(Spoilers after the cut. But seriously, if that matters to you, look at the date! You should have seen the movie by now.)
I liked The Last Jedi.
We liked The Last Jedi: my wife, my 14yr old son, my 10 yr old daughter, and me, I liked it.
It wasn’t prose Military Science Fiction, so we didn’t hold it to the standards of a Tanya Huff or Jack Campbell novel. Nor was it Mundane SF, so those bombs didn’t bother us. Rather, we sat down and enjoyed it the way we also enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy.
It was less EC Tubb than the last instalment, and more (according to my son) like an RPG campaign that kept changing GMs and (so I reckoned) flipflopping between Traveller and FATE. My daughter loved seeing girls having adventures (though, being 10, she rather takes this for granted), liked the light saber fights, and also the porgs. (“Porg” is now a verb in our house, as in, “Don’t try to porg me into giving you more chocolate ice cream.”)
I’ll admit I also enjoyed the very thing that seems to have upset so many knee-jerk critics: it went through the tropes the way the Creature of the Lagoon goes through scenery and people in that hilarious NSFW mashup on YouTube:
“BLEEP this! BLEEP this also! And this in particular. BLEEP this guy…!”
Mysterious But Significant Parentage went up in a puff of wasted fan theories. As did Dark Lord, Wise Mentor, Heroic Sacrifice Saves the Day, Ancient Wisdom, Epic Redemption. (“BLEEP this guy, BLEEP those books, BLEEP in particular this tree…“)
The movie even trashed some of the things fans mock about Star Wars. The Jedi really aren’t the good guys. Darth Emo really is a boy in a stupid mask.
Best of all — most heinous, according to the AngryNet — was what happened with Cowboy Knows Best.
The gung-ho fighter jock not only cripples the Resistance by getting almost everybody killed, he then makes things worse, first by aiding an unauthorised mission, then by mutinying. Suddenly, we’ve off the edge of the flat earth and plummeting into empty space where I’ll follow my gut and power through and don’t tell me the odds and ignore the rules to get the job done won’t do you any good.
(Sorry, kid, I don’t care what your “Aspects” are, roll 2D6…)
The Cowboy Knows Best trope is a toxic one.
Military history has its apparent mavericks, but oddly they usually feature when they’re backed by internal patrons and good planning that enables the so-called maverick to ride a logistics chain to victory with a well-trained task force at their back. (For a good example of this, read The Greatest Raid of Them All, which describes the swashbuckling but mostly suicidal St Nazaire Raid in thrilling detail).
In civilian life, true mavericks don’t usually get very far. When they do, they have a knack for flying entire institutions into the ground. Nobody I know wants to manage or work alongside that kind of person. (And yes, we see some very successful ones, but that’s Survivorship Bias; the good fortune of the lemming sipping Red Stripe on a Jamaican beach may not be representative.)
Taking down the cowboy is just one of the ways the film seems to lay into those aspects of masculinity which its detractors often roll into the concept of “Toxic Masculinity”. However, people largely seem to miss — though I can’t be the only person to have noticed this — the way The Last Jedi also sets up and trashes the less healthy tropes of that most traditionally feminine of genres, Romance.
Let’s go back to Poe Dameron.
Wasn’t there just a whiff of Top Gun about his relationship with Vice Admiral Holdo, an older woman he finds striking (who we learn thinks he’s cute)? This could have been a set up for a Battle of the Sexes with Crackling Romantic Tension destined to resolve itself um… off screen? Except it wasn’t, because wars are too serious for such tomfoolery.
Other threads go further down the Romance path, only to meet the rampaging Lagoon Monster. (For an idea of how these are supposed to go, read Gwen Haye’s excellent Romancing the Beat. I’m quoting throughout from her free romance beat work sheet.)
Previously, Finn and Rey have their Meet Cute (“H1 and H2 meet for the first time on page. Make it memorable—this is the story they will share with their grandkids one day“). However, they then settle into an intense friendship. Turns out you don’t have to marry the person you bond with in stressful circumstances.
Thanks to telepathy, Rey and Kylo Ren then have an Adhesion (“This beat pushes you into the second act. It’s a plot thrust. They cannot walk away from the other now. Not until they see this conundrum through. Make sure your glue is sticky here.“) And we’re all set for A Tale as Old as Time, Beauty and the Beast… except not. Turns out that some people can’t be redeemed, no matter how hot they look with their shirt off. Some Bad Boys are just plain bad… and anyway, we know he’s a monster and we know what that actually means because we’ve seen Kylo Ren commit war crimes. (“SHIPPERS”! WHAT WERE YOU EVEN THINKING?)
Then Finn meets Rose.
As presented to us, Rose seems too nerdy and (by horrid Hollywood standards only) too dumpy to qualify as a Love Interest. Sparks do fly, but only because she tazes him. When they embark on an adventure, it’s because it seems the logical course of action, not because she’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or because he sweeps her off her feet like Val Kilmer in The Saint. We see them discuss, but not bicker. They listen to each other. They don’t do Battle of the Sexes. Faced by a pleasure world with a dark underside, he doesn’t go on a bender, she doesn’t succumb to emotionalism and risk the mission to save fluffy mega-bunnies or cute children. And yet romance blossoms. She declares her love, he — given his awful childhood and the fact she’s in a coma — articulates his through watching over her and looking broody.
The Finn/Rose romance blindsides us because they look and behave like a real functional couple destined for a long happy marriage, not a cinematic always fighting but great make-up whatsit one. (Seriously, most established couples I know have really boring love stories, because compatibility doesn’t generate story, unless there are external factors…. which is where I hope Finn and Rose will get their romantic beats. )
So, at the end of the movie, Rey literally closes the door on Kylo Ren. However, this is not before the movie has also closed the door on two other romantic tropes.
We don’t get Nerd Cinderella. Rose never Scrubs Up Well, never gets a makeover from her Sassy Girlfriend, nor does she take off her librarian glasses, shake out her surprisingly luxuriant hair and look magnificent. Rather she shows herself to be magnificent by flying in that last forlorn charge. Blood, sweat and dust, not makeup and a pretty dress, reveal the beauty within.
Finn doesn’t get to make his heroic sacrifice so she can Forever Mourn Her Lost Love (Just Like Wonder Woman). Instead, Rose insists on sticking to the much more pragmatic relationship goal of Having An Alive Boyfriend.
And “pragmatic”, of course, describes the theme of the movie. The Last Jedi is not realistic in terms of detail, it’s still rollicking escapist space fantasy. However, in spirit it’s far more realistic than what went before, and all the more engaging for it.
Even the porgs get eaten.
M Harold Page is the Scottish author of The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), an old-school space adventure yarn about a retired mercenary-turned-archaeologist dealing with “local difficulties” as he pursues his quest across the galaxy. His other titles include Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) and Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. (Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)