? His attack gave the Resistance a tactical advantage and turned an ambush into a victory. On top of that, Leia is the General of the Resistance. If she had qualms she should have stopped Poe before the attack, not reprimanded him for carrying out an attack she has implicitly sanctioned.
We need to dig below the surface. Poe’s star is rising. He is cocky and can get away with it, but he has lost plenty of comrades who were every bit as committed to the fight but not as gifted as pilots. Poe sees the world tactically. Sacrificing half the X-Wing fleet to destroy Starkiller base? A victory. Losing five bombers and a squadron of starfighters to take out a Dreadnought? Worth it.
Leia is starting to see things differently. Even in a galaxy with the Force, luck eventually runs out. His big, flashy, skin-of-your-teeth victories are good for Poe’s legend, but they’re becoming a liability to the Resistance. Poe did save the Resistance by eliminating the Dreadnought before it could follow them through hyperspace, but he didn’t know that when he attacked. He just saw a glorious tale of victory for the people back home.
Leia’s choice to demote Poe was calculated, like almost everything Leia has ever done. She recognizes that Poe is popular, and many of the fighters regard him as more their leader than the officers of the Resistance. Her choice will be unpopular, but it’s necessary and only she can do it, since as one of the original stars of the Rebellion, she is the one person the fighters respect even more than Poe. What she hadn’t anticipated was that the First Order would track their fleet through hyperspace and incapacitate her, leaving Poe feeling slighted and needing to redeem himself.
Enter Admiral Holdo. She has been thrust into the limelight by a disaster. The atmosphere is one of suspicion. After all, which is more likely? That the First Order has suddenly cracked a momentous technical puzzle or that there is a traitor in their midst transmitting their position to the First Order. Holdo plays things close to the vest. Even when she finds a possible way to save most of the Resistance, she doesn’t share it with anyone, especially not Poe, who she sees as a hotheaded rival.
This is ultimately both her and Poe’s undoing, as their inability to collaborate and trust brings the Resistance to the edge of annihilation. Poe’s ego won’t allow him to sit idly by. If he doesn’t know the plan, then clearly there isn’t one, or it’s bad. His mistrust of Admiral Holdo is completely understandable, but his mutiny, rather than being salvation for the Resistance, betrays vital information into the hands of the First Order and results in many of the escaping ships being destroyed. Holdo pays the ultimate price for her inability to overcome her paranoia.
While many look at Holdo’s suicide attack on the Supremacy as a glorious moment, it is repudiated shortly later by, of all people, Rose. Holdo’s sacrifice destroys several enemy ships and saves key members of the Resistance, at least for a moment. It was a tactical victory, one that Poe would likely have endorsed. And it is the movie’s emblem of what is wrong with the Resistance’s way of waging war.
On Crait, as the Resistance prepares for what looks to be their last stand, Poe gets one more chance to be the hero, to push his luck and sacrifice lives to capture the smallest chance of victory. Finally Poe starts to calculate the cost of losing friends to gain an advantage. With so few left, he can finally see the end result of the legend of Poe Dameron. He orders his fighters to retreat.
It’s not that Poe is a bad guy, and it certainly isn’t that Leia or Holdo are blameless. The Last Jedi is not interested in those kinds of simple characterizations. Each of them is noble in his or her own way, and each has deep flaws which hurt the very thing they all care most about.
If you want to criticize The Last Jedi, there are plenty of legitimate avenues. For example, why is there a planet where everyone dresses like James Bond? But if you’re angry about the characters it presents, maybe you should watch it again with an eye out for the subtext. This movie eschewed a lot of the endorphin-rush tricks of traditional blockbuster movies, and it is suffering at the box office and in initial public perception for it. Rian Johnson took a real risk with Star Wars, and if we don’t want a spate of cookie-cutter rehash films from now on, let’s give him the appreciation he deserves.