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I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This: The Flawed Mechanics of The Last Jedi, and Why It Matters
By: Johann Kwan
I had not set out to write about The Last Jedi. I had originally set out to write a response to Eli Lo Re’s “Definitive Defense of the Star Wars Prequels”, as, perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m one of the “critic friends” he cites in his piece. That said, I’m not an avatar for all of the complaints cited, and I happen to agree with his counter-arguments that he proposes to some of the complaints. So that probably makes me a poor candidate as far as writing a response goes.
I’m also willing to concede the universe surrounding the prequels has been mildly redeemed by subsequent fiction either in the old Expanded Universe (what’s now called “Legends”) or the new (brilliant) Filoni canon. Revisiting the disappointment of those films today requires a mental separation from the brilliant subsequent treatment of characters like Maul in the canon that I’m not sure I can now achieve.1
Which left me in a pickle. I told Eli Lo Re that I’d write a Star Wars piece, and insinuated that it was going to be a negative treatment of parts of the franchise, but a straight response to his Prequel piece was likely going to be weak. After some soul searching and some recovering of lost memories thanks to a talented therapist (my motorcycle), I remembered: The Last Jedi exists. Bonus, I wasn’t going to get into a heated argument with Eli after writing it, since I know he’s of the same opinion.
Plenty has already been said on the subject of why The Last Jedi is awful. This isn’t surprising, because it’s awful down to the smallest details. Even its most arguably memorable moment, the climatic set piece fight in Snoke’s chambers, cannot survive closer inspection by a stuntman in the know. To add something original to this canon of criticism, I have to tackle the film’s flaws from an angle I know well: its space combat.
Before I’m accused of Armchair-Generalism, allow me to preface this by saying that I do not have a military background. Nor do I think one would serve a critic well here, as the rules of space combat in Star Wars would probably not be recognizable to an air force pilot of today or of yesteryear. What I do have are endless childhood memories of the classic game X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, running around living rooms pretending to be an X-wing pilot, and years playing space and flight sim video games with different physics and rulesets of how each world operates. Every sci-fi universe has a set of principles that are adhered to, regardless of actual physics, tactics, or even common sense, and I have a pretty firm grip on the ones in play in the Star Wars Universe. Like many other aspects of the Star Wars Universe, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi seemed hellbent on breaking with established Star Wars conventions. Instead of revitalizing the franchise, however, the end result damaged the Universe and its canon, awaiting extensive repairs in subsequent films and TV media.
Needless to say, spoilers for The Last Jedi and other films of the Star Wars franchise ahead.
There are moments in some films that I swear someone in the writers room is just voicing out loud what he knows someone in the audience will be thinking, because hopefully, just hopefully, they’re just as frustrated with the overall direction of the piece. There is such a moment at the very beginning of the The Last Jedi, shortly after Poe makes a mockery of Hux (thereby reducing him from terrifying commited space-Nazi to comic relief for the rest of the sequels): it is while Poe is single-handedly destroying of the point-defence cannons on Hux’s Dreadnought when Captain Canady says angrily to Hux, “that puny ship is too small and at too close range, we need to scramble our fighters,” whipping around and adding under his breath, “five bloody minutes ago.” It’s truly a painful moment, and if that writer exists and is reading this, I see you and I feel you.
If you’re not seeing the problem here: think back to any space battle in the Star Wars films. The Battle of Yavin, where heroic X-wing pilots dodge TIE Fighters to destroy the Death Star. Hoth. Yavin. Endor. Coruscant. Starkiller Base. Up to and including Rogue One, space battles in Star Wars are defined by the heroic actions of individual pilots testing their wits against one another in starfighter combat.
George Lucas, in crafting Star Wars, was heavily influenced by depictions of World War II, especially the 1969 film Battle of Britain, which depicted the dramatic events in 1940 as British, Polish, Czech, and Canadian squadrons took the skies in Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires to tackle the battle-hardened German Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain and the Channel.2 Starfighter battles are baked into the DNA of Star Wars. And yet no one in the First Order thinks to scramble their fighters until most of their point defence cannons are obliterated.
Setting aside the very DNA of Star Wars, there is absolutely no reason for the First Order to be blasé about X-wings. Their own Starkiller base was destroyed by X-wings and the Millenium Falcon. These are the same (slightly upgraded) starfighters that brought down two Death Stars.
So yes, Captain Canady. Your TIE Fighters should have been deployed five bloody minutes ago. It’s not your fault though, nor Hux’s. The filmmakers should’ve known better. It’s also worth remembering that after recalling Kylo Ren and his accompanying TIE fighters after they vent his mother into space thirty minutes into the film, they also never write the TIE Fighters back in again when they could’ve been incredibly useful while chasing down the Resistance. We’ll get to that chase later.
Its proper name is apparently the “MG-100 StarFortress SF-17”, which is a stupid name, but it was clearly designed to evoke mental images of B-17 Flying Fortresses and British Lancasters so we’ll forgive the horrible naming convention for now (don’t get me started on the “All Terrain Megacaliber Six”, the Gorilla-shaped AT-ATs later in the film) and just call it the Resistance Bomber.
It’s also just terrible, and I don’t only mean the name.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen vertical ‘bombs’ in Star Wars. In The Empire Strikes Back, TIE Bombers drop proton bombs on asteroids in an Asteroid field in an attempt to flush out the Millenium Falcon from its hiding place inside of a space worm. Luke Skywalker himself famously arced a pair of proton torpedoes right down a maintenance shaft to blow up the first Death Star. In the Star Wars Universe, vertical “dropping” of ordnance isn’t unheard of. It is still, however, the stupidest design of any ship seen to date in Star Wars.
These lumbering space hulks glide through space at walking pace while completely being defenceless on their own. The only thing they have going for them is an immense amount of firepower at point-blank range, necessitating very specific tactics to use them. Poe Dameron had to wipe out all of the defensive cannons on the First Order dreadnought for them to have a chance against its defensive screen of TIE fighters (defensive cannons that should’ve still been operative, had the First Order scrambled their fighters immediately), and even then only one bomber was able to get through to the dreadnought to drop their payload.
Why would the Resistance use these craft at all? Where are the B-Wings and Y-Wings of the original Trilogy? Have they simply been abandoned since the conflict with the Empire? Were they all on the planets blown up by Starkiller Base? If there was a resource shortage, where’d they get the resources to build an entirely unknown and new class of bomber?
I can offer no reasonable explanation as to why these slow, useless ships were used instead of classic Star Wars bombers like the B-Wings and Y-Wings. It defies explanation. It’s worth noting that JJ Abrams clearly attempted to repair this deficiency in The Rise of Skywalker (in addition to many other attempted repairs, not all of them successful) by introducing new versions of the Y-Wings and B-Wings in that film’s climactic battle.
Remaining on the subject of the Resistance Bomber, we see the bombardier on the last remaining Resistance Bomber lying in an open compartment that vents directly into the space (and dreadnought) below it. The ship is exploding, critical systems down, and she manages at the last moment to grab the ‘Big Red Button’ and release the payload.
All well and good. Ships in Star Wars generate artificial gravity. Dropped ordnance falling out of a ship makes sense.
But the bay is open. Into space. The Bomber is in the process of breaking up, and the bombardier suffers no effects of decompression or being vented, either towards the explosion and the breach in the ship’s containment, or downwards out of the open bombing bay.
This isn’t, on its own, a problem. Star Wars has never had a problem with this. Docking bays on the Death Star were shown directly venting into space as well, with glowing white lights at its very border heavily implying that a field was being generated to keep everything “in”. Darth Vader is shown staring after Leia’s departing blockade runner at the end of Rogue One standing in an open docking bay, cape fluttering in the aether. Starships decelerate, braking as though an aetheric principle existed that allowed them to operate as though they were encountering air resistance. The endless vacuum of space is hand-waved away consistently in Star Wars, and honestly that’s not a problem on its own.
Except when The Last Jedi then vents Princess Leia out of a blown out viewport.
Either an explosion and massive hull breach causes explosive decompression in a vessel and forces a person inside into the aether, or the fields contain everything and there are no issues. It’s frustrating enough that The Last Jedi eschews established Star Wars conventions, it’s entirely ridiculous for the film to be inconsistent with itself.
A good deal might be made of the fact that the Resistance flees through hyperspace and are tracked, through hyperspace, by the First Order, since it’s entirely new technology and twists the classic Star Wars escape plan of going into hyperspace.
While it was once supposed to be impossible, I’m actually okay with that bit. Classically, unless they have a homing beacon implanted on their ship, as Obi-Wan did with the Slave 1, and the Empire did with the Millenium Falcon, tracking a ship through hyperspace is supposed to be impossible. However, I can easily buy that the Empire/First Order developed such an ability. After all, policing the galaxy takes work, and it’s probably no good if the rebels and smugglers can just wink out into hyperspace to escape official scrutiny. Eagle-eyed viewers already spotted a tease for this technology being developed by the Empire in Rogue One, so I’ll give the Lucasfilm continuity writers a nod for that little bit of consistency.
It’s the subsequent action that defies belief. The Resistance flees pursuit by the Dreadnought and its accompanying Star Destroyers and keeps the First Order out of range at sunlight speeds, and the First Order is unable to catch up with them.
Hang on a minute here.
In the opening sequence to A New Hope, Princess Leia is chased down in a Rebel blockade runner (otherwise known as a Corellian Corvette or the CR90 Corvette) by an Imperial Star Destroyer, boarded, and captured.
Chased down. Boarded. Captured.
Cut to later in the same film when Han Solo brags to Luke about being able to outrun Imperial blockades in the Millenium Falcon, a feat that is supposed to mark out the Millenium Falcon as being faster than your average starship. Nevertheless, they almost fall prey to the Star Destroyers at sublight speeds, and Luke, still a whiny farm boy and not yet a Jedi Master, makes a point of complaining to Han that the Star Destroyers were gaining on the Falcon, before making a hyperspace jump and narrowly escaping.
While the Star Destroyers being used by the First Order are different models from the Imperial Star Destroyers we are used to seeing, the implication has always been that Star Destroyers are fast. They’re meant to keep galactic order, and they’re unlikely to be able to do that if they can’t catch the things they’re chasing.
They also carry a full complement of TIE fighters each that extend their reach, which, as has already been addressed, we never hear from again after Kylo has had a moment to work out his mother issues after seeing her vented into space.
The Resistance keeping out of range challenges, if not overturns, the defining characteristics that make running into Star Destroyers a terrifying prospect to smugglers and rebels alike. Much as Poe does when he first teases Hux from the cockpit of his X-Wing with an infantile radio skit, The Last Jedi insists on turning everything that should make the First Order scary into one-dimensional caricatures of incompetence.
Last but not least, we come to the now-infamous Holdo Maneuver. It’s definitely a spectacle, a veritable feast for the eyes. It also upends everything we know about hyperspace in Star Wars. Admiral Holdo, in the new parlance, yeets the Raddus, her ship, through hyperspace and absolutely obliterates the First Order dreadnought.
The interaction of real-space and hyperspace in the Star Wars films is a matter that has been raised by its own protagonists since A New Hope. In the aforementioned scene in which the Falcon is attempting to outrun Star Destroyers at sub-light speeds, Luke attempts to rush Han’s hyperspace calculations, and Han tells Luke that the jump to lightspeed had to be accurately calculated, or they’d fly directly into a star or bounce into a supernova.
So we know that real-space and hyperspace do interact. We’ve also seen that gravity wells present a problem for hyperspace jumps. Large gravity wells, such as those of stars, planets, and Interdictor-class Star Destroyers can pull ships out of hyperspace.
In the new Disney canon, this hard-and-fast rule has seen some exceptions, and we have since been told that flying through gravity wells in hyperspace risks tearing a ship apart, so ships are fitted with safety measures that can be bypassed in emergencies to make such jumps. Consequently, we see Han Solo jumping into planetary atmosphere in The Force Awakens, and Cassian Andor make a jump out of a gravity well to escape Jedha’s destruction by the Death Star. Why this doesn’t make a mockery of Interdictor-class ships, which use artificially generated gravity wells to trap ships, is not quite explained. At a stretch, it’s possible that the artificially generated gravity well is stronger than that of a planet, so strong that a jump from such a well has far too high a risk to contemplate.
Until The Last Jedi, we had not seen what happens when an object in hyperspace and an object in realspace ‘collide’. Prior to this depiction it was reasonable to suspect that objects simply passed through the same ‘space’ in different dimensions unless they were large enough to create a significant gravitational pull. What The Last Jedi’s Holdo maneuver suggests is the opposite, in which an object in hyperspace and an object in realspace would collide with extremely destructive consequences.
There are problems here. Is there a size limit to this interaction? If not, space debris and asteroid fields would pose non-trivial threats to galactic travel and trade, even in peacetime. In wartime (and this is, after all Star Wars, it’s in the name) it’s then absolutely unbelievable that hyperspace collisions haven’t already factored into military planning up until this point. If not in planning, for whatever cultural reason (perhaps hyperspace ramming is a violation of some long-established treaty or cultural norm), then at the very least as an act of desperation. There are countless times where the Rebels and the Resistance have faced insurmountable odds against one large superweapon and sacrificed dozens of pilots in perfectly good hyperspace-capable starfighters. What if Porkins, instead of dying in a fireball, had simply turned his X-Wing toward the Death Star and hit the hyperdrive?
Let’s assume at the most extreme end of reasons for this not to have been used in the past, though no indication of this has been brought up before. We can assume that there is a long-standing cultural norm against hyperdrive ramming, and we can assume that to do so with destructive force requires a ship of the Raddus’s size. We’ll further assume that the Rebels, being noble revolutionaries and not hyped-up space terrorists, had never contemplated breaking the taboo until pushed to this moment of desperation.3 The problem still persists, since the Empire, and subsequently the First Order, has never shown such restraint. What use is a Death Star or the Starkiller base if you can simply point a Star Destroyer-sized engine at a planet and hit the go button?
It’s retroactively explained outside of the films in lore books and in the novelization of The Last Jedi by Jason Fry that the Raddus was destroyed on impact with the dreadnought, and that it was the experimental shield generators on the Raddus that generated the energy required to split the First Order ship in two. I find this explanation unsatisfactory. If that were the case, then Holdo’s motivations are suspect. If the technology is experimental, she could not have known that her action would’ve destroyed the dreadnought, and it would be nothing than a dramatic attempt at a glorious suicide rather than a noble sacrifice for her comrades’ escape. Frankly, The Last Jedi has enough problems with consistent depictions of its characters as it is for the Holdo maneuver to be a selfish attempt at a vainglorious exit. It also further complicates the Star Wars Universe, since such a low-cost superweapon would easily provide the Rebellion with the means to wrap up The Rise of Skywalker.
I suspect that the writers of The Rise of Skywalker knew this, and didn’t really know what to do with the Holdo maneuver. It seems like they wanted us to acknowledge, but also retroactively forget, the Holdo maneuver for this very reason. When a pilot brings up the Holdo Maneuver as a possible counter to the First Order’s plans, it’s quickly dismissed as a one-in-a-million. However, in the victory montage at the end of the film, a large First Order ship is shown to be similarly torn in two over the skies of Endor. It’s the film equivalent of trying to have your cake and eat it too, and it’s clear that the introduction of the Holdo Maneuver damages the credibility of the threat posed in that subsequent film.
Star Wars has always been more space-fantasy than hard science fiction, so it could be said that so long as the spectacle of the film as a whole was satisfying, these details don’t matter. I don’t suggest this casually to suggest a straw man, since an acquaintance I saw the film with suggested exactly that and thought I was being too critical after seeing The Last Jedi and going, “uh, hmm, I’m still processing but I’m not sure I liked that.” The weaknesses in the rest of the writing aside, I don’t think that’s a satisfactory answer, for myself and millions of other Star Wars fans. It’s not unreasonable for fans attached to a series to demand a modicum of logic and consistency within their universe, be it science fiction or fantasy. The legions of Game of Thrones fans disappointed with Season 8 can attest to the disappointment when a fantasy series veers off and is inconsistent with its own narrative.
We were told endlessly prior to the launch of The Last Jedi that Rian Johnson wanted a fresh take on the Star Wars franchise and was a rule-breaker, and perhaps that should have been a warning, but the truth is the Star Wars franchise needed a rule-breaker after The Force Awakens. The first film, while consistent with the universe it inhabited, was so full of nods to the original that it felt like a copycat rather than a progression of the series. There is, however, a difference between shaking up the narrative and breaking the rules of the universe, and it's clear that The Last Jedi did the latter, even as examined here through the very narrow lens of its space combat.
We were all hoping for an addition to the series similar to Mad Max: The Road Warrior, Terminator 2, or Aliens, a film that would take a new narrative direction but stay true to the universe its originals created. We got the opposite of that. While the film, despite everything I’ve just said, has its moments (the set-up for Rey and Kylo’s exploration of the force and Luke’s conflict over the nature of the force is actually pretty good, though neither pay off well), it certainly wasn’t consistent with the universe it inhabits, and frankly played out like a runty child’s narrative in a playtime session with their Star Wars toys.
It’s fortunate, then, that the Star Wars universe is under new management, and from all indications it's in capable hands. The Mandalorian is a masterclass in telling a new story in the same universe, and I can’t wait to see more out of Dave Filoni and gang.
Now if we could just forget The Last Jedi is part of the canon now, like we already do with the Holiday Special, the galaxy would be a better place.
1 I will note, however, that Maul only really had three lines in The Phantom Menace, and apart from brilliant acting and action choreography on the part of Ray Park, without the expanded canon the character would not command the respect he does today.
2 If you’ve ever wondered why TIE Fighter lasers are green and Rebel Fighter lasers are red, it’s because German 20mm cannon tracer rounds were often green, and British and American .50 caliber and .303 Browning machine gun tracers were often red.
3 This is not borne out by the series. The Rebels are capable of doing extremely nasty things, as Cassian Andor has, for the sake of their rebellion. Nor, if we take the assumption to be true, is Holdo later vilified for her horrific action. Nor is this the first moment of true desperation for the Rebellion.