The Problem with Poe

[This post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi.]


“It’s about failure!”

Well, I wouldn’t really argue with that.

For whatever reason the script has Poe’s specific failure lead to a lot of people dying. This is what the filmmakers sat down and decided on: that amidst the explosions and flat attempts at humour, we’ll have this ostensibly heroic figure fuck up, big time, and we’ll have people die because of it.

I think some blame the Admiral simply because they want to like Poe. Some audiences, who liked Poe and don’t want him to have played a part in getting a lot of his own people killed, would have preferred the film follow the standard story beats and recognised his importance and saved him from his failures: and the Admiral explaining the end goal of the pursuit plot is seen as an easy out. It’s a lot simpler to like a character with no deaths on his conscience, assuming that he remembers to have one. Almost as if it was just another heroic fantasy story where everything works out okay in the end.

In a normal film, I’ve heard it said, Poe would indeed be saved from his mistake and no one would suffer from it. But this is still what happens, just in a slightly more roundabout way than usual. Poe is going to be fine, his aforementioned position as a protagonist will inevitably shine through. Hell, the Admiral already died to try and limit the damage he did. Which kind of surprised me, as I wrongly assumed they were setting up Holdo to be a replacement for Leia, but that’s another matter.

There’s a tendency to ascribe agency to fictional characters and to defend fictional characters as if they’re real people making real choices as opposed to imaginary creations whose every action is controlled by a writer. I don’t actually want Poe to be in a situation where his hotheadedness leads to bad decisions with awful repercussions but this is what the narrative has given us.

Maybe in the next episode Poe will sport a thoughtful expression in a quiet moment, staring off into space while holding some space dog tags and muttering an old space prayer. But I don’t think the third film in the sequel trilogy can or will follow up with serious ramifications for our special cast. Poe and co. won’t face any lasting consequences.

The rest of the rebellion (or resistance, or whatever) are entirely disposable. And this is my real issue. Poe is just the face of it.

For all the talk about shaking up the setting I never felt like TLJ refuted the specialness and superiority of Force users, but I’ve started to realise it’s not really about the Force users: it’s the awesome power of Main Characters. What is the Force if not narrative made manifest, the universe bending around them.

And the movie’s theme of failure just confirms, for me, the very thing that some other people seemed to think it was subverting. Whether you have the Force or not, no matter how many mistakes you make, you’ll do just fine as long as you’re one of the Main Characters. Everyone else can be sacrificed if it makes for a teachable moment. The rebels die in droves, and the film is oddly detached from this, just as the chase premise is oddly detached from the wider universe.

We have casinos full of aliens but none of them were given any thought beyond their purpose as background CGI. I guess some novelist will expand on it and give us a planet full of squat little gamblers or hulking slave drivers if you like that sort of thing. But a scene that was probably intended to remind us of the wonder and sheer scale of the galactic setting felt artificial and out of place, an afterthought, the filmmakers suddenly recalling the Star part of the Wars. The cast is full of humans, special humans, and none of the aliens are even people.

The film wants to have its cake and eat it but it’s not quite sure how. It grabs a fistful of cake and awkwardly smears it on its face and you’re left thinking: is this deliberate? Am I missing something? It tries to do things its own way but leaves just enough light-hearted Star Wars-ness behind to make everything else jarring.

So. Having said that…

I think I actually enjoyed the film. I’d just really struggle to explain why. I’d be sweating under cross-examination as the court is presented with flat dialogue and alien udders. “Justify giving this more than a 5 out of ten!” someone screams, and I can’t think of anything, so he slaps me, and even though the whole court has just seen my own lawyer slap me the judge lets it pass.

And this is a recurring theme: for people who hated the movie, it was nothing but slapstick, fish-nuns, awkward force-pulls through space, a cavalcade of unnecessary CGI critters and Luke Skywalker’s character assassination. For people who loved the movie, it was nothing but the tension between Rey and Kylo, the throne room scene, the hyperspace kamikaze run and Luke Skywalker’s redemption.

To others it was all of those things and none of them, each cancelling each other out, a movie that brushed with greatness but never really committed to any of its ideas, and you leave the movie feeling… nothing. No great rush of passion, no gnawing feeling of betrayal.

The one thing that I unequivocally like is that I have few clues as to what episode IX holds in store for us. But all things said… I very much doubt it’ll open with Poe’s court-martial.